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  1. Default Arizona to Sonora, Mexico

    Planning the Trip

    Geneviève Lauzière (Moderator Gen) came for a visit this week for a quick road trip to Sonora, Mexico. The original idea was to visit Puerto Peñasco for a chance to soak up some sun on the beach. As our plans evolved, we changed to San Carlos (Guaymas) and later we thought about San Felipe too (on the Baja peninsula) – but we ended up deciding the San Carlos area was our best choice. This was the first experience for either of us with driving into Mexico and it was a hoot.

    Since this is a long report -- I've broken it into separate posts and will add them one at a time. Driving in Mexico is a mystery for many of us -- and I thought perhaps telling about our experience might be useful for those who are interested in going there but are uneasy about it (as I was). Gen is on her way home to Quebec tonight -- but she says she will be posting some comments and observations about the trip as well once she's back online.

    The planning began a few days before departure – since traveling to Mexico does require some forethought and preparation.

    First, since my truck is financed, I had to get an authorization letter from the bank allowing me to take it across the border. This wasn’t difficult to obtain, but required a few days for mailing.

    I got some maps from AAA Arizona, a tour book (also AAA), and Mexican auto insurance for the specific days we’d be there. American automobile insurance is not valid in Mexico and traveling without it can earn you a quick trip to a local jail with no early release. To supplement my meager knowledge of Spanish, I also printed some useful Spanish phrases (like “where is the bathroom, pretty please…”). Gen’s preparations mirrored most of these steps.

    For much of northern Sonora, a vehicle permit is no longer required. This is a document that assures Mexico you are not importing a vehicle for sale in that country – an issue they are sensitive about. If the permit is required for your destination (in our case it wasn't), you must post a credit card or cash bond (credit card is much cheaper), and return the permit to them as you leave Mexico again.

    While we were able to skip that step, we both had to get a visa, also called a “tourist permit,” or a “forma migratoria” (“FM”) as we entered the country. We had no trouble obtaining this at an entrance station just across the border – I used my U.S. passport and Gen got her permit with a driver license and birth certificate (and her expired passport as back-up). We had no trouble, not even a raised eyebrow, getting across these borders without a passport, as long as we had the other documents (for US or Canadian citizens).

    Note: It is my opinion that some travelers to Mexico could “get away” with NOT having the required documents and the insurance. You might not get stopped; you might not get asked to show the paperwork. But if you do, and you don’t have it, you will be subject to a bureaucratic nightmare (at the very least) and possibly criminal charges and jail as well. The paperwork and documents are easy to arrange and obtain. Why take a chance? Find out what is required, and comply. Dealing with the Mexican authorities was easy -- as was U.S. Customs coming back in.

    Finally, we stopped in Nogales, Arizona and exchanged some dollars for pesos. Many places in Sonora accept dollars as if they were their own – but San Carlos is 260 miles into Mexico from Nogales, and in some smaller communities and situations, having pesos makes sense. Of course Señor Visa is also welcome almost everywhere tourists go.

    To be continued; Part 2, Getting on the Road

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jan 1998
    Las Vegas, Nevada

    Default "Of course Señor Visa is also welcome..."

    Quote Originally Posted by Arizona Bob View Post
    Planning the Trip
    Bob, I am enjoying the report thus far! I am sure this will be a popular thread for a while!


  3. #3
    Join Date
    Nov 2005
    The Great Midwest, Illinois to be precise

    Default Great Report

    Enjoyed your first post, and look forward to reading more. Many of my students came from Mexico, and I enjoyed reading about their lives in the smaller towns and viillages. I had students write about their lives for reports. Hopefully, you were able to visit them. Perhaps, we'll call it the "Real" Mexico.

  4. Default Part 2 -- Getting on the Road

    Driving to San Carlos

    After leaving Phoenix about 10 a.m. on 2/12, we headed south into Sonora on Route 15. The highway is four-lane divided road – and a toll road. You’d think it would be great driving (since it is a toll road and a major highway) – but the Mexican highways we encountered are quite different from what you find in the U.S. and Canada – first, they tend to be a bit rough and potholed in some places.

    Second, our southern neighbors haven’t yet discovered the value of a shoulder! Gen and I are both inveterate photo-takers, but we were stymied in that pursuit because you simply cannot safely pull over far enough to get out of the way – the highway edge is a drop-off that in most places you cannot negotiate. Even driving customs (the rules of the road) are a bit different south of the border (although not excessively so) – it takes some learning and paying attention to acclimatize.

    We immediately found beautiful scenery (Sonoran Desert and pastoral lands), friendly people (even the officials), and lots of gasoline stations. One of the highlights for Gen was the abundance of roadside stands selling produce, chiles, honey, you-name-it.

