Driving Into Mexico

So, you want to drive to Mexico? Good for you! Now you need to know what it will take to get you and your vehicle into the country. Here is the straight scoop.

First thing: there are excellent medical facilities in Mexico in Hermosillo. However, if you are involved in any serious accident (other than diving) or have a serious illness, you may well want to be returned to your home for medical attention. Using the services of SKYMED, you are not dropped at the nearest medical facility, but returned to your home city anywhere in the US or Canada by plane. Membership plans are available weekly, monthly and for the year anytime you are more than 100 miles from home. It is easy to purchase online or through their toll-free number at 1-800-475-9633. 

All minors (under 18) need either both parents with them, or notarized permission from the absent parent(s) or legal guardian. I suggest you have your car insurance purchased prior to arriving at the border.

If this is your first trip to Mexico: be advised. You are not just crossing a border or a time zone. You are entering a time warp. Things happen differently down here and they don’t happen on your schedule.

You will need to be patient, flexible and able to maintain good humor. Mañana does not mean tomorrow, it means, “not now”. All the essential services that you feel are your due may, or may not, happen here. This means water, electricity, garbage pickup and for sure postal delivery. It has greatly improved in recent years but, there are no guarantees that when you get back from fishing you will have hot water. It is just the way things are. The border may treat you differently the next time you come down. Try finding and reading “The Peoples Guide to Mexico” by Carl Franz.

Crossing the Border

Crossing at Nogales

Crossing the border from the United States into Mexico at Nogales can seem to be a daunting experience the first time because there is very little that is clearly marked. It is important to know this and not expect to find directions.

Toll booths will accept only Mexican pesos if they are operating. Lately, groups stand at the booth with a can or jar and expect a “tip”. Bring some 20 pesos notes or 10 peso coins for their bucket. Further south the indigenous have set up roadblocks with the same purpose.

 Make sure you have the equivalent of at least $100 USD in Mexican pesos for tolls and any emergency.  Sometimes it is easier to cross downtown and find a bank machine ATM and get your pesos that way. There are Mexican banks on the road heading out after you cross the border at the downtown Nogales crossing.

There are two border crossings at the town of Nogales. One goes through the center of the towns of Nogales, AZ and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. The other, and by far the least confusing, is to take the truck route. There is a toll in pesos it can be well worth the saved time. There is an exit sign on the highway for the truck route – follow it. This exit is Mariposa Road at the bottom of the hill and really your last chance to fill up with gas, go to the Safeway store or an American bank. These stores and services will be on your left at the bottom of the exit ramp. The border crossing is to the right and several kilometers along Mariposa. Turn right and there is also a gas station and a decent motel.

Follow Mariposa past the American border crossing. You may have to stop. Do not veer right after the USA border – it takes you into the town. Once through, after heading up the hill, the road continues up a long fenced in corridor. Go up the four-lane divided corridor to a toll station (several miles). The toll is about 50 MN (short form for pesos). Pesos are required if the booth is operating. Once you pay the toll and head down the hill you will note buildings in front of you and truck inspections on your right.  

If you have nothing to declare, proceed straight ahead until you see what appears to be a traffic light. When you pass through the traffic light the light will either turn red or green. This is customs and supposedly an arbitrary method of determining whether they will search your vehicle or not. If it is red – pull over to the left in the shade and speak with the customs officer. If it is green proceed without stopping. If you have something to declare, pull into the parking lot before the building to your left and park.

Please note that as of Dec. 5, 2013, SAT/Aduana has issued new Duty Free limits for people entering Mexico by air and by land. For current information please check the Mexican government website: http://www.sat.gob.mx/bienvenidoaMexico/Paginas/default_eng.htm. The new year-round limits are $500 USD per person entering Mexico by air, and $300 USD per person by land. This is increased to $500 during holiday seasons.  If you must pay duty, you MUST pay at the bank in Mexican pesos and not dollars. Cash only. Be warned – customs operate computers and can easily go on line to certify that your item really cost $600 and not $200.

You are now in what is called the “free zone” where you could stay indefinitely. However, at this border it only extends 21 kilometers from Nogales. After passing a large gas station on your left, the immigration buildings are lower down on the right. There is hardly any signage. If you go past the OXXO store . . . you have missed it. This is where you get a tourist visa. The immigration office is now the first building you approach from the parking lot. First, go to immigration and fill out the form. They will ask you the usual things that immigration officers ask. If you plan to travel outside of the “Hassle Free Zone” in the State of Sonora you will need to stop and get an “Only Sonora” temporary importation sticker for your vehicle. San Carlos is in the “Hassle Free Zone” so if you do not plan to go further afield no temporary importation is required. If traveling further south of the State of Sonora another temporary importation process applies and that may be done at a location south of Guaymas.

