Mexico Vanlife Guide: Planning (Paperwork, Border, etc.) & Trip Report

Mexico-First-Month

Mexico Vanlife Guide: Planning (Paperwork, Border, etc.) & Trip Report

After roaming for two years in the USA and Canada, we're up for new adventures and to get out of our comfort zone! Mexico is an obvious destination, and absolutely everyone we meet that went there highly recommend it. We crossed into Mexico mid January 2020, so this page is a work in a work in progress! It's being updated gradually as we advance in our travels...

1- Safety & Travel Advisory

“Did you feel safe in Mexico?” is a question we get a lot. Mexico gets a lot of negative press coverage, and a whole lot of it.  To travel safely in a foreign country, one must look further than generalizations and be informed and aware of what’s going on precisely. It is then possible to avoid sensitive regions and to travel smart. Don’t get us wrong: Mexico does have issues with cartel and gangs, we’re not trying to downplay that. While incidents with tourists occasionally happen, the action is between the bad guys and the police. We’re not the target. When reading news about Mexico, don’t just read the headlines; read the details and you’ll find out for yourself. But in the end, tolerance to risks is a personal thing and varies with individuals: if your personal tolerance to risk is ZERO, then yeah, maybe you should avoid travelling in Mexico. But if we followed this idea of completely eliminating risk, we would have miss out on a lof of things in our life: backcountry skiing (avalanche risk), whitewater kayaking (drowning risk), mountain biking (injury risk), travel to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, etc. It’s all about MANAGING THE RISK. Still with us? Okay, here are some starting point for your research:

Reality Check

Before crossing into Mexico, we read a lot about safety, crime activities, cartel, etc. We tried to stay rational and not worry too much, but honestly it really get into your head! Once we got in, we were able to put our concerns away as we got to see what’s really going on here. There are tourists everywhere, people live a normal life… Fun fact: in 2017, Mexico received about 35 millions visitors (source: Forbes). That’s the sixth most visited country in the world for tourism activities (source: Wikipedia). If you’re thinking travelling to Mexico is a death wish, let that information sink in for a while…

2- Insurance

2.1- Vehicle Insurance

Mexican law ONLY recognizes Mexican motor insurance (seguro), so a US or Canadian policy have ZERO legal bearing in Mexico. This means if you were involved in an accident in which you injured another driver or his vehicle, you would be uncovered and possibly arrested if you didn't have Mexican car insurance. You must purchase insurance from a company that is licensed in Mexico (it's not obligatory, but if you don't you risk going to jail). You can purchase coverage at the border or online before leaving for Mexico. You will need to purchase liability insurance that is specifically for foreign-plated cars, also called tourist car insurance.

Good to know: Since your current US or Canadian insurance won't work in Mexico, most insurers will refund you for your time spent in Mexico. So keep your Mexican insurance receipt!

At the border

Insurance can be purchased at the border, however expect to pay more this way. Buying in advance also simplify the border crossing. Therefore, we recommend buying online in advance.

Online

Buying insurance online before getting to the border is cheaper and recommended. There are several companies on the market, but after some research we settled on Baja Bound. Their website is comprehensive, phone customer support is excellent, and they would insure our self-built campervan (give them a call if you have a DIY van).

2.2- Personal Items Insurance

The vehicle insurance does not cover your personal items (laptop, bike, clothes, etc.); personal items may be covered by your homeowner's or renter's insurance policy. If, like us, you can't get homeowner's or renter's insurance because you live full time in your vehicle, then you have to assume all the risk...

2.3- Travel Medical Insurance

Some "deluxe" vehicle insurance includes medical coverage in case of an accident. That means you're not covered outside of an accident... Travel medical insurance is actually pretty cheap, so there's no reason to avoid it. We cover that topic in the following article:

3- Border Crossing

List of Mexico–United States border crossings

There are over 50 places where to enter Mexico legally from the USA:

Required Paperwork

  • Passeport (original & copie).
  • Vehicle registration (original & copie) and proof of ownership.

To Be Obtained

  • TIP (Temporary Vehicle Importation Permit). See note below*
  • Entry Immigration Form (FMM). ~$50. Can be filled out online or at the border.

