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Preparation for the Trip

   May 16

Preparation for the Trip

Preparation includes your and your vehicle’s documents, knowledge about key issues likely to surface, and the best ways to manage the situation during your trip. It also includes preparation of your vehicle. The road is long and tough. The driving conditions and supporting infrastructure are different than at home.

In general, a trip down through Mexico and other Central American countries consists of border crossings and driving through the countries. The last is mostly very enjoyable while the first is mostly evil. Research and the knowledge are the key in avoiding the “mostly evil” overshadowing the enjoyable part. Start months before the trip as many operations will take time.
Border Crossings
In all border crossings you will need:
- passport valid for at least 90 days for each person
- original vehicle title
- drivers license and an International Driving Permit
- vehicle registration
- at least 2 copies of each document for each border crossing

The vehicle title must be in your name (exactly same name as in your passport and drivers license. Spelling errors are not a good enough excuse at border crossings. Make sure that the name and addresses on all documents match exactly. If your car is on loan and the lien is recorded on the title then check with each country what exactly do you need from the bank to get through. Check and double check because the people from these cultures usually wish to make you happy. That’s why the often say what they think you want to hear if they don’t know for sure. It is strongly advised to ask many and pick the most frequently matching answer.

Each Central American country has its own fees and somewhat different process for tourist or transit entry and exit. Yet, they all have a lot in common as well. The process and fees change, hence it is necessary to check beforehand what they are before you plan the trip. Check with all country’s web sites or embassies/consulates by email or phone the official fees you are required to pay at the entry and exit border crossings. Also check for the allowed/not allowed goods in your vehicle. Some countries (e.g. Mexico) have different customs rules for tourists and cars in transit. Make sure that you know your status ahead of time and check customs regulations accordingly.

At the time this document was prepared  had the information for Mexico customs regulations, for El Salvador,  for Guatemala government etc. Web sites change. You will need some Google-ing to find the current information.

Armed with this knowledge you can plan ahead the amount of money you need at each crossing and, more importantly, you don’t fall prey to scamsters at border crossings. Knowing what goods are allowed and not allowed you will cross customs faster, without additional fees/propina’s and bureaucratic hurdles.

Obtain all permits and visas available from web or country embassies/consulates before you start your trip. Have in mind that some may take 2 – 4 weeks or more to be processed and sent to you. For example, you can get Mexico’s temporary car importation permit mailed to your home. Request on the web or embassy/consulate. This will save you time and aggravation at the unpredictable waiting line at the border.

General Entry Process:
1. Tourist or transit visa. Fill up a form available at the border, stay in line with your passport and its copy, get an entry stamp in passport and sometimes a paper document.
2. Make a copy of your visa document
3. Customs

- Temporary vehicle importation permit and customs declaration. Fill up an application form and stand in line or catch a customs officer walking on the parking lot (here’s where a tramitor helps as they know the officers by face) to check the vehicle out. At some border crossings they will have to come and take pictures of VIN, License plate etc. In most countries you have to pay for this (except El Salvador).  In countries with mandatory insurance you have to purchase one before approaching a customs officer. A month (30 days) is minimum, and you can pay up to 90 days. In these countries the length of your vehicle permit is determined by the length of the insurance you paid.
- Customs declaration. Fill up a customs form and stand in line to get your luggage checked and form signed off.
In some countries both functions are performed by the same officer at once, in others these are separate functions you need to initiate in different buildings.

General Exit Process:
1. Cancel the temporary car importation permit. You will need the Temporary Car importation Permit issued to you at entry and passport. In some countries this function is performed a different location. For example, in Mexico this office is about 70 km before the actual border exit. This step is not necessary if you are returning to the same border crossing with the same car within time allowed in the permit (usually 30 – 90 days). You will need to catch the customs officer and ask him/her to validate that you have not sold the car nor its important components while in the country (e.g. engine, transmission, sometimes even tires).
2. Get exit stamp to your passport. Need passport and entry visa document if issued.

Border crossing Rules:
General Rules:
- never throw away any papers given do you even if they look like a used toilet paper
- do your homework and get all possible permits before you approach a specific border because to get the permits there will always be more expensive and take much more time and aggravation.
- in need for local money use bank ATM’s, not dealers
- never use money dealers hanging out on the border crossing parking lot for any meaningful amount
- always request an official receipt for whatever amount you pay for official fees whether you use a local helper (tramitor) or not; frequently you need these receipts at the roadside checkpoints.

