If you’re on a road trip through Baja California and you’d like to head over to Mainland Mexico with your vehicle, an excellent way to do this is to take the ferry. On a recent trip down the peninsula, we took the ferry from La Paz to Mazatlan (along with our car) on Baja Ferries. The 20-hour journey was much shorter and more cost-effective than it would have been to drive all the way back up the peninsula to cross over to mainland in the north. There’s very little information online in English about taking the ferry, so here’s our experience and some tips.
The car and passenger ferry departs from Pichilingue in La Paz to Topolobampo and Mazatlan in Mainland Mexico. Be aware that ferries only depart for particular cities on certain days, so make sure to check the schedule on the Baja Ferries website ahead of time. For other options on the peninsula, there is also another ferry service that takes travelers from Santa Rosalia in Baja California to Guaymas in Mainland Mexico (www.ferrysantarosalia.com).
The first step to take the ferry from La Paz to mainland was to purchase tickets. You should do this a few days in advance. There are various Baja Ferries offices around La Paz where you can purchase tickets. We went out to the ferry terminal in Pichilingue to purchase our tickets at the office there (in part because we wanted to check out the terminal to be more familiar with it before the day of the ferry ride). You can also purchase tickets online on the Baja Ferries website, but they are lacking a lot of information on the website and there are things you may want to talk to a real person about. It’s much more advisable to go to an office in person to make your ticket purchase. You will need to have your passport with you, and if you are also taking a vehicle on board, you should bring the vehicle to be measured and will also need to show your temporary importation permit for your vehicle. If you do not already have your car import permit, you can purchase this at Pichilingue (more info HERE). You may use a credit card to make your purchase for ferry tickets.
If you are taking your vehicle on board the ferry, they will measure it to see how much it will cost you. The ticket for the driver of the vehicle is included in the price of the ticket for the vehicle. Any other passengers will need to pay a separate ticket fee. These tickets will get you the standard passenger fare. This means you will get a seat on the ferry (very similar to a plane seat) in a room where they show movies. (Note that the movies play all night long. Take earplugs if you choose this option and you actually want to sleep at night.) If you are traveling the longer route to Mazatlan, it’s highly advisable that you splurge and spend an extra $50 (more or less) for a private cabin.
The cabins sleep up to four people on bunk beds, have a desk and chair, four life vests and have very nice bathrooms, complete with a shower with hot water and great water pressure. This way you get a bed to sleep in and have your own private bathroom to use (the public restrooms on the ship are in bad shape by the end of the journey). There are cabins with windows and without windows. Specify your preference when booking (they will not ask you your preference, but speak up, especially if you tend to be slightly claustrophobic in rooms without windows). If not all of the cabins are booked ahead of time, they will also sell cabins to people once on board the ferry, although the price will be more expensive than if you booked the cabin in advance.
If you do not already have your temporary importation permit for your car, you should take care of this in the days ahead of time before taking the ferry as well (note that car importations are not required in Baja but are required in Mainland Mexico). See our article on temporary car importation for Mainland Mexico for more information about getting a temporary importation permit for your car.
A few days later, prepared with Dramamine, our ferry tickets, car importation permit and all of our belongings, we arrived at the ferry terminal three hours early, as advised when we purchased our tickets. We drove the car to the zona de revision (inspection zone) where they checked the car for contraband and checked our car importation paperwork and our ferry tickets. (Note that you will need to show your ferry tickets multiple times during the boarding process, while on the ferry, and all the way through the debarking process, so it’s best to keep them on you and handy at all times).
We then drove over to a scale where they weighed the vehicle and we had to pay the port fee. They did not warn us about the port fee this when we purchased our tickets, but it’s a mandatory fee the day that you take the ferry that must be paid in cash. It was 153 pesos for vehicles (76 pesos for motorcycles, 211 pesos for large semi-trucks or moving trucks under 49 feet and 254 pesos for large semi-trucks over 49 feet). We then pulled into a parking area to wait. Since we had arrived early, we had a lot of waiting to do. This will give you some time to arrange your bags and things if you haven’t done so before hand. You will not have access to your vehicle during the ferry ride. Therefore, you will need to take the belongings that you want with you for the duration of the ride with you. Also note that there are many flights of narrow stairs that you will need to navigate on the ship, so taking a suitcase with wheels, will not only not be useless, but it will be a hassle. Better to take the few things you need with you in a bag you can carry on your shoulder.
