Valle de Guadalupe - Mexico's Luxurious Wine & Food Region
I often get asked what my favorite travel destination is for amazing food and people are often surprised when I say Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico. Just a few hour south of the San Diego border is a blooming foodie destination that has been gaining incredible popularity and credibility in the culinary world over the last five years. With Michelin quality restaurants, over 100 wineries, as well as spas and five-five star accommodations, there's no better place for a wandering foodie to spend a weekend away. Since my first visit in 2016, I've been hooked and want to share all that I've discovered on where to eat, drink and stay in this beautiful area so that you have all you need to plan your first visit to Valle de Guadalupe!
If you're thinking to yourself - no way, I'm not going to Mexico, it's way too dangerous, then I feel you. It actually took me over twelve years of living in San Diego to finally be convinced to cross the border that's less than 45 minutes from my house. I was pretty sure I would be immediately kidnapped once I stepped foot in Mexico and always thought to myself, "I watch Dateline, I know how these things happen." But during my first visit, I quickly realized that my naive understanding kept me from a really wonderful place and nearly a dozen trips later - all I worry about now is when I can get back. Of course, you need to be alert, make smart decisions and be aware fo the possible safety concerns that you would anywhere else. I'll list some helpful tips later on in the guide.
This guide is jam packed with valuable information, but it's also long.
So use these links to jump down to whatever section is most relevant to you.
Where to Eat - Best Restaurants
Where to Drink - Best Wineries
Where to Spa
Where to Stay - Best Boutique Accommodations
How to Get Around The Valle - Including Border Crossing Tips
The Best Restaurants in Valle de Guadalupe - A Foodie Haven
Valle de Guadalupe has such a strong and exuberant food culture and is on my list for one of the best untapped foodie regions in the world. The list I've put together just barely scratches the surface and I'll continue to add to it as I uncover more gems through my visits. No matter where you go, you really can't go wrong. Note that most restaurants are not open very late, most closing between 8-9pm, even on weekends so if you're a night owl you're probably going to be out of luck. Happy eating!
Malva is my personal pick as a foodie destination for anyone who appreciates the artistry of cuisine and enjoys having their taste buds challenged. I've dined here for lunch twice now and both times the food was absolutely stunning and delicious. After eating at most of the high end restaurants in the valley, I did not think that they could be topped; however, we were blown away at the creativity and maturity of the dishes.
We've ordered the tasting menu both times, which consisted of about 8 small dishes, plus a few surprises along the way. Each course was superb and our meals have consisted of some of the best dishes I've had in the area. Utilizing fresh ingredients picked from the on-site garden and high quality, local seafood and meats, the Head Chef Roberto Alcocer transforms simple foods into delicate, yet exceptionally flavorful dishes that are plated to perfection. From French radishes served with a glassy grey dipping sauce to a simple corn chowder, there is a thoughtfulness and depth to each course that I've only experienced at some of the highest rated restaurants around the world. Expect light, fresh, crisp dishes with a farm to table, French flare. For about $60 US per person, without drinks, it's well worth the cost as you'd have to pay $200+ in most cities to experience this level of dining. It's important to mention that Malva is actually a partnership with Mina Penelope Vineyards, who bottles wine harvested there on the property and I highly recommend enjoying a glass of one of their house wines with your meal. If you're lucky enough to meet Veronica, the wine maker, she can explain the rich detail of every bottle and the love that has gone into making each one.
The restaurant is located a few miles south-west from the center of town, directly off of highway 3. When there, it feels a bit like being in a tree house as it's all outside and sits on a hill overlooking the valley. Since it is an open restaurant, it can get cold if you are not properly dressed, so do layer. The ambiance is much less sophisticated or refined than some of the other up-scale restaurants around, but it adds to the intimacy and charm of the restaurant and truly provides a unique experience. It's important to mention that there is livestock nearby and I've heard that the smell can be distracting when hot and the winds pick up, so may be worth considering if you are sensitive to this (but we did not experience this either time). There is a rawness to Malva, both in its food and its location that greatly appeals to my love of food and I believe it comes down to their passion to provide damn good food that respects ingredients and the land it comes from. A fancy building and expensive plates and flashy servers are not what make a great dish, it's the passion that goes into every dish and the dedicated hands of those who prepare it and this is a restaurant that exudes passion. Malva is my favorite restaurants in Valle de Guadalupe and I look forward to returning over and over again.
