Glad to see you plan to drive to Mazatlan. However during the fireworks display in Olas alto and the night parade I would leave your car parked in the garage and take a taxi to the events. Too many blocked roads. I don't know which road you will be taking, but here are some driving tips from my book, "Mazatlan IS Paradise:"
Driving: I’ve found that driving in Mexico is as safe as driving in the United States. Before you decide to drive to Mazatlán, you should know the documentation requirements and costs. There are many two-lane highways in Mexico that do not charge tolls, but are sometimes narrow and have numerous potholes. Toll roads are like super highways in the U.S., but are costly—about $70 U.S. from Nogales to Mazatlán. Gasoline prices hover around $2.70 U.S. per gallon and increase annually. I’ve driven the toll road (cuota) from Nogales, Arizona to Mazatlán and found it to be a beautiful, picturesque drive.
Documentation: You must have a copy of your vehicle title and registration. If your vehicle is currently being financed, a notarized letter of permission from the financing institution giving permission for the vehicle to be taken to Mexico must be provided. If you are leasing your vehicle, the same type letter must be presented. Be aware that most leasing companies will not issue the letter for more than a 30-day period. Before I left home I made copies of:
-My passport and my wife’s passport.
-My driver’s license.
-My car registration and title.
-Mexican insurance policy for the car.
Cars in Mexico are very expensive. Mexican authorities frown on you taking your car into the country, selling it for a healthy profit without paying duty, then scampering back north across the border. Be warned—follow Mexican laws.
Mexican and/or international drivers’ licenses are not required for visitors on a tourist visa. You must have copies of current U.S. or Canadian drivers’ licenses of all drivers who will operate the vehicle in Mexico. Check to be sure that your license does not expire during your stay in Mexico.
A deposit of $100-$400 U.S. dollars depending on the year of the vehicle is required for temporarily importing your vehicle. It can only be paid in cash or by credit card, so bring along a Visa, MasterCard, or American Express credit card. The name on the credit card must be the same as on the title. The vehicle cannot be sold in Mexico, and the sticker on the window they provide must be surrendered when leaving the country. To assure that will happen they will return your depost as the vehicle exits the country.
Vehicle insurance: Your U.S. insurance is not good in Mexico, so I highly recommend purchasing Mexican insurance, unless of course you like to live on the edge and are willing to gamble and don’t mind spending some time in a Mexican jail. Like any insurance, you don’t really know if it is good unless you have occasion to make a claim. There are several insurance companies in Nogales, Arizona that will be happy to sell you Mexican auto insurance. Remember that offices do not open until after 9:00 A.M., so plan accordingly. Most insurance company rates are based on the value of the vehicle and the sectors of Mexico that you will operate the vehicle.
I have used the following insurance companies:
Lewis and Lewis Insurance: They are located in Beverly Hills, CA and can be reached by calling (800) 966-6830, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. They also have a website at www.mexicanautoinsurance.com. They are agents for the Mexican insurance company Qualitas, CIA de Seguros, S.A. de C.V.
Juan Fco. Chong Robles: Juan is an agent for the Mexican auto insurance company Seguros Comercial America. You can also get insurance from them through International Gateway Insurance Brokers, Inc. in Chula Vista, CA. You can call Juan at 982-0260, or email him at juanchong@Mazatlán.com.mx.
While I have never personally filed a claim, they came highly recommended and had reasonable rates. Lewis and Lewis rates were lower. I also recommend a legal assistance policy.
Customs: It is possible for you to bring in a reasonable amount of personal effects. For good or bad, the amount varies depending on the customs inspector you get. There is an official list of property allowed, but is not often followed. The inspectors usually look for desktop computers; items in boxes they originally came in, articles with price tags on them, or merchandise that may be sold in Mexico. Laptop computers get by every time, as long as they are not in the original box and price tags removed.
If you are taking in new household items, remove them from the original boxes, try to make them look worn, and run the linens through the washing machine and dryer. I made the mistake of not doing that and paid over $100 U.S. in duty. What was even worse, I spent over two hours convincing the customs inspector I should not have to pay $400 U.S.
Pets: Mexico welcomes dog and cat visitors. All you need to be legal is a clean bill of health, free of parasites, a Rabies shot within the past year, and up-to-date shots from a Veterinarian within the past five days. An international Health Certificate is even better. I’ve been told that in most cases, no paperwork is requested.
Pesos: At the 21-kilometer immigration stop, there is a money exchange available, but the exchange rate is not as good as at the tollbooths. In fact I found that exchange rates at toll booths were better than most banks in Mazatlán. There is a Pemex station about 90 kilometers south of the immigration stop. Next to it is a restaurant called “D’gymon.” It is a great place for lunch. Between it and the gas station is a small ATM building. I’ve found that most ATMs have the best rate of exchange. The paper money will be used to pay for tolls and fuel.
