Thru May 2019 and from October to January 2020 we visited Mexico.
Here some practical information about our overlanding journey. For more ample details and pics please refer to our respective posts.
Kindly note all information given is based on our personal perceptions and observations. Of course, you might experience it in a different way and judge situations differently.
Mexico is Huge – Which Areas will Not Impress Your Followers on Instagram
Just to start with: there are certain insecure areas in Mexico – mainly with a number of cartel activities. We think you may drive thru, but you do not really want to visit intensively. This applies mainly to the northern border area, parts of Sinaloa and Sonora, Michoacan and Guerrero States. And according to our information definitely Tamaulipas.
On the other side there are Mexico’s package tour infested areas: the north – eastern part of Yucatan peninsula – for overlanders, backpackers and other independent travelers probably of much less interest. Except if you need to recover a few days in a 250 US$ all-inclusive Hotel in Cancun.
It includes especially Cancun, Chichen Itza, Riviera and Costa Maya. To a certain extent also Merida (and Uxmal).
We visited part of these touristy areas, but wouldn’t do it again.
The Red Tape – Crossing Borders
Nothing easier than entering or leaving Mexico – even with a car. Most citizens don’t need a visa. You just fill in the tourist card (Forma Migratoria Multiple – FMM) and eventually get your car documents.
Despite all anxious questions of many people who never have crossed any other borders than the 1s to the US or Canada it’s absolutely no problem, no danger and no what so ever to enter Mexico by any land border or airport, …
… provided you use a reasonable border post if driving down from the US. We’ve crossed at Tecate. A little east of Tijuana. Nobody queuing up. We were the only 1s crossing at that time. There were no scams, no shootings, no narcos patrolling the streets, etc. Simply avoid the famous hotspots like Laredo, Nogales or Tijuana where you never know what’s going on. Or be well informed.
Tecate: At the US side there was nobody, an open barrier, we simply drove thru and we’re told by Mexican customs that we’re not supposed to do so before we visited immigration. No problem, they showed us where to park the car in Tecate and we walked back: back on US territory – again nobody on US side, then we turned back and knocked at the door of the Mexican immigration. Get the stamp for 6 months after paying some 30 US$ pp for the Forma Migratoria Multiple (FMM). It took us 10’. Don’t loose any papers you get. Without receipt you’ll pay again on the way out of Mexico. Be aware they consider the FMM an important document when you leave Mexico. Here a link for those who need much more information.
As we entered Baja California no need to get the Mexican import documents for the car – Baja is a free zone (as are parts of Sonora and Quintana Roo).
Nevertheless, know that you need a Mexican car insurance. We bought the insurance recommended by AAA: Groupe Nacional Provincial S. A . Some 300 US$ for 6 months.
And that’s the border adventure. No need to search for travel buddies to drive in a convoy, no need to get anything in advance on internet or a prior visit to a Mexican consulate and no need to immigrate illegally because you’re not used to immigration officers. Nevertheless, it’s a certain advantage if you speak some Spanish.
If you continue your trip from Baja California or Sonora to other Mexican States you’ll need a TIP. Getting it in La Paz is extremely easy. In La Paz go to the Banjercito Branch inside the ferry terminal in Pichilingue – a few km outside town. Tell them that you want to temporarily import your car. Pay some 56 US$ (in $ and cash), pay your deposit either 300, 400 or 500 $ depending on your car’s age (cash or credit card in the car owners name). For all that money you’ll get the TIP as long valid as you’re currently allowed to stay in Mexico. Additionally, you get a beautiful sticker to fix on the windshield. That’s it. If you have an RV (mentioned in your car document) you’ll get 10 years without deposit.
To get out of Mexico: Stamp at immigration, return the FMM and show the receipt of entrance fee. Go to the Banjercito branch at the customs. Cancel the TIP, remove the sticker from the car and have a few pictures of the car taken. Then they’ll reimburse you either the deposit paid in cash (again in US$) or transfer it on your CC account. That’s it. Should you plan to revisit Mexico within the validity of the TIP just tell them and keep the document. Easy, isn’t it? It’s the way we experienced it from Chetumal to Belize.
Language – Who the Hell Needs Spanish
It’s true, if you’re booking a package tour to spend an all-inclusive week in Cancun or somewhere else at the Riviera Maya you better make sure to speak reasonably American English than anything else. Probably the same applies for Los Cabos.
For all other places in Mexico it wouldn’t be wrong to know a few words in Spanish. Everything simply gets much easier and is greatly appreciated. Should you be able to communicate a little more you’ll even discover much more of Mexico. Of course, this doesn’t apply to any encounters with the police on the road.
Money Matters – Even in Mexico
Please note, Mexico has its own currency: the Peso. And approximately 20 Pesos are 1 US$.
If buying a Taco in a food stall you won’t use your credit card. But, what you need is cash. Many visitors to Mexico still think greenbacks may be used all over the world. Or they’re simply not aware that other currencies than the US$ even exist. It’s true, in Mexico at most places they accept US$ – maybe it’s not their preference as they have to change it later to Peso.
But by doing so, often you pay between 10 and 50% more as they invent their own exchange rate. Mexicans know that their legal tender is the Peso, not the $. Thus, you pay for ignoring that.
So, what to do. It’s easy – get Pesos. And US$ addicted guys have to learn how to divide everything by 20. Sorry for that, but feasible, isn’t it.
