Well, legally speaking that’s true. If you get in a car accident while driving in Mexico, without Mexican car insurance, you’re supposed to go to jail until the claim is settled or you can show enough funding to cover the total cost of the accident. And no, your U.S. car insurance or traveler’s insurance through your credit card isn’t supposed to work either. Luckily it’s Mexico and paying cash to the police at the scene is just as good as Mexican insurance.
Driving in Mexico
In early 2016, Shay, Jeremy, and I planned a climbing trip to El Potrero Chico just outside the village of Hidalgo in Nuevo Leon. The cheapest and most flexible way to get there is by driving.
We did our research and found 3 things you need to do when you drive into Mexico:
- Get your visa at immigration
- Register your car so you’re legal to drive (You get a reflective sticker to put on your windshield, and it’s easy to see. If you don’t get it, you’re just asking to be harassed.)
- Buy Mexican car insurance
After that, obey all laws, adapt to local driving habits, stay on toll roads as much as possible, and try to only drive during the day. If you go outside those suggestions, your chances of being harassed by la policia or worse, drug cartels, increase greatly.
Why we skipped Mexican Insurance
First, we didn’t really know where to find it. It wasn’t in the same government building as the visa and registration. It’s not like we were real familiar with Nuevo Laredo, and that’s not a place you want to get caught turning down the wrong street.
Second, other people waiting in line said they cross the border all the time and never get it. They heard stories that, one time, a friend of a friend got into an accident without it and everything was ok.
Third, it’s pretty expensive. It’s based on the year, make, and model of your vehicle, and as far as we could tell, it would have cost somewhere around $300 or more. Non-refundable.
We were only going to be there 14 days and didn’t plan driving any more than absolutely required. We thought, “Naaahhhhh, we’re not gonna get into any accidents. Pass.”
I should have gone to Mexican jail
If you haven’t guessed by now, we got into a car accident without insurance, and I was driving.
I was in a left turn only lane about two streets too soon. Since no one was behind me, I decided I could just re-merge with the flowing traffic when it was all clear. I looked in the rearview mirror and picked my spot.
It was a black truck, and as soon as it passed me, I could get into the other lane.
I didn’t bother to check my mirrors or blind spot again because the space was bigly when I checked the first time. Just as I accelerated and began to merge…
The front bumper got ripped off, plastic was shattered all over the road, and my face was immediately flush because I knew I was going to jail.
I followed the double-axle truck up to a bus lane and we both pulled over, though I was outwardly hoping he’d think it was his fault and just keep driving like a hit and run. No luck.
When I looked back, there were 4 lanes of traffic brought to a dead stop. I didn’t think my heart could possibly sink further without falling out my ass. — “Mexican jail.”
Jeremy jumped out of the car before it was fully parked. Pretty sure. Then he sprinted back to the spot of the accident and picked up all the big pieces. Traffic began to flow again.
As Jeremy was doing that, the other driver got out of his truck and looked over his rig. I was standing there near death (figuratively), and he said, “No hay problema. No hay problema.” — “Maybe I’m not going to jail.”
GREAT! GO! GET IN YOUR TRUCK AND GO! LEAVE BEFORE THE POLICE GET HERE!!!!
That’s what I wanted to say.
But my Español is 15 years old, and I have all I can do just to survive the market. We couldn’t communicate very well, and the police are surprisingly responsive in Mexico. — “Fuck me, I am way too pretty Mexican jail.”
When the police showed up, Jeremy just got back from picking up the pieces.
The police were surprisingly nice. They didn’t speak a bit of English, but they weren’t rude or aggressive or even use the words gringos or putos. Jeremy is fluent in Spanish and did all the negotiations.
He ended up getting a ride in the police car to go to an ATM. Meanwhile, Shay and I tried to speak, write, and draw pictures about rock climbing in El Potrero Chico with the remaining police. One of them even lived in Waco, TX about the same time I was living there. Small world, eh? — “So where are we at with me going to Mexican jail??”
When Jeremy got back, we paid the other driver $75 for a small cut in the sidewall of his tire and 6 police a total of $400. I don’t know why we needed 6 police. I’m pretty sure they were calling in their friends just so they could get a cut of the action too.
Once the payments were complete, they became even friendlier. If you can imagine, one of them had a cousin that works in a shop. They gave him a call and showed up 15 minutes. While we were waiting, the police invited us to drink Mezcal and party with them later that night. Despite saying no, we still exchanged phone numbers “in case we changed our minds.”
I was definitely not going to Mexican jail.
Getting your car fixed in Mexico
Now that I was no longer stressed out of my fucking mind about going to jail, the 2nd round of guilt and anxiety hit me.
“I just ruined the entire 2nd half of our climbing trip. There is no way they’ll be able to get this into a shop, order parts, and get it fixed in a week. We’re stuck here in Monterrey with no way of getting back to Hidalgo and Potrero Chico, AND we’re going to have to get a hotel room for the whole time.” — Or so I thought. I should have known better. Afterall, this is Mexico and Mexicans are some of the best problem solvers I have ever met in my life.
The bumper was actually all in one piece. Apparently it was only held on by zip ties so when the truck ripped it off, there was no resistance, and it just slid along the road. Somehow, one of the headlights wasn’t broken and just needed some new wires. For the other one, they had a Subaru headlight laying around that just so happened to fit her car. And instead of buying something new, as is standard practice in the U.S., I saw them heating up the metal bracket with a torch and then pounding it back into shape.
The mechanic said they could have everything fixed and back to normal in just 3 hours. THREE HOURS!! (They even fixed the hood that wasn’t latching before the accident. Technically, the car was in better shape after the accident than before.)
Parts and labor would have easily cost about $700 in the U.S. and taken a full two weeks to complete. In Mexico? Just 3 hours and $175.
After the ordeal
We promptly went out for drinks once we got to our hotel for the night in Monterrey. Surprisingly, there was a lot of laughter.
Firstly that we got away with it and no one went to Mexican jail. Obviously me because I was the driver. But maybe Shay since it’s her car and registered in Mexico under her name. And possibly Jeremy since his passport was expired and didn’t bother getting a visa when we entered the country.
What a bunch of criminals.
“If you and Jeremy would have gone to jail, I would have just told them to bring me in too because I can’t speak one word of Spanish, and I’d be a stranded white girl on the streets of Monterrey.” – Shay, on the idea of us going to jail. [paraphrased]
Secondly, because it was all over and taken care of in just 4 hours from the time the accident occurred and only cost about $600 total.
Thirdly, because the police invited us to drink with them in their homes.
Lastly, because we were all safe. I really have to try hard to put it out of my mind that this was all my fault, and if I had pulled out just a split second sooner, it wouldn’t be the bumper the truck hit, it would have been a T-bone and who knows what would have happened to Shay sitting in the passenger seat. It’s a scary, devastating thought.
After we dropped Shay off at the airport the next morning, Jeremy drove us back to Hidalgo and Potrero Chico. Word of our exploits traveled fast throughout the campgrounds, and everyone wanted to know what happened.
Most people thought we were lucky, but some of the grizzlier climbers that climb there annually and speak fluent Spanish said we shouldn’t have paid more than $50 per person, total.
Listen, I get it. Maybe the gringos got screwed. But it’s a way better screwing than I would have got in a Mexican jail.