I take for granted, the amount of research we do prior to embarking on an international journey. Every country has different Visa requirements when traveling abroad. For example, Mexico allows US citizens 180 days for an FMM card (Forma Migratoria Múltiple- tourist visa, if you will), Belize issues only 30 days and Guatemala issues a tourist visa for 90 days (in conjunction to use those 90 days in El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua without needing to get a new stamp), which you can renew for an additional 90 days for a total of 180 days. Should you choose to extend your stay in any of these countries, you do have the option to go to your nearest Immigration office (Usually in the nearest VERY LARGE city) or you can do a “visa run.”
When we first entered Mexico, Bronson was absolutely sure that 6 months would be plenty of time to explore the entire country of Mexico, but let me put it into perspective for all of our readers. Mexico is literally 1/5 the size of the USA. We spent so much of our lives exploring the USA (we’re both in our 40’s) and still haven’t seen all there is to see there. I told Bronson there was no way we’d be able to see the entire country of Mexico in 6 months. We ended up having to do a visa run back to the US (many reasons for this) to renew our FMM’s. After heading back down into Mexico and spending an additional month for a total of 7 months in Mexico, we still have just barely scratched the surface of that amazing country. We ventured through Belize, we spent 30 days there, and I felt that it was just a little short of what we really needed to really explore, but there is so much undeveloped area out in Belize that 30 days is sufficient to see the highlights. Which brings us to Guatemala.
Oh Guatemala, you have our hearts. This country is tiny, but it packs a super punch. From beautiful lakes, volcanoes, Pacific and Atlantic oceans, to mountains, jungles and coffee. The vibrancy of all the colors you can find in such a small place. It’s not nearly as cheap as Mexico, and the lakes and rivers aren’t as plentiful, but what it lacks in size definitely makes up for it in quality. From small colonial towns to large bustling cities and everything in between, Guatemala has something for everyone. It has so much to do and so many places to explore that if you have three months to spend, you’ll likely find you’re running out of time and still have months-worth of exploring to do.
We thought that three months would be plenty of time for such a small country, but then we decided that we wanted to take Spanish lessons… For a month… Four hours a day… Five days per week… That left us to explore only on the weekends, when EVERYBODY is out exploring and doing other touristy things. This made exploration very difficult. That coupled with friends and family visiting for three weeks also cut into our timeline. We took them around and showed them all the places we had explored near our current destinations. So for nearly two of our first three months our time was occupied. We were able to explore a little around Petén (Flores, El Remate), Coban (Semuc Champey), Poptún, Huehuetenango (Laguna Brava, Cimarrón, Cenote Candelaria), Chimaltenango (Chimaltenango, Tecpan, Ixtep) Sacatapequez (La Antigua), Sololá (Lake Atítlan), Chichicastenango, just to name a few; But travel in these parts even though the miles seem low, the hours tick by and it seems like you’ve gone thousands of miles, but in reality, you’ve literally spanned maybe 40 miles and it took you nearly 5 hours.
Nothing gets done quickly and that’s just something you have to get used to once you leave the US border and head south. Don’t plan on anything being organized or anyone having the most up to date information and forget about uniformity in how things are supposed to be handled. You want to find a restaurant? Don’t rely on Google maps, you have to use Facebook and even then, call first (use WhatsApp, that’s what everyone here uses) and ask what their location is. Businesses move so often it will make your head spin. What was there yesterday is something else today. Leave all your US expectations at the door or you’ll be sorely disappointed and always irritated and you’ll never want to come back. Expectations kill improvisation.
We initially crossed the border December 16th, 2019. We had 90 days on our Visa’s which meant they were expiring on March 15th and we wanted to stay put for the Semana Santa celebration which didn’t take place until April 5-12. After realizing we were close to our expiration date and hearing all sorts of stories about going to the immigration office in Guatemala City and having to leave our passports with them for 8 days or longer, we decided to make a run to the Mexico border from La Antigua, Guatemala. It’s roughly a 6-hour drive but there were places we had yet to explore. We decided to rent a house for March and April to take a break from the road and just reset ourselves. We decided to take 10 days and do our visa run to Mexico while exploring the northwestern area of Guatemala. The area was beautiful. We actually crossed the border into Mexico the first night via a rancher’s property, not a formal border crossing (totally illegal, I know). We paid the man 50 Pesos and continued to a campground called Lagos de Colón. It was beautiful. We stayed there two nights and retraced our route back to Guatemala and headed north to Cimarron, Cenote Candelaria, Finca Chacula and then up to Laguna Brava. We took a guide who paddled our boat out to a private rancher’s estate. Let me tell you a little about this “boat.” When we arrived, we saw a bunch of little paddle boats that were literally sunken under water. When we discussed that we wanted to rent a boat, the man jumped out from behind the counter, grabbed a bucket and literally started baling out the water. 10 minutes later, we boarded this boat and he paddled us to an area only accessible by boat. We traversed the private ranch land and hiked up to beautiful private waterfalls with cool (more like freezing), refreshing pools of pristine water. We returned to the parking lot where we camped out for the night before heading to the Mexico border the next day.
