Northern Guatemala

April 24, 2016, Trip: Guatemala
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We crossed the border at Benque Viejo del Carmen, Belize into Melchor, Guatemela – the only border crossing between the countries. It is located on the west side of Belize.

Note:  The Belizeans have built a road at the southern border of their country but the Guatemalans have not completed their side of the highway so there is no official vehicle border crossing.  There is on again off again conflict between these two countries about borders and Guatemala’s most recent president has promised to “resolve” this issues.  Prior to our departure we did hear people talking about troops heading to the borders.  Time will tell.

We arrived at the border at 6:25 am. First we parked and went into Belizean Immigration to have our passports stamped, then paid a departure tax of $37.50 BZD ea before walking to Customs to cancel the vehicle permit. This did not talk long at all but could have been even fast if they’d had things signed better. The door you take to go over to Customs says “authorized personnel only” and you then go through a second door with the same signage. To top that off, you go to the arrivals Customs counter to cancel your permit.  How is anyone supposed to know this?!?!  We are certainly learning to become more patient with the way things work outside North America.

Then we drove a couple hundred metres through what looks like a car wash tunnel where the vehicle is “fumigated” – who knows what got sprayed on Tigger.  🙂

There was a man directing us to this “tunnel” then he told us to park and go to Immigration. We thought he was the guy to pay the fumigation fee to but it turned out he was just trying to “help”. At immigration we showed our passport (no paperwork to fill out) and they stamped them at no cost. Customs was next to get the permit for Tigger. Here he looked at our title, registration, drivers licenses and passports before filling in some paperwork, going out to Tigger to confirm the plate and VIN numbers and then printed out documentation. Doug walked over to the window to pay the fee and when he returned with the receipt, we were given the paperwork.

Next stop was across the street to pay the fumigation fee and off we went. Vehicle insurance is not mandatory in Guatemala and there is no one selling any at the border; we were told to wait until we got to Flores which actually won’t be for at least three days so we are driving verrrrrry carefully.  As we plan no more than a week here at this time, we are going to “wing it” without.  The insurance we bought for Mexico was for a full year so next week, we’ll have insurance again.

So this border crossing took about an hour in total with vehicle permit part being the most time consuming; this seems to be par for the course so far.

We drove across the “free zone” and bridge into the town of Melchor.  Once you cross this bridge, a woman stops you at a sort of toll booth.  She wants a “toll” for using the road.  The receipt has a maximum amount on it of 20 Quetzals but she tells us she wants 50 for our rig.  (We were forewarned about this on iOverlander).  So we argued with her and finally after Fran turned off the engine and a line began forming behind us, she gave up and took our 20.  (We had exchanged a bit of money at the border.) She spoke no English and when we asked to her speak slower so we might understand her, she only spoke faster.

At the first intersection we stopped for gas only to realize we needed cash first! We asked about an ATM and were sent two blocks up the road. It was odd to see the electricity poles running down the middle of the street instead of on the side.

power lines running down the middle of the road in Melchor

The first ATM did not work but Doug saw one across the street and withdrew quetzals. They exchange at 8 to 1 to the USD. Gas was 24.95 a litre which converts to $3.12US per gallon. This was the reason we wanted to leave Belize empty as gas is cheaper here.While we were getting gas, we checked the oil as we’d been getting a message for a day or so and luckily we had a quart, as this gas station had no 5W/30 which Tigger requires.

During this time, Christine and Mark arrived and they followed us to the village of El Remate where we decided to stop and have brekkie.  DSCN1312 where we stopped for breakfast - El Remate As their timeline is shorter than ours, they opted to carry on to Tikal – a huge Mayan site not far away. We said our goodbyes and hope to see them during their time in Atitlan maybe. Otherwise, we may not meet up for several months as they are returning to Mexico to spend 3 months in Puerto Escondido and we are flying to Canada on June 28th for 6 weeks so depending how fast we both travel, we may meet up a little further south. We’ll keep in touch regardless.

If you enter the Tikal National Park after 3:00pm your ticket gives you entry for the rest of that day and the whole of the next. The best time to see the park is in the late day and early morning – fewer people and more birds/monkeys are out. So we parked outside the gate, confirmed this information and went for a walk in the “jungle” before settling in a restaurant with our laptops (no wifi though) for a few hours and lunch. There are camping spots in the park so we planned to spend the night at the Jaguar Inn right near the entrance to the ruins.

We entered the park just after three after getting our tickets at the gate and got settled at the campsite. They have power here but it is s generator power and only runs from 6-9PM and then 6-10AM. We hung around the restaurant/bar for the wifi in the shade for a couple of hours before making dinner after we could turn on the AC! At nine the power went off and it had cooled off some outside so with our two fans we slept pretty well.

