“Where did you come from?” the official asked.
“San Luis Potosí,” I answered.
“Why? Do you have family there?”
“No” I replied. “I just wanted to see some waterfalls and get away from the cold weather.”
He eyed me suspiciously. Very few people do such a thing and he thought I might be up to questionable activities. I got sent into the “check them extra good” lane before being admitted back into Texas.
I just spent a week driving through five states in Mexico. My friends warned me not to go. I was told I might be kidnapped, shaken down by corrupt police, or possibly caught up in a cartel shootout. I’m an experienced world traveler whose navigated a lot of dangerous places, but all the naysayers had started to make me nervous. I asked other travelers a lot of questions and googled everything I could find on driving into Mexico.
Out of all the friends who warned me about traveling across the border, I discovered none of them had actually done it themselves. Their opinions were based on something they heard on TV or read somewhere. There have been lots of reported violence in recent years, but most of what I found seemed to be between the drug cartels and police and not in areas most people are likely to visit. I asked a few paisano friends of mine their opinions and discovered that some of them regularly traveled to Monterrey and had never experienced any problems. I decided to proceed cautiously and do the trip despite my apprehension.
I drove from Houston to Laredo, and crossing the border was easy. Things get a little more complicated once you drive outside of the border towns. You need Mexican insurance for your car, a tourist card, and a temporary vehicle importation document. The good news is you can do all of that in one stop.
You’ll need to go to the Banjercito. Here’s how it works:
1. Tourist card: If you’re traveling by plane, this Mexican visa is included in the price of your plane ticket. If you’re coming by land, you’ll be charged about $25. Officials are very strict about collecting the card back when you leave by air, but no one asked for it when I crossed the border in my vehicle. You get this at the immigration desk.
2. Mexican insurance: You can buy this online before you leave, at the border or at the same place where you get your tourist card. I paid $85 for a week of full-comprehensive insurance. However, you can buy a policy for whatever time period you’re in the country. In Mexico, if you have an accident without insurance, it’s no bueno. You are guilty until proven innocent and you could end up in jail. Buy it. The car insurance you carry in the states is useless on the other side of the border.
3. Photocopies: Mexicans love paper over digital media, so you’ll need a copy of every document affiliated with you and your car. There’s a photo copy station near the immigration desk. They’ll copy your passport, license, vehicle title, insurance, registration, and anything else you hand them for under $2.
4. Temporary vehicle importation document: You can can get this online or at the Banjercito window. You supply proof that you’re the owner of your car and guarantee that you're not going to sell it in Mexico. You’ll have to put up a $400 deposit and tell them how many days you’ll be in their country. You give them all your photocopies and they’ll give you a sticker to put on your windshield to show the police you went through the process. If all goes well and you leave the country with your car when you’re supposed to, you get your deposit back. You just have to “cancel” your TVI.
You can drive anywhere in the state of Baja and any border towns without the sticker, but get any further than 30-40 miles from town and you'll risk having your car impounded if you don’t have the necessary documents. You can find a list of border crossings here.
Once you’re set up with the envelope of photo copies and the magic sticker, you’re ready to roll. It’s good to arrive early in Mexico (you can stay the night in the U.S.) so you don’t have to drive at night and can avoid an overnight in a border town. Ciudad Juarez has a reputation for being dangerous at night and none of the towns next to the Rio Grande are places you really want to hang out.
Monterrey is about two hours south of Laredo or Reynosa and is a great place to stop for an evening or two. It’s a big city with lots of affordable restaurants and hotels as well as a destination in itself for hiking and mountain climbing. Monterrey residents have a lot in common with Americans so you won’t experience a huge culture shock. From Monterrey you can head south to some amazing destinations like San Miguel Allende, Mexico City, or the spectacular Huasteca region.
Roads in Mexico can be great or equally terrible. Often the best roads are cuotas (toll roads) and seem to have you shelling out pesos every few kilometers, but are a better option than the pot-holed single lane roads with miles of crawling semi-trucks. Even worse than the bad roads are the ubiquitous speed bumps that precede and conclude every town, bridge or crossing in Mexico. These little buggers pop up randomly and will rip your suspension system out if you try to sail over the top of them. Thirdly, poor street lighting, wandering animals and criminal activity are all factors to be considered if driving at night. Stick to daylight driving, have some pesos handy, watch for bumps in the road and you’ll have no problems driving in this lovely country.
Having sufficient cash available is also important. Bigger towns have ATMs and take credit cards, but carrying enough pesos as well as a stash of U.S. currency for emergencies is necessary, particularly in smaller towns. Many businesses are cash-only and don’t accept dollars or have outdated credit card machines that can potentially reject any of your bank cards, so be prepared for that accusing look when they hand your debit card back to you.
Cash is the key that opens all doors. Prices are low in Mexico and you’ll find that many things are half or even a third of the price that you’d pay in the states. Gas is an exception. I paid about 20 percent more to fill my tank than in Texas. If you’re driving your car, you can load up on great souvenirs without worrying about how to get them home.
So, why drive to Mexico? You’ll find tremendous adventures south of the border. I just traveled in Huasteca Potosí and saw some of the most beautiful waterfalls and caverns I’ve ever seen in the world. Postcard beaches, amazing ruins, and historical cobble stoned towns that rival destinations overseas are all within driving distance.
If you’re on a budget and/or traveling with a family, you can save on airfare and see amazing sights nearer home than a driving trip to Orlando. You can get professional dentistry done for pennies on the dollar of what you’d pay in America. Best of all, you have your car, so you have no baggage restrictions, you can bring your favorite pillow, carry an ice chest and you don’t have to pay for an auto rental.
Statistically speaking, most of Mexico is safer than many cities in the U.S., and if you do a little homework and travel smart, it could be one of your favorite destinations. On my weeklong trip, I covered a lot of cool destinations and never felt the slightest element of danger. Every town I visited was safe to walk around both day and night according to the locals. Mexican people are genuinely happy to show off their culture and natural wonders. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, there’s usually someone nearby that can help.
There is so much more than Cancun and Cabo to see in this beautiful country! Viva la Mexico!