At the restaurant, pick up a pocketful of coins—especially one and two peso coins. I keep the coins handy in the ashtray because in most large cities, and in some smaller towns, young boys lie in wait for you at stoplights. With rag in hand they leap on the hood of your car and wipe your windshield. If I need the windshield cleaned I pay them two pesos. If I don’t want it cleaned I wave at them, and yell no mas (no more), and give them two pesos to get off my car. I know, I’m paying ransom, but I guess it keeps the kids busy (but not off the streets)—and besides I haven’t been able to figure an alternative.
All Pemex gas stations have clean restrooms, but some have an attendant who expects a couple pesos payment. We always carry our own toilet paper, and have had occasion to use it. Some also have coin operated restrooms that cost five pesos.
Fuel: The only gas stations in the entire country are called Pemex. Something I have never been able to understand is that Mexico exports a great deal of oil, yet gasoline is very expensive throughout the country. Gas stations are plentiful on the roads leading from the U.S. to Mazatlán.
There are three kinds of fuel sold: Magna Sin, which is rated 87 octanes and is unleaded; Premium, which is a high-test unleaded gas rated at 89 octanes; and of course, diesel fuel.
Prices will always be marked in pesos on the pump. Be sure to get out of your vehicle and watch the attendant zero out the pump before he starts your order. The problem of overcharging tourists seems to persist. I recommend filling the tank each time because you never know where the next station is or if it happens to have the fuel you need. If your Spanish is limited, simply tell the attendants “Lleno, por favor,” point at the pump you want the fuel from and give the thumbs up sign. It works for me!
All gas stations take U.S. currency and generally have the conversion rate posted on the pump. Tips are not required, but I usually give the gas attendant a tip equal to about a quarter. Like stations in the U.S., some Pemex stations also have small grocery stores that sell packaged snacks, coffee and soft drinks.
People always ask the price of gasoline. Here is a way to compute: Turn on your calculator and enter the price of gas per liter, currently 9.08, multiply the price by 4, multiply the results by 94.64 percent, divide the results of step 3 by the current peso/dollar exchange rate, about 12.5, to get the price in USA dollars.
Green Angels: If you have a breakdown, look for an emergency phone along the highway, dial 078 and ask for help. If you call from one of the emergency phones along the highway, a tow truck will take you to a mechanic and there is no tow charge. Also the Mexican government operates a fleet of green and white trucks called Green Angels. The trucks patrol the highways and provide professional assistance to people with vehicle problems. The trucks carry a first aid kit, short-wave radio, gasoline, and an assortment of common auto parts. Two uniformed employees operate each truck. Sometimes, at least one of them speaks English. The operators perform minor repairs for the cost of parts and also provide tow service for up to 15 miles. If they are unable to solve the problem with your vehicle, they will tow it to a nearby mechanic. They will also give you a ride or arrange for other assistance. Also, they expect a tip for their services, but will not ask. This is their website, sectur.gob.mx/wb2/…sect_9453_angels_verdes.
Driving tips: My experience has been that most drivers in Mexico are much more courteous than in areas that I have driven in the U.S. (as a former military officer, I drove all over the country), especially the large truck and bus drivers. Cross-country buses make frequent stops to pick up passengers, etc. so I think that is the reason they travel so fast. I was surprised my first time driving the posted speed limit south of Nogales and all the buses went zooming by me.
Don’t drive at night. There have been stories about banditos cruising the highways looking for rich tourists to rip-off. Another reason is that cattle roam the roads day and night, and the farmers/ranchers don’t provide them with reflectors or lights on their hindquarters. Not to mention the potholes and speed bumps that are difficult to see during hours of reduced visibility.
I believe there is an over abundance of concrete in Mexico because every town has a number of topes (speed bumps). There is usually one on the outskirts of town, and more within the city limits. They place warning signs, but sometimes they are placed very close to the speed bump, and you are rudely awakened from your daydream by the roof of your vehicle meeting your head.
If it is raining, slow down. I mean really slow down because the blow off from the trucks and oil leakage from the vehicles make the roads very slick. It usually takes several hours of rain to wash the road.
The left turn signal is kind of tricky in Mexico. My rule of thumb is if the driver of a truck or bus turns on the left turn signal in the country, the driver is giving you a signal that the road ahead is clear and you may pass. In the city, a left turn signal means the driver is actually planning to turn left and you should not pass to the left.
