Detailed account of a November 1994 flying vacation trip by Cessna 210 from Dallas to Puerto Vallarta and Baja California, including an extensive discussion of the regulations, procedures, and special operational considerations for lightplane flying in Mexico.
December 13, 1995
I just got back from a very enjoyable flying vacation trip to
Mexico with my wife and another couple. I flew my Cessna 210
from Dallas to the beautiful city of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
After nearly a week in PV, we moved up the coast and over into
Baja. We departed on November 10, 1994 with the expectation of
spending a little more than a week in the country and returned
on Saturday the 19th. I thought that some of my experiences might
be of help and interest to others who may be thinking of a similar
The most direct routing from Dallas would have required a flight
down the center of Mexico. This would have placed an extensive
portion of the route over very high terrain with little weather
information and no ground radar support. Couple this with the
knowledge that mountain flying can be a very unpredictable unforgiving
experience if taken lightly and you have my reasoning for the
I flew from Dallas to El Paso, Texas and spent the night there.
Early the next morning at sunrise, we flew from El Paso to Hermosillo,
Mexico (an Airport of Entry). We cleared Mexican customs and
then continued from Hermosillo to Guaymas, where we picked up
the eastern coast of the Gulf of California. Our southeasterly
route from Guaymas took us down the coast line past Ciudad Obregon,
Los Mochis, Culiacan, Matzalan and finally Puerto Vallarta.
This routing proved to be the best for two reasons: It limited
my exposure to the high terrain, and once I reached the coast
it allowed for VFR flight at a much lower enroute altitude along
my course. Before telling you about the details of the flight,
however, let me recount the pre-flight planning.
AOPA and the Paperwork
AOPA offers a terrific information package on flying to Mexico.
I found that the paperwork requirements both going in and coming
out were exactly as outlined in the AOPA brief. In addition,
AOPA sells a Mexico trip guide kit. In it you will find the AOPA
Flight Planning Guide to Mexico. I found this to be most informative
From the AOPA chart department, I purchased all the necessary
WAC charts and ONC charts for the areas I was planning to be in.
Another thing that I purchased through AOPA, which turned out
to be worth its weight in gold, was Jeppesen's Latin American
trip kit for IFR flying in Mexico. Even if you are not an instrument
rated pilot, this can be a very handy item to have and in my case,
saved me from having to turn back to El Paso when the weather
deteriorated to solid IFR.
The secret to having a wonderful time flying in Mexico is to do
your homework beforehand and be as completely prepared as possible.
For example, you may or may not be asked to produce some of the
paperwork listed in the AOPA guide book. However, if you are asked
for something which you do not have with you, it could be a very
costly mistake. I was never asked to produce my pilot's medical
certificate (that is until arriving back at US. customs) or the
aircraft weight and balance data, but I was fully prepared just
If you are not the sole owner of your airplane or are flying a
plane owned by a partnership or corporation, you may need a notarized
permission letter from the other people or the organization shown
on the aircraft registration. I was never asked for it even thought
I had one. Had I not brought the permission letter, though, I'm
sure it would have been the first thing the Mexican authorities
asked to see.
I can almost guarantee that you will be asked to produce your
Mexican insurance policy. I was asked to do so several times
during the trip. Do not cross the border without it. I got mine
from Cutter Aviation. This is a great FBO in El Paso and I highly
recommend them anytime you are passing through. They charged
me $29.00 for ten days of coverage and it was the best rate I
have seen, unless your own American insurance company will provide
it as a freebie. I was told by them that they just provide this
as a service for their customers. Be sure to purchase the insurance
for more time than you plan to need it.
The last time I flew in Mexico was 1991. At that time, the AOPA
and several pilots were warned that the people who were on board
the plane when it crossed the border and were listed on the "Internacion"
(a very important document, do not lose it) were supposed to be
on board each time the plane landed. This is still a listed requirement
and, as far as I could tell, one that still appears to be enforced
at many airports. I cite the fact that the passengers are listed
by name on your flight plan at many airports. In other words
no picking up or dropping off passengers. This was not a problem
for me; however, if I were going to test this issue, I would think
it wise to brush up on your Spanish to facilitate talking your
way out of the potential trouble this may cause. In short, I just
don't think it would be wise to violate this rule.