Fauna at Bruma
Restaurant Fauna at Bruma is exquisite in every way - location, decor and of course, food. This entire development, which includes the restaurant, winery and boutique hotel is completely new and is continually expanding - thank goodness, because I'm obsessed with it and it's become our go-to spot whenever we are in town.
Fauna highlights bold and hearty traditional Mexican dishes with an updated, elevated flare. The kitchen is run by a husband and wife duo know how to serve a killer meal from start to finish. I am a huge fan of their family style menu option that is perfect for sharing over lunch or dinner with a group of friends and family, which includes about 4-5 full courses of fabulous flavors that truly highlight modern Mexican cuisine. Prices are on the higher end, expect it to be about $60-70 per person, but this is not a place you will leave hungry. And definitely don't skip dessert - the pastry chef served up a semifreddo that left us all licking our bowls. This is one spot you'll want to make reservations for because although it's new on the scene, it's gaining major traction with the foodie crowds. If it's a sunny day, request to sit outside to enjoy the panoramic views of the valle. Reservations can be made through Open Table through the link on the website.
Bruma as a whole is a photographers dream because every detail of the restaurant, winery and luxury villas are catalog worthy, appealing to the most experienced luxury travelers. Bruma also does wine tastings and tours, which is a must so that you can see the incredible architecture of the winery, especially the massive tree that they've built the tasting room around.
La Cocina de Dona Estella
Dona Estella is well known as the best breakfast in Valle de Guadalupe. It's rustic, it's home cooking and it's damn good. This is the place you go for a hearty, traditional Mexican meal where Dona Estella herself walks around to ensure everyone is enjoying her food. The tortillas are made to order, the orange juice is freshly squeezed and the rich and creamy hot chocolate is stirring on the stove just waiting to be devoured.
The signature dishes are the Hot Cakes de Elote (corn pancakes), which are a secret family recipe (and my personal favorite), the Borrego Tatemado, which is a slow braised lamb served with fresh tortillas and beans as well as the Chilaquiles. Every table starts out with a basket of freshly fried tortilla chips, cubes of queso fresco and some super spicy salsas - absolutely worth waking up for! You have to drive a bumpy dirt road to get here, but there's a yummy pot of cheesy gold waiting for you at the end of it. Be mindful that this place gets packed by 9am on weekends and the later it gets the longer the wait time is. I always try and arrive by 8:30am and have not had a problem getting a table, even with larger groups.
Finca Altozano has become the flagship restaurant of Celebrity Chef Javier Plascencia, who has pioneered the food scene in Valle de Guadalupe with his signature style of Baja Med (Mexican, Mediterranean fusion). Set on a massive sprawling property overlooking open fields, Finca Altozano is THE spot to be for great company, great views and great food. This is one of the more casual spots on my list and definitely most accessible. Saying that, expect that on sunny weekends that waits can be over an hour for a table so you'll want to make reservations if you can (Reservations can only be submitted through email and you will receive a response in Spanish only. In your email state what date, what time and how many people you are making a reservation for and they'll let you know if that's possible.). The restaurant is also all outside and winds pick up easily here, so even on warm days bring a jacket. We recently had dinner when it was around 40 degrees and it was seriously painful... but still worth it because the food is so freaking good. The menu is mostly made up of smaller plates so you can easily come for a light lunch, pre dinner appetizers and drinks or a full on gorge fest. Here's a few of our favorite dishes:
- If the Caesar salad is on the menu it's a must (fun fact: Javier Plascencia's family invented the Caesar salad - so you know it's good). The fresh heads of romaine are grilled on an open flame and fresh cheese is sprinkled overtop.
- Octopus in a light wine/peanut sauce/flavor explosion. I don't know what it's called on the menu, but it's our favorite dish by far. You must dip the fresh bread they provide in the sauce - I promise you'll want to lick the dish clean!
- All of the taco options are delicious.
- The Sangria is phenomenal.
- The corn cake dessert topped with ice cream is cooked to perfection. We love it so much that we never share, meaning we have to order one each or one of us will be leaving without a hand. Too graphic? You'll understand when you try it.
