Roads and driving

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As you are most likely aware, road conditions in Latin America are (in general) much worse than road conditions in the United States and Canada.  Most Latin American roads are small, two lane roads with little or no shoulder. The main roads generally are navigable by any vehicle (you don't need a high clearance). We've got comprehensive information on how to avoid road hazards and arrive at your destination arrive safely.  

If you do get off the main roads you will find the roads can be in very poor condition, especially during the rainy season. Drivers may drive much more aggressively than road conditions should allow. Our best advice is to ''not'' try to keep up with the locals, but instead drive slowly and defensively. Remember that any accident involving a foreigner will often result in the police blaming the foreigner. Also, if you are hurt, medical treatment will most likely will be far away and sub par. All of this said, driving is an excellent way to see the countryside. Just drive with caution and take it easy. Check out our Gear Review page for roadtripper tested GPS units for tracking and safety.  You can also learn more about scams, locations that are known for corrupt police, and how to avoid paying bribes

General Information

Road Signs

Many road signs in Mexico have international symbols on them, however not all do. You may want to keep a Spanish-English dictionary handy in the car if your Spanish is not very good. If you are used to driving in places like the USA, you will be used to looking for signs that point out the highway number, but in Mexico the signs pointing out the highway number are often non-existent, or incorrect. It is better to use the green signs at crossroads that point out the next large town in either direction, which Mexico is very good at maintaining.

Road Signs in Spanish and their English Equivalents

Distances between cities

Check out this nice distance calculator to determine the distance between two cities. Keep in mind however, that you may often be driving much more slowly due to road conditions than you would in most developed countries. Another way to figure out how long it may take to get from point A to point B is to look at bus schedules. In Latin America many people travel by bus, so you can often plan you day's drive around how long a bus would take to make the same route.

Topes

In Mexico, speed bumps are called topes, and you will find a large amount of them on all roads in Mexico except toll roads or cuotas. Topes are used in Mexico to slow traffic down when entering populated areas, so be alert when driving into these areas. Topes come in various sizes, from a group of small humps the size of garden hoses to mammoth ones which will scrape the bottoms of many cars. Topes may not be marked or painted, which makes them very hard to see even in the daylight - sometimes skid marks on the road indicate that a tope is near.

Topes are a very common way to slow down traffic in Latin America. Topes may be marked with a sign and painted, or may have no sign and will be almost invisible. It is hard to believe how hard it is to see a speed bump while driving that is the same color as the roadbed. Be careful in the early morning or afternoon when shadows across the road will make topes look like just another shadow. A good rule of thumb is that if you are driving on a road and you start to see a cluster of buildings, chances are you will be in tope territory.

Speed bumps are called Rompe Muelles in Peru (literaly spring breakers), there are usually sign saying they are 50 m. ahead, or something like that. As mentioned above, look for them anytime you are in a small village, or if you see a car slowing down ahead of you.

Construction

It seems that almost every highway in Mexico is under repair. You will see a person on the side of the road without a uniform holding an orange flag. If he is waving the flag up and down in front of himself, you need to stop in front of him, and putting on your hazards on for people behind you is a wise move.

Road construction areas are often lacking signs, safety barrels, cones, or barriers. Be very careful, since signs may be non existent telling you where to drive, and often no barriers exist to stop you from driving into a road section under repair. Following another vehicle can help you navigate and reduce the chance of a head on collision. Rocks along the road may be used instead of cones, and may be difficult to see at high speeds. Some topes will be large enough to bottom out your vehicle, try slowly going over it at an angle.

Other Road Hazards

Donkeys, cattle, horses, dogs, pedestrians, and bicyclists will be a common site on and along the roads. Many roads lack shoulders or sidewalks, so there are few places for pedestrians to walk except on the roadbed itself. If there are large rocks on the road, it may indicate a broken-down truck or car ahead (despite the signs asking people not to throw rocks on the road), or may simply be the remnants of a recent rockslide. Either way, defensive and alert driving at all times is important. Be careful of robberies if you are driving in empty stretches, it has been reported that people have been robbed after stopping to clear a large branch off the road. You will see people walking along the roadbed while cars drive by at high speeds. Consider slowing down and giving lots of room, especially when children are present. Other things on the road include donkeys, horses, cattle, bicyclists, broken down vehicles, massive potholes, speed bumps, rocks and branches. Rocks and branches are often used to warn drivers about a hazard further down the road, slow down and drive with caution.

