Crossing the Mexican Border—What’s Involved? Is it Safe?

When we informed various friends we were heading to Mexico, predictably their response was some version of, “Wow, do you want to get shot?”

Eventually it got pretty annoying. After all, if we felt it were unsafe, we certainly wouldn’t bring our daughter here, would we?

Look, I get it. The drug war, kidnappings, violence, police corruption. These are the first things that come to mind when many think of Mexico.

Sure, those issues are problems, big ones, in certain areas. But trashing all of Mexico is like saying downtown Baltimore is the same as Carmel, CA, or Boulder, CO. It’s nonsensical. Besides, if tens of thousands of Canadian and American retirees head South of the Border every year, how bad can it be? Seriously. If the oldies can do it, so can we!

Yesterday we finally crossed the border and drove about 540 kms to our first stop in Hermosillo, SON.

Were we shot by narcos? Targeted by drug kingpins? Threatened by assault-rifle toting Federales? Pulled over by corrupt cops demanding bribes?

Not quite. Here’s how it went down.

On the advice of friends who’ve lived in Mexico for a couple years now, we used the sleepy Lukeville crossing, east of Nogales.

BORDER EVE

The night before we crossed, we stayed in Ajo, a one-horse town about half an hour north of the border.

 

BORDER MORNING: CROSSING BY 7 AM (OR AS WE LIKE TO CALL IT, 9:30 AM)

We were up at dawn, I swear.

But by the time we finished our juevos rancheros at Marcella’s Cafe, gassed up the car, scraped the bugs off the windshield, and interviewed Cesar at the market about that amazing chili-roasting contraption of his, we were a little behind schedule. Oh well. What else is new…

This machine produced one of the most phenomenal smells of my life.

 

YOU SAY YOU WANT TO LEAVE THE U.S? NOT SO FAST!

This was the line to exit the U.S.

What’s this, about eight cars ahead of us? Not bad. And this turned out to be the longest (read: the only) line we’d hit all day.

The U.S. agent was polite but intense. Freaky intense. Why were we going to Mexico?!? How long would we be gone?!? What would we be doing there?!? It was quite a grilling.

Let me tell  you, our family has crossed the U.S./Canada border (with U.S. passports) about 75 or 80 times, along with zillions of international borders throughout Asia, Europe and Turkey. I swear, nobody—and I mean NOBODY—makes me nearly wet my pants with fear like the U.S. border agents. I always feel like a naughty third grader being interviewed by the principal.

But evidently we didn’t fit whatever profile this guy was looking for, because finally he gave us a big toothy grin (once he relaxed, he looked more like a frat kid than a bastion of domestic security) and waved us on to the Mexican border.

CROSSING THE BORDER INTO SONOYTA, MEXICO, FINALLY!

A gate was down, but the person manning it just raised it and waved us through, no questions asked. I guess between the pod on the roof, the bikes on the back, and the Jack Russell in my lap, we didn’t fit any Mexican profiles either. Initially I thought that meant we’d cleared customs, but no. It turns out the customs office is about an hour down the road, just south of Pitiquito.

GETTING OUR TOURIST VISAS

For a moment we drove on down the road, but then I got nervous we’d missed the spot where we were supposed to get our FMM (6-month tourist) visas. Fearing eventual arrest and imprisonment, I made Mark turn around. We parked the car and popped into Soynota’s tiny immigration office.

The Sonoyta immigration office

All three of us had to go inside.

Other than a lone immigration agent, the office was empty. The agent helped us fill out our three visa forms and copied our documents for us. We paid him 26 USD each (a steal for a 6-month, renewable visa), he stamped the forms and our passports, and we were good to go. The whole process took 30 minutes exactly, and by 10:15, we were on our way.

We weren’t asked for Scout’s birth certificate, though Mark and I both had to sign her forms.

The most exciting part of the process was finding a flattened rattlesnake on the road by the office.

