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Sonora is a state in northwestern Mexico that borders Arizona. It’s home to some of the most beautiful beaches in Mexico and fantastic scenery with tall cacti dotting the desert hills for hundreds of miles.
Sonora makes a perfect trip for the adventurous traveler looking to spend time in the nature and explore the rugged terrain of this vast state.
But is Sonora safe?
While Sonora enjoys a relatively good reputation among many US travelers, the State Department currently marks Sonora orange, meaning you should reconsider travel to this state.
In this article, we will look at what makes Sonora less safe and how you can stay safe on the road while visiting this state.
Where is Sonora, Mexico?
Sonora is a state in northern Mexico that borders the United States to the north, Baja California to the west, Chihuahua to the east, and Sinaloa to the south. It’s the second largest state in the country with a sparse population, as most people live in Hermosillo, Ciudad Obregon, and Nogales.
Things to know about traveling to Sonora
Sonora is a popular travel destination for residents of southwestern states Arizona, California, and New Mexico, who often come here to take advantage of lower prices on goods, medical services and enjoy Sonora beaches.
Aside from the most popular Rocky Point (Puerto Penasco), Sonora has many other beaches including San Carlos and Algodones, pueblos magicos of Alamos, and gorgeous nature reserves.
Is it safe to travel to Sonora?
Sonora is one of seven Mexican states categorized as “Reconsider Travel” by the U.S. State Department as of 2023 due to crime and kidnapping. According to the agency, international drug trade and human trafficking networks operate throughout the state, and U.S. citizens have been victims of crimes in the past.
But this warning doesn’t deter many travelers who cross the border to Sonora every day, and you can travel to this beautiful state safely if you follow basic precautions and learn my safety tips.
Driving through Sonora: what you need to know
If you are traveling to Sonora from the United States by car, something to be aware of is Free Zone, where no temporary immigration permit is required for your vehicle.
You don’t need this permit to visit Puerto Penasco, San Carlos, Hermosillo, Magdalena, Santa Ana, Guaymas, and Kino Bay.
Travelers must have proof of US citizenship, a valid driver’s license, and vehicle registration.
You can get the permit at the customs checkpoints by presenting a valid US passport or Birth Certificate and a government-issued photo ID.
If you get caught driving without a permit, you could have your vehicle impounded by local authorities and issued a fine.
Safety tips for visiting Sonora
- Limit your driving to the daytime – Sonora is fun to explore, but you should limit your activities to the daytime. If you plan to drive through the state, get to a hotel, as soon as it gets dark.
- Book only reputable hotels with good reviews – This is particularly true for Nogales where many small motel-type properties are sometimes owned by drug cartels and are used as fronts for money laundering and other criminal operations.
- Avoid public transport in Nogales – Theft is common on public buses in Nogales, and in the past, there have been incidents with public buses hijacked in conflict zones. If you need to get around, only take first-class buses and licensed taxis. Avoid sketchy taxi drivers who are too eager to help and don’t have proof of their official license.
- Exercise increased caution in Nogales – Nogales is a border city with drug trafficking and street crime that can affect you as a tourist. Don’t travel to Nogales alone, and limit your activities to the daytime.
- If someone is robbing you, don’t resist – It’s better to lose your valuables than your life. You never know what a criminal could do to you. While they could be bluffing, they could also have a weapon.
- Don’t drink tap water – Tap water in Sonora is not safe to drink like in the rest of Mexico. Always buy bottled water.
- Don’t socialize with anybody who is involved with drugs – I hope this one is clear.
- Learn some Spanish – Because Sonora sits along the border with the United States, you might assume that most people here speak English. But this is not true. While people who work in the tourism industry speak English, many residents of Sonora have limited English skills or none at all. Speaking Spanish will ensure better situational awareness, and can ask questions whenever you need to clarify something.
- Don’t flaunt your wealth – If you plan to explore Mexicali, dress down and wear plain clothes. Don’t show off any expensive equipment like phones or cameras that might attract the attention of the wrong people.
- Don’t divulge your travel plans – Keep your plans to yourself and don’t divulge too much personal information to strangers, even if they appear to be friendly. Stay polite, but refrain from oversharing.
- Stick to popular places – Stick to popular spots like Hermosillo and Puerto Penasco. Avoid secluded areas, poorly lit spots, and remote desert areas that are easier for criminals.
