This article is from the April 2000 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Heading South of the Border to Live

by Bernie Santos  

Bernie (Bernardo) Santos, Jr., and his wife Angela, live in Puerto Vallarta full time. Moving from the San Francisco Bay Area, they started a web page devoted to Vallarta (     and maintain a poplar online newsletter called the Tucan News.  

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico was our choice of location for “living our best years.” This was not done on a dare, after a few cervezas, or a social chitchat.  It took more than 20 years of travel, not only to Mexico but also to many other spots, narrowing down a long list of possibilities. We took notes in each place we visited – on real estate, weather, culture, economics and the people. Homework is vital! Vallarta, or just PV, was like a magnet drawing us numerous times each year. Everything fit. 

Then fate lent a hand. As we were viewing PV real estate our realtor met an old friend who invited us in for a chat. We loved the house, and although it was not on the market we asked about its salability. The owner expressed interest, and that evening we worked the numbers and had our realtor submit an offer. With few changes, the offer was accepted. We didn’t sleep that night! What had we done? Were we crazy? (This would mean selling our home in California!) Some of our friends certainly thought so. Others were envious, and a few were supportive. Others were a combination of all three. Oddly, all come to visit! Nevertheless, although we had done our homework, we were as jittery as a chihuahua on a hot griddle! Why? We had done our homework; read countless books, magazines and newsletters; surfed the internet; compiled a mountain of notes; and visited often, staying long periods of time at various times of the year. We were jittery because doing homework (though important) can’t prepare you for actually taking the plunge. Though we have no regrets, we’ll never forget those few fateful days.

We were glad we had an excellent Vallarta realtor. This is muy importante! Anyone can be a realtor in Mexico – there are no special schools, training, or licenses. Use the services of professionals. Look for realtors who have A.M.P.I. (Asociación Mexicana de Profesionales Inmobiliarios) status. This is similar to being a member of the Board of Realtors in the U.S. Buyer beware (caveat emptor) is thriving in Mexico. A piece of property may not have clear title. It may be encroaching on government land or a neighbor’s land; it may be ejido land (more on this later), which is basically deemed farmland; or the “owner” may not be the actual owner. It’s worth repeating: use the services of professionals.

Moving to Mexico is not a super major feat, but again, do your homework – how, what, when, and why should be the list. How will you move? Drive down, use a moving company, or both? What will you move? Do you really need Grandma’s china cabinet?

What documentation is needed? If you are serious about living in (moving to) Mexico, an FM3 (visa) should be on your list. This will entail more than one visit to the Mexican Consulate. (The FM3 allows multiple entries to/exits from Mexico.) All household items to be moved must be listed in Spanish and in triplicate; the approximate date you plan to cross the border; pictures, copies of birth certificates, passports. We found the personnel at the Consulate to be very helpful. Be prepared to have a good supply of patience in hand. Mexicans are accustomed to waiting –  they have great patience and you might as well get the hang of it now. So, when are you taking the plunge – hopefully not in the rainy season (June-October)? Why are you doing this? Still time to back out! This is an excellent time to really examine your lifestyle. By doing all your homework and visiting Mexico often, you should know that you will need to leave your sophisticated ideas and notions at the border. Arrogance and bad manners have no place in Mexico. The mañana syndrome is a way of life and one which we found to be the most difficult adjustment, having been accustomed to getting things done yesterday if not before! Mexico is laid back. To continue – we had numerous garage sales, gave stuff to charities, sold to friends and neighbors, and we still had tons of ‘junk’ left!

Moving: One of our mistakes was bringing down too much household stuff. It is normal, in this area at least, for the purchase of a house to include the furnishings, so our new home was 90% furnished. In retrospect we should have downscaled considerably more. The large moving companies will get your goods to just about anywhere in Mexico. They charge by weight and distance, so it won’t be cheap. We used Bekins (and can recommend them). Caution: let the moving company do ALL the packing. In the event there is damage/breakage, the insurance will not cover it if you did the packing yourself. Although we had minimal damage, we were unable to make an insurance claim on boxes personally packed. Keep in mind that the Customs Creature will inspect it all – just about everything that crosses the border: postal mail and packages, vehicles, human bodies, moving vans and burros! Computers are especially scrutinized, so maintain all documents: computer, moving van papers, and vehicle papers. Better to have too much paperwork than not enough.

We opted to drive our fully loaded SUV, equipped with a “rocket box,” from the San Francisco Bay Area to Vallarta. Make sure your vehicle is fully capable of making the long journey, including full service, good tires, first aid kit, spare gas can, several ‘fix flats’ spray foam containers, water, maps, lug wrench, tools, documents with numerous copies of same, food that doesn’t perish easily, guidebooks, Spanish/English dictionary, handiwipes, toiletries, and a large dose of adventure and excitement. We also had intended to stop off here and there on the way down. However, secure parking was not easily found, and since our SUV was packed to the roof, we decided on only a few overnight places.

