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From Here to Mexico

As the weather starts getting colder, many of us like to do what the birds do -- fly south for the winter. Others prefer driving, and one obvious destination is our neighbor just south of the border. But The Savvy Traveler's Judie Fein tells us why the simple act of driving to Mexico isn't as easy as you might think.

From Here to Mexico
by Judie Fein

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First, there was the Twilight Zone. Then, there was the X-Files. Now, there is driving across the border into Mexico. Get out your paper and pen because you are about to hear the new rules for driving south of the border. You can't get 'em from AAA -- I tried. You can't get them from a guidebook. So my husband Paul and I threw our belongings in a couple of suitcases and drove to Mexico to find out firsthand.

Well...we get to the border, and a smiley guy waves us through, no problem. Three hours later, we're stopped by military police with machine guns. They aren't smiling. They tell us we can't advance another centimeter unless we have a Temporary Vehicle Permit. We have no idea what they are talking about, but whoever has the guns wins. So we drive another three hours back to the border where we implore the man in charge of vehicle permits to tell savvy travelers exactly what they need to do if they want to visit their southern neighbors:

border crossing

Guard: "If you're coming, you need to bring your driver's license, credit card (Visa, American Express or Mastercard), title or registration If it's leased you need your permit to bring the vehicle into Mexico, your voter registration, birth certificate or passport. That's all you need. We'll charge $11 to your credit card. This permit's good for six months, multiple entry permits."

The vehicle permit he is talking about is a little silver sticker that you affix to your windshield. When you exit the country, a border official comes out with a razor blade to slice the permit off your car. Do not be afraid of the blade. The only thing you need to fear is driving into Mexico without a permit .

Judie: "How far can you drive without the permit?"

Guard: "Twenty kilometers. If you drive more than 20 kilometers, your vehicle can be confiscated or you'll be asked to return to the border to get your permit."

road to the border

But (are you ready for this?) those are the November rules. And my advice is, if you want to drive into Mexico, which is one of my favorite places on earth, do it this month. Because starting December 1, things are going to get even worse. I'll tell you how in a minute, but first I'll give you a little background. It's very expensive to buy a car in Mexico because of the astronomical import taxes. So people try to get around it by bringing illegal cars into the country--and now there are more than a million and half of them. Plus the Mexican government claims that these cars are used for crimes, drugs, and bank assaults. Rumors are flying all over America about large cash deposits that are going to be required at the border if you want to drive your car into Mexico. I spoke directly to Omar de la Torre, the minister for migratory affairs at the Mexican Embassy in Washington D.C., to get the inside skinny:

De la Torre: "The first of December, the government of Mexico is beginning to work with a new policy: you have to pay an amount of money to guarantee that you're going to return the car. We have more than 215,000 cars that go to Mexico just in December and they go into Mexico, not just the border. They all have to pay this deposit. You can pay in cash or credit card. For cars that are 1993 and before, it's $400. For cars between 1994 and 1996, it's $600. For new cars, 1999 and 2000, it's $800."

De la Torre assures me that the borders will be open 24 hours a day to accept deposits, and that the return of the money is guaranteed by the Mexican government when you exit the country. He also concedes that your credit card will actually be charged, and you will have to pay the interest, if any accrues, before the money is credited back to you.

So much for taking your car into Mexico. Now let's talk about taking yourself into Mexico. You currently need a visa, and it costs fifteen bucks. We had no trouble getting the visas at the border, but no one told us we had to pay for them. When we tried to exit Mexico, a week later, we were informed that we owed them $30 for both visas. Fine, we were willing to pay on the spot. Not so fast. It was Sunday, and payment had to be made at a bank...which was closed. We threw up our hands. They threw up their hands. They allowed us to exit the country, but said that if we didn't pay the thirty dollars, we could never come back to Mexico again. So we drove to the nearest consulate, three and a half hours away, and they wouldn't accept payment for our visas. Fine, fine, bueno, we said, we'll mail it in. Nope. That's not allowed. Our only option was to drive five hours back to the Mexican border to pay on a weekday. We refused to do it. And now, in true Kafkaesque fashion, we have to do bureaucratic battle before we can return to my beloved Mexico.

car lot

Now let's go over this: in November, for your car, you need an $11 permit. After December 1, there will be a $400-800 charge on your credit card, or you can pay cash. When you drive the car out of Mexico, your money or credit will be returned to you. For yourself, you need to pay $15 for a visa, which, by the way, is only good for six months. And, some bonus advice if you can take any more. There are no photocopy machines at the border. You have to bring two copies of each of your documents. That way, you won't have the same hassle we did--schlepping to the nearest restaurant with a Xerox and paying a dollar a page.

For you skeptics who wonder what January 1 will bring and then what will change on February 1, Omar de la Torre has this advice:

De la Torre: "Call any Mexican consulate within the United States. We have 42 consulates. In each one they know every document you need. It's very easy to contact the consulates."

Well, savvy travelers, all I can say now, if you're driving to Mexico, is bon voyage. Personally, I love Mexico, and I think it's worth it. You may think it's worth taking a plane.

This is Judie Fein for the Savvy Traveler.

Savvy Resources for crossing the Mexican border:

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