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Border crossing Nicaragua to Costa Rica at peñas blancas

Land Border crossing as foot passengers, Nicaragua to Costa Rica

People have been asking what the border crossings are like now during times of Covid. Well, let’s just say that Covid has definitely complicated border crossings. From health screenings and covid tests to timing of border crossings within the window of covid testing, and potential quarantine without the tests or straight up refusal of entry, many things have changed, but surprisingly a lot has remained the same.

Now that the Costa Rican land borders have opened to travelers that are Visa-free, it’s fairly easy to come and go between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The only hitch, is that if you are entering Nicaragua, you have to have a PCR covid test. This is non-negotiable. They will not allow you entry without it and Costa Rica has been very diligent in asking passengers for their covid test results prior to leaving Costa Rica. This way, they don’t stamp you out without having the ability to get in to Nicaragua, therefore stranding you in “no-man’s land” the area between the borders without facilities, unable to enter back to CR because you don’t have an exit stamp from another country, but you can’t get in to Nicaragua because you lack the proper covid test results.

That said, it’s pretty easy to cross the borders in both directions. At least on foot it is. Kaden and I had to go back to the USA for a family emergency back in April. Thankfully, the land border to CR had just opened two days prior to us having to cross to fly out. In Managua, the minimum cost for covid testing is $150.00 USD per person for any of the tests offered. The flights one-way to the US were $1048.00 USD per person and only one airline was flying and the total elapsed time would be 19-23 hours with a 9 hour layover. No thank you. I checked prices from Liberia, which is just over the border. Literally takes roughly the same amount of time to get there as it does to get to Managua from San Juan Del Sur. The cost break down is as follows:

One way ticket, 2 people from Libeira to Sacramento $430 USD ($215 ea)
Antigen covid testing for entry to USA $130 USD ($65 each)
Hotel one night $97 USD
Bus ride from Peñas Blancas border to Liberia bus station 1.5hr: $6 USD ($3 each)
Taxi from Bus station to hotel: $20 USD
Sagicor Costa Rica insurance Min 3 days $66.60 ($33.30 each)
Exit fee: $6 USD ($3 each)
Alcaldia Municipal tax $2 USD
($1 each)

Total: $757.60 USD

Note, there is a $3.00 fee to leave Nicaragua per person, and an additional $1 for the Alcaldia Municipal. There’s no reason for you to hire any tramite personal. The process is very easy and straight forward. Just walk up to the terminal de pasajeros on the Nicaragua side, there will be someone checking your passport prior to getting to the terminal. When you walk in, an immigration officer will call you up and start processing your exit. You will have to pay $3.00 per person in Dollars. They do not accept Cordoba. Another person will approach you and tell you that you have to pay $1.00, this is for the Alcaldia Municipal. This is a tax they use to maintain the few paved roads that Nicaragua has, you may pay this in Cordoba.

Note that as of August 1, 2021 if you are fully vaccinated and upload your vaccination card for verification when you fill out the pase de salud, you will not be required to have the mandatory insurance in Costa Rica. If parents are vaccinated and traveling with children, the children are not required to have insurance. Also note that as of January 8, 2022 Costa Rica will be implementing a “green pass” mandating that anyone wanting to go anywhere or do anything other than go to the grocery stores or pharmacies in Costa Rica must be vaccinated for everyone 12 years old and older. There is a petition from lawmakers to postpone this requirement through May 1, 2022. You can read more by copy and pasting the link below for more information.

Lawmakers petition to delay Costa Rica vaccine QR code

Leaving Nicaragua at Peñas Blancas for entry INTO Costa Rica:

From Nicaragua, you have to drive to Peñas Blancas, you can hire a taxi service, or a shuttle service or ask a friend for a ride. You can take Tica Bus or Nica Expreso that will pretty much do everything for you as well. I’ve never used them, but it sounds like they are pretty efficient from what I hear from other travelers who have used them. You do NOT have to be in Managua to get on the bus. They can pick you up from any of the stops along the way. If you are going by car on your own, make sure to pass the miles long trucker lane. You will be driving into oncoming traffic, but don’t worry. This is perfectly normal and expected. Just pull off to the side of the road and yield right of way when someone is coming at you. Easy peasy.

Have your ride drop you off at the pasajero building. It’s a huge white building with a blue guard post in front of it. It says Pasajero and Migracion salida de Nicaragua on it. You can’t miss it. There will be someone standing past the guard post on the sidewalk, checking your temperature, passports, pase de salud and validity of insurance for Costa Rica if needed. If you don’t have one of those things, you’ll have to do it prior to this person allowing you passage. Also note *there traditionally is no wifi or cell service at the border, it is often hot or miss, mostly miss. Try to make copies of all of your paperwork or screenshot it on your phone. The pase de salud can only be filled out 72 hours prior to your entry into Costa Rica and it will ask you for your insurance company (if needed), once it validates your information it will give you a QR code. I print everything so that the workers at Immigration and Customs don’t have to thumb through my phone. It’s easier for them and peace of mind for me.

Once you pass this person, go into the white Pasajero building and an immigration officer will call you up. You will pay $3.00 exit fee per person and another person will approach you asking for $1 additional per person for the Alcaldia Municipal which is a municipal tax. I pay the Alcaldia in Cordoba (local currency) and the exit fee in USD. In my experience, Nicaraguan Immigration has never accepted local currency for the exit or entrance fee, only USD.

They will then take your picture, give you an exit stamp in your passport and then you’ll walk past some TSA-like scanning machines and out the doors to “no-man’s land” You are now not really in Nicaragua, nor are you actually in Costa Rica.

There will be men on bicycles with passenger seats that will offer to give you a ride to the immigration office in Costa Rica. It’s not necessary, the walk is about a quarter mile. So if you aren’t in very good shape, have a ton of luggage, suffer from injury, or just don’t want to walk, it’s an option. We walked, it took about 15 minutes to get to the immigration office in CR. Along the way we saw military personnel and police around everywhere. I wasn’t sure if the building was going to be easy to find. It was obvious once we had arrived at the immigration office of CR. There was NO line. Not a single person. We walked up, handed our passports, insurance, and pase de salud QR code to the immigration officer. They entered our information asked a few questions and sent us on our way with entry stamps good for the amount of time on our insurance policy. We headed out to an area where they scanned our bags, I asked where and when the bus to Liberia would arrive and they told me the bus comes every hour and will arrive just outside. The whole immigration experience took less than an hour and we were officially in Costa Rica. We picked up our bags, went outside and within 20 minutes, the bus, sporting a sign “LIBERIA” in the front window appeared. We hopped on, paid in USD a total of $6 and received change in Colones. The bus ride took just over an hour and a half and we arrived at the Municipal Bus station in Liberia. From the bus station in Liberia we took a taxi to our hotel. The next morning, we arrived at the covid testing tent and got our antigen tests for $65 each and the results were back within 45 minutes.

If you’re looking to enter Costa Rica, this page has all the requirements needed:
https://www.visitcostarica.com/en/costa-rica/planning-your-trip/entry-requirements

There are a few companies out there offering “Costa Rican Insurance” but don’t specifically state that they do NOT meet all of Costa Rican insurance requirements. I’ve heard of some people getting lucky and getting through, and others that paid a ton of money, and were not allowed to enter until they provided a different policy that covered all insurance requirements.

