Crossing the Border to Mexico - Laredo/Nuevo Laredo
August 25th 2016: It’s a Wednesday.
Based on this helpful border traffic report we wanted to be sure and avoid high-traffic times close to mid-week (which is really anytime between Tuesday and Thursday). Keep in mind this was our first border crossing EVER (by car) so we planned to leave early and allow PLENTY of time. For us this means 9am (we're night owls).
Knowing we needed to buy Mexican Car Insurance (about US$75 for 8 days) we headed straight to Sanborn's (2 blocks from our Laredo Hotel). Our efficient sales associate, Angie, was able to get us taken care of in under 20 minutes (no line whatsoever). She provided us with the travel guides for Mexico but if you’re as fearful as we were that you wouldn't have everything in order for your crossing, these might be helpful to purchase beforehand (then again we survived without them).
Next, we drove 2 blocks further south to IBC Bank to exchange Dollars into Pesos. Meg had done this prior to leaving Dallas at her personal bank and the exchange rate was comparable. This took no more than 15 minutes. It’s now about 9:45am and time to officially cross the Rio Grande into Tamaulipas!
*Side note: The current Travel Advisory for Tamaulipas found on www.travel.state.gov warns U.S. citizens to defer all non-essential travel to this state. We knew we would be in this state for about 30 minutes of the trip. The U.S. embassy website was our MOST consistent resource for updated information for American Citizens traveling out of the country. Don’t let it worry you too much, but allow it to be a source of necessary caution.
Although we’d initially been told Bridge II was required for all tourists, our friend at the insurance office told us that Bridge I would be no problem and was much easier to drive to. Sure enough, we drove south of the bank another 2 blocks and there it was, the toll booth where we paid $3.50 on the U.S. side of the Bridge I (zero cars in front of us and zero behind, but the booths coming north OUT of Mexico and INTO Laredo were packed full of moms and dads coming back from dropping their kids off at school).
That was it? This part was hard to believe because up to this point, we’ll be honest, we were nervous. Um, excuse me sir… Don’t you want to see my visitor permit that I purchased online before coming? Wouldn't you like to see that I have Mexican Car Insurance as I was told to do?
It is now about 10am. And we just said Hasta Luego America, Bienvenidos a Mexico!
We headed across to Mexican customs and immigration side of Bridge I where the security officers checked our car. Again, NO LINE WHATSOEVER… they asked Tyler to get out of the car and explain the roof top tent, they opened the back of the 4Runner and pointed to TWO of our 8 or 9 containers (inquiring about their contents). He answered these questions concisely with little explanation and within 3 minutes we were waved on. Seriously? It is now only about 10:05 and I’m PRETTY sure we just cleared inspection at both sides of the border... The nerves began to settle at this point.
But, we weren't done yet. After you get through the border inspection, you need to drive through Nuevo Laredo to the Migracion offices where you get your Mexican car permit and your passport stamped. This wasn't as simple as we had hoped. You'd think they would have it right after you cross the border, but in hind sight it makes sense that they have one building in between the two bridges. Angie (from the insurance office) was nice enough to give us a map and highlight our route to get us there, but not 2 minutes into Mexico and we were struggling to follow Spanish street signs and it took us two passes to get it right.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Upon our second pass, these really great guys hopped in their car and led us to the right place (we’ll call this little misdirection Meg’s fault… to her dismay)
We walked into Immigration, under the sign labeled #1 and guess what? NO LINE. Our immigration forms were the same you'd receive at any airport traveling abroad. After about 10 minutes, the lovely gentleman scanned our passports, we filled out our forms, he stamped everything and sent us on our way.
At the sign labeled #2 (past the car insurance carriers - you can buy it here if you forget!), we stopped at the booth where they make copies of your documents. Because we’d already made 10 copies of our passports and the car title at home, none were needed and they waved us on to station #4.
Here we finally had to wait in line: TWO WHOLE PEOPLE, for maybe 5 minutes, to purchase our Mexican car permit. This permit is valid for 180 days and you'll receive a sticker for your windshield. They also required a DEPOSIT of $400 which we will get back when we exit Mexico in Chiapas and enter Guatemala. It is now 10:30am and we have nothing left to do but hit highway 85 to Monterrey. Did that just happen? How was that so easy? Surely there’s more to do… Nope. Adios Nuevo Laredo.
Time to drive through one of the scariest parts of our journey (says the U.S. government). And I’ll be honest, we were SCARED. The truth is… we were scared BEFORE we crossed at Laredo and almost the entire time we were driving to Monterrey, but the drive was pleasantly uneventful.
The traffic getting through the city and onto 85 was longer than anything else at this point, and it only took us about 10-15 minutes. As expected we drove on this toll road, in the state of Tamaulipas, for about 20 minutes and nothing scary happened. We crossed into Nuevo Leon (no indication that this had even happened - other than the state lines showing up on our GPS – same road, same cars, same everything).
The drive took about 3 hours and the only toll-booth was about 50 miles from Monterrey. It cost 205 pesos ($11.70). Piece of cake.
Traffic through Monterrey Centro is CRAZY, this city was way bigger than we had anticipated. This was at 2pm mid-week and we thought it to be worse than Dallas (or at least AS bad as Dallas near rush hour). Around 7pm on our way home from dinner, we were at a DEAD STOP. Great people, but BIG city. Now, I wouldn’t normally recommend driving through Monterrey that late in the evening, but the sun was still out and we had a local friend driving us. And again, UNEVENTFUL.
We had the most delicious dinner at La Nacional (only about 15 minutes from our hotel which is in the very affluent neighborhood of Garza Garcia). This too was recommended by local friends in Dallas and let’s just say we felt MORE than safe (nay, we felt UNDER dressed and way out of our league in our shorts and flip flops) with the Bentley showroom directly adjacent to our hotel.
$800 dollars, 2 hotels, 3 tanks of gas (which come to find out is $4 in Mexico right now... do your research people), a $400 vehicle import deposit and 4 meals later (but more on budget to come) and we are safe, full and really tired. And really blessed. And really thankful. And seriously praying for a successful Day 2… because while this city is beautiful and these people have been wonderful (and we could go on and on), driving through any foreign country poses a set of real and significant risks.
So wish us luck and we’ll see you down the road!
Meg + Tyler