My wife and I recently decided that we would drive to Belize under the Qualified Retired Persons Act and live there for a while with our two kids, two dogs and a U-haul full of stuff. Sounds so innocent, doesn’t it? Oh, how naive we were. I have updated this post from when I first wrote it last year on another board to keep it current. If you are loco enough to think of driving to Belize through Mexico, read carefully.
We did months of research online on every aspect of this drive we could think of (customs, car insurance, where to stay, QRP, etc.) I think what surprised us the most was not a lack of information, but the disinformation out there. Almost every aspect we encountered we confronted with inaccurate information – particularly from official websites such as the one by the Belize Tourist Board hawking the Qualified Retired Persons Program which is not really such a good deal but that is another story.
I am writing this so that other people who attempt this crazy feat will at least have some real data, IF you’re stupid enough to try it. I will tell you up front- we would never do this trip again. It took three times as long as we planned (17 days), cost twice what we were told, and caused so much anxiety that we almost turned around and went back several times. This trip is not for the faint of heart. I know professional drivers and truckers do this trip in their sleep, but this is for rank amateurs like us! If I had to to this again I would hire a professional cargo company to move everything down and have the family and I ride down on a cheap flight to Cancun and from there catch the first class ADO bus to Belize.
We drove a U-haul truck and a SUV. The U-haul was filled with everything we owned. We drove from California to Brownsville first. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was the easiest part of the trip. We stayed the night in Brownsville (there are plenty of large chain hotels in Brownsville) and headed for the border early the next day. Most sites don’t tell you but there are actually three crossings in Brownsville; The Gateway Bridge, The B & M Bridge, and San Ignacio (about 45 minutes out of town). Most everyone takes the Gateway Bridge as this is where the “Mexico Border” signs will point you to. This day happened to be New Years Eve. This was our first indication that we were not in the United States anymore. Apparently, Mexico is closed for New Years. Of course, no one on the American side told us this, so we drove through the US side into Mexico and only then discovered that they weren’t open. They sent us back (of course no one spoke English – this is Mexico – so it took us a while to figure out what they were saying!). We then had to go BACK through customs on the US side. Then we went back to Brownsville, stuck until Monday (3 days) when the border would open again.
FIRST RULE: If you are expecting to get any info from the US side of customs – don’t. They do not know anything about the goings on in Mexico.
We could also find no information online about the Mexican border being closed for New Years. Frankly, we could find very little about the hours in general at the border.
So we stayed in Brownsville. We started early Monday morning for customs. This is when we found out how wrong the information we had really was. We had a truck full of stuff, almost impossible to go through without taking everything off, and there are procedures that must be followed to get your personal items through. It must be that most sites online about moving to Belize assume you are bringing in 2 suitcases of personal items. NOWHERE did we find the actual requirements for bringing a truck full of stuff in. Of course, finding out the requirements are especially hard if no one speaks Spanish (fortunately I spoke a little) which leads me to:
SECOND RULE: Learn some Spanish. Most blogs will tell you that saying “Habla Ingles?” will get you through Mexico, but I will tell you that if ANYTHING goes wrong, you will be in trouble. Listen up people, most of the world is NOT English. Learn a second or third language, it will stand you in good stead.
So the requirements for bringing in a truck of personal items are as follows:
1. The title for your truck with your name on it -or- a letter notarized from your bank saying you have permission to leave the country.
3. What is called a PEDIMENTO Aduanal form (some websites misspell this as PERIMENTO – that word does not exist. Do not use it. People will laugh at you!). The PEDIMENTO is basically a manifest of EVERYTHING in your truck, van, RV home etc. I use the term EVERYTHING loosely as Mexico requires you to list every article, but we didn’t. We listed stuff rather generically (ie. “Box of Linens”, “Box of toys” etc..). Before you leave home make this list. You will need it. All these forms are online at the Mexico Customs Website.
4. This “PEDIMENTO” is in Spanish of course, you are in Mexico now, not the U.S. remember? So get used to it.
5. If you are crossing with a truck full of stuff, you must cross at San Ignacio Bridge, about 45 minutes West of Brownsville.
6. You must use a customs broker – this is just plain common sense but most newbies do not get this. They think they can do all the paperwork themselves.
THIRD RULE: If you have more than 2 suitcases full of stuff for each person crossing the border, use an agente aduanal or customs broker.
The Mexican Customs agents also told us that we had to have a guard drive with us through Mexico. They brought some a guard who said he charges $1400 to go with you through your entire trip. What? I never heard that? And is he going to sleep on the floor of our hotels? They said this is to ensure you do not leave your car in Mexico. When my heart started beating again we told the agent no thanks and headed back to the good old US.