We got up early to enter the ruins before it go too hot. Our Central American guide book had good details of the park including a map and descriptions of the main sites, so we spent four hours here – way more than any other ruins we’ve been to so far but the site is gigantic and there are some great birds to try and spot as well as lots of monkeys: both spider and howlers, cool oscillated turkeys, coatis (Central American racoons), and weird bugs, so more to keep our attention.

one side of grand plaza

Much of the ruins here are uncovered but not a large amount are restored and the site is huge; it is estimated that more than 100,000 people lived here at one time. There are many temples that have been restored though including a few you can climb. The morning began with a bit of light fog/haze and luckily the park is mostly in the jungle so there is lots of shade because once that sun comes up, it heats up fast. We saw spider monkeys almost immediately and they were throwing stuff around us (some kind of nut), lots of green parrots and other small birds, some of the turkeys, coatis twice and Fran did see a toucan fly by us.  We almost gave up on seeing Toucans when Doug asked one of the landscaping crew. He told us about a spot where there was a nest so we went over here but we couldn’t find them; he showed up shortly after and took us for a short walk trying to spot them. He did spot a falcon and some peanut head bug.

peanut headed scarabis - rare

And just as we’d given up hope, he spotted a female above us and then her male partner. This made our day: toucans in the wild.

Male Keel Billed Toucan female Keel Billed Toucan

After returning to Tigger, we showered and loaded up when a German couple who were cycling the country and had been camped across from us, asked for a ride back to El Remate which was on our way to Flores.  They managed to get their two bikes inside Tigger as well as all their gear and off we went.

Today it reached 103F/39C. It’s so hot Fran’s phone turned off from overheating and her computer got warm really fast when she used it in Flores.

We stopped at the Mundo Maya Mall to stock up on food and then went to the Chatunha Lodge where there is also camping with power and wifi. This spot is on Lake Peten overlooking the small city of Flores which is an island in the lake; quiet and a good price. The owner, Neil, is Belizean with a Guatemalan wife, and helped us with a few things we wanted to find, like a place to get an oil change and we asked about Spanish lessons but the price here in Flores seemed high compared to research Doug had done, so we passed.

And surprise, surprise, Mark & Christine were here! We knew they were coming here last night but not that they had decided to stay an extra day.

view of Isla de Flores from campground

Unfortunately, the advertised swimming pool at this location was not operational but the view over the lake overlooking the little island of Flores was beautiful. It was a busy night here at the hostel; not only were Mark, Christine and us here, but a young Austrian couple in a VW was here and before dinner a van load of Germans showed up and there were going to tent here. We were glad to be able to run AC since it was so hot today and the forecast is for the same over the next few days.  However, much to our dismay the power cut out in the middle of the night.

After rising on Tuesday morning, we had to shift Tigger over so Mark & Christine could leave. In that process Mark noticed Tigger was “leaking”. He thought it was power steering fluid; when they checked it, it was almost empty! After they left we drove into the main part of town to get it looked and decided to get a service done on it while we were near a biggish centre. Tigger had about 200 miles to an oil change/tire rotation left and the next few weeks were going to see us in small towns only.

Neil, the hostel owner, recommended a place in town and off we went. They took us right away and did the work. They advised they could not find a “leak” and just filled up the power steering. They had to order the 5W/30 oil that Tigger likes and it was expensive! but they did get the service work all done including rotating all five tires. We went for a walk to find a bank and some brekkie, then returned and sat in the air conditioned waiting room with our laptops as they had free, fast wifi.

Today is the 40th anniversary of our first date back in high school; what better way to celebrate than sitting in a garage! 🙂

We got out of there about three o’clock and after a quick stop at a thrift shop (Fran needed some shorts) we returned and settled in again. That night we also needed AC but the power died again right after we went to bed – so it was an uncomfortable sleep. We met a young couple from Melbourne, Australia later that day who are back packing Central America. Brandon and Sarah are interested in learning Spanish so we gave them our download of Pimsler which we just started a few weeks ago.

We have decided to stay put for a couple of days to chill and spend less for a couple of days. We stayed in Flores for a total of three nights, mostly trying to stay cool as temps continue to reach triple digits. We had a half dozen showers a day, walked a bit, did Spanish, read and caught up on email, downloads and our website, of course.

On Thursday morning, Doug noticed motor oil under the truck! WTH? He cleaned it up and we decided to drive back to the garage and see if we could see it leaking enroute; if so, we’d stop, if not we carry on.   When we left the campsite, we told Neil we may or may not be back and mentioned our issues with the power; NOW he tells us he realizes we were plugged into his water pump outlet and he turns that off at night: dang! He said if we come back, he’ll be sure to plug us in elsewhere. So we’ve now had three nights in a row of hot nights with little sleep.  After driving a while, nothing appeared to be leaking and all the pressures were good so we headed for the western border to go back in Mexico for a little while.

We had a couple of concerns about doing this: 1) would they cancel our GT visa so we could start a new one on returning?; 2) would Mexico let us back in with our new amended title (showing Tigger was a motor home not a pick up so we could get the ten year permit); and 3) how many food items would they confiscate from us as we had read this border often thoroughly searched your camper.

Well, the first hurdle before all that was finding a border crossing! Yeah I know, you’d think that would be obvious and simple right? Well, our Central America guide book shows SEVEN border crossings between GT and MX so we picked the one due west of our current location.   This entailed about 3 hours on a dirt road. Once down the road, we asked a man if this was the road to the border and as the crossing looked like it was on the river, if there was a ferry across the river (maps.me showed one). Our mistake was to not ask if it was a ferry that took vehicles! When we were 95% of the way there, we were stopped by GT immigration (a few kms before the river) and told this crossing and the ones directly due south and due north, were pedestrian crossings only, crossed by small motor boats!

