Nothing we say will ever prepare you for the unique experience of doing what it takes to get Yucatan license plates on your gringo automobile. But we're going to tell you the story anyway. Perhaps it will be entertaining. Perhaps it will be a cautionary tale. You'll laugh, you'll cry!
Our story begins four years ago, when we drove our trusty white SUV (in Spanish: la camioneta blanca... it's important to know how to describe your car in Spanish for the guys who take your cart at Costco and help you unload your purchases) on a ten-day roadtrip from California to the Yucatan. Before we left, we un-registered the car as "off-the-road" in California, dutifully paying our minimal registration fee each year.
Last year, the rear license plate (placa trasera) was mysteriously stolen, (some say, "collected"). We really have no idea when or where it was taken (Note: we've never had anything else taken from our car in 4.5 years). One day we just noticed it was gone. No problem... we still had the front one. After being stopped by la policia and told we really should report the stolen plates, we trekked to the outskirts of Merida, beyond the Periferico (the ring road around the city) to the Procuraduria General de Justicia, loosely translated as the Hall of Justice. (Even our in-house native Yucateco doesn't know what a procuraduria is... anyone???) Here, we brought in our pink slip and registration from the States and reported that our placa had been taken. Someone in a small office typed up a page of text basically saying so in Spanish, signed and stamped it and gave it back to us. Now we had something to show la policia next time we were stopped.
Of course, we weren't stopped again until about a year later, when the *other* placa went missing. Now we had a documento saying that our placa trasera was stolen, but nothing about la placa en frente. Back to the Procuraduria. Now we had two documents. But no placas.
La policia didn't like that. They were nice about it, but we started getting stopped more often, and being from California where being stopped by the police makes our hair stand on end, *we* didn't particularly like THAT.
Perfect timing , we thought. We are going back to the States for our daughter's wedding and we'll get our license plates replaced there. No problema, said the nice lady at the California DMV, just put your car back "on" the road (registration-wise) and give us a smog certificate. Oh. Not possible to get a smog certificate in the Yucatan. And we certainly don't have time to drive back to California just to get one.
OK, let's get Yucatan plates then! That will look cool on our SUV!
Across from the zoo, we were told, is a big building. Therein you will find the Yucatecan version of the DMV, also known as the Departamento de Registro de Control Vehicular. Armed with her passport, FM3 Visa, a copy of a bill in our name at our address (known as a comprabante), the pink slip and the papers we were given for the car at the border (Permiso de Importacion Temporal de Vehiculos), Working Gringa blithely set out one sunny day to get those plates. She was directed to a large building where inside a huge, hacienda-like interior painted bureaucracy green, hundreds, maybe thousands of people were waiting in line. Dios mio! This can't be the place! Luckily, it wasn't. Across the street, in a far more unassuming building, more people were waiting in rows and rows of chairs. This can't be it either! Sadly, this time it was.
One lone woman stood at the front of the hundreds of people waiting patiently in chairs, doling out information. Por favor, senora, que necesito hacer? (Please, ma'am, what do I need to do?) or (Please, ma'am, have pity on me and tell me I don't have to go sit at the end of that line of all those people in chairs?). The information lady had pity indeed, and sent WG to another office, where a very patient woman explained that you can't just get placas for a vehiculo extranjero (a foreign vehicle) because first you need a pedimento. Where do I get that? In Progreso.
Luckily, we don't live far from Progreso, so off to Progreso we went. After much searching, we found an agencia aduanal (customs broker) named Patrón Castellanos and came to the understanding that we had to import the car before we could get placas. From inside a colonial building with beamed ceilings, mosaico-tiled floors and 50-year old furniture, this busy customs broker treated us very well, even providing us with an English-speaking agent, Mr. Ramon Buenfil (Tel: +52-969-935-1991). He gave us an estimate of $7,500 pesos (about $720 USD) to import our 10-year-old car, which included the import fee, taxes and the customs broker fee. We were told to bring the money in cash, along with all aforementioned documents. We were told it would take only a few hours.
The next week, Working Gringa set out to Progreso early one sunny morning to get the car imported. She had to return to Merida by 5 PM for an appointment, but that seemed very far in the future. The first four hours were spent waiting in Progreso while Mr. Buenfil prepared the paperwork. WG wandered around taking photos, going to the bank, and watching trucks parade down the street with lions and camels in cages advertising the circus that was coming to town (no photos... sorry! they were down the street by the time she fished the camera out of her purse). The rest of the time was spent nodding off in a rocking chair in the office below a ceiling fan, feeling much like a character in Casablanca or an employee of the United Fruit Company.
Finally, about 4 PM, WG mentioned that she had una cita (appointment) at 5 PM in Merida. Mr. Buenfil looked duly alarmed and within minutes introduced WG to another gentleman. Jorge jumped into the passenger seat of la camioneta blanca and directed the car and driver to the Aduana (customs) office at the end of the pier. More waiting, this time with big, BIG trucks lumbering by and seagulls circling overhead. Finally, Jorge emerged from the Aduana's office and directed WG back to Mr. Buenfil. More waiting, then documents to sign, money changed hands, and the Working Gringa was proudly presented with... drum roll, please... the Pedimento! The Pedimento is of equal importance to the pink slip, we were told. MUY importante! No lo pierda!! Don't lose it!
