It’s that time of the year again every expat dreads… visa run time! It’s always exciting at first, though it never fails to become a drag sooner or later, especially if you’re settled into a routine you’re comfortable with. When entering Guatemala, most people will get a 90-day visa to stay in the country. You can easily file for a 90-day Guatemala visa extension in Guatemala City, which is not a problem if you live only 45-minutes away in Antigua. Those living on Lake Atitlan or Quetzaltenango (Xela) have to make a longer trek – three and four hours respectively. The easier option might be to hire a local immigration lawyer who’ll take care of it for you and save you the two trips to Guatemala City – one trip to drop off your passport, one trip to pick it up.
But what happens if you’ve already filed for your 90-day Guatemala visa extension? Well… tough cookies. You can only do one 90-day extension per stay in the country. This means you HAVE TO leave the country when the 90-day extension is about to expire, at roughly the six-month mark. Most expats choose the six-month mark to go back home for a week or two, which doubles as a visa renewal trip.
Guatemala Visa Run
If you don’t have the time for it, or are not planning a lengthy trip back home, your option is to do what is known as a visa run to a nearby country. In Guatemala, the nearest countries that qualify as an official “exit” are Mexico, Belize and Costa Rica. El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua are nearer, but they don’t qualify as official “exits” since they’re joined with Guatemala in what is known as the CA-4 border agreement.
I love spending time in Belize. The people are super nice and the food is great. But it’s also over eight hours away by bus and Belize charges a $35BZD exit fee. And I’d rather not deal with Belizean immigration officials if I can help it. Costa Rica is too far and entails at least two more border crossings (El Salvador/Honduras and definitely Nicaragua). So the choice was made and Mexico was it.
There are many shuttle companies that offer direct trips to the Guatemala/Mexico border. The issue is that they all depart from Guatemala City, which complicates things a bit. For reference, these are the companies offering more or less direct trips:
Autobuses Maya de Oro - Malacatan is near El Carmen border and Tecun Uman near the Ciudad Hidalgo crossing. Cost is about Q90 ($11.25) each way.
Tica Bus – This bus will take you directly to Tapachula from Guatemala City. Costs $21.28 each way.
Linea Dorada – Direct from Guatemala City to Tapachula – Leaves once a day at 6am. Costs Q170 ($21.25).
Since I’m all for Slow Travel, I made the decision early on there would be no direct bus for me. I’d be doing it the cheapest way possible, just like most of the locals do it, taking in the countryside. I’ll note that in the entire trip (eight buses/taxis total), I did not spot a single person aboard a bus that looked like a foreigner to me. Make of that what you will :)
I tried to do as little pre-planning as possible. I wanted to see whether in this day and age one could really travel without digging through Lonely Planet’s forums or getting any recommendations about lodging or where to eat from TripAdvisor. Since I’m typing this today with both hands and all other limbs attached, I guess I can say it was a success. I was not eaten by wolves, kidnapped, ate quite well, and found a hotel that was quite a bargain.
From Antigua to Tapachula Mexico – First Leg: Escuintla
This one’s easy enough. From Antigua’s main bus terminal, take a bus heading to Escuintla, the department through which highway CA-2 runs through. It’s a normal chicken bus, the one we all know and love. The day was lovely and the roads smooth. The bus was packed, which is half my body is hanging out the window (below). Just kidding. Bus was crowded, but manageable.
It was an odd feeling to see Volcan Agua and get nostalgic about it. I mean, I live on top of the thing, so I did feel like it was MY volcano I was leaving behind. Never thought I’d get attached to an immovable object, but there I was.
In the distance I could see Pacaya Volcano smoking. It’s been on Yellow Alert lately, so I’m glad it’s some distance away from Antigua.
Once the bus was inside the city, I asked the driver for the bus stop where I could take a bus to Tecun. He dropped me off at the right spot. There was flurry of activity and buses came and went with barely any time to load passengers.