- If you can, travel with someone else – Traveling around Sonora is an incredible experience, but it’s best to do it with someone else, as you will stick out if you travel by yourself. It’s particularly true for female travelers.
✅ Need more information to plan your trip to Sonora? Check my Mexico travel tips
Best places to visit in Sonora
The largest city in Sonora, and a major tourism destination, Hermosillo is not to be missed on your Sonora itinerary. From the historic Plaza de Zaragoza in the heart of the city to The “Cerro del Bachoco,” a popular hiking spot north of the city, and various museums, there are plenty of things to do in Hermosillo.
Isla Tiburon (Shark Island)
Isla Tiburon is the biggest island in the Gulf of California (aka the Sea of Cortez) by area and the biggest island in the country. While the island belongs to the State of Sonora, it’s home to the indigenous Seri or Comcaac people. The best way to visit this island is by taking a guided tour that departs from Bahia de Kino.
One of the most popular places to visit in Sonora thanks to its proximity to the United States, this small town is a popular getaway in Northern Mexico that boasts world-class beaches, opportunities for paddle boarding, snorkeling and the nearby El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for volcanic craters and tall dunes.
Located near the border of Sonora and Sinaloa, Alamos is a pueblo magico famous for its distinct architectural style. Álamos was founded around 1685 by the Spanish conquistadors who used it as a camp for silver mining. Alamos is somewhat remote, but you can reach it by car or by taking a flight to Ciudad Obregon, just 100 km away, which has connections to Mexico City.
Magdalena de Kino
A more popular pueblo mágico near the Arizona-Sonora border, Magdalena de Kino was founded in 1688 by Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino, as the Santa Maria Magdalena de Buquivaba mission. It’s a popular stop and a great place to get cultured and buy souvenirs.
El Pinacate Biosphere Reserve
One of the most beautiful reserves in Mexico, El Pinacate covers whopping
714,566 hectares that are dominated by two distinct areas: the Gran Altar Desert with incredible dunes and another one with
the dormant volcanic Pinacate Shield of black and red lava volcanoes. This place is one of the best day trips from Puerto Penasco and is an unmissable stop on your Sonora itinerary.
An oasis in the desert, Nacapule Canyon is one of the most scenic places in Sonora that boasts a small lake surrounded by lush palm trees. It’s not far from the beaches of San Carlos and makes a great stop on your Sonora itinerary.
Does Sonora have beaches?
Sonora boasts 800 km of coastline along the Sea of Cortez and is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in Mexico that remain off the tourist radar. Puerto Penasco is the most popular getaway in Sonora because of its proximity to the United States, but there are also many great beaches down the coast.
Best beaches in Sonora
- Puerto Penasco
- San Carlos
- Los Algodones Beach (Playa Los Algodones)
- Puerto Lobos
- Bahia Kino
- Puerto Libertad
What is Sonora Mexico known for?
Sonora is known for its spectacular desert landscapes, dry arid climate, gorgeous beaches, and copper production.
What is the crime rate in Sonora Mexico?
Sonora’s homicide rate was 63.5 per 100,000 people in 2021, the fifth highest rate in the country, according to the Vision of Humanity, an organization powered by research, and analysis by the Institute for Economics & Peace.
During the same year, Sonora had a decline in peacefulness, according to the organization. The most significant change was in the homicide indicator, with the rate rising by 20.8 percent, equivalent to 1,975 deaths.
Is it safe to travel to San Carlos Sonora Mexico?
Traveling to San Carlos is safe if you stay on major roads and limit your driving to daytime, like in the rest of Sonora.
Is Puerto Peñasco Sonora Mexico safe?
Puerto Penasco (or Rocky Point) is one of the most popular destinations in Sonora, with many American and Canadian tourists coming here for the beautiful Sonoran beaches. While the growing popularity of this place brought more security, it still doesn’t guarantee that you are 100 percent safe.
Can you swim on the beach at Puerto Peñasco?
Yes, you can swim in Puerto Penasco. Other popular activities on the water are snorkeling, paddle boarding, parasailing, and jet skiing.
Is it safe to travel to Nogales Sonora Mexico?
Nogales is not the safest place in Sonora. Located along the US border, it’s been a major spot for drug and human traffickers for years, and the crime level here is higher than in many parts of the state. Street crime is also common in Nogales, as well as car thefts, carjackings, burglaries, and other types of property crime.