    For gasoline, Pemex (Petroleum Mexico) is the only brand. There is no such thing as “self-serve.” I took the advice offered by veterans of Mexican roads, and purchased the higher octane fuel and also added fuel detergent additives just to be safe. A smart precaution is to carry a spare fuel filter while traveling in Mexico.

    In addition to the station operator who pumps your petrol, there are usually others hanging around waiting for the opportunity to clean your windshield for a few pesos (or a dollar or two). A simple “no, gracias” discourages them if you are not interested in this service. A couple of times, these eager folks even offered to wash the entire vehicle for us. I refuse to believe that this had anything to do with the fact that my truck hasn’t been washed since almost forever.

    We saw several of the Green Angels along the way -- they are official department of tourism mechanics who cruise Sonoran highways in green and white trucks and help stranded motorists. I waved to them every chance I got as "insurance."

    We made it to Hermosillo, the state capital, simultaneously with the evening rush hour. Gen drove, I perspired (traffic, traffic, traffic). The only real problem we encountered though was a traffic jam in a construction zone where we encountered a few rude drivers, and it slowed us down for a few minutes.

    We Break the Rules

    As we headed south from Hermosillo, it got dark. Travelers are advised not to drive in Mexico after dark – but by this time we really had no choice. This was not the only rule of traveling in Mexico which we violated -- and if you recall our reports about my trip to Quebec last fall, we were rebellious and careless of rules there too -- which was even more serious since Canadians are so polite to start with! Yes, we are trouble-makers.

    On our arrival at San Carlos at about 8:30 p.m. or so, we couldn’t find our hotel right off, so we stopped at a restaurant, ate dinner, and asked directions. Our hotel was typical of those I’ve found in Mexico – crude construction, but clean and neat for the most part. Some of the amenities were out of order (like the Jacuzzi) and there were some other small problems. But why worry about it? If it isn’t life threatening, ”mañana” is an easy-going less-stressful way of life! We succeeded in getting some additional towels, but never did get the cooking utensil we asked for – the room had a kitchenette which was fairly useless to us without a pot. We did use the microwave. Part of the charm of Mexico is the friendliness of the people you meet – you encounter warmth and courtesy everywhere you go.

    We settled in, went for a short walk around the neighborhood (the 2nd broken rule – “don’t walk around after dark.”) We discovered there wasn’t anything going on anyway – and there was one angry dog and one shady-looking character hanging around, so we hurried back to our hotel. After spirited negotiations concerning the next morning's wake up time, we headed off to our rooms for a welcome night's sleep. Mañana, a la playa y Guaymas!

  5. Default The real Mexico

    We did find it -- it is everything that is NOT a border town! :) There is such a difference when you get away from the hustle associated with the tourist business.

    I used my Visa debit card some, but mostly I traded pesos for my purchases -- it was easy if you kept in mind "ten pesos to the dollar" (roughly), so you could make sure you got the right change -- although no one tried to swindle me that I know of. Still, it pays to be alert. I still have a few pesos left for my next trip.

  6. Default Photo Link

    If you'd care to see some photos from the San Carlos and Guaymas area, check out this link to my photosite.

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Mar 2005
    Québec, Montreal, Arizona, California, France

    Default Preparation & safety concerns

    The planning began a few days before departure – since traveling to Mexico does require some forethought and preparation.
    In addition to that I would add a few more steps. Make sure you have travel insurance, especially medical. Sometimes your house insurance will cover loss or stolen luggage. I also made photocopies of all my important documents : driver's licence, health care card, passport, insurance policy numbers and phone numbers, birth certificate and also of my other cards such as credit cards, debit cards, social security, car registering, etc. and put them in various places in my bags -- don't put you credit card numbers in the most easily accessible spots though. I printed several pieces of paper with my name, address, phone numbers in case of emergency in both languages and put pieces of paper with the number and address of the Canadian consulate in my bags. Even though I felt ridiculous doing so, I told my relatives that if someone ever called them asking for a ransom that they should ask to speak with me first because someone might have found one of those pieces of papers and just pretend to have kidnapped me. I didn't want to act paranoïd but it has happened before.

    There are two major cell phone companies in Mexico and the one servicing Sonora is Telcel. You usually have to call your cell phone company prior to your trip so they can put your phone in international mode. Make sure you have enough pesos for the tolls if you plan on using a toll road. I would also bring a couple of practical items such as : sleeping bag(s), blankets, pots and pans, silverware, soap and sponge for the dishes, drinks and snacks, jugs of purified water, towels and washcloth, shampoo and soap, alarm clock and ear plugs.

