18 Sep Nuts and Bolts of Bicycle Touring Mexico
Is Mexico safe for bicycle touring?
“Is it safe?”, ”Aren’t there Cartels and drug wars?”, ”How are the drivers and how are the roads?”
Those are just a few questions, we recieved from friends and family, when we announced our bicycle touring plan through Mexico. After all, we can not call it a Pan-American bike tour, without cycling through Mexico.
Looking at the news media, those questions and concerns are definitely warranted. However, while we cycled over 2000 miles in Mexico, we never felt threatened or unsafe.
Does that mean, we are dumb and naive? We would like to think NO.
Overall, the roads were good. We found the Mexican drivers to be very courteous. Many car drivers, truckdrivers and people in general gave us many thumbs up, friendly waves and encouraging words.
People in general, were very welcoming, warm and generous.
There are many military and police checkpoints along the highways, but nobody ever bothered us. Instead we were always greeted and waved through the checkpoints with a smile and thumbs up.
We did our due diligence in researching crime and cartel activities to find out which areas to avoid during our route planning. Also, we like to talk to locals to find out, which areas to stay away from or which to visit. Reading or watching the local news can be helpful to avoid trouble as well.
We actually ended up taking a different route from Palenque to Guatemala, than we initially had planned after reading the local news in the Chiapas area. Apparently, villagers did not like the outcome of the local municipality election. There were stories about road blocks, a Russian tourist was beaten, because she refused to pay at a roadblock, and three minibuses were kidnapped. All this happened, within two weeks we were planning on taking that route. Obviously, we decided to redraw our path, to avoid this area.
But lets not get ahead of ourselves here.
Here are some pointers ranging from border crossing and route planning to where to stay that we came up with which helped us have a wonderful time bicycle touring in Mexico.
We hope this will help you as well.
The Border Crossing into Mexico
Tijuana vs Tecate
Since we cycled down the Pacific Coast Highway and ended up in San Diego, it might have been faster to cross into Mexico at the Tijuana border crossing. However, from what we heard it is a big and busy border. Also cycling through Tijua to Rosarito is supposed to be chaotic and unpleasant as the route out of town leads through some shady areas and the Mexican Highway 1 is a very busy and narrow road on the way to Ensenada.
Instead, we chose to cross over in Tecate. It is a small border crossing. There was no line..in fact we almost crossed into Mexico without even noticing.
The town is quiet, we felt safe, and after leaving Tecate we find ourselves cycling through wine-country. The highway 3 is nicely paved and has a big shoulder.
- Visa: Coming from the USA, there is no actual Visa requirement to enter Mexico. Passport holders from countries on Mexico’s no visa required list do not need to apply for a formal visa to visit Mexico. They may, instead, use a visitor’s permit, known as a FMM (Forma Migratoria Multiple).
The permit can be filled out at the border and costs about $25.00. Although another tourist in line told us, that it is a cash-only fee, we were able to pay with credidt card.
- The permit allows a maximum length of stay of 180 days, but could be less, depending on which country you originate from. However, the time granted to you (in days) is shown on the part of the permit that’s handed to you for safe-keeping.
- The Procedure: It really is quite easy: Park your bike at the office, wait for your turn, fill out the permit paperwork, get your passport stamped, get your permit and pay $25.00
- Then take your bike, walk to the pedestrian entrance through customs. Since our loaded bikes did not fit through the x-ray machine, the officer just asked if we had any cigarettes or alcohol to declare and sent us on our way.
Overall, bicycle touring in Mexico is quite affordable. The street-food is delicious and cheap, rooms are affordable, and wild camping is possible if need be. In all, it is easy to comfortably bike tour Mexico under 20.00$ a day without much effort or feeling that you are missing out.
Card vs Cash
Although most bigger grocery stores accept credit and debit cards, we would still advise to get cash out at the ATM. Especially since small stores in remote villages and probably 99.8 % of street food vendors do not have the ability to accept cards.
Pointers for Using ATM
Most banks have an ATM located either within their lobby or outside. We usually make sure it is a safe location. We check the machine for any tempering or scammers and if there are video cameras to ensure the machine’s integrity.
ATMs generally have an ”English Language ” option, so using them is easy. Note, that the machine will usually ask you if you are okay with the user fee. You can not decline this. However, many machines will also ask if you accept their currency exchange rate. This one you can and want to decline, since the exchange rate offered is totally ridiculous. Instead push the button ”I do not accept”. This will give you the regular exchange rate from your bank.
