Retiring in Guatemala: Residency and Pensionado Programs

Flickr @ Damian613

I get a few emails every month from people seeking information about retiring in Guatemala. The fact that they’re considering Guatemala tells me they’ve done their homework and haven’t been “steered” towards the usual suspects, such as Costa Rica or Panama. I’m in no way putting down choices other than Guatemala because, as I can only speak of what I know, and that means Antigua Guatemala.

As always, I recommend you travel to the country first and stay for a few months *before* you uproot yourself and loved ones. Best to postpone the often-frustrating task of filling out paperwork and sinking money into lawyer fees until you’re sure you want to put down roots.

Speaking of sinking money into lawyer fees, you ought to check out my friend’s blog, TheNewExpat.com, a Gringo that has recently retired to Guatemala, for an insight into how the process works. Compare his experience to what the requirements on the books are here, as listed below. There can often be quite the disparity between the two.

There are different types of visas available. Each has a set of requirements depending on what your intentions are when arriving in Guatemala. If you’re here for a short-term and don’t plan on working in Guatemala or opening a business, then it’s easier to leave the country every six months and play the tourist visa game.

However, if you are thinking of staying in Guatemala long-term and eventually work or set up a business here, consider becoming a resident.

*** If you want to know what are the actual benefits of the Guatemalan Pensionado Program, see my article about (new window)  Guatemala Pensionado Program Benefits.

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Retiring in Guatemala

With a (tourist) visa, you’ll be able to work as a volunteer in many of the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that have set up shop in Guatemala. You can also buy property here without the need to become a resident.

However, if you want to work for a Guatemalan company in a paid role or have a business, you’ll need to become a resident. Many foreigners come to Antigua with their tourist visas and try to land jobs as bartenders or at local restaurants – this is illegal. You’ll be deported, fined Q10,000 if found, and likely never allowed to enter the country again.

While many people decide to engage in the activity anyway, do know that Police does conduct immigration raids in Antigua from time to time. Not a good outcome for a job that is likely to pay far less than comparable jobs elsewhere.

There are different types of visas available. Each has a set of requirements depending on what your intentions are when arriving in Guatemala. If you’re here for a short-term and don’t plan on working in Guatemala or opening a business, then it’s easier to leave the country every six months and play the tourist visa game. However, if you are thinking of staying in Guatemala long-term and eventually work or set up a business here, consider becoming a resident.

Temporary Guatemalan Residency

The easiest path is to apply for Temporary Residence. This type of residence will allow you to work and invest in Guatemala. Temporary Residency permits are good for two years, at which time you can renew for another two years. However, know that after two years with a Temporary Residency Permit you’ll be able to apply for a Permanent Residency permit.

Regarding government paperwork, you will be required to follow the often cumbersome Pasos de  Ley (Lawful Steps), which is a fancy way of saying  “get your paperwork stamps” – they love stamps here. Often, your foreign documents won’t be accepted by the Guatemalan government until they have been verified as genuine by a Guatemalan official. This process will vary depending on what you’re trying to do and what international document you’re being required to turn in.

A common way to certify your foreign document is to take your papers to the local Guatemalan embassy in your home country. If there isn’t a Guatemalan embassy in your country, your documents can be certified here, as long as you can provide a copy that has been translated into Spanish by an official translator.

In Guatemala, you’ll need to take your documents to the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores (Ministry of Foreign Relations) in Guatemala City, where a consular officer will certify them as valid. For this, you’ll need official stamps or timbres. These are not expensive, ranging in price from Q1 to Q5. Stamps are available at any office supplies store and in many cases, right outside the gate of whatever government building, you’re required to take your documents for verification.

Here are the documents you need to get your temporary residency, according to Guatemala’s Immigration Department:

  • A recent photograph.
  • Original passport and photocopies of every page in your passport authenticated (notarized) by a lawyer.
  • A certificate of validation for your passport, issued by the embassy or consulate of your country, accredited to the Government of Guatemala (with “Pasos de Ley”). A certified birth certificate will do for people from countries with which Guatemala has no diplomatic relations.
  • Proof that you have no criminal record in the country where you have lived for the last five years (with “Pasos de Ley”). If that nation does not extend a similar document, you must show certificate stating so. Also, provide an affidavit (notarized letter) of “Carencia de Antecedentes Penales” (Lack of Criminal History), and a Police report from Guatemala.
  • Affidavit by a Guatemalan sponsor, or sponsoring company, guaranteeing financial responsibility for the person applying for residency and proof of their economic solvency.

