|Flying to Mexico
|Down Baja Way
By Mark Swint, photos by Mark Swint, Steve Durtschi and Hal Hilburn
Okay, I admit it! I was afraid to fly to Mexico. After spending thousands of dollars completely restoring my cherished Cessna 185, the last thing I wanted to do was watch some Mexican Federale make it his over some obscure misstep regarding ever-changing rules and regulations. Like many of you (come on! admit it!), I was sure that every official down there was corrupt and had a talent for making up rules as they went. For this reason, I have always turned north for out of the country adventures. The Canadians have made Canadian flying so easy with the Canpass system that the biggest problem with flying up north was getting back into the United States. Mexico, I was sure from the horror stories I had heard, would entail endless bureaucracy and facilitation payments, in cash of course, to get where I wanted to go.
Notwithstanding my protestations, many of my fellow Utah Back Country Pilots Association (UBCPA) friends happily and ignorantly have launched each February for a Baja adventure. Many even took their wives; thereby assuring that their children would end up orphaned for sure. Amazingly, they all always returned, and cleverly pretended they had had a great time.
This year, as Steve Durtschi and the gang at UBCPA began their preparations for Baja, their pleadings could no longer be resisted and I, somewhat grudgingly to be sure, agreed to go along. Im willing to bet that many Southwest Aviator readers have secretly or openly felt the same trepidation I did, so I figured (as a service to you of course) I would sacrifice my plane and personal safety to bring you the latest scoop on flying South of the Border.
Let me confess, right up front, I was wrong about Mexico. I realize now that I have been guilty of buying into some widely held and erroneous beliefs about our friends to the south. In short, the trip was a dream, the scenery was spectacular, the weather as fabulous, and all of the Mexican officials I encountered could not have been nicer or more honest. What a pleasure. To be sure, it wasnt always so. In recent years, Mexico had seen a precipitous drop in U.S. visitors, both in private planes and in general tourism. Recently, however, things have turned around, and, in cooperation with U.S. officials, Mexico has dramatically eased the burdens on light plane pilots.
Much of the credit for the changing attitude can be credited to the efforts of Jack McCormack and the Baja Bush Pilots (BBP). Jack has been tireless in meeting regularly with any and all Mexican officials on an almost monthly basis to identify and fix the problems most commonly encountered by U.S. tourists. He was even invited to attend the inauguration of Mexican President Vicente Fox this last December. In part, because of his efforts and the resources of his organization, the Mexican government has eased some of the more onerous restrictions, even since last summer. Anyone considering a trip to Mexico should look up Jacks excellent web site at www.bajabush.com for the latest information.
Among the policies that Jack and the Baja Bush Pilots Assoc. have had a hand in easing is the requirement that the same passengers who came down in a specific plane return in that same plane. As insignificant as this sounds, the old policy actually worked a hardship for many people who might have been called back home early, or for some other reason found it necessary to change their itinerary. Also, there were some particularly stringent rules about fuel purchases that have been lifted. Other regulatory matters have been eased, and now the process of entering and exiting the country is relatively painless. To be sure, the key to a good trip to Mexico is planning and preparation. Certainly, as with the U.S., there is a procedure to follow and, if followed, the process is really quite simple.
One absolute requirement before entering Mexico is proof of liability coverage by a Mexican insurer. This can be obtained in as quickly as one day by fax and can be purchased for as short as a six-day period, or on a yearly basis. I used MacAfee & Edwards Inc., which is who my insurer, Avemco, referred me to. Once again, the Baja Bush Pilots Association can be a great resource. Jack McCormack is an authorized Mexican Insurer and coverage can be purchased through their club. The important thing for all pilots to remember is that you cannot enter Mexico with just your regular U.S. coverage. A Mexican Insurer must issue this insurance. This is probably the most important document you can have with you as you land at your Port of Entry.
After I had made all the needed preparations, I launched, alone, from my home in Las Vegas (I think my wife Peggy shared the same trepidation I had and conveniently got sick prior to departure) and headed for Tucson to meet up with the twelve airplanes coming down from Bountiful, Utah. We all met up at TUS and spent the afternoon touring the Pima Air & Space Museum and the AMARC at Davis-Monthan AFB. That night we all checked in with Prescott FSS for weather, and to file our international flight plans. Because of U.S. Customs regulations about entering the U.S., we needed to file our return flight plan for the trip back out of Mexico at the same time. It may feel odd to file a flight plan for four or five days in advance, but trust me, this is normal and expected when going to Mexico. The U. S. Customs Service requires at least one hour notification prior to reentering the country, and without a flight plan pre-filed it may be impossible to do this, as phone service is not always available.