Needless to say, WG was late to her appointment, but no more than a normal Yucateca, so no problema.
Working Gringa felt she was finally seeing the light at the end of the placa tunnel. Qué tonta!! (What a silly fool!) A week later, WG set out on another sunny morning (are you counting how many sunny mornings we've spent on this so far?) to the Yucatan DMV to get those placas, (dammit!) The woman who had originally sent her for the pedimento nodded her head in approval, and then handed all the paperwork back to WG, telling her to get two copias of everything. Luckily, WG was up to their tricks by now, and knew that in all of these governmental offices, they have a conveniently located store that sells copias for all the poor fools who forgot to make them ahead of time. WG stood in the long line of fools and got copies of everything in her little package (or so she thought). Back to the lady who agreed that everything was in order. Then she asked, "Tienes una ficha?" Uh... no. Qué ficha? In Spanish, she kindly directed me back to the original information lady and instructed me to say to her: "Qué sigue?" (What next?)
What next, indeed!
The information lady wasn't there, but one of the many tamarindos working in the office directed WG to sit in a row of chairs. WG sat, not really sure what to do next but figured it would become apparent. It did. At the front of the bank of four rows of chairs, people were being called up to the desk. As each person was called, everyone in the four rows got up and moved down a chair, documents in hand, like a very slow game of musical chairs, but in order. Without the music.
Finally, it was WG's turn. A kind gentleman behind the counter looked gravely through all the documentos. "Tienes una FM3?" (Do you have an FM3 Visa?) "Si, señor!" Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to have it. WG had to have two copies of it. Something the pedimento lady apparently wasn't aware of. Or had perversely forgotten to mention? Back to the copia store. Back to the kind gentleman. Todo bien! All the papers are in order. Time to sit down again and wait for your name to be called.
Now, maybe YOU have a name that sounds pretty in Spanish, but WG's name is virtually unpronounceable by a Spanish speaker. So when the name was read over the loudspeaker, it sounded more like "Erin Fayed Fels". WG almost missed her cue, but luckily got up to the counter just in time to be told to go get la camioneta blanca and park it in Espacio Numero Cuatro (Space #4). Surely, this must be the last step!
WG drove into #4 and another kindly gentleman made two carbon rubbings of the VIN number on the inside of the windshield. He peered into the back of the SUV (to make sure she wasn't smuggling retired U.S. citizens into Mexico?) and then gave WG a little slip of paper and told her to go back inside and sit down and wait for her name to be called.
The next ten minutes were spent frantically looking for a parking space as WG realized she had lost hers and if she didn't find one soon, she might not be inside to hear her name called.
Que tonta! She need not have worried. Back inside, she sat. She waited.
WG began to think she wasn't going to make her 1:00 PM lunch appointment (she started at 9:30 AM). Minutes went by. More minutes. No Erin Fayed Fels was being called. More minutes. The chair hurt. The air conditioning was freezing. The guy in the next chair was silently farting. Dios mio! Will this never end??
Finally, at 1 PM a voice intoned, "Erin Fayed Fels!". WG jumped up to the counter thinking she would just take the paperwork, get the placas and arrive late to her lunch date by only a Yucatan minute (half an hour). The kind lady behind the counter gave her a tiny slip of paper and told her to go wait in the other room to hear her name called.
You MUST be kidding.
OK, WG steadied her nerves. She could do this. She went into the other room and waited. Miraculously, within five minutes her name was called to go to Caja D (Window D). (OK, caja means 'box'. Ventana means 'window'. But when you are in a place where there are service windows, the word used is caja.) At Caja D, WG coughed up another $303 pesos and, after much checking of documents and stamping of sellos (seals), was sent to the end of the building. There, WG waited another ten minutes while the worker bees behind the counter talked and laughed and checked the validity of the stack of documentos associated with Erin Fayed Fels, who was nearing the end of her proverbial cuerda (rope). After the documentos were apparently in order, finalmente, WG was presented with... PLACAS!
If you live in the Yucatan and choose to reproduce this adventure, be sure to prepare yourself with the following items:
- Pink slip
- Permiso de Importacion Temporal de Vehiculos
- Passport of owner on pink slip
- FM3 of owner on pink slip
- Comprabante (telephone, water or electric bill with owners name and address)
- 2 (make it 3) copies of all of the above (both sides!)
- Cash, in large bills and small change (for copies you forgot to make)
- A cell phone (to cancel your appointments)
- A book or magazine (NOT an iPod, because you can't hear your name called when you're listening to Democracy Now)
- A granola bar (in case you feel faint)
- A working grasp of Spanish or a translator (only one person in this whole process spoke English)
- A sense of humor (or equivalent)
Ya, la camioneta blanca puede decir: "Yo soy Yucateca!"