The Guatemala breakdown

8 May

We spent a total of six weeks–March 12, 2014 to April 27, 2014–in Guatemala, beginning our journey in El Ceibo and ending in Valle Nuevo. Here’s a bit of a recap of our time in the country.

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Things were similarly priced to Mexico with the exception of diesel ($5/gal, but that’s cheaper than gasoline) and park/museum admissions. Entrance into Tikal was $40 for both of us. Crazy! Food and groceries were cheap though.

In the 6 weeks in Guatemala, we spent a total of $3,600, which came out to $78.26 a day, a little less than what we spent per day in Mexico.

BORDER
We entered at a small crossing in El Ceibo on the border of Mexico and northwestern Guatemala. Small borders are good because there’s little traffic but bad because there’s no oversight. We got a taste of each. No one else was entering or exiting this border. Nevertheless, it was a gigantic production and unnecessarily time consuming.

It took about 2hrs to cross into Guatemala and we were the ONLY people going through the process. No one wore uniforms and no signs indicated that the dilapidated trailers were the customs offices. When we stopped to ask where the border offices were, some guys put cones in front of our truck and said here.

Hani stayed with Skyhorse and the pups and I just walked into the first trailer (which had a/c!) and asked a nice man what I was supposed to do. This guy became my buddy for the day. He directed me to another trailer where our passports were stamped. I then went back to the nice guy who started generating our vehicle import paperwork. I needed to make copies and pay in Guatemalan quetzales so I needed to find the copier and bank.

The copier was all the way in the Guatemalan side. After the hike there and back, I needed to find the bank. The “bank”– a drunk guy that was supposed to be in a trailer but hiding somewhere else–had no money. I exchanged pesos for quetzales from a tuktuk driver (apparently this is the accepted means to get money at a border) and went back to the nice guy and told him I didn’t trust the bank. From then on, when I needed to pay some fee, I had the nice guy accompany me to ensure the bank processed my payments correctly and gave me the right change.

While this was going on, Hani was sitting in the truck. Some guy (apparently a semi-official border person) was telling Hani there was a fumigation fee and a fee for the dogs. The truck was fumigated and the guy told us 2 different prices. When I asked to see proof of what the fee for fumigation was, he showed me a paper attached to his clipboard that said a lower cost. Oh yeah, that’s the price you have to pay. At that, I wasn’t believing a word he said. The costs for the dogs went from 150Q per dog to 300Q per dog and he didn’t even ask to see their paperwork, just wanted money. When I called the guy out on his bullshit (yes, I really called what he was telling me shit), he flipped out and stormed away.

I went to talk to nice guy only to find liar already there tattling on me. After rounds and rounds inside and Hani outside revving his engine, moving cones and shoving some guy out of his face, I paid 150Q (about $20) for both dogs and we got the hell out of there. I was completely frustrated and upset that I caved and paid anything at all. Hani thought the experience was funny. At least it was over.

We exited at Valle Nuevo, Guatemala into Las Chinamas, El Salvador. Leaving Guatemala was a pretty simple process. As you drive to the border, there’s a big building to your left and the offices you need to go to are in order. What makes this so confusing and hectic are the groups of “helpers” swarming you to aid and ease your crossing and convert your money. I just put my hands up and told everyone to back away and they left me alone. The process was MUCH easier on my own, though if I didn’t speak Spanish, a helper would have been necessary as none of the border agents spoke English.

We opted to cancel our vehicle import, thereby mandating 90 days outside of Guatemala. Otherwise, we’d have to rush and drive back into Guatemala before our initial 90 days ran out on June 10. The guys in this office were very patient with us, explaining our options and the penalty fees if we drove back sooner than 90 days. They even made my copies for me free of charge. So we didn’t pay anything to leave the country.

In another room, we waited in a short line to get our exit stamp and a scrap paper with a stamp to show the border agent in El Salvador.

Once outside and back in the truck, we had to show our cancellation paperwork again and then were able to drive across the bridge to enter El Salvador.

Total on crossing the border: $71.66 (because we have to import 2 vehicles–Skyhorse and the moto)

SAFETY
As was our experience in Mexico, we felt completely safe in Guatemala. We were never stopped by police, even during “random” security checkpoints along the highway. We had no interactions with police at all.

We did, however, cross a very poor mountain town during our drive from hell from Rio Dulce to Semuc Champey. Some teens had propped up a plank of wood on some blocks and asked for money “for the community.” We laughed and gave them the equivalent of .70.

Total: .70

CAMPING
We didn’t boondock all that much. Kinda sad. We were intent on seeing cities while in Guatemala and didn’t want to park on some random small street if we knew we’d be out running around town all day. Or be inconvenienced by parking somewhere remote when we wanted to be in walking distance to a fun town. We free camped 9 days (when we first entered, when we got stuck on that hell road and were fixing the truck outside Semuc, when we were at the mechanic in Coban, when we were parked outside the Guatemala City airport) but they weren’t adventurous or cool spots. We then were able to free camp some more in Antigua at the Tourist Police lot for 6 days, one day beyond the limit, after we bought them soda and chips.

