Mérida or Bust — Day Seven: Laredo, TX, to Matehuala, San Luis Potosí (Mexico!)

Total Kilometres to Drive: 5,400

Kilometres Driven Today: 575

Total Kilometres Driven: 3,430

Kilometres Left: 1,970

Amount of Trip Completed: 63.51%

The first time I drove down to Mexico, I was so broke I had to sleep in my truck as much as possible. It hit me last night in Laredo just how much my life has changed as business has improved. I was staying in a studio apartment in an extended stay hotel that was very luxurious (which you can always tell when there are different soaps for different parts of the body!). Sure, I got a great deal on booking.com, but it was still a $75 a night room and right on budget. I’m starting to feel like I’m “middle class” and I’m wondering how living in Mexico, where I will pretty much be wealthy, is going to change me and my values…

At any rate, I actually slept pretty well last night and would have gone the night through if the very loud alarm of the person sleeping in the room above mine hadn’t gone off around 4AM. I still managed to fall back asleep after, a very good pre-border night! I finally got up around seven and refused to be rushed. I’m travelling at a time of year where the days are longer and I only had about 500KM to do past the border, so I had some of my coffee before taking off, although I definitely was in no mood to eat (the hotel sent me off with a granola bar and I had bought more bars yesterday as well).

Getting out of Laredo and to the Colombia Bridge crossing was more trying than it would have been had there been some signage saying that I was on Mines Road, which takes you up to the Colombia crossing road. The portion of the road between Mines and I-36 is a tollway for which you need a pass. So if you don’t have one, you have to go all the way into Laredo and then back up again. I was going about 80KM out of my way, 40KM on each side of the border, to cross at Colombia, but research told me it would be a quiet, non-busy, one-stop crossing, compared to using one of the crossings in Laredo. The only caveat is that staff there don’t have much, if any, English. So I don’t think this is a good crossing for inexperienced non-Spanish speakers.

It was only as I approached the bridge that I realised there might be a toll to cross it and that I’d left my last few dollars as a tip for the hotel cleaner! Thankfully, they took pesos. The exchange rate for US to MXN today was 1:20. So 1USD=20MXN. My bridge toll was 3.50USD, so 70MXN.

Unlike when you cross at Nogales, the checkpoint is right at the border. Signage was a bit confusing, but I saw a sign for Banjercito and vehicle importation, so I pulled over to deal with that. A customs officer promptly came over to check me out. She said to go in and do the visa and vehicle stuff, then return to the truck and she’d do the declaration thing.

It was maybe 8:45 when I entered into a very neat building where all the windows were numbered to make it clear in what order  to do things. First stop was INM where I asked for a 30-day entry since I have a residente temporal visa sticker in my passport. I didn’t have to fill out anything. The officer just stamped some stuff and gave me my entry paper. I had no fee to pay since I’ll be paying muchos pesos for my residency card when I arrive!

Next stop was a copy shop for a copy of the entry paper, then Banjercito for the vehicle import. That was easy since I’ve done it twice before. The lady started to explain that I only have a 30-day TIP (temporary import permit), but I told her that I know all about that and that I have friends at my destination who will help me get sorted with aduena so I hopefully don’t lose my 200USD deposit (but I’m already resigned to losing it).

I then went back out to my truck and pulled out my inventory list. The customs lady (about my age, maybe younger), came back over and explained to me that I wasn’t eligible to bring in everything for free because I didn’t have a consulate certified menaje de casa (list of household goods). So she was going to have to go through everything, figure out what it was all worth, and then charge me 16% IVA (tax) on it all.

Thankfully, it was still cool out! I began to pull out things and she went though a bunch of it. You can see one of my Mexican blankets there — it was wrapped around a painting, then wrapped in paper and a garbage bag. She actually handed me a knife to get into the garbage bag, which was taped pretty solidly.

I suspected I was in trouble when she started to count the number of DVDs I had in one of my boxes (hundreds!). She made me go almost all the way to the back of the truck bed, but not entirely, and she cut open several bags of clothes while asking me if I had any weapons of any kind (only kitchen knives!). We then went into the cab and she made a note of the printer and stuff I had in a bin. Finally, she told me to leave everything out while she went to calculate what I’d owe for import duties while a colleague came by with a sniffer dog.

