Monday, July 20, 2009

Driving from Texas to Guatemala - almost done!

Driving from Texas to Guatemala

Day 1 - I left from Kilgore, Texas on July 15 and went through Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Kingsville, and Harlingen to Los Indios, TX. The drive was great…glad I’m got the cruise control fixed! It was about 10 hours driving because I left so early (4 a.m.) and missed all the rush hours. I got to meet with one of my former professors and former International Student Director Dr. Mark Walsh from Texas A&M - Kingsville who was nice enough to pass on a couple of contacts’ phone numbers. It was completely unexpected to get to meet with him on my way through, but definitely a pleasure; he’s the one who arranged much of my trip to Chile and got my travel bug in overdrive.

Day 2 - Thursday, July 15, I went to Transmigrantes Mireya, the company who arranges all the paperwork to take a car into Mexico, or in my case, through Mexico. If I had not been taking many personal belongings, I could have just entered as a tourist, but much of the point of driving was taking our stuff, so I went as a “transmigrante,” which is the same class as the guys who tow trucks down with “IN TOW” taped on the back. Actually most of the guys are Guatemalans, taking those vehicles to Guatemala to repair and resell; I always thought they just went to Mexico.

After waiting a couple of hours at the company to get the truck contents inspected (a process that would be repeated many times over the next couple of days) I was able to go to US customs to get permission to leave the country. Apparently, US customs believes that the best way to do this is to have literally 100 or more trucks, cars, and assorted other towed things line up and wait in the sun for two hours, then start to let them through 1 at a time. Hmmmmm. If you need to learn patience, just drive through Mexico….you will develop it or have a heart attack trying. Fortunately, I was mentally prepared for it, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t think, “Hey guys, there’s probably a better way to do this!”

Once I crossed, there were guys before the Mexican bridge (if you recall, much of our southern border is a river J Rio Grande for the USA, Rio Bravo is what it’s called in Mexico…same river). These guys are “tramitadores”; basically, they get your paperwork out of the way before you cross into Mexico; believe me, there is plenty to do after you cross, so you’re glad to get the vehicle part out of the way. The short explanation is that these guys take your title and send it to the other border (Guatemala) so that they know you didn’t sell it in Mexico, since you’re not paying Mexican taxes for it. The big packet of papers that Mireya gives you has a list of all contents and approximate value; if anything is missing when you get to the Mexican side, you have to pay taxes on it, because they’re assuming you sold it. Letting go of my title was hard to do, but several people had assured me this was normal. Still, though….you want me to give you my WHAT???

After you cross into Mexico, you have to do several things. You have to get your vehicle fumigated, searched again by guys with big guns (they’re generally nice, though, especially if you speak Spanish), get your visa to go through (21 dollars or so), get car insurance and change money. This can take a while, but the upside is that the coke machine had bottled cokes for only 8 pesos (about 60 cents); downside, it only takes pesos, and you have to change those first lol. Thursday’s legal requirements from start to finish took me all day, so that by the time I drove to Matamoros 30 miles away, it was almost 7 p.m., so I just stayed there for the night. I had planned to get to Tampico the second night, but that proved unrealistic. However, if someone were just driving as a tourist, they could have gone through the border with a minimum of trouble and could have made it to Tampico (about 8 hrs) just fine.

Day 3 – July 17 – Matamoros to Tampico via Ciudad Victoria

Friday the journey to Tampico began…the first “real” day in Mexico. I’ve been this way on a bus before, and the way we went was following the coast. This is a one-lane (each way) road that is always congested and you have to go through 1000 little towns with speed bumps. No thanks. I decided to go through Ciudad Victoria, and then to Tampico. This way was about an hour longer, but the map I had (Guia Roji, buy one!) said that it was a four-lane highway. It was awesome! I basically set my cruise for about 65 mph and drove for 75% of the trip that day. The rest was little towns, etc, but not too unreasonable. Not much notable about Friday, except for seeing an abundance of goats.