Insurance: Your US car insurance is not valid in Mexico. Obtain Mexican car insurance at the border. Sanborns is perhaps the largest company. Call 1-800-222-0158 for information. We bought full coverage for about 2 weeks as we planned to get insurance from our agent once in PV.

Crossing the Border: We crossed via Nogales because it’s a straight shot down to PV. Keep one thing in mind about the Customs Creature: at inspection they search for drugs, arms, and items you may tend to sell in Mexico. The first two items are a given: No! Don’t even think of it! We got grilled on the third item because my wife decided to bring all her jewelry, along in a variety of small boxes. Customs thought we were vendors. Even the supervisor got into the act. Eventually we were able to convince them otherwise, and they let us proceed. Of course, our entire truck had been “ransacked” – no fun! There are two major inspection checkpoints within a couple of miles of the border. You are required to stop and push a button that activates a device similar to a traffic signal light. Green is a go without inspection; red means pull forward and over and prepare for inspection. Somehow at both points we hit the red light – no doubt due to our California plates and perhaps manipulation of the controls. If stopped, don’t bribe (more on this later), be courteous and helpful and peaceful. Watch them. Answer any questions, but don’t volunteer information.  By far the worst thing you could do is to step on the gas and roar past the red light and officers. You’ll quickly be caught and in lots of trouble.

The third stop is a vehicle inspection. You will need an entry permit for your vehicle.Use a major credit card for the $11 fee, and you will need to show proof of ownership and registration, etc. (Mexico did have a ridiculous bond to pay for those who did not have a credit card or did not want to use one. This bond varied but cost hundreds of dollars. As of December 1999 the bond was cancelled by President Zedillo.) Once the $11 is paid, a sticker will be placed on the inside of the driver’s windshield – ours was for a nine-month permit.

Mordidas: (bite or bribe). Our homework indicated this was quite possible. Many, many workers, including officials, earn less than $1US an hour. Unfortunately, some wages are fueled by bribes. We’re not condoning the action, but it is a way of life in Mexico. In all our time in Mexico we have encountered three mordidas where we paid out a total of approximately $25. Some books mention getting the officer’s name and badge number and reporting the incident. This is indeed an option, but one we feel is somewhat futile. If you happen to live in the area where the incident occurred, it may be worthwhile to follow up. You might encounter mordidas at official and unofficial checkpoints or as a result of a traffic violation. Do not attempt to speed off or argue with the officer; but it’s OK to bargain a bit. Use common sense. Depending on why you were stopped, expect to pay anywhere from one to twenty dollars. Not much for you, but bread on the table for them.

Driving in Mexico: Once we cleared the three checkpoints, it was pretty much smooth driving to Vallarta – another 1000 miles south. The month was July – hot, humid and at times wet, but we had to make PV to sign papers for our new nest. We selected moderate hotels for overnighting since they normally had an enclosed and secured garage. With our vehicle fully loaded, we took extra steps for safety – just as you would anywhere. If time is not an issue, stop and visit some of the delightful towns along the way. Highway 15 takes you from Nogales (at the Arizona border) all the way south to Tepic, the capital city of Nayarit, just north of Vallarta. Highway 200 from Tepic will lead you to PV. This same highway continues south along the coast all the way to Guatemala. There are numerous Pemex (Petroleo Mexicano) stations along the way for gas and snacks. The “Green Angels” – so called because they are dressed in green and drive forest green service vehicles – patrol the many roads of Mexico and may come to your rescue should you need them. If at all possible DO NOT drive at night. Lock your vehicle and do not leave any valuables in sight. Again, this is all common sense anywhere in the world.

Destination: Crossing the border of Nayarit, we moved our watches ahead one-hour. Jalisco is in the Central time zone, two hours ahead of California. After a little over 2000 miles we reached Puerto Vallarta. We smiled as we hit the familiar famous cobblestone streets, the Malecon, and finally our new home. We had arrived in Paradise!


Bernie’s Tips for Books and Websites for Those Taking the Plunge

Here are some great books and websites that will help you organize your move – or perhaps discourage it:

•  Live Better South of the Border by “Mexico Mike” Nelson

•  Mexico and Puerto Vallarta, by Frommers 2000

•  Check my webpage  and click on “books”

•  “Puerto Vallarta Online” by Bernie Santos at

•  "Mexico Mike Nelson” webpage at

• U.S. Government Travel Tips at

• Several other possible websites are:

• Or do a web search for “Vallarta” and surf the Internet.