Where to Sleep
Where to sleep while bicycle touring in Mexico might depend on your budged and comfort level.
Camping and wild camping is definitely possible all along the Baja Peninsula. There are plenty of official camp grounds around, especially along the beaches.
While cycling across mainland Mexico, we have not seen as many campgrounds, but apparently there are more along the coast.
The prices ranged anywhere from 100 Pesos ($4.40) to 200 pesos (< $10.00) for 2 people. Generally they are equipped with showers and bathrooms. Depending on the location, there may only be cold water available, but usually it is so hot outside, that we didn’t mind.
We found it easy to wild camp when we cycled along the Baja. We found it a little bit harder to find places on mainland Mexico, depending on the region. Generally, we found that small restaurant owners and farmers do not mind to let cycle tourers pitch a tent behind their building, when asked. We have also heard of other cyclists asking at churches and fire departments and never had a problem.
Hotels are easy to find even in smaller villages. Although most of them are very affordable, sometimes the price does not always reflect the quality.
We stayed in rooms for 250 pesos, which were nice, clean and had hot showers. Then we stayed in rooms for 450 pesos, which were old, not very clean and only had cold water, but we stayed, because it was the only option at the time.
We also found that ”Love hotels” can sometimes be a great option. By the way they are not brothels, but more of a resource for young people and couples living in multi-generational households. For the most part, they are very affordable, very clean and many offer food and drinks as well.
Roads—Is Cycling in Mexico Safe?
The Mexican road system runs a gamut from sandy dirt or rocky gravel farm tracks to narrow, busy seconday roads to multi-lane toll roads with nice wide shoulders.
While bicycle touring in Mexico, we found Mexican drivers extremely patient and courteous. We never felt threatened. Drivers would generally slow down and wait patiently behind us until it was clear to pass us. Many gave us thumbs up, friendly waves and encouraging words.
On the other hand, when we were on very narrow stretches of the Highway 1 on the Baja, we would keep an eye and an ear out to watch and listen for trucks. Although, truck drivers have been amazing, and tried to give us plenty of room, the road is barely wide enough to fit two trucks side-by-side. So when we felt that and oncoming truck would pass at the same time a truck was approaching us from behind, we would just pull off the road to let the trucks pass safely.
Cycle touring the Baja Peninsula, Mexico
Off road : There is the popular Baja-devide route leading from the US-Mexican border all the way to La Paz and beyond. Since we did not take this route, we are not going to comment on it here. The only thing we would like to mention is that it is very sandy, rocky and steep at times and not really suited for fully loaded bikes with panniers. Most cyclists taking this route have a light bike-packing set up and use mountain bikes.
Roads from the Border to Ensenada
Mexican Highway 1
Highway 1 runs down the entire length of the Baja peninsula, from Tijuana to Cabo San Lukas.
From what we heard, the stretch from Tijuana to Ensenada is quite treacherous to cycle on. The road is vey narrow and basically has just enough room for two trucks to pass each other without rubbing mirrors. There is no shoulder and at times the pavement ends abruptly into a foot or so drop off. Also this stretch is very busy. Not only is there heavy truck traffic, but there are also many cars, since Ensenada is a nice day trip or short getaway from the southern US.
Highway 3 from Tecate to Ensenada is much quieter and more relaxing. Shortly after entering Mexico, Hwy 3 leads through wine country and features a nice wide shoulder. To us it definitely seemed like the perfect intoduction to bicycle touring Mexico.
Although traffic picks up a little bit as you enter Ensenada, we were absolutely pleased with our choice.
Cycling from Ensenada to La Paz
Highway 3 and Highway 5
Highway 3 leads across the peninsula and joins Hwy 5 near the sea of Cortez. There is a good amount of climbing out of Ensenada and there is no shoulder. But there is hardly any traffic and the scenery is well worth the effort.
Highway 5, has a nice wide paved shoulder and follows the coast until it eventually crosses the peninsula again to join back up with Hwy 1 at Chapala. Traffic picks up slightly, but still remains light. The shoulder makes for relaxing bicycle touring and the coast is beautiful..
AT Chapala you will merge back onto Highway 1.
Highway 1 is still a hit and miss, occasionally it would sport a nice shoulder at other times it would be narrow again. There is more traffic and we encounter more trucks. Yet, overall, we thought traffic to be light and we never felt unsafe. Again, we would pay attention to our rearview mirror and listen for trucks, when we were navigating around turns and climbs and would pull off the road occasionally to let trucks pass.