Day 4 – July 18 – Tampico – Veracruz

Saturday - Well, Tampico’s not much of a tourist town, and it’s not pretty. I stayed on the north side due to the fact that the loop around the city started there (obvious, no? LOL) So I left pretty early, and not 30 minutes into the trip, this little Nissan Sentra transit cop car pulls me over. I had had no problems with the army with huge guns, but these guys pulled me over for passing a truck going 20 mph, even after 5 cars in front of me did the same thing. Texas plates call attention, I guess. Anyway, short story, they used the same old line about following them to the police station and paying an astronomical fee ($800 – for passing someone??) but after some discussion, they agreed to take $100 USD and I wouldn’t insist on a receipt ;) Fortunately, I had budgeted this in to my trip fund and was really just wondering when it would happen. I never felt threatened, just wanted to get out of there as quick as possible, but not for $800! (which I didn’t even have on me anyway)

The scenery the rest of the way to Veracruz was absolutely beautiful, seeing the ocean for a good part of the way. According to the hotel signs toward Veracruz, this area is a good place to come if you don’t speak Spanish, because they all advertised speaking English. It made me want to stop there for the night, but alas, I persevered : ) I actually made it much further than I had thought I would…all the way to Cosamaloapan, Veracruz. I think I spelled that right. The hotel was much cheaper there…33 bucks a night and that was the pricey place! And it even had internet, although I didn’t take advantage of it much since I didn’t get in until about 9 p.m. Unfortunately, when I went out for a small pizza, I stopped by the grocery store on the way back to the hotel (it was on the next block over). As the grocery clerk was bagging my drink, I THOUGHT he asked me if I wanted him to bag my pizza, too. Well, I strongly replied, “No, no, I’m just walking to the next block, it’s fine the way it is” in a nice tone of voice like “you don’t have to go to the trouble to do that”; well, imagine how bad I felt when he said, “Sorry, I just wanted a little piece…” and realized that he was asking me if he could have a piece of my pizza! Well, I felt bad because I just kind assumed he was asking about the bag and didn’t really hear the question….but isn’t that sort of a strange thing for the grocery clerk to ask?? I was slightly comforted by that fact.

Day 5 – July 19 – Cosamaloapan, Veracruz to Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas (border with Guatemala)

How many good things can I say about this day? I was originally going to go to church somewhere, but since I was out in the sticks pretty much, I had no idea where one was so just took off at about 7 a.m. Compared with the days before, there was practically no traffic. The roads through Oaxaca and Chiapas were good, and I was able to sail through much of it like I had my first day in Mexico. The scenery in the mountains is absolutely beautiful! At one moment, I was listening to a song by Brent Beaugeois (however you spell that; anyone remember him?) based on the book of Job, basically saying “I created all this, who are you?” and I looked up to see the most imposing mountains on all sides of me. Talk about perfect timing. Absolutely georgeous. Coastal drive was great, but very windy.

When I came into Hidalgo, these guys on red motorcycles started chasing me. I waved a couple of them off until I saw a huge group of them waiting on the side of the road. I then realized that they were the tramitadores that John Villanueva with Agape in Action had told me about. These guys basically do all your paperwork for you and you pay them a reasonable fee for the service. It’s worth it! Anyway, the hotel was even nicer, and only $25, with free breakfast (a real breakfast, not “continental breakfast” whatever that is ;)). What a deal. I still maintain that travelling to Latin America is the best way to go, because even if you have to pay a flight, everything is dirt cheap when you get here (some places more than others). On to the fun part…

Day 6 – Tecun Uman, Guatemala, to….Tecun Uman, Guatemala. – Monday, July 20

Trying to import my truck - Today started out with a bit of patience testing, as I had to wait until all the right people got in the right offices to check to see if my title had arrived from Los Indios. Not all bad, though, because if it had arrived right on time, I would not have had the opportunity to enjoy the free breakfast! Anyway, it did arrive about 10 a.m. The tramitadores (I have 2 for some reason; they’ll have to fight over the fee…it’s complicated) were a great help and ran around to and fro. I went with them to most of the places, but they handled the talking to people, making copies, and explained the process very well. Note to anyone reading this: if you do not speak Spanish, this process can be much more difficult, but you can still get it done. I would bring a translator to avoid much confusion. The tramitador will be able to pull out the documents you need, but you will probably have no idea what’s going on, raising the stress level on a day when you basically just hang out and follow these guys everywhere. Did you know that I can fit on the back of a moped? :D

Well, we got everything done by about 1 p.m., including going to Western Union in town to get the money Adina sent for the taxes (I didn’t bring that much cash for security reasons). Well, guess what? WELCOME TO GUATEMALA! There was a strike on by the campesinos, many of them Mayan, over some land that was supposed to be rented/given to them to use for farming. Well, apparently it didn’t work out their satisfaction, because they are blocking the border and 3 other places around Guatemala! I tried to cross back into the customs section from getting the cash, and I literally was surrounded by them, yelling “No hay paso!” (No crossing!) and received a stern lecture by the leader about respect or something. When I say I tried to cross, I don’t mean running like Red Rover come over, I mean I politely attempted to walk through what appeared to be a break in the line. Well, they didn’t like that, and I got a picture taken of me by someone that I’m not entirely sure wasn’t a journalist. I had a chance to catch up with her about 6 p.m. and explain that even though her photo might show me trying to break through a line, that wasn’t the case. I can just see it showing up in a Guatemala City newspaper and my boss going “hmmmmmmmmm”. Anyway, I might just advise them of what happened so it’s not a surprise LOL. Anyway, they didn’t beat me with sticks or anything, and I didn’t even say anything to them, just walked back after it was evident that I wasn’t going to get anywhere.

