My Flying Vacation to Mexico
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.
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 trip.
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 following route.
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 and helpful.
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 in case.
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 possible.
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. True story!
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 my plane.
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 situation.
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 view.
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 Americans.