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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!

Guatemala part 4 of ??? Antigua, 7 months and counting…

Gotta love the chicken buses.

Last night, I cried. I cried because I was angry. I cried because I was frustrated. I cried because I have no control or say of when we get our car back. I cried because I’m still here. Here in Antigua, Guatemala. Don’t get me wrong, comparatively to other people who are suffering fates worse than this I realize that my situation is trivial, but nonetheless, it’s not where I want to be and I have no control over that right now. We have been trying to get out of Guatemala with our car to continue our world trip since April. Since the world closed. Every time we come within a day of leaving, something happens. First it was Covid which closed all land borders around the world. Then it was the car, next it was a hurricane, then again the car, then again another hurricane and once again the car.

For those of you who don’t know, we broke some teeth off of our front differential while climbing the wash of Volcan de Fuego back in September. While we were at El Paredón for a month, we had some friends come and take the front axle to try to source parts and repair the diff. Well originally, the 4.10 parts they found didn’t work. So, we decided that if we had to order parts from the USA, we’d just as well re-gear the vehicle to the 4.88 to give us a bit more power for pushing up the hills that we, at some point on this journey, hope to encounter.  Well, when we contacted our friend, he told us that all parts were on back-order for two weeks due to Covid. Fucking Covid. Not only is it ruining lives and killing people, it’s brought industry down to its knees and nobody can get anything they need because manufacturing has all but closed its doors. So, after a three week wait, our parts finally shipped, but then we had to wait another week while it was held up at customs. Customs wouldn’t release the parts until we paid the customs and shipping fee, like the shipping fee from the US wasn’t already paid, but what else were we going to do? Literally it felt a bit like extortion. After paying for that, the parts were brought to our mechanic who was helping us in his off-time, so patience is a virtue, one that I am severely lacking. After getting the parts and beginning to assemble them, they realized that the bearings and spacers were missing from the kit they had sent, so we had to wait an additional two weeks for that. Once all of those arrived and were assembled, our mechanic took it out for a test drive and found slight noises coming from the diff still. So he took it all back out, disassembled everything and took it back to the shop to have the mechanic who set the ring and pinion re-do the entire thing. So, here we are, three months later and still no closer to leaving than we were in September. The only difference is that now, the borders are open, except for Costa Rica (depending on who the border agent is at the time you plan to cross) and we CAN’T leave.

In the meantime, we’re still in Antigua after returning from the beach and spending two months with our friends in Chimaltenango. Our friends were gracious enough to allow us to stay with them while we were waiting for our vehicle to be finished. Well, that was only supposed to last for two weeks, which turned into 4, which turned into two months. I was going crazy being there. It’s been a long time since we lived with anyone and the comings and goings, the noise, the fact that we were urban living… Those things are not things that we’re used to and the stress of not having control of all the stuff with the car was just wearing on us. We lived in the mountains for 13 years before setting out on this adventure. We are not city dwellers, we don’t like noise, we don’t like being in concrete jungles. We thrive in nature. Out in the wilderness in near isolation. That is what we’re good at and it’s what we enjoy. So after two months, we packed up our belongings and moved into another house in Antigua. The streets might be a bit busy, but it’s quiet. The feel is different. Though it’s “urbanized” it is a very colonial town, easy to walk around and surrounded by nature. We literally were able to walk in the first two days of being back in Antigua, more miles than we walked being in Chimaltenango for two full months, even-though we walked to the gym every day.

I love Antigua, don’t get me wrong. One of our friends said it’s like “Hotel California” you can check in anytime you like, but you can never leave. It really feels like that right now and I hate feeling trapped. It doesn’t help that we’re just a few weeks from Christmas and I was really hoping to be spending the holiday in Nicaragua with a tiny Christmas tree and baking cookies for Kaden. Living life on the road presents plenty of challenges and since we have always made the holidays a special time for Kaden, it’s something of a tradition that Kaden looks forward to since none of the rest of our lives are based in any kind of tradition, at least we got to celebrate Thanksgiving.