My tramitador, Esbin, was nice enough to take me his house after we bought some Pollo Campero for lunch and I spent the afternoon there. Turns out he’s an evangelico as well and plays the piano, so we had a lot to talk about.

Anyway, so I’m staying in Tecun Uman, the Guatemala border city tonight, apparently. It’s 7:30 p.m. and the gate to the border closes at 8:00 p.m. Hopefully they won’t be blocking the gate tomorrow because I would hate to have to wait another day just sitting here; I may never know the reason for it all, but here I am. Moving on tomorrow, hopefully!

For more about getting a car from the States to Guatemala, or vice versa read this post.

To read another detailed post about driving through Mexico with my family read this post.

23 comments:

  1. HEY!!!SOUNDS LIKE A REALLY FUN WAY TO TRAVEL...HAVING TO GO THROUGH SO MUCH AND FINALLY GET THERE MUST BE EXCITING!!AND BY THE WAY WAS THE ROAD THROUGH MEXICO WELL PAVED?, DID YOU DRIVE AT NIGHT ANYTIME DURING YOUR TRIP? HOW ARE YOU DOING IN GUATEMALA??? THANX.........

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  2. If anyone would like more specifics, I can give them via email...just let me know.

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  3. Thanks so much for this information. Our plan is to drive from Tampa, Fl in January with a lot of our stuff in the pickup. Most of the information that I have read elsewhere makes this plan of driving out to be a horror. The account of your saga (except for many frustrations) was very helpful and makes the trip seem almost fun.

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  4. Hi John,

    The trip was great. It's better if you have someone with you...I was by myself. Let me know if I can provide specifics. I have a few phone numbers and tips you may be interested in.

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  5. Thanks Benjamin, My wife, a non driving Guatemalteca, will be with me. Any additional information will be greatly appreciated. I have spent a lot of time driving and traveling in Guatemala. The only unknown for me is entering and exiting Mexico. Thanks
    jlofredd@gmail.com

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  6. my husband and I are planning to drive from california to el salvador. Is this route from matamoros to tampico to veracruz the best route time and road condition wise?

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  7. Hi Eudene,

    If you're coming from California, you'd probably want to take the Pacific route. I have never done it, but here's what a friend of mine that I work with emailed me. For some reason, he doesn't like the Gulf route (don't know why, honestly) but he's made the Pacific trip 4 times. Here it is:

    This is a great trip if you have the opportunity and the time! Here are some suggestions based on 4 trips that I have made.

    I definitely recommend going by the Pacific Coast of Mexico, not the Gulf Coast. I did the latter once, and swore that I would never do it again. The Pacific route is obviously much longer, but far more enjoyable. You should get car insurance on line for Mexico before you go. It is quite easy – I used Sanborns (sanbornsinsurance.com), and it cost just over $100 for 8-10 days of coverage. The best guide book to take on the trip is the Moon’s Guide to the Pacific Coast of Mexico.

    You will want to cross at Nogales, Mexico (directly south of Tuscon). The crossing is pretty easy. Make sure that you have copies and originals of your passport, vehicle title, and driver’s license. You also need to have an international credit card. You cross at the border, and then have to make sure you stop at both Immigration and Customs to get your car permit. Immigration you can either do right at the border (which is quicker – less people, but kind of hard to find) or near the customs office, which is about 15 miles inside of Mexico. Just start heading south out of Nogales and you can’t miss the customs office.

    There are lots of snowbirds who go through this office on their way to Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta – so it goes quite easily as they just want to push you through. They will give you a sticker to put on your window and your permit. It costs something like $20.

    From Nogales head toward Hermosillo then Guaymas. ALWAYS take the toll road when given the chance. Crossing the desert are long distances but are covered very quickly on these Highways with very little traffic. If you spend the night in Tuscon, then an hour or so for the border crossing, you should be able to make Guaymas quite easily for your first night in Mexico. If you can make it to Los Mochis, even better. The roads are great until Mazatlan. Last year when I was there, they were extending the toll highway southward from Mazatlan opening it one section at a time. Take it for as long as you can. If not, the road from Mazatlan to Puerto Vallarta is the worst of the whole trip (2 lane, lots of trucks), but it is only about 4-5 hours.