So back we had to go and it was getting late in the afternoon. There was nothing on iOverlander as far as camping went in this area (and why would there be if no one needs to come here!) and we needed gas to get the other border crossing the immigration guy told us about. We got gas less than an hour back down the dirt road and then we stopped at a place outside a village called Palasito, that looked like some type of business with large tractor trailers parked in the front. Doug asked if it would be possible to camp here over night and could we have power? There was a young man in charge and he said sure, no charge. This business was a papaya farm and this spot is where they fill the trucks with crates of papaya to be shipped. He directed us where to park, we plugged in and tried the AC – no dice. He showed us another place to park and rigged some power for us; we were a little leary but Doug watched him jerry it up and it worked for a few hours anyway. Doug gave them some money to get some beer to thank them and we chatted for an hour and a half or so with them during which time, they also bought some more beer and gave us a nice ripe papaya. We called it a night and went into Tigger and they packed up and left. It rained for a bit complete with thunder and lightning and the power went out before we went to bed (and naturally, the workers were all gone by this time) – so a fourth night without AC or much sleep.

Being shown how to peel and slice papaya:

DSCN1543 our free papaya being cut up

Next morning we were naturally up early from lack of sleep and hit the road to the border crossing at El Ceibo. The road was dirt for less than an hour and then we hit pavement the rest of the way.  Maps.me had show us a short cut which also was reflected on our new GPS map which saved us about 100kms!  Thank goodness it valid.

Now half way to the border on the paved road this morning, we hit a traffic jam.  A large tractor trailer was across the road.  It appeared it had tried to turn down a dirt road and didn’t quite make it and could not back up (Doug probably suspected that Fran had been driving!).

road block we encountered on way to the border

Doug figured we could follow a couple of trucks and get around on the left side and he four wheeled us right out of there with no problem.

This crossing took about 1.5 hours. On the GT side, we just had to hand in our vehicle permit and walk over to immigration to get out passport stamped. We confirmed that our visa has been cancelled. Only time will really tell for sure.

Our concern about this is that Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua are part of a pact that has one visa for all four countries that only last 90 days called a C4. We will be flying home in June for six weeks so that will eat into a large chunk of that time. The visa is also tied to your vehicle so although, although we should get new visas on our return, Tigger will not get a new permit. You are allowed to renew the visa once by going to the Immigration Office in Guatemala City so we will probably do that.

So off into Mexico we go. You stop and do the immigration part and then drive over to the “Inspection Station” where they actually bring a dog on board looking for food (and probably drugs). Prior to getting to the border we had stashed a number of items in the hopes that we could “smuggle” some stuff in. We have heard they’ll take dairy, fruit, veggies, meat, rice, beans, popcorn, lentils, alcohol and more.

The dog “discovered” some papaya in the garbage can and that was taken away. Little did the dog or the inspectors know that under the garbage can under some cardboard, was three packets of rice!

The dog was taken outside, given a treat and then the inspector went inside with Doug and looked in all the cupboards, the fridge and closet. He took pretty much everything out and looked at it. The only thing he took away was some powdered milk which we’d actually had with us since we started and never used. No big loss!

Tigger at inspection station at the Mexican border:

TIgger at inspection station

While moving the truck from the inspection station to the vehicle permit side, Fran scraped a small white pick up truck with the corner of our front bumper. It was owned by a Guatemalan man who was travelling with another man on his way to the US (he’d live there before and been caught three times for being in the US illegally and was headed back because his family is all there). He was able to translate for us and told us they’d wait for us across the border to “discuss” our options.

So now it was off to the Banjercito to get Tigger’s permit and see what transpired. We had all the copies we thought we needed but this fellow wanted a copy of the back side of the title and also wanted to see the receipt from the first time we’d been in Mexico. Fran ran back to the truck to look for it fully expecting we’d thrown it out but did find it. Now the process of saying we’d change the title of the vehicle from a pick up truck to a motorhome began. Luckily, this man spoke okay English and it all worked out: we could get the ten year permit. The next hurdle was paying for it. He said he’d take credit but after trying several times, the payment would not process. So he asked for pesos or USD. We did not have enough pesos and thought we did not have enough dollars but again, Fran ran back to the truck and found $74 – we needed $70. So now that part was done.

The GT man that was headed to the US was waiting for us outside and he came in our vehicle to the spot where his friend was waiting. Doug negotiated an amount to compensate him. First he asked what we thought was too much so Doug said if it’s that much we need to use our Mexican insurance (which we had) and so he reduced the amount.  Now the problem again was, we didn’t have enough peso, he didn’t want GT Quetzals and we only had $4US. It was determined that we were heading the same way as they were, so we followed them to a bank in the city of Tenosique in the state of Tabasco.

So crossing the border was finished and we were back in Mexico.  We travelled only 329 miles in five day, had an oil change, saw some great ruins and best of all, toucans in the wild.  We’ll be back soon!

 

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