Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Mexico-Belize Border

In all the blogs we’d read planning for this trip, we’d gotten the impression that border crossings were a maze of complicated paperwork, arcane procedures and corrupt officials. It’d been over 70 days since we left San Francisco and we’d only crossed one border so far; Today would be our second, from Mexico into Belize.

If the mud in Si’am Kaan had tarred us, the dusty coast road south of Majahual provided the feathers, and at this point the truck was caked with dirt. Our plan had been to wash it first thing in the morning, recalling stories of frontier extortion in the form of “cleaning fees.” Somewhere along the way, we remembered that before entering Belize, we needed to cancel our Mexican temporary importation permit at a Banjercito (ban-HAIR-seet-o), a state run bank with which we’d left a deposit when we entered. When asked the location of the nearest branch, the helpful citizens of Chetumal would first look confused, then say there was no Banjercito nearby, and finally start giving us directions. We reversed the process by following the directions, becoming convinced there was no Banjercito, and then looking confused. We headed to the border hoping to find one there.

The border came out of nowhere, a strange mix of intense security and complete disregard. While large metal barriers blocked some traffic lanes, a trickle of cars and trucks seemed to be going around them in both directions. We started to follow and were flagged down by a guy in jeans and a polo shirt who told us we needed to check out of Mexico at the small immigration hut on the right. He proceeded to describe the other steps we’d have to go through and went to open the backseat door to hop in. Realizing he wasn’t just a helpful fellow but rather a “helper” expecting to be paid for his services, we told him thanks for pointing us in the right direction but we could take it from there.

Checking out of Mexico was as easy as handing them our tourist cards and paying something like $20 US each. From there, we proceeded through the gate on the Mexico side and parked in a lot where we found a Banjercito. The guy at the window cancelled our permit, came out to the truck to check the VIN and took a couple digital pictures. He asked if we needed receipts, and we said yes, leaving with the credit card refund slip and the certification of the cancellation which we’d been told we might need to hold onto. We drove through another gate and into a “free zone.”

Once in Belize, we were stopped at a little shack by a sign for customs and immigration, and the wheels of the truck were sprayed down with a pesticide. With a fixed 2 to 1 exchange rate, I paid the $10 Belize fee with a $20 US and got $30 BZ back along with a receipt. At immigration, our passports were stamped, and I paid another fee ($20 BZ each maybe?) to the English-speaking agents with official office of immigration patches safety pinned to their uniform; Not terribly confidence inspiring but they stamped my passport in between gossip about other workers in a Jar Jar Binxian Creole. Fortunately, all of our paperwork for importing the truck is very clear: the VIN and license plate on the title match the truck (not always the case if you get new plates), my name on the title and passport, and current address on the title. The customs agent filled out a few forms and made me acknowledge that I couldn’t sell the vehicle, etc and sign a couple places. We met him outside with the truck, lied about a few eggs and some leftover chicken we had in the fridge, and proceeded through the border. All told, the whole thing took about 45 minutes.