Fees, Fees, Fees
The "new" peso is indicated by an "N" in front
of the dollar sign; example N$l00. At the time of my trip in
November 1994, the peso was worth about 3.3 to 3.4 to the dollar
at most banks in Mexico. I found that the U.S. dollar was readily
accepted for all aviation purchases (fuel and landing fees) but
at a poorer exchange rate (generally about 3.0 to the dollar).
So it would make sense to carry pesos for fuel and landing fees.
Airports which have a dispatch which is similar to a FSS in the
states are referred to as SENEAM airports. They generally are
the ones that have some type of commercial service and an operational
control tower. At SENEAM airports you will pay a takeoff and
a landing fee. If you file a flight plan from one SENEAM airport
to another SENEAM airport, you are charged for the takeoff and
landing at your departure airport. Thus when you arrive from
the states and are going to fly on to another SENEAM airport,
you will pay the landing, the takeoff and the subsequent landing
fee. At subsequent airports you will pay only for the landing
and takeoff. If your destination is a non-SENEAM airport, you
will pay only for the takeoff.
ASA airports will also charge a landing fee and for parking.
These fees are based on weight. I was charged approximately N$11
by ASA for landings. As far as controlled airports with towers
are concerned, I never landed at a SENEAM airport that was not
also an ASA airport so I always ended up paying fees to both agencies;
however, they were collected by the same agent. As for overnight
parking in Puerto Vallarta, it seems that it is based on an hourly
metric ton charge and is broken down into long term parking and
short term parking. When we arrived there, a Mexican soldier
met us on the ramp at our selected parking spot and recorded our
arrival time among other questions. The bottom line is that the
cost for parking my aircraft, a Cessna 210 (2 metric tons as they
figured it to be) from 1735 local on the 11th to 1000 on the 17th
(122 hours.) was N$196.19 or approximately $59.00. That worked
out to about $11.80 a day. If you have problems with the math,
don't blame me. Just be ready to pay about $12.00 a day for parking.
To clarify the fee issue, I found that the first landing in Mexico
at the airport of entry will cost you about $27.00 and all the
other stops while in Mexico should run about $20.00 to $23.00
if it is a SENEAM facility. This does not include overnight parking.
If you are a penny-pincher, my advice is to stay at home because
you and your calculator are bound to get you in trouble. Just
look for the big mistakes in their calculations and you'll be
on your way with no problems. The above fees were somewhat consistent
everywhere I went, leading me to believe that they we accurately
administered. I am sure that it would have helped if I spoke
more Spanish, however since I did not and paid up immediately
without question, I was out and going in no time at all.
Avgas in Mexico is a cash only deal, unless you have an international
credit card for fuel purchase. I used cash only for fuel purchases
and had no problems. I bought fuel at Los Mochis, Puerto Vallarta
and Loreto. It was all 100/130 octane (green). For those of you
looking for 80 octane fuel in Mexico, there is none.
Keep in mind that fuel is sold by the liter. 1 U.S. gallon equals
3.875 liters. You will pay the posted price per liter plus a
10% value added tax. This 10% value added tax is applied to just
about anything you purchase in Mexico. In Los Mochis, Puerto
Vallarta, and Loreto, I paid the same price for gas, N$1.45 per
liter. This worked out to about $1.85 per gallon if you pay in
dollars and $1.68 per gallon if you pay in pesos. I was generally
buying about 70 gallons of gas at a time and the difference in
paying pesos versus dollars was about $12.00 a fill up. You can
see from this that it is always best to go to a Mexican bank and
exchange dollars for pesos and pay for everything in pesos when
I did purchase 10 gallons of gas for $3.00 per gallon at Punta
Chivato, an uncontrolled field in Baja. The price is subject
to the need and the availability. While I'm on this subject,
let me cover a related item. Be sure to bring your own oil for
your aircraft because you are not likely to find it in Mexico.