These three companies are actually approved by the Costa Rican Government (I use Sagicor for short stays):

https://tiendasagicor.com/en/
https://www.bluecrossblueshieldcr.com/rod
https://micrositios.ins-cr.com/seguroviajero/

We have not taken our vehicle across the border to Costa Rica, however, if you plan to, you will be allowed 90 days in Costa Rica and then your vehicle will need to leave Costa Rica for 90 days to be granted additional time. You will need to purchase insurance from Costa Rica, cancel your import permit from Nicaragua and your visa to Nicaragua or the CA-4. Traditionally, there has been no cost for the import permit nor will it cost you anything to enter Costa Rica and get your 90 day tourist stamp. The immigration office is air conditioned and it doesn’t take too long unless someone in front of you didn’t fill out their pase de salud or didn’t purchase insurance due to not being vaccinated. (The last time I passed, it took me 15 minutes the first two times I was the only person in line and I was in and out in less than 5 minutes, including scanning my bag, however, I was a foot passenger not going by vehicle).

I hope this helps anyone trying to border-hop during these confusing and rapidly changing times!

Passport Renewal and we broke our tent…

Most of you know that we have been trying to get Kaden’s passport renewed since April, when the world shut down. Because we were planning on going back to the USA over the summer before the world closed, we didn’t have any of our birth certificates or important documents in order to get his passport renewed overseas. I ended up having to order all of our birth certificates and our marriage certificate (just to be on the safe side in case the embassy asked for all of it) and patiently (or rather, impatiently) waited until mid-December for the embassy to open.

Each of our birth certificates cost a different amount and they could only be sent to an address in the USA, they won’t ship internationally. I had all of those applications notarized so vital statistics department couldn’t refuse to send the documents. We had them sent to a family member who then was able to FedEx them to us in Guatemala. The cost to ship an envelope with 4 letter size envelopes that weighs less than 1 lb was $140.00. Plus the $50.00+ per birth certificate and $40 for our marriage certificate and the $115.00 for the passport (and 9.00 for passport photos), the passport renewal here cost us over $400.00. The lesson here is to make sure you bring your birth certificates and marriage certificate with you. That was the costliest part of the entire renewal.

Once I had the documents in hand, I e-mailed the US embassy and requested an appointment. I explained our travel situation and about 48 hours later, they sent me an appointment date and time, scheduled for two weeks from that day.

The day of our appointment, we decided to drive to Guatemala City really early because we needed to drop off our Dometic fridge for repairs because the temperature sensor was malfunctioning.

We drove around the city trying to find a place to park because you cannot park at the Embassy for security reasons. We found a parking lot a couple of blocks away. Knowing we couldn’t bring any of our electronic devices in, no purses, no bags. We showed up for our appointment about 30 minutes early, just to be safe and were told to wait in line and we would be called up when they were ready for us. The funny thing is you check in with the security guard out in front of the embassy. He takes your name and looks you up to confirm your appointment. Once verified, he tells you to stand in line. He speaks in Spanish, and very broken English. This could be very frustrating for US citizens that speak no Spanish, but not impossible. After verifying our appointment, he kindly asked us to stand in line and told us that there were two other families ahead of us.

While we were waiting in line, another man waiting to renew his passport struck up a conversation with us. He explained this was his third attempt at getting in for his renewal because each time he had one of the “prohibited” items. This time he literally brought only his ID and a manila envelope with his paperwork. He was called in pretty much right away and wished us luck. Apparently we need really good luck to get into the US Embassy as US citizens. The security is tight, but the guards are kind. All of them are Guatemalans and most don’t speak any English, but it’s easy enough to understand what they’re trying to convey if you don’t speak Spanish.

After an hour and fifteen minutes of waiting outside, we were finally called in for our appointment. Keep in mind if you do have to come here to get your passport or any other US citizen service, there are no places to sit except for ONE lone concrete bench that seats 4 adults. You will be standing in line the entire time or sitting on the ground. Once we were in the security screening section, we emptied our pockets and put all of our stuff on the conveyor belt for scanning, just like at any airport. We went through the metal detector and when Bronson put his keys in his bucket, the guard told him that the key fob couldn’t pass through because it is electronic and would need to be left outside of the US Embassy grounds. After trying to explain that it was our vehicle keys and without them we can’t get into our vehicle or lock our car, the guard remained unbudging. Good thing we brought the dog with us that day and parked in a private parking lot with guards. However, that doesn’t mean the guards wouldn’t try to take whatever we had in the vehicle. Bronson dropped the keys off in the car and locked it with the valet key. He returned to the Embassy and had no problem going through the security screening this time.

Once we got into the Embassy building, we were directed to another room by a guard inside. As we approached the room, it literally resembled a DMV office of the USA. Take a number, grab an empty chair and wait for your number to be called by a worker behind a bullet proof glass window. This part was pretty quick. About 5-10 minute wait before the woman at the counter called us up and took all of our paperwork. She asked for Kaden’s birth certificate, verified that we were his parents, took our passports, marriage certificate and the application for his passport renewal and started filling in the rest of the paperwork. She had us sign the application, gave us a ticket and told us to go to window 4 to pay the passport fee and come back. We went to the window, paid for the passport and went back to the little room.

It would be about 40 minutes before another man came to the window, asked us to give a sworn statement and pledge that we were truth in fact, Kaden’s parents and all the information we gave was correct and true to our knowledge. We did so, he returned our vital statistics certificates and passports, gave us another receipt for the passport payment and told us to return in 8 days to pick up the new passport. I asked if he was sure it would be ready on that day, he said not to worry about it, the passport for sure would be ready. He gave us a “return on” slip which you show to the guard at the embassy to let him know you are returning to pick up the passport because they don’t schedule a date for pick up.

We left the embassy and had a bunch of other things to do, Bronson needed a new computer, so we decided to stop at the Oakland Mall and see if the iShop had any in stock or available soon. As we got to the parking garage, our vehicle stands at 2.05 meters, the height of the parking garage said 2.1m. We knew we were cutting it close, but behind us was a long line of cars waiting for us to go in and there was no way to back out or go around because we were surrounded by brick walls on both sides of us. So in we went. We were fine at first, until we made the decision to go in the far left lane to get out of the flow of traffic. Well, in this ONE lane, there were lower lying steel beams that sat at 1.8m and we ended up scraping on one of them and crunching the top of the iKamper roof top tent. Before pulling any further into the garage, we parked in an unauthorized parking spot, took out an indicator light that designates the spot as open or closed and the sign that told us that this parking spot was off limits.

As we contemplated how best to get back out of the parking lot, we had a few options. 1) Wait until one of the owners of any of the vehicles in the surrounding parking spots returned and left, 2) go back the way we came and risk more damage to the iKamper or 3) take the roof top tent off and drive to a part of the garage that is 2.1 m and put the roof top tent back on.

We ultimately decided that taking the RTT off was the best option. We enlisted the help of 4 parking garage attendants to help us remove the tent. We placed it on the ground while deciding where to park the car and put the RTT back on. We took pictures of the damage, the parking garage attendants took pictures and the attendants told us that we should carry the RTT to the loading dock where all the big trucks come and do deliveries. We could park there and put the tent back on.

