Saturday January 11, 2014; La Paz, Baja California
We awoke with excitement bright and early in our room at the Hotel Marina. Today we were catching the ferry to cross the Sea of Cortes to Mainland Mexico. Today we were leaving familiar territory behind and venturing into the unknown.
When we were in La Paz prior to going to Los Barriles, we had driven out to the ferry terminal to scope out the whole process. It all looked pretty straight forward. The woman at the ticket counter told us that the ferry to Topolobampo left Monday through Saturday at 2:30 and that we should arrive three hours ahead.
We enjoyed a leisurely morning with breakfast and final showers, packed up and eagerly headed out to the docks. We pulled in promptly at 11:30, strolled up to the ticket counter to buy our tickets only to discover that the Saturday ferry did not leave at 2:30; it left at 11:00…at night. Thus began our introduction to Mexican bureaucracy.
We stepped away from the counter to discuss our options. 1. We could wait until Monday so we could do the crossing during the day (we were told it was a fun party and we weren’t excited about a red-eye trip); 2. We could go to the beach to hang out for the day then take the 11:00; or 3. We could go back to our hotel and have cervezas by the pool where we would also have internet. Poolside at the hotel won, but first we figured we might as well buy our tickets for tonight’s ferry since we were already here.
Back at the ticket counter, the nice young lady did not speak any English, but we gleaned that she could not sell us tickets (one for each of us and one for Charlotte) until we had Charlotte weighed and measured. It turns out that the price for a vehicle depends on the size and weight. In this case, would she be considered a minibus which was 6,000 pesos ($480) or a passenger car which was only about 2,000 pesos, and we needed some slip of paper to tell the ticket lady which. Sadly, we were pretty sure at over 6,000lbs she would be a minibus. Okay, where do we do that?
For some unknown reason the scale place was ensconced behind a gated area, and we had to pass through the customs check to get there. Unfortunately, in order to get through customs, we were informed by a federal official with an automatic rifle, that we needed a permit before we could go through customs.
“ What kind of permit?”
“A temporary permit”.
“You mean our car registration?”
“No, the temporary permit!”
“Okay, where do we get that?”
“At the bank, back by the ticket counter.”
Really? Okay, back over to the terminal building. Fortunately, we found the bank easily and the woman at the counter spoke perfect English and was very helpful. In 2011, Mexico began requiring vehicles entering the country to obtain a “Carne de Passage,” a bond of sorts, which is returned upon exiting the country. Many countries require these to make sure automobiles are not brought in illegally for either sale or use, and we have heard that some countries demand a deposit of up to ten times the value of the car. Mexico was asking for $200 which wasn’t awful, but then our helpful cashier said that she needed not only our visas (which fortunately we had gotten at the Tecate border), but also copies of our visas which we did not have. Prior to leaving the US we had made about 80 copies of each of our travel documents for future border crossings, so we were prepared to give her copies of Ned’s passport and Charlotte’s registration, but not the visas.
“So do you have a copy machine?”
“No, you have to go over to the administration office around the corner….”
Getting the copies was no big deal, just another 20 minutes, then back to our friend at the bank with (we hoped) everything we needed. She took it all and 15 minutes later we emerged victoriously with our “temporary visa.” Now could we please get Charlotte weighed so we could get tickets?
We proudly presented our temporary visa to the gun toting federal agent at the customs gate who started out being very stern, but turned out to have gone to school in Sacramento, California. We had him laughing with us shortly as he inspected the car and asked the appropriate questions. We were almost all set to go when he said one of us had to push this button which was supposed to randomly select if we could go on or if we had to go through “revision,” which is a REALLY thorough inspection of everything in the car. Ned is an absolute master at packing a lot of stuff in small spaces so the prospect of going through “revision” was a little unsettling. They both pointed to me, and I had to push the stupid thing. And, yes, I drew a “revision.” By now we were buds with the federale dude, and he told us he had to go through the motions because they had cameras watching him. It was not bad at all. 10 minutes later we were at the scales, finally…where we got asked for another fee…
There were about six guys milling around the scale booth, none of which spoke any English. We told them we needed our piece of paper classifying Charlotte so we could buy her a ticket. We joked with them, saying “Es un coche, sí? No es un minibus!” (It’s car, right? Not a minibus!”). He laughed back and then told us we had to pay him 53 pesos.
“Para continuar” “To go on”
“Pero qué es?” “But What is it”
“Es por la puerta” It’s a port fee.
“Pero no vamos en la ferry hasta mas tarde, no ahora!” “But we’re not going on the ferry until later, not right now!”
With a promise to pay later we left with our little scrap of paper which read “coche.” Olé!
Now, how do we get out of this restricted area so we could go buy our tickets and sit by pool?