Driving at Night

Please try to avoid driving at night. The many hazards listed here are dangerous enough in daylight, so driving in the evening is especially dangerous. Even if you are not afraid of breaking an axle by hitting an unmarked ''tope'', be aware that highway robberies can occur after dark. On roads known for robberies, driving in the late afternoon is even considered a bad idea. Always make sure you leave early enough in the day to be at your next destination early in the day.

Passing

Underpowered trucks, mopeds, hot dog vending vehicles and ox driven carts driving a the speed of a brisk walk will cause even the most timid driver into a passing maneuver. Always look behind you before attempting to pass, often one or more cars behind you will already be trying to pass you. If you do get stuck behind a slow moving vehicle, you may want to give plenty of room between you and the vehicle in front of you so that the passing vehicles behind you have room to pull back into your lane when attempting to pass three vehicles around a blind corner. Head on collisions are common.

  • If a slow moving truck in front of you turns on their left turn signal, they may be indicating that it safe to pass. However, if the driver turns on their left turn signal and waves their arm out the window, they are indicating that they will be making a left turn.
  • Make sure to look in your blind spot before passing, a driver behind you may be passing you before you have a chance to get into the left lane.
  • If traffic is slowing or coming to a halt unexpectedly, drivers turn on their hazards.
  • Using your headlights during the day will make you more visible to passing vehicles.
  • Rocks, branches, or other items in the road often mean there is a dangerous condition or stopped vehicle in the roadway ahead.

Left Hand Turns

In some countries, if you want to make a left hand turn across traffic on a two lane highway, you are expected to pull off onto the right-hand side of the road, put your left-hand turn signal on, then wait for traffic to clear before making the turn. Watch to see how other people are making left hand turns, and be aware of cars on the side of the road with the left turn signal on.

Fri, 03/16/2012 - 14:51

Driving Central America

Having driven my motorcycle from Canada to Panama, I will say that at the least, do not drive at night, especially through Guatemala and Honduras, the roads are absolutely horrible and full of pick-up size potholes. I also met a Costa Rican motorcyclist who had a huge scar around his whole head from driving into one of these craters late at night and had had many surgeries before recovering.

There is a lot of beautiful scenery but to avoid the countless bone-jarring potholes, you must concentrate on the road.  I by-passed El Salvador and took a northern route through Guatemala City and into Honduras. Some friendly Hondurans told me that the road was rough and that there were a few place that were really bad.  On my way into Esperanza, I was driving on a 4 lane highway which ended with a cloud of dust and when the dust cleared, I was in the middle of the bush.  It turned into a one-lane goat trail. I stopped and asked every person if this was actually the highway shown on the map and it was. It continued for 32kms without a sign anywhere until I finally emerged into a small town in the mountains.  Esperanza. 

Don´t let my words make you think I wouldn´t do it again, I would but it is good to know the bad things ahead of time.

Also be very wary of anyone who is trying to help you at the border crossings.  Don´t trade money there unless you absolutely have to, they will rob you every time.  Find someone you can half understand and make a deal with them for how much their guide fee will be.  In my experience $10 is enough, but once I unknowingly offered some Honduran money ($5) and this guy started swearing at me in front of everybody.  If he wouldn´t have done that, I probably would have given him more but his behaviour was so bad that I just said ?&%#$ him. 

I am not sure exactly what I paid sometimes or why but it is a learning experience.  It helps to know the money exchanges before you go and to have some american money with you.  As far as I know, you don´t have to pay too much for Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.  Guatemala and Honduras was just a blurred nightmare.  Hahaha!! Good luck!!