- tramitors are useful and speed up the process on some border crossings. Before you hire one conduct an interview and do not hire if any doubts on his/her integrity arises. Tramitors are not allowed in Mexico and Costa Rica, they are hardly useful in El Salvador, but provide value at entry to Guatemala and Panama. Tramitors speed up the process significantly for Honduras’ and Nicaragua entry.

Tramitor interview questions and rules:
- Do not hire a tramitor who does not speak English if you don’t speak Spanish well.
- Ask the interviewee to tell you all official fees and amounts you are required to pay. Do not hire a tramitor that lies to you or does not know.
- Tell him that you will always be walking with him where-ever it is necessary to go and paying all official fees yourself. Be extremely careful hiring a tramitor that does not agree to help you under this condition. Only border crossing where trusting a tramitor with money may be necessary is Honduras’ entry
- On border crossing impossible to get through at your time frame (e.g. late Sun) without paying propina, require the tramitor to explicitly write it down for you how much is going for propina and to whom.
- Ask how fast (s)he will get you off the border. Set your deadline for the tramitor accordingly and be very explicit that you pay nothing if (s)he does not accomplish the task by that time.
- Negotiate a specific amount you will pay for the service at the end of the interview. Except for Honduras it should not exceed $10.00 unless there are extraordinary circumstances

Drivers License or International Driving Permit
Both are official documents, picture ID’s. International Driving Permit is valid in all Central American countries and in Mexico. It is a document you can obtain from local AAA office for $25 (less if you are a member) and it is valid for a year from the date of issue. The benefit of presenting the International Driving Permit at checkpoints instead of drivers license is twofold.
First, it looks prestigious and sets you apart from an usual gringo tourists who is driving with usual drivers license. It is specifically written in many languages (including Spanish) and the name of the country you are in is listed in it. It leaves an impression that you may be too important of a person worth taking the risk to try to squeeze propina out of you. Word “International” carries clout in these countries.
Second use is in a tense situation where an officer is confiscating your license for real or made up infraction. Play along and behave like this is a real blow to your well being. In reality you did not lose anything more than $25.00. This is usually lot less than paying fines or propinas for the infraction. You still have your real drivers license to present where required and can leave the driving permit behind.

Preparing your luggage
Pack your things in suitcases and boxes such that you can easily take them out in customs checking area. Usually a customs officer will come and look it over in your trunk if there is sufficient room to see the luggage. This is specifically true if you have more things and are traveling with a truck. Yet, be prepared to do whatever the customs official asks. If you are traveling with an SUV or car and your trunk and back seat are packed then it is good to lift the topmost boxes, suitcases, bags out when the customs official approaches to check your stuff. Put them on the ground next to the vehicle so that the official can see them all. This way you show that you are not hiding anything and the sign-off is likely fast and quick.

It is useful on some border crossings to have a list of boxes and suitcases in Spanish with general description (few words) of goods in them (e.g. Mexico and Costa Rica). The customs officer may ask you what is in each box and open few. Usually this is the depth they go unless there is something suspicious in your vehicle or you. There are no laws against profiling and no-one to complain.

Car insurance was not mandatory in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras March 2010. Rules change, check ahead of time. If you wish to have car insurance in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras then you have to apply for it at least 2 weeks before your trip. You can pick up your policy in Brownsville before crossing to Mexico, but you have to apply beforehand. Only Mexico auto insurance is available in few hours notice.
You can get the auto insurance for example from Sanborn’s. Their office is conveniently few miles from the border where you can pick it up. Phone 956-546-6644,
email: The insurance is charged by day and besides accidents will cover other possible trip affecting incidences including legal assistance and the cost of transporting you back home, etc. Check their web site and/or call.

For Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama you have to buy mandatory insurance at the border. These countries do not recognize external insurance coverage. Mandatory insurance only covers the so called “public liability”. In human terms, it only pays limited amount of damage you do to the other party in an accident. It does not pay for your property damage and medical expenses. Meaningful coverage is available at the border of these countries if desired.

The role of road maps in navigating through countries is clear. They give the navigator a general understanding of next destinations, possible routes there and distances. Yet, road maps have significant drawbacks in turn-to-turn navigation:
- Lack landmarks to identify turning points unambiguously – not detailed enough;
- Obsolete before printed; this is especially true in developing countries (like Mexico and Central America) because the road infrastructure is “developing” much faster than the map publishers can keep up with;
- Larger maps have more detail, but are much more cumbersome if not impossible to manipulate rapidly in the car while drivin;

Recognizing the deficiencies of driving guided by a map AAA has distributed trip-ticks on demand for years to its members. Unfortunately, they do this only for US territory. You can also get a trip-tick from Google maps, but also only for US territory.
Make sure to get a trip tick from your home to the US border crossing you plan to use. Your choices are AAA or Google maps. For the rest of the countries you can get the trip-tick from Banyantree Ventures. These are down-loadable pdf files that you should print yourself. Get your trip ticks here.

