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Mexico RV Trip Reports

Winnie the Winnebago Goes To Mexico

by Paige & Rich Demuth

Hola Carl and Lorena,

I wrote to you back in August as we were getting ready to borrow my step-father's motorhome for a trip to Mexico. Our reason for our trip was twofold: 1) I had not been to Mexico in a few years and was having serious withdrawals and needed to get south of the border bad; and 2) we are building a house here on the island of Kauai with a Mexican feel to it. We wanted to go down to Mexico and get things to help create the ambiance we love so much -- things like decorative tiles and light fixtures and sinks. Even though we could probably get much of the stuff in San Diego or Arizona even, we wanted to go to Mexico’s towns and villages and get it ourselves.

Anyway, I had asked if you thought it would be necessary to register the vehicle in our name and you suggested we contact our insurance guy and ask him, which I did. He suggested we do register it in our names.

We left Kauai on Thursday, August 24th and flew to LA. We drove up to Santa Barbara where our friends and family are, and the motorhome. It is 22 years old, a Dodge chassis with a Winnebago body. I think it's 22 or 24 feet long. On Friday the 25th we went to the DMV and transferred the title to our names and walked out of there with a registration card with our names on it. The title would not come for a few weeks so we would not have that with us.

On Saturday we did last minute errands and a big trip to Trader Joe's (olive oil, butter, brown rice, chocolate, etc...you know the routine) and on Sunday we headed out.

Let me back track for a moment. Two weeks before we arrived in Santa Barbara we had my stepfather take themotorhome to his mechanic to have it checked out. We called the mechanic ourselves, and with your People's Guide (an old one) in hand, went down the list of important things for him to check. We told him of our plans to drive way down into Mexico and that we wanted to make sure everything was okay. The next day he did a few things and deemed the rig ready to go.

So, that first day we drove via Palm Springs to Blythe, near the Arizona desert hwy 10, and spent the night there. The next day we drove to Nogales, Arizona. We arrived in time to go to the insurance office and get our policy. A really nice and very helpful guy, Bob Acosta, works at Mexico Insurance San Xavier.

We had a stungun with us that a hardcore plant collector friend of ours talked us in to taking down there, “for protection”. He also says that the stungun works if you get bit by a snake. The shock will slow the movement of the venom as it goes through your bloodstream. I had a bad feeling about the stungun, and Bob, the insurance man, confirmed that we should not take it with us. So he very generously mailed it home for us.

That night we stayed in a funky trailer park and got up at dawn to cross the border. I was not nervous at all, for I had done loads of research and was confident that I had all in order. We crossed over and as soon as I saw the funky road and the signs in Spanish, I knew I was home again. My heart sang!

We got down to kilometer 22 and went inside to get the import permit for the motorhome and our tourist cards. All went smooth (although I didn't understand this new thing about paying $16 at a bank at your furthest destination and having it validated on your tourist card. (Lorena’s note: for red tape details, please read: New Tourist Cards.)

Very excited, we got back in the Motorhome (I will call her Winnie from now on, her nickname, as she is a "Minnie Winnie") and headed through the customs checkpoint with the ‘random’ red or green light. Of course we got the red light. They asked for our import permit, passport and vehiclecar registration. The customs man began looking things over, opened the driver’s door to check the VIN on the inside door panel and peered under the hood. I was so glad I had done all my research and had everything in order. I was ready!

But, it seemed to be taking a little too long. I was starting to wonder if something might be wrong. I saw a grim look on his face. Then he hit us with the bad news. “This is not this car.” (in Spanish).

What is he talking about?! Or course it is this car!

He then showed us the VIN on the registration and then the VIN on the door panel. They did not match up. They weren’t even close! My heart started pounding hard; my fluent Spanish was reduced to dribble and I could not speak.

My husband sat looking at me for answers (he does not speak Spanish). I didn’t have any. I began explaining the whole situation, that we were borrowing the car from my stepfather and that he gave us the title so we would not have any trouble in Mexico, that he has had the car for 22 years, etc. We even found some old insurance cards in the glove compartment that had the correct VIN on them.

