Border #3: Guatemala to El Salvador + Our First Scam!

Antigua, Guatemala to San Miguel, El Salvador via the San Cristobal Border

Highways: CA-1
Miles Driven: 239
Time to Destination: 8 hours
Time at Border: 1 hour (including the hassle)
Border Fees: $40 (should have been $0)
Road Conditions: Good on the CA-1, not so great on the city streets northeast of Antigua

Attempting to avoid Guatemala City traffic we stayed south of it through a couple of small mountain towns, driving east to where the Pan-American Highway picks back up to take you over to the San Cristobal border into El Salvador.

Less than an hour into the drive, we came to a dead stop in a one-lane town for quite a while. Assuming it was a blockade of some kind, we almost turned around to head into Guatemala City, but luckily began to inch forward and were finally let through (about a 30-45 minute delay). Getting to the front, we realized it was just a broken traffic light with police officers doing their best to control the convergence of three main roads. Shortly after this, we hit another 20-minute delay with the same problem: three main roads converging into one with no road signs to organize the traffic. Welcome to Guatemala.

We’re still not sure if taking this “shortcut” is actually shorter than driving directly through Guatemala City, but we “kind of “ made up for the lost time when we hit the Pan-American.

The border came out of nowhere. We were still snacking on lunch in the car and suddenly it was upon us. Up to this point our border crossings have been SO easy, which I think made us either a little too lazy or too confident and it ended up costing us $40, quite a bit of time, and a LOT of stress (easily avoidable by following these guides: Life Remotely & Along Dusty Roads).

About a mile away from the border, men began to swarm our car. We've heard other travelers refer to them as ‘touts’ and we were NOT prepared. We did a good job avoiding the first round of them, but beware, they whistle to their friends up the road letting them know to get ready for the gringos approaching.

The border was quiet… which, normally would have been a good thing, meaning no lines and a quick crossing. But for us, it just meant no other travelers to hassle. So EVERY tout and moneychanger working the border stayed right on top of us. They directed our car from one side of the building to the other, then walked us over to the wrong window, only to confuse us so that their re-direction to the “correct" window would seem helpful. And it worked, because we mistakenly thanked one of the men (inadvertently inviting him to hang around while we handed the official our passports).

Through a Plexiglas window, she practically WHISPERED a few sentences to us in Spanish. After asking her to repeat herself more than once, the tout finally jumps in (as if on cue) to say “Oh so you don't speak Spanish?” Um… not well no, but usually it's enough to get by (and right now this is an issue of the woman’s quiet voice, not a lack of understanding…).

Then suddenly the woman (much louder this time) starts to speak only to the tout, looking very annoyed anytime we spoke up. Our new scam artist friend proceeded to make the conversation much more confusing than it needed to be, acting as if the previous border crossing had failed to take some action that was going to “give us trouble later”.  He was REALLY helping us out you see… making sure we’d be taken care of down the road ;)

It took us longer than we like to admit to realize that nothing was wrong with our passports and this man was not actually being helpful at all. He was simply buying time at the window so he could charge us more for his “services”. Keep in mind this is all happening at the very FIRST step of our border crossing. Typically, there is not much to do at this point except explain how long you were in the current country and where you are headed next. After answering these two questions, they stamp your passport, cancel your car permit and send you on your way. The longer, more complicated steps usually happen when ENTERING the following country. Exits are supposed to be the easy part. But again, we weren’t prepared for this tout and he was definitely a professional.

Walking away, this man has our passports AND the receipt showing we cancelled our car permit. No bueno. And now, ironically enough, WE are following HIM around. He asks for $20 PER PERSON for his help and says he won’t give us our paperwork until he gets it.

So we pay him and he hands us our passports… but he still has our permit receipt!

He tells us to go to the car and wait while he goes back inside to “handle something else”. Tyler needs to move the car anyway so while he does this, Meg follows the guy back and forth on the sidewalk. He keeps saying, “No! Just go wait over there. I have to go in, I have to go inside”. Meg is laughing a little now saying, “Absolutely not, I’ll wait RIGHT HERE. I’m also HAPPY to go inside and speak to the officials myself”. He’s frustrated now, and despite my smirk, SO AM I. In fact, I’m losing my patience. We just paid this man $40 and he’s STILL wasting our time. “GIVE ME THE CAR RECEIPT NOW” I’m telling him (as calmly as possible). So he finally starts to un-staple the 3 pieces of paper, gives ONE to me, keeps one for himself, and quickly hands the third off to his friend who starts to walk in the other direction… There’s no way I can chase them both down. Thankfully Tyler is walking back now, he snags the piece of paper from the friend while I grab the one out of our original tout’s hand and we B-line it for the car.

WHAT THE HECK JUST HAPPENED?!?!

We’re mad. Customs in El Salvador were a breeze compared to that. We didn’t have to pay any money, the officials were friendly, and the touts were nowhere to be found.

Nonetheless, here is how it happened for us:

We parked our car immediately to the right of the small building over the bridge and an officer directed us (make sure he’s an officer and not a well-dressed tout) to the large customs building across the street. We walked in (first in line), told the official where we were coming from and where we were going, then he stamped out passports. He also explained that the stamp we received in Guatemala, actually works as a VISA for Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua (we’d read about this before we left but we’d forgotten, and appreciated the information… wishing we’d known this at the last border).

The good news: $0 for entry and a very friendly official.

There was a LITTLE bit of back and forth between the car inspection (at the bridge) and the building (back across the street) where they enter the information. At the bridge, the official will compare your paperwork from the last border to your title and the VIN as its listed on your car. Then he will walk you back across the street to the other side of the same building where you had your passports stamped. You’ll wait inside for longer than you should while they… well we’re not actually sure. But our car was still parked back on at the border so while Meg waited inside, Tyler went to check on it (just to be safe).

Eventually they will hand you your paperwork and will send you back to the building by your car and the border. Here you’ll wait again, but this time it’s outside. Try and make friends, because it helped us A LOT. When your Spanish is sub-par, they have every right to be annoyed with your for making their job more difficult. So smile and be nice. Remember, they have to sit outside in the heat ALL DAY, you’re just here for an hour.

Being sweet to these men (and at least ATTEMPTING to speak Spanish) meant that we were invited inside the tiny little (air-conditioned!!!!) building to answer the final car questions. Basically, you just need to know the make, model, color, year, and cylinders. They gave us a receipt and wished us well. We thanked them A LOT for being so nice.   

Driving through El Salvador, we were very upset with ourselves. After a few miles of unproductive complaining about falling for the tout, not reading up on the border before we pulled in (we ran out of time), and not speaking Spanish, we decide it’s not benefiting us in any way and we chalk it up to a good lesson learned… even though Tyler is still clearly in a bad mood (but who can blame him??).

The primary take away?
WE HAVE TO IMPROVE OUR SPANISH.

So for the entire length of the country, we put on our Spanish Learning Podcast and tried to relax. We’d heard horror stories about the many military checkpoints in El Salvador so we were trying not to get worked up about the potential for even more delays.

Sure enough, about an hour into our drive, we get pulled over. Here we go again… The officer walks up to the window, and to our surprise, asks us how our day is going, where we are headed and if we’re okay. No license needed, no car search. We say, “Yeah, we’re great!” and this lovely man just smiles and says, “Ok, enjoy your trip!” (2 minutes)

Entering San Miguel, El Salvador our GPS dead ends on a really sketchy street that looks like it might back up to a main road? But we’re not sure… and it’s DEFINITELY not a hotel. It’s getting late, and this is NOT the kind of town we want to be traveling around in after dark. Game plan? Get to that main road and just look for any decent hotel, who cares if we don't show up to our reservation we just need a safe place to park.

Lucky for us, our hotel was directly off that main road, but the sign was just hidden by the chaos that is San Miguel. It had a private, well-lit parking lot tucked in the courtyard of the hotel, and a security guard standing at the entrance. Good.

Our room was pretty crappy for the money we paid (P.S. El Salvador uses the dollar). I guess we should be thankful that we didn’t book something for less $$$.

Contact us for more lodging recommendations. We know some of our overland friends will be camping and they probably have less expensive recommendations. Also, always check out the iOverlander App. 

The wait staff at the hotel restaurant were GREAT; so accommodating and sweet. They tried very hard to speak English even though they didn't need to. They also helped Meg pick out a dessert :) 

Thank goodness for our nice dinner because Tyler’s mood hadn’t changed, mostly in anticipation of the following day (TWO MORE border crossings). We really didn't want a repeat of today… TWICE…

Meg did her best to tell Tyler she was having SO MUCH FUN ON THIS TRIP and couldn’t WAIT for two more border crossings the next day ;) ;) He smirked, and that’s good enough for Meg!

We signed up for this. And this is just part of the journey? Besides, what are the odds we’ll have as much trouble tomorrow as we did today? We definitely won’t make the tout mistake again so what else could really go wrong…?

See you down the road!

Meg + Tyler

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