Our travels south of the border, in both Mexico and Guatemala, were not quite what we had expected them to be. We had planned a full year of exploring city after city, meeting new and interesting people, immersing ourselves in the Spanish language, and tasting every kind of taco we could find. What we didn’t plan for was a little thing called Corona to sneak in and disrupt the trip we took years to plan, as well as life as we all knew it.
Luckily, before life turned inside out and the whole world shut down, we’d already spent three months crisscrossing Baja and anther two over on the mainland of Mexico, exploring the Eastern side of the country. We’d visited many beautiful towns, explored ancient churches and archeological ruins, and were welcomed into small-village factories where families created beautiful works of art under the same roof they called home. But even with everywhere we’d been, we left even more cities and sites unseen, planning to continue our explorations on our way back North. It was time to head to Guatemala.
Of course, our travel plans throughout Guatemala changed as well. We were lucky enough to cross just days before the country closed its borders, and we made our way to the highlands, along Lake Atitlán. It would be the perfect place to spend a month or so. We could paddle the lake, tour the neighboring towns, hike the volcanoes nearby, and re-enroll in Spanish school. We’d then spend another month exploring the rest of the country, including celebrating Semana Santa (Easter) week in Antigua. It was the perfect plan until the president of Guatemala shut down all travel throughout the country, and we remained camped along the lake for almost three months, going nowhere, except a little stir-crazy. Just like the rest of the world, we were in quarantine.
Adventures in Border Crossings
After what seemed like ages in one spot, an open window eventually presented itself and we decided to make a run for the Mexican border. Well, it wasn’t so much an open window as it was a threat of a complete closure of the country for 15 days if virus cases continued to rise. With limited storage for food, not to mention wine, and a sense that restrictions were only going to worsen, we decided it was time to leave Guatemala.
Keep in mind, travel between departments in Guatemala was still prohibited, with our embassy continually reminding us that we were to abide by all the rules of the country or potentially face jail time. But after hearing word from the locals that these restrictions were more “guidelines” than hard closures, we figured we had to try. I mean, how bad could a Guatemalan prison really be?
Besides being stopped by the police and hauled off to jail, what’s the worst that could happen? Well, we could make it to the border and out of Guatemala, only to be denied entry into Mexico, which would leave us in “No-Mans-Land,” a bridge between the two countries, where border guards on both sides would eventually fight over whose bathrooms we’d have to use while we lived there.
So, what did happen?
Well, if you caught my Facebook post at the time, you may already know we were denied entry into Mexico. I know, it’s shocking! But it was certainly not for lack of pleading, arguing, and sweet-talking on my part. After hearing all the stories of people being denied entry for one reason or another, I was prepared for the battle and determined to beat the odds.
We arrived at the Tecun Uman border around 2pm on a Thursday, with plenty of time to navigate the dreaded process of crossing from one foreign country into another. However, we found the gate closed, apparently due to some “potential” protesters making their way from the river. After looking around and seeing no sign of a protest, I explained to the guards (decked out in their camo and AK-47’s) they should hurry and let us in so they could lock the gate behind us before anyone showed up. Believe it or not, they declined my idea.
Next, they explained that the migración officer had already left for the day, three hours before their posted closure times, leaving no one to process our exit paperwork. Seriously, what country did they think this was?
Oh yeah, Guatemala!
Ok, at this point, I don’t know if it was frustration, the heat, or shear exhaustion from trying to formulate decipherable Spanish sentences, but I’d had it! We’d come too far to be turned back now.
We’d traveled for over eight hours, patiently accepting our fate as Google lead us through a tiny town, with roads built for nothing larger than a Fiat, requiring a police escort to exit safely. We were delayed not once, but twice as we and our traveling companions both experienced brake issues on the steep mountain roads. And we’d made it through the corrupt stretch of highway before the border, known for police officers pulling you over and denying you passage, at least without a special “toll” you could easily pay directly to them in Quetzales. We had made it to the border! I wasn’t about to let a migración officer take the rest of the day off!
Of course, I doubted my ranting and pleading would get us anywhere, but finally, the guard put a hand up to silence me- not the first time this has ever happened to me-and took out his cell phone to call his boss. Moments later he informed me an agent was on their way to help us out of Guatemala. Persistence pays off! Or so I thought!
After about an hour, an officer did arrive, and we were allowed to drive inside the locked gate to begin the exit process. By the way, still no sign of protestors!
Can we Please Come Back to Mexico?
The migración officer explained that before she could check us out of Guatemala I’d need to walk over to Mexico (Yep! Walk to Mexico) and ask if they would let us in. I’m sure the look on my face prompted her next action, which was to translate the entire message again, in English, on her desktop computer, which she then lifted and turned for me to read:
“If Mexico says they will not let you in for any reason and I have already checked you out of Guatemala, you will not be allowed back in, and you’ll be stuck in between the two countries.”
