In this post and video, I share all about how we towed our RV from Rio Bend, California, across the Mexicali East border, and then along Highway 5 in Baja California to El Dorado Ranch, San Felipe, Mexico!
You can see the border crossing and some of the roads in the video below.
Related: Watch more videos about RV camping in Baja California here!
At Rio Bend, Preparing to Cross the Border into Mexico
We stayed at Rio Bend RV & Golf Resort for 2 weeks while we got ready for the trip south to Mexico. We spent one harrowing day crossing the border in our truck to get our tourist visas (FMMs) and scope out the route we would have to take with our rig. We had been given detailed directions by Ron, a new friend in San Felipe, but we wanted to try it first without the rig.
The morning turned out to be harrowing because we accidentally got separated at the border. I was trying to park, and Maggie had got out of the truck to walk to the office. She was out of sight, when a guard ordered me to keep moving down the road. Maggie caught up with me as I drove away painfully slowly because I did not want to abandon her, but she had left our passports behind at the office, and was panicking about that. Then we had to find parking in a strange town and walk back to the border. With Maggie power walking, because she was so worried about our passports.
How to Avoid this Kind of Situation (Getting Separated at the Border)
First, don’t ever let your spouse out of your sight! Stick together at all costs. Second, don’t count on getting parking right at the border post. There was some parking to the right, but they would not let me use it (maybe because our truck is so big, or maybe it was just a misunderstanding).
So in future, if we are not allowed into the parking area, we will do what we ended up doing that day: drive down the access road into Mexico, and turn right. Just after that right turn there is a medical clinic on the right. Just past the clinic is a minor road. Turn right on that road. There is free parking on the road there (sufficient for a large truck, but NOT for a rig).
We parked there, and walked back to the border office (a 7-minute walk). We returned to find our truck was just fine. Note that we were advised to always use a Club steering wheel lock while in Mexico, and we always do. It goes around your brake pedal and your steering wheel, making it impossible to drive most new vehicles. We have a beautiful truck, and we depend on it totally, so we cannot afford to have it stolen. Even though it is insured, we would lose money, and I am not sure how we would deal with the situation in Mexico.
Because of that parking issue, I would advise others to do what we did – drive in the previous day without your rig, park wherever you can, get your FMM, and then return to the USA. When you return with your rig the next day, you will not have the stress of trying to stop and get your FMM.
Even better – we have not tried this yet, but have been assured it works – you can get your FMM online, and print it at home – click here to look at that option. Note that you can choose English at the top right of this web page. However, I see that you STILL have to get the FMM stamped when you cross the border. So, you would still have to find a place to stop and park. So I am not sure it would save much, except a bit of time. When you get your FMM, you have to walk to another building to pay your fee, then walk back to the border office. It’s not very far, but it does take some time.
Don’t Use the Washrooms at the Mexicali East Border Crossing!
It all turned out OK, as the guard had faithfully kept our passports safe for us. Then we used the washrooms at the border and discovered no lights, no water, and no paper. Incredibly shoddy, even by Mexican standards. If that was our first experience of Mexico, we might never have gone back. But we knew we had just been unprepared and unlucky (I mean, who goes into a Mexican washroom without a flashlight, toilet paper, and wipes?).
By the early afternoon, we knew the route and had our visas. After a 1.5 hour wait at the border crossing, we were back in the USA. The odd thing about the Mexicali East crossing is that it seems to always be easy to go south, but it is a gong show coming north. You wait for over an hour, and then when you finally get close to the crossing, multiple rows of traffic converge into 3 lanes of honking chaos.
The good news is that when we return north with our fifth wheel, we will just have to get into the far right lane and stay there.
Crossing the Border with our Rig
The big day came when we were going to actually tow our Denali fifth wheel across the border into Mexico. We knew we had to use the Mexicali east crossing, which you access in Calexico, California. You cannot take the Mexicali west crossing, because it is too narrow for trailers or trucks.
At the last minute, I had found a couple on Facebook who invited us to join their small caravan down to San Felipe. Vicky and Darryl live in San Felipe, and run the Bed & Biscuit Dog Hotel, a dog boarding and grooming establishment just outside of San Felipe. They kindly offered to let us follow their caravan of cars, so they could show us the best way to wind our way through Mexicali to Highway 5 south.
They were running late due to the illness of one of their party, so we parked next to the 18 wheelers and waited. When we pulled into that truck stop, I was painfully aware of a bunch of professional drivers watching as I maneuvered our fifth wheel between their giant trucks. To my relief (and slight surprise), I did a good job of it, and parked perfectly between them.
Eventually our party showed up, and turned out to be kind and friendly strangers. Very warm and reassuring. As Vicky said, “It’s normal to be nervous crossing an international border with an RV. Driving an RV into Mexico is not for the faint of heart.”