Driving Into Mexico

It is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to ensure all the paperwork is completed during the border crossing! No one will guide you through. You could easily enter Mexico without having all the adequate paperwork thinking "hey, that was easy!", but you'll get into troubles on your way out.

*Temporary Vehicle Importation Permit (TIP)

The temporary vehicle importation permit can ONLY be obtained from Banjercito, the official Mexican issuing agency. For auto/SUV/van vehicles weighing less than three tons, it is valid for up to six months (180 days) and cost about 20$ and requires a deposit of about 400$ that will be refunded on your way out. For vehicles registered as motorhome (our van is registered as a motorhome in British Columbia, so this applied to us), the permit is valid for 10 years and cost about 50$ (no deposit). The permit may be purchased online at the Banjercito website, but most people get it at the Mexico border (that's what we did). You do NOT need a Temporary Vehicle Import Permit for driving in any part of the Baja Peninsula.

*We recently heard that, as of January 2020, those who obtain their permit online (throught the Banjercito website) don't have to apply a sticker in their windshield. The new system is digital, which is quite nice as the sticker is somewhat annoying...

Reality Check

We slept at the Texas Visitor Center (iOverlander) and headed for the border in the next morning at the Columbia Bridge “a.k.a. bridge #3” (Google Map); we got there for the opening at 8am. The border at Columbia Bridge is recommended as you can get all the paperwork done in the same building and the waiting time is very short. Crossing directly in the city of Laredo is not recommended for safety reasons. It took us about 90 minutes for the whole process.

  • We first had to pay the toll road (approximately $3.50). 
  • Custom agent did a quick visual inspection of our van.
  • Then we were directed to the vehicle inspection area (X-Ray).
  • After, we got into the building to get our Tourist Cards (FMM).
  • We had to do a photocopy of our Tourist Cards.
  • Then we could get our TIP.
  • And we left. That’s it! No question, search or anything. Just paperwork…

4- Road & Driving

You heard it before: try to avoid driving at night in Mexico. For safety sake, but also because of wandering animals and topes (speedbumps). Not kidding, these topes are everywhere; they can see you but you can’t see them. They get you by surprise; they’re EVIL creatures!

Generally speaking, toll roads (“Cuota”) are not cheap, but they’re in great shape and are the safest and fastest way to get to your destination. In reality, we spend most of our time on free roads (“Libre”) and that’s fine; just stay focus and watch for people, animals, holes and topes at all time. Also watch for speed limit, as it changes constantly and doesn’t always make sense…

5- Finding Water

Tap water isn't safe to drink in Mexico, even locals don't drink it (so we were told). Look for "Agua Purificada" places to fill your jugs and fresh water tank. Note that while all Agua Purificada can fill water jugs, most of them can't fill RV tanks because they don't have the hardware to do it; it takes a few tries to find one that can. You'll find some of the Agua Purificada in iOverlander, or ask around:

Mexico Agua Purificada Vanlife Tank Water (1920px)

6- Camping & Overnight Spots

You might be familiar with iOverlander already. Good to know: the database is way more extensive in Mexico; looks like travelers contribute more than in US or Canada (we do!). So make sure to get it:

Reality Check

In the USA and Canada, we never go to campground (how to find free campsites: faroutride.com/free-campsites). Since we’re in Mexico however, we do a bit more often. Note that we’re travelling to the Mainland and we suspect the situation here is different than Baja; if you’re doing Baja you’ll probably be able to find open spaces or beaches to camp for free. The main reasons we use campgrounds is because it is quite cheap (around 100-150 pesos per night), it’s quiet and there’s sometimes a shower which allows us to seek for Agua Purificada less often. 

7- Mexico Vanlife Cost

Mexico Vanlife Cost (first Month only)
But wait, that's similar to our USA/Canada budget... shouldn't Mexico be cheaper??

