Crossings borders from the USA to Panama with a van

We hope anybody else who is planning to drive a campervan or any kind of car from Canada or the USA to Panama finds this information useful! All of the below was done by us between November 2014 and January 2015, two Australians with an Australian and British drivers license, and a 1980 Dodge campervan registered in BC Canada.

USA to Mexico – Nogales

Driving in via Nogales was noted as being one of the safest crossings if you’re heading on down to the Yucatan from the West Coast of America. You can get your tourist visa stamp at border where you first cross, or keep driving 21kms past Nogales if you have the car and get it before you line up for your car import permit.

One you have your tourist visa stamp (which you pay USD$ for per person), you then line up to present your paperwork to import the car. You will need photocopies of your title/ownership, insurance (see below for where to purchase as most Canadian/US policies will not cover Mexico), your tourist visa and your passport. If you don’t have copies there is conveniently a little booth that can provide any copies for you. The cost for us to import the vehicle was just short of USD$60 and as the vehicle was so old we didn’t have to pay a deposit. If the vehicle is newer you will pay a deposit between USD$200 and USD$400, which will be refunded once you take the vehicle out of Mexico again. Be aware that we met a guy at the border who paid by VISA card, which then expired, and he was battling to get his money refunded to a new card, so ensure your card is valid for the entire period you intend to be in Mexico so you can get the refund automatically processed!

Regarding insurance, we suggest buying it in the US before you cross. We ran into a guy from the Czech Republic who had bought a car in Playa del Carmen, didn’t get insurance, hit a taxi driver, and was up for thousands of dollars in damages. Even with insurance you’ll have a hard time if you’re in an accident, but if it’s serious and somebody is seriously injured/killed, you’ll have a better chance of staying out of jail (ie house arrest) if you’ve got legitimate insurance with legal aid included.

We purchased our policy in the town of Nogales from Don Smith Mexico Insurance (475 W. Mariposa Road, Nogales, Arizona 85621). It was USD$154.40 for six months (this was cheaper than buying only a couple of months). This covered us for liability insurance against causing serious injury to other occupants (which is what will cause you the most grief if you’re in a serious accident), but no cover for fire, theft or damage to our vehicle (it’s a 1980 Dodge after all!).

Mexico to Belize –  Santa Elena

The first step is to stop at the Mexican side and cancel your Mexican vehicle permit at the bank and get  back any deposit they you may have paid. Once you’ve done this you may also have to pay the exit tax to the immigration officials – if you drove into the country you shouldn’t have to pay this again as you would have paid on entry. However note that if you leave the country to do a side trip be sure to retain your entry visa, as this is multiple entry which you pay for at the land crossings.  We went to Cuba by air for one week and they took our visa saying that we will not have to pay on return. Whilst they didn’t charge us again when we landed back in Cancun, they stung us for the entire MXP306 each per person when we left the country. A photocopy of the initial visa won’t help you either!

Once you get back in your vehicle with all documents in hand, you will have to hand over your tourist visa cancellation and the security guards at the next gate will take the windscreen sticker off your car. This is assuming you’re not planning to come back into Mexico within the time frame given on the initial vehicle permit.

You then cross into the Belize side, which looked like a war zone at the time as they were doing construction and road works. Crossing the border to Belize is pretty straight forward.  The process is similar to most other Central American border crossings. First you drive over to a small building and pay USD$5 to get your car fumigated by a man in a mask with a backpack and hose.

Once this is done (and it takes about five minutes) you drive over to immigration and get your passport stamped and at the same time complete the paperwork to import the car. Any passengers will have to walk around from here as only the driver is allowed to drive through. There’s restrictions on taking fruit and vegetables into Belize but when customs searched our van they weren’t bothered about the small amount we had with us and let us keep it. What they were concerned about was the two folding bicycles, Pedro and Jesus. They made a note of these in Matt’s passport next to his entry stamp, telling us it was illegal to sell bikes in Belize so we had to ensure we took them with us when we left or risk a fine. There was no charge for any of this, you only pay a tourist exit fee per person when you leave Belize.

Purchasing insurance was also easy, we would suggest driving past the small ‘one man band’ offices directly to the white building clearly marked ‘Insurance Corporation of Belize’. Insurance for two weeks was USD$23 and when we asked if we could pay in pesos we were given a better rate than was currently showing on the app. We then asked the gentleman if he could exchange our remaining Mexican pesos, which he was happy to do, again at a really decent rate. The best border crossing money exchange we’ve ever experienced.

Belize to Guatemala – 

There’s pretty much only one major border crossing from Belize to Guatemala which takes you through Melcor de Menchos. As usual in Central America you’ll be approached pretty quickly by English speaking kids wanting to take your documents and shuffle you from place to place, but the process again is pretty straight forward.

1. Roll up your windows, close your vents and drive through the fumigation booth. The cost for our van was Q18  or can pay USD$3.

2. Take your fumigation certificate, passport, title and registration to the immigration desk.

3. The rumoured Q20 fee for a visa is bullshit, there is no fee so don’t pay one. If you’re asked to ask for a receipt.

4. The cost to import our van was Q160 which must be paid in local currency. The rate at the border is pathetic so if possible change a small amount before you arrive. Make sure you change enough for step number 5!

5. There is the worlds most pathetic toll bridge straight after the border which costs around Q50…or more…or less..we’re not sure because the receipt we were given was three separate pieces of paper stapled together and all ripped off at different numbers that didn’t add up to Q50. This one you can pay in other currencies, including US and Belize dollars, though try to pay local currency as the girl at the booth had no idea on exchange rates, charged up triple the Quetzal rate, halved it when we complained, changed it again when we both went ‘Huh?’ and out of frustration we just gave up and paid way too much. For the shortest toll bridge in the world.


Stay tuned for the rest!


One response to “Crossings borders from the USA to Panama with a van

  1. Pingback: ¡Bienvenido a México! | Si, con queso por favor·

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