The crossing into Guatemala from Belize went relatively smooth. This was only our 3rd border crossing at this point, but we felt like we were getting the hang of it. We exchanged some money at the border because we had read/heard that Guatemala customs only accepted Quetzales, which we wouldn’t have the opportunity to get until we were in the country. Then, we followed the general routine as we did with the other border crossings – 1) health/covid check to show vaccination record/covid test in last 72 hours, temp reading, where we were coming from/where we were going; 2) immigration processing to scan our passports and give us a stamp; 3) import Savannah. While we pass through the border exits of each country, we have to cancel any import permit we received when we were entering. For Belize, this was simple and I just got another (exit) stamp added under Savannah’s import stamp in my passport.
Once we exited Belize and canceled our Belizean vehicle permit, we passed through an insecticide spray and then parked next to aduanas (customs). Belize was super easy since it is an English speaking country. Now that we were back out, we suddenly remembered it would all be Spanish from here on out. We hoped we weren’t too rusty. We passed through the covid station where we only had to present our covid vaccine cards (technically our covid test from entering Belize would have been valid if they asked for it, since it had been less than 72 hours since it was performed). Then we went one at a time through immigration and were asked minimal questions before we heard the thud of the stamps in our passports. Once we got to the vehicle import station, we were told we’d have to go and pay a fee before the permit could be finalized. I assumed the cashier would be in the customs office somewhere, but it wasn’t and we had to walk into town to a local bank to pay it. Meanwhile, Savannah and my passport would sit in customs until we returned. Through all these shenanigans however, a young boy maybe 12 years old, guided us from where to park the van, which building to enter, and even walked us all the way to the bank to pay. Once we were at the bank, the line was pretty long so he had his friend (or older brother?) take our bill and cash through a drive through on his motor bike to speed things up. We tipped the motor bike and the cool young kid after we walked back down the hill to customs. We presented the stamped bill that we had paid, got a sticker for the windshield, gave the young man a hand shake (well rather, he gave us one), and continued on our way. We had to pay a steep tax to cross a bridge on the way out – like almost $20 which wasn’t cool. We gassed up, got some snacks, and headed into the country. We didn’t have a strict itinerary or plans on where to go, but knew we needed to head Southwest.
We had plans to meet a family friend of Andre in San Cristobal Verapaz, just outside of Coban. It was too far of a drive for one day, with the time it took to get through customs, so we looked for somewhere to sleep in between. We missed the first and most efficient route because it was a dirt road and we didn’t think it could be right, but it was what google maps wanted us to take. So instead, on our round about way South to Coban, we found a campsite halfway in between that wouldn’t burn us out of driving. We drove to Sayaxche to an iOverlander point that seemed to work with our destination. Before getting to the city, we would need to cross a small river by ferry. It was the smallest ferry I’d ever seen, let alone Savannah had been on! We squeezed in with other trucks and cars and motored over for about 5 minutes before driving off.
The camping site was difficult to find but eventually we were tucked into a garden center with our host, an older man who truly wanted any and all visitors to explore his town. He gave us a copy of a hand drawn map for places we should see – an archaeological site, La Pasion River (which resembles three hooks), a place to listen to howler monkeys, and a second tier of a market for a better view of the river. We felt pretty tired from the constant movement of this trip and after just getting through customs, but we decided to give this strange scavenger hunt a shot and explore the city. We found none of the things. Well, we knew the river from the crossing, but couldn’t find the archaeological zone, the second tier of the market place looked closed, and the place we thought we were led to from the map to see the howler monkeys was a field full of houses. We gave up and ate pizza at a restaurant. We did sleep great though tucked away in the garden.
