Highway in Sonora on the drive from Nogales to Puerto Vallarta

Driving Mexico 15D: Nogales To Puerto Vallarta And Guadalajara

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Are you looking for the best places to eat and places to stay when traveling down the Pacific Coast on the Mexico 15D toll road from Nogales to Puerto Vallarta or Guadalajara? I’ve been driving this route since 2008 and I really look forward to it each year when we embark on the annual family road trip.

There is a lot to see and do along the way. I like to change our stops each year so we visit as many towns along the Mexico 15D as possible. There are some world-class culinary experiences and great tourist attractions if you know who to ask. However, there are also a couple of stops that we make every year because they are so convenient.


Baja Bound Mexican Auto Insurance

“Above and beyond” Mexican insurance coverage by people who actually drive across Mexico.

These are my favorite places to eat and stay along the Mexico 15D from Nogales to Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara.

I know that a lot of us are trying to make good time on a multiday drive but stopping to eat good food makes the experience that much more memorable.

Driving across the border takes a little adjustment. Have a look at the full article on staying safe while driving through Mexico.

Overview Driving The 15D From Nogales To Puerto Vallarta And Guadalajara

The drive from Nogales to Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara is almost the same. It is about 1,600 km (1,000 miles) and should take a little under 20 hours of driving. For the most part, it is a very easy drive if you make the right preparations.

Deciding how to break up the drive based on where you want to stay is the hardest part.

Nogales is one of the best places to cross the US/Mexico border when traveling to Mexico in a personal vehicle. For those looking to quickly move from the west coast of the United States to the Pacific Coast of Mexico, it is the best option.

Crossing at Nogales is faster and safer than crossing in California or at Sonoyta. The US Interstate 10 and the US Interstate 8 are much faster than taking the Mexico Interstate 2 through the Rumerosa and Caborca. We have family in Mexicali who recommended that I avoid Caborca, Sonora because of security problems.

The Nogales border crossings hardly ever have a significant borderline when returning to the United States. The longest I have ever had to wait is 30 minutes which is negligible when compared with the regular 4-hour wait times at San Ysidro. And the infrastructure to issue and retrieve permits is significantly better than it is in Baja California.

Toll Roads or Free Roads

From Nogales to Tepic, it is best to take the toll roads unless you have plenty of time. You will be covering a lot of distance and there is a big difference between driving 110 km/h and driving 50 km/h.

The free road hits every stop sign in every pueblo along the way. They are not designed to be driven at high speeds and have lots of speed bumps (topes).

The cost of the toll road includes an insurance policy. My wife had a windshield replaced because construction kicked up rocks that cracked it. I know from personal experience that the insurance is real.

According to the Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Transportes Ruta Punto a Punto webapp, it costs MEX$2,752 pesos to use the toll roads from Nogales, Sonora to Guadalajara, Jalisco. It is a little bit less from Nogales to Puerto Vallarta. This is just an estimate because the price is always changing.

Don’t be afraid to get off the toll road and drive to Bahía de Kino, Alamos, El Fuerte, or San Blas. Just read up on your destination, set the Google Maps before getting in the car, and take it slow.

Nogales Border Crossings

Nogales is an average border town. It is not particularly attractive and a large obstacle in the eyes of many first-time border crossers.

Crossing international land boundaries in a personal vehicle is often intimidating in both directions. There are a lot of rules imposed by different governments and unofficial rules of the road.

I find Nogales to be a medium-sized crossing. Not too small, not too big. It is much easier to cross at Nogales than it is to cross at San Ysidro but I still don’t want to stay the night here. There are much better places to stay nearby.

Nogales actually has two major border crossing plazas: Mariposa (the bypass) and Deconcini (Downtown). The Mariposa Crossing is only one mile from the Deconcini Crossing but it immediately connects to a toll highway for those that do not wish to stop.

Deconcini Border Crossing in Downtown Nogales

The Deconcini Crossing flows through Downtown Nogales, Sonora before getting on the highway. If you want to stop at the Banamex and pick up some pesos at the ATM or stop at the store for something, the Deconcini Downtown Nogales is the best stop.

I got the windows tinted on the camper shell of my truck at a garage I saw just over the border so nobody could see all the bags in the back. There are lots of businesses right on the border catering to travelers.

The border crossing in Downtown Nogales is open 24 hours a day but the Ready Lanes are only open from 6am-10pm.

