Thursday, December 23, 2010

Overland Travel in Baja California - Tips on Driving in Mexico

After an extended stay in San Diego and an enjoyable Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday, we're anxious to return to our boat in La Paz. We'll be driving our truck from San Diego to La Paz, which will give us a car for provisioning and side trips while cruising in the Sea of Cortez.

Travel in Mexico is easy for most cruisers, once they make their first port of entry. Most of us have researched the requirements for travel by private boat in Mexico long before we departed. However, based on concerns expressed by friends and questions posed in various newsletters, it might be helpful to some if we document our preparations and experiences while traveling overland, by car, back to La Paz.

Just as it is of primary importance when cruising, the mechanical soundness of our mode of transportation is the first order of business. We will have the truck (a 2003 Ford Ranger) serviced and the oil and filter changed before our trip to La Paz. The tires are not new, but still have a healthy tread depth, so we won't be getting new tires prior to leaving. The spare is a full size tire, is new and is inflated. The battery is original equipment and if the truck were an automatic I would consider replacing it, just to be on the safe side.

I normally carry jumper cables, a 20' x 4" nylon tow strap, a folding entrenchment tool (folding shovel),
at least one flashlight and basic tools for simple repairs. We won't be doing any off-road travel this trip, so these basic items may be a little overkill for normal highway travel. In addition to clothes and supplies we'll carry to the boat, we always carry extra drinking water, snacks and paper towels.

In years past, when we were doing off-road exploration of Baja, we'd
also carry extra fuel and camping gear. More recently, we found carrying extra fuel cans is discouraged by Mexican Customs and Immigration (we suspect the reason is to discourage the potential for refueling aircraft used in smuggling operations on remote landing strips in Baja). Pemex stations are fairly abundant along the highway in Baja. One of the longest stretches without a Pemex station is probably between El Rosario and Guerrero Negro (the Pemex at Catavina, about 80 miles south of El Rosario may be open), which is a distance close to 200 miles. In a pinch, we've found that some of the small stores and restaurants along this longer stretch may have gas for sale in 5-gallon cans, but don't count on this. The take home message is to top off your tank when you have the opportunity.

Car insurance is a must. Liability auto insurance for Mexico can be obtained on-line or purchased at the border before crossing into Mexico. We have found paying for yearly insurance on the car is less expensive than paying for multiple shorter coverage intervals. In addition to the insurance, you will also be given phone numbers for legal representation should you be involved in a mishap.

Mexican laws find their origins in Napoleonic law, and unlike the English based laws we're familiar with, you're technically considered guilty (or more accurately, not innocent) until proven innocent. Even in relatively simple accidents, fault is not assigned until after investigations have been completed. It's prudent to carry Mexican insurance and have access to legal representation while driving in Mexico.

After all these admonitions regarding insurance, you'll find driving in most of Baja simple and safe as long as it is done during daylight hours. The roadbeds may be narrow and often without a shoulder to pull off onto, but once south of Ensenada traffic thins out significantly and is nearly non-existent south of El Rosario. Do follow the speed limits in towns and be especially attentive to stop signs. Avoid the temptation of following the locals practice of rolling through stop signs, but always come to a complete stop before proceeding.

Last, but not least, bring your passport or passport identification card with
you before going into Mexico. You'll likely need it to secure your tourist permit (FMM, or short term, non-immigrant visa) which is generally issued for 180-days from the date of issuance. You will need your passport for U.S. Customs when re-entering the United States. In addition to the FMM, there is also a long-term, non-immigrant visa (FM3) which is renewable and allows for stays longer than the 180-day limit set by the FMM (the FM3 allows for a years stay and may be renewed yearly for a total of five years). There is additional paperwork and documentation required for the FM3 application and is issued by the Mexican consulate.

Stop at your first port of entry and apply for your FMM. This will require you to fill out a short information form at the Mexican customs office and then pay a fee at the National Bank (Banamex). The bank receipt will be taken back to customs where your paperwork will be stamped and processed. Depending on the amount of business being processed, the time required for completion may be as short as 45-minutes, but may take longer. Be patient and courteous, there can be substantial fines involved if you forgo this process at your port-of-entry and enter the country illegally.

At the port of entry in Tijuana, the Immigration offices (IMN) and bank are located to the right, as you drive across the border from San Ysidro. Park in the inspection area and proceed to the IMN office, where you will be given the paperwork to fill out. The bank where you must pay your fee (~$20 U.S.) is located in the same complex as the IMN office only a few doors away. Pay your fee at the bank and return to IMN with your bank receipt. The processing of your FMM application will be completed and you'll be on your way.

Recently (Nov. 2010), I was told that a criminal check will be run on your passport in Mexico City and this may add some time while you wait for your paperwork to be finalized. Once all is completed, you will be given a copy of your FMM and can leave. It is advised that you keep your FMM with you at all times while visiting Mexico.

Our next entry will be the log of our road trip south from Tijuana, Baja California to La Paz, Baja California Sur. I hope this has helped answer some of the questions for any of you who might be contemplating a road trip to Mexico. If you are, be safe, patient and friendly and enjoy your adventures in Mexico.

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