Getting to San Felipe from the United States
First things first: Most tourists do not need a passport or tourist visa to enter Mexico and visit San Felipe, but since September 2015, the Mexican Government is asking all visitors to get a tourist card (FMM) – see below. Also, since June 2009, the U.S. Government requires you and every member of your party to have a PASSPORT or SENTRI card to re-enter the USA. Citizens of other countries should verify with their consulate or embassy that they can enter Mexico and also re-enter the U.S.A. See this US Government website for details and online application information.
Virtually every visitor to San Felipe comes here by road. The most popular route from Southern California and points north is to take Interstate 8 (San Diego-Yuma) to El Centro and then head south on California Route 111 to Calexico where you cross the border into Mexicali, continuing south to San Felipe (about 2.5 hours drive on Mexico route 5).
Buy Mexican insurance for your vehicle before you enter Mexico as your US liability coverage is not valid here. A new law in Baja California took effect in 2012 and it requires all drivers to have at least third party insurance coverage. At a minimum, you should buy this coverage (cost is around $10/day for short-term visits but you can get good deals for long term coverage) so that you are not automatically in violation of the law if you are stopped by a policeman.
You can see simple maps of the route, including the main road through Mexicali and the street map of San Felipe by visiting our Maps page. Check our road conditions pages to see the latest information on diversions caused by any road construction!
From Arizona, many people come through Yuma and cross at Algodones or San Luis. There is a good highway (Mexico 2) that heads west and connects to Mexico 2D (the Libramiento bypassing Mexicali) that lands you on Mexico 5 to San Felipe.
Around 10% of the visitors traveling by car from coastal areas of Southern California cross the border at Tijuana and take the scenic toll road to Ensenada. From Ensenada, there is a well maintained two lane highway that runs across the Baja peninsular and joins up with the Mexicali-San Felipe road about 30 miles north of town. While many people are afraid of going through Tijuana, there is little danger if you are heading to Ensenada because the road system guides you straight to the toll road without having to go into the city. Immediately on crossing the border from San Diego, follow the signs saying “Rosarito Cuota”.
An interesting and very pleasant trip from the San Diego region to San Felipe can now be made by crossing the border at Tecate. This route gets you on to the Mexican toll highway (Mexico 2D – the Libramiento) towards Mexicali. It enables you to completely bypass the traffic jams of Mexicali and all the new road construction that is being undertaken in the capital city.
Crossing the Border from the USA into Mexico
Crossing the border is extremely simple, but you should stop at the immigration office and get a Tourist Card for every member of your party that does not already have a valid Mexican immigrant visa. (See our Immigration page for details). If you do not get a Tourist Card and you are stopped on your trip by federal agents, you may be required to immediately turn round and go back to the border to get the necessary documents.
Tourists may find it tempting to stop at one of the duty-free shops in Calexico. There are good deals on liquor and tobacco products but it is wise for each adult in the party to pay separately and get a receipt showing that their individual purchase is within the limits allowed by Mexican law. Returning residents of San Felipe are not permitted to bring any alcohol or tobacco products. If you plan to take any duty-free items back into the United States, remember the limit is one liter of alcohol and 200 cigarettes.
The Mexican Government is now using high-technology entry lanes at all of the border crossings between the USA and Mexico. You can either select a lane for “nothing to declare”, which is appropriate for most tourists, or if you are bringing lots of groceries and other goods head for the “self-declaration” lanes. Residents of San Felipe may find that they need to do this if they have been on a shopping spree and have more than $75 dollars per person of new purchases. Note that residents are not permitted to bring alcohol into Mexico as part of their monthly duty-free allowance.
Do not bring any guns (or ammunition!) into Mexico – the Mexican government has very strict firearms regulations. If you are caught with a gun, your vehicle will be confiscated and you will go to jail. The presumption seems to be that if you have a gun you are associated with a drug cartel in some way.
Each vehicle crossing into Mexico will be weighed and scanned by electronic devices to ensure that the occupants are not bringing prohibited items into the country. Primarily this is aimed at smugglers of weapons and cash that are being funneled to the drug cartels. However, the new screening process will also catch electronic goods and you may have to pay duty on any devices that are detected. One thing to bear in mind is that tourists are permitted to bring 3 liters of alcoholic beverage per adult whereas returning residents are not allowed this privilege. Typically 20% of vehicles will be pulled over for a more thorough inspection by the Mexican Customs authorities.
Do not drive at night! Do not speed in Mexicali! Try to stay with a pack of other cars and obey all traffic laws. Watch for stop signs and be aware that traffic lights can change very rapidly from green to red. Speed limits tend to be quite low, around 25 mph equivalent in cities and 50 mph on the highways. If you do get stopped by the police in the city be polite. Don’t argue with the policeman and don’t offer a bribe – it is a punishable offense. If you have broken a law, ask to go to the police station to pay the ticket. Tickets are in the $20-50 dollar range but the policeman may tell you it is $200 or more as an inducement to “pay” him now.
