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Travelers tips for San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico

Mexico Travel Information

This page is your basic planning guide for your trip to San Carlos. Traveling to San Carlos is easy by bus, air, private auto or RV but sometimes we just need someone to show us what to do and what documents we need.  What are you waiting for? Visit today!


It's Closer...and Cheaper... than You Think!

With the high cost of fuel in the USA, you might be tempted to forego that family vacation this summer.  Did you know that fuel is considerably cheaper in Mexico than it is in the US? Pemex regular unleaded is about $2.60/gallon in Mexico and diesel is less than half the US price at $2.35/gallon. And while the dollar has been down against many currencies, it is relatively strong against the Mexican Peso.   Find current exchange rates here.  Want to learn more about Mexico before you set off on your trip?  Try the followingMexico (Country Guide) for information on travel into Mexico.

US Consulate Travel Info & Safety Tips:

Traveler Contact Information

Travel Safety Tips

Bringing Domestic Help to the USA

Passport Requirements:

In an effort to enhance security and efficiency at U.S. borders, the U.S. government will soon enforce new passport requirements for all travelers entering or re-entering the United States from Canada, Mexico, and other locations.  These new rules include US Citizens.

By Air:  All air travelers need to have a passport, including US citizens returning to the US by air.

By Land & Sea: A passport or other qualified travel document is required at all US land border ports-of-entry.

For information on obtaining passports for citizens of Canada and Mexico, click here 

Passport Card Information Update-July 14, 2008 

Current Highway Conditions:  For the latest information on Arizona & Sonora Highway conditions, including construction, border crossing times and current events, see the AZ DOT 511 system web site.

The Sonora "Free Zone": The Sonora Free Zone program for vehicles has expanded!!  This means that those who plan to travel with vehicles in the state of Sonora north of Empalme/Guaymas no longer have to register and obtain a vehicle permit.  If you plan to travel to the San Carlos-Guaymas area and no further into Mexico, this option applies. This also applies to trailers, boats, etc. Tourist cards are still required but for stays of 7 days or less you can get a no-fee tourist card.

Where is the Free Zone?  The Free Zone includes the area west of Mexico Highway 15 to the coast or the border with Baja. It also includes the area from Douglas-Agua Prieta via Mexico Highway 2 west though Cananea to Imuris and everything north of that highway to the US-Mexico border. The southern end of the free zone is at KM 98 on Mexico 15, just south of Empalme. Communities in the free zone include Agua Prieta, Naco, Cananea, Nogales, Puerto Penasco, Sonoyta, San Luis Colorado, Caborca, Imuris, Magdalena, Santa Ana, Hermosillo, Kino Bay, San Carlos, Guaymas and Empalme.  See the map below-the free zone is in beige.



If you want to travel to the eastern part of Sonora, which includes the Route of the Rio Sonora, the lakes at Angostura and Novillo, and Moctezuma or to the southern part of Sonora including Obregon, Novojoa or Tobalabampo, you must have an Only Sonora or the All Mexico vehicle permit. The catch is you can only get an Only Sonora permit at KM 21 south of Nogales or at KM 98, south of Empalme. There are no other issue points for the Only Sonora permit at this time.

If you plan to travel beyond the state of Sonora, you must obtain an All Mexico permit for the vehicle which is good for 6 months and is valid for travel in all other areas of Mexico. You will need a credit card to post a bond of about $20 to guarantee you will not sell the car in Mexico. Note: If you use cash, the bond is over $200. Moral is use a credit card!

The new vehicle permit station is south of Empalme, at KM 98. All Mexico and Only Sonora permits are available at this station. Please note that you cannot return either an All Mexico or Only Sonora permit at the KM 98 vehicle permit station.  All Mexico permits can be returned at any border crossing site served by a Banjercito office and the Only Sonora permit must be returned at KM 21 south of Nogales.

Air Service: San Carlos is served by the commercial airport at Guaymas (GYM), approximately 15 miles away. Guaymas is served by US Air, direct from Phoenix. An alternate routing may be made through the airport in Hermosillo (HMO), which is 75 miles away and then complete your journey by bus or rental car to Guaymas/San Carlos. Hermosillo is served from several US cities and offers a better selection on rates and routes. 

