Looking for #vanlife tips when considering crossing into Mexico via van? We’ve got you covered!

License Plate

We’ve met many travelers that warned us about license plates being an issue in Mexico and Central America. This is important because all of the countries down south have both front and rear plates. We are from Québec, Canada and in our state/province our vehicles are only required to have one license plate on the back.

The problem is not the fact that you have one or two plates; it is that you will draw attention to your foreign vehicle and let everybody in town know that you’re a tourist. That being said, being a tourist in Mexico is not the main issue either but is still something to think about. Complications can arise due to police corruption.

The stories that we have heard and seen while traveling in Mexico for over four months proved to be fairly similar.

Policemen see you coming from a distance and that you don’t have a license plate in the front of your vehicle. This gives them a reason to pull you over. Once they have done so, they can be very imaginative in finding something you did wrong and tell you the fine will be higher if you go to the police station. Then, they offer to accept cash payment right away to avoid all of the paperwork, avoid the hassle of going to the police station, etc.

The truth is, you probably haven’t done anything wrong. They are simply wanting to earn a few extra pesos off you by making up a non-existent law! Some of these fake laws we have heard are: “your windows are too tinted,” when they totally black out their front window. Or that “you aren’t wearing your seat belt,” even though others around were were driving around with sofas and plastic chairs in the back of their pickup trucks, not even tied down. We have also been told that we made an illegal pass on a continuous line when all of the cars in front of us were doing the same thing without being pulled over. Furthermore, we have been stopped without any explanation at all, and the cop asked us for money right away without even telling us why!

Our recommendation is to have a copy of your license plate that you will put on a metal plate and screw on the front of your vehicle, just like a real one to avoid catching their attention. Also, make sure you rivet instead of screw your license plates down. We actually saw policemen unscrewing plates of locals and tourists, and then asking them for money in order to get them back. Welcome to Mexico 😉

Security System

Before crossing into Mexico, we read a lot of blogs and talked to friends living in the country. Nearly everything we discovered suggested that we buy an alarm system. It is worth noting that if a criminal wants to steal something from a vehicle, they will do so. However, our thought process is that a blue flashing light of an alarm just might make them change their mind and aim for another car.

So, we decided to order one online. The alarm system cost us about $40 but we believe it has been worth the investment. We have been able to avoid most robberies, with the exception of one incident.

Even though we have the alarm and it has a movement detector, we still had our bikes stolen in Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Sur. The theft happened while we were sleeping inside a friend’s house and the bus was unattended. It is worth mentioning that the bicycles were on the rooftop of our van so the suspect had to climb the ladder to get to the top of our vehicle. They also had to cut the binders and get the bikes down off the bus! Our best recommendation is to not keep valuables on the outside of your vehicle. Even so, we would still recommend the $40 investment in an alarm system!

Legal Documents

Before crossing into Mexico you need to make copies of all of your legal documents. This includes passports, driving licenses, medical care cards, insurance papers, title of the vehicle, credit cards, debit cards and everything else that may seem important. I also strongly suggest that you scan all of your legal documents and send them to your email in order to have backup copies, just in case. While traveling in Mexico, or anywhere in Central America, you should NEVER hand over the originals of your legal documents, except for when you are crossing borders between countries at immigration.

You may ask, “why?” Let’s revisit our infamously popular Mexican policemen scenario. Remember how we mentioned there is a possibility of somebody taking your license plate and requiring money to return it to you? The same principle applies here. Police may stop you, ask for your driver’s license, TIP (Temporary Importation Permit), title of the vehicle, and maybe even your passport. Then, they could keep all of our precious legal documents until you give them what they want…PESOS.

We have heard this story time and time again. So please make sure you always hand out only copies and never your originals. This way, you can leave a situation freely if you need to. Tip: we also made copies of our drivers licenses and vehicle titles in order to give out to police or authorities without giving our originals.

Safe

If it is possible for you to install a safe in your van before crossing to Mexico or even before you leave home, we believe this is super beneficial. We have a safe hidden in our van and we use it all the time. We can put all of our legal documents, electronics, laptops, cameras, GoPro, credit cards and cash, without having to worry too much about the safety of it all. Having a safe in your van means that even if your van gets broken into, you won’t lose all your expensive gear. Some safes are even fairly small and can be bolted directly into your van frame!

Buy Everything You Need Before Crossing

Our initial thought process was that it would be cheaper to buy everything we needed in Mexico so we decided to wait until our arrival. We were so wrong! Electronics, sports gear, fishing equipment, car parts, nearly everything is more expensive in Mexico. Most products are important to the country and are subject to a 36% importation tax.

The recommendation would be to buy in Canada or the United States before crossing into Mexico. Try to avoid the mistakes we have made! More specifically, we would also recommend stocking up on oil, brakes, oil filters, gas filers, and general maintenance parts that may be hard to find once you have crossed into Mexico. 

For example, we have a GMC Savana so we thought it would be easy to find all the spare parts we would need to our van. This has not been the case! We have ended up shipping items, even as simple as an air filter, all the way from the United States to Mexico since we weren’t able to find the part, even at the Chevy dealership.

Overall, be smart and prepared when entering new countries with your van! The research and time will pay off – we promise!