Heading north, if any non-US citizens need to get I-94 tourist cards, it is much easier to do that at Mariposa. There is no free parking next to the gate and McDonald’s does not want you leaving your car in their lot, I learned. The bathrooms at this facility are not open to the public like they are at Mariposa.

Mariposa West Border Crossing in Nogales

Mariposa West is now the major border crossing in Nogales. There are more gates and more traffic that uses this crossing. It is a mix of both passenger vehicles and cargo trucks so RVs will have no problems at all.

When crossing into the United States, RVs need to use the gate on the far right.

The Mariposa Crossing is only open from 6am until 10pm. After hours, you will have to use the Deconcini Crossing.

When heading north, if there is anyone in your party that is not a US citizen and requires an I-94 tourist card, the Mariposa crossing is much easier. There is free parking and clean bathrooms at the Mariposa Crossing.

For I-94 permits, turn right on Port Access Drive immediately after crossing the border. Turn right into the parking lot and tell the parking attendant that you need an I-94. They will point you to the far end of the parking lot where the sidewalk leads to the office and the bathrooms.

KM 21 Tourist Visa and Vehicle Importation Office

Make sure you know the rules about driving in Mexico. There are restrictions and permits required for driving foreign vehicles in much of Mexico.

Also, non-Mexican citizens will require either a tourist card or a tourist visa. Both will require a stamp at the Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) office.

21 kilometers south of the border is the plaza with the INM office, the Temporary Vehicle Import Permits (TIP), and Insurance vendors.

I recommend getting your insurance before crossing the border with Baja Bound Mexican Insurance, just FYI.

When heading north, I stop at KM 21 as a permanent resident to “check out” of the country. I park on the northbound side of the road and run across the freeway to save some time. There are holes in the center divide of the freeway to accommodate those of us running across the freeway.

There is plenty of parking but during the southern migration of the snowbirds, it can get busy.

Driving At Night In Mexico

There is a mantra in the expat groups that goes, “Never drive at night in Mexico.” I think this needs a little context.

Avoid driving at night on the highway system between different towns or cities. It is very difficult to see obstacles in the road at night. Speed bumps, livestock, and people are all over the place. Plus, you don’t want to break down at dusk. If you break down during the day it is quick to get help. Things get more complicated at night.

Plan to arrive at your destination well before sunset and give yourself a margin of error. Check the sunset time because December is different than June. It always helps to get on the road early.

Once you are in a city, it may be easier to move around at night to avoid traffic and foreign vehicle restrictions. Mexico City, Monterrey, and Guadalajara are all easier to drive at night than they are during the daytime.

Hermosillo, Sonora

Hermosillo is one of my favorite stops on the road from Nogales to Guadalajara. It is an underground food city with a beautiful cathedral and a passion for baseball. It is also one of the most convenient places to stay if you get a late start crossing the border because there are lots of good, cheap hotels.

There is a bypass for Hermosillo so drivers can go down the middle of a city with 800,000 people or go all the way around it.

Where to eat in Hermosillo

Northern Mexico is famous for carne asada. Many of the best restaurant groups in Mexico that specialize in steaks are from Sonora. You can find great tacos on the street and great high-end restaurants.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the seafood in Hermosillo is particularly good. Bahia de Kino is home to some of the best shellfish in Mexico and is located only an hour away from Hermosillo.

Tacos de Armando

This place is the reason that I love Hermosillo so much. It is a high-end taco restaurant with some of the best carne asada tacos in the country. The salsa bar looks more like a salad bar with huge piles of radishes, cucumbers, onions, peppers, and amazing salsas.

Tacos de Armando is a great place to order food to go. I was a little hesitant about parking my truck on the street absolutely full of luggage so I just ordered food to go and brought it back to the hotel.

My favorite taco is the mixed taco with carne asada and tripe but you can’t go wrong with a Taco de Armando that is pure carne asada.

Everyone that I have told about this place that actually stopped to eat here said they loved it.

Los Dogos del Miami

Way over-the-top hot dogs that have starred in a number of YouTube videos. There are more toppings than I could ever imagine putting on a hot dog.

This was a really easy stop for us as our hotel was just down the street. A small parking lot has been turned into a food court with the Dogos del Miami and a few other food vendors. Miami is by far the most famous and brings a lot of people to the area but I heard the burritos are also very good.

Q’Madre Son Burritos

Large flour tortillas are a specialty item in Sonora. Getting a huge burrito at Q’Madre Son is an experience that you won’t find in the south of Mexico. I grew up in San Diego which is famous for burritos and I will admit that the burritos in Sonora are way better than the burritos in San Francisco.