We headed out to Gracias A Dios border crossing the next morning. When we arrived, we were told there was no Aduana for vehicle permits and would have to go all the way back down to La Mesilla (a 2-hour drive). We packed in and headed out to La Mesilla, but hit a bunch of road work and road closures. This made us 10 minutes late for the border crossing and we were turned away at the border and had to find a hotel to sleep in for the night. The whole experience was kinda shitty, but oh well. Maybe we should’ve planned better. We spent the equivalent to $12 USD on a room that was also pet friendly and close to the border and had secured parking and hot water, so all we had to do was wake up and leave.
When we awoke the next morning, we went to the Aduana, got our passports exit stamped and vehicle inspected and were told that we had to be back in the country before March 15th or they could not renew our vehicle permit and we’d have to go through the entire inspection and pay again for a new permit. We acknowledged that we’d be back before then and we hit the ground running. We wanted to get to Lagos de Montebello, in Chiapas, Mexico. It was only an hour drive from the border, but we wanted to find a place to camp and see some of the surrounding beauty. We lucked out. We got there early, gained entrance to the area and found a place to camp. We stayed overnight at Lago Tzicao. This lake straddles the borders of Guatemala and Mexico, but there is no formal border crossing in which to renew your visa or vehicle permit. After staying for one night, we decided to head back to the border sooner than later because we were getting updates from the Guatemalan government about possible border closures due to CoVid-19.
We arrived back at the La Mesilla border on March 13, had the vehicle inspected and all the paperwork stamped. They gave us a vehicle extension (your vehicle is tied to you and your passport, it’s not counted separately. If you are legally in the country, they can extend your vehicle permit to match your passport, it’s very simple and easy and doesn’t cost any extra as long as your permit has not expired). As we were coming back in, the immigration officer tried to tell us we had to be quarantined because we were from the USA. I explained in my most polite way that we had literally only been gone for two days to do our visa run and that we were currently living in Antigua. I showed a copy of our lease agreement and our exit stamp from Guatemala. He allowed us to proceed to the health office where they checked our temperatures and allowed us to continue on. The very next day, the president of Guatemala ordered all land, sea and air borders to be closed to all incoming tourists starting that Monday. Anyone who was not a National, Permanent resident or Diplomat and diplomat family was not allowed entry into Guatemala. The process from start to finish on re-entry was no more than 15 minutes for all three of us and the dog (they didn’t require any paperwork for the dog and there was no fee). We regained entry back into Guatemala for an additional 90 days and it didn’t cost us a dime. It does help, significantly if you or someone in your party speaks Spanish. We didn’t deal with any corruption or have to pay any bribes.
When we finally got back to Antigua, our neighbors told us all the schools had been closed for a minimum of 21 days, and the president was planning further closures due to CoVid-19 and that we were being put under toque de queda (curfew). Essential businesses would remain open while others would close temporarily. Restaurants would be open for delivery only. While we were gone on on our visa run, we had one person test positive in the country. Immediately upon receiving the results, the president here immediately shut down the country. The Monday following our return into the country all land. air and sea borders were closed to foreigners unless you were a permanent resident or diplomat and family; humanitarian aid was allowed on authorization only and not many people were offering it at this particular time. It was sudden and immediate. The streets of this beautiful colonial town which is normally bustling with tourists and vendors was empty, eerily quiet and deserted…. Welcome Covid, the world will be greatly affected by you. Travel will be impeded and made increasingly difficult if not impossible.
We have no plans to stop traveling, however, we will be keeping you up to date on what it’s like in each of the places we visit, borders we cross and what a shit-show it has become due to this virus. Wish us luck as we traverse this “new” world in which we all find ourselves.