Thursday, December 5, 2013

Crossing from La Paz to Mazatlán

Loading a car ferry, any car ferry, is always a chaotic affair. Imagine what it was like in Mexico where, by 'western' standards, ordinary life is already chaotic. Because if there is anything we have learned the last 3 weeks; it has to be that Mexico is, at best, a noisy and chaotic place. Loading the ferry in La Paz wasn't any different. Someone probably thought it was a good idea to line us all up at the docks well before the ferry was even unloaded. The next 3 hours we witnessed unloading a ferry in Mexican style, complete with the customary stray dogs begging for food. It was a spectacle, that's for sure!

Stray dogs begging for food
The morning had started with packing everything up. It's amazing how much stuff you accumulate over a couple of days. It's also amazing how soon you get used to something and accept it as 'home'. Leaving the Aquamarina RV park, where we had stayed for 10 days, felt like leaving home. We said goodbye to Mary Lou and Roger, took a couple of photos of their dogs Scooby Doo and Honey, said goodbye to our neighbours Fred and Marilyn and rode away for the last time. It felt strange. I wondered why we felt this need to go on a ferry for 16 hours? What would be the fun in that? Why are ferries so slow anyway? In 16 hrs you can just about fly to the other side of the world, or cross a little inland sea by ferry. One last ride through the choc-a-bloc traffic of La Paz, one last futile look at the HSBC ATM at Walmart to see if they had retrieved the card (not) and then we made our way to the ferry. The paperwork was checked by the Aduana (Mexican Customs), VIN numbers were checked against the Temporary Import Permits and we were waved on to the Bascula. For people who's Spanish is as good as mine: a Bascula is a weighbridge. A completely pointless exercise apart from confirming what I already knew: we are carrying too much weight on the Triumphs. Then of course there was something to be paid, isn't there always? I think it was called harbour tax this time.

More paperwork...
The unloading process turned into a Terminal Truck race. Big fun to watch and educational too as I never knew you could slide a truck sideways through a corner. The steep curve of the ramp caught quite a few out with trailer legs hitting the ground and being damaged. While al this was going on, the ships engineer walked out of the ship in his oil stained orange overalls and started fishing… watched closely by a couple of pelicans. The unloading took a lot of time as, to be fair to BajaFerries, they had a lot to unload. Watching it was a spectacle! 

Two more motorcyclists turned up. One on an older Kawasaki KLR and another dressed up like a Cyclops on a brand spanking new fully dressed up BMW adventure bike. He was going to ride as quickly as possible through Mexico to the border with Guatemala as he was terrified of Mexico, continue to Costa Rica and then sell the bike… he was convinced he could sell it for more than he paid for it. The KLR rider was going to try and keep up with him until they reached Acapulco and then veer off to Mexico city. Good luck to both of them I'd say.
The ship's engineer, fishing for his evening meal.
He didn't catch anything
Of course the Baja Ferries didn't supply us with straps, but being prepared we had our own, tied them down and then submerged ourselves in the chaos on board. Jeanette had luckily insisted on a cabin over the seats, which was good, apart from the cabin not being available for some unexplained reason. After a wait of 30 minutes we ended up with an upgraded cabin with a shower. 

We weren't even on mainland Mexico yet but had already made our first mistake when Jeanette handed over her drivers license for identification to the purser at the ferry... They tried to keep it as a deposit for the key to the room, claiming it was company policy. They promised they'd return it in the morning if we would give them back the key… A drivers license as a deposit for a 2 dollar key… we demanded the license back and swapped it for my medical card. The licenses were of course kept in an unlocked room, accessible to everyone. It made me realise the second mistake we had made as well, we should have made photocopies of our licenses…
With only two hours delay we left for Mazatlán, I rolled into bed with two motion sickness tablets and went into iPod mode. Mike did the same. This particular ferry used to operate between England and France, for freight only, 30 years ago. The English dumped it as it was getting too old… It's vibrating so badly that I can hardly type this; and we have another 16 hours to go.

Bring your own straps! Bajaferry don't provide them and
tie down the bikes yourself
As loading also took somewhat longer than expected, we arrived 2 hrs late in Mazatlán, Nobody was worried about it, including us. The trip itself was uneventful, the sea calm and all was good. Unloading was unbelievably simple and quick, especially compared to the loading procedure. No queue anywhere, a simple inspection by the army and we were away. Our first stop after any ferry over the last years has always been McDonalds, to calm our stomachs by filling it with the biggest burger they have. We googled for campsites in or around Mazatlán, found two but didn't really like either of them. Both were also at the northern end of town, while we rather stayed at old Mazatlán. New Mazatlán is basically a row of modern hotels and gated communities, build by the Americans for the Americans, at least that's what it looks like. Old Mazatlán is Mexico, old style Mexico, and that's what we wanted to see.

