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Border Crossing

Camper Life Tiny Living Travel Tips Updates

Border Crossing in a Camper: San Diego to Baja and Back

Truck Camper in Baja

Southbound Crossing

Crossing into Mexico through the San Ysidro (Chula Vista/Tijuana) border with an RV is fairly simple. We haven’t experienced any traffic as the border is electronic. This means they take a picture of your vehicle when you pass, and you get a green light or red light for further inspection. However, there is a border agent after this process that will always (in our experience) pull over campers into secondary. This is quick and painless for the most part. The first time we crossed with Rocky LeBlanc, we went through a manual inspection. A couple agents came over, we opened up the camper, they went inside, opened up a few cabinets and we were on our way. It took about 5 minutes.

This last time started out the same, but instead of a manual inspection, we were directed to another area to await x-ray scanning of our rig. You would think this would be even quicker than a manual inspection. You would be wrong to think that. They take 3 cars at a time in the scanning area. When it’s your turn, you pull up to the area and get out of your car. They do the scanning, then you wait for the info to be sent to Mexico City (why?!) for analysis. Some guy or gal sitting at a computer in Mexico City checks the scan out then lets the border agents know if you’re cool. Then an agent had us open up the camper. He took a quick look inside and we were done. All in all, it took about 20 minutes. It took longer than the other time, but I’m not complaining. Borders often take much longer than that.

 

Camping with friends in Baja.

Camping with friends in Baja.

Northbound Crossing

Coming back to San Diego from Baja gives you three border crossing options. The first is the San Ysidro border. We have gone through this border maybe 20 times, but never with a camper. Why? Because this is one of the busiest borders in the world. It averages 70,000 northbound vehicle and 20,000 northbound pedestrian crossings every day. If you have been to this border, you know that it is crowded, not only with vehicles, but with vendors between each lane. Sure, I’d love to buy some churros or a puppy while waiting, but not with our camper. You can barely squeeze through with a normal sized car. I can’t imagine trying it with a camper. I wish you good luck if you’re going to try it. As far as I know, there isn’t a separate lane for campers. Please let me know if you have info that there is. And here’s the other thing: I’ve waited as long as 7 hours at this border. It really depends on the day and time you show up as I’ve also waited like 15 minutes before. If you’re there on a Sunday night, you’re in for the long haul. Seriously, don’t ever go on a Sunday night. Just. Don’t.

Before I get into the two better crossings for campers, let me tell you about the app CBP Border Wait Times. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND you downloading this app before deciding which border to cross. What we did this last trip was open up the app, see the wait times at each border, add that to the time it would take to get to each border, and pick the shortest one. The most east of the three borders, Tecate, had the shortest wait time, but would take an hour longer to get to than the others. San Ysidro had a 40 minute wait time and Otay Mesa had a 15 minute wait time on the Thursday night that we were crossing. San Ysidro and Otay Mesa are about 8 miles apart. Although San Ysidro was slightly closer, it would be faster and less stressful to go through Otay Mesa.

Both San Ysidro and Otay Mesa can be confusing as far as knowing which lane to get into. If you don’t have a sentri pass, make sure you don’t accidentally get in the sentri lane. You won’t be able to change lanes and get out. There are barriers preventing that at both borders. At Otay, there is an “all vehicles” lane that you should be in. Side note: signs for where the border lanes are and which lane is which are super confusing at San Ysidro. It’s not just you, it’s frustrating for everyone. I still don’t know where to go and I’ve been to that border many times. IMPORTANT: don’t ever follow a guy who says he can take you to the border or through a short cut. There’s a chance he’s going to lead you somewhere away from the crowds so he and/or his friends can rob you. Don’t let that scare you from going to Mexico. It’s rare, but we have been approached by a guy offering us a shortcut at the border before. Say “no gracias” and stay in your crazy long line. A shortcut can be tempting, but just doesn’t exist at border crossings.

Okay back to our regularly scheduled programming. At Otay Mesa, there are a few lanes, maybe 2-4 for “all vehicles”. The lanes are wide enough for campers and I don’t remember any vendors being in our way. The line moves moderately quickly. It took us about 15 minutes like the app said. When we got to the border agent, we gave her our passports. She looked at them then asked us to open the camper. She took a peek inside and we were done in about 5 minutes.

Driving through Santo Tomas.

Driving through Santo Tomas, near Ensenada.

We took the Tecate border two months ago with the camper. It was a little confusing to get to. We were pulled over by cops in the process of finding where we needed to be. The cops said we ran a stop sign, which we hadn’t, but we weren’t going to argue with them. They tried to have us pay a fine directly to them now and in cash only. That made is super obvious that they were extorting money from us. We told them that we didn’t have any cash (it helps that Pedro speaks Spanish pretty well). We had spent all our pesos on purpose in anticipation of getting to the border. It’s best not to pay bribes because giving in will just make it harder for the next foreigner they pull over. They will not throw you in Mexican jail for refusing to pay them. These shady cops will threaten to take you to the station, but they will not go through with it. They are asking for an illegal bribe so they don’t want to draw too much attention. The situation usually just wastes some of your time which is annoying.

After 5-10 minutes of back in forth, they realized that they weren’t going to get any money out of us. They then became very helpful and showed us to the border entrance. Again, don’t let this scare you away from visiting Mexico. We recommend having two wallets, and hiding the one with most of your money just in case you get a hard headed cop who just won’t let you go without some money. If you must, give them the equivalent of 5 US dollars that you keep in your special wallet. They will eventually let you go, even if you don’t pay them.

Back to border talk: the Tecate border is one lane. This is awesome because you can’t get in the wrong lane. It splits into two when you get closer, but both lanes take all cars. The lane is nice and wide; perfect for crossing with a camper. There are no vendors taking up driving space. We waited about 20 minutes in line. Once you do the whole passport thing with the border agent, they will direct you to drive to another area where you meet a customs agent. He or she will ask you if you have any meat, cheese, fresh fruit or veggies. In our case, the agent asked to see our fridge. This process took maybe 5 minutes when we were there on a Thursday around 3:00PM.

Moral of the long story: don’t be afraid, download the app, don’t use the northbound San Ysidro border with a camper, especially on a Sunday night.