Clearing Customs In Mexico

I thought I’d share the lengthy customs process that Mexico has. We’d heard from several sources that clearing customs in Mexico can be challenging. They require you to clear in with the Department of Agriculture and sanitation, customs, immigration and the port captain, as well as get an import sticker for your boat. All of this involves trips to many offices and the bank, hopefully when all of these places are open. One of our cruising guides and an online reference site both suggested to stay at Marina Paraiso, where the dock master will be your “agent,” and help you check in. After an eventful passage, and two cool, cloudy, bumpy, windy, windy, windy, maddening weeks at anchor, some time at a pier and help with customs sounded like a great idea.

As we arrived in the area on Tuesday afternoon, and the marina came in sight, we hailed them on our vhf radio but got no response. Instead of hovering and waiting for someone to eventually answer, we decided to just go and tie up at the end of a pier, dealing with an actual slip reservation afterward. When we arrived, a friendly dock hand was waiting to help catch a line and tie us up. He informed us that “Chepo,” the dock master, would be along soon to help us with customs and a slip reservation.

Soon after, Chepo arrived with some papers to fill out for the marina, and told us that he’d be back at 8:30am the following morning, to start the customs process. Although we weren’t cleared in yet, it was ok for us to wander the marina grounds, use the pool and visit the bar and restaurant. After having just finished a 51 hour run, some food (that I didn’t have to cook) and a margarita sounded very inviting, so we showered off our crossing and headed to “Barlito.” Luis made us some delicious margaritas, we shared an awesome buffalo chicken sandwich and then collapsed into comas.

The next morning, at 8:30 sharp, Chepo came to give us some papers to fill out (boat name, documentation number, captain’s name, last port of call, etc.). We then followed him to the marina office, where he made copies of our passports, the boat’s documentation form and a courtesy clearance form that we’d gotten from Customs and Border Patrol in Key West (we’re not required to clear out of our own country, but Mexico still wants to see something). We also filled out a crew list (obviously short, since it’s just the two of us, and Howard doesn’t make the cut) that he copied as well.

Chepo explained that he’d pay for all of the fees, and then we’d reimburse him. In addition to the customs and immigration fees, the marina charges 50.00 for Chepo to help us, and then we add on any tips that we wish to give to him and the officials. Fine with us, one stop shopping sounded great.

As soon as we got back to the boat, Chepo was right behind us with the man from the Dept. of Sanitation. He took our temperature and asked us about our general health, did we have any symptoms of sickness (fever, nausea, etc.) and if we’d had measles and flu shots. In the small world we live in, this man went to college in Baltimore, and rented a room from a woman who lived in Canton (a neighborhood just to the east of downtown Baltimore)!! We chatted about the area, the blizzard that the Baltimore had just gotten and then he was on his way.

The Dept. of Agriculture was next. They’d deal with our fresh food and Howard’s papers. Any meat that we have is supposed to be in supermarket packaging. I disregarded this, against Scott’s wishes, and broke up the packages to vacuum-seal the meat into smaller, more compact packaging. I had the freezer full of it, and the stuff would very likely be confiscated. Chepo suggested that we put the meat into a cooler, and stash it in the engine room. He was already earning his tip! As I started to stuff a soft sided cooler with most of the freezer’s contents, there was a knock on the side of the boat. It was a diver, who was cleaning the bottom of a nearby boat. Chepo had sent him to get our cooler. It would be stashed on the boat that he was cleaning, and we could grab it back when the Dept. of Ag. had gone. Chepo’s tip grows!

Two people came on board from the Dept. of Agriculture. I think that one was training, but was never sure. They poked around inside our refrigerator and freezer (I’d left some meat in there, figuring that an empty freezer was more suspect) and asked about any fresh produce. All I had left after our two weeks at anchor were some onions, garlic and sweet potatoes. They asked how long we were staying. We were about to reply at least a month, when we caught sight of Chepo, who was holding up five fingers. Not even thinking of questioning this, we replied five days. They spied my bread, and looked it over. In the end, they didn’t confiscate anything, and turned to Howard.