Arrive without a reservation and the wait is insane? Not to worry, just a few yards away towards the parking lot there's a little container that serves fresh Tortas (sandwiches) and there's also a little coffee shop window. It's actually the only coffee spot I know of in town, so if you're a caffeine addict, this is the place to go and they're open late.
Finally, Chef Javier Plascencia recently added a seasonal fine dining restaurant on the property called Animalon that I'm dying to try. There's only two seatings a night and it's served under an huge old oak tree on the property. I've heard it's incredible, but can't give you my full Type A approval until I've tried it myself; once I do, I'll write an update.
Laja was my first introduction into the Valle de Guadalupe culinary scene and it's what opened my eyes to what I didn't realize existed in Mexican cuisine. Light, fresh, bright and beautiful is how I describe Laja's sophisticated tasting menus that focus on French technique with American and Mexican influences. The 8 course tasting menu is roughly $60 per person, plus an additional $30 for the wine pairings, it's a steal for the level of quality you receive. This is a meal you would easily pay $200-300 in the US. I really enjoy coming here for lunch because the views of the garden are gorgeous, but it's also the perfect spot to celebrate a special occasion or a romantic evening. Reservations can be made online through their website.
Da Toni Ensenada
This little trattoria is about a 30 minute drive south west of the valle in Ensenada, but this guide would not be complete without adding Da Toni. Italian food is probably not what you think of when heading to Mexico, but when our close friends who own a local winery brought us here, we were floored. I'm not kidding when I tell you that this is the best Italian food I've had outside of Italy. The restaurant is located on a quiet side street, away from the touristy-chaos of Ensenada and there's only about 8 tables in this quaint hidden gem. Specials are written on a board on the wall and Chef Toni comes around to each table to explain every dish on the menu. He's a bit dry and fairly direct, which can rub some people the wrong way, but we've always felt it adds to the charm - and who cares, he makes incredible food!
I think by now we've tried just about everything on the menu and I crave pretty much all of them. My favorites are the Spaghetti with a tomato habanero sauce (it's just slightly spicy) and is the closest thing I've ever found to my favorite dish from Florence, the ribeye is always cooked to perfection with a pan seared crust, whatever ravioli he's got on special is worth ordering and the tiramisu is usually sold out before I get there (so it must be good). The wine list is short and only highlights the best local wine makers. If you plan on dining during the weekend, get there early because this is a local favorite and it gets full fast. Da Toni doesn't take reservations, so you'll have to take your chances showing up at the right time or risking a long wait. Just down the street is a little coffee shop that you can kill time in (we sat there for about an hour last time as we waited for a table to open up). Dishes average about $10US so you can get a lot for a little, especially if you go family style (our last bill was about $60 for 4 people, without wine). I'm so grateful that I've got a place I can go to satisfy my craving for Italian food without having to jump on a plane to Italy (although my husband should still expect that I'll try to jump on a plane to Italy at least once every 3 years - andiamo!).
The Best Wineries to Visit in Valle de Guadalupe
The best wine tasting experience in Valle de Guadalupe is the one at Trevista Vineyards. This small, family owned boutique winery invites guests to visit for an intimate wine tasting experience, unlike any in the valley. When you are here, from the moment you step foot on the vineyard, you are welcomed as family. As you sit around a long table, overlooking the sprawling vineyards, James (the owner and wine maker) passionately describes the wine making process, from caring for the vines to understanding how certain elements impact the flavor of the wine. He takes all of the guests on a tour of the vineyard, including a stop at his cava (wine cave) to see where the wine is stored and where the magic behind the scenes of creating such exquisite wines takes place (be sure to ask him about his special worm water!). His stories are endless and his charisma is addicting, even those who don't care much for wine find themselves enthralled spending time with the American, who speaks perfect Spanish, who somehow decided to open a winery in Mexico. He's definitely an anomaly!