Total on camping: $210

FUEL
Diesel was pretty pricey in Guatemala, almost $5 a gallon. Luckily, since the country is small, we didn’t have to fill up all that often. We also road the motorcycle a bunch, which saved on fuel.

Total: $460

FOOD:
Because we wound up in a lot of American influenced towns (Panajachel, San Pedro, Antigua) for extended stays, we ate out a ton! It’s a tough call between cooking and eating really cheap (and good) schwarma or pasta or BBQ. The whooping $642.82 was well spent, but we could have budgeted better and ate in more often. I did cook, spending $433.78 on groceries. Since we were closer to towns, we often went out at night, spending $144 at bars.

Total on food and bev: $1,220.60

PHONE/INTERNET:
We splurged in Guatemala and went with the more reliable and slightly more expensive Tigo for phone and Internet service. Coverage was excellent, a nice change from the crappy service we had in Mexico. The SIM card came preloaded with data, minutes and texts and if you recharge your phone on triple saldo days (you’ll get a text on those promotional days), you get triple the amount you pay. Pretty sweet.

There are two competing companies, Movistar and Claro. The coverage is not as good but prices are cheaper and they do the triple saldo days as well.

Like Mexico, free wifi was easy to come by, especially in the touristy towns. Every restaurant/bar/coffee house/you name it had wifi. It is easy to get along without an Internet plan but again, having one makes life easier.

Total: $38.86

DOGS
Shae and Olivia are angels and continue to be visions of perfect health. No vet visits and no one seems to care that their paperwork is in English.

I’ve been looking for good quality dog food to no avail. In Coban, they laughed when I asked for a store that sold all natural or organic dog food. I bought the best looking brand but it cost like $60 for a 20 pound bag, much crappier quality than what they were eating at home and far more expensive. It’s completely insane. When that ran out, I caved. Yes, I’m that bad mom feeding my dogs the McDonalds of dog food, all fillers and grains. And even that was pricey! I guess locals feed their dogs table scraps because there’s no way they are paying $100+ on big bags of dog food.

I have to say, Shae and Olivia love their new generic dog food. Shae, who can sometimes be a picky eater, gobbles her food up. They seem fine and no problems with their stomachs or coats since the food change. Guess organic dog food isn’t all that after all.

Total spent on the dogs: $250.53 (dog food plus they needed more heartguard and flea meds)

NOT TO MISS:
The ruins at Tikal were pretty amazing. Our favorite ruins so far. It’s a mission to get out there because it’s so far away from every other town or site but completely worth it. You can actually enjoy the ruins (and climb them!) without hordes of tourists or locals selling you crap.

We loved Lake Atitlan and would definitely go back. It was so easy to fall into a comfortable routine in any of the lake towns. San Pedro was the best.

Antigua was also a favorite. Hani says it’s his favorite colonial village. This colonial town was very tanquillo, easy to navigate and not filled with gringos, even though there was a great diversity of food. The local food market was great and the artesian market next door would make it easy for a traveler to find all the textiles possible to then bypass the town of Chichi for the country-known market. The town is nestled in a valley between mountains and volcanoes, picturesque from any location.

WHAT WE’D DO DIFFERENTLY:
Not drive a road that no one’s mentioned driving before, especially when everyone takes a similar route but goes the long way. Just because a route is less than half the distance of the longer route doesn’t mean it’s faster!!

We could have bypassed Semuc Champey. It just wasn’t anything we hadn’t seen before. And I said it before, the road driving in just wasn’t worth it.

We could have also gone without seeing the Chichi market. Granted it was only a cheap bus ride and an “event” for the day, but we saw the same goods in mass quantities for the same prices in other parts of the country.

STRANGEST THING:
For the amount of travelers that make their way from town to town, I would have expected the roads to be better. They were AWFUL! Seriously, the worst roads of our trip to date were in Guatemala. We saw tons of chicken buses and microvans just get pounded on the pothole laden roads.

BEST MEAL:
The best food was in San Pedro La Laguna, with a tie between the all you can brunch at El Barrio (we hit it twice and stayed from the start at 10am to close to finish at 2pm) and the amazing pasta at Alfredo’s, a tiny restaurant run out of this woman’s home. Her living room doubles as a dining area when they are full. We ate there two nights in a row.

The best coffee was in Panajachel’s Cafe Loco. Delicious innovative flavors, super cheap, and artistic. Can’t beat that!

FOR YOUR OWN GUATEMALAN ADVENTURE:
+ visit Lake Atitlan and any of the surrounding towns.
+ explore the textile markets and buy buy buy because you’ll never see fabulous fabrics like this again.
+ find the hot waterfall around Lago de Izabal. Heavenly!
+ soak in the traditional dress of both the women and men in a small village.
+ wander Antigua. It’s not as touristy as you think.

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