It can definitely be done for cheaper. Here are our notes about this budget:

  • PAPERWORK: A fixed cost that can be absorbed if you stay longer.
  • MEXICAN AUTO INSURANCE: It’s mandatory. We chose the FULL COVERAGE insurance, but you can purchase THIRD PARTY LIABILITY only and it’s substantially cheaper. Try the Free Quote Tool to compare prices and see what’s included. Because we don’t know exactly how long we’ll stay, we purchased a 6 months plan that we have to absorb on 2-3 months.
  • TOLL ROADS: They’re not cheap. You could avoid them, but travel time will be substantially longer AND if you don’t know what “TOPES” are yet, you’ll find out soon enough (hint: it’s a speedbump, and they’re absolutely RANDOMLY EVERYWHERE on the “free roads”. It’s absolutely annoying and dangerous. You’ll see for yourself).
  • FOOD: We almost exclusively eat out, because we want to experience Mexican food. We could eat cheap tacos every day to save $, but we like to go to restaurants (around $6-7 USD for a full meal…) as the food is tastier and healthier than at the food stalls (otherwise it’s hard to get our dose of veggies). 
  • ACTIVITIES: Since we’re in Mexico, we feel like we have to pay for absolutely everything… (natural attractions, access to anything, parking, toilets, etc.)
  • CAMPGROUNDS & SHOWERS: We always avoid campgrounds in USA/Canada, but here it’s sometime nice to have a quiet place to spend the night and shower.
  • WATER: Tap water isn’t safe to drink here, so we fill our 25 gallon fresh tank at Agua Purificada (it costs around 30-50 pesos). We could fill our tank with tap water and use a jug for drinking water, but it’s actually nice to have potable water in the tank…

8- Useful Apps

iOverlander

Extensive crowdsourced database with overnight spots, points of interest, showers, agua purificada, etc.

Google Maps

No introduction needed. We recommend downloading "Offline Maps" (left menu) of an entire region before traveling, because network is generally very spotty. You can then search and navigate offline.

Maps.me

Sometimes Google Maps will send you into the void, so it's a good idea to have a backup offline navigation app to have a second opinion...

Google Translate

It can translate text, or "live" conversations (works well from English to Spanish, but the other way around is more problematic...) You can download languages for offline use.

Memrise

Outside Baja and all the "Playa Del Americana" (...), our personal experience is that very few people speak English (even a few words). You'll need some basic Spanish to get going; this App will get you started!

Uber

Uber is a safe, cheap & efficient way to take a ride in Mexico. It seems to work in most cities. We used it a few times and recommend it!

9- Tales From The Road

Past & Future Map

Getting ready to cross the border

Having spent the last few days in Austin, it made sense to cross the border at Laredo, Texas. There are three entry points from Laredo (TX) into Nuevo Laredo (MX): Bridge #1 and #2 which are within town, and then bridge #3 (Laredo Colombia Solidarity International Bridge, Google Map) which is about an hour detour out of town. Remember that we mentioned to “be aware and travel smart” earlier in this article? Well, you should be aware that Nuevo Laredo is NOT a safe town and should be avoided due to frequent confrontations between the Cartel and the Police… So bridge #3 is frequently used by tourists like us and all the services (TIP & FMM) are comprised within the same building which make the crossing really easy.

The day prior our entry into Mexico, we spent the night at the Texas Travel Information Center which is convenient located 30 minute drive from bridge #3:
Mexico-Texas-Travel-Information-Center-(1920px)
Texas Travel Information Center

Border crossing

We woke up early (by Isabelle standards) and got to the border right on time for the opening (8am). It was only us and two other couples. Here is how it went:

  • We first had to pay the toll road ($3.50). 
  • Custom agent did a quick visual inspection of our van.
  • Then we were directed to the vehicle inspection area (X-Ray).
  • After, we got into the building to get our Tourist Cards (FMM).
  • We had to do a photocopy of our Tourist Cards.
  • Then we could get our TIP.
  • And we left. That’s it! No question, search or anything. Just paperwork…
Getting into Mexico for the first time is a bit overwhelming, so we decided to spend our first night in the mountains to catch our breath:
El-Portrero-Chico-Vanlife-Mexico
El Portrero Chico, Mexico.

Monterrey

If you can make abstraction of the smog, Monterrey is a beautiful mountain city. The mountain reminds us a lot of Yosemite.
Monterrey-Mountain-Bike-Mexico-annotated
Monterrey, Mexico.
Monterrey, Mexico
photo: Dean Miller

Road 20

Santiago to Saltillo

Road 20 Monterrey Mexico
Road 20 from Santiago to Saltillo.

This steep and winding road will take your up to 7,000ft elevation and through breathtaking scenery:

Cascada El Meco

After a long day of driving, the desert faded out to make place to subtropical goodness:

Mexico-El-Meco-Campground

Cascada El Salto

A short 10 minute drive will then take you to this paradise. You can camp there for free if you want:

Cascadas de Minas Viejas

Another nice place to view cascades and swim. There are many pools with different depths. You can also sleep at the parking lot.

Puente De Dios

Another dip in paradise... Each morning, birds fly out of their home and come back in the evening. It's quite a sight, and these warm thermal waterfalls are not bad either:

Cascada de Tamul

Cascada de Tamul is the highest fall we saw in the Huasteca Potosina. The best way to see this fall, in our opinion, is to sleep at the parking lot and then, the next morning, wait for a group to arrive and join them for the boat ride (cheaper than taking the boat for ourselves). We cannot access this fall as close as the other ones, the current being to strong. Still beautiful to see! On the way back, there's a nice stop to a cenote 🙂

Las Pozas (Xilitla)

Once upon a time a dude inherited too much money, had too much free time, moved into the jungle, did too many drugs and hired a bunch of Mexicans to build his psychedelic visions. Sorry but we failed to find an artistic meaning for all of this, it's kind of random... That being said, it's cool to wander here:

Las-Pozas-Xilitla-Mexico-(3)
Las-Pozas-Xilitla-Mexico-(1)

We totally enjoyed staying at "Casa Caracol", 2 minute walk from Las Pozas. They rent small cabins, but you can park your van here and use the amenities (hot showers, wi-fi, kitchen). The yard is filled with art and the vibe is awesome!

Guanajuato

This city is everyone's favorite, and this is no exception to us. It's a very special place.

Guanajuato-Vanlife-Mexico-(1920)

But then this special dude showed up. Fosforo lives in Guanajuato and organizes Urban DH Races, builds trails, races and enjoys sipping coffee & beer on the terraces most of the day. Perfect.

Santa Rosa Mountain Biking Mexico Fosforo Garcia
Fosforo Garcia

We first had to pedal up "La Bufa", which overlooks the city:

We descended through the trail...

And we descended some... stairs? A whole bunch of stairs!

And we popped out downtown Guanajuato!

We were glad to learn that bike & beer is a universal thing 🙂

Santa Rosa Mountain Biking Mexico (3 of 13)

Some Mexican tunes to entertain the bikes; everyone is having a good time.

Guanajuato Bike Song Mexico

The following day, Fosforo took us to "La Fragua Bike Park" in Santa Rosa.

It’s just a 30-minute drive from Guanajuato city center. For now, there are about 6 gravity-oriented singletrack trails (insert “Enduro” keyword here) with a little bit of everything: berms, optional drops/jumps, steep chutes, off-cambers, techy rock gardens, etc. It’s fast and loose. It can be pedaled, but being at 8,600 feet elevation, we much appreciate shuttling all day! You can pay a driver to drive your truck, or they can arrange a vehicle for you (the access road is NOT van-friendly). There’s not much info available online, so a guide will definitely help you find the good stuff and arrange a shuttle. When he’s not organizing Urban DH Races or building tracks or racing his bike, Fosforo Garcia (Instagram) is your man. He lives right here in town and has the knowledge to make the magic happens.

Santa Rosa Mountain Biking Mexico (1 of 1)
Santa Rosa Mountain Biking Mexico (7 of 13)
Santa Rosa Mountain Biking Mexico (5 of 13)
Santa Rosa, Guanajuato, Mountain Biking Mexico (10)
Santa Rosa, Guanajuato, Mountain Biking Mexico (11)
Santa Rosa Mountain Biking Mexico (6 of 13)
Santa Rosa Mountain Biking Mexico (13 of 13)

Reserva de la Biósfera Santuario Mariposa Monarca

“The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is a World Heritage Site containing most of the over-wintering sites of the eastern population of the monarch butterfly. The reserve is located in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt pine-oak forests ecoregion on the border of Michoacán and State of Mexico, 100 km (62 miles), northwest of Mexico City. Millions of butterflies arrive in the reserve annually. Butterflies only inhabit a fraction of the 56,000 hectares of the reserve from October–March. The biosphere’s mission is to protect the butterfly species and its habitat.

