Mexico:Guat Border - 01A swarm of men rush toward our vehicle and begin clamoring all over it -- stepping onto the side rails, holding onto the roof rack and yelling at us in Spanish.

Greg and I look at each other, eyes wide, wondering what in the heck is happening? Fear fills my heart and I just want to escape... but where, and how?

Over the next hour I kept myself and my children sequestered in the confines of our vehicle, afraid for my life to step out, as my husband navigates the labyrinth of border crossing fees and paperwork.

This was my first real border crossing experience.

It was on our very first road trip from the United States to Costa Rica (2007). We'd spent four weeks driving through Mexico, and although we'd been extremely nervous crossing the Mexico/US border for the first time, really, it had been a piece of cake.

Now we were approaching Guatemala as we were 'attacked'. Our inexperience and ignorance resulted in a lot of fear. So much so that our new formed opinion of Guatemala was that it was 'scary'. (It also tainted every other border crossing for the rest of our trip, where I kept me and my kids locked in while Greg handled all the paperwork.)

The border towns were sketchy, the people were aggressive... surely they're not safe. It took me a few more years of travel before I began to see that border towns were not as scary as I'd made them out to be.

But on this first 'rodeo', despite the waning day, we were so spooked we hightailed it to Guatemala City (a 5+ hour drive), even 'risking' driving at night, wagering that it would be the only place we could find a safe and decent hotel.

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I laugh when I think of it now.

The experience spooked us so much that we only spent two days in Guatemala. TWO DAYS!! We missed out on so much beauty, culture and 'safe' places to see.

Of course, I can't berate myself for being who I was then. I was doing it. I was traveling and crossing borders, even if I was afraid. I'm sure one day I'll look back at who I am now and laugh at myself for being so stupid. That's the beautiful thing about personal growth... you don't have to keep being that person you are. You get the chance to become less bigoted, prejudiced and narrow-minded.

Fast forward five years later, and I'm at the Mexico/Guatemala border once again (this time from the Guatemalan side). I've come with my husband and our five kids to renew our vehicle permit.

(Even though we've been in the country for 10 months, and the visa is only good for 90 days, my husband has previously gone alone to renew visas and permits -- yes, you can do this. It's only Q100 per passport, IF you talk to the right people.) We didn't cross this border before, because we came to Guatemala via Belize (that was a really easy border crossing).

So here we are on the Guatemalan side of this border. The previous day we hung out at Xocomil, Guatemala's largest water park, and then camped out under the stars.

Then in the morning we drove to El Carmen, our preferred border for renewals. This time, there's no fear, no nervousness, no hiding out in a locked vehicle. We park and my husband heads off to take care of business while the kids and I explore and look for breakfast. Such a huge difference when compared to that freakout experience from years ago.

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Naturally, I should be more comfortable. I have more knowledge, and more travel experience. I know that the guys who 'attack' you are just trying to do their jobs -- help you navigate the border maze so they can earn a propina (tip). I've learned that just because a border is busy and loud and looks run down doesn't mean it's 'scary' -- it just is. This is the livelihood for countless people.

I've learned that there's not much to really be afraid of, except for your own ignorance and fear.

So now, surviving the border is more a matter of keeping children entertained during the untold amount of time you'll be there (borders can be a notoriously long and boring process, with many archaic requirements... like that you need to walk across the bridge and make copies of your paperwork before we can continue).

Here's how we managed this time:

Gratefully, there was a public toilet available. Handling potty breaks can be one of the biggest challenges (of traveling with kids in general). It's not pretty (or very clean), but it's a toilet. Hurray! 🙂 (Of course you should ALWAYS, ALWAYSALWAYS carry your own toilet paper.)

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Of course, there's no running water to wash, so my essential oil homemade hand sanitizer is a MUST! (Studies have shown that this blend kills 99% of all bacteria, even MRSA).

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We also happen to find a very nice place to hangout, shaded and with tables! This is not a common occurrence, but it sure is nice when it happens.