If your sponsor is an actual person, not a company, they will need to provide the following to prove they’re able to take responsibility for you:

  • Have authenticated photocopies of tax returns (VAT-ISR) for the last tax period.
  • Bring a legalized photocopy card of your Tax Identification Number (NIT).
  • Certified letter showing current job and income using the letterhead of accountant or employer, if applicable.
  • Notarized photocopy of sponsor’s Documento Personal de Identification (DPI) – the national ID card that recently replaced the Guatemalan cédula.
  • Your brief statement describing what sort of economic activity you’ll be conducting in Guatemala.

If your sponsor is a company with legal standing in Guatemala, they will need to provide the following to prove they’re able to take responsibility for you:

  • Financial statements (balance sheet and income statements), or a recent certification stating that corporation belongs to a Guatemalan trade union.
  • A notarized copy of the company’s business license.
  • A notarized copy of the identification document for the legal representative of the company, plus a notarized photocopy showing said representative’s status as a legal representative of the business.
  • Job offer letter or letter of employment and a  current work permit issued by the Ministry of Labor.

Pensionado o Rentista (Pensioner or Investor) Residency

This type of residency is useful for those who have a fixed income from overseas. If you’re retired and drawing a pension, this might be your best option.

The main difference between this type of residence and others is that you’ll be unable to work in a paid position (have a job where someone else in Guatemala pays your wages). This doesn’t mean you’re barred from all economic activity here, as in many cases, you’ll still be able to run your own business.

The primary requirement for achieving residency in Guatemala as a pensioner or investor is that applicants be able to prove they have a permanent lawful income of $1,000USD. This monthly income must be generated outside of Guatemala.

Pensioners are considered to be those who are receiving a foreign government’s pension and, or, retirement income, or a pension provided by an international organization or private company.

Investors are those who enjoy stable, permanent income, generated abroad the following way:

  • From deposits, and, or, investments in banks established elsewhere.
  • From investments in companies established abroad.
  • Remittances are originating from real estate income, religious institutions, or academic scholarships.
  • Investments in securities issued in domestic currency by financial institutions legally authorized to operate in Guatemala, where they were purchased with funds obtained by foreign exchange in any of those same institutions.
  • Investments in securities issued in domestic currency by financial institutions legally authorized to operate in Guatemala, where they were purchased with funds obtained by foreign exchange in any of those same institutions, provided that they were purchased with funds raised by the change foreign currency at any of those institutions.
  • Investments in securities denominated in foreign and, or, national currency with the State or its agencies, provided they are obtained by the foreign exchange in any of the country’s financial institutions legally authorized.

Once you receive this type of residency, you can travel in and out of the country as you wish. You will, however, lose your status as a resident if you are out of the country longer than a year. That is unless you can prove that illness forced you to be absent from Guatemala for longer than a year.

Pensioners and investors are also allowed to file an application on behalf of their spouse, unmarried children under 18, any disabled adult children, and grown children younger than 25 years old provided that attend a university and are financially dependent on the pensioner or investor.

For every family member you add to your original petition, you’ll be required to prove an additional $200USD in income each.

Here are the documents you’ll need:

  • A recent photograph.
  • Original passport and complete photocopy of every page in passport notarized by a lawyer.
  • A certificate of validation for your passports issued by the embassy or consulate of your country accredited to the Government of Guatemala (with “Pasos de Ley”), or certified birth certificate for persons from countries with which Guatemala has no diplomatic relations.
  • Proof that you have no criminal record in the country where you have lived for the last five years (with “Pasos de Ley”). If that nation does not extend a similar document, you must show a certificate stating so and an affidavit of “Carencia de Antecedentes Penales” (Lack of Criminal History), and a Police report from Guatemala.
  • Certified documents (with “Pasos de ley”) stating that you receive a monthly pension income or one thousand U.S. dollars ($1,000USD) or more, or its equivalent in local currency. Remember that each additional dependent will require you show an extra income of U.S. $200USD. This document must have a contact email address of the entity issuing the pension or income statement.
  • If your documents are in a foreign language, they must be translated into Spanish by a sworn translator authorized as such by the Guatemalan government.
  • Evidence of-of deposits made from abroad into Guatemalan banks.