So we all carried the tent through the parking garage, up a flight of stairs to the loading dock. Bronson went to get the car and drive it around to the loading dock where the attendants helped us put the tent back on before taking pictures of our tent and parking stub. They said just to pay the parking stub when we leave since there isn’t a charge for parking for the loading dock and we don’t qualify as a delivery truck. They were so polite and helpful. They didn’t ask for anything and they noticed right away that we were having a problem. They were quick to see what we needed help with and they were really fast in finding a few strong and capable people to help when we needed it most. I will forever be thankful for these gentlemen. Very professional and eager to help and asked for nothing in return. The true spirit of humanity.

Once we finished picking out Bronson’s new computer, we were told the computer would be delivered between Monday and Friday of the following week. We were going to have to come back to the city to get Kaden’s passport anyway, and we decided we’d make a trip of it. As we were leaving the city, we sent a message to our friend Axel and told him about the iKamper. He went out of his way to buy us the things we needed in order to repair the tent. He left all of those things on his work bench and told us that we were free to use his garage and that all of the materials were there and ready for our usage.

On the way back to Antigua from the city, Bronson called our friend Axel and told him of our woes of the day. Axel went out of his way, bought us a bunch of fiberglass repair materials and allowed us access to his garage to fix our tent when we had time. As we were on our way to his house, we got caught in HOURS long traffic. It felt like being back in Los Angeles at the 110/405 intersect during rush hour. It took us 3 hours to drive 2.5 miles. The entire 16 mile trip took us just over 4 hours, but we arrived back at our little rental and decided to call it a day, the tent repair would have to wait for another day, literally the very next day. I bet Bronson never knew how handy it would be to have developed the skill of repairing surf boards when we lived at the beach.

Fixed and ready for the next adventure. Stay tuned for the upcoming shenanigans as we put his handiwork to the test.

2020 A year of reflection

Pretty sure we all felt like this at one point or another

As 2020 approached and we said good-bye to 2019, we were hoping for the new year to bring new adventures in far away lands. What we got, was anything but that. A year with strict lockdowns, curfews and mask mandates, closed public spaces, schools, restaurants, land borders and grounded international flights was what the world had in store for us.

We’ve had a lot of people in the US who rightfully complain to us about the mask mandates and lockdowns. Let me be clear- we all deal with confinement in our own way. Some handle it better than others. Some people are okay with being stuck inside. Some people never really want to leave the confines of what is comfortable and safe. That is perfectly fine. There is nothing wrong with that, but we aren’t those kinds of people. We are movers. We like to be outside, playing in nature, discovering new things, exploring new places we’ve never seen. We like taking the road less traveled. That road has led us to many unexpected and beautiful places filled with some of the most amazing people and scenery you could possibly imagine.

As I reflect on everything that happened in 2020, or shall I say all the things that didn’t happen, there is a lot I’ve come to realize. One of the most important things that I often lose sight of, is that we are exactly where we are supposed to be at any given time. As hard as we fought to make it through border crossings and make our way south before 2021 began, we never made it out of Guatemala. There was a myriad of reasons that we ended up stuck in Guatemala for over a year during Covid-19. As I look back on some of those reasons, it’s clear to me that the world or God or whatever higher power you believe in, kept us there for very good reasons.

It’s really the butterfly effect. If you don’t know what that is, in chaos theory, basically when a butterfly flaps its wings, it sends ripples through the air that effect everything around it, which in turn effects all the things around those objects and so on and so forth. Essentially small causes (the butterfly flapping its wings) create large consequences, whether good or bad.

We had planned on only being in Guatemala to experience Semana Santa during April 2020. We made a quick run to the Mexico border in March to exit Guatemala and re-enter for an additional 90 day stay. When we left Guatemala and crossed in to Mexico, the Guatemalan border official told us to make sure we were back by Sunday because the land border would be officially closed come Monday morning. We cut our Mexico stay a few days short to make sure we made it back in time. We decided that we would rent a house in Antigua from Mid march through mid April, we’d get to see Semana Santa and then we’d head out and continue south to El Salvador and explore the rest of Central America before shipping our vehicle to Colombia. Little did we know, the severity of the outbreak of Covid-19 around the world would bring life to a grinding halt.

We had only crossed in to Mexico three days prior and when we arrived back at the border to Guatemala, they had hand sanitizing stations set up, mask mandates in effect and temperature checks mandatory along with a health screening upon entry. Basically they just asked if we had any symptoms associated with Covid-19.

We arrived at our new condo and made friends with our neighbors whose children were in the local International, Green and Montessori schools. The schools had been closed since before we even got to Mexico. Everything began to close down. Restaurants, Bars, Gyms… Everything. We would turn on the national news channel where the president of Guatemala would give presidential addresses and updates of the Covid-19 situation in the country. We figured we’d be locked down for 2 weeks, and then everything would probably go back to normal. Then it seemed like everyone around the world that got really sick from Covid started becoming statistics. The president of Guatemala mandated masks threatening a $1000.00 USD fine for anyone found not wearing one while outside. He grounded all flights in and out of Guatemala, closed all land and sea borders, closed all public spaces including beaches and parks, closed any inside venue including dining. Literally the only thing you were allowed to do was to grocery shop, pick up to go food, and go the the hospital and pharmacy. The president implemented a curfew during the week and prohibited leaving your house except for emergencies on the weekends. All public busses stopped running and all you had was local tuk-tuks, Uber and Taxi’s. Some of the drivers made you even disinfect the bottom of your shoes before getting in the vehicle.

Ok. This started to suck, but we figured it was only for a couple of weeks, while they figured out how to control any outbreak of this new virus. Except, it didn’t last for a couple of weeks. It lasted for 7 months. They even went so far as to eventually restrict travel between departments which is the equivalent of restricting travel between states in the USA (though departments are literally the size of small counties in the US I equate it as traveling through different counties rather than states). Each neighborhood had their own sanitizing station to sanitize your vehicle before you entered and before you left. People would volunteer to chemically disinfect your vehicle to minimize the spread of the virus.

After a few months of lockdown in the Condo area we were living in, the administration came and told all residents that the kids were no longer allowed to play in the parking lot nor use the park equipment even though it’s not public. At that point we decided to leave. We couldn’t handle being under house arrest. We didn’t do anything wrong. Why were we being punished? Nobody in our complex had even really left except for one family. Other than that, everyone that lived in the complex literally almost never left. One of the ladies was elderly, so instead of having her go shopping, she’d give us her grocery list and we’d get her everything she needed.

The lockdown got to be so intense that everyone we made friends with decided to go back to their home countries. They couldn’t handle the oppression we were suffering. But to be honest, the thought to return to the USA never once crossed my mind. Not that I’m averse to returning to my home country, but I was hoping against hope that the world would reopen and things could go back to mostly normal. I figured 2 years is about how long it takes to develop a vaccine, and that in 2 years time things could go back to normal. Whether people choose to vaccinate or not is none of my business and it isn’t yours either. People do what they think is best for them, so let them be.

