Following these guidelines helps ensure safety & security, and avoid banditos & police problems while driving the roads and highways of Oaxaca, Mexico. While this article centers upon driving and maintaining safety and security on the roads in Oaxaca, Mexico, similar guidelines apply when visiting other central / southern Mexico states. Some are common sense; others may come as a surprise. The key, however, to being safe and secure, and to avoiding problems with the police, crime circumstances and even banditos, is to remember that you’re no longer in Canada or the US, but rather driving in Mexico, a Third World country.
Road Conditions Affecting Safety and Security on Toll Roads and Highways in Oaxaca, Mexico
Road conditions of highways in Oaxaca and other central and southern Mexico states are generally excellent. For example, the toll road between Mexico City and Oaxaca is constantly being monitored, with frequent work crews patching holes and painting lines. Toll booths and emergency roadside stops with water and telephone service are fairly evenly spaced.
However, on the stretch of highway between Puebla and Oaxaca, even though open since 1995, there are still periodic minor problems with the structural integrity of the mountainsides which were cut through; during rainy season in particular, there are occasionally stones, rocks and boulders encroaching the roadway. The problems do not affect safety and security, and when there is an impact, it’s generally a matter of minor delays as a result of work crews clearing debris or doing maintenance to ensure safe passage.
Conditions of secondary highways in Oaxaca are difficult to predict. On the one hand they were build decades ago, and therefore the likelihood of landslides is slim. However there are always aberrations, such as in the Mixe and Sierra Norte of Oaxaca during the 2010 rainy season. A rule of thumb is to proceed with travel plans for driving throughout Oaxaca and elsewhere in south and central Mexico, regardless of season, and when driving during the rainy season, check with one’s hotel or bed and breakfast hosts, or local authorities, regarding potential impediments to safety and security as a result of highway damage or roadwork.
Avoiding Police Problems While Driving in Oaxaca, and Other South & Central Mexico States
Sporadic police check points exist on the highways in Oaxaca, and on occasion on roads leading into the state capital. Rarely do police use radar, but it does occur. Usually they are looking for infractions such as driving without a seat belt or driving while using a cellular phone. It might come as a shock that there are many cars on the road with expired license plates, dating to 2008 or earlier. These vehicles are ignored by police, in favor of catching drivers committing other infractions.
Speed limit signs are hard to understand. On one stretch of highway one could read 30 KPH, then a half kilometer further another could state 80 KPH, then further along 40 KPH. There is little rhyme or reason, as if they were erected haphazardly by untrained road workers. Therefore, it’s best to keep up with traffic flow, and if reluctant to do so, drive on the paved shoulder so others can pass, an acceptable practice. However, on toll roads speed limits appear to be more consistent, with greater likelihood of encountering speed traps.
Drive with a copy of the photo page of your passport, your tourist visa, drivers license, and naturally vehicle ownership. Insurance is optional in Oaxaca. Be courteous when stopped by police. Federal police at check points are usually looking for illegal immigrants en route from Central America to the US, arms or drugs.
There are two theories regarding how to avoid paying a fine or bribe when stopped for an alleged traffic infraction; speak your best Spanish, or pretend that you do not speak it at all in the hope that police will get frustrated and leave.
For bribing, do not disclose a large wad of bills. Have only a few twenties and perhaps a fifty (of course pesos) in view. Otherwise, they’ll want it all. And yes, bribing is the norm, at least with municipal and state police. Start low. If you start at 500, it’ll cost more. Generally, police are helpful to tourists driving in Oaxaca, whether in cities, or on roads or highways.
Reducing the Likelihood of Encountering Banditos or Having an Accident on Oaxaca Highways
Only drive outside of Oaxacan cities and towns during daylight, unless unavoidable such as when attending a rural party. When on a long road trip, begin looking for accommodations well before dusk. Find a hotel with secure parking. Do not leave belongings in the vehicle overnight, or if you must, keep them hidden in the trunk.
On some secondary highways, one may be asked to stop to help out a poor family with a few pesos or even food. While it happens rarely, experience suggests that they only want a little help. It’s happened three – four times over the course of 19 years driving Oaxaca’s roads and highways. Encountering cows, horses, donkeys and dogs on Oaxacan roads is much more common – another reason to only drive in daytime hours.
Regularly check levels of vehicle liquids, either on one’s own, or at gas stations. Have belts, tires, steering and generally mechanical fitness matters checked regularly. Most locals don’t (nor have they received driver training), so you should. Yes, the roads to Puerto Escondido and Huatulco from Oaxaca are narrow and windy in spots.
Gas station attendants usually must be asked to check tires and liquids. Pemex, the nationalized petroleum industry, has stations well spaced out, but never drive on almost empty. When in the mountains, if low on gas ask, and someone will advise where to find someone selling gasoline. Similarly, mechanics are a dime a dozen, and very resourceful when it comes to band-aid treatments to get vehicles where they want to go. Have a cellular phone handy just in case.
Final Word Regarding Safety and Security on Roads and Highways in Oaxaca
Banditos are by and large a concern of decades past. Highways are basically crime – free, with safety reasonably assured. However AAA and CAA do update their literature and warn of areas to avoid or where to be particularly vigilant. American and Canadian governments publish circulars as well, providing more general advice. While they tend to be overly paternalistic regarding matters of safety and security in Mexico, the advice is worth noting in a broad sense. It all helps reduce the likelihood of encountering safety, security and police problems while driving the roads of Oaxaca.