Headed to Rocky Point for fun, sun?

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alex-mexico-photo-bestYou’d have to be blind and deaf not to have read or heard the safety warnings about crossing the U.S. border into Mexico. This recent abundance of press was stirred up by Arizona’s three universities advising students not to go to Mexico during spring break.

Widespread coverage of the advisory already has made some people think twice about their vacation plans. Others, however, haven’t altered their itinerary one bit, some apparently thinking it’s a merely a ploy to keep U.S. tourist dollars at home this year.

“I’ve been going to Rocky Point for over 15 years, and it seems whenever we are having economic problems here in the U.S., someone always comes up with a safety warning about going to Mexico,” said Bill Smith, who owns a beach house in Los Conches. “I’ve never had a safety issue in Mexico.”

Carol Thompson, the University of Arizona’s dean of students, sent a warning to students because she was concerned they were not aware of the federal travel advisory first sent out in October and again in February.

But then the university turned around and hosted the 2009 Wildcat Invitational, a collegiate amateur women’s golf tournament, for 18 of the best female college golf teams across the U.S. at the Peninsula Golf Course Feb. 20-24 in Rocky Point. These universities took 90 young golfers to Mexico without any problems.

Arizona universities, though, are not the only ones warning students-Penn State, Notre Dame, Colorado and Buffalo universities-all are letting students know about the travel warnings regarding Mexico.

Although the advisory does not target interior portions of Mexico such as the resort community of Puerto Peñasco, commonly known as Rocky Point, it does warn travelers to take some common sense precautions at U.S.-Mexico border towns and resort areas.

It is 215 miles from Phoenix to Rocky Point, the destination preferred by most Arizona students heading to Mexico over spring break. In order to get to Rocky Point, students must pass through the border towns of Lukeville and Sonoita.

To date, no problems have occurred at this border crossing but have been reported in Tijuana, Juarez and Nogales.

Some students said the warnings are unlikely to deter them from going to Rocky Point.

“I’ve been to Rocky Point several times and I’m not worried about the violence,” said Arizona State University sophomore Billy Jones. “I love going to Rocky Point to relax on the beach, play sand-volleyball, dance at the clubs and party with all the other kids who go over spring break and make it special this time of year.”

Safety concerns in the beachside resort town are at a “far lesser degree” than the aforementioned trouble spots, according to Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. Goddard also said Mexican authorities heavily patrol the highway to Rocky Point, knowing that the community needs tourists to continue to thrive.

The Mexican highway Goddard is talking about is 66 miles of recently upgraded road from the U.S. border town of Lukeville to Rocky Point, part of what is called a hassle-free zone meaning no travel visa is necessary. You will need a visa to go farther than 90 miles from the American border, however.

Anyone planning a trip to Rocky Point, even if you have been there several times, should consider the following safety and survival tips.

Before you go

Scan your passport and other forms of ID and email them to yourself. That way, if your documents are lost or stolen, you can easily access copies from your email.

Copy your bank or credit card’s international telephone number-the 1-800 numbers used in the U.S. don’t work in Mexico.

Take time to make a copy of your itinerary and leave it with someone at home.

Purchase Mexican car insurance if you plan to drive. Liability insurance issued by a company licensed to do business in Mexico is mandatory, and must be purchased before you cross the border.

You can purchase insurance near the border but it is much faster to do so before you go. Consider beforehand the amount of coverage, whether to get full coverage (comprehensive) or just liability, and the length of coverage.

It is best to know the real value of your car because the rates usually are in increments of $5,000, and it doesn’t matter if you say your car is worth $15,000; the insurance will cover only what the Kelly Blue Book says it’s worth in case of a problem.

If you plan on going to Rocky Point more than once or for several days, ask about the rate for a full-year because a longer-term policy can sometimes be just a little more than it is for five days. You can also purchase a non-owner policy that covers the liability when you are driving any car while in Mexico.

You will need a valid driver’s license, current vehicle registration and current U.S. insurance proof of coverage in order to get Mexican insurance.

Check with your health insurance to see if you’re covered in Mexico. Many companies will even give you a list of physicians and facilities in case you have a medical problem. Put emergency contact information in your wallet or someplace it can be found if you are injured.

Get a notarized letter or parental authorization for any minors who may be traveling with you but without their parents. Even minors traveling with just one parent may be asked to present proof that they have the other parent’s authorization to travel outside the U.S.

Get your bearings by looking at a map of Rocky Point to see where you are staying. You can use Google Maps to see online down to the street level to get familiar with the area.

Consider registering your trip on the State Department’s website at https://travelregistration.state.gov. Travel registration makes it possible for the State Department to contact you in case of a family emergency in the U.S. or because of a crisis in Mexico.

Travel registration is a free service provided by the U.S. Government to U.S. citizens who are traveling to, or living in, a foreign country.

What to take with you

A passport or birth certificate for everyone going. Until June 1 this year American citizens need two forms of identification to cross the border: a valid driver’s license, passport, visa or passport card and/or birth certificate. 

Travelers age 18 or younger need one proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate or naturalization certificate, passport or passport card. After June 1, anyone over 16 will need a passport or passport card. Those under 16 will still be able to present an original birth certificate.