After 6 months of strict lockdown, restrictions started to ease. We were finally allowed to travel between departments in October. The land borders to El Salvador and Honduras finally opened but all other restrictions were still in place. No public spaces were open, all restaurants were still closed except for take out, schools were still closed, we were still under curfew, etc, so we had to make sure to be back before the streets were locked down or risk being arrested. The US embassy stayed closed until January 2021. We had been trying since April 2020 to get an appointment for Kaden’s passport renewal because it expired in January 2021. We waited 9 months for the Consulate to reopen. 9 full months. They only allowed us an appointment because I told them we were planning on leaving in 2 weeks to head south.

In October 2020, we decided we’d had enough of Antigua and needed to be more remote, where we wouldn’t be bothered if we went outside. We rented a house on the beach in El Paredon. We had a huge pool and were beach front on a private beach. It was quite an amazing month considering what the last 6 months had given us. By November 2020 our month long stay at the beach was up, we were finally allowed to walk around the streets, flights had been rescheduled to start again and Guatemala was trying to welcome tourists to help jumpstart their economy. We moved in with some friends in Chimaltenango where we weathered Hurricanes Eta and Iota. It destroyed parts of Northern Guatemala and the Caribbean sides of Honduras, and Nicaragua and Eastern El Salvador and Costa Rica. By the time the Hurricanes were overhead where we were staying, they had become tropical depressions and we stayed safe. The same could not be said had we been traveling and doing the things we originally wanted to do at that time.

In December 2020, the president was again talking about another potential longterm lockdown. Having just gone through that and spending almost a year in house arrest, we were frantic trying to get all of our stuff together to get out of Guatemala ASAP. We missed going to a few places and seeing all of the things we wanted to see because of Covid, but through it all, we were right where we were supposed to be.

When we finally left Guatemala, we had to take our covid tests and were given 72 hours to find our next location. We were kicked out of the CA-4 and told we had 5 days to leave and renew our visas. That fiasco is documented in a different blog. Long story short, we made the long drive down to Nicaragua in 3 days with literally 20 minutes to spare before our covid tests would have expired and we would have been denied entry into Nicaragua. The Costa Rican border was still closed and there were no flights leaving Nicaragua. We were stuck. But, when life hands you lemons…. The lemonade of the situation and part of the butterfly effect, Kaden made a new best friend in Nicaragua, we became friend with some great people and they quickly have become like family. Had we left earlier, we may have never met these amazing people and Kaden would likely not have made this best friend. We are not locked down, we are not mandated to wear masks unless in a public building. Everything is open and most everything you’ll want to do is outside anyway.

In waiting and suffering the profound effects that were put on the entire world, we have found good fortune. We have known a lot of friends who have had covid. A few that nearly died. We have friends of friends whom have nearly lost entire families to it, leaving orphaned children. We see the long term effects that covid has had on our friends that nearly died, but we ourselves have not had any direct friends or family that died from it.

So I hope this year of reflection gives each and every one of us something to be grateful for. We’ve all mourned the loss of normality as we have known it our whole lives. We may have mourned the loss of jobs, friends, family, wealth, homes, etc. But what do you have in your life that you can be grateful for? The neighbor that dropped soup off at your doorstep when you were sick? The friend who took your kids for a playdate when you needed a minute to decompress? The time you finally got to spend with your family who has been missing you so much but they don’t know how to express it? The ability to leave social media or clear out your friends list so you keep your inner circle closer? The ability to see through the bullshit and really realize what’s important? Take the small victories. Be proud that you’ve come this far. You’re still alive, you’re still breathing. You still have a chance to do something you never would have thought of doing until now. You still have the ability to create the life you’ve always wanted. But remember, there’s a reason you are where you are. You’re exactly where you are supposed to be.

And… We’re stuck. Breaking the car and passport issues.

We had the unfortunate opportunity to suffer the effects of the pandemic in a different way than most. We had been exploring the back side of a volcano which had erupted in 2018, when we sunk into a ditch and heard our differential “thunk” on something. Whatever we hit, we hit it hard. Hard enough that when we started driving, we could hear a whirring noise that just kept getting louder and louder with each passing day. Two days later, we were scheduled to move to the Beach at El Paredón, when the whirring became so loud we were concerned to even drive the vehicle. Well, turns out, we broke two teeth off of our ring in our differential and needed to have it replaced. We sourced the parts locally and when they were inspected, they were found to be faulty, so that set us back a few more days while trying to source new parts. Ultimately, we decided that due to the amount of weight we’re carrying and the types of roads we’re likely to be traveling on, we would re-gear the car to a 4.88. Awesome, we had our local specialist source the parts and order them which he said would take about 8 days because they were coming from the USA. Ok, no problem, we’d still be able to get to the Honduran border by the middle of the month and be able to get in to Costa Rica fairly quickly.

Follow up to 8 days later, our local specialist (Byron) called the company to check on the parts and the company said that they never received them because everything is back ordered due to the pandemic and they were at least two weeks out. So, Byron called to tell us that it would take another two weeks until the orders are in, 8 days until the part arrives in Guatemala and a day or two to re-gear the axle and half a day to get to the beach and get the axle re-installed. At best we’re looking at three weeks to a month before we can even drive our car. In the meantime, we enlisted the help of our friends down here who drove 2.5 hours down to the beach to pick us up and bring us back to their house where we ultimately would be spending the next month. 5 hours of driving in one day just to pick us up. When we arrived at our new home for the month,

The next morning, we woke up and got ready to exercise when we realized that Bronson didn’t have any of his exercise clothing, nor did he have any shoes, we quickly realized that nobody grabbed Bronson’s bag when we left El Paredon, so the only clothes he had were in our dirty laundry that we desperately needed to wash. Not really a great start to our new living situation. The weather in Chimaltenango is much cooler than at the beach and the only clothing B has are beach clothes. So, off to the mall we go. New shoes, socks and a jacket later we’re back in business. Our friends have been gracious enough to literally drive us everywhere we’ve needed to go. From getting haircuts and grocery shopping to the US embassy in Guatemala City to turn in our voter ballots. They have been most gracious and so helpful that it’s made the inconvenience of not having our vehicle very minor. The best thing about it is that we get to work on speaking Spanish every day. Alfredo (our friend) speaks pretty great English, his brother speaks a little, and his mother and sister don’t speak any at all. It’s really great for the boys. They are trying harder and learning more every day, while my fluency in speaking is tenfold better than when we arrived last December. I have taken every opportunity to speak the language and tried. Sometimes, I’ve failed miserably, other times I feel pretty fluent. Yay for small victories!

We had been checking on the border re-openings for Honduras and El Salvador, and as it turns out, the borders to Honduras aren’t open until Monday, Oct. 19th. So while we were planning on being at the border the first week of October which obviously didn’t happen, we weren’t actually missing out on anything; And while there are many people traveling in much of the same manner as we are, I’m pretty sure that the borders will be backed up with traffic as people try to get to their next destination- afraid that at any moment we’ll be locked down again with border closures and unable to continue moving forward on our journeys.