The customs official started looking in other places, and pretty soon three guys were on us, looking in all the windows and doors. I felt like I was losing control of the situation and I did not like it at all. I went to the back door to see what the guy back there wanted and told Richard to closely watch the guys up front. After about 15 minutes, several more officials came to check us out. I contined trying to explain the situation. The first guy told me he was going to have to make a report and we needed to follow him. He had our passports and registration; we had no choice. We followed him back north into downtown Nogales.

On the way we discussed what was probably going to happen -- they would arrest Richard, confiscate Winnie and I would be left to figure it all out. I started crying. My husband was truly scared. He said they were probably taking us to the police station right now. We arrived at what looked sort of like a police station, but was more of a sort of central office for customs, etc. The guy told us to wait while he went inside.

I found a phone at a building next door and called my stepfather (Neill) to find out what the heck was going on. Neill said he would make some calls and to call him back. I told him we were in serious trouble and to get me some answers.

The official returned and said he was new to the job. He had evidently taken us to the wrong place and we were to follow him again. We went down what appeared to be the busiest street in Nogales, and the one with the biggest potholes. It was hell trying to follow these guys, plus we got sideswiped along the way. They led us back onto the main carretara and back again to the first customs place, just a few miles from the border.

We went into another office and the official explained the situation to the head guy there. Listening to him, I was slightly impressed that he gave a very accurate description of the situation, including everything that I had said.

Of course I very politely put in my two cents also, just to reiterate our INNOCENCE!
The head guy handed the first official a clipboard with a form on it and sent us out to the motorhome. When I glanced at the form I saw the words "Inventario de Coche" at the top...What was going on!? He said they were probably going to confiscate the vehicle and his job was to take an inventory of it. Panic set in.

Rich stayed with the guy as they went through Winnie, while I found another phone across the street and called Neill and my Mom. They could tell I was scared. I was trying to hold back the tears; I did not want my Mom to freak out. Neill had called the DMV. They told him that these types of vehicles have 2 VINs, one from the chassis maker and one from Winnebago. Also, there are three places on the vehicle that this Winnebago number could be: on the dash, behind the right rear wheel and on the engine block.

Rich frantically began searching for these numbers, quickly turning into a grease monkey (he can't even check the oil without getting greasy!). Meanwhile, I went inside to see what was happening with the officials. Rich found several numbers, but none corresponded to the proper VIM. Gloom!

More and more officials were getting involved. I made even more frantic calls home and to Bob, the insurance guy. He suggested I call the legal aid number if they took the vehicle. We were still searching for numbers on the vehicle, as Neill sugested several more places it could be.

I was starting to consider a mordida (bribe). I had never done it before and was not sure how to word it, and how would it sound coming from a woman? And who would I offer it to... so many people were involved now. I was in the office contemplating my next move when yet another official came in. Again the situation was explained to him.

He looked at the papers and said, "No es la culpa de ellos. Es culpa del departamento en California." (It’s not their fault. It’s the fault of the state of California.) Music to my ears!

He then explained that we could either continue into Mexico, though we might have more problems later at checkpoints inside the country, or, we could return to Arizona and try to clear up the registration. We opted for Arizona, if the chance of a confiscation further down in Mexico was even a remote possibility.

We all shook hands then and said, “Hasta luego.”

Four hours after our attempted entry into Mexico, we were crossing back into the US.

The officials at the US border cut us no slack, even after telling them we had only been in Mexico for 4 hours. They made us get out of the rig and thenran the dog through and had inspection the mirrors out.

Safely back in Nogales, Arizona, we called all around to find out where this mysterious VIN number could be. An RV dealer in Tucson said it is usually just a sticker that Winnebago sticks “somewhere”, and that if we came to Tucson, he could find it for us. He sounded helpful, and, with no where else to go, we drove up there. Seeing us pull up in our 22 year old rig amongst all these brand new monster RV's, the salesmen were snickering as we approached. They looked around a bit, then told us they could not help us, unless we wanted to trade in our rig for a newer one. So much for those guys.

