Many holidaymakers spend the first few days of a trip resting, relaxing and exploring the delights offered by Cancun. After a few days, they might want something different, and to see the “real” Mexico. Most people think of Yucatan as a touristy location with excellent water activities, but it is probably among the best places for a Mexican road trip. This is why many visitors rely on car rental to get the most of their holiday in Cancun and the area.
Before proceeding to the article, make sure you have paid your VisiTax. The new tourism tax is required from every traveler to the State of Quintana Roo.
The attractions, depending on the time of year, can include watching baby turtles hatching, swimming with whale sharks and cenote diving. There are many sites of archaeological interest, especially the Chichen Itza pyramids. Towns like Valladolid offer an enchanting example of a tourist town without the tourists.
Cancun has plenty of local and international car rental companies, so it is easy to hire a car and set off. Before looking at rental options, some admin issues to clear up, and some practical tips:
Car Rental and Driving Licences
To hire a car, you must be over 21 and under 75. Many rental companies charge an excess for drivers over 65.
You must have had a driving licence for over 2 years. The licence must be written in English or Spanish. If your licence isn’t in either language, then an International Driving Licence in English or Spanish is necessary.
Roads and Safety
Mexico has two classes of road, the Carretera Cuota and Carretera Libre.
The Cuota are like freeways, good quality and fast. They are tolled and you must pay cash. Libre roads run parallel to the Cuota and are toll-free. If possible, you should use the Cuota highways. Try not to drive after dark, or in bad weather.
The emergency roadside service number is 078.
On Libre roads, you are driving in a predominantly rural environment, and the roads are not great. You need to pay keen attention to potholes, wildlife and other hazards such as Mexican speed bumps, called topes. Topes are both official and unofficial. Official ones are signposted, unofficial ones might not be. Hit one going at speed and it will damage your car.
Roads can be of poor quality, especially after heavy rain, so you should check on road conditions before travelling. If you intend to travel on a less-explored route, then it is advisable to find out the local and road conditions before setting out. Dive slowly and with great attention. Be alert at all times, topes are common and sometimes quite vicious.
Finally, if you are staying overnight on a road trip, make sure that your vehicle is secure, and take all your stuff with you into your accommodation.
Other Helpful Tips
Don’t rely on online Google maps:
- You won’t have a reliable signal in Yucatan, especially in the more rural areas. Download an offline map.
- Google trip times can be very unreliable. Things such as roadblocks, poor road conditions and local festivities affect them. It is good practice to at least double transit times.
- If you have a dual-sim phone, consider buying a prepaid Mexican SIM card to maximise coverage.
Remember, if you come from a miles-per-hour environment, Mexican speed limits are in kilometres per hour and distances are in kilometres.
Travelling in Mexico is expensive, no question. Petrol is expensive and is probably about the same price as in the US. Highway tolls on the Carretera Cuota are also high.
Car Rental Companies
Most of the major international and local car rental companies are represented in Cancun, either at the airport or in hotels and offices in Cancun. At the airport, the offices are either in the terminal building itself or a short shuttle ride away. Most of those outside the airport terminal building offer a meet-and-greet option.
You can also book online. Many travellers do this before arriving and pick-up a car at the airport. This is probably the best option.
Vehicles on offer range from the smallest sub-compacts to SUVs and 4x4s. Note that 4x4s tend to be about 25% more expensive than regular cars. Some rental companies specialise in SUV and 4×4 rental. Choose according to your budget, the number of passengers (and luggage), and the type of route you intend to follow. Some routes are best navigated by 4x4s or SUVs, and you should discuss this with the rental company. If you intend staying on Cuota roads, then a standard vehicle is fine.
Cars can be rented by the day or for longer periods. It is entirely feasible that you can decide over breakfast to hire one for the day for a trip out of town. Many rental companies have offices in the major hotels and in Cancun itself.
Rental rates at the airport might be a little higher than downtown offices. However, think of the time you save by picking up the car when you arrive, and you save the taxi fares you pay to get to the downtown offices.
There are the usual comparison websites that help you find the best rental options. Googling “Cancun Car Rental” gives a long list.
Cancun and Cancun car rental is a volatile market, so read up-to-date online reviews about rental companies and their locations. That will help you sort the good from the bad.
Car Hire options
One important point. Irrespective of who you hire from, pay great attention to the checkout form, it could save you money down the line. In particular, make sure that all existing damage to the vehicle is marked on the diagram, and photograph the interior and exterior to highlight any obvious scuffs, scratches and other damage. Perhaps a video of the entire car is a better option. Don’t forget to take a picture of the fuel gauge.
There have been cases where a renter has been unfairly charged for causing damage that was already on the car or overcharged for refilling the petrol tank.
When you rent, the company will want to swipe a card for a damage deposit. Use a credit card, not a debit card. With a credit card, they don’t actually take the money, the card company just puts a hold on it. With a debit card, they take the cash, and you need to get them to issue a refund. Now you see why it is important to have a record of the state of the interior and exterior of the car when you got it.
Make sure that the rental company covers you with Mexican car insurance. It’s against the law to drive in Mexico without it. If you are stopped by the police, they may ask for proof of cover. Get familiar also with what travel insurance cover to buy when heading to Mexico.
Budget for refundable deposits and return charges if you drop off the vehicle somewhere different from where you hired it.
Finally, road tolls. Tolls are usually paid in cash as you travel, but the option of using a dongle in the car that charges the toll to the rental company automatically is becoming more common. With this option, toll fees are deducted from your refundable deposit when you return the vehicle. Not all toll locations support dongles as yet.
Renting a car and heading out to see the real attractions in Cancun and in Yucatan is a great way to enhance your vacation, unless your vison is to spend your vacation