This is not quite what we had in mind as far as where we wanted to be and what we wanted to be doing, it doesn’t help us at all to stress out about it. Which I admit, happened to me one night. I cried. I had this overwhelming feeling of despair. The fact that we’d been locked down and pretty isolated for 6 months with no end in sight, unable to continue traveling and unable to return home because of the border situation in Guatemala being closed for foreigners. We didn’t know if we’d be able to get back into Guatemala, we couldn’t leave our car and no airlines were flying pets. So we’d have to leave our 12 year old dog and our vehicle. Either way, we were stuck making hard decisions. Kaden’s passport expires in January and flying back to the states wouldn’t work to get his passport renewed because they were backlogged 8-15 weeks. One of us would need to stay with the car (the fines could very well equal the entire cost of the vehicle if we left without it because it is actually tied to your passport upon entry), but to get Kaden’s passport renewed, we either both had to be there in person as parents or have a notarized letter of authorization, which we could get but would have to be apostilled (and you have to find an attorney that can apostille and the letter would be written in Spanish because they speak Spanish here and then have to be professionally translated to English) because one of us would be in Guatemala and the other in the USA. It all takes a bunch of time and are only good for a short amount of time. Then to be separated from each other for almost 4 months without any certainty that we’d be able to get back in to Guatemala to be reunited as a family, that was not an option for us. The Embassy has been closed since April and only allowing emergency services to US citizens and residents since June. It is still closed today, October 18, only available for emergencies. I’ve been trying to get Kaden’s passport renewed here since April with NO luck. Hopefully Honduras and Nicaragua will allow us in and we can renew his passport in Nicaragua. They are stating at the US Embassy in Nicaragua has a 10-business day turn around for passport renewals. Problem is, we need his original birth certificate. Copies are not allowed. So, yeah. Thinking about all of these things sent me into a tail spin. Thinking about all the paperwork involved, the multiple places we had to go to get everything done, the lawyer fees involved for notarization or the cost of getting to the City to get the Embassy to notarize anything and trying to figure out how to get a birth certificate sent to Guatemala for less than $150.00, it’s taxing. Especially when we were planning on doing all of this over the summer back in the USA until COVID.

So, while traveling the world seems like a dream and so many of our readers only wish they could do it, it’s not without its trials and tribulations. While we seem like we are pretty easy going and adaptable, and we are, there are still things that stress us out. We argue, we need alone time, we struggle to get along sometimes. But we always figure it out. Being together 24/7/365 is not an easy task, it’s a job in itself. There are things that we can’t control and they’re important things. I can’t control the embassy. I can’t control the State Department. I can’t control the passport offices, or the airlines or their policies. I can only control me, my surroundings and the things that I do and how I react. Sometimes I find it cathartic to cry. Most times when I get stressed out I have to laugh because there is literally nothing else I can do. Not because I find it funny, but because I don’t have enough tears to cry. So no matter how hard things get, there will always be a way to achieve your goal if you look hard enough and continue to forge new paths; you just have to keep your options open.

Border crossing Pedro Alvarado/ La Hachadura, El Salvador January 2021

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…

  1. The daily fine is Q15 per person per day that you’re over on your visa roughly the equivalent of $2.00 USD.
  2. The vehicle is tied to your visa and is roughly the same amount Q15 per day per vehicle.
  3. Bring cash, they don’t accept cards and there is no ATM machine there at the border.
  4. Bypass the long line of truckers, follow the other passenger vehicles, this is totally normal and expected.
  5. Try not to cross on the weekend, the bank has limited hours and the disorganization is astounding.
  6. 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.
  7. 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!

Guatemala is Hotel California… You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave…

As one of our friends recently said, “Antigua is like the Hotel California, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” This really has never been more true.

We finally got Kaden’s passport renewed and decided to go to the immigration office immediately after picking it up from the embassy, thinking it would be easier to extend the CA4 visa in Guatemala since we were already here. We arrived at the immigration office, it was just around 2:30 pm. I asked the guy at the front where to get our visas renewed. He explained that We’d have to come back between the hours of 7 am and 2 pm M-F. I told him that we had just gotten our son’s passport renewed and needed to pay a fine for overstaying our visas due to the passport problem and state of calamity due to covid. I told him we were planning on leaving the country and heading south to El Salvador on the following Monday. He pushed me to the front of the line where I talked to a lady and explained the situation again. She entered our passport information in the computer and told me to go to the second floor.

When I got to the second floor, I talked with the guard in the front who told me to go to window number 1. Everyone else had taken a number and were patiently waiting for their number to appear on the screen. I walked right up to the window and explained the situation, yet again to the new lady. She said I’d have to go up to the fourth floor to pay the fine and then come back down to get the renewals, but they couldn’t renew the vehicle there. I would have to get the visa extension and then go to the SAT office which was a couple of blocks away and renew it there.

I went up to the fourth floor and explained my situation, yet again for the fourth time to another person. This man looked us up in the computer, and said, “it’s much easier for you to just go to the border in El Salvador and get the CA4 extension there. You will have to do the temporary import there for the vehicle anyway. Pay the fine at the border and explain the situation. There shouldn’t be any problems getting all of that done there. I took my paperwork and left. A little frustrated, but at least now I didn’t have to find parking in the middle of Guatemala City during the beginning of rush hour traffic.

I scheduled our Covid tests for Monday morning so we’d have results by Monday evening when we planned to cross the border. Everything was going smoothly. When we got home, it was late and I knew that I needed to reschedule Roxy’s vet appointment for her transit paperwork to avoid having to quarantine her at the border in El Salvador. We went to the vet the next morning and were told that the paperwork couldn’t be completed by Monday. It would be back on Wednesday or Friday at the very latest.

Immediately, I looked over to Bronson, the look of defeat and utter disappointment on his face. I asked the receptionist if people have had any luck recently just going over the border without paperwork. She said yes, but it was hit and miss. If you get the one agent that says no you can’t pass without the paperwork, the dog would have to go into quarantine for 2 weeks up to 30 days. That means, we’d have to stay in El Salvador for up to 30 days, find another vet to do her paperwork for our next border, and find a place to get new covid tests before going into Honduras just to pass through to get to Nicaragua. Adding up the cost in my head, there would be a fine for quarantine per day, the covid tests, the temporary import permit for the car, lodging near the quarantine site because they don’t take care of your animal for you while in quarantine, (it’s still your job to come by and take care of it every day) and then we’d have to pay a new vet to get all the paperwork for the dog that we would have gotten from our vet here in Antigua. It would be much more expensive than camping around Guatemala while waiting for the dog’s paperwork while in Guatemala and we have a solid friend base here now. I also wanted to visit one more place before we left Guatemala for good.

Ultimately, we decided to stay for the week, this way our passage into El Salvador would be easier and less stressful, avoiding quarantine for the dog. So here we are a year and a month after we first arrived in Guatemala on a maximum stay of what we expected to be 6 months, still waiting and hoping the borders don’t shut down again before we get to Nicaragua. We’re crossing our fingers this time and hoping it all works out.

Pacaya… Finally got my volcano climb in!!

                  

We literally got THE BEST Christmas gift our family could have received… We got the Cruiser back! Obviously we wasted no time in planning our next trip once we got it back and since the new gearing needs to be broken in, it’s required to drive it for 500 miles and change the oil in it to make sure it’s running properly. We chose to take a few long trips and test it out. Our plan was to drive to El Paredon, drop off some gifts we picked up for friends and then continue on to Volcan Pacaya which is an active volcano that is constantly erupting and flowing lava. I’ve been wanting to climb this volcano since we arrived in Guatemala.