Of course, for that you’ll need cash Pesos? Go to an ATM, as you do at home. Better go to 1 in a bank to be sure nobody manipulated it. The same you do preferably at home as well. And go to a bank not charging too much for using your foreign card: Banamex or Satander. In any case decline to have the amount directly converted into your currency. That also sets you back by 15%. Just say no to this indecent proposal. And then you get your Pesos.
Driving the Mexico Way – Italy and Congo Are Worse
Despite all rumours we think Mexicans usually don’t drive with less discipline than many citizens in other countries. So, no worry about that – Italy is definitely worse. Just know a few specialities of Mexican drivers: they rarely show directions, but use constantly the warning lights – also if they change direction. Thus, warning lights in front of you may mean I’m turning to the right, I’m turning to the left, I’m driving slowly, or I forgot them.
To tell you, that you may bypass the car in front of you: signal on the left. In most other countries that means do not bypass I’ll turn to the left. But as Mexicans don’t show directions they use it their own way – maybe except for the few Mexicans showing directions.
Speed: nobody excessively speeds within a limit of about 25%. We never saw police checking speed.
Roads in Mexico – the Worst Thing is Called Topes
Especially in the north and centre there are many toll highways. They are considered safer than ordinary roads thru narco land. But at a prize: about 1-2 Pesos /km, sometimes even more. Definitely more than you pay anywhere else in the world. The big advantage is that they bypass these numerous villages which are all infested with speed bumps (Topes). And that’s a real relief.
As well, good to know: The Angeles Verdes may help you should your car feel uneasy on the highway. We have no experience with these guys, but we’ve seen their mechanics occasionally. Just call 078 and somewhen an angel should arrive – provided there’s a network.
How to socialize with the police: a subject to eternal discussion in many fb groups. We just had 1 unfriendly encounter. At least at that time we’re sure we observed all existing laws. Nevertheless, the guys tried hard to get all our Pesos into their pockets. We just played the absolutely friendly but incredibly dumb tourists not speaking a single word of Spanish and not used to any cell phone translator. Finally, we discussed among us loudly about embassy and cell phone – and immediately the police lost all interest in our incredible offenses.
In Spanish they reminded us to drive carefully. And off we were.
Take care in Mexico State: Foreign cars are not allowed to drive on Saturdays and daily between 5 and 11 am. They stopped us twice. Incredible language problems saved us from getting a ticket.
Anyway – don’t pay bribes. You get out of it without – and you’ll make life a little bit easier for all others.
You’re Tired of Mexico – Where to Find a Hotel for Your Car
If traveling for a longer period you may feel ready for a leave from your journey. You just feel like leaving your car where it is, taking the next plane and flying back to mom’n’dad.
No problem in Mexico if you’re in the right State. And that’s Baja California (North and South), Sonora and Quintana Roo. Here you don’t need a TIP. So you’re free to leave your car as long as you wish.
We left Prado in La Paz, Baja California for 6 months. There’s La Paz Mini Storage . Some 60 US$ a month for a covered place. The guys bring you to the airport and pick you up on return. Worked greatly.
Another possibility we didn’t try: Camping Cancun RV.
Mechanics – Your Car Needs a Doctor
There are many mechanics all over the country who are used to senior cars. If you have a model assembled in the US you’ll find all the spares you may need as Mexicans rely very much on US models. With other cars it’s much more difficult. Better wait with a repair until you’re in Belize or Guatemala. These guys are much more on an international level.
Nevertheless, Mexican mechanics are much more flexible and creative than any of their counterparts in the US or Canada. So, even without spares or with slightly unsuitable 1s they may find a solution.
SIM Card – if You Need to Call your Grandma
Telcel is the company to search for. 200 Pesos for free calls, SMS and 5 GB Internet per month. You won’t get it cheaper. So why support your crazy provider back home with its incredible roaming charges. To get the card you just need an ID, the money and 10 – 15’ time. Recharge on internet.
Security – Will Daddy Allow Me to Visit Mexico
There are so many opinions about this issue and so many sites on internet and so many discussions in fb groups it’s definitely difficult to have a clear opinion on this issue.
To increase your confusion preferably read as well the local press – and you won’t get out of security related issues again.
Visibly there’s a huge difference in the perception between many US or Canadian citizens visiting Mexico and visitors from other countries.
Supposedly guys outside North America are much more used to border crossings, to different cultures and behavior in foreign countries. Therefore, they’re often less concerned about security questions when traveling to Mexico.
Thus, reading fb groups with many members from North America may result in a pretty insecure feeling about visiting Mexico due to many numerous posts on crime, narcos, corruption, police, diseases. Whatever you can imagine. Probably also some influence of all these polemic in recent US politics.
During our 3 month’s visit to Mexico we never felt unsafe or threatened by anybody. Nevertheless, there were a few places we preferred just to quickly by-pass (eg. Culiacan in Sinaloa) or not to visit at all (western part of Guerrero and Michoacan State).
And you may feel certain restrictions as well when traveling thru rural Chiapas. This mainly due to local protests against the Government. Unfortunately they may occasionally also turn against you.
Still, if something feels wrong, probably it is. Keep your eyes open and stay informed. There are many areas where the narcos are active, there are states where people are not always happy with government decisions and there are places where smaller or bigger thieves have their empires.
Nevertheless, don’t be daunted by all these security forces active in the country.