The US border patrol agents told us there were several customs brokers along the road to the San Ignacio border crossing and they would explain the whole chaperone thing. We drove out there and stopped at a few. Get your Spanish ready- most don’t speak English. But let me save you the day full of hassles we went through (“Quick honey, look up in the dictionary how to say ‘truck full of stuff’!”).
There is a customs agent that specializes in ‘transmigrantes’ – people moving to Belize through Mexico- and she is wonderful. Her name is Rocio, which is also the name of her company. I highly suggest that anyone taking stuff into Mexico use her. It is not the cheapest way though (it cost $350 for our truck and $250 for our car) but the information you get is well worth it. She has no website but here is her phone #: (956) 592-1259. You can also try (956) 592-1257. She also speaks fluent English. She explained that you could put a $500 deposit down on each vehicle that would be refunded as soon as you leave Mexico to ensure you do not sell your car there. She made a complete manifest in Spanish of our items and did all the paperwork necessary to get through. She also puts a plastic lock on your truck that shows everyone at checkpoints throughout Mexico that you are not opening your truck IN Mexico. This is very important as at almost every checkpoint we went through one of the police officers asked us to open our truck but with that plastic thing on there they won’t open it. Lastly, she puts a sticker on your windshield that says you’ve used her services.
The next morning we were off to Mexico for the third time. After crossing the US side you go over a bridge and on the other side there are several employees of Rocio that flag you over (Rocio went over all of this with us.) They check your paperwork one last time and are also there to help you across should anything happen.
Rocio may no longer be there, but there will always be other Rocios. Ask the customs on the Mexican side who are the top customs brokers and for sure you will find the guy with the most experience and connections!
They flagged us through. You then have to veer off to the right just before you hit the main customs check. This is for trucks with loads. You then come up to the traffic light. You hand this guy the papers Rocio created and he decides whether to give you a red or green light. We got a green. We drove through and went into customs. The gods were looking down on us that day.
One final thing I will tell you about getting through customs. There are certain items that you need to pay a tariff on if you are bringing them into Mexico. For us, this was for our 2 bikes and our 2 televisions we were bringing in. The bikes are $10 each and the TVs were 20% of their value. You get to tell the customs guy the values so we low-balled. We then had to go into the customs building, fill out our visas, pay the tariffs, pay a couple fees, and we were on our way.
Let me start off part 2 of my guide through Hell with a strong suggestion: Do not stop in Matamoros in Tamaulipas state. It is almost a ghost town. The drug cartels have taken over. Once you leave the Mexican border it is the first town you pass. Pass it. This leads to my
FOURTH RULE: Everything takes longer to drive than you think it will. Maps don’t help.
Half the time you’ll be stuck behind a big rig on a 2 lane road (drivers would not dream of pulling over and letting people pass). Getting through towns take a while. Slow drivers. Crazy drivers. It is next to impossible to gauge how long it will take you to go an inch on a map. Some days we averaged 70 mph (the fastest our U-haul would drive), and others we averaged about 30 mph. Eventually, we started gauging the time it would take us by averaging about 45-50 mph over the trip.
Most people will only have time to drive to Victoria as the border will take a while (and it doesn’t open until 8am.) some people may make it to Tampico on their first day, but you should NOT attempt this if there is any chance you will be driving at night.
FIFTH RULE: Do not drive at night.
In Mexico there are these things called ‘Topes,’ basically huge speed bumps that come out of nowhere. You’re going along at 50 miles per hour, and with no warning your front axle is dragging 20 feet behind your car. They are big. They are unmarked. They are REALLY hard to see at night. After a couple days you start to get a feel for where they will be (usually at the beginning and end of towns) but they still have them in random places. I found driving at night to be a complete hassle (and very emotionally taxing) as you stare at the road in front of you trying to pick out an almost invisible speed bump.
The next day we went to Tuxpan, going through Tampico on the way. I should mention something very important about Tampico. Do not go through it- go around it. As you are coming down the 80 and start entering town you will come upon a HUGE boat in the middle of the street. (I know it sounds stupid, but this boat cannot be missed!) TURN RIGHT AT THE BOAT. Do not go straight into town. You will get lost and you will also get pulled over. As a ‘transmigrante’ you are not supposed to drive through this town, but around it. Turning right at the boat does this. Just follow the signs to Tuxpan (you take the 70 west, turn south and go across a huge bridge, and then turn left on ‘Ave. 20 De Noviembre’). This leads you back down to the southern edge of town and you will hook back up with the 80/180. It’s not as hard as it sounds.
I found Tuxpan to be more manageable. There is a main street that goes along the water and there are several hotels on it. We stayed at our tried and true Best Western. Relatively safe parking (as you can park your vehicle on the busy street out front). Don’t be confused about the spelling of Tuxpan/Tuxpam. Tuxpam (with an ‘M’) is a little town about 10 miles before Tuxpan (with an ‘N’.) You want to stay in Tuxpan. To leave Tuxpan, look down the water and you will see a huge bridge that crosses the water. Cross it. This leads south out of town.