We headed out Dec. 27 and of course, Google maps sent us in the wrong direction, which is all too common down here. We really should know better, but it’s such a habit to click on google maps and enter where we want to go. Usually it gets us close, but then gives us terrible directions once we get closer to our destination.

This time, google sent us to Sipacate, the opposite side of the river that we needed to be on and either we had to find a boat launch to take our car on to ride the river, or we had to drive an hour and a half around the river to a bridge back to El Paredon. We’ve already driven the route, so we ultimately opted to take the boat. We came to the first boat launch and it was foot passengers only. There was no vehicle access, and there was no landmark on the map to show that there was a boat launch for vehicles. However, we already knew for certain that there was a boat launch for vehicles somewhere because we had stayed in El Paredon for a month and saw boats taking cars along the same river every day, multiple times per day. We decided to just follow some random roads until they ended and eventually found the launch ramp where I asked a man about getting a boat to take our car to El Paredon. He said I needed to call for the boat and gave me a phone number for the boat captain. I called the number, informed the man that I needed a boat for my car then where we were and where we were going. He told me he’d be there with the boat in 10 minutes.

About 15 minutes later, two boats with cars arrive at the boat launch and off-load the vehicles. Finally it was our turn to take this boat up-river. Watching the kids push the boat back from the launch was quite interesting. They used these long wooden poles to literally leverage the boat off the concrete launch. Then they literally push the boat backwards in the river, which is so shallow, we literally could have driven across the river to the island that separates Sipacate and El Paredon (but would have gotten stuck on a small island). The water barely came up to these kid’s thighs. They pushed us backward and turned the boat around and before we knew it, we were on our way up-river. There were skipper fish that were gliding across the top of the water, and randomly you’d see heads popping up out of the water as people were out net and spear fishing. We passed a military installation and in no time, we had reached our port and off loaded. The entire trip lasted maybe 10 minutes but was such a cool experience. It cost us $12 USD. Bronson dropped the goPro and almost lost it, but I was able to see it between the cracks in the wood planks. I was able to get it out, but man, it was close.

We drove literally around the corner from the boat launch to our friend’s house and dropped off Christmas presents for them and their kids and headed out for lunch. Once we finished eating we set out to camp on a farm of one of our friends here in Guatemala. Bronson decided to take a “sometimes shows up on the map, but not always” road. This road was AWFUL. The 2.5 hour drive took us 6 hours. We drove through numerous private farms and through random gates. We took roads that literally had grass growing in the middle of the tracks. We took out low lying tree branches and traversed through areas that were so small, we were scraping our front bumper along rocks as we were squeezing through. Most of these roads are traveled, just not very often. We came to a village in the middle of nowhere and they were literally putting down pavers on the road, so the main thoroughfare was blocked and there was no through road on the map. I asked a man where we could go to get around, and he told me to go two streets back and just follow the road up, but it would be difficult due to the type of terrain. Shit man, do you have any idea what kinds of roads we just went through to get here? I followed his directions and there was one area that was so steep and the dirt was so soft that we knew we’d make it, but we didn’t want to tax our differential too much since it’s new and it’s a break in period. We put it in 4 low and just crawled up the hill. Other than that one spot, it wasn’t too bad. We followed the road around the back side of the village and popped out on the other side of the pavers. The dirt roads continued FOREVER and after going through another two farms and driving through the middle of a soccer game we followed the map which took us in the wrong direction, yet again. We went back and forth on this road three times before it started to get dark. We asked a few people who told us that we couldn’t access the farm from where we were and we’d have to go all the way back around. As we were driving down the road for the fourth time, a group of coffee farmers were heading in the opposite direction and asked us where we were going. We told them what we were looking for and they told us we were going the wrong way. They told us to follow them, we weren’t too far off and they were already heading that direction.

As dark descended, we followed these guys and passed numerous remote villages and traversed terrain we probably shouldn’t have been on especially at night, but the alternative was to pop up our tent and try to find a different way the next morning while camping on some random persons property without permission. That might be a bit sketchy. The driver of the coffee farmers led us safely out of the rough and rocky terrain, we were only 30 minutes from the farm, we were just going the wrong direction. He politely explained that he had reached his home, but the man that rides in the back with the coffee beans lives on the farm we were headed to and could take us all the way to the gate.

He hopped in the back of the cruiser and showed us the rest of the way there. Without these guys, we never would have made it to the farm. When we arrived, the guards at the front asked us if we had a camping reservation, we explained the situation to them, they called the owner of the farm and let us through. We got the best spot on the property to view the volcano. It was quiet, dispersed, the guys even started our campfire for us while we set up camp. In the morning we woke up to amazing views of 4 volcanoes, two of which are active.

We took walks on the lava bed, let the dog run wild with the horses and cows. We had nerf gun wars and met some kids that wanted to practice speaking English. We had a lot of people come and talk to us about our roof top tent and a few that spoke English. It was a great and relaxing day but we didn’t realize that we were supposed to pack up and leave because there were other people who had reserved that spot for the weekend. So around 4 pm, we were politely asked to vacate the site and go to the front to see if there were any other spots available. There weren’t, so we decided to drive back to Antigua.

On our way back to Antigua, I was looking around to the other side of Pacaya and I mentioned to Bronson that I still wanted to climb the volcano and I didn’t feel like driving back to Antigua only to come back out and make this trip again. We decided to try to get to the parking lot of the Park Entrance for the volcano where we would set up camp and make the climb in the morning.

As we were looking for the entrance, google sent us down yet another wrong road that literally got pedestrian only narrow. Once that happened we had to literally back down and ask someone if they knew where we could set up camp. The kid I talked to happened to be a guide for the volcano. He said there was a parking lot across the street where we could set up camp and told us it was secure, but it was literally cliffside and didn’t look very secure. He asked if we wanted to climb the volcano, and of course I said yes. He was telling us about the difference between climbing in the day versus the night and said that we’d get the best views of the lava at night and that by the morning the activity would be different. Ultimately we decided to go on the night hike to the top of an active volcano. Totally safe, I’m sure. Our guide took us the “short” way which turned out to be literally the steepest way up. My calves burned like they were in the damn lava. Once we got to the lava, all that discomfort went away as we watched the rivers of lava slowly flow. Hearing the crackling of the fire, and feeling the heat of the lava was indescribable. The wind was howling and it was cold, but the heat emanating from the lava wrapped us in a blanket of heat. Our guide gave us marshmallows and watched over us as we roasted our marshmallows downstream from the lava flow. As the lava flowed closer we kept moving, finding little pockets where the lava was still glowing under the top layer of lava rock to continue roasting marshmallows. I’m quite sure I swallowed some lava rock while downing some delicious, perfectly roasted, unburned marshmallows; but lava rock is chock full of nutrients, like iron, magnesium and calcium, right???