Obviously, the carne asada burrito is excellent but there are also shrimp burritos, stuffed quesadillas, and tacos.

Where to stay in Hermosillo

There are a lot of great options for inexpensive hotels in Hermosillo. The combination of good food and cheap hotels makes Hermosillo one of the best places to stay the night when traveling from Nogales to Puerto Vallarta.

San Carlos Nuevo Guaymas, Sonora

San Carlos is charming. In 2023, it was designated a Pueblo Mágico by the Mexican Secretary of Tourism. It is more of a resort town for wealthy tourists but Guaymas is just a 15-minute drive away.

What makes San Carlos such a marvelous place to visit is the Sea of Cortes. After driving through the desert, the sight of the gulf is a welcome relief.

It gets really hot and humid in San Carlos. Both the air and the water are warmer than I am used to. We drove two days through Arizona and Sonora where the temperatures reached 46 degrees C (115 degrees F). By the time we reached San Carlos, the temperature dropped to the high 30 which was somewhat of a relief.

Jumping into the water, be it a pool or the gulf, is a huge always nice after driving through the desert.

Where to eat in San Carlos

We got some recommendations on where to eat from our hotel receptionists that were on point.

Charly’s Rock Restaurant

An old school palapa sitting on a rock overlooking the water. We were hungry but our party of picky eaters devoured everything.

Charly’s Filete was my favorite. It is a fish filet with sauteed peppers and onions with salad and rice. The gobernador taco was above average and the fettuccine alfredo with shrimp is a crowd pleaser.

Meri Meri Coffee Community

I saw this place as we were driving by and knew that I had to return the next day. There is an art studio and a coffee shop with a great breakfast.

Excellent drip coffee and we bought their basic plastic to-go coffee cup with the logo which I have enjoyed using ever since we left. The cinimon rolls and acai bowls were a great way to start the day.

Where to stay in San Carlos

This was the highlight of our drive to Guadalajara. I have been wanting to see that sunset for some time and the Marinaterra Hotel has a great view of the Cerro Tetakawi.

The hotel is about the pool. They have a private beach down the road but the pool was a huge hit with my kids. After a long day in the car, a pool is a nice was to stretch out. Marinaterra has a great pool that both the kids and the adults will enjoy.

Ciudad Obregón, Sonora

I try to avoid stopping in Ciudad Obregón. According to the survey regarding the perception of safety that the National Statistics Institute does every quarter, Ciudad Obregón is considered to be a dangerous place. The perception of safety is right on par with Zacatecas and Irapuato which is not good.

There is a macrolibremiento bypass that allows you to go around Ciudad Obregón without entering the city.

The road to the north of Ciudad Obregón gets really bad around Vícam. It feels like it is under construction every year.

Navajoa, Sonora

Navajoa is not a pretty place. There is no bypass so travelers have to drive through Downtown. The cops know this and the area is notorious for questionable speed traps and crooked cops inventing traffic infractions.

Make sure to stick to the speed limit in Navajoa because there are always cops looking for a reason to pull travelers over.

Where to stay in Navajoa

I may not like Navajoa but you have to pass through there. There are some travelers that I respect in the online forums that love Hacienda Cazadores.

  • Hotel Hacienda Cazadores

The Sonora/Sinaloa Border

There is often a Fiscalía General de la República (FGR) checkpoint set up in Sinaloa near the Sonoran border. I have gone threw this checkpoint at Poblado Cinco and Alfonso G. Calderón.

Remember, there is a drug war going on and these are the front-line soldiers searching for illegal drugs, money, and guns.

Lots of travelers complain about the FGR agents taking cash out of their vehicles during searches.

I was searched by the FGR like I have never been searched before. They searched every bag in a full Land Cruiser, took out the stereo, lifted up the carpeting, and removed the paneling.

An uncoordinated agent accidentally dropped the entire contents of one suitcase all over the highway. He was resting the bag on his knees trying not to set it down on the hot asphalt when he lost his balance and dumped everything on the ground.

When they were finished, they put it back together to about 75% of what it was originally. There is now a crack in the air conditioner vent panel which doesn’t sit properly.

They also stole an iPod out of the car. It is what it is. There were six of them and I could not keep an eye on all of them at the same time. That is a part of traveling by car in Mexico.

In other instances, they have aggressively asked to keep things they find in the car like flashlights or change. I usually give them some change when they ask, “pa los refrescos” but make sure it is all one peso coins.