We went across the street to another RV place. A really nice felow there actually found where the sticker used to be, but it was long gone. He suggested we just type the correct (Dodge) VIN right on the registration under the wrong (Winnebago) VIN, and see if our insurance guy would notarize it.

We spent the night in Tucson in a nice trailer park. In the morning we decided to attempt to alter the registration ourselves at Kinko's. If that didn't work, we’d go to El Centro, the nearest California DMV, and get a VIN correction done.

The Kinko's idea didn't work. When I told the clerk what I wanted to do, he told me that it was a federal offense and he could not help me. However, he did tell me what software program to use if I wanted to try it myself, but added that it was a very difficult program.

We scratched that idea and decided to just hightail it to El Centro and do it the right way. We drove through Yuma and crossed into California again. Just as we were going through the agricultural inspection, the engine started to make a funny sound... Something odd, like metal hitting metal. We immedately pulled over. Rich soon discovered that the alternator bolt had sheared off and was sticking out far enough for the radiator fan to be just hitting it.

We turned around and limped back to Yuma, to the Pep Boys there. They had huge bays for RVs to pull into, so at least we came to the right place. As we pulled in, the brakes also sounded a little funny, like a slight grinding. Uh oh. We also discovered that Pep Boys was closing up. They could not do anything for us until morning. 

We stayed that night at the Ramada Inn right across the street. Rich was up first thing to take Winnie in to be repaired. When he came back to the Inn, he told me there was water under the motorhome. The radiator was leaking. Uh oh. Throughout the morning we got a series of bad news calls from Pep Boys -- a part was more expensive than they had quoted us; the water pump was shot; all the fan belts were shot; it needed a new flywheel clutch (or something like that).

By late afternoon, however, it was done. They took it for a test drive. I checked out of the hotel and was waiting outside with our luggage for Rich. Instead of driving up with Winnie, however, he came back on foot. The test drive revealed the brakes were indeed shot. The rotors were worn down and needed to be replaced, and that was just the front brakes.

By closing time again they had finished the front breaks, but couldn’t check the rear brakes until the next morning. But -- we needed to get to El Cento in the morning. The next day was Friday and we had to get to the DMV. Otherwise we’d have to wait until after Labor Day weekend!

The guys at Pep Boys called their store in El Centro and set it up for us to go there the next morning. We immediately drove to El Centro and spent the night in a trailer park. We were at the DMV office first thing in the morning.

We explained our situation to them and got the VIN inspection. They then told us they couldn’t issue a new registration as we did not have the title
. The title transfer from the week before which still being processed.

We sat there while the ladies in charge talked with the people in charge at the DMV in Santa Barbara who knew our situation. I was in tears by now, certain we were going to have to scrap the entire trip.

Finally, the lady came over and said, okey, they could do it. They immediately issued us a new registration with the correct VIN!

We danced out of the DMV office, straight into Pep boy. We got the back brakes repaired and we we sailed out of there with $1700 worth of new stuff on Winnie. Back across the desert, another night in the trailer park in Nogales and then back into Mexico on the morning of Sept. 2nd.

Crossing into Mexico was easy this time, although after we got the copies of the tourist cards made, we walked out on to the sidewalk and I tripped on a piece of raw metal sticking up about 2 inches out of the walkway and sliced my foot! I returned to Winnie for first aid and Rich returned about 15 minutes with the vehicle import sticker. (I should have had my foot stitched up, but I just scrubbed it with hibiclens and in a week it was growing back together.) At the customs point we got the red light again. A really cool guy asked where we were going. We said Guadalajar. He told us to have a great time and waved us through!

Can you see the irony?
If we’d made it into Mexico the first time we would have broken down somewhere in the Sonoran desert. We’d would probably still be down there, sitting in the desert somewhere, waiting for parts!

Continue with Part ll: Winnie the Winnebago Goes To Mexico

We drove to Alamos that first day and stayed two nights at a trailer park right in town. I had never even heard of Alamos before and we were pleasantly surprised. It was a very quaint town, very Mexican, with all the men wearing cowboy boots and hats. It was the perfect place to drop in and to get back into the spirit of Mexico again.... (more)

©1972-2001 by Carl Franz & Lorena Havens