Well good, so it’s not just us then!
Crossing the Border at Mexicali East
The lane across the border was wide enough, and we had no wait. We were a bit confused about it all, as there are no signs to explain anything. But we just kept stopping and waiting until we were given instructions. As with all trailers that cross, we had to pull over to be questioned and searched. It was no big deal. Of course, we know that it’s important to be absolutely polite and honest, as with all border crossings in the world.
The guard was friendly, spoke excellent English, and had recently visited our hometown, Vancouver. He did a very cursory search of our trailer. At one point he opened the freezer, revealing the huge amount of chicken and meat I had stuffed into it. He just blinked, closed the freezer, asked me how much I had paid for the trailer, and then waved us on cheerfully.
Great Border Crossings Heading South!
I thought back to when we had crossed into the USA from Canada a month earlier. There we had been questioned by a friendly American guard who did not search us at all, and simply wished us safe travels. We sure had an easy time of border crossings coming south this year! Touch wood!
Finding Your Way Through Mexicali
Once we were waved on, we caught up with our new friends who were waiting on the side of the road. Thanks to following them, and also the instructions we got from Ron, we knew to ignore the signage as you exit the border station. It says to turn left for San Felipe, but in fact, the best route is to turn right. After that, stay to the center of the wide roads, and keep a very sharp eye out.
You need to find two sign posts for left turns for San Felipe. The second left turn gets you onto Highway 5, and from there, you just follow the highway for about 100 miles to San Felipe.
Finding El Dorado Ranch, 7 miles north of San Felipe, Baja California
All along Highway 5, you will see sign posts every km, telling you how many kilometers you are from the border. Take note of these. They would be very handy if you happened to break down, as you could tell people exactly where you are.
Also, note that at about km 140, you will have to stop at a military checkpoint. We always find the soldiers to be polite, and usually friendly. These are young men who, we are told, are happy to have this job, as it gives them healthcare for their families. Most of them speak at least some English, but don’t count on it. Be sure to be polite.
They will almost certainly want to look inside your RV. One person should remain in the vehicle, and the other should accompany the soldier into your RV. They usually take a very cursory look around, and then wave you on. Once, they also searched our truck fairly thoroughly. However, the soldier who did the search was very cheerful, singing the entire time. So, we certainly did not feel intimidated.
El Dorado Ranch is at km 178. You will see the sign saying Welcome to San Felipe before you get to El Dorado Ranch, even though the ranch is 7 miles north of San Felipe.
The most complicated part of the whole trip turned out to be finding the correct entrance (of about 6 possibilities) into El Dorado Ranch. We needed to find the one that had the HOA office (Home Owner’s Association). The funny thing is that the correct entrance is the only one that does not have a sign saying El Dorado Ranch. Luckily, Ron had given us careful instructions. As in:
Look out for the giant crocodile billboard on the right hand side of the road, about 7 miles north of San Felipe.
After that billboard, pass a small medical clinic. Then you will see a dirt road between the clinic and a gas station. Turn right onto the dirt road.
Even so, because there was no sign post and the road looked so nondescript, we managed to drive straight past, and had to do a U-turn! Luckily, all Mexican highways are designed to have frequent and easy U-turns, even for RVs. Once we doubled back, we quickly found Ron, who was waiting at the gate to help us get our security cards and find our site. Somewhat amazed that we had failed to follow his crystal clear instructions!
Our Site at El Dorado Ranch, San Felipe, Baja California
By then, the sun was getting low in the sky, due to our late start. We found our very lovely site, but were taken aback to find that the driveway was angled the wrong way, so we would have to back in on our blind side. After about 10 minutes, we were both privately thinking, “This is NEVER going to happen.” Then a friendly neighbor popped up to say, “Hi, I’m a professional driver, can I help?”
John, the professional driver, was modest, saying he thought he had about a 99% chance of getting us into the ramada on our site. He turned out to be an almost magical driver, maneuvering the RV into a blind-side parking as if he was attached to it by an umbilicus. Then we had some more sweating, as there was a lump of gravel we could not get over without grinding our landing gear into the gravel. John found us some boards, drove the rig up onto them, and in this way, got us over without damaging our rig! Finally, it was a matter of inching the rig backwards into the ramada, because we have a very high RV, and we were afraid of scraping our roof. We cleared it, I would estimate, by about an inch.
After all that stress, by the time we had a magnificent sunset, we were safely tucked into our ramada, and had already made two new friends!
We have been here for a month so far, and plan to spend a lot more time here in future. This year we are booked to be in Desert Hot Springs from January, but next year, we would like to spend the whole winter at El Dorado. More about the joys of El Dorado Ranch in San Felipe in a future post!
Much more to come in future posts about RV life at El Dorado Ranch, San Felipe, Baja California, Mexico. Watch this space!
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