None of these things really would be a big issue, except that we need a timeline. There is paperwork that needs to be done, insurances to buy, covid tests that need to be taken and only 72 hours to cross borders before we have to get them again. If we stay through the end of December, we will have to renew our visas, and Kaden’s Passport expires in January, so he’s not eligible for an extension, not to mention the Embassy here in Guatemala has been closed since June, and we’ve been trying to get his passport renewed since April. All other embassies in central America are open and accepting appointments for passport services. Why not Guatemala? They are only open for emergency travel back to the US or an emergency passport to repatriate. Well, I’m not doing either of those things. Going back to the US is not on our list of things to do right now. And I certainly don’t want to spend my time in Airports that are germ infested with rampant Rona out of control, where I’ll potentially be in contact with Rona only to be picked up by someone who I might end up infecting. That’s not how I want this to play out. I’m safe here and everyone else is safer if they can limit their exposure to others. Since we’re trying to get into Costa Rica and the borders remain closed, we figured Nicaragua is a good place to get Kaden’s passport renewed while we potentially have to wait until March to cross into CR. Since Nicaragua is part of the CA-4 (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua) you get a 90-day tourist visa stamped into your Passport book, and you only have 90 days to explore all of those four countries on the same stamp. You don’t get a new stamp in your passport to renew your time, you just get the days remaining from the time you first entered any of those four countries, hence our visa run to Mexico back in March. Due to covid restrictions of locking down the borders and grounding all flights, Guatemala and the CA-4 had stopped counting the visa days until the borders reopened and countries reopened, which for us just happened October 1. So, we had only used 2 days in march and our remaining 88 days didn’t re-start until October.

On December 16 we will have officially been in Guatemala for one whole year. This is the longest time we’ve spent in any other country outside of the USA. In that one year, we have moved to more places than we had moved to in 13 years in the mountains and we love that. Every time our view gets a little tiresome, or the grass gets a little too long, we pick up and find somewhere else to live. Moving is a lot less cumbersome when it consists of a computer bag and duffel bag of clothing. Of course it’s all made easier when we have our own vehicle, but walking to the market and asking someone if you can use their truck to move your entire house for $10 is much easier and cheaper than trying to rent a u-haul.

While all of these things mount up and push us to our breaking point, (even the ones I didn’t mention) cry as I might, I know that we have each other and I’m not the only one feeling this way. We (usually) have back up plans and no matter what happens or how hard things get, together we always pull through and I’m thankful for that.

Guatemala Part 3 of ??? Visa Run and Chiapas, Mexico

Kaden filling out his immigration form for entry into Mexico

After leaving Pana in March, it was time to hang out in Antigua and wait for the much-anticipated arrival of Semana Santa (which happens usually the first week of April and lasts a full week), but before we could do that we had to do a visa run to the Mexico border to renew our visas. We could have opted to just go to Guatemala City and head in to the immigration office and request an extension, but there was so much of the country we still wanted to explore before heading on to our next country. We were already planning on being up near the Mexico border, so we decided to just do the visa run, and see what we wanted to see in the northern territories.

We moved in to a little townhouse in Antigua that we rented through April (so Kaden would have kids to play with) and a few days after “moving” we set out on the road to explore some places we hadn’t yet seen. We left March 4 and decided to head out with our friend from Guatemala City to do a short, 10-day overlanding trip. Well, his Landrover broke down three times in 40 miles, so he decided to just give us names of his contacts in the areas we were headed to for safety purposes, this way we could get in touch with people nearby if we needed to.

The first night, we met a contact in La Union, he showed us a way to hop the Mexico border without having to stop at a border and go through all the customs and stuff. This was a good option because we weren’t ready to go through the Aduana and all the customs stuff just yet. I literally felt like a spy, secretly meeting someone in a red car at the corner of X and X looking for a man wearing ABC, and following him to a corner where he says “this is as far as I go, when you get to the four corners, turn left, go through the ranch and pay 50 pesos to the rancher and you’ll be allowed passage into Mexico.” We did just that and were at our camping spot in Mexico in a short 15 minutes after finding the dirt road that we were supposed to take through the ranchers land. We missed it the first time because there was a couple of dirt roads that were possible to take and each of them appeared to go in the same direction and there, of course, was no signage.

We set up camp and stayed there for a couple of days before heading back into Guatemala to explore the northern areas of Huehuetenango (Way-way tay-non-go). While on our short overnight trip into Mexico we went to Lagos De Colón. This place is far less known than Lagos De Montebello, however, it is equally beautiful with a much more local flare. It is also a Nature Preserve, you do pay admission to it, however, the place we camped was actually a family’s residence. They open it up for campers and have a couple of little casitas to rent. There is also day use with some palapas with electricity for use as well. You can rent them overnight for something like 50P-100P ($3-$6 USD) per night. Kaden made some friends and taught them how to play UNO and frisbee. They sang songs (in Spanish, none of them spoke any English). They spent time playing hide and go seek, soccer and just chasing after each other.