Fare for first bus: Q6 ($0.75USD)
Time: 1 hour
However, before I could board any bus, the first order of business was to find a restroom. People rent sanitarios (restrooms) for Q1 to Q3 here, so I was glad to find one nearby for Q1. Sure, it was down a semi-dark hall where someone could have put a bag over my head and I never would’ve been heard from again. But nothing of the sort happened. I happily paid my Q1 and was back out to the main square where (below).
Second Leg: From Escuintla to Tecun Uman
I was advised by another local bus driver to take a Pullman bus, or second-class bus. These buses are more comfortable than chicken buses and make fewer stops, making them the preferred choice for the locals. I decided to lay off the chicken bus idea and opted for a Pullman bus instead, which I had to wait for since they pass by every 20 minutes or so.
There are two border crossings to Mexico that are easily reachable by bus. Tecun Uman, across the Mexican city Ciudad Hidalgo, and El Carmen, which is closer to Tapachula and across the Mexican town of Talisman. Since El Carmen is reportedly the busier of the two, I decided to try my hand at crossing via Tecun Uman first. Turns out that Pullman buses leave you closer to the border in Tecun Uman (locals call it Tecun) than buses headed near El Carmen, but more on that later.
Sure enough, a few minutes later a big Pullman bus came roaring in (below).
With Pullman buses, like with chicken buses, the fare is totally at the whim of the fare collector. I asked a bus fare collector a couple of days earlier what the fare would be and he estimated probably Q75 ($9.37USD). As I got off the bus coming from Escuintla, I also asked the bus driver what to expect for fare. He said about Q45 ($5.62). That was a pretty big gap. Looked like my bus fare would depend on how much I looked like a tourist or like someone with any amount of money.
As I got on the bus, I asked one of the passengers how much fare would be and he guessed Q60 ($7.50). When the bus fare collector came around, I gave him a Q100 bill. He sized me up quickly and tagged me with Q70 ($8.75). People around me smiled sympathetically and from their looks, it seemed as if they felt sorry for me. Oh well. Lesson learned. I was going to try a different approach next time.
The ride was mostly uneventful, with only a few stops in between. I stood up for about 40 minutes, waiting for a seat to become available. A family took pity on me and insisted I have a small metal stool that their child was sitting on. Thankfully, a seat opened up 10 minutes later.
Here’s a tip for you. Pullman buses have bathrooms on board, but the bathroom on this one reeked of stale urine, as if it hadn’t been cleaned in days. I recommend you sit in the front two-thirds of the bus, especially if you won’t be sitting by a window that opens.
After a few hours we arrived at the Coatepeque Bus Station (below). The bus stopped here for about 30 minutes, which allowed people to head to the restroom, buy food, stretch their legs, etcetera. I didn’t bother moving from my seat. If you do, always take your bag with you. Don’t leave it in the bus, unless it’s stored underneath. Also, tell the driver, so they won’t take off without you.
Suddenly, we were swarmed by men eight-feet tall! They were offering all sorts of items. Drinks, fried chicken, tortillas, you name it, they had it (below).
Another bus pulled up next to ours and I was disappointed to find out I was not, in fact, in the land of chicken-selling giants (below).
Passed by a small town that had a lovely manicured garden. Oddly, there was a small tractor on display which I wished I’d gotten the scoop on what was so noteworthy about it to have it so prominently displayed.
I arrived at the Tecun Uman bus station (below) at almost exactly four hours and 30 minutes after leaving Escuintla. I was promptly approached by a few men offering to “help me” across the border. So I decided to strike up a conversation with them.
Turns out Tecun Uman is a heavily used border for immigrants from Central America making their way to the US. These guys promised to take me safely across the river. I tried to get them to quote me a price, but was unsuccessful. They were also quite friendly, even though they initially tried to rip me off by offering to exchange my Guatemalan quetzales into Mexican pesos at M$1.40 for every quetzal – official rate is M$1.61 for every quetzal. Eventually, they gave up after figuring out I wouldn’t be a client. The guy also told me to go across the street instead for a better rate – which I did and got a not bad rate of M$1.55 for every quetzal.
