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How To Hail A Ride In Mexico
It's (almost) as easy as you'd think
As I noted in my article about the fabulous long-distance buses in Mexico, many travelers like to rent cars to get them from place to place while traveling. I don't know what it is that's so appealing about car rentals being so popular for getting around. Is it overpaying for insurance? Calling yourself out as a tourist on the road in your rental car? Constantly getting lost? Driving around in circles trying to find parking? The prospect of going to jail (yes, jail 1) if you are involved in an injury accident? OK, those do all sound appealing. But, there are simpler and more practical and economical ways to get around town, ways that may seem weird and unfamiliar to those of us brought up in a world where everyone has their own car at their disposal 24 hours a day.
If you're from New York, perhaps you’re familiar with these cars that drive all around hoping for you to wave at them to stop and give you a ride. Seriously though, in U.S. cities, taxis are increasingly becoming a rare phenomena. Smartphone-based ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft are rapidly displacing the market for taxis. And getting a ride from a 3rd party at all is already a niche experience in U.S. and Canadian markets: the U.S. and Canada rank 6th and 8th, respectively, in worldwide motor vehicles per capita. The U.S. has 890 motor vehicles per 1,000 people; Canada has 790. Most people have their own wheels sitting in the garage or at the curb, waiting to be driven to the grocery store.
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Mexico, on the other hand, ranks 60th in motor vehicles per capita, with 391 vehicles per 1,000 people. This makes 3rd party rides much more of a necessity in Mexico than either of its neighbors to the north. Which helps explain why taxis are still so prevalent in Mexico, even in smaller towns. Most of the time, taxis are easy to find in most places you're likely to visit in Mexico. Most of the time. In very touristy areas, during some peak periods, you may find taxis scarce. When it is raining, taxis are similarly scarce (this is true, of course, anywhere in the world where taxis roam). But for most cases, most of the time, you can find a cab.
In most cities and towns in Mexico, taxis are not metered. This means that you need to settle on a price before your ride - do this, in fact, before even getting in the car. This will avoid any surprises once you get to your destination. In most towns and cities in Mexico, it is fine to wave down a taxi on the street (Mexico City is a bit different, we'll get to that in a bit). But if you feel at all uncomfortable about doing this, find a taxi stand - called a sitio - where you can be reasonably certain that you'll get a legitimate taxi.
Except in very touristy areas, do not expect to find taxi drivers who speak English. In most places in Mexico, you will need to be comfortable enough with Spanish to communicate your destination and to request and understand a price. In larger towns and cities, don't be surprised if your driver doesn't know where your destination is, or how to get to it. If you do know how to get there, use your Spanish to help your driver navigate there. If you don't know how to get there, or don't know enough Spanish to communicate how to get there, the driver will often call someone and ask for directions, or use Google maps to find it (assuming Google maps knows how to get there, not always a safe assumption).
You will need to have pesos on hand to pay for your ride - few taxis take credit cards; best to just assume that credit cards are not an option. As for how many pesos, taxis are relatively inexpensive in Mexico. Just be aware that in touristy areas, you will of course pay a lot more for taxis than in non-touristy areas; you will pay a lot more for a taxi in Puerto Vallarta than you will in, say, Mexico City or Guanajuato. Still, they are a fraction of the cost of taxis in the U.S. and Canada. You will also need exact or nearly exact change. A lot of taxi drivers will not have (or will claim not to have) change, especially change to break a larger bill like a 500 peso note.
A warning about torn currency
When performing a cash transaction in Mexico, keep in mind that when you hand someone a peso bill with a tear in it, that torn bill will be treated like you just handed the recipient a live tarantula. Torn currency is almost universally rejected - the merchant will hand it back to you saying that it is torn, and patiently wait for you to rectify the situation by finding an intact peso to replace it. So, not only will you need exact (or near) change, you will need it to not be torn.
Note that torn currency is not worthless. Banks will trade your torn currency for intact notes. So when you hand someone (other than a bank teller) torn currency and they do not accept it, keep in mind that what you are trying to hand them is yet another task that they have to add to their day: namely, going to the bank to exchange their broken money. People don't want another task. Avoid using torn currency.
Taxis in Mexico City
Due to a rash of taxi-related crimes in Mexico City in the mid-2000s, taxis in Mexico City developed a pretty bad reputation. The government cracked down hard on taxi crime, but the perception persists, and taxi crime isn't completely eradicated. It does exist, so you will want to take some extra precautions in Mexico's capital. Some suggestions include:
Prefer finding cabs in sitios rather than flagging them down in the street - especially at night. Alternatively, call a radio cab, or use Uber to request a cab (in addition to Uber rides, the Uber app can also summon you a cab in Mexico City).
Look for the distinctive license plates which can be found on taxis licensed after 2008: a white plate, beginning with a capital letter and followed by 5 numbers.
If you are not familiar with how to get to your destination, have it available on a map on your phone. Ensure that you are heading there during your trip.
