Mexican Car Insurance:: Driving to San Carlos from the Arizona border involves some paperwork. Mexican car insurance is a must in case of accident; we shopped around and got ours at the daily rate at Oldwest Mexico Insurance in Ajo. The full coverage at under $80 for 10 days was even better than some of the "discount" deals on the internet, which were running around $100. Since we didn’t take our motor home, this was for our 2002 Hyundai Elantra.
Best place to cross the border: Unless you relish waiting in long lines of cars for hours while street vendors try to sell you things you probably don’t need, the truck crossing in Nogales is the way to go. From the Mariposa Mall on Highway 89, follow Mariposa Road (Highway 189) all the way down to the border. It’s open between 6am and 10pm daily. We zipped right on through, stopping only to pay the toll at the booth just past the border, and at Km 21 on Highway 15 for customs.
Visa: We parked at Km 21, plenty of spaces, and were led by big signs and arrows to each "station". First, we filled out formas migratorias (visa applications) which were stamped by the official, good for six months. We were told to pay the 210 peso ($21) fee at any bank when we arrived at our destination. We were then directed to have copies made of these forms, plus our passports, drivers licenses, and vehicle title and registration. We saved a little cash by already having copies of the other forms.
Sonora Only permit: We’d read in several places that this could only be used for stays in Sonora state of 72 hours or less, but when we spoke to the young man behind the counter in the regular permit line, he assured us we qualified for this free permit. On we walked to the "Sonora Only" building, and were immediately helped by a young woman who issued us a free temporary import of vehicle permit, certificate, and silver holographic sticker that was to be placed in the corner of our windshield, passenger side. And that was it! We were on our way.
Toll roads: We drove mostly on the toll road, but took one libre spur just to see the little town of Magdalena. The quality of the toll road was not surprisingly much better than the side roads, but one common characteristic of all the roads is that they have NO SHOULDERS! If they do, they’re only a few inches wide. If you stray off the road going 100 Km/per hour, you’re likely to roll over. There are many shrines and crosses all along the road that mark where unfortunate people wrecked and died. The tolls are collected both coming and going. The fees are 35 pesos (Nogales), 17 pesos (Magdalena), and 53 pesos (Hermosillo) respectively; just under $10 if you choose to pay in pesos, just over US$10 if you pay in dollars.
Speaking Spanish: Again, a no-brainer, but speaking the language REALLY helps. I get by pretty well in Spanish, and was endlessly complimented and appreciated. As an experiment, I sometimes pretended to be ESO (English-speaking only); even by those Mexican citizens who speak good English, the reception is a shade or two cooler.
The water I’ve always heard and read NOT to drink any tap water in Mexico, and avoid ice cubes, produce which may not have been washed in purified water, and roadside food stands. As a nurse, I know about not fun ova, parasites, and bacteria that can wreak havoc with the gastro-intestinal system, and beyond. However my anal-retentiveness only goes so far. The first two days we were at the Plaza Hotel, Bob inadvertently drank tap water, not noticing that the "purified water" sticker belonged to another faucet off to the side. He remained fine. We enjoyed iced drinks all over town, and had plenty of fresh fruits and veggies in a variety of restaurants, although we didn’t stop at any stands. We brought 10 gallons of Huachuca City AZ tap water with us in two collapsible five-gallon bags, and only used one of them for drinking, coffee, mixing with whey powder, etc. while we were at the inn that didn’t have a purified water faucet. No problema! Find out more about travelers’ diahrrea at this CDC information sheet.
Beer We found out the best places to buy good beer economically were at the roadside subagencias which sell the major Mexican brands. At first, we bought quarts of beer in the grocery stores for a hefty price. Even though the subagencias were all over, the way they were set up, they looked like bars to us. When we were assured this was not the case, we went in to buy. Twenty long-neck Coronas cost 165 pesos, but when you bring the empty bottles back in the box, you are refunded 50 pesos, or if you want another 20 pack, it will only cost 115 pesos because you are trading in the empties for fulls.
Re-entering the U.S. We are especially clueless in some regards. Crossing borders seems to be one of them. I doubt many readers would do as we did the last time we returned to the U.S. from Baja many years ago, that is, not heeding the red stop light well back from the checkpoint and following the car in front of us right up to the entry kiosk. The U.S. entry guard just about had apoplexy and we were guaranteed a thorough search of our camper. So this time, I reminded Bob to not only wait for the light, but also some indication that the customs official was ready for us. We already suspected we were in the worst line (of the four passenger car lines) because ours was moving the slowest. As our turn came, we crept up slowly to the kiosk. The guy made no eye contact with us and seemed to be counting vehicles in the long lines. Finally he asked us for papers, and I handed our passports and Mexican visas. "I don’t need those, just your passports. What state you from?" That question demands a quick, definite response, not, "Uh, California". In fact, we are from California but recently changed our residency to New Mexico, and our vehicles and licenses are New Mexican, which the observant official quickly pointed out. After a few more questions, big surprise, we were directed to have our vehicle inspected. The inspector was much nicer, seemed to be mostly concerned about the illegal importation of birds, and after looking in the back seat and trunk, was satisfied that nothing needed to be emptied out or taken apart.