Let me finish this post by commenting on the money you should take with you. First of all, not everyone will accept U.S. currency, especially at toll roads and gas stations. And, surprisingly, no one will take U.S. or Mexican currency with a rip or tear in it. I was sort of shocked, but they avoid these bills like the plague. Make sure your dollars are in relatively good shape. Also exchange money into pesos for toll roads, gas stations and snacks. You can use a credit card at some hotels but don’t count on it. Gas stations do not take credit cards- Pesos only. It cost us about 500 pesos to fill the small SUV and about 1200 pesos to fill the U-haul. It adds up fast. I found that it cost much, much more than most people suggest on websites to take. The toll roads alone will be $300-$400US. Gas will be high as well; Figure about $50-$75 for an average car per fillup. Hotels ran about $90-$140 per night for an American style hotel. I would say about 80% of the hotels took credit cards. All in all, we paid about $1250. in gas to get through Mexico.
Veracruz is not for the faint of heart. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of hotels (at least the kind with any English words in it). As with most cities, there are very few signs. By this point we sort of found success by just going toward the city centers and we would stumble upon a hotel. This worked in Veracruz as well, but you feel a little like the Road Warrior getting around. We found a hotel near the old district (downtown). Because we had already hit one hotel, we were a little skeptical of fitting the truck in the tiny entrance, so we parked on the street and walked in.
We parked inside the lot for the hotel (a 30 minute ordeal with less than an inch to spare on each side.) After my wife hit the side of the truck against the hotel, taking off one of the 300 year old doors at the gate, one of the employees offered to finish parking the truck. Needless to say, they did a much better job than we did. We then discovered that Veracruz is actually a nice city.
We left very early and decided to drive to Villahermosa. I’m sure a lot of people are thinking that we could have driven farther each day, and we could have, but combining 2 kids, 2 dogs, a max speed of 60 mph, and the fact that you can’t drive at night, we set our sights a little lower. I think this is an important rule:
SIXTH RULE: We encountered more trouble on the days we really ‘pushed it’. Taking your time, not trying to cover half of the country in one day, makes for a less stressful time of it. Drive like a bat out of hell on your second or third trip.
Well, after driving since 5:30 in the morning, we were all pretty exhausted, but right when we were coming into Villahermosa our truck broke down. Fortunately we had two cars, so I was able to drive into town to look for a mechanic. Hence, my
SEVENTH RULE: When someone in Mexico says they will be somewhere at a certain time, they do not mean it. Reminds me of my hometown in the U.S. ;o)
I stopped at 2 places that looked like auto repair establishments. They both said they would come right down. I gave them the exact location and went back to the truck and waited. And waited. It was now getting dark and we were not in town, but stuck on the side of the highway. I drove back into town and just happened to find a Ford dealership (which was the same kind of truck we had.) I begged them to come help me, and they did.
EIGHT RULE: Most people in Mexico will help you if you ask and offer money. This no different from the U.S. or anywhere else.
We had two mechanics drive out to the truck, pop the hood and try to fix it. As it was now getting really late, I asked them if they could just tow it to Ford and we would come back in the morning. This tow ended up costing me U.S. $400. Ouch. This maybe should be a RULE but I will give it as a guideline: Get the total amount due up front. If you don’t, they will ask for the world after, knowing you’re in a pickle and will pay it. Ford ended up fixing the truck the next day (it was the starter) but not without ripping us off for U.S.$600. first. Did I mention that I love this country? They also did not take credit cards (which most places conveniently don’t, as then they would have to pay a percentage of the total), and they closed at 3pm. Mad dash to ATM, pay off Ford, go to hotel. End of another day.
The next morning, out of sheer defiance, we left at 4am and drove straight through to Chetumal Quintana Roo and the border with Belize. That was entering another type of Hell, very narrow and dangerous “highways”, speed bumps, potholes and dirt all over the place – but that is another story!
Updated Tariffs and Tolls Driving Through Mexico
Current rates are posted on the website of the Secretary of Communications and Transportation. Go to http://aplicaciones4.sct.gob.mx/sibuac_internet/ControllerUI?action=CmdSelTarifaRep1Data and then select Todas las vías Federales de Cuota.
That will give you a list of the toll roads in Mexico, their length in kilometers and the tariff for each. Most cuotas are a little over 1 peso (exchange rate now is around 12 pesos to the U.S. dollar) per kilometer for cars, and twice as much (or more) for buses and trucks.
There’s also a very useful site at http://aplicaciones4.sct.gob.mx/sibuac_internet/ControllerUI?action=cmdEscogeRuta where you can get, in English or Spanish, general or more detailed route directions, total mileage, estimated driving time, estimated fuel costs for your vehicle and total tolls.
— The Random Family.