My plan was to attempt to make both crossings and renew my visa in one day. Officially, one is supposed to wait three days, but no one really cares. Most people stay in Mexico for a day, some even come back the same day. Since it was already past 2pm, I decided to go ahead and visit Tapachula anyway and return the next day. I had a throbbing headache, the heat and humidity were getting to me, and was in no mood to cross the border and endure yet another five-hour bus ride on the way back. To avoid running into the same border officials, I would attempt to re-enter Guatemala through the El Carmen border.
Checking Out Tecun Uman
I asked a guy about how far a walk it would be to the border, to which he replied it would be about 20 minutes. Not in the mood to walk at all, I decided to splurge and rented a bici-taxi, which for Q10 ($1.25) would take me up to the border.
The ride was much nicer than I expected.
For a little border town, Tecun Uman – also known as Ayutla – is fairly clean and prosperous looking.
Their main plaza looked very inviting.
Their big, Grimace-colored church was oddly endearing.
I was lucky I didn’t cross paths with a member of a fearsome scooter-riding clown posse (below).
The border crossing went smoothly and there were hardly any people in line. I had heard people here were asked to pay a Q10 ($1.25) border-crossing fee – illegally, since there are no fees on the books. I overheard the person ahead of me – looked like a gringo, after his passport was handed back, ask the Immigration woman if the fee was Q10. The woman slightly nodded her head and the guy slipped a bill under the window. I wasn’t going to argue about a fee, but I sure wasn’t going to ask if I needed to either.
When it was my turn, I greeted the woman and slipped my passport under the window. She looked through it and motioned for the Supervisor to come over since she noticed it had two extensions listed. She handed it to him and he sat down at a terminal with my passport. I wasn’t about to invite questions or start chatting her up, so I looked at the person behind me and offered them to step up now that the woman was twiddling her thumbs. I took a few steps back to nonchalantly fiddle with my iPod, never bothering to look in their direction. Eventually, the lady called me to hand me my passport. I said Gracias and quickly stepped away from the window to verify I had my exit stamp – which I did. I put the passport away, fiddled a bit more with the iPod, and was out the door. No fees, no problems.
Crossing Into Mexico
The bridge to Mexico was fairly deserted. I thought the reason was because it was Saturday. Turns out the action was OFF the bridge, as you’ll see.
I found it amusing the Guatemalan exit sign was in English as well (below). Other than the gringo back at the Immigration office, I did not spot another foreigner.
The line between Mexico and Guatemala is clear. Mexico has no problem flaunting their wealth, with their fancy painted roads and covered walkways.
Guatemala to the left, Mexico to the right.
The obligatory “One foot in Guatemala, one foot in Mexico” shot.
I spotted some teens openly transporting barrels of fuel from Mexico. Since Mexico is an oil-producing country, fuel is cheaper. Some Guatemalans make it a nice little side business to ferry fuel over to sell in Guate. Gas costs about Q37 a gallon ($4.62) and smugglers sell it in canisters by the side of the road for Q25 a gallon ($3.12).
On the other side of the river, huge barges were going back and forth, carrying Mexican goods. Guatemalans take advantage of Mexico’s weaker peso and replenish their stores with Mexican goods made cheaper by not having to pay taxes on it. Police have to be complicit on it, as this was blatantly going on in broad daylight. You can also see people wading across the river unimpeded.
I wish I could show you Mexico’s modern facilities, but they don’t like anybody taking pictures for “security reasons”. Never mind no one ever checked my backpack at any time. In fact, once I exited the building and walked onto the street I pointed the camera as if to take a pic, but never did, turning instead to walk in the direction of the Tapachula-bound buses. Promptly, a Police Officer came running over, across the street, demanding to see the pictures I’d taken. I insisted I didn’t take any pics, but she wouldn’t budge. She flipped through a few and eventually satisfied, handed the camera back and walked away. Whatever.