After spending a couple of days there, we ventured back into Guatemala, using the same route as we used to cross into Mexico. This time we didn’t have to pay the rancher, and there was a lot of traffic back and forth.

Nevermind that we did this totally illegally….

When it finally came time to cross the border into Mexico, since we were already in the northern area, we decided to try crossing at Gracias A Dios. This is open for pedestrians, but there is no SAT office or Aduana for vehicle renewal, cancellation or importation. They will not let you pass with your vehicle. The nearest border you can get a vehicle extension is over in La Mesilla, a 2  hour drive south. It was earlier in the day, so we decided to take our chances and cross at La Mesilla. Well, on the way, we hit numerous road blocks, police checkpoints and traffic from cattle herds crossing the roads or just standing in the roads. The 2 hour drive took almost 5 hours and when we got to the border we arrived 10 minutes after the border closed. No crossing for us until the next day. We turned around and found a hotel that cost $12/ per night. Nothing special, but it had a bathroom with hot water, 2 beds, it was pet friendly and just a two minute drive from the border with private, secured parking.

The next morning, Wednesday March 11 at 8am, we went to the SAT office Aduana and passport control. They explained to me that Covid restrictions would be in place and that the President planned on closing the Country on Monday. I explained that we were just crossing in to Mexico for a Visa run. They said to make sure we were back by Sunday morning at the latest or we would likely not be allowed to reenter Guatemala. After a little confusion with the SAT and renewal process of the vehicle import (mostly on the different agents at the SAT office) we headed in to Mexico. There was no exit fee and because we were traveling in the “zona libre” we didn’t have to get another import permit in Mexico, and the entry was free. We explored Lagunas de Montebello National Park and camped there for a couple of nights before heading back across the border Friday morning.

As soon as we arrived, the SAT officers recognized us (our vehicle is pretty recognizable) and waved us through to the Aduana. When we exited our vehicle, we were required to undergo a new health screenings and the health officials were telling us we needed to quarantine for 2 weeks. I explained to them we had just left and crossed into Mexico for two days just to renew our visas and that we were living in Antigua. They took our temperatures stamped our passports, renewed our vehicle permit and inspected our vehicle and we were on our way. 15 minutes start to finish. We returned on Friday just to make sure we had extra time if the president was planning on border closures, I didn’t want to be stuck out in Mexico when we already rented a house for two months in Guatemala.

When we reentered Guatemala, we checked out other places in Huehuetenango and drove through countless villages. Many of which don’t recognize Guatemalan government as their governing branch. They consider themselves sovereign states. They are scattered throughout the land all throughout Guatemala, but the signs posted speak for themselves. They denounce any form of government rule. Many of them are poor villages, uneducated but hardworking people. They live in shanties and are extorted by the cartels around every turn. They don’t make money, but some suffer violence at the hands of Narco traffickers if they don’t concede parts of their land for use by the cartels. Many people looked at us, very confused as we drove by. They aren’t used to seeing vehicles like ours driving out that way. Mostly small pickup trucks, tuk-tuks, chicken buses and scooters. I think some of it was fear. Fear that we were the latest round of Narcos coming for their money or land. As we waved and passed by, most of them waved back and gave us nods and smiles.

Guatemala part 2 of 4 (or more, who knows?) Panajachel

Kaden at the overlook in San Marcos at Cerro Tzankujil

So we’ve caught up to the first two months in Guatemala. Only 7 (as of this moment… Okay, now it’s 10) more months to catch everyone up on….

