This guest post was kindly contributed by Joe Siegel (inmate @SouthAmerAddict). This is Part one of a three-part article about planning and riding South of the Border.
- Border crossings. Oh, what fun…not. They can go smoothly or require hours. This line then that. This room then that. They’re used to non-fluent travelers, and there’s typically someone who speaks at least some broken English, but you just have to set aside hours. I’ve heard of people showing up in the afternoon, erecting a tent and waiting until the next day because they arrived too close to quitting time to complete the process. Show up early. Arrive at borders with three copies of required paperwork. Organize all your documents beforehand. Central America is notorious, South America somewhat better. In my experience, Mexico is pretty efficient and professional. Above all else, don’t act frustrated, they’re just doing their job. The bureaucracy isn’t their fault. Copping an attitude will only rightfully hinder your progress.
Typical routine equals first exiting a country by turning in/cancelling your TIP (Temporary Vehicle Import Permit), cancelling your Visa, and paying fees. Then cross a few hundred meters of no-man’s-land and start the process again in the next country. (Don’t forget to cancel your TIP first! I did this leaving Mexico in 2019 and had to get it fixed in 2020 at the border by showing them the same bike. My bad, my fault.) Bring your passport, vehicle registration, title, D/L, and for at least Mexico, proof of in-country vehicle insurance. You’ll receive your TIP and Visa at the border. For extended trips, Visas can be obtained by mail through foreign embassies. RTW’ers spend weeks lining up their visas by mail. A Visa and TIP aren’t required in Mexico as of 2020 if you aren’t traveling outside the border states including Baja California South, but I’d always recommend stopping at the Banjercito (the office just inside the Mexican border that handles all your entry paperwork) first just to make sure. I always get an International D/L at AAA. It’s required in some countries. You can get your visa and TIP started online for Mexico to minimize the time you spend at the Banjercito when traveling south of the border states.
Make sure you leave these customs offices with all your original and required paperwork! Once entering Guatemala, I had someone forget to return my passport and I didn’t realize it until I was already almost finished.
Carry all medications in original bottles, but (And don’t quote me!) on my next trip because of the typical “Medicare eligible senior- bulging medicine bag”, I plan to put everything in plastic bags and bring pictures of the bottles. Fingers crossed, hope it works. Last two trips half of an entire pannier was filled with meds/vitamins/Tylenol, etc. Yee gads. Insert rolling eyes emoticon.
Firearms and illegal drugs: If you’re thinking about bringing these across a border or carrying them, go see a psychiatrist, don’t pass Go, and go directly to jail. Severe penalties apply, and don’t count on an embassy bailout. Enough said.
- Vehicle insurance: Mandatory in many countries. Mexico requires it. Not expensive. I buy it online before I leave for Mexico, and you can also buy it at kiosks at the borders. I got three days’ worth of liability/prop. damage in Belize for $6.00. You can skip it, but if pulled over without it, plan on being a fast talker. (Let alone a real at-fault accident!) Some countries use windshield stickers to show compliance.
- Personal insurance: Rant follows: Get it. You’re loco if you don’t. For about $5 – $10/day, you can get airevac/medical insurance. If you use it, you’ll pay locally with credit cards and get reimbursed, or the insurance company will deal directly with the hospital or clinic. If you can’t afford it, stay home. Rant over. My wife was treated for stomach issues once at a hospital in Argentina and they refused our insurance even though we insisted, as they said the government pays for it. But I certainly wouldn’t count on that, let alone having to pay for an intra or inter-country helicopter or private jet “joy-ride”.
- Money. Cash machines are ubiquitous. Sans Spanish fluency, google the prompts to expect from an ATM. I carry $300 dollars’ worth of local currency, and more tucked away “por si acaso”/just in case for extended stays but use credit cards as often as possible. (Best exchange rate this way.) I’ve never had fraud, but it could happen. (Never happens here right?) I also carry multiple cards in case I have to pay a large bill for medical care. Don’t carry too many large denomination bills. The saying goes: “A man in South America with a $100 bill is a poor man”, because breaking large bills can be problematic at smaller stores with local currency or dollars. Proprietors in larger cities accept dollars, but you’ll take an exchange rate hit.
- Security and health. If I had a dollar for every time “experts” on Latin America (who’ve never been outside of Acapulco), told me how crazy I am I’d buy a Bugatti Chiron. Murder rate per capita higher than ours? Yes. Mostly bad guys going after other bad guys? IMHO- yup. Could bad things happen? Sure. Could bad things happen here? Yup. I’ve met the nicest people ever down there and I’m always treated with kindness and respect. Traditional family values seem to abound everywhere. I’ve actually had locals tell me they’re afraid to go to the USA because of all the shootings. Makes one ponder, hmm….
I carry three wallets. Card for gas goes in an accessible pocket. Hidden main wallet has ½ my credit cards, essentials, and local currency. 2nd hidden wallet the remaining cards and currency. Both contain emergency contact info, medication lists, credit card/bank info, etc. Another suggestion (omitting details to protect the guilty) is to get duplicates of “important public documents” to carry as backups in the 2nd wallet. My 3rd wallet is phony. I make a photocopied laminated ID and put that into the phony wallet with expired cards and some currency. In case of (nothing like this has ever happened) a hold up: well OK… here’s my wallet, have a nice day, and don’t forget to change the oil.
Passport, Visa, and TIP go in my jacket. I carry two sets of backup keys in case of loss. Carry two copies of all documents. Don’t leave your bike out of site. Most hotels have secure areas for vehicles. Again, I’ve never had a problem. I have five motion-sensitive alarms in the bike and panniers. ($14 each- Amazon.) Don’t hang around iffy neighborhoods, keep to populated areas at night, don’t dress “Gringo touristy”, flash cash around… get the picture? Talk to locals, hotel clerks, etc. and take their advice. I’ve found the police to be very friendly and helpful. The omnipresent army and police roadblocks for me usually end up in a friendly BS session after the obligatory ID check and a rudimentary pannier search. Smiles and friendly words go far.
Regarding Montezuma’s revenge, get your shots and bring over-the-counter meds. There’s a product called Travelan for before meals; I took it last time and had zero issues, but of course no guarantees. Don’t eat street food or drink tap water. No uncooked food like salads and peel your fruit. I brought a course of antibiotics with me just in case/”por si acaso”. Oh, and don’t forget to take your Vitamin T: Tacos, tortas, and tortillas.
Get medical stuff done prior like dental work, minor surgeries, etc. There certainly is health care available; I had my ears cleaned in Guatemala for $19 by a doctor in a clean professional office when I had hearing issues. In fact, people fly to Latin America to pay for less expensive major surgery.
Se dice que solamente vives una vez./It is said that you only live once.
Part Three of this three-part article to be continued…
Cheers and ride safe!
Comments, criticisms, and cat calls welcome
Joe Siegel, Fox Island, WA, USA