Some cruisers follow the lifestyle of spending half the year (the non-hurricane half) cruising Mexico aboard their boats, and the other half of the year (the hurricane-season half) with their boats safely in wet or dry storage in Mexico and themselves elsewhere, engaged in other pursuits. It's a nice kind of life.
Some of these cruisers live in places in the US or Canada that make it easy to drive their personal vehicles in and out of Mexico as they visit their boats. For us, it's been a snap to load up our 15-year-old pickup truck with boat parts and supplies, drive from New Mexico into Arizona and thence into Mexico to wherever we had The Fox berthed. We preferred either Mazatlan (Sinaloa) or San Carlos (Sonora) as a home port. Our return trips often involved our pickup truck being equally loaded down with not just luggage and boat parts, but cool furniture and art we just happened to stumble upon all of a sudden like. That photo up on the right over there is pretty much what we look like, both coming and going.
Cruising publications periodically post articles with the latest information about driving in Mexico with a US-registered vehicle. This is our own such post about travel along our personal specialty, Mexico's Federal Highway 15. During the three years from 2015 through 2017, we drove back and forth several times from New Mexico to either Mazatlan or San Carlos; once adding in a touristy side-trip from Mazatlan to Durango (Mexico) and back again.
First, the precautions for first-timers:
- The condition of Mexican highways and side roads is ever-changing, so to the extent possible always check your planned routes before you head across the border. Example: our scenic Mazatlan-to-Durango road trip in February 2016 was made quick and easy by the new Durango-Mazatlan freeway that had been completed in 2013. However, in January 2018 one of the freeway's spectacular suspension bridges was so badly damaged it had to be closed (tanker truck full of diesel fuel overturned, caught fire, burned for 5 hours, melted bridge). People could still use the freeway but we hear the detour around the bridge repairs was a gnarly one. Other major highways, like Mexico's Federal Highway 15 from Nogales south to Mazatlan and beyond, have many segments that are being upgraded and all the construction can slow a driver's trip. We've found "Mexico" Mike Nelson to be a good source of all kinds of useful travel information, especially for road maps and certain driving-navigational details that are difficult to find anywhere else. We suggest: (1) expect delays; (2) take it slowly so you can look around a little; and (3) avoid traveling at night because poor lighting makes it impossible to see giant potholes, sudden drop-offs, wandering cattle, and people walking home along a highway that has no road shoulders.
- Have all your vehicle's paperwork in order. You will need it when you check yourself and your vehicle in to Mexico. If you're traveling Highway 15 you will stop at the Mexican Immigration offices at Km 21, well south of the actual US-Mexico border. License & registration are obviously required; but so is proof of MEXICAN liability insurance. It's a lot cheaper than US auto insurance, and very easy to buy, download, and print online. If you happen to get into an accident in Mexico - or if Mexican authorities pull you over for any reason - the penalties for not having Mexican insurance can be severe. We've used Mexpro for years and have been very happy with our experience. Ask them anything! We usually buy the insurance about a week before we leave for Mexico, and it takes about 20 minutes for us to purchase through Mexpro and print out the policy.
- Bringing boat parts in to Mexico? Just in case, have all the receipts handy, plus copies of your boat's paperwork to explain where all the stuff is going. We've only been stopped once at the Mexican border for inspection, but the nice Mexican Customs man just took a peek, briefly asked us what our intentions were, and waved us on our way. But as always: YMMV, so be prepared.
- Have your own paperwork in order: fully functional passports for everyone, and enough funds (cash or credit card) to cover the applicable visa fee(s) if you plan to stay more than 7 days (in late 2017, it was 500 pesos/about US $24 per person for 180 days). Also, if you will be driving further south on the Mexican mainland than Empalme, Sonora, be prepared to pay the requisite fee for your vehicle's permit. Entering and leaving via Highway 15 in Sonora, we've used a credit card to pay for the vehicle permit; basically, most of the fee is a deposit that is refundable upon your departure from Mexico. We have had no problems whatsoever and the refund showed up in our credit account one or 2 days after we checked out of Mexico, turning in the paperwork and the windshield sticker/permit itself.
