Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Driving to the Border

The drive from San Miguel de Allende to the border at Laredo, Texas is about 560 miles.  A long day’s drive in the U.S., but in Mexico, everything is a bit slower so my neighbors at Hotel San Ramon all said to plan for 2 full days.  I had thought I’d stay at an RV park next to a Motel in Matehuala and then cross the border at Laredo’s Bridge # 2, but here again my more experienced neighbors gave me much better suggestions.

They said there was an excellent newer Pemex station exactly half way to the border at Parador San Pedro that was not only safe but scenic as well. Sounded good to me!  So, I said my farewells to the gang in San Miguel and began my run to the border.

My first day’s drive was exceptional—not only was Highway 57 in better shape than the West Coast’s toll road (Highway 15), but it was also almost entirely free (Libre) for the most of the drive.  After the very expensive tolls through Sinaloa, Nayarit, and Jalisco, it was quite a pleasant surprise to only pay 142 pesos (USD$ 11) for the whole day’s drive!

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I passed through two new-to-me Mexican states—San Luis Potasí, and Nuevo Leon, and began to see real mountains as well as interesting forests of yucca trees.

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But the most fun was being constantly surprised by what I was finding in the center of the highway!  First there was just this simple ass in the middle of the road…

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Next it was a shepherd and his flock…

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Then a whole lot of shepherds and sheep!

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Just when I thought the center divider was strictly for use by grazing herds, I found this giant old motorhome for sale right in the middle of the highway (likely where it had stopped running a few years ago!).

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Then, it was back to more grazing animals.  This time—horses!

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By this point, I was fairly convinced that all these farmers were allowed to graze their animals on the center median as a cost-saving means for the government to avoid having to pay to mow and maintain it.  Of course, as soon as I came to that revelation, this guy on a mower appeared!  Mexico is always a place to expect the unexpected!

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The scenery around my San Pedro Pemex station was absolutely gorgeous.  Lush green farm fields with mountains all around.

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The overnight parking at this Pemex was a bit unusual, but I really liked it.  Trucks mainly pulled into long parking spaces in the center of the lot, while vehicles that could not easily back up (such as motorhomes and double-trailer trucks) parallel parked around the perimeter.  This gave me a great patch of grass to walk Millie without needing to “broadcast” myself as a solo female traveler to all the other truckers.

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We had a very relaxing night’s sleep (again thanks to the Mexican truckers’ custom of turning their engines off at night—sure with US truckers would do that!).

The next day’s drive to the border took us around the much larger cities of Saltillo and Monterrey, and through a number of different toll roads.  My Google maps GPS (via my Nexus 7 tablet running on the Telcel cellular network) navigated me through each turn without any troubles, but today’s tolls seemed to make up for the bargain prices the day before.  Day 2’s total came out to 1161 pesos (USD$ 89).  Still, compared to the West Coast tolls, it still seemed like a pretty good deal.

The drive took us around the gorgeous mountain range of the Parque Natural Sierra de Arteaga.

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As we crossed into the next state of Tamaulipas, traffic came to a halt due to a permanent Military checkpoint across the whole highway.  Trucks were all lined up in the right lane and barely moving, so I thought I’d be smart and take the much less crowded left lane through the checkpoint….mistake!  For my eagerness, I was rewarded with an onboard military inspection!

Even though the soldier was all loaded up in camouflage gear with a bulletproof vest, a large machine gun rifle, and could barely speak any English, he was the nicest and most polite guy.  Smiling, petting Millie, and almost being a bit shy about having to search my rig.  Within a couple minutes, he was finished and we were back on our way again.

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I arrived up to the Nuevo Laredo area around 2:00pm with 430 pesos left in my pocket (USD$ 33).  I really wanted to avoid having to exchange them in the U.S. so I thought it’d be a great idea to just top off my tank at a Pemex with the remaining pesos.  Brilliant!   I found a nice Pemex, and gave the attendant 400 pesos which now left me with a whopping 30 pesos ($2 bucks) to take to the border.

I was feeling so confident and proud of myself as I turned into the Columbia border crossing.  Woo Hoo!  I drove all the way across Mexico without any problems! 

It was at this point that my fun “3-hour tour” began Smile

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The Columbia crossing did not seem as well-signed as the Nogales crossing had been.  I knew I needed to turn in the car permit for the Tracker to get my $400 car deposit back, but could not see exactly where motorhomes should go.  Soon I saw a large set of silver booths across the road and assumed this must be the first set of customs agents.  But when I reached the front of the line, I realized it was the toll booth for the bridge.  “Oops!”  I didn’t think about saving enough pesos for a bridge toll!  Fortunately, I still had some US Dollars and was able to use those to pay. 

I assumed the customs agents would then follow the toll booth, but as I looked out the window, I realized I was now starting to cross the Rio Grande!  “Oops again!  I still need to return my car permit!  Better turn around!”