After having the experience of roasting the marshmallows, it was time to leave, and as we were leaving, I tripped on some lava rock and nearly dove head first into the top crust of lava rock with molten lava under neath the surface. Kaden was freaking out while I was fumbling to catch myself and remain upright. After this “near death” experience, as Kaden likes to call it, Kaden decided it was time to go even though we were already leaving. He really didn’t want me out there in the dark, tripping on lava rock and falling into molten lava. Neither did I, but it really wasn’t that close to “near death” as Kaden likes to makes it sound.

We made it safely back down to the car, paid our tour guide and popped up our tent on the owners property. It was really a peaceful night, even though there was foot traffic of tours throughout the night, climbing up and down the volcano. We woke the next morning to a pack of dogs barking as more tourists started arriving. We collapsed the tent, packed into the car, had a quick conversation with some tourists who were very impressed with all the gear we carried and they were enamored by our roof top tent.

As we were descending the mountain, we were greeted with beautiful views of the towns below and other volcanoes and mountains hiding behind the clouds. We continued on to Antigua and arrived home safely, having created one truly amazing memory that will always stand out in our minds as one of our favorite treks ever.

Guatemala Part… I Can’t remember. Recap and the entry of Covid-19.

This was our route just for our visa run.

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.

What About Healthcare?

A very common question we get asked is, “What do you guys do for health insurance?” The short answer is… Nothing.

Once you leave the USA, healthcare becomes much cheaper. It’s actually affordable. Most doctors and dentists, that we’ve come across, have all trained in the USA or Western Europe prior to moving to wherever they are now. For example, in Austria, I had contracted a really bad ear infection while on vacation. I popped into an apothecary to see if I could buy some antibiotics and they told me that I had to see the doctor first. They advised that the office was located just across the street. I entered the office and was seen immediately after filling out a simple form telling them who I was and where I lived. No red tape, only one single half page of information. The doctor spoke English, gave me a three-day antibiotic treatment and sent me on my way. On my way out of the office, the receptionist vehemently apologized to me about me having to pay for services because I wasn’t an EU resident. It cost me $25.00 for the doctor visit and antibiotics. They printed out my receipt so I could file it with my insurance company when I returned home. That was less than my copay in the USA, I wouldn’t even waste the stamp to send it in.

In Japan, Bronson’s crown separated from his tooth. We called around to find an English-speaking dentist who was able to see us in between patients. We were asked if we had any of the three national or private insurance options they offered in Japan. As we did not, we had to pay out of pocket for a temporary crown until we arrived home in the USA. The cost for an emergency treatment and temporary crown without insurance coverage was $70.00. If we had the time to stay and wait for the crown to be cast and adhered, the total cost would have been $200, including the $70 we paid for the initial visit.  When we arrived in the US and spoke to our dentist about it, she was floored. She said that the minimum cost out of pocket she would usually charge would be $500. Not to mention the moulding and crown later.

In Thailand, I ended up jamming my ring finger and it swelled so badly that I couldn’t remove my titanium ring. We had experience with ring removal in our previous jobs and attempted every trick in the book. Because it was made of titanium, you could only cut it with a Dremel or bolt cutters. Unfortunately, we were forced to find a hospital to get my ring cut off. At the hospital it was obvious they had never dealt with titanium rings before. They tried wire cutters, they tried a “ring cutter.” I was in the ER for an hour before this local hospital told me I had to go to the nearest big city and they would be taking me to the O.R. to remove my ring. UM… NO. I explained that we needed bolt cutters or a bone saw and water. Two hours later, and nearly losing my finger due to lack of circulation (literally within half an hour and I would have had to amputate), I was given a nerve block and a maintenance man brought in a pair of bolt cutters. Nobody in the hospital had ever done anything like this before, so Bronson and I took it upon ourselves to get shit done. Bronson grabbed the bolt cutters and prepared to cut the ring off as I watched and videoed the experience. He was able to cut part of the ring off by quickly and forcefully pressing down and cutting at the same time, but then I had to spin the ring around so he could cut the other side to get the ring to fall off. There were metal shards stuck under the ring and having to spin the ring around on my finger literally ripped my skin open. He was able to cut the other side of the ring off and I regained feeling and circulation back in my finger. The entire emergency department watched in awe and when the ring was finally cut off, everyone clapped and cheered. This was my only disappointing medical visit, but I’m glad they let us do what needed to be done without the worry of liability. The entire visit was free.

In Mexico, I ended up having a serious bout of Pneumonia. I suffered with it for over a month and a half before caving in and going to a doctor. I spent weeks prior, taking numerous different antibiotics before having to go to the hospital and get 5-days’ worth of antibiotic injections, a new nebulizer and 2-weeks’ worth of breathing treatments. The nebulizer, 5 different breathing treatment medicines and antibiotics for two weeks, blood cultures, throat swab cultures and 5 days of injections with three follow up visits cost me $140.00 total. I also take levothyroxine daily, and I can get my Rx filled in Mexico literally 100 pills for $15.

In Guatemala, Kaden was cooking dinner and just happened to not pay attention while cutting vegetables. He sliced his finger open with an 8” chef knife. He ran out of the kitchen holding his finger and said “Damnnit!” As I walked up to him to see what was wrong, he said that he cut his finger. When I examined his finger, it was a full thickness cut that we knew was going to require stitches. Kaden looked at his hand, saw the blood and fainted. We lowered him gently to the floor until he regained consciousness. Due to the toque de queda (curfew) in place due to the #Rona, we were required to take an ambulance to the hospital around the corner. Our friend Alfredo had to call the Fire Department for us because there isn’t a designated phone number like 9-1-1 and each municipality has a different phone number.

The Bomberos arrived promptly assessed Kaden in the house and disinfected us as we stepped into the ambulance. Once we arrived at the hospital, we were greeted at the door, the staff was called to their positions. The doctor examined Kaden, numbed him up, gave him 6 stitches, an antibiotic treatment and a tetanus shot. All this cost $160, including the ambulance ride. The ambulance even gave us a ride back home after he was all stitched up. 10 days later, Bronson was cutting our grass with his machete, and ended up slicing his finger open as well, only his was waaaayyyy deeper. Like, you could see the bone and tendons, deeper. It was during daylight and we were able to walk to the hospital around the corner this time. The doctor did the same procedure, but left a side of his finger open to drain. 5 stitches and 40 minutes later and all the same medicines, we were out of the hospital with another $160.00 bill.  

While in Antigua, we also went to see the dentist for a deep cleaning and x-rays. For all three of us, the cost was less than $100.00. I also had to have my bite-guard replaced. In the USA these cost me $900.00 and have to be done every 5 years and take a week or more to receive. I got a brand new one similar quality for $68.00. Health care costs vary in each department, and the department we were in is one of the most expensive because it’s filled with tourists, but still, much cheaper than in the USA.

The two visits in Guatemala and the one in Mexico (amounting to over two years of medical care) with my daily medications and dental visits cost us less for all of these visits than one month of medical insurance premiums that I may or may not use and can never get reimbursed for. No thank you, I’ll keep my money and pay out of pocket. I will say though, we have considered a catastrophic health plan that for a year would only cost $2600 for all three of us or $4500 if we want a comprehensive plan that will cover us for two months out of the year in the USA. There aren’t many countries that require you to have medical insurance, but Costa Rica does. We also have vehicle insurance that covers accidents and medical care up to $5000.00 and credit cards that have a $50,000.00 medical benefit limit. So, no matter what we do, we’re covered.

