Traveling México's Cuotas
(Toll Roads)
Last UpDate 23 August 2012

The Mexican cuotas (toll roads) are similar to the interstate system in the USA. The proper name is autopista, but cuota is what the road signs usually say..  The newer ones are divided four-lanes; sometimes, the older ones and mountain roads are undivided 2-lanes. All are limited access highways, usually in good condition and well maintained.

Almost all are privately operated via franchises from the government, and they are expensive.  This high cost results in limited traffic with few buses and trucks on most routes.  I think this alone make them worth the price. 

Toll prices  are listed in pesos on signs at each toll booth.  Some near the USA border will accept dollars at a poor exchange rate. Credit and debit cards (Visa and MC) are accepted at some booths, but certainly not all.  It's best to plan to use pesos. 

Mercifully, the cuotas bypass smaller towns while a free highway (libre) will pass through all of them -- a very slow process with lots of topes (speed bumps) and, sometimes, wandering livestock.

Large cities are a different story.  Almost without exception, the cuotas do not pass through nor around large cities.  They will stop short of the city, dump you onto the free highway through the city, and then reappear on the other side.  This is often a confusing damn nuisance.

The system is not complete throughout the country, and some sections may be interspersed with the free highway which will often run more or less parallel to the cuota. There are some cuotas that do not have a companion libre.  The most detailed maps of cuotas and libres can be found here in these PDF route maps. They are a bit confusing at first, but they contain a lot of information.  Unfortunately not all routes are included.  Downloads are very slow.

This website (itis very slow) will allow you to calculate toll charges and expected travel time between cities served by the cuotas. Click on English Version if you wish.  My limited experience is that the listed travel times are a bit underestimated.  The listed fees are not always up to date.

Getting past México City is a major hassle.  Recently there has been partial relief with the opening of a new bypass highway, Arco Norte,  skirting the north-eastern side of the area.  A Google map and details are here.

Most toll plazas will have a junk food shop and rest rooms.  Gas stations are rare on cuotas, so gas up before you start, or plan to exit at a large town to get gas.  Sometimes gas stations can be found just outside the toll plaza, but sometimes one may be too far away.

IAVE (Identificación Automática Vehicular Electrónico) is the system for paying tolls automatically as you drive through electronic toll booths.  If you travel the toll roads often, this can be a real time saver. 

The IAVE stickers can be bought at a toll booth and some banks.  The cost is $300 pesos, but the account comes with a $300 peso credit, so it's actually free.  You can deposit money in your account at some banks and several retail stores (details on the website).  If you have a Mexican credit card, tolls can be charged to your credit card.  When you buy the sticker you receive a bar code as well as an account number, either of which can be used for the recharging deposit, usually with a $12 peso fee..

You affix the sticker to the windshield just below the mirror, and it is read automatically as you approach the gate, the light turns green and the gate goes up, and you drive on.

You can register on the IAVE website with the card number, and you’ll receive a password, so you can check your balance and see all the charges to the account.  It is  a good idea to check after each trip because errors can occur.

Safety: Are the cuotas safer than the libres?  Probably.  There is far less traffic.  The highway is almost always in very good shape.  It's fenced, so there are no farm animals wandering in your path.  The controlled access makes them less attractive to banditos.

There are only occasional solar-powered emergency call boxes on some routes.  If you break down in the middle of nowhere, wait for  the Green Angels (Los Angeles Verdes). The Green Angels are government paid bilingual crews that patrol the cuotas throughout México every day (but not at night) in green trucks, carrying tools, spare parts and gasoline, looking for motorists in trouble. Los Angeles Verdes will provide mechanical assistance, first aid, basic supplies, gas, and towing. The services they provide are free, but there will be a charge for repair parts or fuel. Even though the services are free, tipping is appreciated.