Getting permanent residency is not that different regarding paperwork than what’s required to apply for temporary residence. The main benefit is not having to reapply every two years continually, as you’re required to do with a temporary residence.

And there you have it! Not too bad, is it? Until you have to go through it, that is.

*****

Want more info about retiring in Guatemala?

check out the Living in Antigua Guatemala guide.

Antigua Guatemala to Tapachula Mexico Visa Run

It’s that time of the year again every expat dreads… visa run time! It’s always exciting at first, though it never fails to become a drag sooner or later, especially if you’ve settled into a comfortable routine. When entering Guatemala, most people will get a 90-day visa to stay in the country. You can readily file for a 90-day Guatemala visa extension in Guatemala City, which is not a problem if you live only 45-minutes away in Antigua. Those living on Lake Atitlan or Quetzaltenango (Xela) have to make a longer trek – three and four hours respectively. The easier option might be to hire a local immigration lawyer who’ll take care of it for you and save you the two trips to Guatemala City – one trip to drop off your passport, one trip to pick it up.

But what happens if you’ve already filed for your 90-day Guatemala visa extension? Well… tough cookies. You can only do one 90-day extension per stay in the country. This means you HAVE TO leave the country when the 90-day extension is about to expire, at roughly the six-month mark. Most expats choose the six-month mark to go back home for a week or two, which doubles as a visa renewal trip.

Guatemala Visa Run

If you don’t have the time for it or are not planning a long trip back home, your option is to do what is known as a visa run to a nearby country. In Guatemala, the nearest countries that qualify as an official “exit” are Mexico, Belize, and Costa Rica. El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua are closer to Guatemala, but they don’t qualify as official “exits” since they’ve joined with Guatemala in what is known as the CA-4 border agreement.

I love spending time in Belize. The people are super nice, and the food is great. But it’s also over eight hours away by bus and Belize charges a $35BZD exit fee. And I’d rather not deal with Belizean immigration officials if I can help it. Costa Rica is too far and entails at least two more border crossings (El Salvador/Honduras and Nicaragua). So the choice was made, and Mexico was it.

There are many shuttle companies that offer direct trips to the Guatemala/Mexico border. The issue is that they all depart from Guatemala City, which complicates things a bit.  For reference, these are the companies offering more or less direct trips:

Autobuses Maya de Oro – Malacatan is near El Carmen border and Tecun Uman near the Ciudad Hidalgo crossing. Cost is about Q90 ($11.25) each way.

Tica Bus – This bus will take you directly to Tapachula from Guatemala City. Costs $21.28 each way.

Linea Dorada – Direct from Guatemala City to Tapachula – Leaves once a day at 6 am. Costs Q170 ($21.25).

Since I’m all for Slow Travel, I made the decision early on there would be no direct bus for me. I’d be doing it the cheapest way possible, just like most of the locals do it, taking in the countryside. I’ll note that in the entire trip (eight buses/taxis total), I did not spot a single person aboard a bus that looked like a foreigner to me. Make of that what you will :)

I tried to do as little pre-planning as possible. I wanted to see whether in this day and age one could travel without digging through Lonely Planet’s forums or getting any recommendations about lodging or where to eat from TripAdvisor. Since I’m typing this today with both hands and all other limbs attached, I guess I can say it was a success. I was not eaten by wolves, kidnapped, ate quite well, and found a hotel that was quite a bargain.

From Antigua to Tapachula Mexico – First Leg: Escuintla

This one’s easy enough. From Antigua’s main bus terminal, take a bus heading to Escuintla, the department through which highway CA-2 runs through. It’s a regular chicken bus, the one we all know and love.  The day was lovely and the roads smooth. The bus was packed, which is half my body is hanging out the window (below). Just kidding. The bus was crowded, but manageable.

road from Antigua to Escuintla

It was an odd feeling to see Volcan Agua and get nostalgic about it. I mean, I live on top of the thing, so I did feel like it was MY volcano I was leaving behind. Never thought I’d get attached to an immovable object, but there I was.

Agua Volcano in the distance

In the distance, I could see Fuego Volcano smoking. It’s been on Yellow Alert lately, so I’m glad it’s some distance away from Antigua.

Acatenango and Fuego volcanoes

Once the bus was inside the city, I asked the driver for the bus stop where I could take a bus to Tecun. He dropped me off at the right spot. There was a flurry of activity and buses came and went with barely any time to load passengers.

