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South of the Border: What You
Need to Kn
Mexico City's historic pedestrian area.  Max Hartshorne photo.Mexico City's historic pedestrian area. Max Hartshorne photo.ow Before You Head South  

"South of the border" has always made me think of old westerns and freedom. I still get that feeling when I head south from my home in Scottsdale, AZ. Traveling on a long empty highway, watching the mountains shimmer like Latino dancers in the desert heat. The second I cross the border, I am immediately transported into another world, one that never fails to rejuvenate me.

I am obviously not alone; the statistics of travelers heading south prove that more and more people are heading to the border. But, unlike in the days of desperadoes, you can’t just hop on a horse and flee south: there is planning to be done. Knowing some basic facts can turn a trip "south of the border" into a very doable escape.

Driving Across the Border

If you plan on driving your own car into Mexico, there are some very critical procedures and protections to understand and implement before you head south.

Car Insurance
Your U.S. policy IS NOT VALID in Mexico, even if you "own a piece of the rock." Mexican insurance should be purchased before crossing the border. Sanborn’s Insurance is one of the largest sellers with many different insurance plans.
    Customs and Cars
    To bring your vehicle into Mexico, there are several things you will need:
    • vehicle title or registration in your name and a major credit card also in your name.
    • if you do not have a credit card you must make a deposit equal to the value of that car at the Banco del Ejercito or with a bonding company. Both can be found at major border crossings.
    • Bring all papers and two sets of copies to the Vehicular Control Module located at customs. There you will be issued your permit. That permit must be surrendered upon departing Mexico. If you depart after the permit expires you will be fined.
    • If you are staying within 20 kilometers of the border or staying on the Baja no vehicle permit is necessary.

Air Entry

If you are flying into Mexico you will be given a tourist card form. Simply fill out the form and present it to customs when landing. You will then be given the bottom of this form to use as your entry card. Take care of your form, as it must be surrendered when you depart. Mexican Customs runs on the red light/green light system. Simply step up and push the button. If green, pass. If red, your bags will be searched.

  • Air travel as a courier can work well for those with flexible schedules and tight budgets. Long Haul Services (7859 NW 15th Street, Miami, FL 33126) specializes in courier routes in Latin America. Call 305-477-0651 for information. For more information on air courier travel, see the GoNOMAD MINI GUIDE TO AIR COURIER TRAVEL.
  • Aeromexico, Mexico’s largest airline now holds auctions on tickets to Mexico daily. Check their website at Tickets are offered up to 45 days in advance.

Weather or Not

One of the biggest considerations about traveling to Central America is the weather. Basically there are two seasons: the rainy season or the dry season. While temperatures do not vary all that much, there are differences.

The rainy season is winter–April through November–and is called Invierno. Inveirno is the slower season in terms of visitors. Prices are usually lower for lodgings and at restaurants. On the downside, some facilities and attractions may be closed in off-season.Traveling can also be hindered due to road closings. Generally, the rain falls heaviest in the afternoon so make your plans accordingly.

Verano, or dry season, runs from November through April. That is when the tourist facilities and attractions are operating at full steam. Your options for type of traveling are increased. The one time of the year that advanced reservations should be make is Holy Week between Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. This is especially true in cities and villages that stage festivals and celebrations.


Many people are amazed on their first visit to a drugstore in Central America. The number of drugs that can be purchased without a prescription has created a virtual business of buying of pharmaceuticals on visits and even online. While the prices are much lower, the same may be true of the quality of the drug. Many companies franchise the rights to "Name Brands" in Central America. If you buy something for your prescription needs, there are several precautions to take.

  • Have they been stored properly? Heat alone can destroy a potency.
  • Check the expiration date, unsold pills in the U.S. often also "head south".
  • Start with a smaller dosage than usual until you are sure of the potency.
  • Make a copy of the prescription to keep with the medication.
  • No more than a 90-day supply may be brought back to the U.S. and you must have the prescription from a doctor.


Generally speaking, Mexico and Central America are very safe, but it’s a good idea to follow some basic safety rules.

  • Keep your money and documents well stashed. Use a money belt or neck pouch and zippered pockets.
  • Do not display items that you do not want to lose and leave the expensive stuff at home. Keep in mind the average income of Central America.
  • If carrying a daypack with camera or other valuables, line it with window screening that could prevent slashing.
  • Be wary of "plainclothes policemen," insist on identification and settling the problem at the main station.


Here are some guidelines for each country

  • Mexico
    Taxis in Mexico City should only be used if called by your hotel, restaurant, or someone you know well. Avoid traveling at night in the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Chiapas.
  • Guatemala
    Things are a lot safer since the 1996 cease-fire between the government and URNG forces. However, if you are going to very isolated areas, get up to date information by calling the tourist police at 832-0532/3 ext 35.
  • Belize
    Third party car insurance is necessary and can be purchased at any border crossing. It can be purchased by the week or month.
  • El Salvador
    The many years of civil war have left El Salvador with the worst level of violent crime on the continent. Stay on major roads and do not stop for lone gunmen dressed in military-looking uniforms. If renting a car, buy a steering lock. The tourist infrastructure is still rebuilding, be patient. It is illegal to become involved with any demonstrations.
  • Honduras
    At many villages in Honduras, there will be police checkpoints. Accept the delays respectfully.
  • Nicaragua
    Carry at least a photocopy of your passport at all times. Do not take any photos of military personnel or installations
  • Costa Rica
    While one of the most stable destinations in Central America, be advised that malaria is on the increase near the Nicaraguan border.
  • Panama
    It is very difficult to purchase chloroquine, malaria preventive in Panama. In fact, most prescriptions cost more in Panama than anywhere else in Central America. Bring your own from home.

Give Me a Call

Telephone service through out Central America can be frustrating at best. In most cases, try to avoid calling the States from your hotel room. After paying a $98 service charge on my first visit to Mexico, I have made it a rule. In several countries, such as Mexico, access to local phones is done by buying a phone card. Have the connection number for your long distance carrier.

A better and cheaper option is to use cybercafes, which are becoming more and more popular in Central America. That way you can contact a greater number of people with ease.


Traveler’s Tales Books have an excellent book of stories that reveal the woven culture of Mexico’s mysteries. Stories by Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, and Charles Bowden, among many others, are sure to guarantee reading pleasure. A book on Central America is now in the works. Check their catalogue at


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Tags: storySection: Traveldesk
Location: Central America,Mexico,North America
author: Kent E. St. John
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