So after eating our breakfast...

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The kids play with Legos (don't forget the Legos!)...

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I do some reading (currently re-reading Thomas Jefferson Education)...

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We do some people watching (fascinating to see that here they used these motorcycle powered... things... for transportation, where in Panajachel it's mainly tuc tucs.

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Kyah practices her photography (she took these two photos below)...

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By that time, daddy is done and we were ready to head to Fuentes Georginas for a relaxing dip in the hot springs... not a bad day at the border!

Watch the video below to see all the fun in action and to hear Greg's tips for renew visas and vehicle permits without leaving the country.

Family Travel Confession:

And so as we're leaving the border (and the toilet, remember, the one from above?) one of our little ones says, "I need to go poop!" and so begins the you-have-to-go-now-when-we-just-left-a-place-with-a-toilet-traveling-with-children saga...

Greg impatiently stops at a fruit stand, and begs a woman to let us use her bathroom (the first two men told us there was no bathroom to be found. We knew otherwise.)

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She reluctantly agrees, and in thanks we buy a bunch of fruit from her.

But it wasn't a normal bathroom, and so this little girl refuses to use it. Greg drives away in exasperation, and tells her she'll have to hold it until we arrive at the hot springs (there was nowhere else to stop anyway.)

"You need to learn use a bathroom when you have one to use, no matter how bad it is!" Greg exclaims. (This whole 'potty thing' is one of his BIGGEST pet peeves.)

Well, she didn't make it. By the time we arrive she's crying and squeezing so hard she can't even move. When she does, she messes her pants, and as I calmly clean her off in the bathroom at Fuentes Georginas, I casually point out the lesson.

"Next time, you'll use a bathroom when you have one, even if it's yucky, right?"

"Yeah mom."

They learn, even if it's the hard way...

What are some of your best/worst border crossing experiences?



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17 Responses

  1. RFIndependence

    I hate borders. A few years back I was at the Honduras-Guatemalan border and the official wanted money in spite of a big poster over his head saying we shouldn’t give him a dime. We lost time but refused to pay him. Because so many tourists would rather fasten the process they give the “fee” and keep the corruption in the system.

  2. travelmomma

    A great post.  I love to see your videos of life in action. Can you share what video editing program you use to make such a great videos? Thanks!

  3. livingoutsideofthebox

    Oh, I wish I could say our first Mexico/Guatemala border crossing went without us being almost ripped off. Luckily, those guys who are “just doing their job” backed off when I caught them in the act of trying to get more out of me than necessary!  They didn’t get a very good tip for that, either. Alas, I did find them helpful in every respect but that…although it was certainly overwhelming to have them all clamoring over our van for our business!   Going back and doing the crossing again would be a in cinch–just simply a matter of knowing where to go, and what order!  I love Mexican border crossings in small towns…simple!!

  4. Brooks

    So funny that I just landed on this post, considering I was just telling a friend today that I’m used to landing in an airport in a foreign country but that border crossings via a vehicle were entirely new to me.  Great insight!  Make sure I use the potty, got it.

  5. Dawn Connelly

    So glad to find your blog. Great stuff in it. Can you tell me about the Belize border runs you’ve done please. We are moving from Mexico to Belize this week (sick of border runs) but eventually in a few months want to move to Guatemala and anticipate the 90 day runs through Belize, not Mexico. Do you pay an exit fee from Guatemala? How long would we have to stay in PG? Do they give you a hard time over it? Thanks for any info.

    • Rachel Denning

      Thanks so much for commenting and for your feedback. We actually did not do any border runs to Belize from Guatemala… it was just too far. It took us about 5 hours to drive from Lake Atitlan to the Mexico border, it would have taken us 12+ hours to drive to Belize. There is no exit fee for Guatemala, and the ‘legal’ requirement is 72 hours, although we often went there and back on the same day 🙂 Hope that helps. Thanks again!


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