It’s easy to drive yourself across the border for a Baja adventure. There are several places to cross. The busiest is San Ysidro/Tijuana , and the quietest is Tecate . You don’t need a permit for your vehicle unless you plan to continue on to the mainland. You do need a validated tourist permit (US$25–30) if you plan to go south of Maneadero  or stay longer than 72 hours anywhere on the peninsula.
There is a lot of confusion and misinformation in travel circles about why and how to insure your vehicle when driving in Mexico. Whether you are driving your own vehicle into Mexico, renting a car to drive over the border, or renting within Mexico, read this section carefully:
Before driving into Baja, all drivers should arrange for Mexican vehicle insurance. Why? Mexican law requires drivers to have proof of financial liability (a minimum of US$50,000 worth) for any property damage or bodily injury they cause to other parties in an accident. Unless you have a bond with a Mexican bank or cash in hand at the time of an accident, the only practical way to comply with the law is to purchase an insurance policy underwritten by a Mexican company. Without it, a minor traffic accident can turn into a nightmare, involving jail time and steep financial penalties. No matter what your own insurance company may tell you, Mexican authorities do not recognize foreign insurance policies for private vehicles in Mexico.
If you are planning to drive your own vehicle, you can purchase short-term insurance—as little as one day’s worth—from one of 20 or so online vendors of Mexican Tourist Auto Insurance. Simply request a quote, complete an application, pay by credit card, and print a certificate from home before you leave for your trip. (You can purchase a policy in advance and set it to begin on the day you plan to cross the border.) Policy terms and quality of service vary significantly, so be sure you are dealing with a reputable broker before you buy. A good way to tell is to call and speak to a live person and then complete the process online.
If you’re not the plan-ahead type or you prefer to speak in person, you can stop in at several agencies found in nearly every border town between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Again, read the terms carefully before paying.
The first decision you’ll need to make is between a liability-only policy (to comply with the law) or full coverage (to protect your vehicle). Liability-only policies typically cover third-party liability from a minimum of US$50,000, up to US$300,000, plus legal expenses (levels range widely from US$500 to US$30,000), medical payments for you and your passengers (US$2,000–5,000 per person; US$19,000–25,000 per accident), and some form of roadside assistance. Higher-end policies may include medical evacuation and a flight home if your car is stolen or not drivable. Standard deductibles begin at US$500 and scale to 2–10 percent of the value of the vehicle, or a flat US$5,000 for motorcycles.
Full coverage adds physical damage and theft coverage to the list. Since the cost of upgrading from liability-only to full coverage amounts to a few dollars more per day, it usually makes sense to add the theft coverage and enjoy the peace of mind. Theft coverage typically carries a higher deductible than just liability.
In business since 2001, Santa Cruz, California–based Adventure Mexican Insurance (U.S. tel. 831/477-0599 or 800/485-4075, www.mexadventure.com ) provides daily, monthly, and annual Mexican auto insurance to individual travelers as well as travel organizations. The company’s website clearly explains Mexican insurance options and allows you to compare various policies from its three underwriters; well armed with information, you can then purchase online in a matter of minutes. For a long weekend trip to Baja, you’ll pay around US$30 for liability only and US$40 for full coverage (both at the minimum liability level of US$50,000). Full coverage monthly rates range US$200–350, depending on the value of the vehicle. Its policies cover repairs in the United States and include a bundled travel assistance package for medical evacuation of up to four passengers and plane tickets home if your vehicle is not drivable. Call toll-free for detailed information about insuring an RV, trailer, or other special circumstances. Short-term policies cover travel in all of Mexico, but for long-term policies, customers have the option of a regional North West policy covering Baja as well as the mainland states of Sonora, Chihuahua, and Sinaloa at a reduced rate.
Several travel clubs offer discounted rates to members: For example, Discover Baja Travel Club (3264 Governor Dr., San Diego, tel. 619/275-4225, toll-free U.S. tel. 800/727-2252, www.discoverbaja.com , 9 A.M.–5 P.M. Mon.–Fri., 10 A.M.–1 P.M. Sun.) offers liability insurance for only US$83 per year and full coverage starting at US$152. AAA members can purchase Mexican auto insurance through the travel club website (www.aaa.com ) or by phone.
If you forget to purchase insurance before you leave or prefer to purchase your policy in person, try Instant Mexico Insurance Services (223 Via de San Ysidro, U.S. tel. 619/428-4714, or 800/345-4701, www.instant-mex-auto-insur.com , 24 hrs. daily) at the last exit before the San Ysidro/Tijuana border crossing. You can also purchase tourist cards, fishing permits, maps, guidebooks, and other Baja requisites here.
Once you’ve purchased a policy, make several copies of it and put the originals in a safe place, separate from the copies. You should also carry a copy of the first page—the “declaration” or “renewal of declaration” sheet—of your home country insurance policy, since Mexican law requires drivers to enter the country with at least six months’ worth of insurance in their home country.
If you plan to head to the mainland from Baja (via ferry from Southern Baja or via land in Northern Baja), you’ll need to obtain a temporary vehicle import permit from a Mexican customs office at any of the border crossings or in La Paz at the ferry terminal. Bring a valid state registration for the vehicle (or similar document certifying legal ownership), driver’s license, and major credit card (not debit card) issued outside Mexico.
If you are leasing or renting the vehicle, you’ll also have to present the contract you’ve signed that allows you to bring the vehicle into Mexico. If you are borrowing the vehicle, you’ll need a notarized letter from the owner giving you permission to take the vehicle to Mexico.
Once Mexican customs officials have approved your documents, you’ll be directed to pay by credit card (issued to the name of the driver of the vehicle) at an adjoining Banjercito office (US$20). (If you don’t have a credit card, you’ll have to post a bond (1–2 percent of the vehicle’s blue-book value) issued by an authorized Mexican bond company, a time-consuming and expensive procedure.
Permits are valid for the same period of time shown on your tourist card or visa. You can drive back and forth across the border—at any crossing—as many times as you wish during the this time; however, you need to cancel the permit at the completion of your trip or the government will presume that you’ve permanently imported your vehicle (illegally) in Mexico and forbid you from obtaining another temporary vehicle import permit, should you need one for a future trip. Mexico has implemented a computerized vehicle permit tracking system, so you do not need to return the permit at the same place as you checked it in. You do, however, need to stop at the Banjercito office on the Mexican side of the border before leaving the country. Mexican border officials will scan your permit before you leave the country and give you a receipt for revoking the permit. For more information on this process, call toll-free U.S. tel. 800/922-8228.