Bicycle touring on mainland Mexico
When bicycle touring Mexico, you will encounter two major road types. The Autopista-tollroads or “Cuotas” and the free “Libre” roads. They are both major highway roads and often seem to more or less parallel each other.
Cuotas or Autopistas are tollroads, usually identifiable with the ”D” letter on any road map. For the most part they are 4-lane highways with nice wide shoulders. Sometimes it might be just a two lane highway when there is not enough room in more remote mountain areas.
Although there is usually a ”no bicycle” sign at most on-ramps and toll stations, we were told by locals that it is fine and sometimes the safest route to take when cycle touring in Mexico.
We never had any problems cycling on the nice wide shoulder of the cuotas. The tollbooth workers usually just have us dismount and push our bikes along the side to make it past the barriers and give us a thumb up. Even the police and military personal along the road never stopped us. On the contrary, they would give us encouraging words, give us thumbs up, and sometimes give us pointers on where to go and what to see.
Pros: Wide nicely paved shoulder, frequently checked by police and military for safety, traffic often seemed lighter than on the libre roads. There are gas stations with attached convenient stores and small eateries at most exits and toll plazas. They are great options to get from point A to point B quickly.
Cons: The Cuotas tend to avoid most villages and small towns. Sometimes gas stations and convenient stores are quite spread out, but we were always able to exit the highway to find our way into a town or village to find a place to sleep.
Free roads or Libre are regular highways. They seem to be mostly 2-lane highways, but occasionally there are also 4-lane libres. Although bicycles are allowed, they are much less bicycle friendly, since they generally have no shoulder but sport lots of heavy traffic.
Pros: Libres usually go through many small towns and villages, which makes it easy to find supplies. There is more sightseeing along the libres and one gets to experience life in small places.
Cons: Libres tend to be narrow roads without a shoulder, but with lots of car and truck traffic which can make for some unpleasant bicycle touring experience.
Of course, there are also numerous small county roads, farm roads, and dirt roads, which are generally quiet. We found several small country roads, that were very enjoyable for bicycle touring in Mexico. Some start out paved but will occasionally turn into farm roads to dirt paths and you will find yourself sharing your cycle-path with a herd of goats or cows and the occasional ranchero.
While some dirt-roads are hard packed with fairly smooth surface, there are also plenty that are riddled with potholes and big lose rocks. In general these routes make for slow travels, but we had some of our most memorable experiences on them.
Special Equipment to bring
We did not go out of our way to purchase any special equipment to bike tour in Mexico. Everything we have used this far has worked there as well. There were a few helpful things that made the trip just a little bit more enjoyable.
Patch kits and Spare tubes: We have never had so many flats in our previous bike tours as we had while bicycle touring in Mexico. They are mostly caused by the ridiculous amount of fine wires left by shredded car and truck tires along the side of the road.
Routing/ Mapping apps: Although it is easy cycling along the tollroads. The road noise and lack of interactions with locals can get old, so it is always nice to find other options for routing. We like to use a mix of offline google maps, maps.me and mapout.
Offline translating app. Since our Spanish-language-skills are quite mediocre, we have downloaded a free offline translating app to help communicate. We used “Language translator” most of the time.
Water-filter and/or steri-pen, if you do not like to buy water it is recommended to purify water. We were usually told that tapwater is not safe to drink.
Our Bicycle touring Route through Mexico
Most people might not realize it, but Mexico is huge. And the diversity of ecosystems ranges from dry desert, to humid jungles, to high mountains and deep canyons and has something to offer for everybody.
Since we cycled down the Pacific Coast Highway, we decided to take the more popular cycling route down the Baja peninsula to La Paz and cross over to Mazatlan with the ferry.
Instead of just heading down the coast on the mainland, we decided to cycle across mainland Mexico. We climb up into the central highlands to see some pueblos magicos and pyramids. Afterwards we head down into the jungle toward Palenque and then continue into Guatemala.
This is our bicycle touring route through Mexico. The various points are places where we stayed. Clicking on the pointers will take you to the blog entrees and videos of that region.
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Despise having really good tires, The Schwalbe Marathon Mondials, we still ended up with a ridiculous amount of flats. These are our favorite and easy to use patches, we usually carry a few packs of these.