Driving in Mexico
I moved from New York to San Diego almost one year ago and prior to moving, I was already familiar with Baja California and how accessible it was from San Diego. This allowed me to move cross-country prepared (or so I thought), having already applied and interviewed for Global Entry.
While I had never been to Baja, I thought it would be easy enough to figure out. So much so that when I first moved here, my Mom and I already had a 3-night stay booked at Bruma, a hotel and vineyard down in Valle de Guadalupe. Looking back, I realize how little we knew. We never thought about how we’d get there, what kind of currency we’d need or how we’d get back into the country – you know, the minor details of an international trip.
We actually wound up canceling our trip because we knew the answer to none of those questions. (In fact, I initially booked a hotel in Cabo San Lucas thinking Baja was all sort of in the same area… ????).
Fast forward to today and the above scenario would never happen. Today, I’m driving in Mexico almost every other weekend. But I won’t say the knowledge was easy to come by so I wanted to create a blog post where it was because no one should have to cancel a 3-night stay at Bruma!
General Things to Know About Driving Around Mexico
Get Mexican Auto Insurance
First things first, if you’re driving in Mexico you need auto insurance and we recommend requesting a quote from BajaBound Mexican Insurance Services.
U.S. & Canadian car insurance policies are not recognized in Mexico. They are also not liable for potential accidents nor do they satisfy the basic requirements for insurance according to Mexican law. Your insurance company may claim they provide coverage in Mexico, but read the fine print: typically it’s only for accidents ~25 miles south of the border and only covers damages done to you, not the other people involved.
Fortunately, you do not have to purchase Mexican auto insurance like you would for your car here in the states. There is short-term auto insurance for driving in Mexico whether it be a quick trip or long stay. Bajabound offers daily, six-month or annual Mexican auto insurance policies for an affordable price. You can do this online (I typically just do it from my phone while Jay is driving us down there) and it takes about 10 minutes.
Renting a Car
If you’re renting a car in Mexico, you should still purchase Mexican Auto Insurance. While the credit card you used to rent your car will provide you with insurance, you may not be able to leverage that insurance until your back in the States. If something were to happen to your car while in Mexico and you did not have Mexican Auto Insurance, the rental car company might require that the damage is paid for before you are able to leave the country. Your credit card company would reimburse you once you are home.
To avoid situations like this ????, we recommending purchasing auto insurance for driving in Mexico.
Have Cash on Hand
The Mexican Peso is the currency of Mexico however, USD is equally as accepted. I’d recommend always driving in Mexico with cash-on-hand because you never know if a place will accept credit or debit, let alone have a working machine to run it. International rates will also apply if you decide to take cash out of an ATM after crossing the border into Mexico.
The Peso is prefixed with a $ dollar sign and you’ll typically see bills in the form of $20, $50, $100, $200, $500 and $1000 and coins in the form of 10¢, 20¢, 50¢, $1, $2, $5, $10 and $20.
Now that you’re insured and have some money, the next most important thing to do is fill up your tank. Gas in Mexico is tricky. In the popular & commercial areas, you won’t have a problem, but as you get more remote, gas stations are few and far between and might not even have gas.
I was driving in Mexico the other weekend through San Felipe, a fairly populous city, and when I stopped for gas the attendant said he thought someone would be by soon to deliver gas, but they were out at the moment (promising, right?).
Long story short, even when you think you might not need gas, get gas when you see a station. If you’re going deep into Baja I would even recommend bringing a spare can with you.
Side note: Mexico uses the metrics system: one gallon = 3.785 liters.
The average price for gas in SoCal is $3.66 which equals about $73 pesos. $20 USD in your tank would cost ~$400 pesos.
The IAVE pass is something I just recently learned about and I think it’s awesome. If you’re familiar with the HOV Lane or E-ZPass, the IAVE pass is the Mexican equivalent. It allows you to drive through tolls without having to stop and pay cash and you get a discount on the overall toll amount – it makes driving in Mexico a breeze. Read more about the IAVE pass here.
Driving at Night
Our suggestion? Avoid it. When we drive at night, it’s typically anywhere from 5-10 minutes from a restaurant or bar back to our hotel or campsite. Anything beyond that and we try to steer clear. There are very few streetlights in Mexico and not many big, bright cities to light up the sky. If you were to break down in the middle of the night in a remote area, which is the majority of Baja, you can almost bank on spending the night in your car until sunrise.
Los Angeles Verdes (The Green Angels)
Now, this is cool, and something I just recently learned about – the Green Angels are a group of government-paid roadside assistants that cruise the roads of Mexico to basically find people who need help. They are all bilingual and carry tools and spare parts to assist you with your motor vehicle. If you need them, (and have cell service), call “060” (Mexico’s 911) or pull over and pop your car’s hood open so when they see you, they know to stop.
Passing other Vehicles
Can you pass other vehicles on single-lane roads? The answer is yes. Just be careful when passing vehicles on cliffs or winding roads. If the vehicle in front of you puts on their left blinker but there are no-left-turns to make, this is the driver signaling to you to go around them.
What you can and can’t bring back from Mexico
What you can bring:
- Fish you caught that day
- $400 worth of gifts/personal items you’ve purchased in Mexico (anything over that amount will be taxed)
- California residents are allowed to bring 1 back liter duty-free by private vehicle or by foot. Any amount over 1 liter will be taxed by the feds on your way back in
- Non-California residents are allowed to bring back 60 liters duty-free when traveling by car or by foot
- California residents are allowed to bring 60 liters duty-free traveling by steamship, airplane or railroad
What you can’t bring:
- First things first: if you’re having doubts about bringing it back, don’t bring it back
- No steroids or illegal drugs
- No switchblade knives, no guns
- No shoes, wallets/purses or clothing made out of endangered species, like sea turtles
- And lastly, the one that surprised me the most was fruit – so many fruits are illegal to bring back, so as a rule of thumb, don’t bring back fruit
Crossing the Border
This is easily the most complicated step for some border crossings, and I wouldn’t have believed it until experiencing it myself. I found it so crazy how easy it was to cross the border from the U.S. into Mexico, but how hectic it was to go from Mexico back into the States. I realize now that maybe it’s not that crazy (in fact, it makes complete sense), but one thing I do know for sure is that it’s super helpful to know how to navigate the madness.
In order to get back into the states, you’ll need your passport or SENTRI/Global Entry card(s). It’s not required you have all three, but be sure to have at least one.
If you don’t have your SENTRI or Global Entry card, stop reading this post and go apply for those now!
Once you’ve applied and are accepted into one of these Trusted Traveler programs, you can leverage the SENTRI lane for the fastest re-entry into the U.S. (read up on how to breeze through the SENTRI lane here.)
Border wait times vary, but if you do not have a SENTRI, Global Entry, or a Medical pass, all of which allow you expedited entry, you’ll typically wait anywhere from 2-4 hours to cross back into the U.S.
Traveling to Baja may seem foreign at first, but once you have the basics down, there should be no stopping you from booking a trip. If you have additional questions, check out our FAQ page, forum or contact us.