Be prepared. Bring the following:
- Your valid passport and driver’s license,
- Current car registration. We see multitudes of cars down here without ANY plates…yeah, not just expired plates…no plates AT ALL. So to us, this seems illogical. Why should anyone care about OUR currentness if they aren’t enforcing their own? But our colorful American license plates scream “pick me”, so you’re better off with a current sticker.
- Proof of ownership: I have a copy of our title in the truck & keep the original at home. You need this to obtain a TIP/Temporary Import Permit if you plan on driving any farther than Guaymas. If you have a car loan, you need a letter from the lienholder giving permission to take the vehicle into Mexico.
- Mexican liability insurance is non-negotiable. We get ours here: Vagabundos Del Mar. We retain bare minimum insurance from our U.S. carrier in order to keep state registration legal.
- Check out online what you can and cannot transport. It’s different for cars vs. boats vs. bus vs. air. Some illegal items may surprise you…sea turtle boots, for instance. What? What foul person HAS boots made from those adorable sea turtles? We are often asked if we bring a gun for protection. The answer is emphatically, NO - because transporting guns, bullets or even empty cartridges are an instant “Go Directly to Jail” card and a Mexican prison is #1 on our list to avoid. Just watch the movie “Get the Gringo” with Mel Gibson - it’s a great deterrence.
- Keep receipts for any new items you are bringing down with you….groceries, boat parts, etc. Anything over your allotted limit is subject to a 16% VAT tax. Alcohol VAT taxes are amazingly high and vary; beverages with less than 14% alcohol are charged a 78% duty, so you may want to rethink importing that special $200 bottle of wine and drink more Dos Equis instead!
- Bring your patience & willingness to wait in line, if necessary.
- Above all… be courteous. No one likes a haughty American… or Canadian for that matter; no country’s citizen is immune to bad manners.
1. Highway 19. The city of Nogales, Arizona is adjacent to its twin…Nogales, Mexico. The first time we traveled Highway 19, a one-hour stretch from Tucson to Nogales, we were surprised to see mileage signs in kilometers. At this point, you are still in the US, but just barely.
2. Take Exit 4. This is known as the truck exit, built outside of town to facilitate cross-border truck traffic. Since you are bypassing town, the remote truck crossing promotes stress-free access with no traffic & decent signage. Plus, the initial road south after crossing is an updated highway. Piece of cake. While you CAN get tourist visas by going through the city center gate (we have done so via bus), there is no need to navigate downtown Nogales by car.
3. Stop at the Shell station on the right as soon as you get off at Exit 4. Gas is much more expensive in Mexico, so "fill up" or "lleno" here. While this is still technically the US (you can see the border from here), don’t expect the cashier to speak English. We can make it to San Carlos from Nogales in 5 hours and on one tank of gas.
4. Go through the border checkpoint, following signs for Hermosillo, not Nogales. (Following signs to Nogales will take you back to the city center and you don’t want that.) We traversed through a series of sharp turns around empty government buildings and suddenly we're on the highway going south. We were not stopped – there wasn’t a soul to be seen.
5. A few miles south is the red light/green light customs checkpoint. There’s a small traffic light at each lane: stop for questioning/trunk & baggage search if you get the random red light and go through if you get a green light. We got neither. Maybe it’s because it was a Sunday, but apparently nobody was around to turn on the lights. Good deal for us. Another time we got in the wrong lane, someone came running up to the fence, we raised our hands up like “what do we do” and they just shook their head and waived us through.
Research the dollar limits online for importing items before you go. Decide whether you have "nothing to declare"/“nada que declarar". I believe it’s a measly $75 per person by land. I’m not going to tell you whether or not to declare purchases. Either way, I keep my receipts in the glovebox just in case we get a red light and are questioned. Check out www.bajainsider.com or www.mexperience.com for good info on rules and regs.