TUFESA Bus Lines has International Service to Hermosillo and Guaymas. Departing from Phoenix ($41) and from Tucson ($27) to Hermosillo and also to Guaymas departing from Phoenix ($50) and from Tucson ($34). Terminal locations and phone numbers are as follows:

1614 N. 27th Ave & McDowell Rd.
Phone: (602) 415-9900/9902
We have a taxi service 24 hrs. With special fares.

Tucson: 5550 S. 12th Ave
Phone: (520) 670-1534
We are 5 mins from the airport.


TBC Bus Lines has service to Guaymas, departing from Phoenix ($40), Tucson ($30) or Nogales, Sonora ($20).  If you need to get a tourist card, be sure to tell the driver and they will stop at the 21 Km checkpoint.  If you forget, this card can also be obtained at the Immigration office in Guaymas. Terminal locations and phone numbers are as follows:
Phoenix: 1225 S. 7th St, 602-258-2445
Tucson:   1428 S. 6th Ave, 520-903-2801
Nogales:  Carr. International Km 4.5, 011-52-631-32880

Private Auto: San Carlos is approximately 4 hours (250 miles) south of the border at Nogales, AZ. The route is Mexico Federal Highway 15, which is a four-lane road. This route will take you through Imuris, Magdalena, Santa Anna and Hermosillo. There are three toll booths enroute at Nogales, Magdalena and Hermosillo. The toll for an automobile is from $2-$6 at each booth, depending on currency rates. Current tolls are:
Nogales via Mariposa crossing: 44 pesos
Magadalena: 20 pesos
Hermosillo: 62 pesos
Note that trailers and towed vehicles incur an additional charge per axle. Toll booths will accept payment in US currency with change given in pesos.

There are two border crossing points in Nogales. The original point is downtown and can be reached by following 1-19 from Tucson to it's end or by going south on Business 19 if coming from the east on AZ Hwy 82. This crossing is open 24 hours per day. It is usually very busy and is not suitable if you are towing a boat. There is no toll charge using this entry port.

We prefer and recommend the newer Mariposa crossing on Hwy 189. If coming from Tucson, exit I-19 at Hwy 189 and go west. If coming from the east on Hwy 82, take North Business 19 and turn left at the second traffic light. The crossing is open daily from 6AM to 10PM, but is much less constricted. It is the way to go if towing anything bigger than a jet-ski or ATV.  

For detailed information on crossing the border at Naco or Agua Prieta, visit the Route of the Rio Sonora web site.

Travel Advisory: A vehicle height restriction has been imposed on the Mariposa crossing. Vehicles over 2.49 meters or 8.5 feet high may only cross the border going into Mexico between 8 AM and 10PM, Monday through Saturday.  Vehicles over 8.5 feet high cannot use this crossing on Sunday. Plan accordingly if you are driving an RV or towing a large boat or trailer.

Border Crossing Times: During the months of December and January, traffic returning to the US from Mexico can be very heavy and result in long waiting times to cross the border in Nogales. Weekends and holidays can be very congested.  If your travel plans permit, try and avoid these periods.  If they cannot be avoided we do suggest you get an early start leaving San Carlos. Border crossing times are available on line at CPB Border Wait Times

An alternate route to consider is to turn east on Mexico Highway 2 in Imuris and take that route east through Cananea to the Naco turn off. Follow that road north to the Naco border crossing, just south of Bisbee, AZ on the border.  This 2 lane road includes sections of narrow winding mountain roads and is subject to heavy Mexican bus and truck traffic.
Do not take this route at night or in an RV or towing a trailer or in inclement weather!  It is 85 miles from Imuris to Naco via this route.  Take your time and enjoy the scenery.  This route is appropriate if traveling east towards New Mexico.  For those going to Tucson and points north and west, it may actually save travel time by avoiding the border congestion in Nogales.  Take this route with caution, however.

