Border #2: La Mesilla Crossing into Guatemala
(and getting to San Marcos la Laguna)
Leaving San Cristobal, it’s a pretty clear drive via the CA 1/ Pan-American Highway into Guatemala. Our trusty iOverlander App warned us about the 4 military checkpoints that might take up some time, plus the anticipated 30min-2hour border crossing depending on the lines. Add an 8-hour drive to lake Atitlan from San Cristobal de las Casas, and we’re really pushing an arrival after sunset. Our nerves had pretty much dissipated at this point, but driving at night was still something we wanted to avoid.
Inconveniently enough, we REALLY don't like early mornings, so we got on the road around 9am (which was kind of stressing Meg out… but she’s gotten pretty good at “sweetly” rushing Tyler along). Getting out of the city was easy and the mountains were just as beautiful as always..
Within about 30 minutes, we see checkpoint number 1. It’s northbound so we keep driving. About an hour later is checkpoint number 2 (fumigation/quarantine). This one is also northbound, so we drive on. The third and final checkpoint before the border crossing indicates where you cancel your vehicle permit and go through exit migration. This part was northbound as well, so I’m happy we were looking left and didn’t miss it.
When exiting Mexico, you must cancel your car permit to get your $400 car import tax refunded. They check your VIN, compare it to your permit and review the receipt showing you paid the initial tax. Then they remove the sticker from your windshield and give you a receipt for the cancellation, which you show upon exit. We were the only ones in line, so this was quick and painless. “Migracion” is right next-door. We explained our plan to stay in Guatemala and the official stamped our passports. The combination took us all of 15 minutes and on our way across the border, we weren’t asked to show proof of anything.
However, we are still waiting on that CC refund – it’s been less than a week so we’ll see!
Then across the bridge and HOLA GUATEMALA!
An officer directs us over to a little tent down between two buildings where he scans our passports and we pay 50 pesos for immigration and get a reciept. Next we drive up the road a few hundred feet and park in front of the customs (“Aduana”) building where we have to fill out a tourist card, declare any import items, and register our car: 50 pesos. This takes longer than it should have because we didn't have exact change and Meg had to run out to the car while Tyler waited.
Plus, the official was “entering things into the system” for a curious amount of time. They (rightfully) get pretty offended each time they realize our Spanish is sub-par, and I’m pretty sure that played a part in our lengthy processing times. Being that we’ve only been in Mexico for about 8 days at this point, our Spanish is still very rusty, especially under pressure. We’ve been listening to Spanish-learning podcasts ever since :)
The luckiest part about the above scenario is that right when we finished, there was a line out the door of other backpackers and travelers attempting to enter Guatemala. SCORE!
The next building was the second step in registering/importing the vehicle. The official took about 20 minutes to obtain and enter all of our vehicle information, then printed us an invoice, which we were to take to the bank next door. After we paid 160 Quetzals to the banker and obtained a receipt, we took it back to the original booth where we got the sticker for our car. Meg changed the leftover Pesos and some USDs while Tyler got the sticker up on the windshield. Then it was time to get going!
Meg (still stressed about time) is pushing for a speedy lunch.
But Tyler sees a sign for pizza so... What's another hour?
It was well worth the wait. Two personal-sized Guatemalan pizzas, prepared and baked fresh for us on the side of the road for 70 Quetzal / $9.33 USD plus 2 drinks. Yes please.
Cost in Tolls: $0!
Time to get through the border: ~45 minutes for both sides
Border Costs: $27.04
Miles Driven: 241
Time to Destination: 9 hours (+ our LONG lunch)
Lucky for Meg and her nerves, the road conditions were really good and (despite the elevation) we were making good time. Not to mention, the views were SPECTACULAR. We did NOT think it was possible to find mountains prettier than what we’d just driven through in Central Mexico but Guatemala knows what’s up. There’s almost NO WAY to worry about TIME when you’re driving through this part of the world.
We're talking about those same lush green mountains, but now we're driving up SO much higher and skinny waterfalls are starting to peek through the rocks where they fall for miles. Quaint little gardens and greenhouses line the cliff-sides and we'd go from climbing huge hills, to cruising down steep declines, eventually leading us around corners that opened up to the most incredible views of towns in the distance. And again, PERFECT weather. Sunny and cool, with the windows down, we turned up the music and were ALL SMILES :) Is this our life?
But getting closer to our destination we see this odd zig-zagged line on our GPS... what on earth? We've been following a winding GPS for hours now but it's never looked ANYTHING like this. And this the only way to get to the town of San Marcos la Laguna…
This road was a little stressful for Tyler (being that he needed to protect the tires by avoiding the pot holes, the brakes by inching his way down the hill slowly, and the precious cargo - aka Meg - by taking the sharp turns carefully and using the horn to warn ascenders so they don't slam into our car head first). Thus, he's gripping the steering wheel, full attention ahead.
Meanwhile, Meg is having a BLAST! Anyone who says roller coasters only exist in theme parks, hasn’t ever attempted to drive down the treacherous and exhilarating path to San Marco la Laguna. She could hardly contain her excitement which in retrospect, was probably pretty distracting for Tyler... But LOOK at this VIEW!!!
At the bottom, you’ll come to another winding path down, around, and up a few more mountains but it’s relatively brief and the road is surprisingly well-done. Then you’ll enter a tiny little town which will spit you out onto another, even shorter, winding path that leads to San Marcos. There are a few shops, an elevated basketball court and little town square, then a dirt road. Follow this to find Hostal del Lago and down an even bumpier, rockier road to find our campsite and home for the next four days: Pasaj Cap.
The sun is JUST setting – WE MADE IT!
There’s SO much more to say... about our first camping experience in the rooftop tent, our French host, the lovely individuals we met (they taught us SO much), and how this all impacted our budget and general morale.
But we'll get to that down the road.
Meg + Tyler