I don’t mean to sound negative lately. Usually my blog posts are about all of the wonderful things–because I admit–most of my traveling experiences are fairly wonderful! However, our crossing into Guatemala was not one of those experiences.
We arrived in Tapachula with the intentions of spending the night and crossing the border into Guatemala first thing in the morning. There are many cautionary tales about this town, as it is a big crossing for illegal immigrants that sneak into Mexico (and possibly then cross into the US). Central Americans who sneak through Mexico to get to the US are susceptible to some very scary situations. There are many tales (and documentaries you can watch) about how certain gangs take advantage of these immigrants, but they are unable to go to the authorities because they are illegals in Mexico.
Anyhow, we found a great hotel and rested up so we would be ready for the drive into Guatemala the next morning. Just down the street we found a small pizza joint which satisfied most of the family, and I found a household selling tostadas out of their home/store-front just across the street. Simple, but satisfying (and CHEAP)!
After waking up early, we made the short drive to the border, first stopping at a small archeological site, Izapa, that barely had any signs to lead to it, and would have gone unnoticed to us, had our friends not told us about it. The entry looked like nothing special, and after our early-morning arrival, the groundskeeper exited her home and had us sign a guest book. She then began setting up shop with some souvenirs, and I had to wonder how many people could possible come to this site. Not many, I’m guessing.
We entered the grounds, and found a big open field with small huts protecting stalae. We were on the hunt for one stelae only, and we found it rather fast. We were looking for the Tree of Life. It seems that every culture has Tree of Life imagery, and this area is believed to be one of the entry points for the Olmec people who arrived by water. The grounds were later inhabited by the Maya, they believe.
Anyways…the Tree of Life stalae was admittedly a bit disappointing.
Heck, it was so worn down that you could barely see the image at all.
But fortunately it had been preserved in drawings in years past. The illustration of the tree of life took a lot of work to make—requiring the artist to shadow and shine lights on the stalae in every direction to find the slight variations in the stone that showed a former impression or carving. Sounds like a lot of work to me!
Now that I just looked up more about Izapa, and found out there are also small pyramids there! Well, it goes to show that without a map of the property or guides, signs, etc…dumb tourists like us won’t see anything! If you want to see Izapa, check out this link for some better photos…and be smart by doing your research before-hand!
After viewing the Tree of Life, we set off for the Tapachula/Guatemalan border. It wasn’t far, and before we knew it we were pulling up to the last stretch of road that separated Mexico from Guatemala. Immediately we were bombarded with young men tapping on our windows, offering to do money exchanges and offering their border crossing services. Some were clamoring and literally climbing up on the van a bit, even bickering with each other and pushing each other off. Yikes!
I told them in Spanish that I didn’t need help. One man asked to change our US dollars to Guatemalan dollars, and we told him we don’t have US dollars, we live in Mexico. He told us the exchange rate, and we said that wasn’t correct. We told him the exchange value we had looked up the night before, and he and another man said that it wasn’t possible. Yeah right. They were cheating us, I’m sure of it. But, we decided just having some money changed would possibly be worth the extra $25 US dollars of cost, so we exchanged anyways. Double dumb gringos.
I got out of the car, and was immediately herded by a young man speaking Spanish, telling me where to go to get our passports stamped out by Mexico. Apparently it is required for entry into Guatemala. The Mexican office was a fairly decent-sized building located on the left side of the road. In I went, and I stood in line for awhile until I got to the Mexican official’s desk. He looked at my passports, our FM3 Visa’s (5-year visa that must be renewed yearly…proving that we live in Mexico), and stamped us out.
Out I went onto the street, and there was that young man again, telling me what to do next. His partner stood at Jared’s window, telling us to drive forward into Guatemala.
Another Mexican official double-checked our VISA’s at the border, and we drove 30 yards forward. The Guatemalan side was busy with activity. There were people everywhere!
Next, the young men told Jared to pull to the side of the road, and they told me it was time to pay my tourist fee for Guatemala. I had been told there is no such thing as a Guatemalan tourist fee (that it is made-up), but the fee was small ($10-$15 Quetzales, no more than $2 per person), so I didn’t care to argue. As I was walking to the small Guatemalan official’s window (also on the left side of the road, for those who have to do this trip and want to know!), suddenly a third man appeared. This man was much older, and seemed a little “off”. The young men signaled to Jared that this man was drunk. The man tried to speak to me in English, but I told him in Spanish that I didn’t need help. I left Jared in the car with the 3 kids bouncing off the walls.
I waited in the short line for a Guatemalan woman sitting behind a small window to do our passport stamps. She did ask for the small (supposedly bogus) fee, and I didn’t argue. In Mexico, your tourist visa is a small piece of paper with a barcode and numbers on it. In contrast, in Guatemala, your tourist visa is simply the stamp in your passport with the date written in by hand. They also write 90 on it, indicating you have only 90 days until your visa to be in Guatemala expires. As the lady stamped our visa’s, she looked at the men hovering behind me, and told me “Cuidado!”, with a very stern, yet concerned expression. Be Careful! I thought to myself, “is she telling me to be careful about all the people in line behind me, or the men who are supposedly helping me?” I began to get a bit nervous.