In addition you could order (at least few weeks before “D” date) decent road maps from, Amazon or most bookstores and compile your own trip-ticks. Look for latest revision date if you have choices and clear indication of distances between points. Note, that tourist maps contain entirely different details. They are no-doubt useful if you plan to do sight-seeing, but useless for navigation.

If you decide to compile your own trip-ticks from maps, validate their accuracy by Google or Bing satellite images. Keep in mind that maps for these countries in Google and Bing are also frequently inaccurate. Another good source are various travel stories in abundance on the web. Unfortunately, most stories do not publish the dates they were compiled. Some information may be obsolete. Keep in mind that Google and specifically Bing lack correct location names in most other countries. Distances Bing gives are usually correct if the location names are correct. Otherwise misleading and useless.

Preparing your vehicle
Crossing Mexico and Central America you need a car with higher than usual ground clearance, but it does not have to be 4WD. Breaks, suspension and tires take the most of the brunt of this trip. If in doubt, better replace all that is worn, including shock absorbers. Make sure that you have good tires, a full size spare and all tools to replace a tire on the road fast even if it is already dark (have a good 12V work light on you that you can plug in the car outlet). Needless to say, change all oils, check and add or replace all other liquids, grease the joints etc.

If your vehicle is a pickup truck and you plan to transport your luggage on the bed, then make sure you have a secure lockable cover for the bed. A camper, bed topper or hard cover are all fine as long as you can lock them. Beware pickpockets on border crossing parking lots and elsewhere you stop but can not watch your vehicle. Camper presents a separate challenge (and cost) on some borders because it has separate license plate. In some countries some times it is considered as a separate vehicle that needs a separate permit (with associated cost and hassle). This is also true in Panama and you need to import it (with cost and hassle) if you plan to keep it in Panama. On the bright side it gives you a place to sleep overnight aside off the road if the sun goes down before you reach your planned hotel and has lots of room for luggage.

The vehicle will be diligently and frequently checked and drivers fined/propina’d/jailed for substantial amounts in Honduras by police officers in each village you pass, but occasionally in other countries as well. The police checks for absence of a fire extinguisher stored such that it is easy to grab, emergency triangle (better have two) or any burned out light bulb or inoperable light they will discover. Make sure that you have spare bulbs on you. Check all lights and mandatory equipment before entering Honduras.

It is very important to have at least one set of spare keys literally on you at all times. The pickpockets grab everything they notice in their reach including keys. There are no locksmiths to call for help in those areas. This is specifically true for border crossings and all other touristy areas. Devise a the method to carry them on you all the time. A method so that you can not lose them and will not forget to take them with you. A method that makes them difficult to steal.

Gasoline and diesel are readily available in gas stations along the major roads. Almost everywhere there are 2 grades of gasoline: 91 Octane (goes for regular) and 95 Octane. At some gas stations they list “sin plomo” for unleaded, in some they don’t. You may wish to ask the attendant, but I did not see a leaded gasoline sold anywhere in March 2010.

Do not expect the gas stations to be open 24/7. To avoid being stranded and helpless at road side have a full canister of gasoline or diesel always in your trunk. Do not drive your tank to below ¼ full. Gas stations are also a good place to ask road conditions ahead, get a cup of fresh coffee or find a decent bathroom.

General rules on the road

  • Do not drive in dark. People and animals use same roads and they do not carry lights. If you have to, be extremely careful and ready to stop. Ask for an hotel in first gas station you encounter. “¿Dónde está el hotel más cercano”. If you do not understand exactly what they are saying ask them to write it down for you “Escríbelo para mí por favor”.
  • Observe traffic signs and speed limits to avoid unexpected problems with police.  It is safe to drive behind a semi truck over the speed limit, but not alone.
  • If you get lost ask directions in a gas station or from a police. If you do not understand exactly what they are saying ask them to write it down for you “Escríbelo para mí por favor”
  • Avoid driving close to the curb on the streets and roads. Sometimes there are nails planted for a purpose.
  • Be very polite and relaxed with police and military in their checkpoints and other encounters. Never exhibit your frustration or anger in their presence.
  • Interact with local people on bus stops and markets you pass. They are friendly and you may learn some things you will never learn from CIA World book or tourist brochures.
  • Enjoy the scenery and relax. Patience is not only a virtue, but necessity in these countries. You will lose your sanity without it.

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