Old Mazatlán
While Googling for alternatives a Canadian man walked up to us and asked where we are from and what we were doing. The sheer number of stickers on our panniers must have confused him. After a short introduction we were offered to stay with them…! Bob and Sue were at McDonalds for Jessica's birthday, their adopted daughter. Lovely people, secure parking for the bikes and a good place to stay… in old Mazatlán! They showed us old Mazatlán that afternoon, we had a very good meal and a very enjoyable evening. Thinking about what had happened that day and how lucky we were to have met Bob and Sue, I wondered if the bad 'spell' of Baja had lifted. Alaska, Canada and the USA had been great after all, maybe Mexico was now starting to 'work' for us. 
Restaurant, Mazatlán
The next morning we organised 6 copies each of our drivers licenses and as that took some time Bob and Sue offered to let us stay for another day! We had lunch in the beautiful centre of Mazatlán and later in the evening had a beautiful meal at a local restaurant. The food in Mexico is nothing short of amazing! Very reasonably priced, spicy and fresh. The restaurant we went to in the evening deserves a special mention. It's a family restaurant and it's kitchen is... on the street! No closed doors there then! Everything is open and for anyone to see. The cooking is amazing and just to see it being prepared is magic as well. Being literally on the street means it's also a drive-thru of course. Drive-thru Mexican style that is.
Europeans, and to a certain extend Australians, have a sort of minimum standard of what can and can't be done on the road; Mexicans don't. Anything goes here. Don't be alarmed when you see a small motorbike with a wheelbarrow strapped on the back of it. Or a family of 4 on a 125cc Honda… Dad driving, mum pillion, child nr 1 wedged between mum and dad and the youngest on the tank, holding on to dad's arms. Or dad riding his bike with one arm while holding his baby on the other arm, or a man with his dog on the tank, and the dog the only one wearing a helmet… anything goes, nobody is fussed about it, including the police.

New Mazatlán, for American tourists
We really enjoyed Mazatlán. Despite it's madness, or maybe because of it's madness, it made sense. Perfect sense, somehow. Those two days in Mazatlán was just what we needed! Yes Mexico is a madhouse, but a fun-madhouse. People are friendly and joyful. It felt like the bad vibes were over and things were on the 'up'. When later that evening we sorted out all the bank problems in 20 minutes as well, I was convinced: the good feeling was back! Tomorrow we go further south along the coast, recharged and ready. Mazatlán has been a great experience!

What you need, step by step, to cross the Bajaferry?
In theory it's very simple and everything can and must be done at the ferry terminal (not in La Paz but at Pichinlinque). Get a Temporary Vehicle Import Permit from the Banjercito, they are located on the right-hand corner of the main building. For this you need a Passport, the Mexican tourist card you received at the border, the registration documents for the vehicle and a drivers license, plus photocopies of all of them. Photocopies can be made at the office just around the left hand corner. Pay your processing fee and a US$400,- bond by credit card and you will receive the permit on the spot. The bond will be returned to the same credit card when you leave Mexico (so make sure you do not loose that card!). The people at the Banjercito speak English and are very helpful. Ask for a map with border crossings where there is a Banjercito so that you can get your bond returned. The Temporary Import Permit can be done on the day of sailing but we did it as soon as we arrived in La Paz. It's the only part of the process that can cause you headaches, and in our case it did.
Next you will need a small 10x15cm piece of paper where they fill in the length and type of vehicle. The man doing that was in our case already on the parking area. It's free.
Armed with those two items plus passport and driving license, you proceed to the booking office and purchase the tickets.

In theory that is all that's needed. Problems arise when the registration document is not in your name, or when your son is riding with you who is not 18 yet, or when the registration documents are not in English. It's also impossible to get a TVIP for two vehicles in the same name, unless they are different classes of vehicles.

You then proceed to the Aduana, where they check your vehicle permit against the VIN number of your vehicle and do random checks to see if you have anything that needs declaring. They speak perfect English. You'll then proceed to the Bascula where they check your vehicle weight and
where they'll ask you to pay Harbour tax (70 pesos per motorcycle). That's it!

Aerial view of the Pichinlinque ferry terminal. 1: Parking area, 2: Banjercito office, 3: Photocopies and opposite to that the ticket office, 4: Aduana (customs), 5: Bascula (weigh bridge)