I was just rewrapping my painting when said dog came and he was clearly very bored by my truck. His handler gave me a big smile and a gracias before telling me that I could repack. Just as I was doing that, the customs (aduena) lady was back and telling me that I owed 800USD.

Needless to say, I had nothing in the truck save maybe my computer that would be worth paying 800USD for. I didn’t even have 800USD to give her! I finally told her flat out that I couldn’t pay and she gave me a horrified look and apologised for not having been clear. What she actually meant was that she had evaluated my stuff at being worth 800USD and that I had to pay 16% of that, which she pegged at 120USD. So if I agreed to pay that 120USD, she could clear me for customs and I could be on my way. I’m still laughing with relief.

When I met up with her inside, I made sure to thank her for being kind and patient with me so that it would be clear that I was not upset with her and that I respected her job and the fact that I had to pay this money. I’d only been upset because I hadn’t expected to have to pay a huge amount and couldn’t see my way around doing that besides having to leave my things behind! She and I had a good laugh and she said it was a good thing my Spanish is so good or we might have had to wait hours for an interpreter to come! She finally got the bill together and I was able to pay it. She told me to present it to her colleague at a booth I would drive by and I could be on my way.

Well… I got to the booth and was sent off to have Moya X-rayed! Holy smokes are these folks thorough! I followed the instructions to get Moya to the X-ray booth and then stepped out to a safe area. The man doing pantomimes for me was very grateful when I told him he could just speak Spanish to me. LOL We had a nice conversation while we waited for the X-rays. As it turns out, he just recently did most of my drive since he went on holidays with his family to Playa del Carmen. Can you tell by now that this was a very relaxed border crossing with lots of chatty, friendly folks?

I then had to go back to a waiting area just after the booths to wait for the results of the X-ray. Finally, a guy came over to let me know I was clear. Woohoo!

Pause here to make a guess in the comments on what time it was when I finally pulled away from the border station…

It was only about 10:15. I’d been there at most an hour and a half!

Before I go on, I just checked the Montreal consulate website’s fees page and see that a menaje de casa is $178. I paid about $160 in duties, so I not only saved money by not having a proper menaje de casa, I still have the option of getting one done at a later date if I have something valuable to bring into Mexico with me. So my stupidity paid off. 😀 I think the woman’s evaluation was incredibly fair and extremely low ball, just based on the amount of electronics I had with me. I feel that she gave me a break because I declared everything I had with me. She matched my list to my boxes and there were no surprises. The amount certainly didn’t feel punitive.

Moving on, I got about two minutes from the border before I pulled into a very nice rest area to use the bathroom. I then pointed Moya south towards Monterrey, stopping in at the first Oxxo I passed to add $200 to my phone to get 1GB of data for a month since I knew there was a strong chance I would not have internet at the motel tonight (I must be psychic).

The first bit of my drive was painful like driving down MX-15, with huge variances in the speed limits. But once I got onto the cuoatas (toll roads), I was in a whole other world than the Mexico I’m used to, with good speed limits and no endless parade of stops at military, federale, and fruit checkpoints! I did have one inland customs and border checkpoint, but was able to just roll through it.

But the toll booths… OMG. So many tolls. Over $600 (40CAD) worth, starting with a big one at $219! I did something stupid at one booth and got in the wrong lane (in my defence, I don’t think any were actually marked). This was a no cash, tag only lane. Some very angry truckers honked at me for blocking it and a lady in the booth next to me yelled loudly to wait for her. I got exact change change ready for her and was quickly out of there, only to be flagged down immediately by a federale.

Well, it was bound to happen sometime that I’d get a moving violation here. Right? I pulled over in front of him and looked back to see him waving me off. I think he saw my out of country license plate, correctly figured that I’m a stupid gringa, and decided to be forgiving. 🙂

There is a dearth of taco stands on the road most travelled, so instead of not eating all day while hoping to find good food, I stopped at another Oxxo and after much label reading, found a ham and cheese sandwich with no mayo that looked almost edible. It was surprisingly soggy though, and one bite told me why — jalapeños! There is something about the combination of ham, American cheese, and jalapeños that is very “Mexico” to me, probably because of Panamá’s bakery, so my rather uninspired lunch ended up being satisfying.