    It was heartbreaking for me not to be able to communicate fluently in Spanish since there was so many things I would've liked to ask and tell some people. I have to admit that Bob and I were a good team though. With our limited knowledge of Spanish and my knowledge of French (related latin language) we usually managed to figure out what the other wasn't able to decode. Although we did have to use my dictionnary more than once to find the meaning of some words. Anyone going to Mexico with limited knowledge of Spanish should at least bring one of those dictionnaries and some printed sentences.

    As a woman, moreover a white woman, I was a little self-conscious about being a more "visible" target, but everyone was well behaved and polite. The only time I happened to be walking by myself for a while in San Carlos, guys were simply smiling, waving at me and whistling from their car but when I was accompanied by Señor Bob, they were simply staring and smiling. Some of them asked if we were married and THEN if I was Bob's daughter, which we both thought was hilarious...Especially me!:o)

    It is a common habit for Mexican men to turn their heads all the way around to stare at women and whistle but it rarely goes further than that unless you demonstrate any interest in that sense. Mostly, people seemed to be curious about us, white folks and I never really felt threatened in any way even when carrying my expensive camera around. Most importantly, I never overheard anything like "estupido Americano" (Canadiense in my case) or "gringo" except when we were joking with them and I thought Mexican were incredibly warm and friendly. I love their general outspokeness. The wild outbursts of Mexican mambo coming from the stores and houses everywhere made me feel inexplicably overjoyed.

    One of the highlights for Gen was the abundance of roadside stands selling produce, chiles, honey, you-name-it.
    Primitive shrines were another type of roadside attraction that was omnipresent along the roads in Mexico and, as you enter cities such as Guaymas and Hermosillo, taco stands are everywhere too. "Topes", also known as speed bumps, are opportunities for locals to sell their products to the travelers : fruits, jewelry, pottery, etc.

    I'll let Bob take over and tell a little more about our adventure since he did it so well this far:o). I'm especially anxious to read the rest of the story or rather, how he's going to put it (...)


  8. Default Part 3 -- San Carlos & Guaymas

    Seeing the Sights; Learning the Lingo
    On Day 2, we bought and ate a “continental” breakfast from a nearby market and then went off to explore San Carlos and the coastline. The coast there is rugged – the desert meets the blue waters in mostly a vertical & rocky fashion, as you can see by the photos we took. We stopped by to see some scenic views, and checked out a couple of beaches. At one scenic overlook, some vendors had set up shop and were selling handicrafts of different varieties. We did some “window shopping.”

    Afterwards, we drove the 15 kilometers or so back toward Guaymas for lunch and more exploring. We got lost trying to find the downtown, but got back there with Gen’s good map-reading and navigating and me trying to keep track of direction and road signs amidst all the personal mental confusion. There was simply too much visual stimulation!

    We parked and trooped around the plaza, took some more photos (some of the buildings, the plaza and the waterfront), and we walked several blocks to a guidebook-recommended restaurant (that we found had closed). Not finding anything else in the immediate area, we started back to San Carlos and had lunch instead at a grilled chicken chain restaurant we found along the way.

    I learned some new Spanish words from the proprietor; she was more than willing to help me broaden my linguistic horizons – “como se dice en español these onion thingies here…” I speak very little Spanish these days – my vocabulary used to be fairly extensive, but a dearth of practice has resulted in a loss of vocabulary, and any practical ability to speak and read. In the border towns, no one wants to take the time to deal with a novice Spanish speaker – they will simply answer you in English when you try. But farther south, many seemed to be more willing to help us learn. Between the two of us, (as Gen noted) we actually did very well communicating in Spanish in most circumstances, but I think next time I will try to be a little more fluent.

    Beach, Sunset, Angry Seagulls and Yanqui Ingenuity (?)
    Back at San Carlos, we grabbed our beach towels and an old sleeping bag for a beach blanket and headed back to Los Algodones Beach to watch the sunset. It was breathtakingly beautiful – and I had the bonus opportunity to royally freak out a sea gull when I took a photo of him in near-darkness while he was looking straight into my camera lens. I guess he didn’t like the flash. He very vocally told us off and flew away at high speed after briskly shaking his head several times. We had a couple of little cigars, Gen had a sip or two of some good Mexican wine, and as the sun went down it got a bit chilly. We got some beautiful photos on that beach – the light and color made it magnificent.

    We had parked right on the beach and as we arrived, Gen suggested I go “just a little bit further.” OK, no problem. And if I had backed out the same way I drove in, it would have continued to be “no problem.” Unfortunately, while attempting to make our exit, I tried to make a wide turn to one side and promptly found sand that was somewhat deeper, and quite a bit softer. We got stuck immediately. My truck doesn’t have those big knobby heavy-duty tires.