At Trevista, they focus on only one type of wine - Tempranillo, a Spanish varietal - so guests partake in a vertical tasting, trying wines from different years rather than different types. Each glass is served with a perfectly paired tapa (bite sized snack), lovingly and skillfully made by the other owner, Hilda, who also happens to be James' wife. While James is the face of Trevista, Hilda is the heart behind it all. Her warmth, kindness and killer cooking skills (my husband believes she is the best home cook he's ever met) are what set Trevista apart from any other winery in the region. She actually grew up in Valle de Guadalupe, before ultimately moving to Southern California, but has returned to her home town to live their dream of running their own winery. Be sure to ask her about the incredible work she does with the local orphanages and how her foundation, Corazon de Vida, supports the children to earn college educations after they age out of the orphanages - it's truly amazing. But while James may be entertaining and Hilda may be wonderful, there's more to visiting Trevista than that - the wine from Trevista is the best I've had in Mexico, and quite possibly anywhere. The wines are smooth, rich and are well known in the region for being some of the best around.
Tastings at Trevista are by reservations only, available only twice on Saturdays and sometimes on Sundays. The cost of the tastings is roughly $25 per person, which the includes 3 tastings with tapas pairing and a tour of the vineyard. Because they ensure that each tasting remains intimate, with no more than 12-16 people, bookings sell out quickly, so be sure to reserve your seat well in advance through Eventbrite: Click Here to be taken to the booking page. We always prefer attending the late afternoon tasting because it allows for the most time since there's not another group coming in after, but no matter when you go you are guaranteed to have a fantastic time. You can also reserve private, multi-course dinners at Trevista, which my husband and I booked for ten of our closest friends to celebrate our wedding anniversary last year - it was the most magical, especially ending the night all sitting around the fire pit, smoking cigars with shots of tequila. For private dinners or event information, you'll need to send a request through email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Just across the street from Trevista, is another one of my favorite wineries - Quinta Monasterio. Also family owned, they have a variety of wines at very reasonable prices. My personal favorite is their Chardonnay and we usually buy at least a few bottles of their bottled olive oil, which is much better than anything you can buy at the store. Ask to tour the cava and take time to wander around the property through the many fruit trees. Also, make sure you out the sweet photo of my awesome grandma getting her drink on in the tasting room - she knows what's up. Love you Grandma!
Decantos Vinicola is one of the fancier, Napa Valley sized wineries with plenty of seating and great reds. They also sell chocolates that pair perfectly with the wines. Buy a bottle and a box of chocolates and get your buzz on (if you're not driving of course).
Vinas de Garza
Vinas de Garza is a gorgeous spot to visit on a clear, warm day so that you can enjoy sitting out on the large outdoor patio enjoying the panoramic views of the vineyard. There's several options for tastings and they also offer cheese plates and other snacks that can be ordered during your visit.
Media Perra - Cervezas (CraftBeers!)
Not a huge fan of wines, but somehow got dragged to wine country by a friend or significant other? Don't worry, Media Perra is an excellent craft brewery right along the wine route! Specializing in pale ales and stouts in an architecturally cool tasting room, a quick stop for a flight here will quickly make all the grumpy wine-haters happy.
Bar Bura at Cuatro Cuatros - Ocean Views for Days
If you are looking to take in some ocean views, about a 25 minute drive from Valle de Guadalupe is Cuatro Cuatros. Now, this place is a bit of a pain in the ass to get to, you have to pay to take the shuttle from the parking lot to the restaurant and service here pretty much sucks. BUT the views are so incredible that it makes all of that worth it. If you aim to get here just before dusk, you won't be disappointed (well, you might be disappointed a little with the food...), but grab a glass of wine and soak in the unobstructed coastal views. Quick Tip: Make sure you check out the bathrooms ;)
The Best Spa in Valle de Guadalupe
Spa at Quinta Monasterio
Along with being a fabulou winery, Quinta Montessario has the best spa in the area. A completely private and intimate experience, each treatment includes time in the sauna, hot tea, an outdoor shower, all organic spa products and finishes with a glass of wine and fresh salad out on the patio overlooking the vineyard. There are several treatments available, all at extremely reasonable prices. My husband and I have always booked the couples treatments, which includes a full body exfoliation and hour long massage.
The entire treatment lasts around 2-2.5 hours for around $225 plus tip, such a great deal! The therapists are professional and very good, providing excellent pressure. If you do a treatment with an exfoliation, you will be instructed to wash off after and although they provide you with disposable underwear, it's still a bit exposing - just something to note if you are the shy type. There is both an indoor and an outdoor shower that is shielded by wooden slats and the hillside and is perfect on a warm day. When you book a treatment, the entire spa is reserved for only you, so there is no concern for lack of privacy or random people wandering about.