6. Tolls. A few miles down the road is the first toll station - we paid 52 pesos here. I don't know if they take dollars so I keep a bunch of small bills or coin pesos in the truck for this purpose. There is a 2nd toll station at the town of Magdalena south of the immigration checkpoint - 25 pesos here. The 3rd and final toll is just north of Hermosillo for a whopping 65 pesos. Total tolls: 142 pesos or $7.50. I always keep several hundred pesos on hand when heading back to the US so that when we return, we have enough to pay for tolls, gas, lunch or snacks on the way down. You CAN get pesos at the Kilometer 21/immigration stop, but this way I am not forced into an unknown exchange rate.
7. Kilometer 21. After your first toll payment, next stop is immigration at KM21, so-named for being situated exactly 21 kilometers inside the country. Don't ask me why they can't do immigration at the actual border (like at Tijuana)…or at least at the customs checkpoint…or before the first toll. Don’t ask such logical questions…they just don’t, OK? For more info, google "Kilometer 21 Nogales". It seems like a cobbled bunch of buildings along the right side of the road, but look for signs that say “obligatory stop” or “migracion” or “temporary import permits”. There’s also an insane amount of speedbumps. Park in the big parking lot on the right hand side.
8. Enter the building that says "permiso de turista". Stand in line, and then show your passports when called. The agent will give you a 2-part tourist card written in both Spanish and English. Step out of line and fill out both top and bottom of the form as you'll get the bottom to keep with your passport at all times. Take your time and read the English. We witnessed one tourist make a mistake, nonchalantly tear it up and ask for a new card; don’t do this – all cards must be accounted for and now that clueless tourist just created a real hassle for the clerk. Once you’re done scribbling, wait your turn again. Then the agent will take your filled out card and passport and ask you where you are going in Mexico and how many days you will be there. We say "seis meses" or 6 months, which is the maximum time frame…even if we won't be there that long, you just never know...stuff happens. Verify that your agent writes "180 dias" on the form.
9. Banjercito. Since the government doesn't trust their people not to pilfer cash, you must pay for your tourist card in a separate location, the government bank. Fortunately, it’s right here. Go out the door in back of you, turn left and head past the copy man to the banjercito/bank. Wait in line again, and when called give the banker your new tourist card. He'll ask if you want to pay with cash "ejectivo" or credit card "tarjeta de credito". If you don't catch the number of pesos ("setacientosochenta" sounds like a mouthful if you aren't used to hearing it) he'll write it on a piece of paper. We paid 780 pesos total for two people. Currently, that is $41 equivalent. Your bank agent will give you a 8-1/2”x11" paper receipt. Keep this receipt with you as you travel and make a copy or at least take a picture of it with your phone.
A note about keeping visa receipts…I was once asked for my receipt for an expired visa by an agent while trying to obtain a new visa. I hadn’t removed the old (expired) visas from inside our passports (big mistake) and he focused like a laser, asking me if I’d paid for them. He wasn’t a jerk about it but was rather insistent. I understood he was looking for proof, but I had my proof back at the boat - 10 hrs away by bus. (What did it matter? They are expired!) So I just kept saying “si” and managed to deflect by repeating that I had already paid for them and I need new ones. After that incident, I keep my receipts with our passports. We also just learned to return our visas at Km21, IF we are planning on leaving and returning to renew another 6 months before that visa expires.
10. Receipt in hand, go back to the tourist card building for the final stamping process. Stand in the same line, again. (Remember, patience is key…you’re almost done.) After you are called, give them your bank receipt, your passport and the filled out tourist card. The agent will stamp the tourist card and your passport. Make sure you see them stamp both. (That same agent I speak of above, while he stamped our new visas, forgot to stamp our passports… but we were rushing, trying to get back on the bus since everyone else was waiting for us. Lesson learned.) The agent will give you half of the tourist card to keep in your passport at all times and give you back your receipt. Keep that receipt with your passport.
11. Get your vehicle TIP here if you plan on driving any farther than Guaymas. A TIP is a Temporary Import Permit. While a boat TIP is good for 10 years, a car TIP is only good for 6 months… but it’s only necessary when driving into certain parts of the country. We do not need to register our vehicle since we are only driving in Sonora as far as Guaymas; but past Guaymas, it’s required. Since I'm no expert in TIPs, check online for up to date car TIP info.