Confident we had all our required documents in order, we launched en masse for Hermosillo (MMHO), Mexico early the next morning. We each opened our flight plans upon departure from TUS and they notified the Mexican authorities of our impending arrivals. As we crossed the border there was no closing of the flight plan nor was it closed by anyone in Mexico. It just went away when we entered Mexico. Once within range of MMHO, we were required to contact Hermosillo approach control with our departure point and intended arrival point. I was very pleasantly surprised by how fluent the controllers were in English. They were also extremely polite I have never heard Thank You and Youre Welcome so often in all my flying. This is a far cry from 15 years ago when I took a Cessna Citation down south. Then, the communication was so poor that I had to revert to Spanish to communicate. On this trip all the controllers were wonderful and very accommodating. From listening to other communications with tourist pilots, it was obvious that the controllers are very used to American pilots, and very patient with first timers. By the way, though ICAO rules dictate that all communications worldwide be in English, Mexico does not adhere to this very stringently. All communications with the Mexican carriers and private aircraft were in Spanish. This poses a problem for non-Spanish speakers, as one of the reasons for monitoring the radio is to keep track of the other aircraft in the area. However, the controllers are very diligent about traffic separation, and in fact were much more conservative than U.S. controllers. For instance, upon departing Hermosillo we had to wait almost interminably for inbound traffic. I am used to U.S. airports where one or two departures are squeezed in between arrivals that are spaced 3 miles apart. In Hermosillo I had to wait for airliners that were on downwind 5 miles out!
The actual procedure for clearing customs at Hermosillo was a bit tedious and thorough, but everything was honest and above board. At least on this day, the process was a five-step effort. Upon arrival we were directed by the tower (there is no ground control) to the customs area, where a very pleasant man directed us to parking. From there we walked, unaccompanied, across the ramp to the offices of Customs and Immigration.
Step 1 was a visit to the airport Commandante to pay the landing fee of $42 US and a fee of $6 for each person on board the aircraft. The Commandante wanted to see our proof of Mexican Insurance and aircraft registration. He personally typed out the information on an aircraft entry form, stamped it, and sent us on to Step 2, which was to file a Mexican flight plan for the next leg of our trip. After four days of flying through Mexico I came to realize that this flight plan form was the single most important document we possessed but more about that later. The flight planner was very friendly and helped us fill out a Mexican flight plan for our next leg. We asked if we needed to fill out all of our intended Mexican itinerary or just the next leg. He didnt seem to care. (The rule in Mexico is that you must file a flight plan each time you land at a controlled field, though that same piece of paper is generally presented at each and every non-tower airport during your entire stay.) Once the information was properly down on the form, the official affixed his official stamp on the same document given us by the Commandante. Step 3 was to Immigration, where we filled out an immigration form. The immigration official asked to see proof of citizenship and verified the number of persons traveling with me. Another stamp was affixed to my original document and a tourist visa was issued. (It went in my packet of documents and was never seen again until I left the country and surrendered it at my airport of exit.) Step 4 took me from Immigration to Customs (Aduana). At the door to the Customs office stands a device that looks not unlike a traffic signal. Each pilot was asked to push a button on the light pole. A red light meant a bag check and a green light was a pass. I never saw a red light, and there were at least ten pilots trying to clear customs at the same time I went through. Step 5 was a return to the flight planner who checked to verify that my document had three stamps on it. From there I was welcomed into the country and free to go. Though the process is involved, I found every official to be courteous and professional. At no time did I ever feel that I was being shaken down or taken advantage of.
Dont expect much from Mexican Flight Service. While there is certainly basic weather information available for the major cities in Mexico, detailed weather such as winds aloft, weather patterns, and airport conditions for smaller fields simply does not exist. Once filed, the official copy of the flight plan is filed in some big black hole never to be seen again. My flight plan, I was told, would be opened automatically by the tower upon departure. In Mexico, if a plane fails to arrive at a filed destination, no report is generated and no search is commenced. In fact, no one even knows. Communication at smaller strips is often unreliable or non-existent, and flight plans are not ever closed. For this reason it is very wise and highly suggested that you travel in groups, or at least make your own flight following arraignments with someone who cares.