Fare for the first bus: Q6 ($0.75USD)

Time: 1 hour

However, before I could board any bus, the first order of business was to find a restroom. People rent sanitarios (restrooms) for Q1 to Q3 here, so I was glad to find one nearby for Q1. Sure, it was down a semi-dark hall where someone could have put a bag over my head, and I never would’ve been heard from again. But nothing of the sort happened. I happily paid my Q1 and was back out to the main square where (below).

Second Leg: From Escuintla to Tecun Uman

 

I was advised by another local bus driver to take a Pullman bus or second-class bus. These buses are more comfortable than chicken buses and make fewer stops, making them the preferred choice for the locals. I decided to lay off the chicken bus idea and opted for a Pullman bus instead, which I had to wait for since they pass by every 20 minutes or so.

There are two border crossings to Mexico that are easily reachable by bus. Tecun Uman, across the Mexican city Ciudad Hidalgo, and El Carmen, which is closer to Tapachula and across the Mexican town of Talisman. Since El Carmen is reportedly the busier of the two, I decided to try my hand at crossing via Tecun Uman first. It turns out that Pullman buses leave you closer to the border in Tecun Uman (locals call it Tecun) than buses headed near El Carmen, but more on that later.

Escuintla bus stop

Sure enough, a few minutes later a big Pullman bus came roaring in (below).

With Pullman buses, like with chicken buses, the fare is completely at the whim of the fare collector. I asked a collector a couple of days earlier what the fare would be and he estimated probably Q75 ($9.37USD). As I got off the bus coming from Escuintla, I also asked the bus driver what to expect for the fare. He said about Q45 ($5.62). That was a pretty big gap. It looked like my bus fare would depend on how much I looked like a tourist or like someone with any amount of money.

As I got on the bus, I asked one of the passengers how much fare would be, and he guessed Q60 ($7.50). When the bus fare collector came around, I gave him a Q100 bill. He sized me up quickly and tagged me with Q70 ($8.75). People around me smiled sympathetically, and from their looks, it seemed as if they felt sorry for me. Oh well. Lesson learned. I was going to try a different approach next time.

pullman bus in guatemala

The ride was mostly uneventful, with only a few stops in between. I stood up for about 40 minutes, waiting for a seat to become available. A family took pity on me and insisted I have a small metal stool that their child was sitting on. Thankfully, a seat opened up 10 minutes later.

Here’s a tip for you. Pullman buses have bathrooms on board, but the bathroom on this one reeked of stale urine as if it hadn’t been cleaned in days. I recommend you sit in the front two-thirds of the bus, especially if you won’t be sitting by a window that opens.

After a few hours, we arrived at the Coatepeque Bus Station (below). The bus stopped here for about 30 minutes, which allowed people to head to the restroom, buy food, stretch their legs, etcetera. I didn’t bother moving from my seat. If you do, always take your bag with you. Don’t leave it on the bus, unless it’s stored underneath. Also, tell the driver so that they won’t take off without you.

bus stop in guatemala

Suddenly, we were swarmed by men eight-feet tall! They were offering all sorts of items. Drinks, fried chicken, tortillas, you name it, they had it (below).

selling food to bus passengers

Another bus pulled up next to ours, and I was disappointed to find out I was not, in fact, in the land of chicken-selling giants (below).

sellers on benches, bus stop

Passed by a small town that had a lovely manicured garden. Oddly, there was a small tractor on display which I wished I’d gotten the scoop on what was so noteworthy about it to have it so prominently displayed.

Coatepeque guatemala

I arrived at the Tecun Uman bus station (below) at almost exactly four hours and 30 minutes after leaving Escuintla. I was promptly approached by a few men offering to “help me” across the border. So I decided to strike up a conversation with them.

It turns out Tecun Uman is a heavily used border for immigrants from Central America making their way to the US. These guys promised to take me safely across the river. I tried to get them to quote me a price but was unsuccessful. They were also quite friendly, even though they initially tried to rip me off by offering to exchange my Guatemalan quetzals into Mexican pesos at M$1.40 for every quetzal – official rate is M$1.61 for every quetzal. Eventually, they gave up after figuring out I wouldn’t be a client. The guy also told me to go across the street instead for a better rate – which I did and got a not bad rate of M$1.55 for every quetzal.

