A white minivan on a well-paved two-land road that winds between rolling golden hills dotted with greenery.

On the cuota (toll) road between Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta. Photo © Matt Rutledge, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

If you’re adventurous and like going to out-of-the-way places, but you still want to have all the comforts of home, you may enjoy driving your own car or RV to Puerto Vallarta. On the other hand, consideration of cost, risk, wear on both you and your vehicle, and the congestion hassles in towns may change your mind.

Crossing the Border: Squeezing through border bottlenecks during peak holidays and rush hours can be time-consuming. Avoid crossing 7am-9am and 4:30pm-6:30pm.

Highway Routes from the United States

If you’ve decided to drive to Puerto Vallarta, you have your choice of three general routes. At safe highway speeds, each of these routes requires a minimum of about 24 hours of driving time. Maximize comfort and safety by following the broad toll (cuota) expressways that often parallel the old, narrow nontoll (libre) routes. Despite the increased cost (about $60 for a car, more than double that for a motor home), the cuota expressways will save you at least a day’s driving time (and the extra food and hotel tariffs) and wear and tear on both your vehicle and your nerves. Most folks allow three full south-of-the-border driving days to Puerto Vallarta, but it can be done in less.

Mexico does not recognize foreign insurance. When you drive into Mexico, Mexican auto insurance is at least as important as your passport.From the U.S. Pacific Coast and west, follow National Highway 15 (called 15D as the toll expressway) from the border at Nogales, Sonora, an hour’s drive south of Tucson, Arizona. Highway 15D continues southward smoothly, leading you through cactus-studded mountains and valleys, which turn into green lush farmland and tropical coastal plain and forest by the time you arrive in Mazatlán. Watch for the periféricos and truck routes that guide you past the congested downtowns of Hermosillo, Guaymas, Ciudad Obregón, Los Mochis, and Culiacán. The cuota, for the most part, now bypasses the cities, so you don’t need to work very hard at avoiding them. Between these centers, you speed along via cuota expressway all the way to Mazatlán. If you prefer not to pay the high tolls, stick to the old libre highway. Hazards, bumps, and slow going might force you to reconsider, however.

From Mazatlán, continue along the new multilane cuota to Tepic, where Highways 15 and 15D fork left (east) to Guadalajara and Highway 200 heads south to Puerto Vallarta and beyond.

This road from Durango to Mazatlán should not under any circumstances be driven at night or in bad weather conditions. There are literally hundreds of switchbacks, and way too many large trucks with aggressive, impatient drivers.If, however, you’re driving to Puerto Vallarta from the central United States , cross the border at El Paso to Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. There, National Highway 45D, the new cuota multilane expressway, leads you southward through high, dry plains past the cities of Chihuahua and Jiménez, where you continue by expressway Highway 49 to Gómez Palacio-Torreón. There, proceed southwest toward Durango, via expressway Highway 40D. At Durango, head west along the winding but spectacular two-lane trans-Sierra National Highway 40, which intersects National Highway 15 just south of Mazatlán. From there, continue south as already described. This road from Durango to Mazatlán should not under any circumstances be driven at night or in bad weather conditions. There are literally hundreds of switchbacks, and way too many large trucks with aggressive, impatient drivers. This is a spectacular drive better taken under optimum conditions. After driving it once, I was told by several people that it has been ranked among the top 10 most dangerous stretches of road in the world—hence the nickname the Devil’s Backbone. As an alternative, consider continuing south from Torreón to Zacatecas, and then southwest to Guadalajara. From Guadalara it’s an easy spin on the cuota to Compostela and then down Highway 200 to Puerto Vallarta.

Folks heading to western Pacific Mexico from the eastern and southeastern United States should cross the border from Laredo, Texas, to Nuevo Laredo. From there, you can follow either the National Highway 85 (libre) route or the new Highway 85D cuota road, which continues, bypassing Monterrey, where you proceed via expressway Highway 40D all the way to Saltillo. At Saltillo, keep going westward on Highway 40 or expressway 40D, through Torreón to Durango. Continue via the two-lane Highway 40 over the Pacific crest all the way to National Highway 15, just south of Mazatlán. Continue southward as described earlier (or choose the alternative described earlier).

A Note of Caution

Although bandidos no longer menace Mexican roads (but loose burros, horses, and cattle still do), be cautious in the infamous marijuana-and opium-growing region of Sinaloa state north of Mazatlán. It’s best not to stray from Highway 15 between Culiacán and Mazatlán or from Highway 40 between Mazatlán and Durango. Curious tourists have been assaulted in the hinterlands adjacent to these roads. In general, norteamericanos on the road are advised to more or less hurry through northern Baja and northern Mexico in general. The occasional kidnapping and/or random, “collateral damage” type incident does occur—let’s not kid ourselves—but these incidents are few and far between. Perhaps tourists cannot go off the beaten track in northern Mexico like they could in safer times, but there are literally thousands of Americans who drive through Mexico every year without incident.

Mexican Car Insurance

Mexico does not recognize foreign insurance. When you drive into Mexico, Mexican auto insurance is at least as important as your passport. At the busier crossings, you can get it at insurance “drive-ins” just north of the border. The many Mexican auto insurance companies are government regulated; their numbers keep prices and services competitive.

