Why Crossing the Mexican Border *Still* Makes Us Nervous: Vanlife Adventures

Crossing the border to Mexico is relatively safe. Despite what you see and read in the media, on forums, and even in official Canadian and US travel advisories, statistics back up this assertion. Thousands of Mexicans, Canadians, and Americans cross the border every day. We have driven back and forth across the border several times over the past decade, without incident. However, despite all the statistical evidence and our previous positive experiences, we still get nervous with every border crossing from the US to Mexico, and this year was no different. In fact, we chose a new border crossing location this year, which made us more nervous than usual. You’d think that with so much experience under our belts, we would enter Mexico each year with confidence and enthusiasm – but that’s not the case. If this surprises you, it surprises us too.

In this post, we’ll share our thoughts on why crossing the Mexican border still makes us nervous after all these years, and some tips to make your crossing as smooth and worry-free as possible.

Nerve-Frayer #1: Media & Government Travel Advisories

Each year, we do a little research before our border crossing. It’s the responsible thing to do. Concerns related to safety and security are always changing along Mexico’s northern border so it’s a good idea to access the most up-to-date information available. And while this is the responsible thing to do, it inevitably results in freaking us out a bit. It’s easy to go down a media rabbit hole about cartel violence and carjackings. Not good. After reading horror stories about a couple of unfortunate incidents affecting tourists, it’s easy to forget about the thousands of people who crossed through without any trouble.

It doesn’t help that the Canadian and American Governments, in their effort to err on the side of caution, recommend against non-essential or all travel in many of Mexico’s states, including almost all the states along the northern border. After having been away from Mexico for months, this information has a way of casting a slight doubt in our minds, despite available statistics and all our positive experiences.

Nerve-Frayer #2: Paperwork, Administration & Corruption

Unlike the Canada/US Border, crossing the Mexico/US border requires a lot of administration and paperwork, and the requirements seem to change often. It feels to us like it would be so easy to forget a key piece of documentation, which we know could cause big problems either at the border or beyond. As a result, this preparation is simultaneously tedious and nerve-wracking. We spend a lot of time making sure that we have all the right paperwork, and copies of it, prior to crossing the border.

This year, we used the Bass Pro Shop parking lot in Harlingen, Texas as our base camp as we prepared for our border crossing. It was wickedly cold, wet, and grey for southern Texas. We shivered in the van as we did our research, arranged our Mexican Auto Insurance, organized our paperwork, and dug out our toques and puffies as we ran to and from shops running errands, making copies, and picking up last-minute supplies.

Freezing our butts off at “base camp” (Bass Pro Shop)

Nerve-Frayer #3: Getting the Border Crossing “Right”

Mexican border crossings aren’t always straightforward. It’s easy to get in the wrong lane, end up in the wrong place, and if you’re not careful, miss the immigration office all together. Driving aimlessly through the streets of a Mexican border town is not recommended, so it’s important to get this right. Years ago, we made this very mistake and had to bushwhack through the backroads in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. We somehow ended up on the road back to the US and in an effort to get back to the immigration office, had to cut across 3 lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic, getting rear-ended by a distracted driver and angering many Mexicans in the process. This only happened once, but the memory will no doubt stick with us forever.

Once in the immigration office, things don’t get much easier (unless you speak Spanish fluently). Some border agents speak a bit of English but most of the administration is done in Spanish. This adds a whole level of complexity to the process and makes getting the paperwork done properly a much more difficult task. This year, one of the border agents almost canceled our Vehicle Import Permit due to a miscommunication – Oops! Thankfully a bilingual Mexican stepped in and straightened things out.

The quiet, less-used Andalzuas Bridge is a very good alternative to crossing directly into the City of Reynosa

Nerve Frayer #4: Driving Through Mexico’s Northern Border Area

There’s a significant amount of cartel activity and violence along Mexico’s northern border. The chances of being affected by it as a tourist are slim, but we take the risk seriously and always do our homework before crossing. According to the Government of Canada, crossing the Mexican border by land should be avoided (not particularly helpful advice for Vanlifers and RVers), especially at Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and Ciudad Juarez. Unfortunately, due to where we’re coming from and where we’re going, Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa (both in Tamaulipas State) are always the most practical options.