Paperwork: To bring your automobile into Mexico, you must have the title and/or registration, a tourist visa and a valid US drivers license. You should have Mexican Insurance on your automobile as your US insurance is NOT VALID in Mexico. You can obtain insurance online here and can buy it for a specified time or on an annual basis if you expect to travel into Mexico frequently. See the insurance page for online Mexican insurance. See our detailed paperwork section below on this page for more on vehicle registration and tourist cards (visas).

Traveling with pets.  If your pet is going on the trip with you, visit your veterinarian and get the animal a checkup and health certificate before you go.  Take the rabies certificate for the animal with you as well.  Be very conscious of temperature conditions and insure your animal has sufficient water and protection from heat, especially during the summer months.  If you are flying, be aware that US Air does not transport animals in the baggage compartment on their aircraft.

Marriage in Mexico.  Marriage in Mexico is a civil process conducted by an officer or judge of the Civil Registry.  A church wedding alone is not legally valid in Mexico.  To be married by the Civil Registry requires advance planning to complete the application process.  Details about the process for US citizens wanting to marry in Mexico can be found at the web site of the Mexican Consulate in Douglas, AZ  by clicking here.  For Canadian citizens, click here for similar information provided by the Canadian Embassy in Mexico City.

Weapons: We'll say this more than once, but DO NOT take any type of firearm or ammunition into Mexico. If you hunt or shoot sporting clays or carry firearms or ammunition in your vehicle for any reason, check it carefully to make sure you did not leave these items in the vehicle. If caught in Mexico with these items in your possession the Mexican authorities will toss you in jail and forget where the key is! They won't care if it was accidental or otherwise-so check the vehicle.

Services: Fuel including unleaded or diesel is available at numerous service stations along the route. You can buy any brand you like as long as it's PEMEX, the Mexican National Oil Company. These are full service so don't pump your own. They take pesos or dollars. There is usually a youngster around to clean your windshield and a small gratuity of 25-50 cents is in order. Restrooms (banos) are normally available and can also be found at the toll booths.

Another neat feature about this route are the Green Angel trucks. These are mobile motorist aid units who will stop and assist if you do have a breakdown. Their mission is to perform minor repairs to get you back on the road. The best way not to meet them is to have the vehicle serviced before you cross the border. But it's nice to know they are there.

Speed Limits: Observe the speed limit signs, which are in kilometers per hour. Pay particular attention in built up areas as it is not uncommon to have pedestrians or animals along the right of way. Driving at night is generally not recommended as domestic animals may wander off the open range and onto the highway. El Toro (the bull) is neat, until you wrap a ton of steer around your front end. Stick to the daylight hours for highway travel. And as in the US, please don't drink and drive. And please don't litter.

Some common signs and their meanings:

  • Peligrosa: Danger (They really mean it too)
  • Curva: Curve
  • Poblado Proxima: Population ahead
  • Llanteros: Tire Repair Shop
  • Izquierdo: Left
  • Derecho: Right
  • Alto: Stop
  • Cuotas: Toll
  • Caseta:  Toll Booth
  • Topes:  Speed Bumps (big ones!!)

Do's & Don'ts


  • Obey traffic laws and observe speed limits.
  • Try and learn a bit of Spanish and use it-the Mexican people will respect you for trying.
  • Remember that you are a guest in their country.
  • Carry a supply of water in your vehicle for both you and the vehicle.
  • Sample the local cuisine-seafood is especially wonderful in San Carlos and the beef is some of the best anywhere.
  • Take precaution against over exposure to the sun-it can get HOT in Mexico.
  • Take medications with you, particularly for stomach problems.
  • Watch for disabled vehicle warning signs, livestock and construction zones. These can appear very suddenly.
  • Support San Carlos Rescate
  • Have a great time!


  • Drink & Drive
  • Bring firearms or ammunition to Mexico
  • Be an ugly Norte Americano. Show the proper respect for your hosts.
  • Attempt to conduct business under a tourist visa-you may NOT do so.
  • Drink the water from the tap. In many places it is safe, but why take the chance on spoiling your trip with Montezuma's Revenge. Buy and use bottled water.
  • Drive at night unless an absolute necessity.
  • Try to bring fruits, vegetables or pork products back into the USA. Filleted fish is OK.