The man petted Howard, who was very curious about the attention. However, when the man tried to see Howard’s teeth all bets were off, and he received a sound hissing with a swat. I picked Howard up, and then the man tried to see if Howard was neutered. He poked around more than I thought necessary, as it should be pretty obvious that important parts were missing. As this was going on, Howard was trying to attack both me and the man. Soon, the man was either satisfied, or just nervous for his safety, and stopped poking and prodding.

They took Howard’s vet papers, with proof of his shots, and also his international health certificate. I was told by Chepo to meet them up at the marina office. Once there, the two spent more time than I expected on the papers. It seems that they were trying to find out what kind of codes to mark on their form. They asked how old Howard was, which was noted on his papers, and if he was a male..really, did you not just poke all over him on board?

They finally finished their form and gave me a copy, along with my original vet papers. I headed back to the boat, where Scott had just finished with the customs officer. This man was concerned that he could not locate a serial number on our motor. Scott explained that the boat was 30 years old, and that this was a re-manufactured motor, which may not have the original number. I don’t know if the man was concerned about the motor being stolen, or that we stole it, or what. He and Chepo spoke awhile, and the man finally let it go, but told us that we’d have to have the number to get an import sticker for our boat. Again, I think Chepo smoothed this over, growing his tip even more!

Then, we both went to the office, where we met with an immigration officer. We filled out forms similar to those that you are given on an airplane as you come into a foreign country, and he made copies of our passports. Quick and easy.

I was then asked to bring my cat form back to the office for the Dept. of Agriculture people. When I returned with it, I realized that in all the confusion of what codes to enter, they had forgotten to stamp and sign the form…please make my cat legal!! Now, there were four people at various tables, and Chepo was dancing back and forth between them and the copier. It was a small circus, and I excused myself back to the boat, to let them get on with it.

It was approximately 12:30. We had lunch aboard, and then decided to move the boat to the slip that we’d spend a week in. The winds were picking up, and only supposed to get worse as a cold front arrived, so we wanted to make the move sooner than later. As we tied up in our slip, we noticed how sooty our transom was, from the passage here.

Once we were settled in, we spent some time on the bow, in the sun, and waited for Chepo. After all of the forms were completed, copied and compiled, he took them to the port captain for us. Just before 4pm, he arrived back at the boat with a stack of papers.

We again accompanied him back to the marina office, where we paid for a week’s stay, and settled up with him for all of our fees and tips. They totaled just under 300.00, which was well worth us staying in one place, and Chepo doing the chicken-with-it’s-head-cut-off dance! So we were now cleared and legal, except for the boat. If we planned to stay more than 30 days, we had to get an import permit for it. We thought it was worth taking care of it while we were in Isla Mujeres, rather than being stuck farther south, at 31 days, and not having access to get a permit.

The next morning, we rode our bikes into town and hopped on a ferry that would take us 20 minutes to Puerto Juarez, where the import office was located.

After arriving at the terminal in Puerto Juarez,I resisted the giant beers for sale in the ferry terminal, and we made the short ten minute walk to the office.

Chepo had told us to see Elizabeth. We located her, and handed over copies of all of our papers. She also needed a copy of Scott’s import card. Since we only had the original, we were sent back down the street to a hotel, where we could get a copy made. We were pretty sure that there was a copier somewhere in that massive building where she was, but didn’t argue. Upon finding the hotel, we paid a man five cents to copy the card, and headed back to Elizabeth. In under five minutes, we had a sticker, good for ten years. Total for sticker and round trip ferry (less the cerveza I had on the way over) was 82.00. We were beginning to think that we should stay for a year!

After ferrying back to Isla Mujeres, we had some lunch  at a nice second story restaurant that was great!

We enjoyed the fact that after two days, and much help from Chepo, we were all (us, Howard and the boat) cleared into Mexico, and were now proudly flying the Mexican courtesy flag…Hurra!

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”


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