As far as the actual border crossing procedure, it was a non-event. The room was huge, had over thirty chairs and could easily fit a couple hundred people. But there was nobody there when I arrived. A couple of minutes later two older guys with foreign accents showed up. I was asked to fill out a form and was given a portion of the lower half that the Mexican Immigration Officer tore off. Keep this, as Mexican authorities will ask for this slip upon your exit.
By the way, if you spend seven days or more in Mexico, you’ll have to pay an exit fee of M$295 ($23.30). Under seven days? NO FEE.
Third Leg: From Tecun Uman to Tapachula
So anyway, the Tapachula buses, known as “combis”, were lined up waiting for passengers. They leave every five minutes and charge M$24 ($1.90) for the 45-minute ride.
On the way out, we passed by the main plaza at Ciudad Hidalgo. I toyed with the idea of staying here and attempting to go back the next day through Tecun Uman, but I decided to have the “full” Tapachula experience. Good call too, as I later head from a local that Ciudad Hidalgo was quite dangerous and not worth staying around in.
Ciudad Hidalgo has a really funky water tower.
Adventures in Tapachula
As we neared Tapachula, it was obvious by the ominous dark clouds that it was going to rain buckets. And it did. Tapachula is the most easily flooded city I’ve ever seen.
Eventually, we arrived at the Tapachula Bus Terminal. Pretty modern, it was fairly sleek. Most importantly, it had free WiFi, which I quickly latched onto to check e-mails. By the way, the password for the WiFi at the terminal is 80ae774a25.
I asked the local bus driver for a hotel recommendation. He told me about a motel around the corner from the bus station, Hotel Johnny, which he said was very good and cheap at only M$150 ($11.85). With the rain finally subsided, I went out to search for the “hotel”. Well, let me tell you “Johnny”, if that’s his real name, plays very fast and loose with the meaning of the word “hotel”. Maybe “rat hole” is what he meant?
The first clue about the quality of Johnny’s hotel was the odd look I got from the “receptionist”. And I use the word loosely here. She was not dressed for success, I tell you. I told her I was looking for a room, to which she suspiciously replied “For how many hours?”
“Hours?”, I replied, slow to catch on in these sort of situations, as always.
“Yes”, she said, looking behind me as if expecting someone else to walk in behind me any second.
“No… it’s just me… and I need a room for the night”, I replied.
She took a step back, probably thinking I was the biggest deviant in the world, wondering what kind of sick person I was I could spend a whole night at a place like that with myself. She began to eye my backpack suspiciously.
“Do you have WiFi?” I asked. I might as well asked if they served caviar at brunch. She gave me a blank stare. “Internet?” I tried again. A lightbulb went on.
“Aaaah… No Senor.” Then she stared at me, expecting something utterly confounding to come out of my mouth. I happily obliged.
“Can I see the room?” I asked. She was dumbfounded. I repeated the question, a little slower “Puedo ver la habitacion… por favor….?”
This was too much for her, so she took a few steps back and keeping one eye on me and another on an open door, asked someone inside whether she could show me the room. The woman inside the small room was now curious and stuck her head out to take a gander at me. She smiled sweetly and said to the younger woman “Of course!” and handed her a key.
The young woman took me to the room at the end of the hall and opened the door.
And goodness gracious. It was like she opened the door to a coal furnace. The room was hot and did not have a window. If I wanted to use the A/C, the rate would go up from M$150 ($11.85) to M$220 ($17.39). But that wasn’t even the worst part. This room smelled. Wait, no. It was worse than that. It reeked…. Nah, that’s not it either. I believe the proper term is it stank… Not stunk, mind you, but stank of chile-infused sexytime. I couldn’t back-pedal fast enough out of there.
Out on the streets again, I was glad to fill my lungs with fresh air. I vowed right there it would be the last time I would ever ask a Mexican bus driver for hotel recommendations.
