Okay, I have to admit, I wasn’t taken “hostage” in the traditional sense of the word, but figuratively, by the black-balaclava clad customs agents on the Mexican side of the border. Other assorted law enforcement personnel, located throughout various makeshift roadway checkpoints in Mexico did their share of work as well. It was highly stressful, but in retrospect, totally avoidable had I followed a few simple rules. Mainly, I should:
a) Not have over-packed
b) Had an itemized list of what was bringing with me
These two tips alone would have saved me 95% of all the stress and anxiety I brought onto myself during my jaunt through the Mexican highways.
Disregarding one of the sacred mantras of world travel, “Thou Shall Pack Light”, has its price.
For me, the decision to drive to the Patagonia had not come lightly, but one which I had decided to stop postponing until later in life. Those will be tales for another day, but for now, I ‘ll tell you how I made the start of my trip much harder than it needed to be.
Once you have made the decision to embark on a life of “slow travel“, one of the things that ends up being put off longer than almost any task is sorting your possessions into these three imaginary buckets:
a) What possessions go with you
b) What stays to (maybe) await your return, and
c) What you need to part ways with forever
Let me warn you from my own personal experience, that the “C” column on the list will likely be the hardest one to fill because by nature, we’re born pack-rats. If you’ve ever had a favorite shirt, coffee cup, book, or (fill in the blank), the decision to part ways with said favorite item will be much harder than you think, which is why we usually end up putting off the sorting process until the last-minute. We tend to avoid coming to grips with the reality that the dream of creating a new life abroad means sacrificing a little bit of our identity by leaving some things behind. A worthwhile sacrifice, in my opinion, for a lifetime of memories and adventures.
Back to the story.
My dream of driving all the way down to Patagonia, in the most leisurely way possible, collided with the finite space known as the back of my SUV. Instead self-limiting my possessions and traveling light, I chose to make use of ALL the available space and carry down as much junk with me as possible. I firmly believe that had I, at that time, been driving a school bus instead of a SUV, I would’ve immediately filled that same bus up to the windows with useless stuff.
A little-known law of physics states that junk will expand proportionately to the space which it can occupy.
So South I headed, towards the border, in trying to do a house move across Mexico and into Guatemala, which the first stop in my “slow travel” tour.
I had a vague idea that crossing borders with roughly the contents of a small studio apartment would be somewhat of a hassle, but I was too preoccupied with the sights I’d be catching along the way to really game-plan the logistics of the trip. You see, when it comes to tourists, the Mexican government is mostly concerned with the folks bringing into the country cheap American goods, including vehicles, which in turn undercuts their local economy.
If you’re passing through as a tourist, they very likely won’t bother you. Suspicions will arise, however, if you bring in a vehicle overstuffed with personal items. Then it becomes really important to convince that customs official that you’ll just be passing through, not setting up a flea market on the side of the road and ditching your car to the highest bidder. But this was something I learned after I had crossed the US Border into Mexico. A little late in the game to reassess my personal inventory, to say the least.
Here’s how it all went down.
Crossing the US Border into Mexico
Approached Mexican border at San Luis, Arizona: It’s early Monday morning and the outbound lane does not seem busy, so I get to the customs checkpoint fairly quickly. US customs agents eye my overloaded Jeep and want to know where I’m headed. I tell them my grandiose plans of traveling South, with no permanent fixed destination, and explore the world at leisure – MISTAKE #1.
Customs agents are (surprise!) incredulous that anyone would want to do this and promptly tell me to pull over for a secondary inspection. I see them bring out the drug-sniffing dogs and I get instructed to step out of the vehicle and into a waiting area while they inspect my cargo. This quickly taught me an important lesson useful for third-world survival, which is to not volunteer to the government more information than needed, unless necessary. No sense in stirring their curiosity and bringing further scrutiny on yourself.
So my adventure is off to a rousing start and I haven’t even really LEFT THE COUNTRY. I’m already stressed.
My worries were not about anything in particular. I wasn’t carrying any contraband or anything of that sort. But there’s always that nagging little doubt that something, unbeknownst to you, may be under your car, which may trigger a visit by armed troops and result in a black helicopter being summoned, bearing a free ride to sunny Guantanamo Bay.
Ten minutes later, after dozens of ridiculous variations of scenarios involving cellmates and soap-on-a-rope dance on my head, I get called over by another customs agent who proceeds to offer me his opinion that, while he thinks I’m a little crazy, I’m free to go on my way. The customs agents wish me luck and I’m rolling again, breathing a sigh of relief because I naïvely think that the worst is over.
Not by a long shot.
Entering the Mexican Border
As I make my way and leave the US checkpoint behind, I noticed the traffic lane splits up ahead, at a fork on the road. To the right, there’s a checkpoint that beckons you to go through if you have “nothing to declare.” To the left, there is a lane for those who voluntarily want to “declare items.”