Most of the over-wintering monarchs from eastern North America are found here. Western researchers discovered these areas in 1975. Presidential decrees in the 1980s and 2000 designated these still privately held areas as a federal reserve. The Reserve was declared a Biosphere Reserve in 1980 and a World Heritage Site in 2008. The reserve remains predominantly rural. Reserve administrators continue to be concerned with deleterious effects of illegal logging and tourism. Conservation efforts sometimes conflict with the interests of local farmers, community-based landowners, private land owners and indigenous people.”

Reserva-de-Biosfera-de-la-Mariposa-Monarca-2
Reserva-de-Biosfera-de-la-Mariposa-Monarca-1

The reserve comprises a few colonies to visit. We could stay in the parking lot of each colonies we visited:

Reserva-de-Biosfera-de-la-Mariposa-Monarca-El-Rosario

Valle De Bravo

It is well known as a world class paragliding destination, but there's also good things to be found on the ground:

Valle-De-Bravo-Mexico-Mountain-Biking-1
Valle-De-Bravo-Mountain-Biking-(2)
Valle-De-Bravo-Mountain-Biking-(3)
That feeling when you don't know where you are and what happened. Yeah, I just had my second concussion ever (both this year). Not good.
Valle-De-Bravo-Mountain-Biking-(1)
And what do you get when you're injured? You get to be the shuttle driver!
The trail ends at a fish farm. It's beautiful & delicious....

To be continued... This page will be updated as we progress in our travels!

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about us

Nice To Meet You.

Hello! We’re Isabelle and Antoine 🙂 In 2017 we sold our house (and everything in it), quit our engineering careers and moved into our self built campervan. We’ve been on the road since then and every day is an opportunity for a new adventure; we’re chasing our dreams and hopefully it inspires others to do the same!

7 thoughts on “Mexico Vanlife Guide: Planning (Paperwork, Border, etc.) & Trip Report”

  1. Love your blog and am happy to see you go into mainland Mexico. I’m following your older posts to backcountry skiing destinations in British Columbia right now. A couple of years ago I took my VW van from Brownsville, TX to Sayulita, Mexico – then on the ferry to Baja and back to Oregon via California. Wonderful trip and very similar to your experience. Zero violence or theft issues on my Mexico trip. I’ve had far more van related theft issues in Europe! Very helpful to hear that the TIP can now be had online. I still have the 10 year sticker in the VW van that is now sold. I was supposed to surrender that sticker at the border before I sold the van, but it was pretty impractical. So I’m planning to do the on-line process with my current van.

    Reply
  2. As always, excellent and thorough post. Your writing is as entertaining as it is informative. I’m curious as to whether you’ve had any run ins with federales or local cops looking for “la mordida” (bribe)? I’ve had the unfortunate experience of being stopped twice outside Tijuana on the way down Baja while going spot on the speed limit. It ended being fine and only moderately costly, but a nerve wracking experience. nevertheless.

    Reply
    • So far, no. I’ve heard if it happens to only speak English, ask to go to the station, act dumb and waste their time, and at last show them photos of your cats. We’ll see if that works

      Reply
  3. Love this and hope to follow in your tire tracks in a year or two.

    Do I understand that the 351 for insurance covers 6 months and is really 58.50 a month?

    Reply
  4. You are brave!!

    We lived for 4 years in Germany, blue eyes and blue eyed kids. We understood German, though not enuf to talk politics. We drove a VW Golf. We were very comfortable because we blended in. As long as we kept our months shut.

    I guess my real concern in going to Mexico is the language. I don’t know Spanish. Or Mexican. Do you guys have Spanish abilities already, or does your French help you enuf so you can deal with it?

    The other thing is blending in. Your van does not look like a normal Mexican vehicle, nor does your French heritage skin coloring help. So what are your thoughts on this. Are you comfortable?

    I’m very interested because I have a cousin at the end of the Baja Peninsula, and it would be fun to visit someday.

    Cheers, Don

    Reply
    • Isabelle have basic Spanish knowledge, fortunately. We were surprise on how people don’t speak English, even in cities and touristic places.
      We definitely don’t blend in! But that’s not an issue, we’re tourists and that’s fine. People are VERY nice with us!

      Baja is super safe and you’ll meet A LOT of american/canadian tourists there. And people will most likely speak English there. It’s a “soft” version of Mexico, it’s a good place to start.

      Cheers!

      Reply

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