As far as Tapachula itself, it’s not that pretty, save for the main square. The streets are not dirty, but people have an edge to them I had not seen since the last time I visited New York. In Antigua, specially the outskirts, people expect you to look them in the eye and greet them. My wife remarked how upon walking a few blocks to the store she had been greeted with a “Good morning!” over 30 times. She actually lost count after thirty!
In Tapachula? Making eye contact is asking for trouble. I walked for a bit all around the main square with a goofy friendly smile waiting for someone to greet me back. Not a single person replied, or greeted me. Wait, one person did. I looked at an older guy for half a second too long and he replied “What’s your problem?” Tapachula wasn’t going to get any “Friendliest City” awards this century.
I also tried to engage the locals in conversation, but most were invariably shy, as if talking too much with a stranger might get them in trouble. From street vendors, to hotel staff, no one wanted anything to do with their fellow human being other than the basic interactions required. Quite shocking really. I figured the weather had people in a foul mood.
Walking around I found an excellent – and inexpensive – small hotel. The room was super basic – no shower curtain or toilet seat – but it was clean. It smelled clean, actually. Had a TV and everything. On top of that, it had an excellent WiFi connection. Best of all? Only M$120 ($9.48)! No, not the hour, the whole night!
The hotel was literally within sight of the main square.
After setting my bags in the room, I went out to grab something to eat. Bought three Tacos al Pastor – only M$5 ($0.39) each – to go and took them back to the room where I promptly devoured them. Thought about going out to get three more, but decided to call it a day.
In the morning, I went out to grab some coffee and something to eat. The day was splendid and the main square looked radiant. People still weren’t friendly, but at least they looked radiant in their unfriendliness.
Saint Augustine Cathedral looked really nice.
Looking at all monuments in Mexico, it becomes clear that Benito Juarez and Miguel Hidalgo are among the most respected. Juarez was President of Mexico and considered the equivalent of George Washington. He was also a good friend of Abraham Lincoln and responsible for setting up Mexico’s democratic form of government.
When I was a kid, I often heard my dad quote Juarez’ most famous saying (inscribed below – behind Juarez’ statue), which I had no idea was Juarez. I just instantly recognized it the moment I read it. In Spanish it says “Entre los individuos como entre las personas el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz.” It roughly translates as “Between people as is between nations, respect for another’s rights is peace.” Wish some of our foreign leaders tattooed that on their foreheads so that they be reminded of this every morning.
Reflecting on these deep thoughts for a few minutes, about my dad, about wars and why people kill each other senselessly had a profound effect on me. It must have, because it got me really hungry so I went and bought a torta (below) loaded with chorizo, ham, salami, and chicken and killed it in under two minutes.
Hunger satisfied, I headed back to the bus terminal for my return trip to Guatemala.
Fourth Leg: Tapachula to Talisman
Checking my e-mail one last time at the Tapachula bus station (below), I headed to the back of the building.
A row of ”combi” buses awaited passengers. To head to the border of El Carmen, one needs to take a bus headed to Talisman. This is a much shorter ride, only 20 minutes, as well as cheaper – M$15 ($1.16).
The combi bus dropped all passengers off at the pedestrian entrance to the El Carmen border. From here, it’s a five-minute walk to the border. Again I was approached by a “helpful” young man offering to take me across the river. I inquired about prices and he suggested a “donation”. The weird thing is that they all were wearing the same color shirt. Made me wonder if they provided waterproof bags for your personal belongings and a towel to dry yourself off upon crossing the river. It seemed like that kind of operation.
Hammocks for babies (below)? I’m so getting one when the wife has one. That baby is going to be the most relaxed baby ever.
That’s as close as I dared to get to take a picture of the border entrance from the Mexican side. Did not need the Federales come and threaten to smash my camera again. Once was enough.
At the Mexican border, I handed over my passport and slip I received at the previous day’s crossing. Less than two minutes later I was on my way.
This guy was crossing the river and carrying across what appeared to be a jug of fuel.
The Guatemalan border is a hub of commercial activity.
