Driving in Cancun

Highway at Mayan Riviera in Mexico
Highway 307. jopstock / Getty Images

There are a lot of things to see and do around Cancun. Besides enjoying the beautiful beaches and your hotel or resort, you’ll probably want to visit some of the nearby Maya archaeological sites and cenotes, as well as the nature and adventure parks. When considering how to get around, driving is a good option, offering convenience and flexibility.

Unlike the driving conditions you may encounter in some other areas of Mexico, in Cancun and the Riviera Maya, you’ll generally find good signage and roads that are in decent shape. There are a few things you should be aware of to help ensure that your experience of driving in Cancun is hassle-free, though. This guide covers the essentials of how to get around by car, what documents to have on hand, rules of the road, and information about car rentals.

Driving Requirements

There are certain documents you should be sure to have with you in the car if you’re driving in Mexico. You don’t need an international driving permit if your driver’s license from your country of origin is in English (from the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand), or in Spanish, it’s sufficient. You should carry your passport and immigration document (tourist card / FMM document) as well as your vehicle registration and insurance. You do need to have Mexican insurance as U.S. automobile liability insurance coverage is not valid in Mexico. In the case that you drive your own car over the border, you will also need a vehicle import permit (often referred to as a TIP for Temporary Import Permit). Be sure you don't leave these documents in the car if you're leaving it parked somewhere that is not completely secure.

Checklist for Driving in Cancun

  • Valid Driver's License
  • International Driver's License (only if driver's license is not issued in English or Spanish)
  • Mexican Liability Insurance
  • Vehicle Registration
  • Vehicle Import Permit (if you drove your car across the border)
  • Vehicle rental contract (if you're driving a rental vehicle)
  • Driver's passport and immigration document

Rules of the Road

In Mexico, the rules of the road are a lot more fluid, and are not held to as strongly as in the United States, Canada, and many European countries. It's important to always be alert and aware that other drivers may behave in ways you might not expect. These are some of the things you should be aware of while driving around Cancun.

Road conditions: The terrain of the Yucatan Peninsula is mainly flat, and the roads are usually very straight. This tends to offer a sense of safety, so many drivers may go very fast, and those straight roads can get boring, so it’s easy to get distracted. Be sure to stay attentive at all times (other drivers may not be!) and follow the speed limits. 

Speed limits: Remember that speed limits are posted in kilometers per hour, so be sure you’re following those numbers on your speedometer and not miles per hour. On highways, the limit is usually 100 km/hour (equivalent to 62 miles/hour) and 60 km/hour near municipalities. The speed limits may change a lot along the highway, so be aware and adjust accordingly.

Toll roads: A toll road is called “cuota” and a free road is “libre.” Toll roads in Mexico can be expensive, for example from Cancun to Valladolid, the cost is over 300 pesos in tolls for a 150 km drive. Toll booths accept cash only and Mexican currency. There are often no ATMs along the highways, so be sure to have sufficient pesos on hand. You can check distances and tolls on the Mexican government’s route planner website. In most cases it is better to take the toll roads because they are in much better condition and include additional insurance coverage for any accidents that may occur. Be sure to hold on to your receipt for any tolls you pay, as it’s your voucher for insurance purposes.

Gas stations can be few and far between on the backroads, so be sure to fill up before a long journey. Gas stations are full service, so there's no need for you to pump it yourself. Beware of some gas station scams such as the attendant not resetting the counter after pumping or giving incorrect change, when buying gas in Mexico.

Left side highway exits: From Cancun, there’s one long highway heading south through the Riviera Maya. If you’re heading to an attraction along that road, and the place you’re going to is on the opposite side of the highway, you’ll have to drive past your destination until you get to a “Retorno” area where you can legally do a U-turn and head back in the opposite direction until you reach your destination.

Turn signals: Mexican drivers can be lax about using their turn signals, so always be prepared for lane changes or passing without warning. On highways, a left turn signal from the driver ahead of you may be a message that it’s safe for you to pass them. Proceed with caution!

Drinking and Driving: Not only is drinking and driving against the law, but your insurance will be invalid if you have been drinking and are involved in an accident. The legal blood alcohol limit is 0.40. It’s not illegal to have open containers of alcohol inside a moving vehicle, however, so passengers can feel free to imbibe.

Seat belts and Cell Phones: Seat belts are mandatory for the driver and front seat passenger. Children under 12 should sit in the back seat. It’s forbidden to use a cell phone while driving and you may get a ticket for doing so (although this law is frequently flaunted). 

Speed Bumps: Beware of “topes”, as they are called in Mexico, which are ubiquitous and often invisible until you’re too close to slow down. They're often unmarked, so drive with caution, especially in low light conditions. 

Potholes: Very large potholes can be an issue, especially off of main roads and in rainy season. Drivers may suddenly swerve to avoid landing in a pothole, yet another reason to always be on the alert.

Parking: Whenever possible, park in a parking lot (rental vehicles can be targeted for break-ins) and never leave anything of value visible in a parked car.

In Case of Emergency

While you should always be prepared and take precautions while driving in Mexico or any foreign country, there's no need to be fearful: driving in Cancun and renting a car are safe activities for tourists. The U.S. State Department advises to use toll roads when possible and avoid driving alone or at night. In case you do have an accident or encounter danger on the roads, you can contact Mexico's emergency assistance by dialing 911. If you're on a toll road, you can contact the roadside assistance group Green Angels at 078.

Should You Rent a Car?

Renting a car in Mexico is a fairly easy process. You’ll find many familiar rental companies such as Hertz, Avis and Thrifty, as well as Mexican companies. Some travelers report better service with small, family-run rental companies, so do your research. You can reserve ahead of time when you can usually find better rates, or make the arrangements once you’re there. You may choose to pick up and return your rental directly at the Cancun airport, or you may want to spend a few days relaxing on the beach and then get a rental car to do some day trips from Cancun during the rest of your stay. In that case, book your transfer from the airport ahead of time.

The documents needed to rent a car are a major credit card for a safety deposit, driver's license, and passport. Some companies won't rent to drivers under the age of 25, or may charge extra for young drivers. There are often fewer vehicles available with automatic transmission ,and they may cost more, and there are also extra charges to pick up and dop off at the airport or to drop off the car in a different destination from where you rented it. For the best rates, book a week in advance online, and be sure to print out your agreement so there’s no discussion about the terms.

Make sure you have complete insurance coverage on your rental. Sometimes an initial quote does not include the full insurance charge, so very low rental fees may be suspect. When you pick up the vehicle, the rental associate will perform a complete check of the car in your presence, taking note of any scratches or imperfections before you pull out of the rental lot. Be sure everything is written down (and it doesn't hurt to take some photos of the vehicle on your cell phone druing the inspection) so you’re not charged for damage to the car that was already there.

Encounters with the Police

Mexican police receive low wages and many turn to corruption to fill in the gaps. Some may target tourists for bribes, called “mordidas”. If you have done nothing wrong and refuse to pay a mordida, the cop will may well let you go without a ticket, although sometimes negotiations can be protracted and unpleasant. Learn more about mordidas and what to do when pulled over by the police.