We were directed to an exit off to the side of the huge loading yard which came complete with a military checkpoint. Military checkpoints are scattered throughout Mexico and normally, these are no big deal as long as you are polite, friendly, remove your sunglasses and are not carrying guns or drugs. The 12 year olds carrying AK47’s who man these stations are just kids after all. But this time was not normal. Our “greeter” was probably about 18 and told me I had to get out and walk to the other end. Getting out of the car so they can inspect it is normal. Being separated from Ned is not. My heart sped up just a bit, but I dutifully walked the 100ft or so as told. I did not, however, stay put. When Ned drove forward to be inspected, I walked up and explained in Spanish to another teenager with an automatic rifle that we were not getting off of the ferry; we had not even gotten on the ferry; we were not getting on the ferry until 11:00 that night, and we were only getting weighed so we could buy our tickets for the 11:00 ferry. With a confused expression on his face, he took pity and waved us through.
By the time we got back to the ticket booth it was 2:00. (I guess that’s why they tell you to get there three hours early.) The girl at the counter took our money, our passports and our little piece of paper and disappeared. We waited…and waited. In the meantime semi trucks already being loaded onto our ferry were clattering by not 15 ft away. The ground shook with their passing, and the ear splitting, brain rattling noise echoed between two concrete buildings adding to the whole chaotic experience. Ned finally used his 6ft of height to lean through the window to see what was going on. Apparently the copier had malfunctioned and the poor girl was staring at it, head in hands, with a look of total exasperation. Minutes dragged by. The now completely flustered ticket girl made several frantic phone calls and then continued to pointlessly poke at the machine. One of the proddings must have finally worked as the beaming girl appeared at the window waving our tickets.
The beers weren’t getting any colder at the pool, so at 3:00, our hard-won tickets in hand, we got in Charlotte for the drive back to the hotel. We noticed, however, that not only were the semis being loaded, but lots of cars and smaller trucks were lining up. Were they waiting for our 11:00 ferry? We asked an official looking woman who emphatically told us that we had to line up now. Evidently the boat often fills early leaving some on the dock without a spot. “Even if we have our tickets?” we asked. “Yes! You should get in line now!” Having jumped through bureaucratic hoops to get out of the secure loading area, we now had to get back in. Fortunately our friend at customs was still on duty, and we got through without a hitch; Ned pushed the button this time and drew the lucky green light.
Although waiting around in line at the ferry terminal to the sensory accompaniment of motor fumes and diesel rumblings, doesn’t quite compare to a poolside respite, having your house with you at all times does have its advantages. We had our own cold beer. We opened a couple, made friends with the guy in front of us and gave him one. We eventually lay on the bed, settling in to read and nap away the next eight hours.
At 7:30 someone knocked on our window and told us it was time to go load up. Yippee! We were getting on the ferry early! Then it all went hay-wire. I was told to get out, that only one person could drive the car onto the boat. Fortunately I had my daypack prepared for the overnight trip since we would not have access to Charlotte once we boarded. I grabbed it as I was unceremoniously deposited onto the pavement while Ned drove off with the house. Now what was I supposed to do? I asked around and was told to stay in the passenger waiting area until we could board at 9:30. No comforts of home now. The next two hours stretched monotonously in front of me. Ned was probably already on the ferry, sitting in some comfortable lounge!
It wasn’t really that bad. I made friends with two delightful Mexican kids who had lived in Canada for six years and spoke perfect English. Roxanne, 12 yrs old and Obed, 10, were traveling with their parents to a small pueblo on the mainland to live with relatives. Roxanne loves to read, has aspirations to become a writer and dreams of traveling. I gave her my contact information hoping she will have enough access to internet to follow our blog and keep in touch. I wish for her all that she dreams of.
At 9:30 I boarded with no problem and ran right into Ned. Contrary to my annoyed musings, he had to wait sitting in the driver’s seat in a holding area for the two hours and had only just come aboard himself. Being our typical cheap selves, we had opted to not get a cabin for the overnight ride. Certainly we could tough it out for one night. We ate an unmemorable meal in the cafeteria and then sat in the lounge where vintage MTV music videos were being shown on big screen TV’s. They were actually rather entertaining despite the brain pounding volume, and we were quite enjoying ourselves until the bartender decided that his patrons, who were mostly truck drivers, would rather watch boxing. Now we were treated to the unmelodious screaming of bloodthirsty fans at maximum volume and took our cue to go find somewhere to pass the rest of the night.
After scouring every public corner of the ship and despite the crowded quarters (there were people sleeping all over the floors) we were both able to score three airplane-style seats across in a sitting area where they were showing the movie, Lord of the Rings, at only half volume. We drifted in and out of sleep in various positions and degrees of discomfort to the hideous repetition of “Preeeeecious!”
With my head resting on the lumpy backpack and a chair edge digging into my ribs, I reflected on the day. It was funny, but not that bad, and all of the people we dealt with were very friendly. This was just a ferry. Putting Charlotte in a shipping container to another continent was really going to put us through our bureaucratic paces. But that’s what this trip is all about; going places we’ve never gone and doing things we’ve never done…red tape and all.