At this time, any passengers other than the driver of the vehicle will need to go into the ferry terminal building in order to wait and board with the other passengers. They only allow the driver of the vehicle to drive onto the ship in the vehicle.
In the passenger ferry building, passengers will wait in the waiting room until they call boarding for the ferry. You will go through aduanas (customs) where they will x-ray bags. If you have a suitcase and you do not have a cabin, you will need to check your suitcase. Make sure you have everything you will need for the trip with you in a smaller bag or purse. If you have a cabin, show them your cabin ticket and they will let you pass with a suitcase. You will board a shuttle that will take you from the terminal over to the ferry where you will climb up a number of flights of steep and narrow stairs to arrive at the reception area where you will take a seat or get assigned your cabin (they ask for an ID as collateral for the cabin key).
When it’s time for the vehicles to load, the vehicles with drivers will continue over to the ferry where the cars will drive up to the upper decks and park the vehicle. They will strap down the vehicles after the drivers vacate the cars and head onto the passenger areas of the ferry. If you are taking a motorcycle, you will need to bring your own straps to strap down your motorcycle.
Once on board, settle down and relax for the journey. The cafeteria was nice with tables and a TV. There are snacks and beverages available at all times for purchase and the prices are very reasonable (They say that no outside food or beverage are allowed on board, but they were not checking bags). Two meals, breakfast and dinner, are included with your ferry ticket (this is one of the times that you need to show your ferry ticket so take it with you to the cafeteria when it’s mealtime). Drinks are not included with the meals, so if you want a water, juice, soda or beer, you’ll need to have some pesos with you.
There was an outdoor area on the upper deck, El Parque, where there were benches and a small concession stand with some sodas, beers and snacks. This was the only area on the ferry to get some fresh air. We caught a beautiful sunset as we were sailing out of the La Paz area and headed across to mainland Mexico.
1-800-FERRIES (337-7437) – from Mexico only
612-123-6600 (from U.S. dial 011-52-612-123-6600)
Ferry schedule as of January 2016:
La Paz to Topolobampo
Monday to Friday at 2:30 pm
Saturday at 11:00 pm
Topolobampo to La Paz
Monday to Friday 11:59 pm
Sunday at 11:00pm
La Paz to Mazatlán
Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday at 5:00 pm
Mazatlán to La Paz
Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 4:00 pm
Other Things to Note:
- While a temporary car importation permit is not necessary while in Baja California, it is required in mainland Mexico and you will need to get one before taking the ferry. You can obtain one in Pichilingue in La Paz. See here for more information
- Discover Baja does offer insurance for Mainland Mexico and in some cases, you may already be covered with the policy that you have. Check your Mexican insurance policy (or give us a call at Discover Baja) to make sure that your insurance policy covers you for full territory and that you have sufficient liability to cover you in Mainland Mexico. We can easily upgrade your policy if you are not currently covered.
- The ferry we were on was an old British boat and therefore had European outlets, with no U.S. outlets except for the shaver outlet in the bathroom of the cabin. Make sure that you fully charge any phones, tablets, etc before boarding the ferry. If you have a travel converter or a portable phone charger, take them with you.
- If you are crossing with a pet, they are not allowed to travel with you or remain in your vehicle (because of the fumes and heat). You will need to have a hard-sided crate for the pet, no soft-sided carriers are permitted. Your pet will be put into a separate area with other pets and will be in their carrier for the entire journey. You will be permitted to visit your pet but may or may not be allowed to let them out of the crate to stretch their legs depending on whether or not the security guard deems it safe at the time. Only dogs and cats are allowed as pets. The first pet is free, subsequent pets cost an additional 210 pesos. You must advise them when making your reservation that you will be bringing a pet with you and you will need to have proof of current vaccinations. There is another ferry company, TMC, that will reportedly allow you to keep your pet with you on the journey.