At this point, the only customs declarations I’m familiar with are those regarding any currency movement of USD $10,000 or more on your person at the border, or the US Department of Agriculture’s safety inspections relating to fruits, vegetables, animals, or meats being brought into the country. I’m familiar with this rules from my air travels in the past, so, I make my way to the “Nothing to Declare” checkpoint lane – MISTAKE #2. The Mexican customs agent at the checkpoint gives my overstuffed vehicle a glance and motions me to drive my vehicle to the side, over to where the nice woman wearing a black mask and holding a very large rifle is standing.
I was promptly directed by the masked woman to park in a staging area. Here, the female agent is joined by a friendlier, unmasked customs agent, which I later perceived was a classic good/cop bad cop routine. It worked, as I’m chatting away with the “good” agent like we’re best buddies. They proceed to, in the friendliest manner, ask the usual who, where, and whys of my trip. Being just a speck wiser, I guard things a little closer the vest when it comes to details.
They ask me to unload my carefully packed truck and spread its contents across the parking lot, so they can have a look. The continue peppering me with questions, such as “Why do you have two laptops?” I explain one is a laptop, another is a net-book. That yes, both are for my personal use and that they serve different purposes; mainly the large laptop for editing videos and other work, the smaller net-book for writing and casual browsing. “And you have an iPad AND an iPod?” she asks somewhat incredulous. It starts dawning on me that this is going to take a while.
I’m ordered to load up the vehicle while they walk away to, I assume, discuss what to do with me. In the meantime, they direct me across the street to the offices where I’ll be acquiring a temporary import permit sticker for my vehicle that will allow me to drive further South into Mexico, beyond the state of Sinaloa. The passport stamping and vehicle import rules are relatively painless and I’ll discuss how they work in another post.
Once I had my temporary permit sticker on hand, I was back to dealing with the customs agents, who apparently, after obtaining all the information they could from me in a friendly way, got down to the business of throwing the book at me. The “good cop” agent disappeared and I was now dealing with TWO “bad cops.” They accused me of intentionally trying to sneak in without paying import fees for all the merchandise I was bringing into the country. Not only was I going to have to pay a heavy fine, but a higher import fee for my sins. Things were going downhill fast.
I pleaded ignorance with the customs agents (not an excuse to violate the law, they said, and rightly so). At this point, since I didn’t know whether I was being taken or not, I resorted to bargaining and asking for mercy in the nicest way I could. A little research, after the fact of course, revealed that they were not kidding. Bypassing the “voluntary declaration” checkpoint in trying to “mislead” customs officials meant that not only did I not get the benefit of bringing in my allotted amount of personal items tax-free, but that I would have to pay a fine of four times! the value of all the items in my possession. So, pay close attention here if you want to set out on your own overland adventure through Mexico:
If you’re visiting, or passing through Mexico overland, be familiar with the procedures to which you’ll be subjected to as a tourist. The complete list of what you’ll be allowed to bring to the country, tax-free, can be found here.
As I said at the beginning, bringing in a lot of ultimately unnecessary items complicated things way more than they needed to be. I was asked to make a “detailed list” of items in my possession, as well as their approximate commercial value. This meant taking everything out of the vehicle, again, and writing up a list on a piece of scrap paper furnished by the custom agents. Hence my suggestion that you keep a neat inventory of what’s in your car, should someone ever decides to ask.
At this point, I had the chance to play the role of a pawn shop owner. Should I have written what that iPod with the scratched screen cost when new, or what I could buy it for on eBay? Attaching a monetary value to your used stuff can be confusing if you’re not one that regularly dabbles on Craigslist or selling “hot” items on the street.
Eventually I finished my inventory. I was careful not to leave anything out that might be later construed as trying to mislead the customs agent. The agents went back and forth bout how this was a gross violation of the law and the outrageous amounts I would have to pay as a fine. But after enough pleading, they decided to charge me the regular import tax on the excess items, or about 20%,of the value, which totaled close to about USD$250 in fees.
Almost five hours after being stuck on the Mexican border, I got a little receipt, stamped by Mexican authorities, stating that I had paid my merchandise import fees and was free to go. This, however, didn’t mean my problems were over. Carrying all that extra load with me meant spending more time being searched by assorted law enforcement personnel at almost every security checkpoint I met and offering up a less and less detailed version of what I had set out to do during my adventure.
The hold up at customs definitely threw my travel plans for a loop, but that’s another story for another day. Had I traveled with less stuff on me, I would’ve enjoyed the trip far more.
The moral of the story is, travel light, be organized. You’ll be much happier for it.
Also, check out my Pinterest page about Antigua Guatemala, one of the prettiest colonial cities in the world and latest digital nomad destination I’m trying out.