Editor’s Note: On our website and Facebook page, there probably isn’t a day that goes by where someone doesn’t ask us about the safety of driving through Mexico. Many Americans and Canadians want to drive to the Yucatan when they come to visit for longish periods of time, or when they move here to live. Often, they are driving their vehicles full of their belongings and carrying valued family pets as well.
Always cognizant of the media’s reports of violence in Mexico, everyone wants to be as safe as possible. By now they know they will be safe when they get to the Yucatan Peninsula, but how will they travel through Mexico with the same sense of safety? Dr. Stephen Fry has gathered statistics and experiences to help you map the ideal route through Mexico in the following article.
As always, we are not pretending that this is the definitive solution, but merely a good "serving suggestion" based on knowledge, investigation and experience. We welcome your helpful comments!
Traveling With Safety In Mind
There are a group of questions that pop-up regularly from Americans and Canadians who are thinking about visiting Mexico or moving to Mexico. With increasing highway violence on some routes, and the Drug War claiming over 40,000 lives in the past four years, safety has become a prime concern for many travelers and visitors to Mexico.
Fortunately, there is little or no evidence of Canadians or Americans being targeted for violence as they travel around Mexico or if they live there. Nevertheless, the reality is that some Mexican states have less-than-desireable violent crime rates on their roadways and in the cities. Some states have rates of violence that rival Detroit, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. Just as we tend to avoid dangerous neighborhoods in most cities in the USA or Canada or elsewhere in the world, we also want to avoid the dangerous neighborhoods of Mexico by choosing our travel routes wisely. We are not interested in going into gory details of violence here. Instead, we want to use some of the available tools that go beyond personal stories of uneventful trips or horror stories of hijackings, and try to approach the issue with a modicum of scientific procedure.
Realities and Risks
If safety and easy smooth travel are significant concerns, then check out this website that shows Murder Numbers and Murder Rates for Mexican Municipalities. This gives you a map of the past and recent crime rates for Mexico by state, by county and by city. You can click on either the murder “Rate” button or the “Absolute” button for numbers of murders. Putting the cursor on a particular municipality pulls up the last 20 years of data.
Based on the information in this site, you can pick a route based on a statistical level of risk based on the past five years. (Of course, as anyone who has ever invested money knows, past performance is no indication of future performance… but it’s the best thing we’ve got.)
Border Crossing Choices
Your first choice for your route through Mexico to the Yucatan boils down to which border crossing you choose, since the city of your border crossing determines which state and what highways you use while traveling south. By checking the statistics and the map, Piedras Negras/Eagle Pass appears to be the safest and shortest route for travelers coming from east of the Rocky Mountains, but it will take Midwestern and Eastern drivers a bit further west than the most direct (but statistically more hazardous) coastal route.
Another safe border crossing choice is Laredo/Nuevo Laredo, going on to Monterrey and Saltillo. There are higher risk zones in Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey, but if you cross early and stay on the main highways, with no forays into town, the statistics are also favorable. Based on the numbers, this route is statistically safer than driving through Dallas, and you can check out the statistics for the state of Nuevo Leon (Monterrey’s state) to reassure yourself.
Let’s say you choose the Piedras Negras crossing. The low murder rates and low numbers of murder rates for Piedras Negras confirms why many Norteños on other Mexican travel web forums advise using the Eagle Pass border crossing (see links to this map at end of article). Piedras Negras has an annual murder rate of just 5.11 persons per 100,000, which compares very favorably with Miami (15.4 per 100,000) and Dallas (11.3), and is even less than San Francisco (5.9). Would you think twice about driving through San Francisco? You might be afraid of having difficulty navigating your way through it, but we doubt you would avoid it based on fear of murder.
When you leave Piedras Negras, you cross areas of Mexico that have had zero homicides in 2010. By comparison, if you investigate the various counties (municipalities) on the crime map we have been using for reference, you will find that the coastal route goes through the state of Tamaulipas with 290 murders per 100,000 people, making Detroit’s 41 murders per 100,000 pale in comparison. It also ought to make you think twice about traveling along the coastal route south of Brownsville, which goes right through the state of Tamaulipas.
Here’s another statistical resource you can use to check if you have chosen the right route. The statistics published by the FBI say that the city of Piedras Negras and the state of Nuevo Leon have a combined lower murder rate than Texas’s 1,250 murders for 25 million residents.
If you choose the border crossing with the lowest violent crime rates, you’ll find that there are excellent interstate highways into San Antonio from various directions, followed by good roads from San Antonio over to Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras. The route south out of Piedras Negras on Highway 57 is a good road. It takes you to the interstate 57D toll road to Infonavit, and then back on Highway 57 through to Monclova and on south to Saltillo, and then on to Queretaro.