Your car registration and proof of U.S. insurance, which you will need to purchase Mexican insurance and may need to get back into the U.S.

Any medication in the original prescription bottle and the original prescription, if available.

Lots of sunscreen. The sun is very strong in Mexico and it’s easy to get sunburned and then be miserable the whole time you’re there. Most Mexicans do not use sunscreen, so it’s difficult to find it other than in resort gift shops or Mexican farmacias (pharmacies).

A calling card or cell phone that will work in Mexico to call back to the U.S. Many U.S. cell phone services do not work in Mexico. Check coverage with your cellphone provider before you go or purchase a calling card just to be on the safe side. Calling rates to the U.S. are extremely expensive if you have to use a resort or hotel phone system. Collect calls are even more expensive. It’s cheaper and easier to have a cheap phone card.

Best advice: Turn off your cell phone as soon as you cross the border. You may be charged a hefty roaming charge for any calls or texts that come through your phone if it’s accidently turned on after you enter Mexico.

Your health insurance card and a claim form, if possible.

A sweater or jacket because the evenings can be cool, especially if you are sunburned.

Some cash as well as credit or debit cards. Everyone doing business in Rocky Point takes American dollars but most give change in Mexican pesos. You usually get the best exchange rate with credit cards but check with your bank or credit card company to see if they charge a foreign transaction fee.

Some companies charge up to 4 percent, while others charge nothing. You can usually find ATMs at banks and most resorts that give you pesos.

You are often better off paying with pesos because the exchange rate is 14 to one dollar. However, most places, including gas stations, still use the 10 pesos-to-a-dollar exchange rate.

Alcohol, including beer, is not cheap in Mexico. Consider stopping just before you cross the border at the duty-free Gringo Pass store to buy alcohol and other luxury items such as perfume at tax-free prices. Ask the clerk how much liquor you can bring into Mexico. Only one liter of alcohol can be brought back into the U.S. within a 31-day period.

Some drinking water, just in case.

Do not take

Valuables, such as expensive jewelry, that are not essential.

Drugs

Firearms, ammunition or knives: Even a pocketknife can result in a weapons charge and there are harsh penalties for bringing in a little as one bullet across the border.

Crossing the border

The Lukeville border is open from 6 a.m. to midnight daily. Watch for the light on your left. If it’s green, just keep going slowly across the border. If it’s red, stop and wait for the Mexican border guard to tell you what to do.

Usually they just make you pull over to the left and park while they look through the windows into your car. Sometimes they will ask you to get out and look more closely at your things. The guards understand limited English so use simple words and short sentences. Talk slower than usual and repeat key words if you don’t think they understand. Just cooperate and you will soon be on your way.

Follow the signs to Puerto Penasco and drive safely. Watch out for crazy Americans who sometimes drive recklessly.

Travel during daylight hours.

While in Rocky Point

Always remember you are in a foreign country and subject to the laws and customs regulations of Mexico. Contact the closest U.S. Consulate if you find yourself in trouble.

Learn and use a few Spanish phrases. You can get by on English but any effort to speak Spanish will go a long way in establishing a rapport with the local Mexicans.

Just a simple “hola” (O-la) or hello, “gracias” (GRAH-see-ahss) or thanks and “por favor” (POR fah-VOHR) or please is a great way to start.

One useful phrase starts with “Donde está…?” (DHOHN-dheh ehs-TAH) which mean “where is…”  Knowing this phrase can come in handy in lots of situations, such as “donde está el baño?” (Where is the restroom?).

Another is “Cuanto cuesta?” (KWAHN-toh KWEH-stah) or how much is it? If you need help, especially in dire circumstances, say, “Ayudeme, por favor,” or “help me, please.” Many Mexicans will avoid getting involved in a situation unless they are asked directly.

Enjoy a variety of activities from parasailing to horseback riding on the beach to deep-sea fishing to shopping to golfing at legitimate businesses and tourist areas. Avoid areas where prostitution and drug dealing may occur. Going to the Super Ley (grocery store) can be an interesting outing if you’ve never been to Mexico before.

Enjoy the night life and meet other young people at places like Manny’s Beach Club and Baja Cantina (hotelbaja.net), which are popular clubs close together in the Mirador section of Rocky Point. The Baja Cantina usually offers unlimited drinks with a $15 cover charge.

The area will be very crowded during spring break with lots of police maintaining order. Parking is limited so consider taking a taxi or having someone drop you off.

If you want to be with loud, roudy college kids during the day, too, head out to The Reef on Sandy Beach. JJ’s Cantina (jjscantina.com) in Cholla Bay, which usually has live music and hosts bikini contests and bathtub races, is also out that way.

Carry only the cash you need for the moment in your pocket or purse. Don’t wear expensive jewelry. Keep your money in different places. Carry your passport, credit card and extra money inside your clothes in a money-belt, or leave them in your hotel’s safe. When you need to get something out of your money belt, do it in a private place.

Drink responsibly and try to curb your alcohol intake. Mexican police do arrest people who are drunk and disorderly. Those 16 and older are tried as adults.

