For those of you reading this who have lived internationally, you probably already know what a visa run is. For those of you who don't understand, I will explain.
Most countries offer first world country citizens visitor visas on arrival. Mexico is no exception to this. As an US citizen with a passport we just need to show up and they give you a visa. If you stay longer than 8 days you need to pay for your visa (this is not true in the Baja states or Sonora where you don't need a visa). The payment is something like $18 USD for 6 months. More specifically for 180 days. If you overstay your 180 days you have to pay a fee.
Who wants to pay extra fees?
Oh and if you overstay a visa some countries get feisty and will deny you a visa next time.
There are other (more expensive) visas available in Mexico but we were only planning on being in Mexico for 6 months initially so there was no need for us to worry about this. We were going to stay our 6 months exploring both coasts of Mexico and then head south.
However plans change. It's one of the coolest aspects of this lifestyle. If we like a place we stay longer, if we don't like a place we move away quicker. It's cool like that. And we love Mexico. And then it started getting hot and humid, we realized that June/July/August was the worst time to travel through central america. Instead we decided to "extend" our visas for another 6 months exploring more of the Mexico we love and then choose if we want to continue to drive south, go for a kitesurf safari somewhere (we're having a lot of second thoughts about that!) or stay back.
But in order to get new visas we have to leave the country.
Easy right? Just take a flight out, spend a weekend somewhere and fly back in.
That's a "normal" visa run. However there is nothing normal about visa runs, from the many friends we have who have to do visa runs frequently it's like rolling dice, and eventually your number comes up. This was our turn.
Turns out in Mexico motorhomes get a ten year import permit... meaning we can leave Gracie in Mexico for ten years with no peanility. However normal vehicles (the minivan) only get a 6 month Import Permit. If I don't get the minivan out of Mexico before the 180 day limit we lose our $300 and will face more penalties when we try to leave.
So decision made, we needed to flee the country in the minivan. It travels faster than Gracie, gets better gas milage and doesn't break down as frequently!
Because we knew our time was running short and we didn't want to head north (to the US) we had to head south to Guatemala or Belize. Since we had crossed over to the mainland via the ferry from Baja we were already on the Pacific side making Guatemala the closest.
Let the race begin! We moved every weekend trying to get as far as possible while staying safe (Guerrero and Sinaloa are two dangerous states which we had to cross through). So we find a campground in Puerto Arista Chiapas where we're only a 3 hour drive to Guatemala. Perfect place to park Gracie and go do the visa run without her. Our visas expired on Thursday so we decided to head for the border on Tuesday.
Should we stay a night in Guatemala? We thought we'd give it a try of just grabbing lunch in Guatemala and then turning around and heading back into Mexico. So it was possible that we could do the full trip in one day, but likely we'd need to stay at a hotel near the border because border crossings never go quickly and driving at night in Mexico is a big no-no.
Monday we prepared, I printed copies of the documents we needed and I got everything I thought we needed packed up. Becky packed for a possible overnight and Tuesday morning we were off.
We made good time getting to the border, arriving around noon. So far no big deal and ironically we bumped into a missionary family who live in Guatemala and were entering Mexico for a combination visa run/trip to the US for a furlough/vacation. It was great as they gave us good insight as to what to expect in Guatemala. We were so blessed to have met them.
We went to the desks for "checking out" of Mexico for our visas, no problem she laughed and said "cutting in close eh" -- or at least that's what I understood from my limited Spanish! When I realized she was friendly I asked how long till we could get another visa, she said today. So I could have just walked out of the building, come back in and gotten new 6 month visas for us. I never even had to enter Guatemala... tempting.
Then I went to the desk for the Minivan... there too things went smoothly, everything takes time so no big deal. She was not friendly so I was slightly concerned about coming back in a few minutes and we decided to actually go into Guatemala.
That's where the problems began. There are a lot of pushy people who were trying to scam us. Our new friends told us only to trust people in uniforms and so it was a constant fight, no I don't need photocopies, no I don't need that, no I don't want to move the van or my person to this que or that, etc. Finally I was able to get to the Visa desk and we received our Guatemalan visas. Next up was the vehicle import permit. The scammers were trying to get me into a lane where they would spray the minivan, and I knew I'd have to pay for that, but there was another lane of vehicles who were not going through that... so I skipped it and the scammer was getting quite upset with me, but I thought I knew what I was doing.