Your toll fee includes limited insurance while you are driving on the cuota.  The coverage will be listed in the fine print on the back of the toll receipt.  The policy offers limited medical coverage and other benefits.  The most commonly used benefit seems to be for road damage.  If a defect in the roadway damages your car (such as windshield cracks from loose gravel, pot hole damage, etc), the insurance will take care of it.  If your car damages the roadway, in an accident for example, you are covered for the repairs to the roadway.  (It is customary in México to charge the at-fault driver with the cost of repairing any damage to the road.  This applies to all highways.)  If you have a minor claim, you can report to the authorities at the next toll plaza and present your toll receipt from the previous booth -- don't toss the receipts.  You cannot file a claim later or without the receipt. If you have a major accident or your car is disabled, move to a safe place, if possible, and stay with the car until a CAPUFE claims adjustor arrives to inspect the damage and write a report.

Details of the insurance is here in Spanish.

Here is an interesting out-of-gas story I gleaned from the internet  

On my way to Lakeside I was low on fuel. I came to a toll booth and asked the attendant (they are almost always pleasant and helpful) how far it was to the nearest gas station. It was too far -- I never would have made it. I told her I couldn't. She said no problem and told me to pull into a driveway. She called another employee who brought a large container of gas and poured it into my tank (apparently I wasn't the first time someone miscalculated their fuel needs). I paid for the gas of course.   It saved me a huge problem. Had I not asked and just hoped I would come upon a gas station, there's no telling how long I could have stayed stranded and, perhaps, in harm's way. I hope this experience will help others.

Here are two experiences shared by friends who had problems on a cuota.  One driver waited by his car, the other drove on to the next toll booth.

Out there in the middle of nowhere, we ran over a metal strip at about 110KPH and that blew our left front tire and bounced up an did additional damage to the undercarriage of our car. We hobbled onto a nearby dirt strip.  Unsure of the extent of the damage to the car but certain that that expensive tire had been totally destroyed and was history.   Recently someone had stolen everything in the car including the jack so we had no way to change the tire and were stuck.

Enter CAPUFE (Caminos y Puentes Federales de Ingresos y Servicios Conexos) and I am telling you folks about this adventure since, if you travel Mexico on Federal toll roads, these are the people who will save not only your butt but a substantial amount of your pesos since it is a fact, as advertised, that the operators of each toll road carry insurance to cover problems you may experience as a result of damage to your vehicle caused by problems with the roadway- meaning any kind of problem from potholes to, in our case, metal objects in the road that cause damage upon impact with your car.

Now, CAPUFE will handle everything but you need to know some ground rules and these are those the CAPUFE representatives told me were nationally consistent but I will only warrant that these rules apply upon toll roads in Veracruz State because that is where we happened to be at that hour.

We were standing there in the Veracruz hellish heat and humidity hoping the Green Angels would come along, but in the entire four hours we waited there they never drove by even once. However, the CAPUFE truck that was out there to pick up the metal that had disabled our car did pass by and stopped to help us. They were most gracious and admitted to liability as they had been apprised of the dangerous metal strip in the roadway and had even taken pictures of that object.

Here is what we learned having had that experience:

* The toll road operators do indeed carry insurance to cover problems you may encounter as a result of road hazards on their segments of the toll highways. However, the representatives of CAPUFE may not admit that unless you assert that the accident was their responsibility. Let them know courteously that you know of your rights and be firm but polite in that assertion. After all, you are out in the swamps and at their mercy. You want them to find you an amenable and pleasant person but not a rollover.

* Always carry a camera so you can document your accident and its reasons.

* Do not leave the scene of the accident if it is not too dangerous there, and do not go on to the next casita de cobra or return to the last one if you can help it. Wait there for the insurance adjuster if at all possible as that adjuster will carefully document the incident, take a number of photographs and complete a written report which you must the sign and upon which you must recount the event. In our case, the adjuster had to come all the way from Coatzacoalcos which, if you know that area, is quite a drive from the area of the incident. We were tempted several times to just drive on to the next casita which turned out to be far away indeed but we stayed even though our plans to get from San Cristóbal to Puebla that day were thwarted. Now, we can tell you that our patience probably saved us $10,000 Pesos or more so waiting for the adjuster is the best alternative if you can do so. I would not wait out on that lonely autopista at night, however, if I were you. You'd be a sitting duck on that dark and deserted autopista at night so it ain´t worth the risk and you could probably prevail in a claim anyway if drove to the next casita and presented your case there.