We know the route through Brownsville looks shorter on the map, but actually the route south out of Brownsville to Veracruz is surprisingly slow. The road is a two-lane highway with hundreds of pueblos with 15 mile-per-hour speed limits, thousands of topes, and a lot of unmarked road construction that has damaged the suspension on our vehicle and number of friend’s vehicles in the past. Yes, it is a picturesque route. But if you are looking for speed and safety, it isn’t your best bet.
Because of the better quality roads and many four-lane high-speed super highways, swinging over through San Antonio and using the Eagle Pass crossing may look further on a map, but your actual travel time will probably be less. The route increases safety and speed for only a modest added distance:
- Memphis to Piedras Negras = 875 miles
- Piedras Negras to Merida = 1587 miles
- Memphis to Brownsville = 928 miles
- Brownsville to Merida = 1271 miles
- Memphis – Piedras Negras – Merida:
Total: 2,462 miles
- Memphis – Brownsville – Merida:
Total: 2,200 miles
- Difference: 260 miles
- Memphis-Laredo-Villahermosa = 2040 miles
- Memphis-Brownsville-Villahermosa = 1860 miles
- Difference: 180 miles
Would you rather drive 180 to 260 extra miles on excellent US Interstate highways, good safe roads in Northern Mexico, and mostly high speed tollways with no topes through the rest of Mexico? Or would you prefer the coast road’s thousands of topes, some dangerous mountain driving, hundreds of small towns and the statistically higher risk of robbery or getting killed on the coast route? Your choice, of course. If you are coming from west of the Mississippi, it is an easy decision to choose a safer crossing like Laredo or Eagle Pass. When coming from east of the Mississippi, our experience has shown that the central route’s faster highways and the ability to pass by small towns and their topes easily made up for the extra 260 miles of going over to the safest crossing west of the Rocky Mountains.
Do Not Drive Without Car Insurance in Mexico
Before you make your decision, we should also pass on that it has come to our attention that some car insurance companies are now denying insurance coverage if you drive between Brownsville-Matamoros and Veracruz, especially if you drive an SUV. While we’re on the subject, let us caution you about auto insurance in Mexico. Do NOT get caught driving without insurance in Mexico. Expats have reported being stuck in Mexican jails with no food and no phone for up to four days while the police sort things out. They are just doing their job within the law. In Mexico, if you drive without insurance and you are in some sort of accident, you must prove that you can pay for all possible damages and medical treatments before they allow you to leave the scene of an accident.
Day 1: Laredo/Nuevo Laredo Crossing
Let’s say you plan to cross at Nuevo Laredo. No matter where you cross, it is a good idea to cross the border first thing in the morning (7:00 AM – 8:00 AM) to avoid problems or to have time to solve them if you run into any. After the crossing, you will drive through Nuevo Laredo on an easy highway, with no stopping other than for Mexican Immigration (INM) and Mexican Customs (Aduana). Customs is at the border, but Aduana‘s internal checkpoint 25 km farther on, after you have crossed the border. If you take a high speed city bypass around Monterrey, we think you will be pleased with the combination of reasonable safety, excellent roads, and a shorter route than the further west Eagle Pass/Piedras Negras crossing.
By the way, there are actually three points where you can cross the border at Laredo/Nuevo Laredo. Most old-timers advise getting off I35, and going a few blocks NW to the second crossing. This downtown crossing is about four blocks upriver of I35, and the route has good signage. This is a secondary crossing and is usually less crowded than the primary, more obvious one.
US Border Control agents have advised against staying the night in the little towns south of Laredo, so we suggest you plan to stay the night in one of the many fine hotels on the north side of Laredo not far from I35. You should have no trouble finding a room at a Best Western, La Quinta, Holiday Inn or many other US chains that have set up shop there.
After making your morning border crossing, head straight through Nuevo Laredo. Do not stop or leave Highway 85 and the toll road 85D, except for the Aduana internal checkpoint that is 25 kilometers past the border.. Similarly, when you reach Monterrey, don’t stop or stay in Monterrey. For safety’s sake, take the bypass to Highway 40D, and continue on to Saltillo. At this point, your route connects to Highway 57 and 57D (toll road sections), and takes you to Saltillo and then on to San Louis Potosi and Queretaro. Experienced travelers over the past five years consistently say that the excellent road quality on this central Mexico route might take you a little out of your way to the west, but will allow you to avoid giant potholes, road construction, topes and other hazards that will slow you down and make your journey less pleasant.
