Crossing borders

Girmantas | Travel | July 20, 2015

Following south by the sunny California coast you meet one of the mostly overlooked and secured border in the world – USA and Mexico border stretch between San Diego and Tijuana is one of the hot spots on the map primarily being secured by the northern neighboor, not only from drug trafficking but the illegal immigrants as well. More than one physical walls built from metal and concrete are being watched by hundreds of video and infrared cameras, helicopters circling the sky and quite a few officers as well. However, permision to enter California up to Los Angeles is not so hard to get for Mexicans and anyone may enter Mexico in Baja as far as Ensenada without a visa at all. If you’re crossing the border for the first time, don’t be surprised to get into a “oh no, I’m in Mexico and I don’t have a visa” situation. If you’re lucky – you may cross the border without even stopping, let alone any inspection. Still, if you plan on traveling further south – the easiest way to get your visa is right at the border.

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You may cross the border in a few posts around San Diego. If you’re driving for the first time – I’d recommend
to go through Tecate – a town 40 minutes east of San Diego. It’s much more mellow and clear, the town it self is much smaller than for isntance Tijuana. Even if Mexican border patrols decide to inspect your vehicle, it’s hardly a real inspection. While the officers might check some of your bags, if you speak Spanish – you might as well spend most of the time talking about the landscape of your homeland or showing local money (given you’re not from the US). Right after you cross the border you’ll have to find a spot to park your car and get back to the border to get your visa. It’s important not to go all the way back to the US, but follow yellow arrows to the immigration office instead. The officers speak English and are helpful so it’s relatively easy to fill in the paperwork. With your visa application you have to come back to the bank right at the border, pay some two hundred pesos for the visa, and get back to immigration office for the stamp. I have to note it’s a huge upgrade over the last couple years – the bank is right there and you don’t need to go into town and look for a bank where all the locals are getting serviced as well. On the other hand – I’d recommend exchanging pesos before crossing the border – currency rate is better on the US side of the border plus there’s way less hassle.

In the meantime San Ysidro crossing is right next to San Diego and it is said that over 300.000 people cross the border every day! You may imagine that there’s much more manpower to control these sort of numbers and 10 lane highway connects the to neighboors on each side of the border. If you have a visa already, or plan to stay shorter – it’s much easier and quicker to cross the border in San Ysidro. On the other hand, if you need to get your visa – you must not leave the border area, park your car and go to immigration office. Otherwise, once you’re in Tijuana, there’s no way back. A couple years ago it was quite a mess and you’d had to park your car by the fence, go through it and find the immigration office. Today, however, there’s a couple parking areas for your car and it is much more clear.

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Once in Mexico, if you choose Tecate route, the signs might be missleading, but it’s enough to go downhill, follow the signs to Ensenada to the left and then make an immediate right to get straight to highway 3 of Baja California. A beautiful road of the vineries, by the way, climbing over some hills and entering valleys full of vineyards. If you cross the border in San Ysidro, even before the actual crossing the signs lead you to keep right if you’d like to enter highway one – longest highway in Baja, going all the way to Cabo San Lucas. The highway has two routes, though. Toll-free highway 1 goes a little forther from the sea, while 1D follows the ocean all the way from the border. It’s a spectacular drive all the way to Ensenada and a two dollar fee at four posts is really worth it, not to mention much higher driving pace.

While it’s easier to enter Mexico in Tecate, I’d recommend going North through Tijuana and San Ysidro. Since Tecate is a much smaller post, the officers have more time to spend with you and they will exercise this right. Moreover, there’s a secondary post a little further from the border that might have you checked once again. While in San Ysidro you blend with the traffic and as long as you don’t get picked for secondary inspection – you’re good to go real quick. Navigating through Tijuana might be a little more stressful and there’s a couple turns you have to really be aware of. But with GPS in every cell phone it’s not such a big deal these days. Tecate is a little more mellow and the signs for the border are much more clear.

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While in almost ten crossings I’ve managed to avoid any trouble, I’d still recommend to stay alert and aware. It’s better to cross the border South early in the morning or at least drive as far as Ensenada before dark. In the meantime, plan your trip back so that you enter the US before sunset as well. I wouldn’t recommend to leave your car or belongings unattended in the border area and avoid unnecessary stops. And that’s quite easy since it’s only an hour drive to Ensenada or the wineries right before it. While some horrifying stories appear on traveling and surfing forums where travelers were left in their undies, literally. It’s hard to say though, whether it’s true stories or just another way of trying to reduce American surfers in the perfect barreling Mexican point breaks.

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