I tried to get through the gate right behind another car but the scammer yelled at the guard and he stopped me and told me I needed to go into the office.
So the scammer escorted me to a window around the corner. Funny thing is there were signs everywhere about not bribing the officials. When I got to the official she looked over all my paperwork and then said her shift was over in a few minutes and I'd have to wait for her colleague to start his shift in 30 minutes. I thought that was absolutely crazy and fought it. What I didn't know is that she and the scammer were in cahoots. I could have bribed her to go faster but I wasn't into that with the scammer right there. So for some reason she changed her mind and started processing our vehicle import. When everything was done I needed to go pay for it at the bank next door... when I got there the line was about 25 people deep. After an hour waiting in line I was able to pay and then back to the window to prove that I had paid. Remember that the lady's shift was over about an hour ago? She was still there. She took my proof and gave me the paperwork I needed. Only cost $30 to get the vehicle into Guatemala. When we left I could have gotten that back but for all the hassle I didn't want it. So now the minivan has a 6 month permit to be in Guatemala. Funny!
After all that and the craziness of the bordertown we decided to just turn around and head back into Mexico, a good decision since no one was really hungry (we had been snacking the whole day to keep the kids happy waiting in the van).
Yup, once we indeed got across the border we only spent about 5 minutes turning around and driving back out. Nice to meet you Guatemala!
Back in Mexico we checked in to get our Visas and the lady smiled and gave us what we needed. Boom, almost done and yes indeed we could make it back to Gracie tonight, no need for a hotel! Right?
That's when the major problem occurred. When I went to get our import permit for the minivan they rejected me because I didn't have the original title. I had somehow left that in Gracie 3+ hours away. No matter the pleading and begging I did the best solution they could come up with was, park your car, go to a hotel and take a bus to Gracie, get the title, and take a bus back here with your permit.
We had seen a lot of checkpoints on our three hour drive to the border that morning. We knew that there was a significant chance of us getting stopped. But we live an adventurous life. Why not give it a try. What's the worse that could happen? I mean they just would turn us around, right?
So off we went.
First checkpoint was a military checkpoint... they just waved us on.
Second checkpoint was a police checkpoint, they searched the minivan for drugs. This put me back to my days at a drug rehab Ft Lauderdale, but dismissed the thought quickly because most of it wasn't pleasant.
Third checkpoint was the immigration officers. They had only two spots that they were checking vehicles out at, a couple of vehicles in front of us and a couple behind us got sent on, however we got pulled over.
And sure enough they realized that we didn't have the import permit. Even though the original was good for another two days (it had been torn up, but I still had one of the documents which I thought would let us pass) -- they said, nope you need to turn around and get a hotel, get the title and head for the border to get our permit.
You'd think at that point I would have taken their advice.
Nope, I saw on Google Maps that there is a road that bypasses the imigration checkpoint, we could take that, get around the checkpoint and back on the highway.
Smart decision right? If immigration turns you around, skip the checkpoint.
So on a two track for a half hour which was really just a farm tractor road we set out to bypass the checkpoint.
My heart sank when the state police had a checkpoint on that road. Duh Paul, you're not the first person to try this, you're totally going to be caught. busted by the state police, and brought back to imigration with who knows what penalities etc.
You can do a lot of "illegal" things in Mexico and get away with it, but if you get caught they throw the book at you....so the point is to not get caught.
Yet here I was with 8 police officers inspecting a farmers truck and now our paperwork and minivan.
Surprisingly they didn't know what they were looking for. I asked if indeed the highway was up ahead, I "wanted" to be on the highway I told them.
Somehow they believed me and let us go. Becky was surprised that my story worked. Whatever, we got through.
But that two track was bad, rocky, and just terrible on the van, on our nerves, and on our emotions.
Eventually after evading the police while hiding from immagration we arrived back to the highway.
Yes, now we're home free right?!?!?
