NOTE: This article was factually correct when published. Since that time, the Sonora Tourist Bureau in Tucson has closed and it is no longer necessary to "import" your vehicle into Mexico if you do not intend to travel south of Guaymas, Sonora. A Visa is all you will need and it may be obtained at Kilometer 21. A vehicle importation station has been set up in Empalme to regulate those vehicles traveling deeper into Mexico.
North in the summer. South in the winter. Much akin to the thousands of acres of sunflowers growing throughout America’s Midwest, endlessly turning to embrace the warmth of the sun, Snowbirds too, are intent on seeking out warm climates regardless of the time of year. During the summer months we can be found traversing the Alaska Highway, ferrying our RV’s throughout Canada’s Maritime Provinces, driving the Blue Ridge Parkway across the southern states or enjoying U.S. Highway 1 as it meanders along the California coastline. But come winter . . . VIVA MEXICO!!!!! I know that the thought of taking your beloved trailer or motorhome and assorted toads, as well as pretty much everything you own in the world, into a foreign land can be pretty unsettling. Believe me, we’ve gone through Canadian Customs a couple of times and it has never been pretty! But a trip to Mexico and our winter hideaway, in particular, need not be a traumatic experience. You will find that with a little preparation and forethought, a few words of wisdom from those who have gone before you and a positive can-do attitude, you will find yourself lounging on a beach in San Carlos enjoying a Margarita and wondering why you wasted so much worry on the endeavor. I speak from personal experience!
Beautiful white sand beaches, high desert cacti and wildflowers, canyons with lush tropical growth and spectacular rocky peaks are all within minutes from town. San Carlos also offers many fine restaurants as well as Mom and Pop style breakfast and lunch eateries. Hot dogs, hamburgers and pizzas are also available for the less adventurous. Nearly everyone speaks some English and a few of the finer establishments even have waiters trained in Canadian, eh. ;-)
If you are adventurous and want to learn or practice your Spanish in a stress-free environment, this is the place to be. After years of traveling to Spanish speaking countries, I have discovered that I can survive just fine with 3 words: cerveza, taco, cerveza. My Bride is somewhat more intellectual than I and actually studies for months prior to our arrival to ensure that she can order a taco and a beer in a grammatically correct manner.
San Carlos is located on the eastern shore of the Sea of Cortez in the state of Sonora about 280 miles south of Nogales, Arizona and 7 hours driving distance from Tucson. You should plan on getting an early start, crossing the border around 8 am, and arriving in San Carlos in time for siesta (that’s mid-afternoon in Gringo-speak). Preparing yourself to cross the border is perhaps the most stressful part of any trip to Mexico. Let me share a few shortcuts that will make this part of your journey much more palpable. For the sake of this article, I’m going to assume that San Carlos is your destination, you will not be traveling outside of Sonora State and you will adhere to the following advice. Located at 4625 East Broadway Blvd in Tucson, Arizona is the Sonora Tourist Center. If you walk in their front door with your Passport (or Birth Certificate), Driver’s License and current registration for each vehicle you will be taking into Mexico, you will walk out 30 minutes later with everything you will need, filled out and neatly assembled, to deal with the Mexican authorities at Kilometer 21 (more about this later). The person at the Tourist Center speaks very good English and can explain everything you’ll need to know in a way that you will understand. You will need a licensed driver for each vehicle you are bringing into Mexico and you will need that person with you when obtaining your paperwork. This process is called “importing your vehicle” and is simply a means by which the Mexican Government can ensure that you are not bringing vehicles into the country to sell. You will also need Mexican liability insurance. There are many places to obtain it, including the Sonora Tourist Center and Kilometer 21, but we buy ours through a website called “Baja Bound”. A 6 month liability policy sells for about $150 U.S.
Crossing the border at Nogales is pretty much a non-event. If the Customs Officer wants to inspect your vehicle he will ask you to stop, if not, he will wave you through. Our experience has been that some officers will actually come aboard and do a quick walk through while others merely stick their head in the door and ask if you have anything to declare. You don’t!! DO let them know if you have a dog on board. You will get a list at the Tourist Center of things that you can’t bring into Mexico. Make sure you adhere to this, especially the part about firearms AND ammunition! We know of a man living in San Carlos who was arrested and jailed for nearly 2 weeks because he had forgotten he had a box of ammunition in his truck. He was very fortunate to have had connections in San Carlos who worked to set him free with merely a fine.
Once you have navigated safely through Customs, you will get on the Highway 15 Toll Road toward Hermosillo. The toll at the first booth is $121 pesos for a 38-foot motorhome towing a Jeep Wrangler. After exiting Kilometer 21 you will pass through 2 more toll booths; one is $48 pesos and the second is $142 pesos for our motorhome and Jeep.
Kilometer 21 . . . okay, this is the place where you park, get out of your vehicle and file all of your paperwork. You will hand your already filled out Visa Application to an officer who will stamp it and send you on your way. After exiting this building you will walk over to one of the 2 copy booths and pay the kid $5 pesos for a copy of each stamped Visa you have. Take these, along with your already neatly filled out and stapled together copies of your driver’s license, vehicle registration and vehicle import application to the next building and emerge shortly thereafter with a receipt and a silver sticker stuck to your finger which you will place on the windshield of your vehicle. Keep the receipt in a safe place; you’ll need to return it when exiting through Kilometer 21 at the end of your visit.
You will pass through another Customs checkpoint when leaving Kilometer 21, which will merely be a repeat of the previous procedure. You are now back on the highway heading to Hermosillo. At Hermosillo you will continue to follow the signs south toward Guaymas. A couple of miles north of Guaymas you will see the turn off for San Carlos. Take it! Hallelujah!!! You made it!!!!
Now you have to decide if you want to boondock on a bluff overlooking the ocean or park your rig in an RV park with all the amenities. El Mirador RV park is your best bet if you want seclusion in a newer RV park and don’t mind driving everywhere. If you prefer to be in a place that is centrally located with “Old Mexico” ambience, Totonaka is the place you want to stay.
Once you have settled in you will be ready to discover the array of activities that are available in San Carlos. Diving and snorkeling, swimming, saltwater fishing, windsurfing, kite boarding, horseback riding, Jeep and 4-wheeler rentals and guided tours are but a few of your choices. And there is always my favorite, laying about in the shade with a cold cerveza and a good book. ;-) I occasionally waddle across the street to watch the dolphins make their west to east run in the morning or their return run in the afternoon.
You will also want to enter Mexico with at least $100 U.S. in pesos (the exchange rate at this writing is $10.5 pesos per U.S. dollar). This will be enough to get you through all three toll booths with enough left over for a nice dinner when you arrive in town. In San Carlos there is an ATM available at the local bank, BanaMex, that works just as it would in the US except it dispurses pesos. There are still some bargains to be had in Mexico but you will find that most prices are comparable to the U.S. I recently had a flat tire on my Jeep repaired for $40 pesos, bought a liter of fermented sugar cane for use in Margaritas for $15 pesos and had my cowboy boots shined for $10 pesos. Totonaka RV charges $3900 pesos for the first month and less for each month thereafter. We have full hookups, cable TV and wireless Internet included in the price. In closing, let me offer one more tip that will make your stay more enjoyable: Remember, this is someone else’s country and we are guests. The Mexican people are among the most hospitable in the world. Come on down and say Hola! Hasta la Vista!! Chuck & Kalyn Bryan
"Discover Sonora" magazine article