It took a couple of hours for all thirteen of our planes to get through Hermosillo, though part of this time included fueling. One important flight planning tip fuel is available only at controlled fields, with maybe one or two exceptions. I know that Galen Hanselmans wonderful book Air Baja indicates otherwise, but since he put that book together official policy has changed. The fuel availability has been limited as part of the Mexican effort to stem the illegal drug trade. As inconvenient as this may be, it can be managed with some prudent flight planning and fuel monitoring. This policy is better than the one just a few years ago, when U.S. pilots had to write to Mexico in advance requesting a specific number of gallons from specific airports, and once authorized, this allotment could not be changed. This is just one of the many onerous rules and regulations that Jack McCormack and the Baja Bush Pilots have had a hand in changing.
Having gotten through all the procedural stuff, let me tell you about flying in Baja. Its fantastic! The weather is generally beautiful, and in late winter and early spring the temperatures are very manageable, even cool. I was amazed at the number of well-groomed dirt strips that literally dotted the land. There were strips everywhere, though I dont know if all of them are still active. It is certainly possible that some were (or may still be) components of the drug trade. For this reason, it would be wise to land only at strips you know about.
Our first destination was Punta San Francisquito, on the east coast of Baja about half way down the peninsula. This was a beautiful little outpost with just a very few basic buildings, but a beautiful freshly graded airstrip. Great effort was taken to lay out the runway and taxiways with white painted stones, and the strip itself was very smooth. An older, paved strip was still used by some, but its condition was poor and I suspect it will be gone completely by next year. I was the first to arrive, and upon arrival I thought there couldnt be more than ten people and twenty old rusted trucks in the whole place. Imagine my surprise then to see, not two minutes after I shut down, a clean, new Hummer with six very well armed, very young soldiers in clean crisp uniforms pull up to my plane. They alit from the Hummer and took up positions, guns at the ready, while the senior enlistee (maybe 19 yrs. old) approached me. He did not speak English, but did know the words flight plan. I gave him the copy of the flight plan I filed in Hermosillo and he examined it for a minute. From the way he perused it, Im not altogether sure he could read, but after a minute or two he handed it back to me. That was it! No landing fee or any other type of hassle. I happen to speak Spanish, and told him that twelve other planes would be arriving over the next little while. Im not sure how that information was received, but they went away and that was the last of my dealings with him.
The operators of Punta San Francisquito made us a very good lunch and a wonderful dinner. Prices were very reasonable. The accommodations were rather sparse though, and while many in the group slept in several of the open-air cabanas, the rest of us pitched tents and enjoyed the beach and ocean breezes.
Our next stop was the highlight of the trip. We flew the 120 or so miles across Baja to the west coast, south of Guerrero Negro, to a barren, but beautifully manicured, dirt strip called Laguna San Ignacio. One of the fellows in our group had pre-arranged with the tour company Kuyima Ecoturismo to meet us in vans and take us to their outpost a few miles away. Here we were met by some very friendly guides who took all of us out into the bay in open boats to get an up close and personal view of the California Grey whales as they calved and mated. While they are under the obligation to not harass the whales, it was very obvious that the whales were as curious as we were, and many in the boats actually got to touch the great beasts. We had a wonderful morning of watching mothers and calves rolling, blowing, and jumping. Whale season is generally from about November to April, after which the airstrip is closed and the whales go back north.
The whole experience took about four hours, including a wonderful lunch provided by the folks at Kuyima, after which we departed for the airstrip. Our flight plan papers had been taken upon arrival, and now, at departure, they were returned. We were charged a $5.00 landing fee for the airplanes and a $5.00 per person charge as well. Additionally, we had been told that there was a $2.50 per hour parking fee, but I was not charged it nor did I see anyone else pay up.
I honestly dont believe that any of the money distributed during the trip was pocketed, as the Mexicans were meticulous about filling out forms and issuing receipts. I think a great effort has been made in Mexico to clean up the system as best as is possible, and I know that the Mexicos President Fox is working very closely with President Bush to ultimately drop the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Still, there did seem to be wide discretion as to what forms were needed and asked for at each small airport. The original flight plan form was the only piece of paper ever requested by officials. Never once during my journey through Baja did anyone ever ask to see my tourist visa or operating permits.
Another trip back across the peninsula brought us to Mulege on the Sea of Cortez side. The airstrip at Mulege is located on the water, and is situated at the Hotel Serenidad. On Unicom pilots use Mulege, Hotel Serenidad, or even El Gallito. This has been one of the most popular fly-in destinations on Baja for many years. The airstrip literally ends at the front entrance of the hotel. A military garrison is on the other side of the runway. About ten of us landed within a space of about ten minutes and, oddly, though the military was in evidence everywhere, they never asked any of us for any papers. I found out the next day during a long friendly discussion with the 18-year-old senior soldier that the entire unit had been rotated out later that previous afternoon and fresh replacements brought in. I can only assume that the outgoing soldiers did not want to generate any additional paperwork on their last day.
