Eric Mack is an Asylum contributing editor on the road in Mexico this month.
A road trip to Mexico should be easy: Cross border, drink cervezas, get sunburned, never look at a donkey the same again
. But before such ill-advised fun can begin, you've got to pay the man for permission to come aboard the leaky ship Mexicana,
even if it takes you all day to find him, literally.
With that in mind, here's the likely ins and outs of the process, including all the exciting surprises you might want to plan for, based on our recent experiences heading south of the border ...
Before we get started, here's the basics upfront: Road-tripping in Mexico requires two permits
-- one for you, and one for your car (which finally gets to return to the land where it was likely assembled), but this often happens long after you've actually crossed the border. In some cases you might drive a few hundred miles into the country before getting the permits, but in most instances you're going to have to pay the piper (er, Mariachi? I mean, ¿er, Mariachi?) at some point during your trip.
Step One: Border Crossing
You'll cross the border, passing through the modern security maze on the U.S. side, then drive across the yellow metal grate that serves as an international border during the more temperate winters before it heads back home to spend the rest of the year as a cattle guard in Montana. On the other side you'll be greeted by two men who will take a brief look at your passports and have a brief conversation with you in Spanglish that no one involved will understand, until someone gives the universal nod that means "You look like too much of a wuss to pose any threat to me or my people, so please proceed."
Next you'll drive past a lineup of Military Dudes With Huge Guns -- this is both their official title and job description. As you pass them, you'll realize you should have asked one of them about the permits, but there's no way you did and now it's too late. Surely, there'll be a sign though, right? Sure, there will ... maybe. Meantime, you're almost out of gas, smart guy.
Step Two: Gassing Up
After getting the worst dollar-to-peso exchange rate available on the planet, you'll have cash to pay for gas and a rental car, which you'll need after the diesel fuel that you mistakenly asked the attendant to fill your tank with trashes your '94 Ford Taurus.
Step Three: On the (Narrow, Deadly) Road Again
You'll need those wheels to get you through as much as 50 miles of empty desert and a narrow, potholed two-lane road separating the border from the nearest permit stop. Oh, and you might want to hold off on texting and driving -- no room on the shoulder means no room for error, just ask all those upside-down semi trucks on the side of the road. Speaking of cell phones, you'll probably wonder why it is that most of Old Mexico gets 3G coverage, yet you're stuck with frickin' Edge in most of NEW Mexico. Wake up, AT&T
Step Four: Asking Directions
When you reach the small Mexican mining town with the immigration office where you pick up your permits, it's time to test out your Gringo Spanish and start asking directions. About a half-dozen attempts should get you to the gas station, a few abandoned buildings, stuck in a ditch, the mine, slapped in the face, almost arrested, arrested, invited to a Quinceañera and a big bag of mostly green oranges.
Step Five: Mexican Efficiency
When an English-speaking teenager finally points out to you that you're standing in front of the immigration office, you'll learn via a series of hand gestures and stick figures drawn on the back of a Dos Equis label that this office only does ONE of the required permits, and you need to get the OTHER permit first. They'll direct you to the nearest office offering that permit, which is back where you crossed the border a few hours ago, or maybe it's the crossing beyond that ... but then again, they're not sure anyone will be at either office on this particular Sunday.
Step Six: Head for the Border, Again
So you'll need to head to Nogales, the nearest major border crossing / center of violent drug trafficking
located two hours, two mountain passes and one checkpoint to the West. But at this point you'll have had enough of Mexico for a day and decide to head home. After all, we've got tacos here, too. Of course, you will have to pay a fine when you leave Mexico for failing to get your permits. Cheap beer does come with a price, silly Gringo.