After a year of being in Guatemala, most of it in some sort of lockdown or curfew, we decided to take one last jaunt as our last hoorah in Guatemala. We had taken our covid tests and knew that we only had 72 hours to leave Guatemala, enter and exit El Salvador and Honduras and enter into Nicaragua. That’s 6 border crossings in 72 hours, with a minimum of 14 hours of drive time, which anyone who has ever driven in Latin America can attest, will take you longer than the minimum… by at least 25%. We headed south toward the border to check out Cataratas El Salto since it was on our way as per the map… It turns out, it wasn’t quite on the way, it was south, then an hour and a half on a long dirt road that went north-east. We drove through tiny villages down long, washed out dirt roads with multiple river crossings and decided to camp overnight at the Cataratas El Salto. We set out early the next morning and in half an hour we finally made it to the border crossing of Pedro Alvarado (Guatemala)/La Hachadura (El Salvador). And that’s as far as we got.
The water was up to the doors, no leaks, no problems getting through the river, we did slip off of a slick rock and made use of our rock sliders. We hit pretty hard, and it barely made a scratch to the slider. We made it back to the village and ate breakfast at a little comedor (dining room, which is to say, someone who cooks out of their house or shack for passers-by) along the way.
As we approached the border, there was a few miles of trucker traffic, waiting to get to the border. No cars, no passenger vehicles. All passenger vehicles were driving into oncoming traffic, like no big deal. So we did the same. We bypassed all the truckers, were waved on by the police, military and the SAT. We were approached by one of the Tramite personnel. He asked if we wanted help with getting all of our vehicle and passport stuff taken care of. If you’ve ever been to any of these crossings with a car, these guys can be incredibly helpful, but not necessary. You do have to pay them for their services.
Firstly, we’ve overstayed our visa… by 25 days. This is because of Kaden’s passport and the dog’s Carnet de Pasaje (Dog passport) and all of her paperwork. Things in these developing countries is extremely disorganized and often the people working in the same office, doing the same things have different answers for every question you have. When we went to the immigration office in Guatemala City, they told us that we just needed to go to the El Salvador border and they could extend our visa for an additional 90 days in the CA-4 (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua). We just needed to pay our fine which was 15Q per person per day that we overstayed. Ok. Fine, we realized this was going to happen since the US Embassy didn’t open until late December and was only making appointments for people traveling within two weeks, and initially they were emergency passports for repatriation to the USA.
Our Visas expired on December 29 and we finally got an appointment for January 6 and were able to pick Kaden’s passport up at the US Embassy on January 14. Well, the Dog had to get her papers or risk having her in quarantine. This took an additional 4 days. We received her papers back from Guatemala City on Thursday, January 21. Then we had to schedule our Covid tests for the next day and get the results and be ready to cross the borders in order to make it to Nicaragua within 72 hours. Nothing happens fast here. NOTHING.
As we arrived at the border and I handed the man at immigration our passports and explained the situation. He told me that he couldn’t extend our visa. I explained that I didn’t expect him to, that I was supposed to apply for an extension at the El Salvador border. He stamped us out of Guatemala and told us we couldn’t return to Guatemala until we had left the CA-4. He said I had to pay a fine and then we would only be allowed 5 additional days to leave the CA-4. Seriously? Costa Rica’s land borders aren’t open and the nearest country to leave the CA-4 is Mexico. We’d have to drive all the way to Mexico (but we can’t go back through Guatemala so how would we get there?), cross the border, cross back in to Guatemala, drive down all the way back to the border we’re already at, and try to make it through El Salvador and Honduras to Nicaragua within 48 hours or have to spend another $240 for Covid tests. That’s a total of 8 border crossings in 2 days. In totally opposite directions. Not happening.
I had to show them I had hotels booked for Nicaragua, which I made on the fly, since we camp nearly everywhere we go. He gave me the cost of the fine and told me to pay at the bank. Our helpful Tramite worker brought me to the bank where, get a load of this shit…. They only take cash (unless you have a banrural card) and they don’t have an ATM machine nearby. The closest one is in….. El Salvador. So Bronson hopped on the motorbike with our friendly Tramite person, Julio. He took Bronson to an ATM a few blocks away and get a load of this… The ATM machine was BROKEN. They had to call a repair man to fix it. Which took an additional 20 minutes. With money in hand for the fine, I paid at the bank, got the receipt and returned to the immigration window with passports in hand. I handed everything over to the immigration officer who gave them to his boss, while he processed all of the truckers and foot traffic that were nationals.
After about 15 minutes, I poked my head in and asked about our passports, he retrieved them and started to enter all of the information in the computer. This took about 5 minutes. Then it was off to the Aduana office to process the paperwork for the car. Yes, this was all done separately at different offices not 30 meters away from each other. We had already been at this border for over an hour and a half, literally waiting for them to get their shit together. The lady at the Aduana office checked our vehicle VIN with the permit paperwork we provided from when we entered Guatemala. She then said we needed to pay an additional fine for the vehicle. It totaled 350Q. And guess what??? The bank was closed, so I couldn’t pay the fine. They are literally only open 4 hours on the weekend. Julian took me to 4 other tramite offices trying to get the paperwork processed which needed to be done online, with the bank. But guess what? The bank goes offline when the office closes, so they couldn’t even take my money to issue me the cancellation of my permit. So here we were at 1:15 in the afternoon, the bank just closed and literally stuck at the border for an additional night because of the lack of organization of all of these government offices. This is literally worse than the DMV.
I asked the man at the Aduana why I couldn’t pay at the Aduana office. He explained that they aren’t authorized to take money. Only the bank is, this eliminates “corruption” and all I could think was, “really? I would imagine that lots of people in my situation would pay a bribe to get across the border and continue on.” Not us, but lots of other people on different time schedules and limited resources.
Julio took us across the street and showed us a dingy hotel to stay at, and told us he’d be back in the morning to get us across the border and help with any issues at the El Salvador border. I could have done all of this without his help, but I didn’t want the hassle. It was already frustrating dealing with what we had to deal with. He spent most of his time explaining to the other officials, our travel plans. He didn’t try to scam us out of money, he just tried to get us through the process and into El Salvador.
Ultimately, if you’re planning on leaving Guatemala, I found it much harder to leave than to get in, I’m pretty sure this is due to our overstay and fines though. I’m sure it’s easier if you’re within your 90 days. A couple of take aways…
- The daily fine is Q15 per person per day that you’re over on your visa roughly the equivalent of $2.00 USD.
- The vehicle is tied to your visa and is roughly the same amount Q15 per day per vehicle.
- Bring cash, they don’t accept cards and there is no ATM machine there at the border.
- Bypass the long line of truckers, follow the other passenger vehicles, this is totally normal and expected.
- Try not to cross on the weekend, the bank has limited hours and the disorganization is astounding.
- Try not to overstay your visa. We didn’t really have a choice with an expired passport and closed embassy, but this is Covid times and things are weird and everyone is doing their best.
- Try to go with the flow. I was super pissed earlier, but shit happens. It’s out of our control and once you concede defeat, you can move on.
Tomorrow is another day, hopefully we can blow through the next couple of borders and get an immigration attorney in Nicaragua to extend our visas. We’ll let you know what happens. Wish us luck!