Border Fandango

We are in Las Nubes, 3 days out of San Cristobal towards the Lacandan Jungle, when we get an inkling that we might not be able to cross into Guatemala where we had intended. We are 10 kilometers down a rough dirt road. There happens to be a nice couple, the first overlanders we have seen since San Cristobal, who have come from that direction and didn’t see a border crossing. None of their maps indicate there is a crossing. Yet Google Maps is clearly sending us that way. “This is the shortest route to your destination,” Siri assured us.

The locals we ask also don’t know about a border crossing in this remote corner of Mexico. Las Nubes doesn’t have any internet or cell service to verify this. To make things more interesting, we received an e-mail this morning that the boat papers had arrived and we needed to initiate the final payment. This will take internet and phone capabilities for 1 or 2 days. This is not easy to find in this remote area.

So we have two choices: we can drive west, back up the steep mountains we just came down, return to the main road, and go south to the next border crossing. This would put us in the Guatemalan highlands, a lovely place but full of steep, windy, slow roads. From there the most direct route would be a road to Coban, but there is a warning on iOverlander that this road is in very rough shape. Or we could go all the way around through Guatemala City, which Matt emphatically does not want to do.

The other choice is to keep going toward the border Siri is pointing us toward. If we can cross, we can be in Rio Dulce tomorrow. If not, we will then drive north, all the way to the El Ciebo border crossing, and then through the Peten region south to Rio Dulce. This way, although longer and hotter, is relatively flat.

We choose option #2.

It takes us a few hours to get to the town with the possible crossing. There are not very many fuel stations in this area, so we need to get gas, but we are running out of pesos, and the gas station doesn’t take credit cards. We scrape together 200 pesos to get some gas and continue down the road.

There is a sign for a border crossing! Yay! We drive up to the crossing, but the main building is fenced off and there are armed security guards standing in from of it. It looks like the crossing is still under construction, although we don’t see any workers. There is an arrow directing us on a dirt road around the compound.

We drive on the terrible dirt road along a tall barbed wire fence, and finally come to the border guards. They tell us we are free to go into Guatemala, but they can’t stamp us in or out or give us a refund on our Mexican vehicle importation permit. So we will have to return to Mexico before our vehicle permit runs out, which is in about a month. It is so tempting to cross and keep going. Rio Dulce and our boat are only 3 hours away. But the prospect of getting back in the car later and driving it all the way back to Mexico, is too much, so we decide to turn around and go the long way.

We are all a bit let down as we brace ourselves for a long drive north. We are not sure how much longer this way is, but we estimate it at about 12 hours of driving. That will take us at least 3 extra days. The road is straight and paved, but sometimes there are huge potholes, heaves, and missing parts of the road, and sudden downpours that appear without warning. Luckily, there is not much traffic and we make decent time.

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There is not much going on in Fronteras Corazol, but the hotel we are staying at has internet. We are able to change some dollars because there is a pedestrian-only border crossing here by boat. We eat leftover stew and listen to the howler monkeys in the trees above us. It takes most of the next day to make the money transfer for the sailboat.

Somehow we come up with the idea that I take the kids across the border here, then bus to Flores, while Matt will make the long drive around. He will make better time without us, and there is no good place to stop for the night between here and Flores. The kids are stoked about this plan. We negotiate a cheap fare with a young boat driver who will come get us at 9am the next day and then visit the immigration office to clear out of Mexico.

Matt heads out at 7:30am, and I share an omelet with the boys in the restaurant. At 9:03, our boat captain shows up and we follow him to the boat. It takes us 30 minutes up river, past people swimming and washing, cows, farmland, and jungle.

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He drops us off on a deserted dirt bank. I hand him my last 400 pesos, and walk up the bank with the kids. When we get to the top there are a couple of wooden shacks, dogs and chickens running around, a few people.  We have arrived in a new world, similar to Mexico, yet very different.

I ask a woman holding a young child if there will be a bus, and she says the next one is at 8:30. Oh, we must have lost an hour! Sure enough, in 5 minutes, a bus pulls up and we jump on. As we go through town, the bus picks up more and more people. I tell the conductor we need to stop by immigration, and he relays it to the driver.

The bus stops right in the middle of the dirt road. The conductor points to a concrete building, and tells me this is immigration. We grab our stuff and jump off. The bus and all the people on it wait for us. In the building there are a few people milling around. I dig out our passports and give them to a uniformed man. He stamps them, asks for $15, and sends us on our way. In less than 5 minutes, we are back on the bus and moving again.

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The boys dig into their snacks right away, sharing their animal crackers with some kids who are sitting behind us. I use all the quetzals Matt gave me as well as a few dollars to pay the bus fare. It is strange to be on a bus again after logging so many miles in the blazer. Eventually, despite the excitement, both boys fall asleep for a little bit and I can read my book. Amazingly, none of us have to pee, and after 4 hours we arrive in Flores.

It is hot outside the bus station and everyone is trying to hustle us into a taxi, but I don’t have any cash and I can’t seem to get my ATM card working. So we walk down the hot, busy road to the hotel where we will meet Matt. I carry Rylan in the pack, and hold Graysen’s hand. They are troopers. Graysen wants a cold drink but I don’t even have enough money for that. He has to drink warm water from the water bottle instead. I’m thankful I took a good look at the map so I know where to go, but still we walk right past it. I ask a man at a restaurant and he points me back up a hill that we just came down.

We finally walk through the front doors and I breathe a huge sigh of relief. The lobby is cool and breezy and full of plants. The woman at reception smiles and speaks English. Our room has a little balcony that overlooks the pool. It takes us about 5 minutes to change out of our sweaty clothes and get down to the pool.

Before jumping in, I check my e-mail. It is 2pm, and Matt has just sent an e-mail that he is at the border. There are some problems and he isn’t sure how long it is going to take. Ugh! He still has 3 hours of driving left! I feel so bad for him, but I am glad we are not all shut up in the car with two kids who are sick of driving.

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At 5pm I start hoping Matt will walk through the door. At 6pm, the boys and I sit out front of the hotel and watch for him. At 6:20, we go back to the room to watch videos to make the time pass faster. At 7, I finally decide we had better get some food with or without him. At the very same moment, Matt drives up. It has been a super long day for everyone, but we are together again and safe and sound in Guatemala!

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