Rent a Car to Explore Sonora
So you want to visit Mexico, and would like to have the freedom and flexibility that only driving a vehicle can offer. But, you’re in Arizona on vacation and don’t have a car, or you live in Arizona and aren’t so sure about taking your personal vehicle to Mexico until you’re more familiar with the area.
The answer – rent a car to visit Sonora.
Almost all of the major rental agencies will rent you a car to drive in the “free-trade” zone of Sonora, not more than 200 miles south of the border. That means you can drive to popular locales like Rocky Point, as well as lesser-known gems like Magdalena, Santa Ana, Caborca and Desemboque.
When arranging a recent car rental for a trip to Phoenix, I asked the agency about the possibility of taking the vehicle into Mexico. No problem, I was told – you’ll just need to pay an extra fee for each. Armed with that information I called other agencies to compare Mexican insurance rates. The following table shows the rates as of last January, as a basis of comparison. Check with each agency for their current offerings and rates.
For the trip that would take me to Caborca, Santa Ana, Magdalena and points north I decided to cross the border at the Lukeville point of entry, crossing into Sonoyta, Sonora. I’d chosen that route not only because it’s probably the most convenient from Phoenix, but also because I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to take the car past the 21-kilometer checkpoint south of Nogales. For commercial reasons, the Mexican free trade zone in Caborca that was established by Mexican President Fox a few years back requires some commercial traffic to pass to Caborca from that port of entry (in subsequent trips though, I had no trouble taking rental cars into Mexico through Nogales).
As I stopped at the 21-km checkpoint south of Sonoyta, I answered the routine questions (where I was coming from, where I was going) and the only document the customs officer asked to see was the rental contract. I asked about whether rental cars can cross the Nogales checkpoint, and was told that they pass at any Sonora border checkpoint.
Here are some sample insurance rates that I collected after I'd written this article in 2009. Rates and policies change constantly, so check with the agency for their latest rates and availability.
Daily Insurance Rate
||$30/day - sedan
$40/day - SUV/Minivan
||$27/day for going < 25 miles into Mexico
$37/day for going >25 miles into Mexico
Mexico Car Rental Tips:
Plan your trip, to know exactly what days you will be in Mexico – you will need to provide that information to the rental agency when you are renting the vehicle, so they can prepare the insurance documentation.
Keep a close eye on your rental contract – you will need to present it at the 21-kilometer checkpoint in order to be able to continue on your travels, and it will come in handy when you pass back in to the US as well.
When comparison shopping, consider the price of the insurance in addition to the price of the rental. If planning to spend the majority of your rental period in Mexico the insurance may have a greater impact on the overall cost of renting the vehicle.
Keep your insurance document in a safe place, preferably on your person. You will need to present it to authorities in case of an accident, and if the car is stolen you will need to have the document to contact the insurance company.
Make sure you’ve got some extra padding on the credit card you use to rent the car – oftentimes rental car companies will hold a larger deposit if you plan to take the vehicle to Mexico.
Don’t drink and drive. This is not only a good general rule, most Mexican insurance carriers won’t cover accidents where the driver was under the influence.
Be familiar with the rental agency’s rules and regulations – they differ from agency to agency, and it pays to be aware of any special policies.
Renting a Car in Mexico
Another option would be to rent a car inside Mexico, in which case you wouldn’t be limited to driving in the free trade zone. There is a hotel in Santa Ana that rents cars, and rental cars are also available at the Hermosillo airport. Expect to pay more though; rental car rates in Mexico are about double the price you would pay in the U.S.
For an extra $20-$30 a day on your rental car charges, you may find that renting a car in Arizona to visit Sonora is not only an economical travel option (especially for groups, when compared with paying commercial transportation costs), but one that allows you to explore on your schedule and terms. Enjoy your adventure!
Additional Notes: Since writing this, I've also rented cars for trips to Mexico from the Tucson airport and Nogales, Arizona. Both were fairly routine and hassle-free. The people at the Enterprise rental agency in Nogales are very friendly, have weekend specials, and will pick you up at your hotel (or wherever you are) in Nogales.
Also, as of March 2010 the Sonoran coastal highway extended south to the beach at Puerto Lobos, Sonora. While the small beach town still has no modern amenities, it's not a long drive from the border to this beautiful beach area.