The next question people ask is, “are you happy with the healthcare you receive?” Absolutely. They have been top notch. I’ve not had any bad experiences with any of these medical professionals with the exception of Thailand, but at least in Thailand they knew they were out of their depth and weren’t afraid to take on new ideas and less orthodox treatments.

People also ask if the care is comparable to the US. I would say yes. Not always top of the line, but at a minimum we’ve not really struggled to find quality health care. The equipment might not be what you expect in the USA. Not as new or state of the art, but it does the job and as a result, costs much less.

Even Veterinarian care is much cheaper down here. Roxy got hit by a car last Christmas and we took her to an emergency vet in Guatemala city where she got antibiotics, x-rays, blood work, and IV and shots they kept her overnight for monitoring and the entire visit was less than $200.00. In the states that easily would have been $400.00 just for the emergency visit. Not including anything else. To get her health certificate, health check-up and all shots and boosters for international travel here cost $175 and was way more complete and thorough, where in the USA we spent over $400 only included a bordatella shot.

Overall, healthcare for animals and humans is much less expensive once you leave the USA. There are lots of medications you can purchase at the pharmacy without having a prescription. If you have a chronic condition that you know you’ll need ongoing medication for, you can likely skip the doctor visit and just show up at a pharmacy and ask them for the medicine you take.

Vehicle Insurance and Registration

Many people would be surprised at how the insurance industry works outside of the United States. There are a couple of countries that you can insure your personal vehicle and have the same kinds of coverage as you would have in the USA. However, those vehicles have to be 10 years old or newer or you can’t insure them. What happens is, you purchase an insurance policy from the country you are going to drive in and they give you the choice of vehicle plan. You can usually pay by the day, week, month, bi annual or yearly rate. Usually the shorter the time, the more expensive the policy. These policies, as long as your vehicle is 10 years old or newer, will cover you like you have coverage in the USA. However, if like us, your vehicle is older than 10 years, most countries will NOT insure your vehicle. You actually take out a policy that covers the other vehicle and driver if you were to get into an accident. Most other countries don’t “require” drivers to carry insurance. Most people can’t afford to register their vehicles, let alone get a driver’s license, so many people are driving uninsured. I always recommend having some sort of insurance, especially since you really don’t know what kinds of driving conditions you’ll encounter on some of these roads.

Our Insurance Policy:

This is the picture taken directly from clements worldwide website.

I did a lot of research about insurance and registration requirements in numerous other countries before we left the USA. The first time we bought a policy it was through a company in Mexico called Chubb. They actually offered excellent coverage and we were able to get the same coverage for our first vehicle as we had in the USA and it was only $548.00 for the entire year. The catch was, our first vehicle was registered as an RV, which dropped the price significantly. When we downsized to our Toyota Landcruiser, it was ineligible for the same type of insurance because its registered as an SUV, not a motorhome, not only did it change our eligibility, it didn’t qualify to be insured at all through any Mexican insurance policy. Not only that, the only coverage we could get through Mexico would be very specific to only cover “the other vehicle” should we be at fault in an accident. This didn’t sit well with me, since I know how Mexico drivers drive and their carelessness. We’d witnessed it for 6 months while driving through Mexico the first time and this entire past year in Guatemala. I won’t be posting any pictures of those because they are particularly gruesome and it’s shown all over the news out here without censorship.

You can actually compare multiple insurance agencies for all types of vehicles in Mexico by using motormexico.com website and no, we are not paid to endorse anyone and we don’t get any compensation to post links, these are just helpful places to start looking.

After a few weeks of internet searching, asking around through other local insurance agencies and calling other countries insurance companies I finally found a company online that not only covers our personal vehicle like it’s covered in the USA, but it covers us WORLDWIDE!!!! We use Clements Worldwide (clements.com). This company offers not only vehicle insurance, but also health insurance worldwide as well. Their rates are actually comparable or better than the USA and they offer better/different coverages. Things like “political violence; theft and damage; collision; act of terrorism; sabotage, riots, strikes and/or civil commotion; malicious damage; insurrection; revolution or rebellion; mutiny and/or coup d’état; war and civil war” are also covered with a $500.00 deductible just to name a few, and in this particular time in this world, we never know what we’ll encounter.  

The only thing I’m not really a fan of, is that the medical coverage is only up to $2k per person per accident. In the USA that’s not much, but when you head south, it’s a decent amount of money. They also cover Accidental Death and Dismemberment but only at $15K per person, or $45K per accident. Our policy has limits of excess liability of $500K which is probably overkill, but with the way we’ve seen people drive, you really never know. Buses pass on blind curves and all too often they go head on with another vehicle or vice versa and a bunch of people get injured or killed, so I’d rather pay up front and hope that never happens. The entire policy costs $1058.00 for the year and includes all types of damage and they pay to repair your vehicle to US standards at any repair shop that falls into that category. They will even ship your vehicle back to the USA for cost if you want to have it repaired in the US, depending on where you are. Labor rates are really cheap outside of the USA, but parts are pretty expensive. You’ll pay almost double the price for parts that you’d pay in the USA, but the labor is about 1/10th of the cost of the USA. You can also opt to pay a little extra to have optional coverage for duty expenses, in case you need parts shipped to you from overseas somewhere, you won’t pay the duty tax and fees on it. We don’t have this, and let me tell you, it would have been nice to have in our most recent differential repair.

Our registration:

We actually checked with the DMV in California (where we’re originally from) and Washington State (our current residence) to see what our best option would be to register our vehicle since we wouldn’t be driving it in the USA again after we get to Mexico. Both of the states said that our best option would be to register it as Non-Operational and keep doing that until we sell the car. This way it still shows active registration, and there are some places that require you to show proof of registration usually if you don’t have the title. We have both, just to be sure. The cost is $34/ year. We keep multiple copies of our original title, registration, passports and licenses because some borders require multiple copies of each as they send them off to multiple destinations when you arrive. This is to ensure that you leave with your car or pay a fine if the vehicle is sold without authorization in another country. I never give them the original unless they SPECIFICALLY ask for it.

There are countries that *REQUIRE proof of registration and just about all *REQUIRE you to purchase some sort of vehicle insurance at the border (like Belize) unless you can furnish proof that you already have coverage. These in-country policies at the border can be very costly. I actually didn’t get our insurance policy until we were already in Belize, and the insurance they required was actually pretty cheap, but only because it only covered the “other vehicle” and not ours. We made sure to be very careful, but with the minor population of the entire country of Belize (less than 400,000 people) there wasn’t much to really worry about.

*when I say require, Gringos are required to show proof of insurance/registration. Not locals, and each country has different rules. For example, if you’re in an accident in Guatemala and the police are called, if they can’t figure out on scene, who is at fault, both driving parties go to jail until they can figure it out and the court system isn’t like the USA from what I understand. Often times, it’s said you can bribe the police officers to let you go, but I wouldn’t go that route, you might just find the one or three cops that aren’t corrupt, that being said, corruption is being cracked down on with this new administration. We luckily haven’t encountered any of it.

If you have any questions that aren’t addressed in this article, drop us an e-mail 8yearsglobal@gmail.com and don’t be afraid to ask!