Getting our visas

It turned our that we could have gotten the visas at several points further down the highway, but when I enter a country for the first time, I don’t want to take any chances. I’m glad we got it done right away, for my own peace of mind.

GETTING OUR CAR-IMPORT STICKER

When you drive a car into Mexico, you need to get an import sticker, which mainly involves filing out a few forms, paying a fee,  and giving the authorities a 300USD deposit. You get this back when you return the sticker and drive the car back out of the country. It’s meant to keep people from selling their cars in Mexico.

Leave without returning that sticker and you won’t be able to drive another car into Mexico ever again.

We got the car import sticker from the shiny new Aduana (customs) building in Pitiquito, about an hour down highway. This was weird for me. I’m used to going through customs immediately upon entering a country. Not an hour down the road.

This is the customs side of the building.

You can’t miss the Aduana building. It’s big and new, and, looms up unmissably. We drove through the front, the customs area, which the customs agent in the booth informed us was a mistake. First we needed our car permits, so we had to circle around and go park at the back of the building.

Mark went inside and took care of the permits. The agent looked at Mark’s passport, his new visa, his driver’s license, and the title to our car. He wanted a copy of the title, but Mark didn’t have one, so the agent copied it himself. (Phew! He could have made us go get copies and come back.)

You can save yourself some time and order this sticker over the internet, as long as you do it a couple weeks in advance, to allow for mailing time. I tried, but the website wasn’t working, so we just did it the old fashioned way. In person. No bigs.

Anyone driving in Mexico is required to have Mexican auto insurance, which we bought online a few weeks ago. However the agent helping Mark didn’t mention it or ask to see paperwork.

Again, with no line at all, the process took 30 minutes, which seemed like 90 minutes, since Scout, Archie and I were  waiting in the boiling car. It was 107 outside!

At this point we were almost done.

THE LAST STEP: PASSING THROUGH MEXICAN CUSTOMS

Once we had our sticker, we drive around to the front of the building to pass though customs (again). We chose the “nothing to declare” lane, since all we had were our household goods. No other cars were there, so we drove right up to the gate.

When you drive through Mexican customs, one of two things will happen.

You can get a green light and the gate will rise. Or you can get a red light and an alarm. It’s random. If you get the red light, that means customs will look you over and search your car.

So the second time we drive through, after getting the sticker, we got the red light. Typical.

This is what I was hoping to avoid. Not because we’re smuggling anything, but because I REALLY didn’t want to spend an hour defending my small appliances, Archie’s paperwork, our homeschooling books or whatever to a border agent in the 107-degree heat.

Well, even though we got the red light, the agent (the same one we passed earlier and the only person on duty) just smiled and waved us through. Just like that. I guess it was too hot to pick through our car, or maybe we didn’t fit the profile, or whatever. All I know is I’ve never been so grateful in my life.

And with that, we we were done. All the Mexican officials we dealt with were polite and exceedingly helpful (in a taciturn sort of way).

Heading to Hermasillo over perfectly lovely roads.

The drive to Hermasillo was an easy one. The roads were smooth and no one bothered us. I wondered if we’d be stopped and hassled by cops fishing for the mordida (“the bite,” aka a bribe), because we really do stand out. With our pod and our bikes on the back, many Mexicans do double takes when we pass by.

Our friend, Alisa, who until recently lived in Mexico, confirmed later that that kind of thing doesn’t happen on the toll roads. In fact Alisa and her family she spent two years in Mexico tooling around in a big gringo minivan with American plates and were only ever stopped twice, both times on the same weekend in Acapulco. Good to know.

We were thrilled to have avoided mishaps and to arrive at our hotel before dark.

Our first day in Mexico was a total success and so much less stressful than I was expecting. But it was a long day, and our hotel was super comfortable, so we spent an extra day there, just playing in the pool, catching up on online tasks, and resting up for the rest of the drive.

We arrive at our lovely hotel. Cool tile floors, a large swimming pool and they (tacitly) allow pets.

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