Crossing the Border into Mexico - There and Back Again

The sun rose like a tinderbox throwing gasoline on the shadows it cast before us and great billows of steam rose from the blacktop as it heated up after the cool of the night.  We kept our eyes forward as we crept along through the rising vapors, certain the attack would come from the dilapidated shack at roads end where heads furtively peered over bulwarks and eyes cast stealthy glances through knot holes.  We knew they didn’t like foreigners in these parts; especially Americans with squeaky clean driving records and a disregard of fried food. Cries of “Murir, gringo” broke the silence of the morning seconds before the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire kicked up divots of dirt around our ankles. I dove behind the wheel, gunned Wesley’s engine, and headed straight for the ramshackle structure where the enemy, Mexican customs officials, remained hidden like cockroaches. R, Coconut, and J, jumped on board and threw our dirty laundry at them like hand grenades. If this was how they wanted it, they would have my dirty socks to pay for it. We’d come too far to be turned back now. The view from behind Wesley's windshield as we approached the bridge over the Rio Grande. Little did we know we would see this for a second time later in the day.

A Mexican border crossing as described above would be worthy of national news coverage and what most of us know about Mexico we learn from the news. And let me tell you, the national news does not run stories about how our border crossing went, and how hundreds of border crossings every day go – uneventfully. And the national news does not run stories about the oasis of a hotel and campground where we are now holed up – a mere 146 miles from the border – because the only thing that happened here today was that we swam, napped, and ate. And because the national news won’t run our story, I’m going to have to tell it to you myself.

R and I gave some serious thought to what we needed to do to cross the border into Mexico in the most painless and efficient way. Everything we had read advised spending as little time as possible in border towns, in particular on the South side of the border, so our plan was to spend the night in the U.S. border town of Laredo, Texas, cross the Rio Grande first thing, and put the pedal to the metal and drive 200 plus kilometers to Monterrey, Mexico, for the night. One guy we mentioned this plan to advised against spending the night in Laredo, but after searching for options north of Laredo where we could spend the night and still get to the border pretty early, we realized there were none and that his story was as full of holes as the heads of the boaters on Lake Laredo that the cartel used for target practice – may they rest in peace.

We booked a night at the Family Garden Inn in Laredo and arrived there from San Antonio just in time for happy hour – free hot dogs, nachos, and beer – and to find out there is truth to the adage that freedom isn’t free – the hot dogs were mushy, the chips were smothered in that fake nacho cheese crap, and the beer was Lite. I had indigestion before I finished my first hot dog.

Family Garden Inn Suites in Laredo

Coconut at the Family Garden Inn pool

The border opens at eight in the morning for those hoping to cross legally and we roused Coconut and J at 6:45 for our sugar-coated free breakfast and hit the bridge shortly after eight. The Mexican official poked his head into our van for about ten seconds, waved us through, and there we were – spit out into the streets of Nuevo Laredo. No guns, no threats, no hassle.

We had printed instructions about what documentation we needed to obtain visas for ourselves and import Wesley into Mexico to prove that we owned it and didn’t plan to sell it and after a few wrong turns we arrived at the customs house with our paperwork in hand and eager to be fed through the assembly line.

It was here that we learned that the Certificate of Title and registration that we had received from the Virginia DMV for Wesley had the wrong vehicle identification number on it. The customs official actually removed himself from behind his glass window, walked with us out to the parking lot, and confirmed this by comparing our paperwork to the VIN punched into Wesley – there was an X where there should have been a Z.

We were then presented two options – return to Laredo to get a temporary registration for Wesley in Texas with the correct VIN which would allow us to obtain the proper paperwork from Mexico to enter with Wesley, or leave Wesley behind. Since that second option wasn’t really an option, we drove back to Laredo. By this time it was 10 a.m. and about 100 degrees.

It was hot in Laredo and Mexico on Tuesday! The reading on the left is inside Wesley. The reading on the right is the outside temperature.

After going through U.S. Customs, where we wondered if the officer would make us throw away or eat the bananas that we had purchased the day before in Texas, and stopping at a traffic light on every street corner in Laredo on the way to the County Assessor’s office, the light started flashing that Wesley’s engine was overheating. This is the problem I thought I had solved the other day with a wire brush and some electrical tape. I guess I’m not the mechanic I thought I was - or rather, I am that mechanic.

We managed to get to where we needed to go in Laredo, were directed to a parking spot by a Sheriff’s Officer, were met at the door by a woman who made the copies we needed and directed us to the window where we could complete our transaction, and were presented with our temporary registration in about fifteen minutes. How impressive is that? Go Texas.

All during this time – from Mexican customs, back through U.S. Customs, and to the Texas office, Coconut and J were reading their books and playing Plants vs. Zombies on their screens without complaining about the heat, their hunger or thirst, or asking why we didn’t check the VIN when we received the VA DMV paperwork in the first place. In short, they made a stressful situation less stressful by being awesome.

Even after getting the Texas permit, we still had two situations to deal with. First, the permit is only for 90 days and it seems that we have to be present at VA DMV to be able to correct our VA DMV certificate of title to show the correct VIN. Since we won’t be present to do this, we are not sure what is going to happen when we try to leave Mexico after 30 days have expired to enter Belize with paperwork that shows the wrong VIN. Maybe we won’t be allowed to enter Belize?

Second, Wesley’s cooling system appears to have a problem that I can’t fix. While Texas was doing its thing, I fiddled around again with what I had fiddled around with the other day. This time I also added some water to the overflow coolant tank. However, once we had the right paperwork, I still hadn’t started the van so didn’t know if I had accomplished anything. Wesley might overheat at any time.

After a short discussion around these two issues - should we stay or should we go - R and I decided to go for it. We were going to Mexico.

When we arrived back at Mexican Customs, the official stamped us as official, charged us some amount of money – about 5000 pesos - to give us our visas and Wesley his sticker, and sent us on our way – which was into the now hot and throbbing streets of Nuevo Laredo with no data access – R had removed us from Verizon the previous night. So, essentially we were travelling South (compasses don’t need data plans) hoping the coolant light wouldn’t go on, hoping to stumble across the right exit to put us on the road to Monterrey, and hoping to find an ATM to withdraw pesos and a store to buy a SIM card to make our phones work again.

As I sit here typing this at La Posada camping and lodging in El Potrero Chico recreation area near Hidalgo, Mexico, which actually was our destination rather than Monterrey after R did some late night research on the free WiFi at the Family Garden Inn, I feel really fortunate that we did not allow the day to turn into the disaster pie for which it had all the fixins’.

We pitched our tent in the middle of the campground so we could have this view of the mountain. We made the right choice to leave Laredo.

This hotel and campground is beautiful and we are the only ones here. There is a cool breeze blowing that makes the 113 degree temperature we reached today a distant memory. The space we are in is set in a valley between two world class climbing mountains. There are beautiful, shaded grounds and a wicked pool which we’ve already been in twice, and I know my family is content and asleep in our tents which are just out of sight in the wall of darkness created by the lit porch where I am typing this. I know that as soon as I walk out of this canopy of light, and my eyes adjust, I’m going to walk over to Wesley, crack myself a final Tecate beer, and sit back and enjoy a sky full of stars.

J relaxing in the hammock hung over the pool after taking a swim.

Here's another photo of the pool and grounds at La Posada