Ok, that I understood!
So, I kissed Gregg and Noah goodbye and walked to Mexico, via a long bridge that separated the two countries. It was eerily quiet, and I didn’t see another soul, except for the dozens of people and makeshift rafts along the river below, seemingly transporting goods back and forth between the two countries. Interesting! I would have stopped to investigate further, but I was on a mission.
On the other side of the bridge, I found my way to an entrance, through a small opening marked “entrada” and wandered across an empty parking lot until someone eventually saw me and waved me forward. Next thing I knew, my temperature was taken, my hands were sanitized, and I was told to sit and wait.
When 15 minutes had gone by, I finally asked a guard what was going on. Was there anyone there to help me? Apparently, everyone was on lunch.
After another 15 minutes, I was allowed inside and made my way to the counter. I quickly explained that Guatemala had sent me over to ask permission to cross, feeling a bit like I was playing a game of Red Rover, and was given an answer easily understood in both Spanish and English: No!
Apparently, the Banjercito (bank) was closed for the day and there would be no way to process my payment for our visas. Closed? It was only 4 o’clock! Well, turns out I lost an hour while walking across the bridge. Not because I walk slow, but because of a time change. It was now 5 o’clock in Mexico! Huge eye roll!
It didn’t escape me that I had just waited 30 minutes for them to return from lunch in order to tell me this news. But at this point, I knew I had been defeated! I left the building and headed back the same way I came in, only to find my only way out was through a turnstile that cost 5 pesos. I was about to hop the gate when an officer approached reiterating the cost to exit. This is where I lost it and yelled at a Mexican border guard.
I had not brought anything other than documents along with me, as I was only there to ask permission to come back. How can you charge me money to leave a country you just told me I wasn’t allowed to enter? I was about to sit down in a protest of my own, or go to jail, when the guard reached into his pocket and handed me the 5 pesos needed to exit. With tears making their way to the surface, I thanked him and walked out of Mexico.
Arriving back in Guatemala, I thanked the migración officer for her help (and for not checking us out of Guatemala), and headed to the RVs to give everyone the bad news. We would not be leaving Guatemala today.
Unfortunately, we were not allowed to park inside the border gate overnight so the guards unlocked the gate and helped us back out the same way we entered. By the way…still no protesters!
Luckily, some locals guys that had been hanging around during this entire time were quick to “rent” us a parking spot across the street for the night, which I’m pretty sure was not their spot to rent, but we were in no mood to go searching for another option, so we handed over the requested $5 and settled in for the night.
The following morning went pretty smooth, all things considered. My new BFF migración officer was back, and knowing our experience from the previous day, was helpful in moving us through quickly. She stamped us out of Guatemala and we were on our way to Mexico, this time driving across the bridge, while the many Guatemalan or Mexican locals carried on with their boat transports below.
After a longer-than-necessary paperwork process in Mexico customs, we were finally released through the exit gate and were officially back in Mexico! In a strange way, I felt like we’d made it home.
Blazing a New Path North
Instead of our original plan of stopping at all of those “missed” towns and cities we talked about earlier, we were now on a fast-track North. With COVID numbers on the rise all over the country, towns were either shut down or had limited to no options for camping. There would be no more “exploring” for the remainder of our time in Mexico. Instead, our accommodations would consist of Pemex gas stations and truck stops, and exploring would amount to little more than the inside of an OXXO mini-mart.
To put it mildly, it was heart-breaking to return to Mexico, only to leave it in the rear view so soon, and re-enter the US. But with two months left to kill, we were determined to continue our travels. Also, we still had no home to go “home” to.
What’s the saying? When life gives you lemons, you may as well squeeze them into a yummy margarita? Ok, maybe it’s just me that says that. But, it sure sounds good, doesn’t it?
We opted to cross the Mexico/Texas border at the Columbia Bridge, and set about visiting several sets of good friends, timing it perfectly to celebrate our 16th wedding anniversary with a few friends that were there with us on the big day! We’d all worked together in the British Virgin Islands, just kids living the good life, sailing and diving. And now here we were, 16 years later, with kids of our own. Now, that’s the real adventure!
Next, our travels will take us North to the Pacific Northwest and beyond to see family and friends, and if Canada ever decides to re-open, we may just have one more border crossing in our future.
Wherever we decide to go, you can bet we’ll still be Living Outside the Zoo!
Check out some other posts from Guatemala, as well as the beginning of our journey:
Hiding From a Virus 4K Miles From Home
Quarantine in Paradise
We Made it to Baja