Ten days in Mexico in an RV was long enough to feel like I had eaten too many street tacos, but not quite long enough to feel at home. That’s true for a lot of places we go. When we stay a week or two, it feels like vacation. Longer, and it can start to feel like home. Longer than a month or two, and we might get a little antsy to hit the road.
I was going to break these up our Mexico RV travels into several blogs, but instead I brain vomited everything. Otherwise, it would have been a 6-month series by the time I was finished.* It consists of a bunch of things we learned, as well as things we already knew but figured we’d share. It ranges from the basics of crossing the border in an RV, to finding places and driving on Mexico roads, what type of money you should expect to use, as well as how how to navigate farmacias and groceries. Maybe a few other tidbits as they come to me.
The last time Jeremiah was in an RV in Baja was when he was 10. And, without giving away his exact age, that was between 24 and 26 years ago. So, a while. His parents packed his family up and went on a 5-week drive down through California and into Mexico, all out of a truck camper. (Funny story, when he first mentioned us living in an RV, I thought he immediately meant a truck camper because that’s the only RV we’d ever stayed in together. Our house is about 20 times that size.) I thought it’d be a fun comparison to see what he remembered versus what it was like when we traveled, but turns out, most things haven’t changed as far as he can remember. So, let’s dive in.
Crossing the Border in our RV – both ways
We drove through El Centro into Mexicali, and down into San Felipe. Obviously if you’re going through Tijuana, or going further down South, you may need to take that into consideration when planning your trip into Mexico.
Now, what documents are you going to need?
- Mexico Insurance for the vehicles you are driving. We got a short term addition through a Mexican insurance. It is required, but we wrote our license plates incorrectly on the insurance. Turns out they didn’t care. What can we say, we’re really detail oriented.
- FMM and the receipt for the FMM proving you purchased it. For this, you can absolutely just do it at the border if that’s easier. It’s about 35 dollars per person. A lot of us don’t have printers in our RVs, so you can just fill it out at the border but it’s another few minutes there. They require you to also print off the receipt because people have been faking them.
At the border heading in to Mexico, this is what we did:
I popped out of the RV and ran inside to get our passports stamped and turn in our FMMs. My conversation consisted of “hola,” “fin?” and “gracias” as we had our passports stamped. They didn’t care that I brought both passports in.
Jeremiah proceeded about 50 yards further in the RV where they did an“inspection” of the RV. Essentially a guy came in, shined a flashlight into a random cupboard or two, and walked out. Then, we were on our way!
We’d already sat in line for a good 2 to 3 hours at this point waiting for that 3 minute event. It’s not quick. So, yes, the inspection and passport part is quick but that line is long.
So, as the caravan told us, pack your patience…and a snack. We were able to bring the dog out when Jeremiah was getting the RV inspected so she could stretch her legs.
About 30 minutes outside of San Felipe we passed through a military checkpoint. All they did was wave us through as we went into San Felipe. However, on the way back through, they did come in to our RV. And, here’s a lesson: stay in your rv, and walk with them from place to place. It feels like common sense, but there were people who let people walk through their rigs without them, and they had things stolen. So…please be smart. Would you let some random dude walk through your RV and go through your cupboards while you stood outside in any other scenario? No? Then don’t do it here. Ok. Rant over.
Customs, Declaring, Pet Vaccinations
When we headed back into the states, we waited in the line for about the same amount of time, but it was even simpler getting back into the states. We handed the person our passports without getting out of our rig, and then coasted right through. She asked if we had anything to declare, which we did, and she didn’t care. Like, at all. It was under 500 dollars, so I’m assuming that’s why she didn’t have us fill out a customs form. Off we went, back into the states. We brought our dog, and in neither direction did they want her vaccinations. I regret this because it means we could have brought 4 more street dogs back with us if only we had known. We did have her rabies vaccinations readily available in case they asked.
Small tip: if you’re crossing into Baja from El Centro, use the Mexicali II entrance. Why? It’s less used and chances are you will have a shorter wait.
All things money
The takeaway for money would be have small American bills, have maybe 500 pesos, and use a credit card with a low international exchange fee. You’ll be set.
Right now, the conversion rate of pesos to dollars is right about $19 pesos to the dollar – it’s a fantastic exchange rate for US citizens. When we visited Mexico about 9 years ago, it was closer to 12 or 13 pesos to the dollar. That’s not great for Mexico. But it’s great for us.