Mon, 11/19/2012 - 20:24 (Reply to #1)

Hi Im planing to ride a

Hi Im planing to ride a motorcycle from LA California to Lima-Peru, Im thinking to use a honda crf 250 cc, what kind of bike did you ride and wich will be your best pick for this type of trip. thanks for your attention

Wed, 11/28/2012 - 16:06 (Reply to #2)

agdien,

agdien,

 

Using a 250 cc ultra naked bike it will cook you. The ideal is 400 and above and not naked, better a 650 for long range. Mainly because of  the gear on top which will damge soon the shoks, not counting the brakes .

It is proved that 6540 are the best for the all roads condition and endurance. Fro the price of 3000 - 4000 you cna get a Vstrom 650, 1000 or a KLR 650 or even a DR 650 Suzuki.

All the above highly recomended.

Thu, 01/08/2015 - 10:24 (Reply to #3)

Motorcycle riding at night

Wow, that's much more dangerous than I was aware ... thanks for the info.

Thu, 05/24/2012 - 18:23

Topes

Topes are speed bumps. I think they are also a sign to tell you there is a muffler repair or tire repair shop ahead.  In Mexico, there are so many, you will think they robbed every parking lot in the world. I was told they put them there because the Mexican drivers would never slow down if they didn´t have to and it would be too dangerous to drive.  I drove over them so many times at full speed and even with a motorcycle trailer flying in the air behind me.  Be aware when driving in all latin countries, the bus drivers and taxi drivers are the most dangerous. Be aware also in Panama that the drivers here will turn a corner with a stop sign without stopping and then drive only 30-50 kph. You need patience in all areas although except for the speed bumps, Mexico is a lot of fun to drive.

Fri, 03/16/2012 - 18:40

"Ode to a Tope"

I thought I would share this with everyone, wrote it when doing the trekoftheamericas;  hope you get a laugh!

ODE TO A TOPE, by Kathy Peak

It may be round, It may be flat
It may be smooth, It may be not.
But whatever size and shape we find,
It matters not, we must slow down.

In Mexico, it’s Tope
In Central America, Tumolo
And in both there are Vibradors.
But whatever is its given name,
It matters not, we must slow down.

Some are throughout towns,
Some at toll booths,
Some just catch us by surprise.
But wherever these friends stick up,
It matters not, we must slow down.

Some are well marked,
Some are not,
Some warnings would do Dolly Parton proud---
But however, or whether, they are introduced,
It matters not, we must slow down.

Some bump your heads
Some rattle your teeth,
Some re-adjust your spine and more--
But whatever part of our anatomy is touched,
It matters not, we must slow down.

They kiss our hitches
They reach for our bumpers
They tickle our tires and shocks.
But whatever affection our vehicles get,
It matters not, we must slow down.

They shake dust loose
They jostle items
They sometimes create a surprise.
But whatever new treat awaits us inside,
It matters not, we must slow down.

Some are made of concrete.
Some are made of rope.
Some are made of steel teeth.
But however ingenious the construction may be,
It matters not, we must slow down.

They are called many things
And have numerous nicknames too--
Speed bumps
Sleeping policemen and
Checkpoint controls.
But whatever pseudonym they hide behind
It matters not, we must slow down.
 

Mon, 01/12/2015 - 16:27 (Reply to #6)

This is fantastic! :)

This is fantastic! :)

Thu, 05/24/2012 - 18:46

Driving at night-heed the warnings!!

I would suggest you never drive at night unless absolutely necessary.  I am travelling from Canada and I am now in Panama.  I had the opportunity to drive at night a lot on my motorcycle in Mexico and I would say unless you are only the main roads between large cities, don´t do it.  It is normal for many cows, donkeys, horses, goats, chickens, drunken men and what have you.  I was travelling quite fast through a curve near La Paz in South Baja California when I passed a cow that was literally one foot away from my head as I was leaned into the corner and a good friend was close behind me.  Thankfully, the very large cow turned onto the side of the road and my friend missed him.  The topes can also be very dangerous at night if you don´t see them.

In Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and most of Costa Rica, don´t drive at night.  In Guatemala, the roads were the worst I had ever driven, full of huge, deep potholes and sugar cane strewn everywhere on the roads below Guatemala City.  Honduras was even worse.  They are so bad, it is hard to believe that they put up with it.  I was travelling south from Guatemala to Esperanza, Honduras when the 4-lane pothole-ridden highway changed in seconds to what can only be called a wagon trail for 32 of the longest kilometers I have had the privilege of driving.  I

Another bad thing about driving at night is the lack of signs and the lack of people.  It is difficult to tell where you are going and if you are lost, there is nobody to ask except bad people.  I met a fellow biker from San Jose who had driven at speed into a pothole bigger than a pickup truck and who opened up his skull cap like a tin can.  He has the one inch thick scar around his head to show for it now. 

While I have been travelling, I like to use "motels".  In latin america, motels are used mainly for sex but they are normally very large, clean and sanitary.  Hot water, good showers, soaps, shampoos, etc.  I normally get a room and bargain with the people to only stay for 12 hours and they usually give me a good price.  These rooms come with a garage and security so your vehicle is safe.  Most of them have food and drinks available at cheap prices.  It is always my choice over normal hotels because the security is better.  Nobody gets in there without them knowing about it.

They normally have names like Torres de Amor or have a heart outside or something to do with love.  They can be found on the outskirts of towns and cities usually.  If not, just ask, everybody knows where they are.

Good luck in your travels.  Stay safe.

Tue, 01/28/2014 - 11:01

Road map covering the whole continent?

Hi there,

 

Pablo and me are planning to shoot a documentary and make a photo book of a trip from Mexico to Usuahia. Pablo hs won several prizes for his work back in Spain and I have travelled extensively all over South East Asia working as a freelance and publishing on several magazines among other countries.... , at this point (Jsut starting the plan) we are wondering if anyone knows any good book that compiles most of the roads we will need to take, we will take with us gps devices etc... but I guess it´s a good idea to carry a good road map just in case we loose signal (I´m guessing that it is going to happen!

Any advice, proposition, comment on this regard will be very apreciated.

We are also going to buy the car here in Mexico, I was thinking about a 4Runner as I can see that many of you actually got this one for your trips... I can get a cheap one around here so, what do you think? good choice? will there be spare parts in most of the countries we will be crossing?

Thanks a lot in advance and congratulations, this is a great source of info!!

 

Best regards.

 

Pablo and chicho.

Tue, 07/07/2015 - 18:55

Honduras or Nicaragua?

We are planning on driving from Sudbury, Ontario, Canada to Panama in Jan. I heard about the cops pulling people over a lot in Honduras expecting bribes so we were considering driving through Nicaragua instead. Apparently the cop harassment, roads and robbers are worse there. Can anyone advise us please?

Wed, 11/25/2015 - 04:24

How to deal with cops

Um - You have to go through either Honduras or El Salvador in order to get to Nicaragua. You can't avoid Honduras by "driving through Nicaragua instead". And El Salvador has a far worse reputation.  And if you choose to go through El Salvador you will find you still have to go through a little bit of Honduras anyway ! 

We loved Honduras, and found a gorgeous place in Pena Blanca called D&D Brewery.   The most gorgeous spot, with great beers, food and a lot of friendly faces. They have all sorts of action sports there as well.   Top spot, and, after Copan Ruinas (also fantastic), made Honduras for us  See here   http://www.ddbrewery.com/

But if you ARE stopped, here's a clue :-

1) Smile

2) Speak no Spanish. Play REALLY dumb. Keep telling them in English where you are going and where you have come from last.

3) Be polite

4) Smile

You are stopped only because there are official stops everywhere where everyone stops, not because they pull you over individually while driving.  Only time we got pulled over we had in fact crossed a double line (as had everyone else !!) but they let us go because it was all just too hard for them, but they were taking money from all the locals. ROFL.   And they loved it when we gave them little gold Kangaroo stick pins ! 

Only really bad place IMO was Ruta 12 in Argentina going up to Iguazu.   I got "done" there for not having my headlights on when they were in fact on, and it pissed me off for ages - They really are out to get you on that road.  Even a kangaroo pin didn't help.

5) Smile, even though you're faking it !!

We loved Honduras, unexpectedly our favourite country in Central America, and never got stopped once.

Just enjoy the trip, and stop worrying about it.

Giles