* We were told that repairs and tire replacement could only be performed by approved tallers and that, should we wish to return to our destination of Jalisco, there were three places authorized to perform that work; two in Guadalajara and one in Ciudad Guzman. No way they would pay if we chose to choose our own taller and the nearest one to the accident scene was a backtrack to Coatzaoalcos where we might be stuck for a week or so. No thanks; so we drove back to Lake Chapala from there without a spare or a jack, but we made it.

It was shortly before Christmas when my partner and I were driving on the cuota between Morelia and Guadalajara. Our plan was to exit at Ocotlán and continue toward the Chapala/Guadalajara highway to meet a friend for comida and return to Morelia after our pre-Christmas get-together.

After we paid the toll at Ecuandureo, the cuota roadway deteriorated into ruts, potholes, and other road hazards. About 10 kilometers east of the Ocotlán exit, our car (a Mini Cooper) became very difficult to steer. We have special run-flat tires on the Mini, so we slowed down and continued driving till we could pull off at the Ocotlán toll booth. Yep, the tire was flat--and not just flat, but sliced through the sidewall at the edge of the tread. We knew that this would not be a quick repair, and would certainly not be inexpensive.

I remembered that the cuota system guaranties that a car is insured against road hazards on the toll roads. The back of the toll receipt very clearly says: get off the road at the nearest toll booth and report the damage. By a fluke of good luck, there we were--at the nearest toll booth. I reported the damage to a security man at the toll booth office; he immediately came to see the tire. My partner and I waited while he called the cuota's insurance adjuster.

The adjuster came within 20 minutes, called a flatbed tow truck, completed all the insurance paperwork, and assured us that the cuota would pay for everything because the road conditions were indeed deplorable. Our Mini was lifted onto the tow truck, we were ensconced in the truck's double cab, and off we went to a very well-appointed body and repair shop.

Because the tire is very unusual, none was available in Guadalajara, Morelia, or Mexico City. The repair shop promised to order a tire for us the minute they could locate one, but Christmas and the New Year holidays were imminent and we knew it wouldn't be soon. The repair shop drove us to the Ocotlán bus station, where we got on a bus for Morelia.

The Mini stayed in the Ocotlán repair shop under lock and key for two weeks. This Monday, the tire was shipped from the manufacturer to the BMW dealership in Guadalajara and from Guadalajara to the repair shop in Ocotlán.

The shop sent word that the car was ready, so Judy and I bought bus tickets to go from Morelia to Guadalajara. From Guadalajara, we would have had to take a 2nd class bus over an hour retracig our path back from Guadalajara to Ocotlán, and then a taxi from the bus station to the repair shop. Shortly before we got to the Ocotlán toll booth on the way to Guadalajara (still more than an hour to the west of us), the light bulb went on in my brain. "Let's ask the bus driver to let us off at the Ocotlán toll booth, we'll call the repair shop and get them to send a cab for us!" I talked the driver into slowing down enough to let us hop off at the toll booth (he originally said nobody gets off till we get to Guadalajara! but we prevailed)  We hopped off and called the repair shop  They sent their own car for us. Having that brilliant idea saved us about three hours of travel time, which we got to spend with friends over at Lake Chapala. It tickled Judy and me a lot that we two old ladies hopped off the bus at the toll booth out in the middle of nowhere!

The price of that single tire was over $4,000 pesos. The cost of the tow truck was another $350 pesos. What did we pay? Zero. The cuota insurance worked just as promised.

Moral of the story: hang onto your toll receipts until you are safely at your destination. In all these years of saving toll receipts, this was the first time I've ever had reason to use one. Worth it? You bet.

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