Pesos or Dollars?
So, does every vendor take USD? No. And when they do, the exchange rate can vary. While we visited, we received exchange rates from 16 pesos to 20 per dollar. This means that if a taco costs 25 pesos (super average) we were paying between 1.25 to 1.50 USD. However, the only time we ran into not being able to use straight American dollars was during the Carnaval street fair, mostly because exchanging dollars to pesos for change takes time, and the vendors didn’t want to deal with it. So, no biggie. We hopped into the closest casa de cambiar, exchanged a twenty, and had enough pesos for the entire rest of the trip.
Check your credit cards to see which has the lowest international exchange fee if you’re going be doing a lot of shopping on credit. We did our grocery store trips and some of our pharmacy trips on credit. The fees were a few cents here and there, since our purchases were so small.
Most vendors that don’t speak English will ask you to do the exchange rate for them, in our experience. Again, it’s no big deal, and we guesstimated most times. They were always happy to spend an extra few seconds making sure we were both satisfied with the exchange rate.
Having cleared that up, remember you can negotiate. No. I said that wrong. Remember you are GETTING A BAD DEAL if you do not negotiate on most things. No, you’re not negotiating at a grocery store, usually. (I say usually because sometimes we just got stuff thrown in for free for seemingly just being nice and stumbling through bad Spanish.) If a menu has a printed price, you probably won’t negotiate on that. However, there’s a reason vendors don’t list prices – they don’t expect you to pay what they originally say it is worth. Beach vendors are most expensive, but they’re the easiest to haggle with. Simply say no, let them know what you want to pay, and almost always they’ll come down to that price, or split the difference. Each vendor has a small calculator that they use to quickly change pesos into dollars.
From pescaderias to jewelry stores, we haggled on many things. If you don’t, you look like a dumb American…but hey, if you’re happy, don’t beat yourself up. I overpaid for 2 rings and I couldn’t be happier. (I wanted to pay 8 dollars for them and spent 10. Didn’t lose any sleep.)
Finding affordable medication is a constant struggle in my life. I made a little over minimum wage for much of my adult life, but have pretty severe health struggles. For a while, a single one of my medications was over a grand a month. So, when I found out I could save some money on my medications, I said hell yes.
What do you need to know about finding affordable and legitimate medications in Mexico? These are the steps we took:
- Research the medication names before you cross the border. From the dosage you take, to the possible pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the drug, get as many details as you think will be necessary. Some drugs we found were direct translations (prednisone was prednisona, for example) while others had very different names – like Advair is known as Serentide.
- If Spanish is not your forte, try to find an English-speaking pharmacy to ask questions about dosages, questions, etc. Now, don’t buy your medications there. Shop around. Advair, which is about 500 USD monthly, varied from 25 to 45 in San Felipe. I bought all the ones at the 4 pharmacies we went to solely because they only each had one or two, but the prices of the English-speaking pharmacy and the farmacia owned by Walmart were WAY overpriced compared to the others we went to.
- Go to the pharmacy the first day you are there. I know, it doesn’t sound fun. However, a lot of pharmacies receive shipments twice a week, sometimes less. Find out which days the medications are delivered, and inquire if you can order to have them set aside for you. I wish we had known to go early in the week!
- Be prepared for sticker shock…in the opposite direction. Medicine can be cheap. I’m not going to tell you how much I hate US pharmaceutical companies because I need them to live…but let me just say we’re not on great terms.
- Know how much you can take into the US legally. For asthma, you can essentially bring in 3 months of medications. Did I bring more? Did Jeremiah feign asthma? I’ll never tell.
- Things we couldn’t buy: anxiety medications, sleeping medications, our dog’s medications (trazadone) or opioids. Well, no, let’s back up. You can buy a TON of tramadol, which is a low dosage opioid from basically every pharmacy. For like…pennies. But if you need a higher dose opioid, you’ll need to have a Mexico prescription from 2 separate Mexican doctors, and then you’ll need to a pharmacy that stocks said medication. This is a differently licensed pharmacy than the ones where you can buy albuterol, for example.
- We paid in cash and in credit at pharmacies, and they did not need our ID for anything other than for the credit card receipt – just like in the grocery stores.
If you have any questions about our experience with the Mexican pharmacies we went to, ask away! We spent several hours navigating them all in, so I’m happy to share more if you have specific questions. These were just the basic steps we took while we were there.