    I rocked the truck back and forth and spun the tires at supersonic speed just to prove beyond a doubt that we were, in fact, stuck. I got out to survey the situation. Our only hope for self-extrication lay with the old sleeping bag and Gen’s muscle. We dug out the tire as best we could, pushed the sleeping bag underneath the tire to purchase a bit more traction, and as I held the throttle at the point where the tires would almost spin, Gen pushed. It took several attempts; we’d slowly, torturously, go a few feet and get mired again. After several cycles, we finally got out onto firmer sand and down the road. The only casualties were the sleeping bag (fatal) and Gen got whacked by the door of the truck as it closed on her while she pushed as the truck finally began to break free – her ribs are probably still tender.

    After a quick supper at the hotel, we sat on the balcony for a time considering our good fortune, surveying the stars and lamenting the fact that we’d have to head back to Phoenix the next morning.

  9. Default The importance of the sleeping bag...

    Ah yes, the importance of a good, thick sleeping bag will become apparent in Part 3!

    Gen says: I also made photocopies of all my important documents : driver's licence, health care card, passport, insurance policy numbers and phone numbers, birth certificate and also of my other cards such as credit cards, debit cards, social security, car registering, etc. and put them in various places in my bags
    Ah yes, I forgot to do that on the trip too -- Gen had to remind me. Sometimes they ask to keep your documents so it pays to have copies! Plus, it can be complicated if you lose one.

  10. Default Part 4 -- The Trip Home

    Heading Home – Federales, Shopping and Detours

    We got an early start (unusual for us as we are both night people) and headed back home with plans to visit the place where Jesuit missionary Fr. Francisco Eusebio Kino is entombed at Magdalena. We also wanted to avoid the long line for re-entry into the USA at Nogales by taking Route 2 over to Naco or Agua Prieta (from Imuris).

    On the way back north, I am finally beginning to drive more like a real Mexican -- negotiating traffic in Mexican cities is not for the timid! I have almost mastered the artful dodge and the sneaky slip.

    Once out of Hermosillo, the adventure continued with an army road block somewhere between there and Magdalena. These are common and in most instances the soldiers are just searching for weapons or drugs. We sat for about an hour while they set up the road block – then we moved fairly quickly down the line.

    At the roadblock, a very young soldier with an automatic weapon asked us a couple of questions – we waved our documents at him while Gen told him we didn’t understand – and after a few seconds he waved us through. It is always a bit uncomfortable to watch teenagers parading up and down the roadway with machine guns – but at the same time, I have never heard of an incident where an innocent foreign tourist was actually harmed during one of these roadblocks. Just maintain your patience and after awhile, you get going again.

    Gen couldn’t resist taking photos of roadside businesses, buildings and people, and we stopped for some shopping at a couple of them. We broke for lunch in Magdalena (at the El Toro, which was “mas exelente”), skipped our visit with Father Kino as it was getting late (after the roadblock), but we did take the Route 2 detour over to Naco.

    This road quickly climbs up into the mountains and over to Cananea – it’s narrow and trucks and buses use it heavily (again, no shoulders, but this time with cliffs). On one particularly exciting curve, a truck came at us about halfway into our lane – and didn’t give an inch. I squeezed my truck between him and the road’s edge, and squished me over into Gen’s side of the truck. After that, I took those curves very carefully. Closer to Cananea, we got into some snow (just on the sides – the road was dry). This area is high mountain country.

    Crossing the Border

    The northbound lines for U.S. Customs at Nogales were literally miles long on the day we went south. On the way home, we tried the Naco border crossing instead. This was about the best idea we had on the whole trip. At Naco there was only one car ahead of us in the line so the extra 50 miles were well worth the trouble. Still, there was lots of excitement – I had to give up a much-coveted and anticipated Golden Delicious apple to the customs agent – I couldn’t find my passport and Gen couldn’t find her driver license. After they pried that apple out of my clinched fingers and the paperwork all got straightened out, they let us pass and we headed home to Phoenix (with one quick stop in Tucson to visit AZ Buck).

    While I was uneasy about driving into a country for the first time where I wouldn’t feel in control, as in most all instances, I found that fear is mostly just fear of the unknown. Once you challenge the fear and have the experience, you find that people are just people most everywhere. We also broke some other Mexico travel-rules – we went on the beach at night and we ate fruits and vegetables purchased in local markets! None of this injudicious behavior resulted in any actual harm (while we certainly understand why being careful in strange places is an important thing to do, and how tourists can definitely be targets).

    Road-tripping in Mexico is just as much fun as it is anywhere else and I cannot wait to go back. I’m already thinking of a loop down through Sonora to Mazatlan, across the Sea of Cortes to Baja (on the ferry), and a drive back north through Baja to Calexico and home. Or, maybe I might make a jaunt through the historical Sierra Madres to Chihuahua and back north through La Ciudad Juarez. I’ll drive, take siestas, drink Mexican Coca-colas and eat steaks & charro beans! What could be cooler than that? Gen, are you game?

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