Home Expat Blogs The Long and Winding Road from Puerto Vallarta to California  

The Long and Winding Road from Puerto Vallarta to California  

Winding highway road
Credit: Yurchyks | Shutterstock

Many expats trek back and forth from Mexico to the United States or Canada by car. I have made the trip from the Bay Area to Puerto Vallarta several times, but the long and winding road from Puerto Vallarta to California was different this time.

Each year I advance toward the great unknown, my body is less tolerant of the four 9-hour days required to arrive alive in Southern California.

Felice and I hadn’t planned on driving, but the Mexican government requires us to return our California-plated car to the U.S. before we receive permanent residency. As many of you know, you pay a deposit to the Mexican government for your temporary vehicle sticker when you cross the border into Mexico.

And we wanted to sell our car, realizing that public transportation in Puerto Vallarta made more sense for us than insuring, gassing and repairing an older vehicle that was reaching its expiration date.

We left Vallarta on Tuesday, May 10th on the first leg of the trip, destination Mazatlán. This first leg of the trip was scenic as we cruised along highway 200 to Compostela, and then north to Tepic where we merged onto Federal Highway 15 for the final few hours to Mazatlán. The entire route was relatively pothole-free, but just two lanes most of the way. The Tepic to Mazatlán stretch, though, rivaled Sinaloa for having the most toll booths. We had the pleasure of saying hello to five different toll collectors during this stretch.

Yes, I know, we could have taken the two-lane libre, or free road, but the autopista toll (cuota) roads are better and faster if you are traveling through Mexico. But be prepared to shell out nearly 2,200 (about US$110) pesos for the pleasure of cruising an autopista to the border. Sinaloa was the king of the cuotas, but offered much more than 40 miles of bad road.

We overnighted in Mazatlán in a beach resort hotel in the Golden Zone that I’m sure was top-of-its class in the 1970s, but sadly, this is 2022 and not much had changed at the hotel.

We got an early start on Wednesday, May 11, with Guaymas as our next pit stop. When we drove down in October 2019, we noted that the federal highway was in worse shape in the state of Sinaloa than any other stretch of highway between Nogales and Puerto Vallarta. It hasn’t changed. Mazatlán to Culiacán, the state’s capital, was being repaved in sections, but it still was a bumpy ride. The repaving continued between Culiacán and Los Mochis, but this was a stretch of highway that tested our suspension system mightily. From Los Mochis north to the Sonora state line, the pothole parade continued, as did the toll collectors.

One would assume that the tolls collected would be used to improve the highway, but it doesn’t seem to be the case in Sinaloa.

Once in Sonora, we picked up speed as our tires met actual concrete highways that were smooth all the way to the Guaymas exit on Highway 15. If you are headed for that Sea of Cortez beach town, be prepared for a bumpy ride. The two-lane highway leading into the city is terrible.

A highlight of the trip was early dinner at Mariscos El Mazateño, which was
just a block away from our hotel. The large palapa-roofed seafood palace was a joy to find. Enormous portions of coconut shrimp and margaritas for just US$43, including tip. The hotel was very inexpensive and located just a half block from the Highway 15 route to San Carlos to the north. We liked it because it was new, the rooms very comfortable and the staff friendly.

Day three began early as we pushed northward to Nogales and the border crossing. A shout-out to the state of Sonora for its stretch of the federal highway. Most of the highway is new, concrete and offers by-pass routes around major cities, like Sonora’s capital city, Hermosillo.

About 40 miles south of the border we and hundreds of other vehicles had to process through the military inspection check point. The military did a very thorough job of screening all of our travel bags and sent us on our way after about 20 minutes. I pitied the truck drivers who sat in a line miles-long in the desert heat waiting to be checked.

At Nogales, we pulled into the Banjercito drive-through to return our temporary vehicle sticker and receive our US$300 deposit that we had to pay upon entering the country. Nope. We were sent across the highway to the vehicle registration building we visited when we drove to Puerto Vallarta, which issued the sticker. It would take too long to explain the conversation that ensued, but after two trips back and forth between Banjercito and the other guys, we did not receive our deposit. Their solution was to take it up with the SAT office in Vallarta. We shall see.

From the border, another three hours to Phoenix on a smooth, wide Interstate highway for an overnight before pushing on to Temecula, California, to visit our son and grandkids.

The trip may have been a bit smoother if I had not wrenched my back a week before we left. Several trips to the chiropractor helped, but you know what it’s like to sit behind the wheel of a vehicle hurtling 70 miles per hour over bumpy roads for 8 or 9 hours each day.

If you’re a near octogenarian like me, forget the long and winding road. The flight from San Diego is only two hours and 15 minutes.