If you are American or Canadian, you can’t keep a car down in Mexico for more than a few months. Why not? That is a very good question and one I cannot answer. But I’ve had a car down in Bucerias for five years. In order to do that (legally) you have to get this thing called an fm3 card. If you have an fm3 card it means you are like an honorary Mexican–you can skip the long immigration lines when you come into Mexico and you can keep your American car here. But of course, getting an fm3 card is not a simple process. I don’t mean this in a derogatory fashion, but Mexicans love bureaucracy. And paperwork. The larger the bureaucracy, the more paperwork. And Immigration is a very large bureaucracy.
Here’s the thing: You have to renew your fm3 card annually and you have to do it within 14 days of when you originally got it. My renewal date is November 1. Which is why I have spent Halloween in Mexico every year for the last five years. Filing the proper forms and getting the photos and stamps and bank fees and copies of your passport for an fm3 card is complicated enough that everyone I know down here who has one hires a Mexican paralegal to do it for them. You pay them $150 or so and they bring the forms for you to sign and then when the fm3 is ready, you go in with them, get fingerprinted, and get your card. But I’ve always gotten my fm3 card by myself. I like the idea that I can handle the Mexican bureaucracy. It’s like knowing you could fix a mechanical problem if your car broke down in the middle of nowhere (which obviously I couldn’t do since I needed Bulmaro to come over and fix my flat tire).
As recently as last year, getting an fm3 card, for me, was only a minor inconvenience. There was an Immigration office on a dusty road in Bucerias, not more than 5 minutes from my home, and although I might have to make 3 or 4 trips there to get things properly taken care of, at least it was easy to get to. So Tuesday, I immediately headed to Fotographic Bodas & XV Anos where Jose Garzasaenz takes fm3 photos as an adjunct to his main line of wedding photography. Jose stood me against a white wall outside his office, buttoned my shirt collar, removed my glasses, and then took a few photos, telling me they’d be ready in about half an hour. Meanwhile, I walked down to the Immigration office to grab a number since you usually have to wait 45 minutes to an hour before you see anyone. But the Immigration office was closed and there was no sign saying why they were closed or suggesting they had moved. So I walked back to the photography studio and asked Jose about it. Yes, he said, Immigration is now in Nuevo Vallarta, about half an hour away.
I’ve been to Nuevo Vallarta before. It’s sort of the newish tourist district in Puerto Vallarta (thus the name). It’s also kind of tricky to find things there unless you know your way around. There are a lot of roundabouts leading to the marina, with lanes going off to the left or right that hide countless hotels and condominium projects. Knowing this, I asked Jose if he could draw me a map of where the Immigration office was in Nuevo Vallarta. And he did draw a map–a very elegant, draftsman-like map. And then he told me I needed to drive through Mezcalez, and then just before the bridge over the road at Walmart, take the lateral road and turn right at the Marlin restaurant. That would take me into Nuevo Vallarta.
Unfortunately, he was a little less clear on where, exactly, the Immigration office was in Nuevo Vallarta. “En un edificio de cristal grande y feo,” he said. In a big ugly glass building. I figured that was good enough. How many big ugly glass buildings could there be in Nuevo Vallarta? Quite a few, as it turns out.
So after driving around for 15 or 20 minutes, I stopped in front of a gated condominium complex and asked the security officer where the Immigration office was. He said it was in Plaza Paradise. That helped. I found Plaza Paradise. But there were no indications of a Immigration office. So then I went inside a mall and asked a guy at a timeshare kiosk where the Immigration office was. He said it was in the building between the casino and Hospital San Javier. I asked him if he was joking and he assured me he wasn’t. He said it was about a five minute walk back towards the roundabout. So off I went. I found the casino and I found the hospital but there was still no sign of the Immigration Man. So I asked the receptionist at Hospital San Javier (which, apropos of nothing, specializes in plastic surgery and bariatric treatments–removing part of the stomachs of fat people–to a mainly North American clientel) where the Immigration office was. She sent me up an escalator to the second floor and down a long hallway past a number of deserted offices to where a sign finally announced that here, at last, was the Immigration office. A policeman checked my I.D., made me sign a clipboard, and then I was given a number–105–to wait my turn. Fortunately, there were only 20 or so people ahead of me. Surely I’d be done in an hour or two. Right?
To be continued…