Tips for booking: It's a bit of a complicated process. You'll have to call or email directly to request a day and time. You can find all of the treatment options and contact details here.
Where to Stay in Valle de Guadalupe
This family run winery and spa also hosts a few quaint casitas, tucked along the fruit trees and vines. Two of the casitas are newly built, with a queen bed, couch and kitchenette as well as a modern bathroom with an outdoor shower (don't worry, there's an indoor one too!). There is one other casita, which is the originally built one; however, it's a bit outdated and much less modern than the other two - it's larger and offered at a lower price so is still a great option depending on what you are looking for.
Each stay includes a lovely, home-cooked Mexican breakfast that is served outside each morning overlooking the vineyard with coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice. There's not great instructions when it comes to breakfast, but you just need to head to the courtyard in the morning when you are ready to let someone know you're ready to eat or you can schedule it the night before. It's very flexible and fluid and as long as you relax and go with the flow you'll have a great time.
Here's the Airbnb link for the new/modern casita:
Here the Airbnb link for the older casita:
Casa 8 at Bruma
Casa 8 at Bruma is a gorgeous collection of luxury suites is on my high list to stay at. The only way to book is by emailing directly and since there are a limited number of suites, they book out extremely fast. Every aspect of Bruma, from restaurant Fauna to the tasting rooms is decorated to perfection, so I can only imagine that Casa 8 far exceeds expectations.
Rocas del Valle
Rocas del Valle is a newly open development with cliffside luxury cabins, ranging from single units to multi room super-suites. I've not stayed here just yet, but I've heard excellent reviews, so I look forward to checking it out during my next visit.
Set high on a cliff, Encuentro's ultra modern eco-villas are well known in the area and have been featured in nearly every travel magazine in 2017.
Tips on How to Get To and Around the Guadalupe Valley
San Diego or Tijuana - both airports are roughly 2 hours away from Valle de Guadalupe.
Driving in Mexico & Car Insurance
A car is a must unless you plan on going for just the day and will be joining a tour or will be hiring a private driver. While the valley is not large, it does require a car to get around. If you are renting a car in the US, be sure to check with the rental company to see if you are able to drive it over the border into Mexico - this is very important to ensure that you have coverage driving into Mexico.
If you are driving your own vehicle into Mexico (which is what we do), you'll need to purchase separate Mexican car insurance. From my understanding, NO US insurance companies will insure you when in Mexico and if they say they do - read the fine print because it most likely says that you will only be covered if in an accident with another US insured driver. I purchase my car insurance from Baja Bound which costs around $20 per day, depending on your coverage choices. You'll just need to ensure that you print the paperwork and keep a copy in your car.
Roads from the border or airports into Valle de Guadalupe are excellent - easy to navigate and well kept. The roads in The Valle; however, are mostly dirt roads and can be a bit rough, especially during or after heavy rains. I highly recommend driving a 4-wheel drive or generally higher vehicle. While we have driven our Prius on several occasions, we much prefer driving our Honda CRV that handles the dirt roads like a champ.
Don't Want to Deal with Driving - Book a Tour
For those who just want to visit for a day or don't want to deal with all of the hassle that I mentioned above, there are several options for booking a tour to take you from the border to Valle de Guadalupe, including all of the wineries and meals, even accommodations for multi-day trips. If you have a large enough group, you can also hire a private driver to take you around. Although I have not done a tour myself, here's a few of the services that I recommend based on ratings and testimonials from trusted friends and family:
- Valle Wine Life: They offer VIP Wine tours that can be customized to your preferences. Their knowledgeable and professional guides focus on providing a quality experience, taking guests to unique, boutique wineries instead of large commercial businesses.
- Boca Roja: Boca Roja is a highly rated tour company with a variety of all inclusive, private tours available based on your preferences. They will do tours for groups as small as 2 and up to 14.
One of the most stressful and frustrating parts of driving to and from Mexico is the border crossing experience. When done wrong by inexperienced visitors, it can cause people to never want to return no matter how much they loved their trip. Here's what you need to know so you can plan for an easy border crossing.