The main problems in flying around central and southern Mexico
in a non-turbocharged or non- pressurized aircraft are the high
terrain and the lack of any good enroute weather briefing. You
should always plan for the worst-case scenarios and never allow
yourself to get painted into a corner. All of the flying in the
mountains should be planned for the early morning hours and the
late afternoon. As a good rule of thumb, the air begins to deteriorate
around 10 am local and grows steadily worse until about 4 pm,
then gradually improves until dark. Stay out of the mountains
or on the ground at your present location if the wind is over
25 knots on the surface. With the tropical temperatures a year
round factor, density altitude problems will almost always need
to be considered at the higher elevations. Also keep in mind
that where you have high terrain in close proximity to a coastal
airport, the possibility of late afternoon rain showers and low
clouds can occur. Know your aircraft performance before ever
going into the high mountainous terrain and always be heads up
for the possibility of ever changing conditions.
Night VFR flying is prohibited in Mexico. IFR is not impossible
but requires some real attention in a single engine piston aircraft.
In many cases you may be limited by the fact that the MEA's on
many of the routes are 14,000 and 18,000 feet. Single engine
IFR is allowed but unless one has a turbocharged aircraft equipped
with oxygen, you may find yourself severely limited. If I was
going to spend any time flying the interior of Mexico, I would
have at least some portable oxygen on board, if for no other
reason other than to climb as high as possible to get out of the
turbulent air over the high terrain. Use oxygen carefully because
I am not sure where you would go to get it refilled. In summary,
if you have a normally-aspirated single-engine aircraft, you should
probably consider limiting your flying to VFR only.
While flying in Mexico, you must be on a flight plan at all times!
It remains open until you close it at the next SENEAM airport,
even if you take days to get there. If you are planning to overnight
at several uncontrolled fields enroute to your destination, always
list them on the flight plan. Keep in mind, that no one is going
to come looking for you after your scheduled arrival time at your
destination, unless someone you know in Mexico initiated the search.
Yes, you are very much on your own in the event of a forced landing
and the terrain is often very rugged.
Let's say by way of an example, you are enroute from Hermosillo
to Puerto Vallarta. Enroute, your passengers decide that they
need an unplanned break. The closest place is Los Mochis, which
you did not place on your flight plan as a scheduled stop. What
to do? No problem, just go over to Los Mochis and land. You will
have to close your previous flight plan and open a new one to
Puerto Vallarta. You will also have to pay all the associated
fees for that airport.
Now for a different scenario. Let's say when your passengers
approach you with their needs, you spot a pretty little runway
out in the middle of nowhere, which looks like it should be no
problem to get into or out of. You land! Now, out of no where
(that's the way it always happens), here comes this uniformed
Mexican soldier (with his rifle over his shoulder) who speaks
no English. You gather that he wants to see your flight plan
and you show him your paperwork. If this is a military use field,
or a restricted field of some type, you may be in serious trouble.
Believe me when I say that he will not be pleased when he can
not find his airport, which he is assigned to protect, listed
on your flight plan. This would be another one of those times
to speak fluent Spanish. This may not always happen as I described,
but when it does you will wish that you had just let the folks
in the back wet their pants. You will probably be detained while
he makes a very thorough search of everything on the aircraft,
even some parts of it that you haven't seen. However, if you
had realized that you wanted to land at this field, placed it
on your flight plan as a stop, and knew it to be a legal landing
site (very important), he would probably have quietly disappeared
after making a quick check to see that you had the right number
of passengers on board.
If you want to land at an uncontrolled field which was not listed
on your flight plan, by all means make sure that it is some place
that gets a lot of little airplanes coming and going routinely
and you know it to be OK to land there. The Mexican government
is hard at work trying to stop the smuggling of illegal substances
out of small airports by small aircraft.
Here's a story we heard in the hotel bar at Punta Chivato from
some Americans coming in from California in a Cessna 180. After
clearing customs in Mexico, they were continuing south to their
destination at Punta Chivato when a pit stop became necessary.