Flashing your headlights to a car in front of you means you want to pass them. If you are traveling in the opposite direction and see a car flashing headlights, you don’t have to slow down and start looking for the speed trap.
Left turns are different. When there is a left turn lane, there is usually a left turn arrow. Turning right at a red light is not usually permitted, unless there is a sign saying that it is—except in Mazatlán.
Driving from Nogales to Mazatlán: Have I convinced you that driving through Mexico is an adventure worth trying? Then let’s hit the road. Mazatlán is approximately 720 miles from Nogales, Arizona, depending on how many times you get lost. It can be made in one day along Mexico’s toll route 15. You have to get up early, drive fast, and drive long. I’ve done it and don’t recommend it—especially if it’s your first time. I’m told the Mexican police have entered the twenty-first century and have radar guns now. I personally have never seen them used. I suspect that they have found that making signs that say “Speed laws enforced by radar,” are cheaper than buying radar guns.
Starting in Nogales, take Mariposa Rd. and just follow the signs to the border. You will run into a US border guard who will want to look at your passport and ask you where you are going. You will then drive for about five miles and pay your first toll. About a mile later you will see a sign that will direct you through a Mexican check point. All we did there was drive slowly through and no one even acknowledged that we were passing through. The "real" border doesn't happen for another 21 kilometers. When you get to the immigration stop, plan on spending anything from an hour to four hours to get through the process. Park your car in the large parking lot and take your papers with you. Go into the first building on the left from the parking lot. They will stamp your passport and let you know if you have the required paperwork.
If you do not have a No Inmigrante (formerly known as FM3), or Inmigrante (formerly known as FM2) you will need to fill out a tourist visa and present your passport. The officer inside will stamp the visa and give you a copy to take with you.
Next, proceed to the copying station. If you do not have all your documentation copied, stop and have it copied. You should also have your new tourist visa copied at $.25 U.S. per page.
Go to the next station in which there are about six windows and only two are occupied. Present these copies and pay the fee and deposit for the "temporary import permit." The person behind the window will fill out the form, and collect the fee and deposit, which must be paid by cash or credit card. You will be given a holographic sticker and certificate. Place the sticker on the inside of the windshield, just in front of the rear view mirror. Place the certificate in a safe place.
You may let a Mexican drive your car as long as you or your spouse or family members are with him. If you are not, and a Mexican is caught driving your car, it will be impounded, and you will wish you never heard the word Mexico. Finally, you are only allowed to keep your car in Mexico for six months if here on a tourist visa. On your trip home, you must stop at immigration and surrender the sticker and tourist visa and collect your vehicle deposit.
Get into your car and drive to the final station. If you have something to declare, drive through the lane and to the customs inspector. I drive into the lane that says “nothing to declare,” even if I have something questionable. If a red light comes on, you will be escorted to a customs inspector who will look inside your car.
If you are lucky, and the customs inspectors are busy, you will get a green light. Don’t stop and ask questions, accelerate and move on! Once on the road again, we decided to take the toll roads all the way down. Look for the signs that say Cuota, which means toll rather than Libre, which means free.
The cost of tolls for the entire trip from Nogales to Mazatlan is approximately $70 U.S. Be sure and keep the toll tickets that you receive because if your car is damaged while on the toll road, the government may reimburse you for damages.
It is easy to get lost as you go through cities. The best thing to do is to look for the signs that direct you to the next town heading south. They will be in the following order: Actually the first signs you will see at the US border is to Hermasillo, so follow those, but after getting through immigration the next town is Santa Ana; then, in order; Hermasillo; Guaymas (which you will bypass); Obregon; Navojoa; Los Mochis; Guasave; Culiacan; and Mazatlan.
We make the trip in two days, and spend the night in Navojoa. We were stopped twice along the way by checkpoints. The first time they motioned me to an auto checkpoint and the guard looked at the sticker on my car and waved me on. At the border of Sinaloa, the man asked me if I had any plants or fruit, and when I replied in the negative, he waved me on.
About half way between Navojoa and Los Mochis, the road got flatter, straighter, and has less traffic. The speed limit was posted 110 km per hour. I set my cruise control on 70 mph and still had several cars pass me. From there to Mazatlán, the scenery literally whizzed by on both sides of the car.
If you are starting from Texas, chances are your trip will take you through Durango. The roads from Texas to Durango are straight and fast. The drive from Durango to Mazatlán will take you about seven hours because of the narrow, poorly maintained, and winding mountain road. The road was being re-worked but construction was halted for a short time due to a lack of funding. Construction is scheduled for completion in late 2012.
Regardless of which way you travel to Mazatlán, sit back and enjoy the trip. In fact, you may consider trying all of them.