After spending a month in Antigua, Sacatepéquez and a month exploring around Petén and Cobán, we decided to head up to Sololá and spend some time at Lake Atitlán; Panajachel to be precise. We chose Pana due to the ability to actually park our car. They have a great camping area, but at the time we had Bronson’s mom visiting and splitting her time between Antigua and Pana. We also had friends coming to visit from the US, so we decided that renting a house would be best. We could park, do laundry, have a yard for the kids to play in and enough space for all 7-10 of us to be comfortable. In an area that relies on public transportation in the form of small Toyota pickups and tuk-tuks, there isn’t much room for our vehicle, albeit, we did see plenty of chicken buses driving through these tiny streets. We however, didn’t want to chance anything. We spent a month in Panajachel and explored all around the lake. While it is possible to drive around this lake, which is literally half the size of Lake Tahoe with similar attributes, the roads are narrow, steep and super windy, and you’re better off in a tuk-tuk. The trip around half of the lake will take you about 3 hours by car. The easiest way and pretty economical way is to either use a public boat to transport you to any of the other tiny villages that dot the lake for $1.75 each trip, or hire a private boat. We hired a private boat for an entire day and it cost us less than $100 for all 7 of us. They took us to every town we wanted to visit, waited for us while we explored, gave us tips about each village and even had guides waiting for us at each village ready to take us wherever we wanted to go. The price included tip. The guides at each stop was extra, but a tuk-tuk driver, personal chauffeur for the time we were in each village ran us about $15/ per tuk-tuk. That was going the expensive route. You can always walk the towns which is free, but some of these places, you’ll be wishing you hired the tuk-tuk. Your calves will burn and it’s the best butt work out since lunges and squats, but in the heat of the day… You’re secretly hoping an empty tuk-tuk drives by so you can wave them down and they can whisk you away to the safety of the cool, refreshing water in the lake.

Panajachel (pronounced Pana-ha-shell) is the biggest town situated on the lake. There you can find a large central market, lots of tiendas (stores) carrying any variety of items and a few larger grocery stores. For those of you who are organic conscious, they have a market for whole foods, though real, fresh milk is hard to find outside of a private ranch. Most milk is like the equivalent of evaporated milk, super-ultra processed for shelf life and rarely do you find any refrigerated milk. They have all the modern food choices that you have in the US, but not as many. They have great restaurants and easy access to all the other villages. It is the main thoroughfare, so it’s quite busy all the time. We were there in February and the weather was pleasant with abundant sunshine. Keep in mind, things we get in the US that are imported are more expensive in Guatemala as they aren’t part of NAFTA. They don’t have trade agreements like the US does (or did until recently). Vehicle parts are expensive, imported fruits and vegetables, clothes…. You name it. If it’s not made here in Guatemala, it’s expensive relative to the US.

While in Pana, there are lots of things to see and do. You can hike a volcano, go zip-lining and see a butterfly sanctuary, walk around Santander (the main tourist street) where you get haggled from every vendor at every store, peruse the central market, visit the other towns that line the lake, even an island in the lake. If playing in the water is the thing you want to do, the best place to do that is at Cerro Tzankujil in San Marcos La Laguna. You pay Q15, which is the equivalent of $1.75 per person and you walk on the trail until you reach a wooden platform where you can jump about 30 feet (10m) to your death. Okay, okay, not really your death, but when you’re staring at it from up there is sure seems like it could be the end of you. There are tree limbs that hang over the water and a ton of rocks at all different heights to jump from. There are benches along the path that you can claim (by leaving your stuff on it) and relax at while taking in the beauty and serenity of the lake. To get there from the town takes a little imagination as the pathway isn’t really clearly laid out, at least it wasn’t when we were there. You take some back alleyways to get there and you feel like you’re trespassing on private property or at the very least you feel like you’re sneaking around just waiting to get caught. But I assure you, these tiny little alleyways are public and they pass just outside of people’s private property, so you’re safe. If you get lost, you can always ask the villagers, you will no doubt, pass by them around every turn and in all of these alleyways.

All of the towns around the lake have something different to offer. Many of them have women weaving the traditional traje (shirts and skirts) that the Mayan men and women wear. It is amazing to see them work. Their clothing is dyed naturally using plants and bugs they find in the wild. They spin cotton by hand here still and the things they make are mostly handmade. There aren’t very many big factories here and they don’t make it a habit to import a lot of stuff because it’s too cost prohibitive for them economically. Most everything that we’ve bought here has been of the highest quality and hand made (even the chocolate, my favorite chocolatier is featured in the last picture, Dina of Dina’s chocolates). I bought a leather purse and got to choose the fabric I wanted to embroider it with. Bronson and Kaden both got leather backpacks and chose their fabric as well. All three bags high quality and handmade by the shop owner who you were able to talk to and personalize your order with. No middleman, no management hierarchy. I asked for him to make a shoulder strap for my purse as it didn’t come with one. He put loops and a leather strap on it for me too. All customizable and for less than picking ONE run of the mill leather bag from any leather store in Anytown, USA.

