Mexican auto hotels might have an unsavory, pay-by-the-hour reputation, but some of them are downright luxurious, offering upscale amenities like in-room mini pools and open skylights.
Whitney Allen was en route from San Diego to her condo in Akumal, Mexico, when her husband suggested they spend the night in an auto hotel. Often used by road trippers making their way around Mexico, auto hotels feature a single-vehicle garage connected to a room via a door. Guests pay in advance for the block of time they wish to stay (usually priced for four-, eight-, or twelve-hour options), pull their vehicle into the garage, and then enter their room through the connecting door.
As they drove to the Hotel La Marina in Tampico, Allen steeled herself for what she assumed would be bare-bones accommodations; she just hoped their room would be clean. But when they pulled up to the hotel, "it was glorious," she says. "Like a really posh resort.” The room, she says, was “gleaming” and double the size of a standard hotel room.
But when Allen turned on the television, hoping to catch up on the news, she realized that something was different about Hotel La Marina. The first channel she turned on: porn. The next channel: porn. Every single channel available was showing porn. Another strange amenity: the pack of condoms in the bathroom, nestled in a basket of products alongside the body lotion and shampoo.
As it turns out, Mexican auto hotels don’t only cater to long-distance truckers and pet-laden gringos looking for a place to sleep. In fact most of the people staying at auto hotels aren’t there to sleep at all: they’re there to have sex. In a country in which many generations live together under one roof, auto hotels give amorous adults privacy (not to mention props that range from stripper poles to sex chairs). Often located on the outskirts of towns, auto hotels have long catered to a specific crowd, but the ones in Mexico are gaining best-kept-secret status among travelers willing to overlook their no-tell reputation in exchange for a clean, safe place to lay their heads and secure parking for their vehicles.
"We travel with everything in the back of our car," says Deirdre Mize, an American who has been living in Mexico for three years and who blogs at AWOL Americans with her husband, Jason. "It's impractical to unpack it every night when we check into a hotel room." She and her husband used to take whatever they could out of the car and cross their fingers that the rest of their stuff would still be there when they returned the next morning. But other people they met on the road kept describing auto hotels, says Mize, as "the most cost-effective, safest, and most convenient way to go."
The experience of staying in an auto hotel, however, is definitely different from most hotel visits. “We pulled into the garage, and the guy pulled the garage door closed behind us,” Allen says, describing the check-in procedure at Hotel La Marina. There was a connecting door leading from the garage to their room, and when she opened it and saw the oversized room, which included a separate sitting area and beautiful bathroom, she says, “I was blown away."
One Trip Advisor reviewer from Spain commented that the Auto Hotel Villa Dorada in Durango was “real luxury for very little money,” and “very discreet.” Travelers from Moscow who stayed at Auto Hotel Paraiso Inn noted on Trip Advisor that, though the hotel is surrounded by macaws and howler monkeys, you can’t see them from your room as there are no windows. There is, however, a Kama Sutra chair.
"You have to have a sense of humor," says Mize.
Although some auto hotels’ rooms are closer to get-the-job-done functional than mind-blowingly fabulous, the nicer auto hotels offer lap pools and Jacuzzis as well as mirrors on the ceiling and sex swings. Room service menus can include Viagra, lube, or condoms listed alongside tacos and cervezas.
Sherwood Anders, another expat living in Akumal who often stays at auto hotels when she’s on the road in Mexico, has a housekeeper who blushed when she spotted a monogrammed auto-hotel towel that Anders had inadvertently swiped. Turns out, says Anders, her housekeeper goes there with her husband every Saturday night because they have three adult children and two grandchildren who live with them.
Indeed, privacy is the point. "They don't even write down your name," says Anders of the staff at most auto hotels. "Everything's in cash." Except for when you arrive, "you don't see their faces and they don't see yours." Even if you order room service, she explains, you wait for a knock and then rely on a "lazy Susan" in the wall to receive your order and pay for it. Allen echoed this description, adding that the hotel staff members who checked her in didn’t even make eye contact.
This emphasis on discretion is one of the reasons that auto hotels are often used as a rendezvous spot for couples having an affair. Payments in cash, a garage to hide your car, room-service Viagra: these sorts of amenities seem almost specifically designed for cheating.
Not surprisingly, nobody is too sure who owns most auto hotels. Facebook pages for a few read like neon "girls, girls, girls" signs outside a strip club. Auto Hotel Las Palmas, where Mize stayed with her husband, displays a grainy photo and advertises "Room with swing!!! $350 [pesos] for 8 hours." They did not respond to requests for an interview.
But the travelers who stay at Mexican auto hotels don’t seem too bothered by the shadowy ownership. "We felt more safe and secure at an auto hotel than we did at some other hotels," says Mize.
"Have I ever felt there's stuff going on that might not be so legal? Absolutely," says Anders. "But I've never felt afraid in one."
In fact, travelers cite the security at auto hotels as part of its appeal. Kevin McKee, an American ex-pat who frequently travels with a packed vehicle, says that auto hotels offer a level of safety that most others in the country lack. "It's kind of like a fortress," he says of the often-gated hotels. "If you haven't paid to come in, you're not coming in."
Cost is another key attraction. There seems to be little variance in the rates, with both luxury and less-refined accommodations going for roughly $12 to $20 a night, "which is nothing compared to a hotel," says Bethany Jakubik, a vet tech who spent a year in Mexico with her husband and three dogs. Even the food is generally cheap and "remarkably good," says Sherwood Anders.
Pet lovers have a particular affinity for auto hotels, adds Jakubik, because "98 percent of them allow pets" in a country of hotels that often have no-pet policies.
Of course not every auto hotel is going to have an in-room lap pool and open-air skylight. Some of the smaller ones offer only a shower curtain as a garage door and the sheets, though usually clean, are well-worn. "I think you can judge what you're going to get by the signs," says Whitney Allen. Don't be afraid, she says, to ask to see a room.
The nicer ones, explains Sherwood Anders, are well worth the extra investigative effort. The auto hotel she stayed at, Hotel Auto Oasis in Macuspana, Mexico, is “beautifully landscaped” and “tastefully decorated,” she says. “I’d take my mom there!”
Driving in Mexico and in need of a little, shall we say, sleep?
These are a few of the auto hotels that our sources recommend. Most don’t take reservations; just pull in, pick your room and block of time, and, uh, sweet dreams. Looking for specific recommendations? Read on:
Auto Hotel Las Palmas
Where: Villahermosa, Mexico
Accolades: “Incredibly clean [with] separate parking area from the room—an actual garage with a solid door, which isn’t always the case.”–Deidre Mize
Extras: Ask for the “room with swing.”
Cost: About $20 for 8 hours
Hotel Auto Oasis
Where: Macuspana, Mexico
Accolades: “Bathrooms are very modern and the food is good.” –Sherwood Anders
Extras: Lube is available on the menu, along with three porn channels and National Geographic in Spanish. Hotel-branded condoms are provided.
Cost: About $23 for 12 hours
Where: Playa del Carmen, Mexico Accolades: “New and modern…with the pool in the living area and a separate bedroom with air conditioning.” The rooms that have pools also have a private outdoor space with a whirlpool. –Whitney Allen
Extras: Rooms come with stripper poles. Viagra is on the menu.
Cost: About $46 for 8 hours
Leslie Garrett is an award-winning journalist and author of more than a dozen books. Follow her on Twitter.