Don’t leave cash sitting out when you go through the FGR checkpoints.

Welcome to Sinaloa. The Scenery is going to change and it is going to start to get humid.

Los Mochis, Sinaloa

Los Mochis is a great place to stop, eat, and stay the night on the road from Nogales to Puerto Vallarta. Remember that survey about the safest places to visit in Mexico by the National Statistics Institute? Well, Los Mochis ranks as one of the safest places in Mexico by the people who live there.

It makes sense that the federal government would have a heavy presence in Los Mochis with all the transportation infrastructure. The Copper Canyon “El Chepe” train leaves from Los Mochis. The Baja Ferry arrives at Topolobanpo which is the port of Los Mochis.

Even when we do not stay in Los Mochis we stop to stretch our legs and eat in Los Mochis.

My kids loved playing at Parque Sinaloa. The playground is huge and the butterfly garden was lovely. The parking is safe and the bathrooms are free.

Across the street from Parque Sinaloa is the Trapiche Interactive Museum for kids.

Where to eat in Los Mochis

Los Mochis is a part of Sinaloa but is a much smaller city than Culiacán or Mazatlán. There are some great places to eat but not as many as you will find in the larger cities.

El Farallón

El Farallón is considered to be the best seafood in Los Mochis by our friends from Los Mochis. It is a high-end restaurant with white table clothes and an extensive menu. It is not an expensive restaurant but more formal than I would want to take little kids that need to run around.

Sushi Arao Centro

If you are coming from the Southern California sushi culture, Sushi Arao might not be your top choice. I have lived in Mexico for a number of years and have grown accustomed to cream cheese on my sushi.

We ordered a ton of sushi to go from Sushi Arao and the best part was the secret parking off the alley. They have their own parking lot that is off-street. Nobody wants to leave a vehicle full of luggage parked on the street.

Los Mochis is only a little ways off of the toll road. After hitting the park, getting gas, and buying food to go, I believe that Los Mochis is the perfect pit stop.

Where to stay in Los Mochis

Culiacán, Sinaloa

Culiacán, Sinaloa is a marvelous town that is highly misunderstood by people that have never been there. While there have been a couple of high-profile security events in the last few years it is important to remember that both Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta face similar challenges from multinational trafficking organizations.

I wouldn’t recommend staying out late drinking in Culiacán but the restaurant scene is famous for some of the best seafood on the Pacific Coast. Sinaloa is the bread basket of Mexico and home to some of the best tomatoes in the country. The local baseball team is named the Tomateros de Culiacán.

If you have the time, the botanical garden in Culiacán is spectacular. The ecosystem in Sinaloa goes from tropical to high desert and is home to a wonderful array of plants and animals.

The Jardín Botónico Culiacán is one of the finest botanical gardens in all of Mexico. It is not a zoo but I saw huge iguanas and lots of birds moving about the canopy.

Where to eat in Culiacán

This is just a small sample of all of the spectacular food that is found in Culiacán. I have spent many hours researching where to eat in Culiacán on YouTube. I particularly enjoy the Pati Jinich and Lalo Villar videos.

Birriería Pérez Moreno

This one is located a little outside of the city on the road to the airport but it is worth the drive. There is lots of farming out this way and the parking lot is full of trucks that work in agriculture. Not old beat-up pickup trucks but new company trucks with expensive all-terrain tires. I think wealthy farmers know how to eat well.

I got this recommendation from Lalo Villar on his show La Ruta de la Garnacha. It did not disappoint. I am a huge fan of birria and the Sinaloa-style birria is one of the best.

In Sinaloa, the birria tatemada is shredded and crispy at the tips. They serve all the different cuts that I am used to in Guadalajara but the tatemada was different and well worth the drive.

Birriería Palazuelos

Palazuelos is a lot like Birriería Pérez Moreno but it is located in the city. This was the first birria that I tasted in Culiacán on my very first visit. It blew my mind. The ribs just slide off the bone and the broth has a ton of flavor.

If you have not eaten birria in Sinaloa before, make sure to order the birria tatemada. The meat comes out crispy and the broth is served on the side. It is an excellent regional variation of a classic Mexican dish.

Ranch Roll

The most famous restaurant serving Culiacán-style “Culichi” sushi. This style of sushi is often imitated in other parts of the country but there is nothing like trying the original.

Culichi sushi involves lots of sauces and toppings. Rolls are often tempura battered and deep-fried whole.