Requirements for leaving the “Hassle Free Zone” in Sonora and acquiring “Only Sonora”

       Your passport or birth certificate

       Driver’s license

       Vehicle registration must match with the person importing the vehicle. Should a spouse be bringing the vehicle in then an apostilled marriage license will be required.

       Valid Credit Card

Temporary importation is only required if you will be traveling beyond Guaymas. If you are staying in or north of San Carlos you will not need to temporarily import your vehicle but you will have to get a tourist visa. It is a requirement that everyone entering the country as a tourist get a visa. This is a must otherwise you are in the country illegally. Hassle free applies to vehicles –  not people.

It you are pulling a trailer with or without an ATV, you MUST have all documentation and ownership papers. The trailer MUST have the same name on the registration as the vehicle pulling it.

Crossing at Naco, Arizona

There is not a “Km 21” equivalent at Naco. All immigration papers are done immediately at the border. Car permits are available in Cananea. Go to the left as you enter where the Bank office is. If you miss this, you will have to return many km./miles from the checkpoint to the south. For more details on this route, see the Route of the Rio Sonora web site.

For All of Mexico temporary importation south of Empalme:

       Vehicle Title or Registration Receipt. Owner is considered the name(s) on title only.

       Birth certificate, passport or notarized proof of citizenship, or voter’s registration card.

       Visa, MasterCard, Diner’s, or American Express card with the same name as on title.

       Valid driver’s license (with photo and same name as on title).

       Notarized letter of permission from the bank or lienholder is required on financed cars, rental cars, leased cars, or company cars (on company stationery).

       No borrowed cars or borrowed credit cards are accepted.

With your visa or immigration document in hand you then go to temporarily import your vehicle. You will have to leave a credit card imprint – when you leave the country you MUST stop and return the sticker and declare your car “Out of the Country”. If not – fines are put onto the credit card.

Put all papers in a safe and easy to find place – you may need them at any time. When you leave the country – You MUST have these papers – they can be requested at any time.

The sticker goes on the inside of your windshield and they will tell you where it must be placed.

Failure to turn in your vehicle permit before the expiration date may result in fines. Your permit is good for multiple entries, but you MUST turn it in at border BEFORE it expires. When you depart Mexico, stop at Km. 21 (right side of the road) and have the sticker removed.


We might as well warn you about customs before it is too late to do anything about it. Technically, both foreigners and Mexicans who are driving are only allowed to bring $300 worth of “merchandise” (mercancia, a word you will soon learn).

Since nobody takes long trips to Mexico with only $300 worth of stuff, this is obviously impossible to enforce. What customs is looking for are new items that could be sold. The secret is not to have new-looking items with you. For example, if you have new clothes, take the tags off. If you have new camping gear, take it out of the shiny boxes and throw some dirt on them to make the boxes look old.

One thing that will get you into trouble is a lot of stuff in Wal-Mart bags and shopping bags with merchant’s name. If you bought a lot of items for your trip, take them out of the bags, remove the price tags and get rid of the packaging. Get the idea? As said – be realistic about prices if declaring. 

Allow at least 30 minutes for customs clearing. Early in the AM (6-7:30) is best. After 9:00 AM, it could take 30 minutes up to an hour. Usually, it is best to roll down all your windows as you are going through the customs zone. Let them see who is in the vehicle. Weekends are the worst time, especially holidays. If you got a late start, please spend the night in a border town and avoid driving at night.

Laptop computers are never (a dangerous phrase to use in Mexico) a problem. There is lots of Wi-Fi in San Carlos. Be honest and friendly and things will work out. Be arrogant and you will have trouble. Used desktop computers cannot be imported but new ones can (in their boxes). 

Driving in Mexico

Before leaving check your vehicle for fluids and pressures. The Sonora desert can be nasty – you can go from a hero to a zero on the side of the road very quickly. Carry double the drinking water you may require in case of a traffic stop or accident or breakdown on the road (voice of experience).

Driving in Mexico is not as dangerous as you have been led to believe, but it is more challenging. There are plenty of four-lane toll roads that (for a price) can make you feel as comfortable as if you were back home. The new highway from Nogales is a treat to drive on. The two-lane roads vary in width and conditions so that some of them are usually in great shape, and others are often full of potholes. You will have to learn a few rules of the road. It is no more difficult than driving in the U.S., though defensive driving is a requirement. Despite what you have heard, Mexicans are very polite on the open road. In cities, a certain amount of aggression is required. Still, that’s true in our country, too.

Don’t drive at night on the two-lane roads. There is a lot of loose livestock, and I have yet to see a black cow equipped with tail lights. My tip for driving at night is this: DON’T. On the toll roads, which are as good as or even better than those in the U.S. or Canada, you can drive at night, but not recommended.