They spotted an uncontrolled paved runway nearby with other aircraft
on the field and decided to land. From nowhere came an armored
military half-track vehicle with several soldiers on board, right
up in front of the turning aircraft engine, guns pointing right
at the pilot's head. The lead soldier demanded their paperwork
and when he did not find that airport on the flight plan, he was
unconcerned about their potty needs. Thanks to one of the quick-thinking
and enterprising female passengers on board, who had been caught
in the bushes with her pants down, serious trouble was avoided
when she managed to buy their way out of it with 2 dozen homemade
chocolate chip cookies which they were saving for the trip. The
soldiers let them go with a warning not to land there again.
I have flown into several uncontrolled fields in Mexico. In all
cases they got little traffic and were used as convenient footpaths
in many cases. In one case even as a parking lot for large RV's.
One should always know that the runway he is about to use is
suitable for his aircraft and the other very important point is
that it is legal to land there. If you see other aircraft on
the field (maybe its OK) or have been told by other pilots that
it is OK (very important), then proceed with extreme caution.
If all of the above is true, then make sure that you overfly
the landing area and carefully look for holes, large rocks, muddy
conditions, very sandy surfaces and any other types of obstructions
before committing to the landing. Especially after heavy rains,
small uncontrolled dirt fields can be very hazardous to you and
your aircraft. Remember to be heads-up on this type of flying
and keep to the beaten path. It could be a long walk out!
There are plenty of VORs with DME in Mexico, although they tend
to be located at the airports with control towers. This generally
places them on the lowest ground around so their range is not
too great for planes operating below the jet routes. In addition
there are still some NDBs which are still used for enroute navigation.
I have a Trimble 2000 GPS on board my plane and it has proven
to be a great investment. During previous visits when my aircraft
was equipped with Loran, I would lose all usable signals around
the central parts of Mexico. The GPS is great also for planning
routes over the lowest available terrain.
WAC charts are no longer printed for the southern parts of the
Mexican area. CH-22, CH-23 and CJ-25 are the only ones available.
The chart numbers may have changed by the time you make your order.
You have to use the ONC charts which are printed on heavy paper
and only on one side. They are hard to use in a small cockpit.
They show the location of VORs but no additional information.
It is good to have an IFR enroute chart to back up the ONC with
and also because they are maintained current. The IFR charts
also give you the latitude and longitude to program airports that
may not be in your GPS database. With the AOPA flight planning
guide to Mexico, the ONC charts, the WAC charts, the IFR charts,
and the IFR airport approach plates, I did not feel the need for
any additional information.
In Mexico, I have never found the kind of good weather information
that we are so accustomed to in the States. One thing that I
found most helpful in this regard was that most all of the resort
area hotels have CNN and The Weather Channel. Satellite TV is
big in Mexico. I found this to be a very vital source for at
least the big picture. I understand that there is a weather service
in Mexico City (5-726-1672); however, I can not speak to this
personally since I have not used it. I understand that they may
only speak to you in Spanish, and mine is not that good. You
may also try asking the dispatcher at SENEAM airports to tell
you the weather for your destination. At Hermosillo and Puerto
Vallarta the dispatchers were fully capable of giving me the latest
weather and the forecast at all of the points along my route to
Baja. However, enroute weather was not available. Enroute I asked
the approach controllers along the way for updates and each time
had no problem getting them.
Some airports have tiedown tie points in the tarmac, but I never
found one that provided ropes, chains, or chocks. You have to
bring your own. In addition I brought my own tiedown anchors
and chocks. If you plan to overnight at any unimproved field
these should be must-carry items.
Security at airports seemed excellent. Most public airports have
soldiers or police wandering around with submachine guns or automatic
rifles which seems to discourage undesirable elements. I never
left anything of value visible in the airplane, any more than
I would in my car, but I never saw any sign that anyone ever touched
There are several TCAs (they are still called that) in Mexico
and the IFR charts show them. Even though you are VFR, you are
still required to talk to approach control for that facility before
entering his airspace. A good rule of thumb is to attempt contact
on approach frequencies for all tower controlled fields prior
to 50 NM out. This will help one avoid calling a tower 10 miles
out and then discovering that it has a 50 mile TCA. The controllers
at all the major airports speak excellent English. When you first
contact them you should provide the following information: who
you are, your location as referenced to him (radial and DME),
your destination, and your last point of departure. Be prepared
when asked, to give him numerous updates on your position while
in his airspace, especially if he has other traffic in the area.