Sanborn’s Mexico Insurance (2009 S. 10th Street, McAllen, TX 78503, tel. 956/686-3601, toll-free U.S. tel. 800/222-0158), one of the best-known agencies, certainly seems to be trying hardest. It offers a number of books and services, including the Recreational Guide to Mexico, a good road map, “smile-by-mile” Travelog guide to “every highway in Mexico,” hotel discounts, and more. Much of this is available to members of Sanborn’s Sombrero Club.

Alternatively, look into Vagabundos del Mar (toll-free U.S. tel. 800/474-2252), an RV-oriented Mexico travel club offering memberships that include a newsletter, caravanning opportunities, discounts, insurance, and much more.

Mexican car insurance runs from a barebones rate of about $8 a day for minimal $10,000/$50,000 (property damage/medical payments) coverage to a more typical $15 a day for more complete $20,000/$100,000 coverage. On the same scale, insurance for a $50,000 RV and equipment runs about $35 a day. These daily rates decrease sharply for six-month or one-year policies, which run from about $200 for the minimum to $400-1,600 for complete, high-end coverage.

If you get broken glass, personal effects, and legal expenses coverage with these rates, you’re lucky. Mexican policies don’t usually cover them.

You should get something for your money, however. The deductibles should be no more than $300-500, the public liability/medical payments should be about double the legal minimum ($25,000 maximum payment for property damage, $25,000 maximum medical payments per person, and $50,000 maximum total medical payments per accident), and you should be able to get your car fixed in the United States and receive payment in U.S. dollars for losses. If not, shop around.


The Green Angels

The Green Angels have answered many motoring tourists’ prayers in Mexico. Bilingual teams of two, trained in auto repair and first aid, help distressed tourists along main highways. They patrol fixed stretches of road twice daily by truck. To make sure they stop to help, pull completely off the highway and raise your hood. You may want to hail a passing trucker to call them for you (Mexico emergency number 078 for the tourism hotline, or 01-800/903-9200).

If for some reason you have to leave your vehicle on the roadside, don’t leave it unattended. Hire a local teenager or adult to watch it for you. Unattended vehicles on Mexican highways are quickly stricken by a mysterious disease, the symptom of which is rapid loss of vital parts.

A Healthy Car

Preventive measures spell good health for both you and your car. Get that tune-up (or that long-delayed overhaul) before, rather than after, you leave. Also, carry a stock of spare parts, which will be more difficult to get and more expensive in Mexico than at home. Carry an extra tire or two, a few cans of motor oil and octane enhancer, oil and gas filters, fan belts, spark plugs, tune-up kit, points, and fuses. Be prepared with basic tools and supplies, such as screwdrivers; pliers, including vise grip; lug wrench; jack; adjustable wrenches; tire pump and patches; tire pressure gauge; steel wire; and electrical tape. For breakdowns and emergencies, carry a folding shovel, a Husky rope or chain, a gasoline can, and flares.


Mexican Gasoline

Pemex, short for Petróleos Mexicanos, the government oil monopoly, markets diesel fuel and two grades of gasoline, both unleaded: 92-octane premium and 89-octane Magna. Magna (MAHG-nah) is good gas, yielding performance similar to that of U.S.-style “regular” or “super-unleaded” gasoline. It runs about $0.75 per liter (about $2.85 per gallon).

On main highways, Pemex makes sure that major stations (spaced typically about 20 mi/32 km apart) stock Magna. There has been a huge upsurge in the number of Pemex stations in recent years, so the fear of running out of gas is much diminished. However, when traveling long distances in Mexico, it’s a good rule of thumb to fill up whenever you get under half full.

Gas Station Thievery

When stopping at the gasolinera, make sure that your cameras, purses, and other movable items are out of reach. Also, make sure that your car has a lockable gas cap. If not, insist on pumping the gas yourself, or be superwatchful as you pull up to the gas pump. Make certain that the pump reads zero before the attendant pumps the gas.

Mordidas (Bribes)

The usual meeting ground of the visitor and Mexican police is in the visitor’s car on a highway or downtown street. To the tourist, such an encounter may seem to be mild harassment by the police, accompanied by vague threats of going to the police station or impounding the car for such-and-such a violation. The tourist often goes on to say, “It was all right, though…We paid him $20, and he went away…. Mexican cops sure are crooked, aren’t they?”

And, I suppose, if people want to go bribing their way through Mexico, that’s their business. But calling Mexican cops crooked isn’t exactly fair. Police, like most everyone else in Mexico, have to scratch for a living, and they have found that many tourists are willing to slip them a $20 bill for nothing. Rather than crooked, I would call them hungry and opportunistic.

Instead of paying a bribe, do what I’ve done a dozen times: Remain cool, and if you’re really guilty of an infraction, calmly say, “Ticket, please.” (“Boleto, por favor.”) After a minute or two of stalling, and no cash appearing, the officer most likely will not bother with a ticket but will wave you on with only a warning. If, on the other hand, the officer does write you a ticket, he will probably keep your driver’s license, which you will be able to retrieve at the presidencia municipal (city hall) the next day in exchange for paying your fine.

If you rent a car at the airport in Puerto Vallarta and head north, do not start out by rushing up the stretch of highway just outside the airport—this is a notorious speed trap, with transitos (local traffic cops) just waiting for excited, newly arrived vacationing gringos to speed past.

Driving to Puerto Vallarta from the United States

Excerpted from the Ninth Edition of Moon Puerto Vallarta.