Mexican Stop Sign: Why Alto Means Stop in Mexico and other useful road signs

The Mexican stop sign can be difficult to identify, besides the fact that it’s usually located at the end of a road, which makes it a bit obvious. However, why does it say “Alto”? What does that mean? Stay with me and we’ll solve the mystery.

I have been living in Mexico for the past 13 years and I haven’t counted the ways I read Alto and asked myself “Why”??

As curious as I am I have of course researched and now I am sharing my findings with you.

Alto - Mexican Stop Sign

Why do stop signs in Mexico say “Alto”?

“To Stop” in Spanish is actually “Parar” so if it was the correct translation it would be “Pare” (Imperative of “Parar”).

However the word ALTO, in Mexico and in many other Latin American county have come into use forever. According to this authoritative site, it appears that it comes from the German “Halt”.

More precisely they say:

“According to the Spanish Royal Academy’s dictionary, the second reference to alto with “stop” as its meaning is commonly found on road signs in Central America, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, and it comes from the German halt. The German verb halten means to stop. The dictionary provides a basic etymology of most words, but it does not go into extensive detail or give a date of first use.”

So I guess it’s a good enough explanation and an important one to keep in mind when we are driving in Mexico.

Alto vs Tope

As a foreigner learning a new language in a different country, it’s easy to get confused with names that we may have never heard before. But no worries. I’ve got you covered.

TOPE is another word that you will find very often in Mexico, it means speed bumps and it’s indicating just that, you are either on a speed bump or you are going to bump into one soon (pun intended).

Keep in mind that some speed bumps in Mexico are very high and the car insurance doesn’t usually include the car parts that are below the vehicle, meaning closer to the road.

Therefore make sure you slow down before driving over a TOPE, and remember the word 😜

To sum it up, if you find an ALTO sign, it means that you have to stop, if you find a TOPE sign, it means that there’s a speedbump, either right there by the sign or coming up!

Either way, make sure you pay attention.

Rental Car on the road
On the road in Baja California

How to say “Stop sign” in Mexican Spanish

Stop sign” is “Señal de Alto” in Mexican Spanish, pronounced “se·nyal“, sort of.

How to use a stop sign in Mexico

I have read on the web that Mexican stop signs are actually yield signs, but I strongly disagree.

If you see a stop sign, it’s not only a suggestion but a real stop mandate. You are free to just yield in a low-traffic road but you are committing an infringement of the law and you are offering the police a good excuse to stop you.

So if you see a stop sign, a red octagon that says ALTO, it means that you have to stop. There’s no way around it. 🙂 Please do so.

mexico roadsigns
More Mexican Road Signs

Other useful road signs translated from Mexican Spanish into English

  • Steep road – Carretera empinada
  • Hazardous Material – Materiales peligrosos
  • No trespassing – proibido el paso
  • Slippery road – carretera resbalosa
  • Road Work – Obra en la carretera
  • Pedestrian Crossing – Cruce peatonal
  • Animal Crossing – Cruce de Animales
  • Falling Rocks – Caida de Rocas
  • Give Way Sign – Ceda el Paso
Ceda El Paso
  • High voltage – Alto Voltaje (notice how Alto here is used to translate “high” as it normally does.)
  • U-Turn – Retorno

Children Crossing – niños cruzando

Where to Rent a Car in Mexico

Now that you have become a pro in reading the most important signs in Mexico you’ve got to get a car rental! And of course, I can help you with that too.

You can read my full article on renting a car in Mexico, or you can go straight to the platform I recommend, Discover cars.

In Discover cars you can compare prices among car rentals and pick the one with the best deals. Plus you can get the full coverage as well.

Just keep in mind that the best deal is not always the best price. So make sure you read all the details of the car rental company.

Discover Cars is only an aggregator, so it shows the different car rental options with their own rules and policies. Unfortunately, you’ve got to put in some work and go through the details to make sure you get the best deal for your needs and you avoid unpleasant surprises.

Also, keep in mind that the price displayed is usually with basic insurance. If you are anything like me and want peace of mind you may want to purchase the full insurance with zero deductible, in which case you need to do it with the car rental directly.

If you have a credit card that covers your car insurance, give them a call and work out the details. So you know what to expect.

Other than that, have fun!!

Ensenada drone view at sunset
Ensenada Baja California Sur – Costal Road

Mexican Stop Sign: Frequently Asked Questions

What does a stop sign say in Mexico?

A stop sign in Mexico say ALTO

Why do stop signs in Mexico say tall?

Because it comes from the German Halt, which actually means stop!

How do you say stop in Mexico?

Generally speaking you would say “Pare”, in the common language, but when it comes to road signs, the stop sign is “Alto”.

Do you have to stop at stop signs in Mexico?

Yes, although many people say that it’s just a yield sign, I would recommend you stop.

First of all, it’s safer, for you and for the others, and second, you avoid giving the police an excuse to stop you.

They can do that, and they will, if they are not looking at their phones!

Mexican Stop Sign: Final Thoughts

So now that you have it clear why the stop sign in Mexico says ALTO, which comes from the German HALT, you are one step further towards your magical road trip in Mexico!! Have fun!