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  8. For Eudene, Part II

    he second night (and an additional day if possible) I always stay at Sayulita. It is not on a lot of maps, but it is a great little surfer town about 40 minutes N. of Puerto Vallarta (turn right off of the highway). There is a camp ground right on the beach (just ask once you get into town, and anyone will tell you where it is). I love this town, and highly recommend it.

    From Sayulita you drive through Puerto Vallarta and then head on south on Hwy 200, the Pacific Coast Highway you will follow for the rest of the way. This is where the fun begins (beautiful vistas, lots of hidden beaches). The road is still 2 lane, but very little traffic. Still, if you want to cover ground fast you should take the toll roads if you see that they get you to the same place. I used to stay my third night in Playa Azul, (a small fishing village). Last trip, though, I went right on past Playa Azul and about 2 hours past found a great spot for camping on the beach.

    The fourth night I head for Acapulco, which you can get to around 2 in the afternoon if you leave Playa Azul around 7 am. From Acapulco you can make it all the way to Puerto Escondido in Oaxaca. It is kind of a long day, though. I think you arrive around 5 in the afternoon if you leave at 7. I also enjoy Puerto Escondido a lot. Make sure to go for a walk on the boardwalk at sunset!

    From Puerto Escondido I usually go as far as Arriaga (nothing special, just clean and cheap hotels). You can make it as far as the border, but it is a real long haul.

    YOU MUST STOP, on your way into Tapachula at “Viva Mexico” (yes, they really call it that). This is the customs office where they verify that you are leaving the country with the car and they remove the sticker from your window. If you don’t do this, you will never be able to enter Mexico with the car (or probably any car) again! The office closes at 6 pm, I think.

    From there you head to either border. I usually cross at El Carmen (once in Tapachula, you will see signs directing you either to El Carmen or Tecun Uman). They are both fine. I usually cross at El Carmen since all of the truck traffic crosses at Tecun Uman. El Carmen also is open 24 hours, Tecun Uman is not. Again, you will need photocopies of passport, title, etc. (it is a good idea to just have several copies of everything before you go so that you don’t need to be running around looking for copies).

    At the Guatemalan border, go to Immigration, fumigation, then customs. At customs they will give you your permission for the car for 90 days or something like that. If you are importing the car, you can do that once you are in the city.

    I love the trip, especially if I can stay a couple of nights or longer in at least two stops (usually Sayulita and Puerto Escondido).

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  9. Benjamin,

    First of all thanks for an overall useful article. There are a couple of points I'd like to offer my opinion on.

    I wish you had contacted me before you left. I could have saved you that trouble in Tampico if you had one of my custom maps from www.mexicomike.com. I am offering my comments in the spirit of improving what you wrote for those who will read it later. As you know, I have been driving Mexico for 40 years and have some perspective. I am not saying you are wrong, just that I disagree. The Gulf Coast highway (by which you mean Reynosa-Tampico or Matamoros-Tampico) has traditiohnally gotten a bad rap. It is a good road.

    I like that you have a lot of very good information here, but I politely disagree with you on a few points.

    1. I drive the Gulf Coast route regularly. The highway is a 3-lane road (two good-sized lanes with half a lane shoulder on each side). There are not very many topes today, nor have there been for the last few years. It is a fine road.

    2. Going to Cd. Victoria is quite a ways out of your way. However, if you insist on doing that (and some do), it places you in postion to take the bypass route of Tampico (on the West side of town) shown on the maps and road logs I make. This would have avoided your run-in with the Tampico Transitos.I recommend this bypass coming from the north too.

    3. I would NEVER pay a mordida like that. I have not been asked for one in many years, but I tell people to always insist on going to the police station. Mexico is working to eliminate corruption and by paying those bribes, we are encouraging it. It is like saying you are against sin and then encouraging it in others. I've talked to many Mexicans about this issue and they feel the same way.

    But again, thank you for your experiences. When people ask me for advice, I suggest a differerent transmigrante broker, but I will also suggest the one you used.

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  10. Hey Mike,

    Thanks for chiming in. I did have your map, and it was quite helpful, and the bypass route map was spot on. To get to my hotel, I did deviate to find something for the night, and that could have been where my mistake was. The map was great.

