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Tips for Traveling by Car into Mexico

After buying our new boat, a 1993 Gemini 3400 Catamaran, more than a month ago in San Carlos, Mexico this was the first chance my wife, Hilary, could see the boat for herself.

We drove over 2000 miles across country in our 1999 4×4 Suburban 6.5l diesel from St. Simons, Georgia to Tucson, Arizona where a large contingent of my fathers family lives (including my father) to regroup before heading south into Mexico to San Carlos. We expedited passports for our 22 month old daughter and my wife in Georgia and they arrived at my father’s house within a week. By that time, we were ready to get back on the road and head south the 6+ hours to San Carlos.

My Passport

US passport is required for Mexico

Traveling into Sonora, Mexico is pretty straightforward, but there are a few things you should know beforehand. The most important, You are now required to have an US passport book or passport card. Note the passport card is only valid for Mexico and Canada.

Mexico requires all vehicles to have a MEXICAN insurance policy for traveling into Mexico. If stopped without Mexican Insurance, they can impound the vehicle! The insurance is fairly cheap and easy to get either before entering Mexico or along the border. Previously, we obtained Mexican Auto Insurance in Tucson. This time we decided to stop on the way and get the insurance inside Mexico.

You can obtain short term or long term policies. They also offer full coverage and basic liability coverage as well. We requested a basic liability policy for 4 days and the cost was approximately $11 per day for a total of $44. I inquired about an annual policy and was surprised that the policy was only $175 for the whole year. If you travel frequently into Mexico, the annual policy makes sense if you plan on spending more than 16 days per year in Mexico.

Driving across the border is very quick and hassle free. The border guards typically won’t even stop you coming into Mexico with a US vehicle. Once past the border, I like to get out of Nogales pretty quickly before stopping. Much like any foreign city the roads can be crowded and the road signs confusing. Mexican drivers remind me of New York City Cab drivers, traffic signs are merely suggestions not absolutes. Watch carefully for signs and don’t be in a hurry and everything works out fine.

Many ‘touristas’ are a little shocked at the street vendors that come right up to your car and ‘invade’ your personal space at stop lights. Most vendors or simply trying to earn a living and move on after a wave of the hand and a “No, Gracias.”

Just south of Nogales is the government visa tourist office. All visitors are required to obtain a tourist visa before proceeding. Visas are free for up to 7 days and then there is a small charge for longer periods of time. A 30 day visas costs around $30 US. At this same location, there are several Mexican Insurance offices where you can obtain your auto insurance. The cost is the same and it is very convenient to get both at the same time. Your required to turn your tourist visa in when you leave. Make sure you give yourself an extra day or two on your visa just in case. If you overstay your visa, they fine you a nominal amount.

The state of Sonora in Mexico is a ‘hassle free’ area of the country for US citizens. As long as you stay in the state of Sonora, you are not required to apply for temporary importation permits for your vehicle.

Tucson, Az. to San Carlos, Mexico

Tucson, Az. to San Carlos, Mexico

Before you head deep into Mexico make sure your vehicle is in good operating condition. Unlike in the States, Mexico is not as densely populated outside of of larger cities and you don’t want to take a chance getting stranded on the side of the road.

Depending on the season you travel into Mexico, plan on an early start. In the summer from June through mid September the weather can be absolutely unbearable from noon until 5pm. Plenty of water is a necessity for your trip through Mexico.

Fuel can be obtained through one of the national ‘Pemex’ gas stations. An attendant will fill your vehicle and wash your windows. Diesel, and two grades of fuel are very common at most stations. Credit cards and ATM cards are accepted throughout the country but we’ve had varying results with the cards being approved. You can try to avert this problem by letting your card company or bank know you’ll be traveling Mexico. Cash is king, however, and it is important to carry enough cash in reserve in case your card will not work unless you want to have an uncomfortable discussion with the Policia.

US dollars are widely accepted in Mexico but don’t expect to get US change back. Depending on the exchange rate, it is likely you’ll get shortchanged a few pesos or centavos when using dollars. On this last trip the exchange rate was 12.85 pesos to the dollar. We saw exchanges at restaurants and grocery stores ranging from 12 pesos to the dollar to 13 pesos to the dollar.

On the trip south form Nogales to San Carlos on Highway 15 there are two tolls. The tolls are a few dollars each, but be prepared with pesos or dollars.

We like to plan bathroom breaks and food stops on the outskirts of larger towns. A good safe place for a clean bathroom is at a Pemex station. Many will have an attendant keeping the facility clean and handing out toilet paper rolls on the way into the ‘banos’. A peso or two tip is not uncommon to the attendant. Some places request/require a few pesos to use the restroom. At $.08 a peso, it’s worth the money for a clean safe bathroom.

Fast food is not as common outside of larger towns. It still pays to be suspect of cut fruit and vegetables, unbottled water, and ice.

The major roads are comparable to the a divided highway in the States. Off the beaten path the roads are noticeably bumpier, sometimes turning quite suddenly into dirt roads with no warning. Even on major roads, the speed limit will vary dramatically passing through small villages with speed bumps located on the outskirts of the small town. As traffic slows to a crawl at these central spots the vendors wait patiently to sell everything from tortillas to copper pots and wicker chairs on the side of the road. The vendors do not present any danger to travelers and while they appear to be a potential road hazard, they are simply trying to earn a living in the best way they know how in remote areas of Mexico.

Travelers are advised to not travel through Mexico at night. The main roads are frequented by tractor trailers and large buses. We’ve seen a few trailers running without lights altogether and the roads have virtually no paved shoulder outside the lanes to pull off in case of emergency. Cell towers are few and far between in between cities. If you had a problem at night, there may no immediate support until daylight.

A simple English-Spanish translation guide would be handy for road signs but a little creative interpretation and the indespensible, “No habla Espanol” goes a long way to navigating the occasional ‘Militar Parar’.

In the event you are questioned at a road stop, keep your cool, be polite, and try to answer their questions as best you can. Between the attendants broken English, a little bit of Spanish, and a lot of pointing, you can usually overcome the language barrier.

Overall, traveling in Mexico by car can be safe and trouble free with a little planning, a reliable vehicle, a little patience, and a sense of adventure. From our limited experience if you move quickly through the border towns and don’t look for trouble traveling through Mexico can be as safe as any road trip in the States.

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3 comments to Tips for Traveling by Car into Mexico

  • Davina and Matt

    How did Hilary like the boat?!?! Been thinking of Hilary this week as my neighbor just had a baby girl last night! I hope Hilary is feeling well. Glad to hear the trip has been safe and uneventful! We’ve been loving all the new pictures appearing on the site. Best wishes!

  • big cheese

    She loved both the boat AND San Carlos! Hil is feeling very well but it was HOT! There’s no denying the need for a siesta in that heat. We basically stayed in a hotel room from noon until about 4pm. Three and half more months! We’re heading back to Atlanta to work next week sometime.

  • The site was really fantastic! Lots of great information and afflatus, both of which we all need!