The next day we headed towards San Cristobal Verapaz. It should have only been a four-ish hour drive, but it wasn’t. To drive through Guatemala had and has so far been beautiful. We’ve driven through lush farms and forests and twisted our way through some low mountain passes. At first we were happy we wouldn’t have to pay tolls, like we had in Mexico. But being free roads definitely had consequences for us – they were riddled with potholes and pretty hectic. Our worst encounter was while driving through a small town. I saw there appeared to be some roadwork as the pavement was removed and the road was only dirt. I was waiting for oncoming cars to clear so I could go around, and while creeping forward, Savannah fell into the abyss of a pothole that had been covered by a leafy branch. The entire front end dropped, I thought the right wheel fell off. Andre hopped out to investigate and told me the tire was suspended in the air, under the road. We’re not sure if this was a manhole that was uncovered. Luckily, the frame of the van caught the fall and it didn’t appear that the axle was damaged. I assumed we would have to call a tow truck since putting it in drive or reverse did nothing. Within minutes, a half dozen men ran up to help. They told me to hop in, put it in reverse, and once they pushed the tire out of the pothole, to hit the gas. It worked, and Savannah was just fine (knock on wood).
During our time in Belize, we listened to a few people tell us that we should be careful in Guatemala. One hostel resident told us that if we didn’t pay attention at a stop sign, our hub caps would be stolen and that if we parked somewhere overnight the solar panels would be removed the next morning. So far, we have experienced incredible kindness. It’s sad that just a border can create hostility between neighboring communities, just like the US and Mexico.
We did finally make it to San Cristobal Verapaz to meet Nancy. She stayed with Andre’s family through the Guatemala GSSG – Guatemala Student Support Group. It was really great watching her and Andre catch up – the last time she had seen him, he had been 11 years old! We also met her sister and her sister’s daughter, along with their cute Chihuahua. Her sister brought us some local food of chorizo, beef, and tortillas which tasted amazing. Nancy arranged for us to stay with Savannah in a guarded parking area. After some music chairs with the cars, we figured out where we should park. Beginning that morning, a protest began where the roads in and out of the town would be closed from 6 AM to 6 PM. We would have to leave by 4 AM to make it out of the town and through the areas that would be blockaded between her town and Guatemala City. Here is the link for what was going on.
Because the world really is incredibly small, a man who passed us when we were stuck in the pothole happened to also be parking in the same lot as we were that night. He sent us the photo (above) he took of us stuck – seriously… small world.
The next morning, Nancy and her sister met us at 4:30 AM to bid us farewell and help us back out of the incredibly tight parking lot. I was parked within inches of another vehicle and a house, on top of concrete block, and along side a loose iron rod. There was an angry dog who didn’t like men so Andre was a bit nervous directing me out. It was crazy early to leave and say goodbye to Nancy, but without knowing whether or not the blockades would continue, we left town. We did make it out before the protests started.
Our next plan was to go to Antigua and hike Acatenango, a volcano next to Fuego Volcan. On our way, we would pass through Guatemala City. Even though car insurance wasn’t required in Guatemala, we considered getting some. We read on iOverlander that someone found insurance that covered them through Guatemala as well as El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. This sounded ideal but after talking to a man at one of the insurance companies in Guatemala City, it wasn’t possible. He said if the car had Guatemala plates it would be fine, but they couldn’t insure a vehicle from the US. After doing more research, we read that only 17% of people in Guatemala have car insurance after the mandate was lifted in 2017 or 2018. We also read that the car insurance that we found that could offer us coverage for just our time in Guatemala didn’t really cover anything, so we opted not to get any… just need to drive really carefully here. Driving in Guatemala city was insane and we were happy to get out of the city and into the mountains.
We are staying in a hostel in Antigua, Hostal Antigüeño. It’s $9 a night for us to park Savannah in the lot and use the showers/kitchen/garden area. I’m writing this post from the garden with a view of Fuego erupting! We hiked Acatenango over the last two days but that is a story in and of itself 🙂
Andre’s post here!
Link to campsites here 🙂
2 thoughts on “A tour of Guatemala”
Sounds like you’re moving right along toward your goal. I have to say Savannah sounds like a very loyal and loving companion (dog maybe?) and is just as determined to make the trip as you and Andre. Again, stay safe and I’m always waiting for the next adventure…..
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Again, great storytelling!
It occurred to me that you might be missing a bit of rough and ready knowledge. Traffic laws, and signage, aren’t nearly what we’re used to here in the States. One way that people signal a deep pothole (or sinkhole) is to place a large branch (sometimes a small tree) inside the hole to warn motorists. So, next time you see a stick or some greenery poking up from the road, it might be a warning.
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