Know enough Spanish to communicate with your driver, who will be very unlikely to speak English.
Watch out for scams. Check the state of the pesos you are giving the driver. Make sure that you note the denominations and that they are not torn. Verbally tell the driver what you are giving him, and that what you are giving him is intact. Some driver scams involve trying to hand you back a torn note, claiming that it is the one you just gave him. And you'll exchange it and then realize later it is counterfeit.
Ride-hailing apps may not yet be as ubiquitous in Mexico as they are in the U.S. and Canada, but in larger markets and touristy areas, app rides are pretty prevalent. You will find that there are some differences, in that you have a different choice of app ride platforms to choose from than you are probably used to. The most popular in Mexico are Uber, DiDi, and inDrive. Each of them has an app for iOS and Android, and you can download them from the App Stores in your home country. I will cover them in order, leaving my favorite for last 🙂.
If you do use a ride-hailing app, make sure that you practice the same safety protocols you would employ anywhere you take them: check that the driver and car that the app says you'll get matches with the driver and car that arrives to pick you up.
And, of course, there is a special note about Mexico City 2. Of course.
If you’re familiar and comfortable with Uber, you'll be glad to know that you can find them in many cities in Mexico. Uber is a good option because it is statistically pretty safe, and there is no cash transaction involved. You can find a list of cities that Uber operates in around the world here. Although it is available in many Mexican cities, there are often not enough Uber drivers around to keep up with demand, especially in smaller markets. So you'll need to be patient, or have a back up plan. To wit:
You may not have heard of the ride-hailing app DiDi, because it does not operate in the U.S. or Canada. But it is popular in Mexico, and in some areas it is more likely that you will find a DiDi driver than an Uber driver. One of the notable differences between DiDi and Uber is that DiDi allows you to pay in cash, as well as adding a payment option such as a credit card if you prefer cashless rides.
While inDrive is huge in many parts of the world, it is less known in the U.S. and Canada, where it is only available in a very small number of markets. Nevertheless, inDrive is the fastest growing of any ride-hailing platforms. inDrive's ride-hailing mechanism is quite different from that of DiDi and Uber: with inDrive, you bid for a ride. Basically, you specify your point of pickup and your destination, and then you state how much you are willing to pay for that trip. If you bid a high price, you are likely to get a response from a driver immediately. If you bid a low price, it may take a while to get a response. Or you may never get one. If you aren't getting a response, you can increase your bid price.
More than one driver can accept your bid price. Selecting which driver you want is your choice. inDrive gives the passenger and the driver a lot more control. And inDrive takes a considerably smaller percentage of the fare than either DiDi or Uber: inDrive takes about 7% to 9%; DiDi takes 20% and Uber takes a little over 25%. As I touched on briefly in my Tulum Times article about how to be a responsible tourist here, inDrive is the best option (except in Mexico City, see below) because it gives the driver not only more control, but a bigger share of the ride's cost. It's more fun too (sure, you can make an argument that I have a low bar for fun).
The one drawback to inDrive is that you will likely need to pay your driver directly, in cash. Although inDrive in Mexico offers a cashless option, it is through Banco de México's CoDi payments platform, which, unless you live in Mexico, you probably don't have.
Mexico City (again)
One final note on ride hailing in Mexico City: prefer Uber and DiDi over taxis and inDrive. Uber and DiDi are just a lot safer, and the risk of you being scammed decreases significantly since you don't have to deal with a cash transaction.
Other Local Transportation
I feel like I should at least mention that local buses and colectivos are even more economical options for getting around town. But there is a steeper learning curve with these: Where are the stops? What bus do you get on to get where you are going? Where do you transfer? What is the fare? The answers to all of these questions are specific to an individual city or town. If you are going to be in Mexico for a while, start asking around about bus stops and how to figure out which bus is going where. You'll get the hang of it soon enough, it is pretty easy. Buses are a great alternative to private rides, and I encourage you to familiarize yourself with the bus system in the places you'll be visiting or living.
One thing that is pretty universal about buses in Mexico: the first few rows of seats are reserved for the elderly and pregnant people. If the bus is full, it is basic courtesy to give up your seat to an elderly or a pregnant person (standing room only is very common on buses in Mexico).
OK, well - I hope this helps you get where you're going. And if you know someone else who will be traveling to Mexico, show them what a great friend you are by sharing this article with them. They'll appreciate it! Or maybe they'll ignore it. Either way, it’s free!
In Mexico, you may be held by local police if you are in an accident that results in injury to another party, and you may remain in custody until the police identify who was at fault in the accident and compensation arrangements are made. ↩︎
I certainly don't intend to make it sound like Mexico City is some dystopian hellscape, and that you should scratch it off your list of places to visit or get your head examined. Mexico City is wonderful. It's amazing. It's enormous. And just like any big city, it comes with its own special safety considerations. Just like the safety considerations for New York are different from those of Madison, Wisconsin. ↩︎
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