Brace Yourself for the Return


Holiday travelers who venture across the border into Mexico will find that their return to the United States feels a lot like, well, international travel.

Southern Californians are used to viewing the trip across the U.S.-Mexico border nearly as casually as crossing a county line. But since Sept. 11, heightened security along the entire 2,000-mile-long frontier has made for more rigorous inspections and longer waits to enter the United States.

U.S. border officials are warning travelers to brace for even more delays during the holidays, when traffic swells with day-trippers and post-Thanksgiving shoppers. Waiting times at the San Ysidro crossing on recent Sunday afternoons already have nearly doubled to an average of 11/2 to two hours.

“The waits are longer,” says Vince Bond, a spokesman for the U.S. Customs Service here. “We’re highly aware of it, and we ask people’s understanding during this difficult time. We’re looking under more hoods and trunks and under back seats.”


Immigration officials are checking documents more thoroughly and, for the first time, demanding photo identification of border crossers. Using a network of federal databases, Immigration and Naturalization Service inspectors also are running on-the-spot background checks on everyone 14 and older entering on foot.

The San Ysidro crossing is the nation’s busiest--and the site of the biggest backups. More than 400,000 people entered by car and on foot during the Thanksgiving weekend last year.

But U.S. officials and Baja tourism promoters say travelers can take steps to ease the hassles. Among them:

* Take along U.S. passports, INS officials say. Passports are not required, but they are the surest form of identification and can be quickly read by inspectors and electronic scanners, the most certain way to avoid delays.


“All travelers who have U.S. passports should get in the habit of using them even in these contiguous foreign countries, even if they’re not used to it,” says Lauren Mack, an INS spokeswoman in San Diego. “A passport carries a little more weight than a driver’s license in helping us ensure that this is not a terrorist.”

* Clean clutter from the car to make it easier for inspectors to check for contraband.

* Don’t cross at peak times. On Sundays, that means not returning any time between late morning and, say, 8 p.m., but especially in the afternoon. Use it as an excuse to extend your visit.

“If you’re down in Rosarito, have a leisurely dinner,” says Hugh F. Kramer, president of Discover Baja Travel Club in San Diego. “It’s better to sit there for two hours than at the border.”


* Try an alternate crossing point. Motorists willing to veer off the beaten track a bit may find shorter waiting times by using ports that get less traffic than San Ysidro.

Crossing at Otay Mesa, for example, or at Tecate, 25 miles east of San Ysidro, may help. On a recent Sunday afternoon, the waiting time at Otay Mesa was about half that at San Ysidro.

Tecate had an even shorter delay--about 30 minutes.

Drivers returning from Baja beaches can get to the Otay Mesa port of entry by continuing past the San Ysidro crossing along the expressway that parallels the Tijuana River and following signs for Otay Mesa. It helps to know that the word in Spanish for the border crossing is garita .


Tecate is a good choice for people returning from Ensenada, where you can pick up Mexican Highway 3 north of town and enjoy a dazzling ride through Baja’s wine country and boulder-studded valleys. (I’ve often stopped and stocked up on Mexican pastries at the bakery just off Tecate’s quaint downtown plaza before heading back across the border.)

Keep in mind that the ports at Otay Mesa and Tecate close at 10 p.m. San Ysidro is open 24 hours.

* Check the U.S. government hotline that provides regular updates on the waits at San Ysidro: (619) 690-8999. There is a separate number for the crossing at Otay Mesa, six miles to the east: (619) 671-8999. (Calls from Mexico to the United States require the prefix 001.)

Knowledgeable border denizens say that there is no sure way to skirt long lines. Waits at the border are unpredictable and may be more so now.


“I don’t think you can say, ‘Go to Otay and traffic will be lower there.’ Not necessarily,” says Ives Lelevier, a top official for the Baja tourism office.

Lelevier says the best tactic is patience.

Common sense will help too. Travelers, especially those with children, might consider a bathroom stop before joining the border wait. (Public restrooms are at the toll stations on the highway between Tijuana and Ensenada.) Carry plenty of water. And make sure your car is in good shape. Seeping carbon monoxide last month killed two children sleeping in the back of a truck camper after a long wait to cross into El Paso, Texas.

The Baja travel outlook holds some good news for visitors since Sept. 11. Hotels and restaurants are offering discounts to shore up sluggish business and to lure apprehensive travelers.


“You can expect to find special prices and promotions, even on the holidays,” Lelevier says.


Ken Ellingwood is a reporter on the Metro staff of The Times.