It is a pleasant day’s drive between Laredo and Queretaro, but because there are few towns between Saltillo, San Luis Potosi and Queretaro, be sure to stop for gas and food when you see promising opportunities. Queretaro is a charming city with a beautiful Plaza Principal, central park and amazing architecture. There is a lot to see in Queretaro if you want to take the time. There are "auto hotels" (easy in, easy out, cheap, clean and very secure with secure parking), on both the northern and southern edges of Queretaro if you decide not to stop to sightsee. There are also some large hotels near Interstate 57 as you drive through town, and of course, charming and interesting hotels in the city center.
Day 2: Queretaro to Villahermosa
After you pass through or stay in Queretaro, go south out of Queretaro, continuing on 57 and 57D, following signs to Puebla. When you reach it, take the Arco Norte bypass route, which takes you around Mexico City. This is a new option and much preferable to braving the intricacies of the Mexico City streets if you have no plans on stopping and sightseeing. Follow the signs to Highway 150D, another high speed toll road, and drive on to Puebla. If you want to make great time, stay on the toll roads and take the city bypass, still 150D, around Puebla. Continue on 150D toll road and then Highway 150 over to Orizaba in the mountains, and down to Cordoba on the coast. Continue on Highway 150 east out of Cordoba, until you reach Highway 145D. Take Highway 145D south to Minatitlan. At Minatitlan, you continue east on Highway 180D, where you have now joined the folks who took the troublesome coast route from Brownsville through Veracruz and on to Minatitlan.
We are going to mention the problems of the coastal route one final time. If you have been paying attention, you may have read that Veracruz has recently had so many problems with corruption, highway robberies and killings that they just fired ALL of their police, and have rehired a totally new group of law enforcement “professionals”. We are not saying these new police are corrupt or ineffectual, but we are taking note that they are new and we think it might be wise to give them some time to work out the kinks in their new system.
On the Highway 180 and 180D route to Villahermosa, there are not a lot of places to buy gas or eat between Minatitlan and Villahermosa. We suggest you refill all your gas tanks before leaving Minatitlan. Also, if you are a coffee fan, you’ll see people selling some fine highlands coffee from Los Altos de Veracruz along the route before you get to Minatitlan. Depending on the time of year, you might also see highway vendors selling pineapple juice. We can highly recommend stopping to stock up on both.
When you come to Villahermosa, you might also consider stopping and seeing a few of the Olmec basalt giant heads, various statuary and other attractions in the beautiful public park inside Villahermosa. There’s a broad selection of hotels in Villahermosa, ranging from Best Western and Holiday Inn to clean and modern local hotels for as little as $450 pesos per night. If you are traveling with dogs, the Hyatt just south of the city along the route to Merida accepts dogs in the room. Between the comfortable beds and room service meals, you’ll think you died and went to Mexican heaven.
Day 3: Villahermosa to Champoton, Campeche and (finally!) Merida
As you leave Villahermosa, you have a choice: to head up to the very pretty coastal route (Highway 180) to Ciudad del Carmen (the slower choice) or to go the faster Highway 186 inland route to Escarcega (and possibly on over to Calakmul or Chetumal if Playa Del Carmen or Cancun is your ultimate goal). The coastal route (Highway 180) is more direct and the shorter distance, but there are sections between Villahermosa and Ciudad del Carmen where there are 20 – 50 pueblos, with 15 miles-per-hour traffic, and a whole bunch of topes. In contrast, the southern route road between Villahermosa and Escarcega is mostly high-speed driving, with some sections of road construction where they are building a four-lane divided highway. Even with the construction sections, the Escarcega route is about one hour faster.
If you choose the scenic route, Ciudad del Carmen is a delightful place to stop and eat, and Highway 180 has opportunities for excellent fast driving after you navigate through Ciudad del Carmen.
If you choose the Highway 186 Escarcega route, be sure to stop and eat in Escarcega. There are few opportunities on Highway 261 between Escarcega and Asseradero. The southern Escarcega route now rejoins the pretty coastal Highway 180 route to Campeche City, (Campeche Ciudad in Spanish, to differentiate it from the State of Campeche). As you continue north, it can be worth stopping in Champoton. Champoton is a picturesque fishing city, with great places to eat along the water and gas stations… a good place to stop if you do not want to detour into Ciudad Campeche later.
Continue going north to Campeche City. Campeche also has exceptional seafood, but if you do not take the Highway 180 city bypass, count on roughly a half hour of city driving to get through Campeche City. When you leave Campeche Ciudad, stay on Highway 180 north to Merida.
Before you know it (about two hours… and we’ll be the first to say that they seem like very long hours because you are ALMOST there…), you will find yourself in one of the Northern Hemisphere’s most charming and historic cities: Merida. Lucky you!
Bienvenidos, and glad you made it safely!
Steven Fry writes for Yucatan Living when he isn’t writing for his own blog, Yucalandia, for which we are very grateful.