Tecun Uman bus terminal

I planned to attempt to make both crossings and renew my visa in one day. Officially, one is supposed to wait three days, but no one cares. Most people stay in Mexico for a day, some even come back the same day. Since it was already past 2 pm, I decided to go ahead and visit Tapachula anyway and return the next day. I had a throbbing headache, the heat and humidity were getting to me, and was in no mood to cross the border and endure yet another five-hour bus ride on the way back. To avoid running into the same border officials, I would attempt to re-enter Guatemala through the El Carmen border.

Checking Out Tecun Uman

I asked a guy about how far a walk it would be to the border, to which he replied it would be about 20 minutes. Not in the mood to walk at all, I decided to splurge and rented a bici-taxi, which for Q10 ($1.25) would take me up to the border.

bici taxis in tecun uman guatemala

The ride was much nicer than I expected.

ride from terminal to border in tecun uman

For a little border town, Tecun Uman – also known as Ayutla – is reasonably clean and prosperous looking.

main streets of ayutla

Their central plaza looked very inviting.

central plaza, tecun uman guatemala

Their big, Grimace-colored church was oddly endearing.

tecun uman church

I was lucky I didn’t cross paths with a member of a fearsome scooter-riding clown posse (below).

clown riding a motorcycle

The border crossing went smoothly, and there were hardly any people in line. I had heard people here were asked to pay a Q10 ($1.25) border-crossing fee – illegally since there are no fees on the books. I overheard the person ahead of me – looked like a gringo, after his passport was handed back, ask the Immigration woman if the fee was Q10. The woman slightly nodded her head, and the guy slipped a bill under the window. I wasn’t going to argue about a fee, but I sure wasn’t going to ask if I needed to either.

When it was my turn, I greeted the woman and slipped my passport under the window. She looked through it and motioned for the Supervisor to come over since she noticed it had two extensions listed. She handed it to him, and he sat down at a terminal with my passport. I wasn’t about to invite questions or start chatting her up, so I looked at the person behind me and offered them to step up now that the woman was twiddling her thumbs. I took a few steps back to nonchalantly fiddle with my iPod, never bothering to look in their direction. Eventually, the lady called me to hand me my passport. I said “Gracias” and quickly stepped away from the window to verify I had my exit stamp – which was on there. I put the passport away, fiddled a bit more with the iPod, and was out the door. No fees, no problems.

Crossing Into Mexico

The bridge to Mexico was fairly deserted. I thought the reason was that it was Saturday. It turns out the action was OFF the bridge, as you’ll see.

I found it amusing the Guatemalan exit sign was in English as well (below). Other than the gringo back at the Immigration office, I did not spot another obvious foreigner.

border crossing from guatemala to mexico

The line between Mexico and Guatemala is clear. Mexico has no problem flaunting their wealth, with their fancy painted roads and covered walkways.

border crossing mexico to guatemala

Guatemala to the left, Mexico to the right.

guatemala-mexico border

The obligatory “One foot in Guatemala, one foot in Mexico” shot.

 

in between two countries

I spotted some teens openly transporting barrels of fuel from Mexico. Since Mexico is an oil-producing country, fuel is cheaper. Some Guatemalans make it a nice little side business to ferry fuel over to sell in Guate. Gas costs about Q37 a gallon ($4.62) and smugglers sell it in canisters by the side of the road for Q25 a gallon ($3.12).

smuggling gas from mexico to guatemala

On the other side of the river, huge barges were going back and forth, carrying Mexican goods. Guatemalans take advantage of Mexico’s weaker peso and replenish their stores with Mexican goods made cheaper by not having to pay taxes on it. Police have to be complicit in it, as this was blatantly going on in broad daylight. You can also see people wading across the river unimpeded.

crossing river from guatemala to mexico

I wish I could show you Mexico’s modern facilities, but they don’t like anybody taking pictures for “security reasons.” No one ever checked my backpack at any time. In fact, once I exited the building and walked outside I pointed the camera as if to take a pic, but never did, turning instead to walk in the direction of the Tapachula-bound buses. Promptly, a Police Officer came running over, across the street, demanding to see the pictures I’d taken. I insisted I didn’t take any pics, but she wouldn’t budge. She flipped through a few and eventually satisfied, handed the camera back and walked away. Whatever.