I drove pretty hard all afternoon since I need to get used to the pace. I was very comfortable, not quite “home,” but definitely more than a tourist.

I was perhaps an hour from my destination when I pulled into a Pemex. I took on $500 of fuel and the attendant tried to scam me when I paid, telling me that I gave him only $50, not $500. He was very young and I let him have it, telling him he should be ashamed of himself. I left him practically in tears, but doubt that he learned his lesson. Always be sure to count bills that you hand over, make eye contact, and get verbal confirmation that you’d handing over the correct amount. I got lucky on this one.

Just as I was pulling out of the Pemex, I saw a sign for “dulces de guayaba” (guava sweets) and I roared to a stop by a couple sitting under an umbrella with their ware. I bought this huge triangular portion for $35. I knew I didn’t stand a chance in hell of eating it all, but I wanted some guava flavour and texture, dangnabit! I got through about a third of it (it’s not very sweet), but threw out the rest after it was in a hot car all afternoon. The texture of this sweet is a bit tough to describe. It’s a little gritty and it holds together. You can’t just break off a piece and it’s not gelatinous like Jell-O. Anyway, YUM.

I had more tollbooth fun when I exited just before the Matehuala tollbooth to find a bar across the road. A man came running in my direction and said, “No worry, no worry. I speak very good English! My colleague he comes for your money. 23 pesos!” His English was not good and I failed at getting an answer as to whether I did something wrong turning off where I did. What I suspect is that traffic was light and instead of staffing the little tollbooth at the off ramp, they just had a young employee run down to collect money and open the bar for the odd car. The toll was actually $24. 🙂

It was then a very short drive to the Las Palmas Midway Inn, which Croft and at least a half dozen other people recommended highly.

I was quoted over $1,000 for a room and asked if they had a better price. I was offered another room for $864, with the only difference being that I’d be at the opposite end from the pool. Not a big deal! I was then led to my room by a man on a bicycle who showed me everything and gave me my key. The room is pretty basic, but nicer than other hotels I’ve stayed at in Mexico except for Durango. The bed is actually pretty comfy!

First order of business was to get my bathing suit out! I jumped into the freezing cold pool and enjoyed the dip immensely even though I didn’t stay in long. Despite wearing sunscreen, my left arm is pretty burnt from the drive today (should have listened to myself this morning and stuck to long sleeves), so the cold water felt nice.

Then, I went back to my room to start on this post before going to the attached restaurant for dinner. I had their pork chop special and that suited me just fine. Mexicans tend to prepare their meat the way I like it, well seasoned and well cooked. Some might have found these too stiff for their taste, but they were perfect for me. I just didn’t expect that much meat! I made it through half of my jalapeño. That’s a Victoria beer in front of my plate and some very bland salsa that I had with totopos. I teased the server that I got served the Gringo salsa and he understood what I meant, bless him. That’s why I have Tabasco sauce to the right of my plate and a jalapeño. LOL I have to get reaccustomed to eating spicy food, but the learning curve won’t be super steep since I did eat hot peppers often in the Balkans.

I added Coahuila, San Luis Potosí, and Nuevo León to my Mexico visited states map today, and also went through Tamaulipas!

The next three days are going to be long. I was going to go all the way to Córdoba tomorrow, but Google is telling me that’s a 10-hour drive (865KM) and I’ve got too much Mexico experience now to commit to that. I’m going to aim for Puebla (713KM, 8 hours).

That would leave me 628KM (8 hours) to Villahermosa on Thursday and 600KM (8 hours) to Chelem on Friday. I’m going to be wiped when I get there but, really, the budget can’t support more than two more hotel stays and, frankly, I’m ready to get there. This was never meant to be a tourism trip and I’m not on holidays.

Well, I think that’s everything. It was a full day! Yay for being back in Mexico!