Remember that he is providing aircraft separation from your position
reports. I only encountered one airport which had radar surveillance
(Puerto Vallarta). I also found that while transiting the different
enroute approach facilities they were an excellent source of weather
updates for my destination. Also for what it's worth, one other
good reason for contacting all of the enroute approach controllers
is that in the unlikely event of a forced landing, someone would
know when they last heard from you. I'm not sure if this would
help but who knows. It sure doesn't hurt.
Now for My Trip
The morning we left El Paso I was racing to beat a rapidly moving
frontal system which was bearing down on the northern portion
of my flight path, bringing with it IFR conditions, moderate turbulence,
isolated thunderstorms and the potential for heavy rains. I had
the aircraft topped off with fuel from the day before. After
an early morning weather brief from Albuquerque FSS, a brief discussion
with advice on my return to the USA, and filing my flight plan
to Hermosillo, we launched off just minutes after legal sunrise.
The 284 NM leg to Hermosillo was over the mountains and I felt
that I would possibly beat the turbulence with the early morning
departure, which was indeed the case.
It was also steadfast in my mind that I would not continue to
press towards Hermosillo if the high terrain could not be kept
in sight visually at all times and most importantly, that I did
not allow myself to get in a position that a VFR retreat to El
Paso became impossible. Fuel was not a problem considering the
fact that I had taken off with sufficient gas to travel all the
way to Hermosillo and return to El Paso, with still an hour and
a half reserve on board. Enroute I made several deviations around
problem weather areas, always keeping a constant track of my location
on the charts. My GPS and Strikefinder were invaluable in this
After crossing the highest terrain enroute, I tuned up HMO VOR
and switched to approach control. We learned quickly after talking
to approach, that the field was IFR at 800 overcast and 1.5 miles
visibility. Approaches were in progress at the time we first
checked in with Hermosillo. The controller, in very good English,
asked if I and my aircraft were capable of shooting the approach.
Thanks to the fact that I had ordered the IFR Jepp Kit from AOPA,
I could answer yes to all his questions. I was quickly sequenced
in for the approach and landed in heavy rain.
Once on the ground my immediate concern was whether or not after
clearing customs, would I be allowed to depart IFR, before the
weather got even worse. I checked the MEA enroute to Guaymas
which is along the coast and found that it was only 7000 ft.
I thought that if I could get to Guaymas then if need be I could
shoot an approach to underneath the overcast if I could determine
VFR conditions existed to the south. When I asked the dispatcher
at Hermosillo if he could, he pulled up the weather for Guaymas
and all of the SENEAM fields enroute to Puerto Vallarta. (I was
shocked. Keep in mind that I had to ask for it though). Indeed
the weather was better every NM that I could achieve going south.
I asked if it was possible to file an IFR flight plan and then
cancel it once I achieved VFR conditions. No Problemo!
I filed IFR from Hermosillo to Puerto Vallarta by way of the Victor
airways. About 50 NM south of Guaymas we were in clear skies
and I canceled my IFR and proceeded VFR. Due to the fact that
it was raining cats and dogs when we were ready to depart Hermosillo,
coupled with the fact that I had 4 hours of fuel on board, I elected
not to refuel at Hermosillo. Consequently, I made an unscheduled
fuel stop at Los Mochis which I had not listed on my flight plan
from HMO to PVR. No Problemo! We arrived in Puerto Vallarta
at about 1730. By the way, for those who are wondering about
the time zones; PV is on Central time. Just to the North of PV,
they are on Mountain time. The aircraft was secured for the week
and we started looking for the first cold cerveza.
On Thursday the 17th, we departed Puerto Vallarta with plans to
visit Baja for a couple of days before going back home to Dallas.
I filed a flight plan to Loreto with stops at Las Palmas, Hotel
Serenidad, and Punta Chivato, all places that I had visited before.
We had good weather for this leg of the trip and elected to cross
the Gulf of California just south of Los Mochis to a point on
the southern tip of Baja. This worked out to be about 160 NM
overwater and we had the necessary survival equipment with us.