How to visit Nogales Sonora safely?
Nogales is a major entry point to Mexico from the United States. It’s a popular destination for medical tourism and shopping, as the city has artisan markets where you can buy traditional handicrafts. You can visit Nogales safely, as long as you stay in tourist areas like Plaza Pesqueira and Campillo, don’t go out at night, and exercise increased caution at all times.
✅ If you plan to visit Nogales, get good travel insurance like Safety Wing
Can you walk across the border at Nogales?
You can walk or drive across the border from Nogales, Arizona to Nogales, Sonora. While the two cities are only 2.4 miles (4 km) apart, the safest way to cross the border is by bus, operated by Tufesa Company, and runs 4 times a day. Once you get to Nogales, avoid public transportation, and use licensed taxis instead to get around.
What areas of Sonora to avoid?
- Avoid Nogales at night – While you can shop at Nogales markets during the day and take care of your medical needs, it’s best to wrap up everything by the time it gets dark. Nogales is not a place to hang out at night as many narco-traffickers often come to the area when it gets dark.
- Use caution when traveling west of Nogales to the border with Baja California. If you are traveling to Mexicali and further west, proceed with caution.
- Avoid areas east of Sonoyta – Don’t go to the areas near the Chihuahua border, as they are known to have drug trafficking.
- Avoid areas south of Hermosillo – Especially if you travel by yourself.
- Avoid areas south of Santa Ana and south of Ciudad Obregon – Skip areas east of Highway 15, and remote desert areas north of Highway 2.
- Avoid driving at night – Although it sounds like a fun adventure, driving at night in Sonora is not recommended for safety reasons. Many parts of Sonora have been affected by cartel violence, especially around the border and in remote areas.
Safety in Sonora: FAQ’s
Is it safe to travel to Hermosillo Sonora?
Hermosillo is the largest city in Sonora and the capital of the state, with an average crime rate. While it’s safe to visit, you will get noticed as a tourist, so it’s best to take basic precautions and stay low-key.
What is Hermosillo known for?
Hermosillo is known for its colonial buildings and some interesting museums.
Is it safe to drive in Sonora?
Driving in Sonora is safe as long as you stay on major highways and keep your activities to daytime.
Is Sonora safe for solo travelers?
Sonora is a beautiful and rugged state, but it’s best to visit it with someone else because as a solo traveler, you will naturally attract attention. Distances are long between Sonora’s cities, and most of the state has rugged inhospitable terrain, which could be a bad combination if something were to happen.
So is Sonora Safe?
Sonora is one of the most beautiful states in Mexico. Its vast landscapes are dominated by desert scenery, and you can enjoy the unspoiled beauty for miles. However, traveling in Sonora also presents some safety concerns, because the state has seen an increase in drug trafficking and violent crime over years.
Visiting Sonora is safe if you stick to popular destinations, limit your activities to daytime and skip troubled border regions.
Safety Wing is one of the best insurance plans for long-term travelers and digital nomads that covers you in the event of stolen and lost luggage, hospital visits, and other unforeseen circumstances. WorldNomads is one of the most popular travel insurance options that offer an option for long and short-term travel.
Register for the STEP program
If you are a U.S. citizen traveling to Michoacan, consider enrolling in STEP, The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, a free service that allows U.S. citizens abroad to register their trip with the closest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.
Here are some of the benefits of enrolling in the STEP program ahead of your trip:
- Get updates from the Embassy about safety conditions in your destination.
- Stay in contact with the U.S. Embassy in case of an emergency whether it’s a natural disaster, political unrest, or anything else.
- Help family and friends get in touch with you in an emergency.
What are the safest states in Mexico as of 2023?
The safest states in Mexico as of 2023, are Yucatan and Campeche located in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. According to the U.S. State Department, travelers should exercise normal precautions when visiting these states.
What is the safest city in Mexico?
The safest city in Mexico is Merida, the capital of the Yucatan State. Merida is the largest city in the region and is considered one of the safest cities in Latin America due to its location in the heart of the Peninsula that lies away from the drug trafficking route.
Is Sonora safe: final word
Sonora is not the most popular travel destination in Mexico, and yet, it’s full of breathtaking landscapes, wonderful uncrowded beaches and fascinating history. This northwestern state offers a different side of Mexico, and you can visit it safely and have the best time of your life as long as you follow common sense and follow safety precautions.