Traffic Hints and Tips

On the open road, a left turn signal is an invitation to the guy behind you to pass. Trucks and busses frequently turn their left blinker on to guide you around them. I trust them, but use common sense. Sometimes they have optimistic views of your acceleration capabilities. Don’t use your left turn signal on a two-lane road when you are about to pass. You might get hit. A few readers have pointed out that on the toll roads, people use turn signals as they do here. My advice: use them as you are used to on toll roads, but don’t expect the other guy to do the same.

Left turns are different! When there is a left turn lane, there will usually be a left turn arrow. Look for lights on signal. You MUST wait for arrow. Right on red is usually not OK, unless there is a sign saying that it is. Lately, however, I have been honked at by locals when I wait for a green light. What to do? If there isn’t a cop nearby, (and the coast is clear), I turn.

Traffic cops are more honest than you have been led to believe, but there are some in towns who are looking for bribes, especially in Mexico City. When this happens, stand firm and tell them you want to go to the comandancia. Otherwise, pay the fine if you have done something wrong. You should get a copy of the paperwork. Try not to give up your driver’s license. Once they have it you are at their mercy.

You are now in Mexico (sigh of relief after getting past customs without a search) and 4 – 5 hours’ drive from San Carlos. Bring a map of the state of Sonora. There are now different chains of  gas stations  there is one in every town along the highway. The highway is a toll highway and there are three tolls from the border to San Carlos that may or may not be operating. In the small villages and towns along the way they are quite deliberate about vehicles slowing to do the speed limit. The use of speed bumps is liberal. These are called “topes” and some are marked and some are not.

Be on the lookout for them. Read that last sentence again, I almost blew Diane off the back of the motorcycle by not seeing one and hitting it at speed! They are usually grey and in a shady spot. Hey – if you were hired to build a tope would you do it in the shade or the sun?

The only major city on the way south is Hermosillo. To get through, you go around the east side on a brand new bypass. Watch for the signs! If you end up in Hermosillo, there two left turns. One is at a well-marked intersection, the other comes after going down a two-lane road that has about 4 “topes”. At the end, there is a “T” intersection. Make a left, then the right. After that, you go past the jail on the right about 2 miles further. Then past the jail there are lights where you make a right.  Do not go straight to the FORD plant or Yecora.

To head south, you will have to be in the right lane heading down to the overpass (about a mile of so). It is NOT marked in advance. You go down the ramp on the right, then make a left at the lights. From here, it is straight south to Guaymas/San Carlos.

Once south of Hermosillo it is clear sailing to the turn to Guaymas or Obregon. Heading south on #15, there is a big gas station/truck stop on the left side as the highway forks left for Obregon. Go straight to Guaymas, then turn right in about 5 km. to San Carlos on Mex 17. 

San Carlos

Still divided highway going west to San Carlos. Dead ahead is “Tetakawi” mountain (Goats teat). San Carlos is several kilometers from Highway 15. Once you enter town (kilometer 10 on white pillars) you will see the following land marks on your right:

       Gary’s dive shop

       Jaxx Snax

       CI Banco

       Then the first of two gas stations. ARCO.

Our office is at Blvd. Manlio Fabio Beltrones Local 5 Interior Plaza Arrecifes behind the ARCO Gas Station. If you arrive during business hours, 9:00 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, Saturday 9:00 a.m. to 1p.m. your keys will be at the office.

If you arrive later than 5 p.m. please follow the rest of the directions to get your keys:

There are 3 lock boxes on the wall to the right of the door. You should have been given the combination. If something unexpected comes up during the trip DO try and call and give notice. We appreciate you coming by the office the next day to square up the remaining portion of the bill.

My email address is mxres650@gmail.com or Whats App me at +52  622 228-9756

Things to Bring and Think About

Your beach towels, anti-bug juice, sunscreen (expensive here) and wine – if you are wine drinkers. Also, we appreciate it if you would smoke outside all the rentals. Mexican plumbing is not the same as American/Canadian so large quantities of paper and things normally flushed down at home will not “make it” here. When someone plugs a toilet, I generally have them assist me to remove the blockage. Often the garbage is a better disposal. Please pass this on to the kids. The A/C defaults to 16C or 18C which is like a meat locker and can freeze up the unit. Best to use the remote and set to 24C (75F).

When you leave: Please turn OFF all the air conditioning and take out the garbage. There are times we do not get in a unit after a busy weekend for 2 or 3 days. There is a key drop, a white mail box outside the office if you depart early.

Thanks for all this – we hope you have a good stay. If there are problems in the unit please drop a note so we know about it and can do the repairs. We hope to see you again.

Welcome to San Carlos!
Tom & Diane