Crossing the Border into Mexico from the US
Except during normal commute times (9am and 5pm), this is a relatively fast crossing. We usually prefer the San Ysidro border crossing opposed to Otay Mesa since there are more lanes and you can quickly get to highway 1 from here without having to drive through the city for very long. Do check Google Maps though, just in case one border is backed up more than another. Be warned, it feels a bit like herding cattle with cars as lanes are blurred and signage sucks. just keep moving through with everyone else and if going through San Ysidro, get to the farthest right hand lanes as quickly as possible because once you get through, the ramp to get you to the 1 highway comes up quickly. You'll need to be confident and push your way through the lanes of cars - people will let you in, but you'll need to charge through to make it happen amidst the chaos.
If, by slim chance, you get flagged for secondary inspection, you'll be waved over by an officer and pulled to the side. Everyone will have to get out of the car while an officer inspects your vehicle. No need to panic, this happens - my in-laws and grandparents just had it happen to them and they were back on the road in no time without hassle.
Crossing the Border into the US from Mexico
Driving over the border, back into the US, is much more difficult and can be a nightmare if you are not informed or well prepared. While I have no intentions of scaring you with these details, I'd much rather have you be informed than naive and decide never to return anyway because you weren't prepared. Deal? So here goes...
Choosing the Correct Border Crossing Lane
The closest and most common border crossing locations coming from The Valle are San Ysidro and Otay Mesa (Tecate is another border crossing; however, it is farther east). San Ysidro is the largest of the two with more lanes, but it's always best to check for current wait times on the US border site (click here) AND through Google Maps to decide which one to go to.
At each border crossing there are 4 different types of lanes and you want to ensure you get into the correct one as each one has different requirements and there can be costly fines for getting into the wrong one. Signs can be tricky so know which lane you belong to and pay attention. Below is a high level overview of each one, but for more detailed information, please check out Baja Bound's page by clicking here, which also includes detailed directions on how to get into each lane based on the specific border crossing you are heading to - this is the best instructional site I've found so far for driving directions.
- Standard Lanes - Standard Lanes are for the general population of people that only have a passport as identification. These are usually the lines with the longest wait times. If you are traveling with your passport and passport only, be sure to get into the Standard Lanes, but keep reading in case you're not sure if this is you.
- Ready Lanes - Ready Lanes require that you have a Passport Card or enhanced license with RFID chip. EVERYONE in your car above the age of 15 must have one of these approved options in order to go through the Ready Lane.
- Fast Lane (aka Fast Pass) - The Fast Lanes can be used with a single use day pass, also known as Medical Passes. You can usually get these from hotels and some local businesses, but each one only has a limited amount that they are allowed to give out daily. If you are not staying at a hotel, you can always drive to one and ask the front desk - sometimes they will hand them out for free and sometimes they will offer them at a fee, each business is different. I have plenty of friends and family who have bought or received Fast Lane/Medical passes to save some time to cross the border, so it's worth trying for because the wait times can be significantly shorter than Standard or Ready Lanes. With that said, you can only use these at the San Ysidro border crossing at this point, so weigh your options.
- Sentri Lane - The Sentri lanes are strictly for those who have Sentri and/or Global Entry Passes and can not be accessed from the regular lanes, they have a separate entrance. Sentri passes are the most expensive and difficult to get, requiring a possibly lengthy application process and are designated to a specific car (so even if you have a Sentri pass you can't drive just any car through the lane); however, it is worth it for the significant decrease in wait times crossing the border and the pass is good for 5 years. As an example - I just looked at the border wait times on a Sunday afternoon at Otay Mesa and Standard and Ready Lanes have a 2 hour wait time and Sentri lanes are only 10 minutes. Again, everyone in the car must have a Sentri pass in order to cross the border through this lane. What we do when we have friends/family in the car who do not have a Sentri Pass is drop them off in the nearby pedestrian path prior to getting in line and meet them over the border at a designated location near the pedestrian bridge. We do this often and it works perfectly, allowing everyone to get over the border quickly and easily. It's important to note that the threat is that anyone who goes through the Sentri line without a Sentri pass will be charged $5,000 on the spot... and while I have yet to hear of anyone being charged this, I would definitely not recommend testing your luck.