People from Sinaloa drive the people in Guadalajara nuts telling them how great the food is in Culiacán. Ranch Roll is a treasured institution

Mariscos Cuevas

Long time Culiacán establishment that serves excellent seafood. They have indoor seating but much of the kitchen is set up on the street. They are located in Downtown Culiacán on an unassuming side street.

Mariscos Muelle 8

Absolutely incredible seafood restaurant that recently opened a location in Los Angeles, CA. This was a recommendation from Bill Esparza of Eater.com. Click on the address link to read the Google Maps reviews. This is one of the best seafood restaurants in the country.

Both the raw bar and cooked seafood dishes are very good. I am a sucker for sea scallops and Culiacán is one of the best places to eat scallops because they are harvested in the local waters.

Mariscos Don Jacobo

Downhome Culiacán-style seafood. This is a local favorite.

Where to stay in Culiacán

Mazatlán, Sinaloa

Mazatlán is one of Mexico’s premier tourist destinations but much more local than Puerto Vallarta. The town has a long history and is one of the few cities with a historic core right on the beach. Besides supporting the local fishing industry, the Port of Mazatlán receives cargo ships, cruiseliners, and the ferry from Baja California.

This is a beach town and everyone comes out to the boardwalk about sunset to enjoy the weather. The boardwalk is one of the largest in Mexico and people really use it for transportation as well as recreation.

The population of Mazatlán is over 400,000 and the city is well spread out. There are lots of different hotel options from budget to luxury.

I love Mazatlán. This past year we stayed one extra night on our drive from Guadalajara to Nogales so we could play at the beach and eat seafood. Mazatlán has surf up and down the coast and some of my favorite surf spots in Mexico.

Where to eat in Mazatlán

I have a whole article about looking for the best seafood in Mazatlán. These are just a couple of my favorites.

El Toro Pesado

Just a simple street cart and an old man selling incredible scallops, shrimp, and octopus. The plate of food is simple but has some incredible ingredients.

Eating spectacular seafood at a street cart is a quintessential experience.

Cahuamanta La Mexicana

El Cuchupetas

Cuchupetas is located in the greater Mazatlán metro region but not in the city of Mazatlán. The restaurant is located 30 minutes east of Downtown Mazatlán in the town of Villa Unión. They are a destination worth driving for.

Villa Unión and El Cuchupetas are just a couple of minutes off the toll road. I find it convenient to get gas and eat at El Cuchupetas when passing through the area.

You will find some of the best homestyle seafood in Mexico. They have access to some of the best ingredients that are prepared in a rustic kitchen. I have tried five of the different preparations of shrimp and loved all of them. The raw bar and ceviches are all exceptional.

Camarones a la diabla is one of my favorite dishes. I order it all over the place. El Cuchupetas has my favorite recipe made with chipotle and no ketchup. This is the gold standard

I guarantee that you will love El Chuchupetas.

Where to stay in Mazatlán

Mazatlán To The Nayarit Border

The vast majority of the drive from Nogales to Guadalajara is a four-lane highway with two lanes of traffic flowing in each direction. In a few sections it is just a two-lane highway with one lane of traffic in each direction.

Passing is very aggressive and catches many first-timers by surprise. Drivers are expected to move over to the shoulder so that cars may pass.

Unless there is heavy traffic, the left lane should be reserved for passing only. It is very important to not drive slowly in the left lane. It is also important to not block someone trying to pass

Tepic, Nayarit

Tepic is so close to both the beach and where I live in Guadalajara that it is never on my radar. San Blas is just thirty minutes down the toll road I will always prefer to stay at the beach than to stay in the city.

I will say that Downtown Tepic has a lovely Cathedral and there are some great places to eat.

Guadalajara, Jalisco

The Metropolitan Cathedral is the most iconic church in Guadalajara

I have lived in Guadalajara for a long time and have written a bunch of articles about traveling there. I understand that a lot of people reading this article are just passing through but I suggest spending an extra day in Guadalajara. There are a lot of great experiences around.

Final thoughts On Driving The 15D from Nogales to Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara

I love doing this drive. I get a really strong sense of nostalgia thinking about past trips and a sense of excitement thinking about the next one.

We are in the United States right now getting ready to drive back to Mexico in another month. I have a huge list of places that I want to stop.

I hope you end up enjoying the drive as much as I do and that this article helps you find something cool. If it is possible, slow down so you can taste more food.

Thanks for reading, see you next time.

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