As far as the actual border crossing procedure, it was a non-event. The room was huge, had over thirty chairs and could easily fit a couple of hundred people. But there was nobody there when I arrived. A couple of minutes later two older guys with foreign accents showed up. I was asked to fill out a form and was given a portion of the lower half that the Mexican Immigration Officer tore off. Keep this, as Mexican authorities will ask for this slip upon your exit.

By the way, if you spend seven days or more in Mexico, you’ll have to pay an exit fee of M$295 ($23.30). Under seven days? NO FEE.

Third Leg: From Tecun Uman to Tapachula

So anyway, the Tapachula buses, known as “combis,” were lined up waiting for passengers. They leave every five minutes and charge M$24 ($1.90) for the 45-minute ride.

combi buses in mexico

On the way out, we passed by the main plaza at Ciudad Hidalgo. I toyed with the idea of staying here and attempting to go back the next day through Tecun Uman, but I decided to have the “full” Tapachula experience. Good call too, as I later heard from a local that Ciudad Hidalgo was quite dangerous and not worth staying around in.

plaza ciudad hidalgo

Ciudad Hidalgo has a funky water tower.

ciudad hidalgo mexico

Adventures in Tapachula

As I neared Tapachula, it was obvious by the ominous dark clouds that it was going to rain buckets. And it did. Tapachula is the most quickly flooded city I’ve ever seen.

rainy season in Tapachula Mexico

Eventually, we arrived at the Tapachula Bus Terminal. Pretty modern, it was moderately sleek. Most importantly, it had free WiFi, which I quickly latched onto to check e-mails. By the way, the password for the WiFi at the terminal is 80ae774a25.

I asked the local bus driver for a hotel recommendation. He told me about a motel around the corner from the bus station, Hotel Johnny, which he said was very good and cheap at only M$150 ($11.85). With the rain finally subsided, I went out to search for the “hotel.” Well, let me tell you “Johnny,” if that’s his real name, plays very fast and loose with the meaning of the word “hotel.” Maybe “rat hole” is what he meant?

The first clue about the quality of Johnny’s hotel was the odd look I got from the “receptionist.” And I use the word loosely here. She was not dressed for success, I tell you. I told her I was looking for a room, to which she suspiciously replied: “For how many hours?”

“Hours?”, I replied, slow to catch on in these sort of situations, as always.

“Yes,” she said, looking at me as if expecting someone else to walk in behind me any second.

“No… it’s just me… and I need a room for the night”, I replied.

She took a step back, probably thinking I was the biggest deviant in the world, wondering what kind of sick person I was I could spend a whole night at a place like that with myself. She began to eye my backpack suspiciously.

“Do you have WiFi?” I asked. I might as well asked if they served caviar at brunch. She gave me a blank stare. “The Internet?” I tried again. A lightbulb went on.

“Aaaah… No Senor.” Then she stared at me, expecting something utterly confounding to come out of my mouth. I happily obliged.

“Can I see the room?” I asked. She was dumbfounded.  I repeated the question, a little slower “Puedo ver la habitación… por favor….?

This was too much for her, so she took a few steps back and kept one eye on me and another on an open door, asked someone inside whether she could show me the room. The woman inside the small room was now curious and stuck her head out to take a gander at me. She smiled sweetly and said to the younger woman “Of course!” and handed her a key.

The young woman took me to the room at the end of the hall and opened the door.

And goodness gracious. It was like she opened the door to a coal furnace. The room was hot and did not have a window. If I wanted to use the A/C, the rate would go up from M$150 ($11.85) to M$220 ($17.39). But that wasn’t even the worst part. This room smelled. Wait, no. It was worse than that. It reeked…. Nah, that’s not it either. I believe the proper term is it stank… Not stunk, mind you, but stank of chile-infused sexy time. I couldn’t back-pedal fast enough out of there.

Out on the streets again, I was glad to fill my lungs with fresh air. I vowed right there it would be the last time I would ever ask a Mexican bus driver for hotel recommendations.

As far as Tapachula itself, it’s not that pretty, save for the main square. The streets are not dirty, but people have an edge to them I had not seen since the last time I visited New York. In Antigua, especially the outskirts, people expect you to look them in the eye and greet them. My wife remarked how upon walking a few blocks to the store she had been greeted with a “Good morning!” over 30 times. She lost count after thirty!

In Tapachula? Making eye contact is asking for trouble. I walked for a bit all around the main square with a goofy, friendly smile waiting for someone to greet me back. Not a single person replied or greeted me. Wait, one person did. I looked at an older guy for half a second too long, and he replied: “What’s your problem?” Tapachula wasn’t going to get any “Friendliest City” awards this century.

I also tried to engage the locals in conversation, but most were invariably shy as if talking too much with a stranger might get them in trouble. From street vendors to hotel staff, no one wanted anything to do with their fellow human being other than the most minimal interactions required. Quite shocking really. I figured the weather had people in a foul mood.

streets of Tapachula Mexico

Walking around I found an excellent – and inexpensive – small hotel. The room was super basic – no shower curtain or toilet seat – but it was clean. It smelled clean and had a TV too. On top of that, it had an excellent WiFi connection. Best of all? Only M$120 ($9.48)! No, not the hour, the whole night!

hotel in tapachula mexico

 

Maria Daniela hotel Tapachula Mexico

The hotel was literally within sight of the main square.

balcony view, tapachula

After setting my bags in the room, I went out to grab something to eat. Bought three Tacos al Pastor – only M$5 ($0.39) each – to go and took them back to the room where I promptly devoured them. Thought about going out to get three more, but decided to call it a day.

In the morning, I went out to grab some coffee and something to eat. The day was splendid, and the main square looked radiant. People still weren’t friendly, but at least they looked beaming in their unfriendliness.

main plaza tapachula mexico

 

fountain, tapachula mexico

 

train rides in tapachula

 

Municipal palace tapachula mexico

 

Hidalgo statue, tapachula
busy plaza in tapachula

Saint Augustine Cathedral looked nice.

San Agustin cathedral tapachula mexico

 

San Agustin cathedral interior tapachula mexico

Looking at all monuments in Mexico, it becomes clear that Benito Juarez and Miguel Hidalgo are among the most respected. Juarez was President of Mexico and considered the equivalent of  George Washington. He was also a good friend of Abraham Lincoln and was responsible for setting up Mexico’s democratic form of government.

When I was a kid, I often heard my dad quote Juarez’ most famous saying (inscribed below – behind Juarez’ statue), which I had no idea was Juarez. I just instantly recognized it the moment I read it. In Spanish, it says:

“Entre los individuos como entre las personasel respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz.”

el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz.”

It roughly translates as “Between people as is between nations, respect for another’s rights is peace.” Wish some of our foreign leaders tattooed that on their foreheads so that they be reminded of this every morning.

benito juarez statue tapachula

Reflecting on these deep thoughts for a few minutes, about my dad, about wars and why people kill each other senselessly had a profound effect on me. It must have because it got me hungry so I went and bought a torta (below) loaded with chorizo, ham, salami, and chicken and killed it in under two minutes.

street food tapachula mexico

Hunger satisfied, I headed back to the bus terminal for my return trip to Guatemala.

Fourth Leg: Tapachula to Talisman

Checking my email one last time at the Tapachula bus station (below), I headed to the back of the building.

tapachula mexico bus terminal

A row of  “combi” buses awaited passengers. To head to the border of El Carmen, one needs to take a bus headed to Talisman. This is a much shorter ride, only 20 minutes, as well as cheaper – M$15 ($1.16).

Tapachula mexico streets

 

highway to tapachula mexico

The combi bus dropped all passengers off at the pedestrian entrance to the El Carmen border. From here, it’s a five-minute walk to the border. Again I was approached by a “helpful” young man offering to take me across the river. I inquired about prices, and he suggested a “donation.” The weird thing is that they all were wearing the same color shirt. Made me wonder if they provided waterproof bags for your personal belongings and a towel to dry you off upon crossing the river. It seemed like that kind of operation.

bicitaxi mexico border

border shops in Mexico

Hammocks for babies (below)? I’m so getting one when the wife has one. That baby is going to be the most relaxed baby ever.

cribs, mexico border

That’s as close as I dared to get to take a picture of the border entrance from the Mexican side. Did not need the Federales come and threaten to smash my camera again. Once was enough.

Road to Mexico - guatemala border

At the Mexican border, I handed over my passport and slip I received at the previous day’s crossing. Less than two minutes later I was on my way.

This guy was crossing the river and carrying across what appeared to be a jug of fuel.

river crossing from central america to mexico

The Guatemalan border is a hub of commercial activity.

Guatemala border crossing

To your left, and before you get to what appears to be the main office, you’ll see the spot where you’ll get your passport stamped. You don’t even have to go in, as it’s just a window, not a room you go into. I handed the passport, kept my mouth shut, and turned sideways. No one made a peep that I was gone for less than 24 hours. I was handed my passport back, and I checked it to make sure it had a stamp with a 90-day visa stamped. It was, so I merrily went on my way.

Malacatan border crossing

Fifth Leg: Border to El Carmen

After you exit Guatemala’s immigration area, you’ll have a few options. You can go to Malacatan, 30 minutes away, and take the Pullman bus there. To get to Malacatan, you can jump on a combi bus – Q4 ($0.50), take a shared taxi – five in a small car – for Q5 ($4.25) or hire a taxi for Q40 ($5). I took the taxi.

En route, the taxi driver told me of a faster option to get back home. Since the Pullman bus that goes to Malacatan to later return to Tecun Uman to wait for passengers, I could take a shortcut and jump on a bus at La Virgen, a small crossing on the highway where Pullman buses stop. It would save me almost an hour in waiting time. I jumped at the chance.

The taxi driver dropped me halfway to Malacatan, off at the crossing where the combi buses stopped and advised I only take the “Directo” buses, which get to La Virgen faster. I waited for the direct red bus as the taxi driver suggested. He also advised fare would be Q5 and Pullman fare back to Escuintla about Q40 ($5).

Sixth Leg: El Carmen to La Virgen

When I got on the direct bus, I asked a passenger what the fare would be to La Virgen – 30 minutes away. She also confirmed it was Q5. Well, at fare collection time, I handed him Q5. Nope, it was Q7, he said. Gringo pricing? Maybe….

On the way, we passed what looked like an abandoned Italian villa. No one knew the owner according to a passenger I asked. The building had been abandoned for at least 10 years. Quite a structure for the area, which consisted of tiny ranch houses for the most part.

Guatemalan countryside

The scenery was fantastic.

rivers of guatemala

blue skies in Guatemala

Smuggled gas from Mexico for sale (below).

mexican gas for sale in guatemala

We got to La Virgen crossing, where a nearly empty Pullman bus was waiting for passengers.

second class bus in guatemala

pullman bus seats in guatemala

It was so hot, I couldn’t resist downing a bag of cold coconut water. I would deal with possible repercussions later, I figured. A year here and you’ll bulletproof your stomach.

coconut water, guatemala

Seventh Leg: La Virgen to Escuintla

This time, when the fare collector came around, I had a plan. Instead of giving him a Q100 bill, I gave him a Q50 bill and acted as if I expected Q10 back. “Nope. It’s Q60”, he said. I acted with feigned indignation “Q60??? It’s Q40!”, I shot back. He didn’t dare look me in the eye and said “Q60”.  The bus was already moving, so I grumbled some and gave him another Q10. Oh well. At least I managed to knock off Q10 off the price this time. Take small wins when you can.

rapidos del sur guatemala bus

The trip was smooth, even if my behind was numb after four hours. This time, the bus didn’t go inside Escuintla. It just stopped at the side of the highway, at the junction of the road to Antigua (below). The driver told me I should cross the four-lane highway and climb down to the road below. Alrighty then.

road to Mexico from Guatemala

After crossing the highway and coming down the highway’s off-ramp, I waited for a chicken bus. According to a woman at the bus stop, the last Escuintla bus heading to Antigua go by at 6 pm on weekdays and Saturdays and at 5 pm on Sundays. It was 4:15 pm when the first bus went by, full and people holding on for dear life by the sides of the door. I was beginning to get worried until a second bus passed by, 20 minutes later and slightly less full. About an hour later and Q7 poorer, I was finally back home, almost 36 hours later since I first departed that previous morning.

Antigua to escuintla junction

In all, the experience was not bad at all and cheaper than a trip to Belize would’ve been. Here’s the trip’s cost breakdown:

Transportation: $34.93 – Not a lot of savings, but a lot more flexible in terms of departures.

Lodging: $9.48 – A steal. Hot water AND WiFi!

Food: Under $5. Seriously. Though it helped that the wife packed a lunch for the road :)

So, for about $50, give or take, I took care of that pesky Guatemala visa renewal problem. Beats the heck out of paying over $500 for a US-bound flight, for sure.

*****

Have you done the Mexico visa run?

What was your experience like?