I walked away from the window, and the young man told me we needed to make photocopies. I already had photocopies of some things (passports, driver’s licenses and car title and registration), but he insisted we needed to make copies of our Guatemalan passport stamp/visa, and perhaps the Mexican stamp. He started leading me down a driveway to a hotel office, and the drunk man was still following a bit close, and said in English to me, “Be careful, Mommy!” before turning around and leaving us. I stopped for a half second, and realized “Yeah, I should be careful. Who’s to say that these young guys are to be trusted, either? Where are they taking me?”
I cautiously allowed the young man to give my info to the man in the hotel office, hoping he wasn’t making extra copies of anything, and hoping I wasn’t suddenly going to be hit over the head and hauled into a hotel room.
We walked away, and I breathed a breath of relief that I could walk back up the short driveway into view of many other people. Next stop—aduanas (customs for the car).
The young man began leading me down to the left of the street, on a lateral walkway that had several storefronts. I read the signs and saw one that said ‘Aduanas”, but the garage-door storefront was closed. Next to it was an open garage door, and what appeared to be a man perhaps parking his motorcycle in the store (it didn’t look like an organized store front of any sort…perhaps they were packaging things for shipment?). The young man took my paperwork and handed it to the man. For a split-second I saw the motorcycle guy look at the young man with an blank expression, as if to say “what do you want me to do with this?” I looked at the young man and being completely on-guard, realized he was trying to take me for something. “Who is this?” I demanded. The young man tried to give a response to convince me, but I wasn’t daft. “No—who is this?! I need aduanas”. The motorcycle guy handed the paperwork back to the young man, and he started leading me back up the walkway to the street. I took the paperwork away from him, not trusting him to hold my precious copies. “Esta bien?” he said with a question. “No,” I said sharply. He then lead me to the correct office, right smack in the middle of the road (well, that makes more sense. You are forced to go through the checkpoint to cross into Guatemala). I noticed Jared was now pulling up to the building in the middle, so the young man’s partner must have told him to keep proceeding forward as we kept moving through the process.
The young man still was telling me where to go. On one hand, the guy was semi-helpful, because he was helping me navigate the busy street with people everywhere. On the other hand, I was super-ticked, because I knew he just tried and failed to take advantage of me like he hoped. Surely him and the motorcycle guy would have made up some crazy fee for me to pay, and pocketed it all.
He showed me the aduana window to wait at, and while I waited he told me I would have to pay a fumigation fee for the car. Again, this is one of the fees I had read about online—most people seemed to have to pay it. He told me a high price for it, which I questioned. I looked on the window and found a sign that said the fumigation price, and showed it to him (it was significantly lower). Yeah—“Take that”—I thought.
Finally the line cleared and I started working with the lady at the desk. She indeed asked for the copies I had on hand (including some of those the young man told me to make). She noticed the young man (who disappeared briefly to go talk to his partner who was waiting with Jared outside), and she told me not to talk to him. She told me to be careful, and told me it was best not to talk to those guys at all.
Okay, peeps. I got the hint!
I felt that as a young woman, these Guatemalan officials (who were also women) sympathized and were sincerely concerned for my safety. I greatly appreciated that they would go out of their way to warn me. The aduana lady was very talkative and friendly, assuming I understood everything she said.
Meanwhile, she did a billion things behind the desk, and told me I had to go to the bank (just outside the building on the opposite of where Jared was parked) to make the necessary deposit (just as in Mexico, the aduana officials don’t actually handle money—then leave that all to the bank). I asked if I also needed to pay a fumigation fee, and she said no. More copies were needed, and I found a different place this time, again eying him to be certain he wasn’t making more copies than was needed.
So, I went out to the bank, and found a gigantic line leading up to the few small windows. I joined the line and patiently waited. I soon discovered that there were line-waiters, probably getting paid to stand in the hot sun, in place of others who waited in more comfortable locations nearby. The line barely moved, and it took a whooping hour to finally make my deposit.
I went to the other side of the building, assuming Jared was probably freaked by now. I had been gone a loooong time. Sure enough, he was happy to know I was still alive and doing okay. He was upset to learn that the young men (now both hanging out around the van) tried to take advantage of me. He said they kept asking for tips, and I said no. But, realizing that some of their help was actually useful, I gave Jared a small amount and told him that was the max. He told me that when he gave it to them, they complained and asked for more, but he adamantly said no, and they moved on to the next victim on the other side of the border.
I returned to the aduana lady, who then traded off info with a man, then had me go outside to see another man, and who finally said I was done. Whew! I have no idea what kind of final exchanges went on, but I was glad.
We drove through the “inspection” area without having our vehicle looked in, and Jared told me that some official had supposedly “fumigated” the car (kind of like a smoke/steam coming out of a tube) and then told Jared to pay, to which he replied he wife was doing that. Hmmm…it’s interesting that the lady inside actually told me I didn’t need to pay.
Oh well—we were done! We were off! We were finally in Guatemala!
I have to admit that border crossing was CRAZY. We made copies at a total of three different little stores (obviously, having a copier in this town is a good investment), almost got ripped off, spent hours going through the hassles, but in the end we had our precious little stamps in our passports. It wouldn’t scare me as much to return to this border, because now I know the process and where each office is. However, on a first visit it was overwhelming and intimidating, mostly because of the men who hover, trying to offer their “help”, and following you around even when you tell them you don’t need help. Without them, it would probably be a breeze.
Anyhow, if you’re going to cross this border—be aware—skip the help, ask the officials where to go next, and good luck! Oh yeah, and you better brush up on your Spanish—I didn’t hear any English here!