- The officials at Km 21 are hip and professional. Follow their instructions and you will have no problems. [NOTE: to stay problem-free, when you return to the US, you must ABSOLUTELY STOP AGAIN AT KM 21 TO CHECK OUT - NOT JUST FOR YOUR VEHICLE BUT ALSO TO GET THE PROPER EXIT STAMP(S) IN YOUR PASSPORT(S). This means that, driving back northbound on Highway 15, you will pause at the kiosk on the right-hand (east) side of Highway 15 at Km 21 to turn in your vehicle sticker and paperwork; THEN you park your vehicle, cross the highway in the designated crosswalk, and go into the Immigration offices on the highway's west side to get your passport(s) in order. Fail to do this, and the next time you enter Mexico - no matter where or when - you will pay a cash penalty and spend a bunch of time getting your passport cleaned up.] Even if you have not traveled far enough south to require a vehicle permit, you must ABSOLUTELY STOP AGAIN AT KM 21 TO CHECK OUT AND GET THE PROPER EXIT STAMP(S) IN YOUR PASSPORT(S). Here's a YouTube video of Km 21 to study, just so you can recognize the buildings when you see them.
- Check to see whether your road of choice is a "cuota" ( = toll road) or a "libre" (= free). Cuotas like Highway 15 tend to bypass small towns so travel time is faster, but if you choose to drive cuotas you will need to carry lots of pesos in smaller denominations. (I'd recommend an assortment of 10-peso coins, and bills in 20-peso, 50-peso, and even a couple 100-peso denominations as a good start. In 2017 we needed a total of 148 pesos - the equivalent of about 8 US dollars - to drive to San Carlos; but we needed a total of 840 pesos - 53 US dollars - for all the tolls, one way, from Nogales to Mazatlan). If instead you prefer driving a Libre road you won't pay tolls and will see more of the countryside at a slower pace, but when you pass through towns there will be more "topes" (= speed bumps). A lot more topes.
So much for things to study and prepare for. Now for the fun part:
We typically leave New Mexico and stay overnight in Green Valley, Arizona. (Sure; it's only a 3-1/2 hour drive for us, but we have friends there we sponge off of and party with. It's nice to have friends. Heh.) We leave Green Valley about 7AM to arrive at the border in Nogales at about 8AM when traffic isn't very heavy. The strategy behind this is that an entry at about 8AM will put you in San Carlos at lunchtime if that is your destination [that's San Carlos in that pic on the left]; and will put you in Navojoa at about 3PM for an early happy hour and a dip in a hotel pool, if you're headed all the way to Mazatlan. Navojoa is about the halfway point between Nogales and Mazatlan and has some nice choices for meals and lodging.
We've never had significant delays crossing into Mexico at Nogales. Checking-in with the officials at Km 21 is typically straightforward and takes about a half-hour if you already have some pesos and your paperwork is in order; but an ATM and a gentleman who makes photocopies are both available on-site if you need them. Our only delay was on one occasion when a tour bus full of folks were standing in line ahead of us when we rolled in.
Leaving Km 21, we drive along Highway 15 and stop for food or fuel and/or bathroom breaks wherever suits our mood. Lots of places to choose from. We use Mexico Mike's map of Hermosillo (highly recommended) to navigate through that city's streets where the route of travel is, ahem, not intuitively obvious. In our experience passing through Hermosillo is the most challenging portion of a Highway 15 car trip as far south as Mazatlan.
Arriving in Navojoa, your lodging choices include the place we prefer - the Best Western Hotel del Rio with their nice on-site restaurant (reserve directly via their email, firstname.lastname@example.org, for the best rates); and the nearby Fiesta Navojoa Hotel, where other cruisers have told us they have especially liked rooms 10 or 11 for an overnight stay.
If you leave Navojoa after breakfast you will arrive in Mazatlan about 2PM. If for some reason we have not driven directly to wherever The Fox is berthed, our go-to hotel/motel has always been The Bungalows Mar-Sol, within a five-minute walking distance of Marina El Cid. [Photo on left courtesy of vacacionesenmazatlan.com.] We first stayed at The Bungalows in 2008 when The Fox was hauled out for a time, and The Bungalows are still our first choice for lodging in all of Mazatlan. However, The Bungalows are also very popular with the land-cruising types, and there are always lots of loyal repeat customers staying there. On any given day you could find people visiting there from Vancouver, BC, and Durango, Mexico, and from all points in between. Their bungalows offer full kitchens, but with Pancho's Restaurant within staggering distance, you may not feel the need to stay in and cook for yourself.
So, we've gotten you to Mazatlan. You're on your own from here!