The paperwork requirements to visit Mexico beyond the frontier zone (about 20 kilometers deep) are not terribly hard to deal with, but do require a bit of advanced planning.

To travel in Mexico beyond the frontier zone and visit San Carlos requires a Mexican Tourist Card or Forma Migratoria Multiple (FMM). Tourist cards or FMMs are good for 6 months. Tourist cards are 290 pesos or about $23 USD depending on current exchange rate.

 To get a tourist card, you must have the following:

  • A valid passport.
  • A valid picture ID with address shown.
  • A minor traveling with one parent will need written permission from the other parent.  Small children who do not have ID of their own will generally be included on a parent's tourist card.

For your convenience, here is a sample FMM with instructions in English that you can open, print and take with you.

There is a 290 peso/person visitors fee for the FMM which is paid at the Migracion (Mexican Immigration) office.  Actual cost will vary slightly depending on the currency exchange rate.  The process is essentially the same at any of the border crossing locations. 

1. Go to Migracion and present your identification to the official. They will complete the form and return it to you to sign.  Tell them if you are staying for 7 days or less to get the no-fee tourist card.
2.  Pay the FMM fee.  Migracion will stamp your tourist card indicating that you have paid.
3.  Before proceeding to obtain your car permit, you will need a copy of the tourist card.  Migracion can direct you to a copy center.
4.  Remember to surrender the FMM at a Migracion office if you are leaving Mexico and have no plans to return before the FMM expiration date.  Your passport will be stamped to show you turned it in and left Mexico.

Once you have your tourist card from the Migracion (Mexican Immigration), you can obtain the necessary permit for your vehicle. If your do not plan to travel south of the San Carlos/Guaymas/Empalme area, you do not need to register the vehicle. See the discussion on the Sonora Free zone above. For those whose travel plans include traveling beyond this point, have the following and bring copies of each to provide the issuing authorities:

  • Registration and a copy
  • Your Drivers License and a copy.
  • A major Credit Card
  • Your tourist card/visa and a copy.

You will post a bond of about $28 on the vehicle with the credit card. The purpose is to verify that you will not sell the vehicle in Mexico. This is non-refundable. If you plan to use cash, the price goes up to over $200 so use a credit card. The vehicle agency is the Banjercito, the Bank of the Armed Forces and your credit card is quite safe here. 

NEW:  For your convenience, you may now complete the Banjercito paperwork for your vehicle registration in advance via the Internet.  This application must be processed no more than 24 hours and within 30 days of your planned entry date into Mexico.  No charges will be made to your credit card until you actually appear at a Banjercito office to complete the application and obtain your car permit.  To access the Banjercito web site in English, click here.  Be sure to print the application when you have completed it.

If you plan to travel no farther than San Carlos/Guaymas/Empalme within the State of Sonora, you no longer need a permit for your vehicle, trailer, etc.  You are required to have the same documents as for the regular permit, but do not to get the permit.  Additional questions regarding the Only Sonora program can be answered by calling 1-800-4-SONORA (800-476-6672).  See the Sonora Free zone discussion above on this page.

The bonded permits are good for multiple entrances and for six months. If you won't be back in six months, turn them in upon leaving the country. They can get quite testy if you do not.

If you plan to bring a boat and trailer, ATV, PWC or other toy along, have all the documents and copies of the documents for these as well. Boats are now documented for up to 10 years. It's a different form than for motor vehicles.

You may be asked to pay duty on certain items, including computers. In some instances, very expensive new big game fishing tackle may also be taxed. Don't try to hide it but be prepared. And one more time: NO FIREARMS OR AMMUNITION, including shell casings. If they catch you with any of it, you are looking at 5 YEARS in Mexican prison. You'll pass two such places on your way to San Carlos; neither looks like a very nice place. Check your vehicle for any of this and leave it home.

For additional information, the Manual for Tourist Entry, 2004 may be viewed here in Adobe pdf format. Also see the web site of the Embassy of Mexico at http://www.visitmexico.com. Also visit The Guide to San Carlos for more detailed information


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