Don’t drink and drive-take a taxi instead. The majority of accidents during spring break are caused by individuals driving under the influence of alcohol. Several taxis will be waiting outside resorts and the popular places and are relatively inexpensive-better than spending a night in a Mexican jail.

Know where you are going and ask for the price before getting into the taxi. Feel free to barter with the driver and check out a couple if you think the fare is too high. You should not pay more than $12 for a regular-sized taxi full of people from Manny’s to a Sandy Beach resort.

Don’t lend your car to other people. Mexican law requires that vehicles be driven only by their owners, or that the owner be inside the vehicle. If not, the car may be seized by Mexican customs and will not be returned under any circumstances. 

Be aware that if you are involved in an automobile accident, you will be taken into police custody until it is determined who is at fault and whether you have the ability to pay any penalty.

Keep your extra cash stashed in your vehicle, not on your body. You may be asked to go to the police station. Just expect that your fine will probably be whatever you empty from your pockets. If you feel you have been harassed by a member of the policia or federales, get the officer’s name (“nombre”) and badge number (“numeral”) and report it to the U.S. Consulate.

Drink bottled water to be on the safe side. Be sure to hydrate with plenty of water if you are drinking beer and alcohol. Several resorts have filtered water in the condos that is safe to drink, or provide bottled water. Ask ahead of time; if it’s not provided, bring your own. You can safely use the water to brush your teeth, cook and for taking showers.

Choose ATMs in malls, resorts or stores if possible. Avoid using ATMs at night or in deserted places. When you withdraw money from an ATM, put it away immediately.

Bring your own helmet and closed-toe shoes if you plan on renting quads, which are a fun way to spend a few hours and do something different.

Rent quads where you want to ride, like in the Sandy Beach area instead of Rocky Point proper. That way you will not have to drive through dangerous town traffic and waste time getting to where you can actually ride. Use caution when operating quads, jet skis and other mechanized vehicles because the safety requirements are not the same as in the U.S.

Be aware of scams. One of the best ones is the “booze cruise” that has become notorious among college students. You may find yourself approached with offers of a sunset cruise that includes all the beer and margaritas you can drink, plus dinner. Be aware and ask lots of questions. Such cruises can be really fun, especially if you are a college student and don’t mind the watered-down drinks and the wait for warm beer.

However, the dinner (consisting of a small plate of macaroni salad and two saltine crackers served just before the boat docks) is what has caused some people to complain. The pirate ship also goes out at night and is great for families.

You may also get approached with special deals, such as free breakfast and other gifts for visiting the Mayan Palace timeshare about 25 miles outside of Rocky Point. The resort and beach are awesome, but unless you are really interested in a timeshare, the freebies aren’t worth the time and annoyance of dealing with high-pressure sales tactics.

Be aware of your surroundings at all times. Stay together and don’t go off alone. Trust your instincts; if you feel uncomfortable somewhere, leave immediately. Consider wearing comfortable shoes in case you need to get away quickly.

In case of emergency call 060 for police and 080 for the fire department and ambulance.

Phone home periodically to reassure your family you are okay. To call the U.S. first dial 001 then the area code and number.

Getting home again

Avoid Sunday and Monday afternoons from noon to 7 p.m., especially during spring break. The wait to get across the border can be anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour or more during holidays, with limited facilities.

You can check out the wait time and how many lanes are open by going to the U.S. Customs website at http://apps.cbp.gov/bwt/ and scrolling down to Lukeville.  Remember the border closes at midnight, and you don’t want to be stuck there sleeping in your car.

Be prepared just in case you do need to wait to cross the border because your options for food and facilities are limited. The locals do walk up and down selling tamales and tortillas, but nothing to drink. If you really need to use the facilities, take turns walking to the front of the line where restrooms are located to the right just before the border. Don’t expect much.

Some locals have tried to take advantage of the lack of facilities by offering “baños” for $1 each usage. If desperate, look up on the hills to the right of the road for signs. Just beware that some are pretty rank.

Watch for the three passenger lanes and one commercial lane.

To ease congestion and delays, recreational vehicles and vehicles towing trailers are supposed to be directed into the commercial lane on Sundays and Mondays, but if they are not you can sometimes be slowed down if a U.S. border agent decides to inspect the RV or trailer completely.

New lanes are scheduled to be constructed soon and 24-hour access may be possible. If you feel your wait has been excruciatingly long, write or call your congressman and/or the governor. or you can call the border agent in charge during typical business hours. (Note: He doesn’t work evenings or weekends).

Don’t bring back any fruit or vegetables, even if you purchased them in the U.S. You can bring in only one liter of alcohol and one six-pack of beer per adult 21 or older every 31 days. You can stop at the duty-free shop if you haven’t reached your limit, purchase the liquor tax free, walk back across the border into Mexico and then walk back to the U.S. side again.

Remember to declare your liquor and take your required passport or U.S. citizen identification documents.

If you follow these suggestions you should be able to return home with memories of a fun time in Rocky Point.

You may also have a new appreciation of how good we really do have it here in America. Be smart and stay safe.

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