All in all, Lake Atitlán is quite an amazing place, there is a town for everybody. There are tons of things to see, plenty of delicious foods to choose from and the textiles are beautiful, though my favorite patterns originate in Chichicastenango. That’s where the pattern that all three of us chose for our bags originates, just to give you an idea. Each department has their own unique style and the longer we stay, the more apparent they become. Each style represents a different tribe of Mayan people and each tend to speak a different Mayan language. Guatemala is really a fascinating country with so much to see and do and so much culture to learn about. If you ever venture out to Guatemala, give yourself some time. NOTHING happens fast.

Guatemala part 1 of 4

Bronson being hounded by local Mayan kids. It’s not very often they see fair skinned people around and they were fascinated by him.

While the rest of the US seems to be grappling with issues of race, gender identity, personal beliefs vs rights, and wanting to forget that history ever happened, people keep asking how we are down here in Guatemala. So, here’s our update.

We’ve been in Guatemala since December 16, 2019. As I write this today, it’s June 21, 2020. We had intended on only staying through Semana Santa in April, but then #RONA hit and ruined our plans to go further south. During the first three months, things down here were wonderful. Everything was open, you could move freely anywhere at any time on any day. We spent the first month exploring the northern Petén region of Guatemala which is full of lush jungles, tiny villages and lots of indigenous Mayan people. It has a ton of Mayan Ruins, the most famous being Tikal. It is also a region that is so dense with jungle that Narco traffickers use it as a major trafficking route. Luckily throughout our exploration of the region, we didn’t run into any problems. We drove all the way from the Belize border to the Pan-American highway, took the Pan-Am for about an hour before veering off to another unpaved highway (that was only 28 miles long) to get to Lanquin on the way to Semuc Champey. The drive was beautiful, but the roads were awful. The 28 miles took us 3.5 hours. It was windy, rocky, single lane with passing traffic and by that, I mean micro buses.

This road took us 7 hours and three of those hours were just the last 28 miles, from Poptun to Semuc Champey.

When we arrived in Lanquin, we stayed at this little hotel, about 30 minutes from Semuc Champey which reminded me of Agua Azul in Mexico. A lot of small, cascading waterfalls with lukewarm, turquoise water. It’s a short hike down, and the scenery is phenomenal. There is a hike up to the look-out where you can view the entire cascade, but we didn’t take it because my knee wasn’t feeling like cooperating with us that day. You can walk on the sendero (trail) from the eastern most part to the west part and back up to the parking lot. It’s not really that far, but it’s kind of steep to get down, nothing dangerous. There were lockers you could put your things in, but you have to bring your own lock. There were people in the parking lot trying to sell us things, trying to get us to pay for a guide. Haggling.  This used to bother us, but after being in so many different places and realizing that this is their job, and if they don’t hustle, they don’t put food on the table, it bothered us much less.

After leaving Semuc Champey, we went to Coban, ate lunch and headed to Chimaltenango. We rented a house there for Christmas and were invited to a Christmas celebration by a neighbor around the corner. For two whole weeks, fireworks were being fired off in the streets at all hours, day and night. On Christmas day, we were getting ready to take the dog for a walk, we opened the door and as we were putting her leash on, she freaked out from all the explosions and bolted across a highway where she got hit by a car. We scoured the neighborhood for 6 hours before we finally found her hiding out in some random garden on the side of the highway, a couple of blocks from the house. She had a puncture wound and she was limping, she had crepitus when we would pet her. I decided to take her to an emergency vet. It was 11 pm. The nearest emergency vet was in Guatemala City, nearly an hour away. Kaden was crying hysterically, thinking Roxy was going to die. And honestly, I wasn’t too sure she was going to make it either with the way she was guarding and her shallow breathing. She was in a lot of pain. The good news was, she was fine. The Vet kept her overnight to monitor her, cleaned and glued her puncture which was superficial. No dying for our dog that day, thank our lucky stars.

While in Chimaltenango, we met a lovely family who eventually became like an adopted family to us here in Guatemala. I now have three more brothers another sister and another mother. It’s wonderful to make these connections. We were invited to a parade for New-Year’s day, which we ended up being part of.  From Chimaltenango we went to Antigua where we rented a house for a month, exploring coffee farms, taking tours of neighboring towns, taking in the magical colonial town that is built on old Mayan ruins, and when walking around town, you find random ruins scattered throughout the town literally everywhere on nearly every street. They are not hard to find by any means. The main Mercado (Market) is right across the street from one and backs up to another.

Our new, extended Guatemalan Family




This country packs a lot into such a small country. From vast jungles, to beautiful oceans and mountain towns, desolate tiny villages and enormous cities. There is surely something for everyone; if you’re willing to trade luxury for minor inconvenience.