You're done! Back on the road! We think going across on a Sunday morning is the best time. We arrived before 8am and sailed right through with no waiting at immigration or the bank. Just remember, the border isn’t 24/7. There are hours of operation with regards to immigration offices, so don’t try to cross here between 10pm and 6am. Not to mention, we avoid traveling at night for numerous safety related reasons.
You CAN obtain a tourist visa online. When arriving via boat, I went this route for peace of mind even though my only proof was the computer receipt. I felt better having at least started the process, but we still needed to get that stamp and an actual visa card, in Cabo. But I don’t see the benefit when crossing via land. You still need to stop at KM21 and get your stamp. So while it takes a few minutes longer, I’d rather just get it all done in one spot. (By the way, I've used the word "visa" interchangeably with "tourist card", but technically, your tourist card is not a visa.)
The Headlight Cleaner Man
New visas in hand, we’re anxious to get underway and get down to the boat. But as we walked back to the parking lot, there's an old guy near our car babbling at us in Spanish as we walk up. Crap, he had just wiped one headlight with some kind of wax…and looks like he wants money to do the other. Dammit.
This is one of those cultural things I really hate. I don't begrudge the guy trying to make a living, but ASK me before touching my car! I require the option of saying yes or no. Oh, but you're so mean! The guy is just trying to make a living. Who amongst you likes it when someone grabs your butt without asking? Exactly. My car is an extension of my person. It's appropriate that the Spanish translation of "don't touch" is "no moleste".
Normally, I'd just tell him to go away. “No lo quiero limpiar.” Or something like that. Don’t judge my stilted Spanish. But now we've got ourselves a dilemma... the headlight now looks brand new! We just spent hours washing and waxing the truck, prepping it for storage, knowing it would bake in the sun for several months. And one of the things we couldn't fix was the ugly, yellowed headlights. Though annoyed, I refused to buy a special product. And so they remained suspended in their 11-yr-old state, severely clouded and sorely sun damaged. So while my immediate reaction was: "Dammit that guy touched our truck without asking" ...it quickly turned to..."Damn, that headlight looks brand new!" Huh. Now what?
"I do the other for $10", he tells us. Sigh. So instead of saying no, I bargain and say $5. He says $7. I say $6. He smiles and sticks to his guns at $7. "You help an old man with mental issues" (I'm paraphrasing). Ok, dammit. He IS a nice guy. And he IS old. Really old. Mental issues? I doubt it. $7 is way too much for 2 minutes of work but I let him do it because it really does look amazing. Let's put this in perspective: minimum wage in Mexico is $5 PER DAY. Per DAY. Fine, $7 and a photo, I tell him. (I could have bought that special product for $7!)
I take a picture as we watch him rub his bare hand, no cloth, over the Plexiglas and poof… it's perfect once again. He tells us "good for 2 years". Cynics that we are, our immediate reaction is that he probably used some caustic solvent that should never be applied to plastics and will corrode right through it tomorrow. Or, since I never actually saw him spray his hand, it could have just been spit! Oh well, it looks amazing.
Now, I dislike encouraging these guys to do things to vehicles without asking, and I will get reprimanded by a certain good friend of ours who will read this and say “What did you just DO!” because he simply will not tolerate this form of inappropriate car “molestation”. I agree. Window washing while stopped at a light is common on the mainland; I’ve even seen someone starting to wash our friend’s car without asking, expecting a big tip. Simply not cool. But I've never seen this on the Baja side, one of many reasons we like that side better. But, you know what...he's happy with his exorbitant tip, we're happy with our fresh lights… so I guess that's what matters.
As we are getting in the car, this weathered, octogenarian asks what I'm going to do with the photo. Before I could answer, he giggles and makes another remark that I swear sounded like "put it up in your bedroom?" What? Did he really just say that? Dirty old man!
As always, I just smile graciously and say… “Si!”
Some good references: