Retire Smarter

  Stretch the dollar of limited income

Through Guatemala to El Salvador


   Jun 22

Through Guatemala to El Salvador

Crossing the Guatemala Border

My entry to Guatemala was very relaxed in comparison to Mexico and I paid for it dearly through Martin.

He had an hour to get it done to get paid. He was running around with my documents and I was enjoying AC in the car. It was hot outside and muggy. Meanwhile, a money exchanger approached and offered to exchanged my MXP to Quetzals (Guatemala money). I realized later that this wasn’t good deal I got (about 11% haircut), but the loss wasn’t that large as the amounts were not big.

Meanwhile Martin worked the system. Once in awhile officials came by to take pictures of VIN number, truck id plate and license plate. No-one even asked my to open the bed cover and I did not offer it anticipating trouble when they see the stuff. Little before the hour was over Martin came back asking for money for fees. He explained that this is one time fee for all Central America including Panama I ever have to pay for passage. When I offered to come with him and pay, he was very adamant that he is the only one that can do it and if I come I’ll ruin everything. Well’ this is where I should have stopped and give him boot, not money. I suspected he was lying about the fees, but my concern about a Mexico customs (aduana) repeat made me very reluctant to take it over. I wanted to get going and after some haggling I gave him the money.

That Is The Pass To Guatemala

That Is The Pass To Guatemala

My first Central American border crossing from Mexico to Guatemala was smooth and fast. Yet, it was also much more expensive because I did not have experience. Learn from my failure and do not do it unless getting out fast is the only thing important to you. In the beginning I never set a condition that I will be paying all official fees in person, but should have. Martin did what we agreed, and I paid Martin agreed fee after we got through to the streets in Guatemala.

Lesson learned

Tramidor’ facilitates the complex bureaucratic process at the border, speeds it up by using his/her personal relations to the officials to by-pass waiting lines. Sometimes this requires some type of payment to this official. If you feel, it is useful in your situation then do it, but better do it in person as otherwise you have no control or knowledge whether he is paying someone or himself.

If you do not speak Spanish and the tramitor is bilingual, they are useful as translators as well, but they introduce security risk for your money and for documents unless you yourself are involved in person in every step of the process.

Unless warrantied by the situation do not:
- Hand over your documents to a tramitor; instead, let him show you where to go and what to pay.

- Hand over money to pay the official fees and propinas. Go with him and pay yourself in person for all. Official fees are mostly posted in the offices and you should always request a receipt. Numbers are same in English and Spanish. Without translator you may not know what it is for, but you know how much.

Never use local money exchangers unless the amounts are so insignificant that you do not care. Be prepared for around 10% haircut in these exchanges. There are always banks around you get at least secondary dealer (about 3 – 3.5% haircut) exchange rate.

Driving through Guatemala

The town on Guatemalan side of the border crossing with Mexico does look a lot like something from the Far East. Narrow streets, three-wheel bicycles pedaled for personal transportation and taxis, etc.

At first impression of Guatemala is visible poorer than Mexico. Roads from the border crossing toward the Guatemala City are worse and driver’s behavior is very aggressive. There is no courtesy in letting faster vehicles pass or for slow truck pulling aside to let the faster cars ahead. Highway from the border to the Guatemala City are filled to the brink. Traffic is very heavy. Life on the roads of Guatemala certainly are stressful because they drive like crazy. The speed limits are defined by slow moving big trucks. In March they were hauling sugar cane. Sugar cane is light. The truck bed sides were built up very high and loaded to the brink with canes occasionally dropping down to the road. Commonly a truck was pulling two or more trailers similarly equipped with high beds and fully loaded.

Speed limit defined by slow traffic

Speed limit defined by slow traffic

Although poor there are still lots of nice houses built fresh in the villages and towns I passed. The countryside is beautiful beyond imagination and people are very friendly, at least the ones I encountered are. People are working, perhaps not earning enough, but earning nevertheless.

Endless sugarcane fields with Mountains on horizon

Endless sugarcane fields with Mountains on horizon

Inside the country a sign “Guatemala” means Guatemala City. The Guatemala road system is like a star where all roads end or start in the Guatemala. There are few lateral roads outside Guatemala and they are poorly identified. My route took me from the border crossing to a town Escuintla some 30 Km South from Guatemala where a few kilometer long lateral road connects to the road leading to the border crossing with El Salvador. The road from the border was well equipped with signs and finding my direction was simple until Escuintla (about that little later). Some road signs are sometimes confusing but much better than I expected. Deficiency of maps adds to the confusion and occasionally leads to incorrect turns.

Following the road on the map (Google map) I ended up on a long and congested by-pass road around a small town Mazatenango instead of taking the many times shorter straight through road. These 2 kilometers took me 1.5 hours to get through. I saw the sign pointing straight to Guatemala and majority of traffic going straight, but the road on all maps turned right. There was no way for me to know. The traffic stopped completely for a while, then moved few meters and stopped again. I thought there must be an accident somewhere ahead. Yet, the road was very narrow and to turn around would have taken few times back and forth. The occasional traffic coming in the opposite lane with very high speed made this maneuver dangerous. I stayed on the course. It took 1.5 hours to inch 2 kilometers to an unregulated intersection where my direction had to yield. That was all there was to it. No accident, no road construction, just and unregulated busy intersection Fri afternoon.

Nice houses at road side

Nice houses at road side

Once through the congestion it was clear that I will not reach Escuintla (about 100 km) this day without driving in dark. There was a simple looking hotel few kilometers after the clogged intersection, but it was fully booked . It was sugar cane harvesting time and workers from outside book the cheap hotels. I ended up driving in the dark again. It got scary when the local truck and bus drivers started passing me at high speed while I was going 60 MPH on a narrow curvy road. Must be Guatemala police’s work day ends at dusk. I asked directions for an hotel in a village gas station. The only hotel this village got turned out an auto hotel.

To my big surprise I was greeted by a guy with a serious shotgun and two blood hungry guard dogs at the entrance. I did not ask why, but the life in Guatemala village may not be as safe as it appeared during the day. The pretty receptionist lady quizzed me for a while about the whereabouts of my partner with wide grin on her face. She gave up convinced that my poor Spanish made it impossible for me to understand her innuendos. She showed me the room and tried to close the curtain. Wasn’t easy, 1/3 of truck did not fit in the small space they had.

Sleeping with my bags under romantic red light

Sleeping with my bags under romantic red light

This hotel room was very nicely set up and well thought through for the purpose. Yet, like frequently in Central America and Mexico the attention to the finishing details is inconsistent.

Once later I needed something from the truck and the guard with the dogs and gun appeared almost instantly behind me as soon as I opened the truck. Must be serious enough. Love hotels are frequently very close to the busy roads. The traffic noise waked me up numerous times during the night. Probably would have not been frustrated if next to me would have been a soft and warm body rather than bags.

Oversized bathroom

Oversized bathroom

Woken up by traffic got an early start at dawn, took a long warm shower (sometimes luxury on the road) and hit the road.

Stopped at the first gas station for coffee. Turned out a “Caffee Americano” – diluted with little if any caffeine, but helped me to drive anyway.

In half an hour I got to Escuintla intersection. It is a big modern multilevel intersection of 5 roads according to the maps. My route to El Salvador border crossing was one of the five. Exiting highways are nice divided 4 lanes. If you go wrong they will force you to drive some miles before you can turn around. Scarce signs pointed to some directions, but mine was lacking. I tried once and asked where I was few kilometers later. Turned out I was in wrong direction. Go back and try again. Again wrong. After two failed attempts I pulled to a gas station before the intersection where I saw the police officer washing his car. It did not take long for him to tell me that he will drive in front of me and show me to the right turn. He dropped his car washing, jumped in his car and escorted me through the intersection to the exit signed to a “Puerto Quetzal” , then drove few kilometers passed a large auto service center with pompous architecture and suddenly took a left turn with no signs whatsoever. That was the right road to the border crossing into El Salvador. Download my Guatemala trip-tick if you plan to drive same route to avoid getting lost there.

Highway to the border is in great condition. Smooth ride and much less traffic (possibly because it was Saturday morning). I reached the border with easy driving through a beautiful country side and few villages with no trouble.

Guatemala village

Guatemala village

Learned from my mistakes, I took a very different attitude toward tramitors. I told them clearly that I do not need their services, but they kept on hanging on anyway. Until El Salvador customs (aduana) everything was fast and smooth. I got my exit from Guatemala, paid the exit fees directly, canceled the car import permit and got my entry into El Salvador all in about 10 min.

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply