They say time flies when you’re having fun. It seems like it was just a couple months ago I had just completed my first visa run to Mexico. Six months later, it was time to do it again, though this time I decide I might as well have fun with it.
On my last border run, I’d chosen Tapachula, Mexico, a somewhat rough border town, on the grounds that it was fairly easy to get to and not far from the Guatemalan border. As far as amenities or my personal interests, it left a lot to be desired.
For the upcoming trip I wanted a more interesting place, which is how discovered San Cristobal de las Casas, a beautiful colonial city in Mexico that looked to be a far more promising destination than Tapachula could ever hope to be.
Cathedral, San Cristobal de las Casas
I discovered that to get to San Cristobal, from Antigua, I’d have to either pay for a shuttle or chicken bus myself the entire way. Because I’m a glutton for punishment (or a cheapskate), I chose to make the trek via public transportation. This proved to be a fateful decision since it led to a series of events that made the trip far longer – and agonizing – than it should’ve been.
Here’s a travel tip for all you day trippers out there: While in Guatemala, it’s usually a good idea to check the news before you leave the house, especially if you’re traveling cross-country. Strikes, landslides, accidents, and other occurrences are not uncommon, so it pays to find out if the coast is clear before you leave the house, for when you decide to seek an alternate route.
I learned this firsthand the first time I traveled to Peten, to see the Tikal pyramids, only to find the city of Flores under siege and tanks rolling through town because of a drug-related massacre that had occurred in a nearby ranch. In fact, a local remarked to me what a bad idea it had been to bring the family over, that I should’ve known because it was all over TV and the newspapers that entire week. I was puzzled because neither CNN or Drudge Report had made a mention about any of this all week. I kid…
The second time, on a planned trip to Belize, I avoided getting caught in a massive, workers’ strike-related jam because I turned on the TV before leaving and learned about it before I left the house. Postponing the trip for the next day saved me a lot of aggravation and lost time.This time, I played it cool and figured nothing would happen… But something did happen, or was going to. Turns out there was a massive, nationwide teachers’ strike scheduled for that day, which would block roads at every turn.
Unfortunately, I didn’t give myself enough room to reschedule. Because of reasons beyond my control, I had waited until the last possible day to leave Antigua, on the exact day my visa was about to expire. So I was locked in to make it across the border at day no matter what. I left the house at 7:30 am and didn’t arrive in San Cristobal until 12:30 am, a grueling 16-hour trip that really should’ve been half as long with a little more careful planning.
Getting to San Cristobal de Las Casas from Antigua
The journey to San Cristobal via local buses is not complicated. The real issue is timing.
In Mexico, buses travel at nearly every hour to and from destinations. In Guatemala, it’s the opposite. Many bus routes don’t run after sundown and if you miss a connection, you’re stuck wherever along the route you decide to get off the bus.
Here’s the short version of what buses you have to take to make it there and back as cheaply, safely and efficiently as possible:
1a- Option 1: Antigua to San Lucas (Q5 – 25 minutes)
Catch the Guatemala-bound bus at Antigua’s terminal. Exit it at the first stop in San Lucas, right as the bus joins highway CA-1. Look for the huge pedestrian bridge and cross to the other side.
San Lucas Bus Stop
Bus Stopped on CA-1 Because of Roadblocks. Got off and Had Lunch Right in the Middle of the Highway.
Traffic Started Moving 30 Minutes Later and Quickly Jumped Back on Bus.
1b – Option 2: Antigua to Chimaltenango (Q5 – 45 minutes).
Chimaltenango-bound buses leave Antigua’s terminal less frequently and take a little longer. The advantage is that you’ll be a little further ahead when you reach the main highway. Exit the bus right before it crosses under the highway CA-1 bypass bridge. Cross the two-lane highway on foot and wait for your connecting bus on the other side.
I feel less safe here than at the San Lucas bus stop, but you should be fine if you’re there early in the morning and before dusk. It’ll be Q5 cheaper if leaving from here instead of San Lucas.
2a – Option 1: Quetzaltenango (Xela) bound bus to Cuatro Caminos stop (Q30 – 1:45 hours if leaving from San Lucas, Q25 and about 1:30 hours if leaving from Chimaltenango).
If you took this option, skip to step #3.
Cuatro Caminos Bus Stop
***Note: You could go all the way to Xela and board a HueHue bound bus there, but you’d be wasting an hour (30 minutes getting into Xela’s bus terminal, 30 minutes getting out). Much better to get off the bus at the busy Cuatro Caminos intersection and take a Hue Hue bound bus to save time. Plus, it saves you Q10 in fare by not taking the direct HueHue bus at San Lucas.***
Because of Traffic Roadblocks, the Bus Took a Detour to Salcaja, a Small Town near Xela – a rare occurrence
2b – Option 2: Huehuetenango (Hue Hue) bound bus to Las Vegas stop (Q60 3.5 hours). If you took this option, don’t go all the way to Hue Hue. Read on to learn why.
3 – Cuatro Caminos to Las Vegas (Q20 – 1:45 hours).
Las Vegas – the name fits in an ironic way – is a dusty, busy triangle-shaped intersection. It’s here where Huehuetenango-bound buses take a detour from the main highway into the city of HueHue. To save time and the inevitable wait for passengers at HueHue, ask to get off at this intersection. For your reference, it’s flanked by a Texaco gas station. Cross the busy highway and wait for a HueHue to La Mesilla bus.
***Note: You won’t see any casinos, pyramids, or Wayne Newton in Las Vegas, Guatemala. Fairly boring intersection, not a neon sign to be found anywhere. The reason you want to step off the bus here is that you’d be wasting an hour getting in and out of Hue Hue, only to come back through the Las Vegas intersection again.***
4 – Las Vegas to La Mesilla border town (Q20 – 2 hours).
This is my favorite part of the trip. Make sure you sit by the window (driver’s side) to catch beautiful views of the canyon and for a glimpse at the life of local Mayans – Mam language is spoken here, which is very different from Kaqchikel (Antigua area) and Tz’utujil (Lake Atitlan area). You may even get lucky and see the men of Todos Santos Cuchumatan, who are easy to spot due to their hats and distinctive red pants.
At La Mesilla terminal, as soon as you get off the bus, you’ll be approached by money changers. Have an idea what the going rate is (check at XE.com before you leave) and change enough quetzals into Mexican pesos to pay for the buses at least. Banks won’t change money, so your best bet once you cross the border are the money changers or ATMs.
Main street at La Mesilla
From Mesilla’s bus terminal, take a right on the main street and walk downhill towards the border. It’s an easy 15-minute walk downhill. Fairly safe too, as the street is lined on both sides with stalls selling trinkets and cheap goods. Don’t worry about the fork in the road when you get to it, as both streets join again a tenth of a mile later.
La Mesilla Border Crossing – Immigration Building Underneath “Have a Nice Trip” Sign
The border crossing is fairly relaxed. Guatemalan immigration offices are next to the entrance into Mexico, in a small building to the left as you walk towards Mexico. Walk in, hand your passport to the immigration of official, and if everything checks out, you’ll be done in less than five minutes (make sure your stamp has the correct date and that it indicated you’re leaving the country (salida).
The Mexican immigration building isn’t located across the border, oddly enough. It’s 10-minutes away (via bus) in nearby Ciudad Cuauhtémoc. No, you don’t want to walk there. And yes, I asked.
Look for a colectivo, small minibusses, which leave every 15 minutes or so, or the orange taxis on the left. The fare is MX$10. Occasionally, one of the orange taxis will take on passengers and you can take a shared ride for MX$10. Make sure it’s a shared ride and not a private cab, which is completely unnecessary and costs MX$40.
Mexico’s Colectivo Buses – No, those aren’t gunshots on the windshield
The bus/cab ride lasts about 10 minutes and you’ll be dropped off at the immigration building in Ciudad Cuauhtémoc. The building, which will be on your right when coming from Guatemala, is quite big and hard to miss. I’m fact, it’s the biggest man-made structure you’ll encounter for miles.
Once here, head into the immigration office, fill out a form and have your passport stamped. There are no fees for stays lasting less than seven days. Paperwork taken care of, it’s time to hit the road. There are two transportation options here.
Option 1: Take a small colectivo bus, which leaves usually every half hour or so, to Comitan, a town that lies roughly halfway between the Mexico/Guatemala border and San Cristobal. This bus costs MX$50 and the ride lasts 1:30 hours. At Comitan, the same colectivo company will drop you off at their private station, where you can take another colectivo minibus to San Cristobal (MX$60 – 2 hours).
Option 2: Take an OCC bus to San Cristobal. The terminal is right across the street from the immigration office. OCC buses are huge tour buses with reclining seats and TVs. Cost is MX$118, plus an MX$8 insurance surcharge. While these buses are comfortable, they’re not really worth the added cost for a short journey. They don’t save a lot of time either, if any, as the colectivo buses run on a much faster schedule.
OCC Bus Arrives at Terminal 1:30 Hour Late – Had bought ticket, so I was stuck waiting.
Once you get to San Cristobal, you’ll be dropped off at the OCC bus station or nearby. From here, it’s a 5-10 minute walk into the center of town.
Lowest total cost one way: Q70 – Q75 from Antigua to the border, MX$110 (Q50) from border to San Cristobal, for a total of Q130, or about US$19.
From San Cristobal to Antigua
Returning to Antigua is the same journey, but I’m reverse. But with one major caveat.
Unlike Mexico, Guatemala’s public transportation is far less organized. The last chicken bus leaving from Hue Hue to Guatemala leaves at around 5:30 pm. Should you arrive late and miss this bus, you’ll be able to get as far as Xela, where you’ll be able to find reasonable accommodations – unless you don’t mind finding a place to stay in Hue Hue.
Generally, it’s not a good idea to ride public transportation at night in Guatemala. As long as you leave San Cristobal by 7 am and not happen to run into any weird snags, you should be able to arrive in Antigua while daylight still shines. Not a guarantee, but the sooner you leave San Cristobal in the morning, the better your odds.
Other than that, I had a great time in San Cristobal and will dedicate a separate post to my stay there. It’s a beautiful city (designated as a “magical town” by the Mexican government), about 4-5 times bigger than Antigua and with a lot more in the way of entertainment and food options and a decidedly European flair (there’s a Burger King and a Subway in town, though no McDonalds, as the three days of public protests put an end to Ronald’s plans a few years ago, according to a local I talked to).
Here are some San Cristobal pics to give you a small sample.
Have you visited San Cristobal de las Casas?
Did you enjoy the visit?