We stopped in Las Palmas for lunch and, after a brief look around,
headed up the coast at about a 1,000 feet for a two hour flight
to Hotel Serenidad. What a beautiful and majestic flight! With
the clear water of the coast coupled with the mountainous terrain
of Baja as a backdrop, we were constantly overwhelmed around every
corner. After a brief stop at Hotel Serenidad, we elected to
move on because it looked like it might rain and the runway there
is of a muddy clay which when wet really makes a mess of your
aircraft. Having stayed there before under different conditions,
I can highly recommend it when things are a little dryer. We
took off and continued across the bay to Punta Chivato for a two
night stay. The runway is better under wet conditions and the
view from your room is breathtaking. We had a great time with
a full day of fishing and relaxing in the warm sun. The hotel
there cost about $60 a night and is well worth the stop. No credit
cards are accepted however.
On Saturday morning we had coffee in the restaurant while watching
the weather channel for a big picture view of the latest satellite
weather. There seemed to be a low pressure area being pushed
by the upper level jet stream that we possibly could have to deal
with just south of El Paso, but the El Paso weather channel forecast
did not look that bad. We departed Punta Chivato for Loreto around
0800 . There we cleared customs, refueled and departed non-stop
for El Paso. I tried numerous times to get a call through to
customs at El Paso by phone at the airport in Loreto, but with
no luck. Finally, relying on a previous Albuquerque FSS briefer's
information, I elected to depart for El Paso and contact them
on 122.4 when I was an hour out. I had been told that they would
be more than helpful in my need to notify customs with the required
one hour notification.
We climbed to 11,500 feet. enroute and noticed right away that
we were getting a 60 to 70 knot tailwind. Now what pilot in his
right mind would not want to see this type of condition? Well
this was one of those times. My Cessna 210 was doing about 235
knots groundspeed and this was going to be a problem to achieve
radio communications far enough out to give the required full
hour notice to customs. I attempted to call Albuquerque FSS to
no avail and finally got another aircraft on the frequency, who
said he would be more than glad to attempt a relay.
Of all the times to get an unhelpful FSS specialist; yes, that's
right, no help! The FSS lady told the other aircraft that I would
have to contact her personally before she would
relay anything to customs. (By the way, after talking with her
supervisor for about an hour after I was repatriated, I think
she will be a little more helpful in the future.)
To make matters worse, it was about that time that we started
getting continuous moderate turbulence at all usable altitudes.
I finally got in touch with the FSS lady personally by radio
when I was about 30 minutes out and after laughing at me over
the radio she reluctantly said she would notify customs. I asked
her kindly, if after she notified customs would she please relay
back to me if I needed to hold south of the border until my hour
was up. She stated in a very uncaring tone, that was between me
and customs. Welcome, home! Not once did anyone in Mexico treat
us like she did. Moral to this story is to make a personal phone
contact if at all possible.
After weighing all my options, I simply decided that rather than
get beat up by the turbulence any more than absolutely necessary,
I would press on in knowing that I had made the attempted contact
more than an hour out. I was sincerely worried that I was going
to have to address this problem with Customs. Customs never said
a word about it and they were very nice to us all.
El Paso to Dallas was a piece of cake. All in all, a great trip
and one that I would definitely recommend to anyone looking for
a vacation with adventure and relaxation.
I have always had an excellent time flying my plane around Mexico
and would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a fabulous
vacation trip. I have had absolutely no difficulty with anyone
at any SENEAM airport. Everyone was always completely professional
and pleasant to work with. I think the secret to having a wonderful
time while visiting this majestic country is to plan your trip
carefully, know your aircraft's operational limitations, never
paint yourself into a corner, keep to the well-beaten paths, and
by all means be as pleasant to everyone as you would like them
to be with you. Remember that you are in a foreign country where
the rules are different and you are the visitor. The person
who acts like the horse's patoot will probably never get a better
It is amazing to me that the hardest part of any trip to Mexico
is the return to the good old USA. If my experiences prove true
for the Mexican pilot who is attempting to enter this country
legally, I am sad to say that we must look like the big old ugly