We’ve crossed the border at Columbia, just west of Nuevo Laredo, several times. It’s a quiet, easy, seemingly safe border crossing that bypasses the city and leads directly to a main highway. However, this year we were visiting friends deep in southeast Texas and the Columbia crossing was 4-5 hours out of our way. The most direct crossing this year was at Reynosa, currently considered one of Mexico’s most dangerous cities. We initially nixed the idea of crossing at Reynosa, but then learned about a strategic route just to the north, that mostly bypasses the city and leads to a main highway. It was recommended by locals. We ummed and ahhed, but ultimately decided to try the new route.

We set out cautiously on border crossing morning, still not 100% sure we were making the right decision. As we left the immigration office, the road led us immediately to a highway. Perfect! When we reached the small section at the edge of the city, it was immediately obvious that Reynosa is rough around the edges. It was slightly chaotic with broken roads and lane markers nowhere to be found. When we stopped at a light, a group of young men swarmed around the van with plastic jars requesting “donations” for something that wasn’t clear. They were either the most enthusiastic fundraisers I’ve ever met, or they had other plans for the money. We hurriedly found the only American change we had on hand and dropped it in their jars so that they’d clear the way. They were harmless but I’m not going to lie, we breathed a huge sigh of relief when we got out of the city.

It’s hard to avoid crossing into Taumalipas when it borders such a large part of east Texas (red dotted line)

Should We Be Nervous (And Should You)?

Since you’re reading this post, you know that we arrived at our destination, El Potrero Chico, Nuevo Leon, safe and sound. The remainder of our drive was fairly uneventful, save a few very bumpy roads, crazy drivers, and the presence of a large police checkpoint just before the state boundary. So, should we be nervous? Is it founded? I would say NO. I think there’s cause to be cautious, but not nervous. We’re very thorough in preparing to cross the border, and that means planning for the worst-case scenario. While that is a very responsible approach, it can make us fear the worst-case scenario, which is not helpful.

Entering Mexico feels like entering a different world. A different language and culture, brighter colours, more pungent smells (both good and bad), louder music, and a more chaotic atmosphere. We’re drawn to Mexico because we love these differences, but these same differences can be intimidating. For us, there’s a sense that we’re leaving the world we know and understand behind, creating a sense of vulnerability and dependence, which can be scary. I think it’s what (unnecessarily) scares so many Canadians and Americans about visiting Mexico. But despite the nerves, the paperwork, and the preparation, crossing into Mexico is absolutely worth it – and I hope you’ll be convinced by this upcoming blog series.

Sally striking a pose at Homero’s Campground, El Potrero Chico

Top 5 Tips for a Smooth Crossing

  • Do You’re Homework: Know what’s required to cross the border. Requirements vary based on where you’re entering and how long you’re staying. We highly recommend Mexico Mike’s website for this information. He also has some very insightful information about safety.
  • Learn Spanish: Or at least as many Spanish words related to border crossings as possible. A little Spanish goes a long way at the immigration office!.
  • Don’t Rush the Paperwork and Prep: Leave yourself lots of time to purchase Mexican Auto Insurance, research border crossings, obtain paperwork for your pet, etc. Most of this can even be done from home before you leave. Getting this right will ensure much smoother travels.
  • Choose Your Border Crossing Carefully: Not all border crossings are created equally. We recommend crossing outside of big cities, particularly Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa. These cities are chaotic at best and the immigration office can be hard to find. The Colombia crossing remains our preferred border (we’ve also crossed at Tecate, Tijuana, Mexicali, and Andalzuas).
  • Stick to the Toll Roads as much as possible for the first couple of hours after crossing the border.

If you’ve crossed the Mexican border by van or RV, can you relate to the “border-crossing-day” nerves? Do you have any helpful tips to add to those above? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

4 thoughts on “Why Crossing the Mexican Border *Still* Makes Us Nervous: Vanlife Adventures

  1. We enjoy following along on your travels. We’ve flown into Mexico many times and traveled a bit by bus when we were younger. I doubt that we will make it in our Roadtrek, though it is wonderful to dream. Buena suerte!

    Liked by 1 person

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