The airstrip at Hotel Serenidad is a bizarre mix of pilots, soldiers (who stand right in the middle of the runway to talk and observe), locals, kids on bikes, and dogs. It is somewhat like taxiing down the middle of a village street on a Sunday afternoon while everyone is out for a stroll. I just chalked it up to the charm of Baja. It was certainly one of the most popular places on Baja that day, and by that evening I counted 35 airplanes! If you are going to Baja you must stop in at Hotel Serenidad for their famous Saturday night pig roast. It is a huge event and they feed several hundred people. The tickets were $15 U.S. and we had to call well in advance to get on the list.
The departure for home required that we stop at an Entry Airport to surrender our operating permits and whatever other documents they deemed necessary. Some pilots feel that this is only another opportunity to collect yet one more landing fee. Therefore, many pilots depart directly for the U.S. without stopping and, indeed, no one in Mexico keeps track of or would ever know if you did not stop. I did return through Hermosillo because I wanted to follow the rules, and see the entire process. It was very simple, and I think I paid only a $6 departure fee. I had been told to expect a large landing fee, but none was ever requested. I was required to file a flight plan to the U.S., but this information was never passed on to Prescott FSS. However, the flight plans we had all filed four days earlier with Prescott were still on file, and were activated automatically at the designated time. Both Prescott and San Diego FSS have remote transmitters that reach into Mexico, and it is important that at the first available opportunity you call them with an updated ETA for your U.S. entry. U.S. Customs could get cranky if they do not receive their one hour prior notification, and they have the ability to impose a fine of up to $5,000 for an infraction.
You are required to have a $25 Customs stamp on your plane. It is good for one calendar year and can be purchased prior to your departure. If you enter without one, Customs will be glad to sell you one on the spot. One other important tip! All planes crossing the border into the U.S. are required to have 12 inch N-numbers. If you have small numbers you can paint big ones on with watercolor paint, or simply apply tape. It doesnt have to be pretty, as long as it is 12 inches tall.
Just a point about money in Mexico. The Peso is the official currency of Mexico and the exchange rate is approximately nine to the dollar. I say approximately because it is easier to figure nine to one than some fractional part thereof. Few people have calculators, and even dividing the bill by nine can be difficult enough. Here I would say, be patient and perhaps a bit generous. I never found anyone during my whole trip who tried to cheat me. I did find people who struggled a bit with math, but in general the people were fair and honest. The prices were a bargain at any rate. Some of our group bought Pesos at banks in the U.S. before departure. I chose to bring only U.S. currency in a variety of bills including lots of ones, fives, and tens. I had no problem whatsoever, except that they are very picky about old, dirty, worn, or torn bills. They will not accept these, nor will they accept the new Sacajewea dollar coin. I gave one to a fueler in Hermosillo as a souvenir, but no one wanted one for currency.
If you have ever thought about going down south but were afraid or reluctant to go, I can only say that we had a great time. The people were friendly, the food was good, and at no time did I worry about my safety of the safety of my plane! Many of the people we dealt with during our time in Mexico had basic English skills, but a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish would be a great help for anyone traveling to Baja. I did notice a definite change in peoples attitudes (especially merchants) when they discovered I spoke Spanish, but it is difficult to gauge how much this influenced the facility with which our group got around Baja.
Many FBOs in the Southwest sell the book Air Baja by Galen Hanselman. It is filled with a great deal of fascinating history and information. Additionally, the Baja Bush Pilots have just released the 20th edition of Airports of Mexico. This book, released in February of this year, has all of the latest, up to the minute, information on airports, fuel, and regulatory matters. It is available at many FBOs, as well as on the Baja Bush Pilot web site. I highly recommend both of these books to anyone who is pondering a trip to Baja. One way or the other, you are in for an adventure of a lifetime.
Hotel Serenidad can be reached at (115) 3-0530 or at http://bajaquest.com/serenidad/. Kuyima Ecoturismo can be reached at (011) 521-154-0026. Punta San Francisquito has a U.S. number in San Diego, they can be reached at (619) 428-6552. MacAfee & Edwards Inc. can be reached at (626) 792-7399 or at www.macafeeandedwards.com. The Utah Back Country Pilots Association can be reached by calling Steve Durtschi at (801) 292-9372.
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