To your left, and before you get to what appears to be the main office, you’ll see the spot where you’ll get your passport stamped. You don’t even have to go in, as it’s just a window, not a room you go into. I handed the passport, kept my mouth shut, and turned sideways. No one made a peep that I was gone for less than 24 hours. I was handed my passport back and I checked it to make sure it had a stamp with a 90-day visa stamped. It was, so I merrily went on my way.
Fifth Leg: Border to El Carmen
After you exit Guatemala’s immigration area, you’ll have a few options. You can go to Malacatan, 30 minutes away, and take the Pullman bus there. To get to Malacatan, you can jump on a combi bus – Q4 ($0.50), take a shared taxi – five in a small car – for Q5 ($4.25), or hire your own taxi Q40 ($5). I took the taxi.
En route, the taxi driver told me of a faster option to get back home. Since the Pullman bus that goes to Malacatan to later return to Tecun Uman to wait for passengers, I could take a shortcut and jump on a bus at La Virgen, a small crossing on the highway where Pullman buses stop. It would save me almost an hour in waiting time. I jumped at the chance.
The taxi driver dropped me half-way to Malacatan, off at the crossing where the combi buses stopped, and advised I only take the “Directo” buses, which get to La Virgen faster. I waited for the red direct bus, like the taxi driver advised. He also advised fare would be Q5 and Pullman fare back to Escuintla about Q40 ($5).
Sixth Leg: El Carmen to La Virgen
When I got on the direct bus, I asked a passenger what the fare would be to La Virgen – 30 minutes away. She also confirmed it was Q5. Well, at fare collection time, I handed him Q5. Nope, it was Q7, he said. Gringo pricing? Maybe….
On the way, we passed what looked like an abandoned Italian villa. No one knew the owner according to a passenger I asked. The building had been abandoned for at least 10 years. Quite a structure for the area, which consisted of tiny ranch houses for the most part.
The scenery was fantastic.
Smuggled gas from Mexico for sale (below).
We got to La Virgen crossing, where a nearly empty Pullman bus was waiting for passengers.
It was so hot, I couldn’t resist downing a bag of cold coconut water. I would deal with possible repercussions later, I figured. A year here and you’ll bulletproof your stomach.
Seventh Leg: La Virgen to Escuintla
This time, when the fare collector came around, I had a plan. Instead of giving him a Q100 bill, I gave him a Q50 bill and acted as if I expected Q10 back. “Nope. It’s Q60″, he said. I acted with feigned indignation “Q60??? It’s Q40!”, I shot back. He didn’t dare look me in the eye and said “Q60″. Bus was already moving, so I grumbled some and gave him another Q10. Oh well. At least I managed to knock off Q10 off the price this time. Take small wins when you can.
The trip was smooth, even if my behind was numb after four hours. This time, the bus didn’t go inside Escuintla. It just stopped at the side of the highway, at the junction to the road to Antigua (below). The driver told me I should cross the four-lane highway and climb down to the road below. Alrighty then.
After crossing the highway and coming down the highway’s off-ramp, I waited for a chicken bus. According to a woman at the bus stop, the last Escuintla bus heading to Antigua go by at 6pm on weekdays and Saturdays and at 5pm on Sundays. It was 4:15pm when the first bus went by, full and people holding on for dear life by the sides of the door. I was beginning to get worried until a second bus passed by, 20 minutes later and slightly less full. About an hour later and Q7 poorer, I was finally back home, almost 36 hours later since I first departed that previous morning.
In all, the experience was not bad at all and cheaper than a trip to Belize would’ve been. Here’s the trip’s cost breakdown:
Transportation: $34.93 – Not a lot of savings, but a lot more flexible in terms of departures.
Lodging: $9.48 – A steal. Hot water AND WiFi!
Food: Under $5. Seriously. Though it helped that the wife packed a lunch for the road :)
So, for about $50, give or take, I took care of that pesky Guatemala visa renewal problem. Beats the heck out of paying over $500 for a US-bound flight, for sure.
Have you done the Mexico visa run?
What was your experience like?