The road to San Felipe is in good condition and has relatively free-flowing traffic. Check on our Road Conditions Page for the latest information. On typical mid-week days the flow is rarely more than 50 vehicles/hour. Weekends may see peaks of 300 vehicles/hour but everyone moves at (or well above) the posted speed limit.
There is a permanent military checkpoint about 30 miles north of San Felipe at the junction with the Ensenada road. You will have to get out of your vehicle and it will be checked for guns and drugs both on the southbound and the northbound trip. The soldiers are very courteous and the search will take only a few minutes. Check our Checkpoints Page for more info.
When you get to the outskirts of San Felipe (from El Dorado Ranch south) the traffic volume increases dramatically and there are now accidents as old, slow, vehicles pull on to the main highway from side roads. Be very careful on this last stretch of road as police patrols are very active here.
Maps of the border region, the road to San Felipe and a simple street map of the town may be found on the Maps Page. Links to Google maps are also available for you to plan your journey. Most recent GPS navigation units have detailed maps of northern Baja California available for download.
Gasoline and Diesel Fuel
Fill up with gasoline or diesel fuel in Calexico or Mexicali. Once you are south of the city of Mexicali there are no gasoline stations for 120 miles until you reach San Felipe. The old stations at La Ventana (halfway to San Felipe) and at Three Poles by the Ensenada road junction no longer supply fuel. However, you can find snacks, beverages and primitive “comfort stations” there. The current price (October 2015) for regular unleaded gasoline in San Felipe is around 14 pesos/liter (close to $3.75 /US gallon equivalent). Premium and diesel are around $4/gallon.
The grades of unleaded gasoline are 87 and 91 octane and identical in quality to the brand-name products in the USA. (In fact, in the Baja border region all gasoline actually comes from the USA). Of course, there is always concern about contamination, particularly in relation to water getting into the storage tanks. For this reason, many of our weekend visitors prefer to fill up just before crossing into Mexico to have enough fuel on hand to make it back across the border without having to buy Mexican gasoline. Owners of new diesel vehicles that mandate using the ultra low sulfur fuel will be happy to know that Pemex officially certifies that their fuel meets the requirements of the new engines. However, be careful where you buy your diesel as the regular “low sulfur” diesel is still supplied for agricultural and marine use. Again, many of our visitors prefer to tank up in the USA and not buy fuel in Mexico.
Your U.S. GSM cellphone (ATT/T-mobile) or international GSM/3G/4G/LTE/smartphone is fully supported in Mexico (Verizon phones need a SIM chip) and will work at most places on the journey down but there are some deadspots in the mountains. Be sure to call your service provider before leaving home to tell them to enable access in Mexico. You can reach bilingual operators at the State Tourism Department by dialing 078. They can help with breakdowns, guiding you on the route or answering general questions. For emergencies, dial 066 which will connect you directly to the nearest police station.
For full details of using your cellphone and making emergency calls, see our page on Telephones. The only CDMA service provider in Mexico is IUSACELL and they have very limited presence in Baja California and no service in San Felipe. If you have any ATT, T-Mobile, Verizon or Sprint smartphone, it should work on the local 3G service. (Turn off data roaming unless you won the Powerball lottery.)
Flying in to San Felipe
San Felipe has an airport (symbol SFH) some 5 miles south of town, and Seaport Airlines now runs 9 passenger Cessnas between San Diego International (Lindbergh Field) and San Felipe four days/week (Monday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday) with connecting service to Hollywood/Burbank.
Private planes are also welcome and you should see our section on the San Felipe Airport for additional information.
Visitors travelling from distant locations in the USA, Mexico or internationally will want to fly into a major airport. The closest ones are San Diego (SAN) in California, and Tijuana (TIJ) in Baja California. Mexicali(MXL) has connecting service to many cities in Mexico but no flights into the USA. Just north of the border, Imperial airport (IPL) in El Centro has commuter service to San Diego, Los Angeles and Phoenix where connections to all major intercontinental carriers can be made. Check our Flying page for more information.
Visitors from Mexico and Latin America can fly to Mexico City or Guadalajara and connect to flights to Mexicali. Again a rental car or bus service will bring you to San Felipe.
The current exchange rate is about 14 pesos/dollar, but dollars are accepted everywhere and it is not necessary to exchange currency before crossing into Mexico. There is only one bank in town, BBBV/Bancomer which has ATM machines that will allow you to use your debit card to take up to about $300 US dollars worth of Mexican pesos from your account each day. Expect to have a transaction fee imposed, perhaps $2-5 dollars, by the machine you withdraw from, in addition to a new fee on foreign transactions imposed by your home banking institution. The new fees, around 3%, will also apply for any charge you make to your credit card. Travelers Checks can be cashed at the banks but you will not be able to use them in shops and restaurants.
Updated 26 October 2015