We went to a few different markets for things we wanted to find. A gentle reminder: don’t use your American perspective when shopping in Mexico grocery stores. Enjoy them for what they are, understand that a lot of things are different than what you expect, and cook with the local options.
Having said that, if you need to find things like half-and-half, go to to the coffee section. It’s not in the cold section with other cold dairy. A lot of the milk is boxed and just on a shelf. Same thing for eggs.
We always like to buy Vanilla when we go into Mexico, but we had to go to 3 different stores to find it! Don’t give up because you don’t find something in the first store. We didn’t buy meat in Mexico, mostly because we were eating street tacos and not cooking very much, but consider going to a carniceria for better meat choices – don’t automatically think that the supermarket is going to have what you want. Yes, it might have chicken, but the carniceria is going to have fresher, younger chicken. Same goes for any fish.
We went to 3 different fish markets looking for the shrimp we wanted, and in the end could have had it delivered to our RV directly from the boat for a dollar per kilo. No joke. Ask the locals where they purchase things, and see if there’s options for delivered produce or fish, etc.
Produce. In our experience, the produce felt very fresh, but it also went bad relatively quickly; bananas went bad within a day or two. That could have been the warm weather we were experiencing, or bad luck, but in the future, we’d be going to the grocery store more often and buying less.
Tortillas – look for the random slightly-dirty bright red cooler that is inevitably in every small town Mexican grocers near the baking area. Open it up. It’s full of warm corn tortillas. Buy them.
It can be hard to eat like the locals, but there’s a lot to be gained if you’re using ingredients that are easily accessible at the grocers.
The grocery stores are not laid out how you might expect. In one aisle there was diapers on one side, soda on the other. Directly beside one of the produce areas were boxes of valentines candy. So, be prepared to spend time figuring out the lay of the land. We found our favorite grocery stores, then could easily navigate them by the 2nd time we went.
Where you may expect to find a canned item, you’ll find it packaged in plastic 9 times out of 10. Beans, tomato sauce, vegetables – all in plastic bags. Also, some grocery stores have bundles of wood for sale. Not sure what that’s about. Another reminder, Mexican life is a little slower than what you might expect, so prepare to stand in grocery lines for a while. We honestly gave up one time after not moving for about 10 minutes.
Tip: stock up on bottled water, or, in my case, Mineral water. Topo Chico is life. We didn’t drink Mexico water, so we’re not sure if it would make us sick.
Driving in Mexico
So, driving through small towns in Mexico is interesting. First, street names don’t exist – and when they do, they don’t always have them posted. So, if you ask for directions you might get an address, but more than likely, you’ll get directions via landmarks.
On Sunday, we decided to take a drive through a pretty area outside San Felipe, next to the beach. We were on a nicely paved road, and then very suddenly we were on a dirt road that turned seamlessly back into a gravel road. A main road doesn’t necessarily remain a main road through a town. Just be open to not driving on all paved roads. Are they all awful? Of course not! From Mexicali to San Felipe, we were on all paved roads, aside from some sandy areas that had been blown onto the road.
You can’t research things the same way as you can in the states – google, which we rely heavily on, doesn’t have up-to-date locations. A lot of the things we found on google didn’t even exist anymore. Places like pharmacies, Telcel, and even grocery stores weren’t even listed on google. We had to physically drive around to find places. So, give yourself time and keep your eyes open! Additionally, the places that are highly rated in google are usually the gringo places, so take it with a grain of salt. Our rule of thumb is if there are a bunch of locals hanging out near a place, it might be worth checking out. This was true especially for restaurants. We didn’t Google all the street taco places we ate at; we just saw them, pulled over, and ate there.
Was 10 days in Mexico long enough?
Ten days in San Felipe was probably long enough, but if we travel to Mexico in an RV again, I think we’d go longer – and further South. Trying to research before we go is something I would like to do – but again, it can be difficult to do so. On Monday, we were ready to head back over the border to the states, but if nothing else, we both feel pretty bad ass for having each driven the Home on Wheels through Mexican streets.
What other things would you like to know? Are you interested in any thing we ate, saw, or street dogs we pet? (We might have bought them some bones…) Let us know!
*I may do a full blog about street dogs, or the cool stuff we did in Mexico. This was solely informational so that hopefully other travelers can find use in it. I was unable to find a super cohesive blog like this before we crossed over.