In one of those freak things that seem to only happen in Mexico there was a pothole in a very smooth road. I wasn't paying attention at that split second, I was adjusting the handheld CB radio, or getting a snack or something and I didn't see how bad the pothole was.
We hit it.
We hit it hard.
When I pulled over I told Becky if it took out only one tire we'd be okay, but if it took out both we were screwed.
Sure enough it had taken out both drivers side tires... shredded them. Plus the rear passenger side tire was bulging and about to go!
Roadside assistance on our insurance sent a tow truck but they wanted to tow us back to the border!!!
Finally the driver got permission from his boss and the insurance company to drive us 1.5 hours to Gracie. Me, as the guy always trying to save time and money, thought this would be great. Becky said "are you kidding me?" It was a single cab tow truck and he would not allow us to stay in the minivan, so three adults, 4 kids and a dog crowded in this cab which, yes, was a stick shift!
It was raining, the kids were hungry, we couldn't see from the fogged up windows and everyone was uncomfortable so we convinced the driver to drop us off at the next largest town. At this point it was 7 at night and dark. There was a tire shop that was closing but we were able to talk to them and he said he'd buy three new tires in the morning and repair our van while it was at the hotel. So we went to the hotel, got dinner and crashed.
Just a simple visa run right?
And we still needed the title and the permit. Oh plus we needed money for three tires (yeah two were destroyed by the pothole but one on the other side has a huge bulge due to the two track we were on before which had weakened all of our tires.
So first thing in the morning on Wednesday I jumped into local transportation (combi buses) and hopscotched my way from that town (Mapa) to the next town (Pajiajia) to the next town (Tonala) and then finally a combi to Puerto Arista where Gracie was parked and the title was in the safe. I got the title and some food at this time it was 11am and I hadn't eaten. Grabbed a book off the bookshelf to put the title in, I didn't want to loose the title and didn't have anything else to carry it in ( pockets are a no go since you sweat profusely without doing anything at all). I ended up choosing Alia's favorite book because I thought it'd be the coolest thing to show up with her favorite book.
Took off from Gracie, yup we're going to finish this Visa run today! When I got out of the first combi I was in such a rush to get cash, worrying about other things, and not sure if I had paid enough or knew where to catch the next combi that I actually left the book with the title in the van.
Yup. I totally did that!
But I had no idea that I did until 30 minutes later when I had settled into the next van, a 45 minute non stop ride to Pajiajia. Oh no!!!
Second or third large mistake.
And now the title is forsure lost, gone. No way to recover it.
Our hopes of being in the country legally were destroyed, now we needed to sit and wait for a replacement title, the whole time our van either staying put or being illegal.
With tears I called Becky only to find out the van is fixed and the guy is wanting his money and the hotel is wanting them out of the room. Great, more stress. The people in the combi with me had to wonder what the heck was wrong with this guy.
When I got back to Becky and the kids I paid the tire guy checked out of the hotel and we started driving back to Gracie, there was another immigration checkpoint and they weren't pulling anyone over, so we got back to the town where I lost the title. I had a tiny sliver of hope of finding the same combi and that the book was in it. Turns out they have a lost and found at the station, Alia's book with the title were there!!!! I was so emotional that I hugged the lost and found lady! The people there laughed that I was so emotional about a pink book, but they had no idea.
So we had lunch, drive the 30 minutes home and crashed. On Friday I took off with the title and everything else I could think of and went to the border to make the van official.
Drama over now? Sorry, but no!
The mean lady said I needed a copy of my passport with my visa... I think she just didn't like me. So I had to go find a shop and pay $.25 USD to get a copy, came back and she said she couldn't read the copy so she went and photocopied it herself right there in her office. Ug.
Finally with permit in hand I returned to Gracie... And get this...on the way through no one stopped me at any of the checkpoints!!!
In case you are wondering this is indeed how NOT to do a visa run!
- Don't forget the originals of anything
- Don't try to hide from immigration
- Don't try to drive on a bad two track road.
- Don't leave your title in a combi
But alas, now we have another 6 months before we have to do that again :D I think I will remember the original title the next time!