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I found a nice Mexican customs agent who spoke some English to tell him my problema and he radioed the boss.  They decided to have an agent come over to escort me to the proper building, but he would first need to take me to the x-ray lane for inspection.  So, off I went following the SUV with flashing lights, feeling like I was going up the down escalator!

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After the x-ray inspection, the agent had to do a visual inspection of my motorhome.  Once that was all done, he finally sent me over to the little white hut (guard shack) building that I had missed when originally coming through—this was where the Banjercito agent would finally remove my car sticker and issue the deposit refund.

I was now on my way back to the bridge toll booth again and ready to cross the Rio Grande for good this time.  But not so fast!  The toll booth agent explained in broken English that he had charged me incorrectly the first time through and had missed charging me for my tow vehicle.  He also explained that I would also need to pay a whole second toll for both vehicles as once you leave the toll booth to cross the bridge there are no refunds if you should turn around.  After discussing this situation with another toll agent and getting nowhere, I decided to just pay them the $26 and move on.

Finally, after one hour, I was able to cross the Rio Grande into the U.S. with a whopping $10 in cash (and $2 in pesos) to my name!

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My San Miguel neighbors had told me to take the truck lanes on the US side rather than the auto lanes since I was an RV with a toad.  Of course, nothing on either side of the border crossing was marked for RVs, but I went ahead and got into the long, slow-moving line of trucks and inched my way to the first agent booth.

He asked if I had anything to declare, and fearing I’d better not lie after being in Mexico for 3 months, I told him I had some souvenir pottery.   Not sure if that was a mistake, but he gave me a slip of paper and told me to proceed to the x-ray station (which, of course, was loaded up with 18-wheelers).   After another hour, it was finally our turn to get scanned, so Millie and I got out and let the machine do it’s thing.  Thinking I was now done, the US agent said “not so fast! You need to go to the manual inspection area now for final sign-off”.

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This area looked entirely like the wrong place for a motorhome tourist to be!  It was a large loading dock building with semi-trucks backed into the bays all around it.  So where the heck does a motorhome (that can’t back up) go?!!!  It took me a few minutes of walking around asking people to figure that out.  Then another wait for an agent to finally come inspect my rig.  Thankfully, he was friendly and able to keep my “road rage” from boiling over!

Finally, at exactly 3 hours from the time I had entered the Mexican side of the border crossing, I was released from customs and welcomed to Texas!  Why a border crossing in Mexico should take this long (when my crossings into Canada have never taken more than a half-hour), I’ll never know.  But at least I now have experience for the next time I cross here!

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It sure felt good to be able to read (and fully understand) the road signs again!

 

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12 comments:

  1. You are very brave. And patient!

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  2. You certainly opened my eyes to traveling in Mexico, including a border crossing experience that could be encountered. Beautiful.

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  3. I certainly hope you've treated yourself to a few nice cocktails now that you've gotten the Mexican experience under your belt - you earned em!

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  4. Well that seemed like forever just to read, can't imagine how long it seemed to actually go thru it!!! Welcome Home!!

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  5. Glad you crossed at Columbia rather then trying Bridge #2 in Nuevo Laredo! Whew. Enjoy Texas.....If and when we get together I'll share some border stories and we can laugh.

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    1. That'd be fun Barbara. If I'm still in Chicago when you come up later this Spring, and you have some free time, lets meet for lunch!

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  6. I have really enjoyed your Mexico blogs, and your wonderful photos. Before you left, you posted about some tech bits that you were taking, like the wireless drive called the RAVpower, and your Nexus tablet using various sim cards while you were down there? Did these items do the job?
    Dan
    '06 View J

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    1. Hi Dan: I never did use the RAVpower down in Mexico, but it's one of those things that's great to have because when you need it, you really need it! The Nexus on the other hand, was something I used daily. It worked flawlessly with the Telcel SIM card after one initial hiccup with the configuration that Telcel had to adjust. I used the Nexus for my GPS, and also used it for Google Translate. I would have dearly loved to use it for VOIP calls, but Google Hangouts for Android does not yet support dialing phones (it's coming later this Spring). I tried using Skype but Skype's quality was the pits. There were a couple times when I needed to call businesses in Mexico and had no decent way to do it except to borrow a friend's cell phone. So, had the unlocked Nexus 5 been available before I left, that might have made an even better device as it has a built-in cell phone and is a smidge smaller.

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  7. How do you get such great pictures while you're driving? Do you pull over on the shoulder, or do you just have a very steady hand? Glad you made it to Texas safely!
    Blessings,
    Linda

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    1. I have a high-quality point and shoot camera (a Canon s100) that fits perfectly in a little cubby hole in the dash so I can grab and shoot while driving (although, if I have the opportunity and the subject is more worthy, I'll pull over and get out to take some shots)!

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  8. Ok... all that business with the center divide was absolutely huuularious!!

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