    The reason that I took the Cd. Victoria route was that I saw in the Guia Roji that it was a 4 lane road. My experience riding a bus on the coastal road from Matamoros-Tampico was that it was very slow, but then again, it was a bus :) I'd had quite a long day before and was ready to hit the cruise control for a bit. Next time I drive through there, though, probably next June, I'll go through there to see for myself what it's like again, as it's been a few years.

    I would be interested in knowing the other transmigrante for future reference.

    To all readers: Mexico Mike's maps are spot on...be sure to get one if you're driving through Mexico (and no, he's not paying me, the maps are just that good!)

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  11. Neil,

    Mark from guatliving said I should contact you about your drive. Please get back to me with info as we are planning the same thing from the East coast and I would deeply appreciate info about regulations on personal effects etc.

    Thank You

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  12. Hi Benjamin!

    Im Veronica my husband and I are thinking about making a trip out to Guatemala with our 3 kids to visit his mother who has been diagnosed with Cancer. we are both central american and speak fluent spanish, I have read other bogs about driving and to be honest it scares me. My husband says its nonsense and that it is alot cheaper than flying. We are coming from Vancouver BC, Canada so it would be a long trip, but from what I can tell about ur story it seems rather nice. and not too bad with the police. we would be driving a 2001 mazda van and Id really appreciate the details of your trip I want it to be the safest fastest way to get to Guatemala. Im guessing you never drove at night, which is the common sense thing to do. Can you email me and let me know what steps I have to take to drive across the border from the US to Mexico and what papers and fee's I need to aquire? any and all information would be fabulous. we would only be bringing personal belongings and some gifts for family. Muchas Gracias, y que dios lo bendiga!

    Veronica
    verovanegas_@hotmail.com

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  13. Driving to Chichicastenango end January with a 15 passenger van and 5 x 12 box trailer full of our belongings...we are going to serve as missionaries long term...the questions begin with: what can we get done ahead of time (insurances, etc) so we could have a smoother flow at borders? I am Puerto Rican but my husband is American (no Spanish for him)...How much should we budget for aduanas or taxes, fees, etc...how many days would it takes us...we rather drive longer with less traffic...where should we cross? I will be checking on Mike's website after this...thank you...

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  14. Thanks for your comment, Mrs. York. If you'll send me your email address (benjamin.barnett at gmail dot com) I have a couple of documents I can send that will help you. And Mike's site should be very helpful, particularly for northern and central Mexico. Take care and hope to hear from you soon.

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  15. Wow, all this info is great! My family of 7 will be moving to Guatemala to serve at an orphanage. My husband is driving with some other men just coming for the ride while the rest of us will fly. I'll email you for the documents you mentioned.

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  16. Thanks for the comment, Marjorie...I'll keep an eye out for your message.

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  17. My family and I will be traveling to Guatemala. Could you please send us the documents you offered. I speak spanish and would like to be more familiar with what I need. I appreciate your help and thanks for a great blog.

    Att Jesus Awanacomander@yahoo.com

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  18. Hi there Jesus,

    I just sent the documents - let me know if you don't get them. Thanks for reading!

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  19. Stephanie MazariegosFri May 14, 04:19:00 PM

    Well It has been a while since anyone has commented here, but I am considering driving through Mexico to Guatemala and I had a lot of questions to ask. I am so glad I found this blog. My email is smazariegos2009@live.com if you can, send me an email even just saying hey so I can respond to you with all of my questions. If you dont mind giving my advice. I have never been to Mexico and my husband has come through from Guatemala on a bus, but we kinda need info about going in the other direction.

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  20. This was so fun to read! My husband, daughter and I drove from Indianapolis to El Salvador in April 2010 and I blogged the whole thing at www.toelsalvadorandback.blogspot.com! It's nice to know we are not the only crazy ones ;)

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  21. Hello fellow travelers. We are currently in Veracruz and want to go to Guatamala. What is the best route to take to get to the Ciudad Hidalgo boarder crossing? Also, we want to visit Lake Atitlan first and would appreciate your recommendation on which highway/route to take to get ther from theCiudad Hidalgo boarder crossing.

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  22. Hello! Thank you for documenting your experience, helping other travelers. I live in Chiapas, Mexico and am planning on doing a driving trip back to the States. I have done this before, but have always taken the intensely beautiful and very much longer scenic route. This time I need to drive for time efficiency. How many days and nights did it take you to travel from border to border. I have done some online research and have seen everything from 36 hours to 5 days. If you could also mention how many hours a day you drove that would also be appreciated. Thank you!

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  23. I would think from Chiapas, driving 10-12 hours a day, you could reach the border easily in 3 days.

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