Additional Tips for Crossing the Border into the US
- The worst possible time to cross the border back into the US is on Sunday after 12pm or on a Monday Holiday. Friends and family have experienced wait times in Standard and Ready Lanes of 6+ hours. We now refer to these days as "poop in a bag days" as our friends that waited 7 hours with their kids in the back seat and had to have them poop in a bag. Gross, but true. If you do not have a Sentri Pass, I recommend leaving super early on a Sunday morning or not leaving until Monday late morning (to avoid regular commuter traffic), unless Monday is a holiday.
- Absolutely check for holiday weekends, especially Mexican holidays, before planning your trip and avoid those weekends if at all possible. Holiday weekends cause an influx of visitors, meaning that the amount of people leaving on the same day is significantly higher.
- As mentioned before, the earlier you try and cross the border, the better.
- All lanes except Sentri Lanes will have vendors selling everything from sodas to blankets and everything in-between. You should negotiate on price for all of these items, it's the only fun part of sitting in line for this long.
- Use the restroom before getting anywhere close to getting in line. OXXO's and gas stations are plentiful, so be sure to stop at least 10 minutes before getting near the line. Once you're in line, you can't get out and the line can start well before the border so it's not worth cutting it too close. There are restrooms at the border so as long as you're not the only one in the car, you can take turns getting out to use them. I honestly cannot tell you exactly where they are, you'll just have to ask one of the vendors who walks by.
- When you pull up to the border booth, have your passports or whatever documentation ready for everyone in the car. This saves time for everyone and there is little patience on the side of the border patrol officers.
- Border patrol officers vary and I've experienced kind and considerate ones as well as hostile, mean and disrespectful ones. There's no way to tell what you'll get when you pull up, so just be prepared.
- Just like going through any other custom lines, everyone in the car should take off sun glasses and hats, no one should be on their phones and everyone should be ready to answer any questions they ask, including what you were doing in Mexico, for how long and why.
- No more than 1 bottle of alcohol per person (1 liter) for CA residents can be taken over the border. For specific details and information for non-California residents - read the ABC Government website here.
Additional Tips for Driving in Mexico
- Toll Roads: There are several toll roads that lead into Valle de Guadalupe from Tijuana and I highly recommend that you take them. They are definitely the nicest roads and will get you to and from much faster than driving through town. Toll roads cost around $2-5US each, so you should plan on keeping at least $20 in small bills in the car.
- Recommended Route: We prefer to take the 1/1D highway along the coast. While this route can be a slightly longer route than taking the eastern highway 3, it offers beautiful views and a very easy driving experience. The 3 also requires you to drive through the city of Tijuana longer, which can be confusing and congested so we try to avoid that whenever possible.
- Navigation: Google Maps is pretty accurate for navigation if you have cell service, which I highly recommend having. If you don't have data available in Mexico, pre-load your destination into Google Maps before you leave the US and the navigation should continue to work for you into Mexico. Be sure to check your map settings so that it does not avoid toll roads, otherwise you could find yourself driving much longer through confusing city streets to save a few bucks. Having cell service is extremely helpful though so even if you have to pay extra per day to have it, it's worth it - just contact your service provider to ask about your options.
- Gas: It's best to get gas before driving into Mexico as it's a bit more expensive once there. The larger the station the better and they will often pump the gas for you.
- Restrooms: Pemex gas stations have the best bathrooms.
- Speed Limit: Definitely drive the speed limit or slightly above and remember that the speeds are in Kilometers not Miles. Locals will drive faster than you - don't try to keep up or you're asking to get pulled over. You should also generally always be in the right lane unless you are passing a car. Generally the driving rules are the same as the US.
- Car Maintenance: Be sure that your car lights are all working properly (break and headlights) to avoid any reasons for being pulled over.
- Money: Split your money up so that it is not all in one place. If by slight chance you get pulled over, you don't want to have all of your wallet - we split it between bags and the glove compartment. Not that I've heard of this happening at all recently, but bribery has been known to be part of the police culture in Mexico so if you need to hand over all you have in your wallet, it's better to have it look like you only have $40 instead of $100.