Friday, February 9, 2018

Toyota Trucks and Misty Mountain Tops - 02/09/2018 - Day 39

We arrived at the border early in the morning, ready to leave Mexico behind for the depths of Central America. Just on the other side of the border awaited Carmen, Guatemala. Fully aware of the hoops and hassles of foreign borders I held my pink folder close, as it was nearly bursting at the seams with necessary original documentation (passports, car title, registration, licenses etc) along with dozens of copies of each. With a deep breath we started the process. First task was to find a parking spot in the lot next to the Mexican immigration, luckily there are three spots reserved for visitors. With a bit of waffling we finally decided to have Banjercito cancel the temporary car import permit and rip off our sticker. We'll be paying the 59$ fee twice but we won't be held liable for 200$+ if anything happens to Velma outside of Mexico not to mention we would never be able to bring a car into the country again. They document the whole process with a digital camera before handing over a receipt as confirmation that the 200$ deposit we paid in La Paz would be returned in full by the following Monday. We walked over to the immigration office and were stamped out of the country, so long Mexico we will be back for you in June!

Driving across the bridge, before we even set tread onto Guatemalan soil we were asked to pay 5 quetzals as a city of Carmen fee, still not entirely sure the purpose, but they gave us a receipt so I guess it was legitimate enough. Guatemala along with El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras are in a border agreement known as the CA-4 (similar to the Schengen in Europe) entry is supposed to be free between them. This same agreement also effectively limits the stay in all four countries to a combined 90 days.

We received our Guatemala entry stamps and found an ATM to pull out some Quetzals (the local currency) so we could continue to decline the black market money changers prowling just on the outskirts of the immigration building hoping to rip foreigners like us off. Our next step involved parking the car on the Guetemalan side behind a set of minimally official looking cones for fumigation, 37 Quetzals (just over 5$US) and finally to the Aduana window where we handed over copy after copy of our documents along with originals and paid 160 Quetzals (22$US) for Velma to be temporarily imported. It took us about two hours all in all but we had accomplished our first of many border crossings between two foreign countries. 

We started climbing immediately up, up and away into the lush greenery pushing our way up into the mist as the forest began to fade in and out of the wispy cloud puffs. It is remarkable the differences a border can stratify. We suddenly are dealing in a new currency, Quetzals at a 7.34 to 1 $US ratio. They are named after a beautiful bird, the Resplendent Quetzal revered all the way back to Aztec times and a coveted sight throughout Central America. As soon as we crossed over we noticed the cars were different than in Mexico, where you could find almost all makes and models. In Carmen, Guatemala and the nearby highlands the Toyota Tacoma SR5's absolutely rule the roost with a truly overwhelming majority. Parking lots would be filled with 90% of the same car, similar year in a variety of colors, so silly to see. As for the landscape we were transported into lush vegetation climbing beyond abundant rivers full to the brim unlike the dry riverbed arroyos we have become so accustomed to. We noticed that the gas was astronomically expensive before we came to the conclusion that they actually measure in gallons not liters; they do still however utilize meters and kilometers for length. The people are typically much shorter and even have lower sinks to accommodate their height which made me feel excessively tall when I had to bend down to wash my hands. Most remarkable is the beautiful way most women and their children dress, in the most eye catching vibrant colors of their cortes (skirts) and huipiles (square cut blouses made on a backstrap loom) still to this day honoring the Mayan traditions. As we skirted around the tallest volcanic peak in all of Central America, Tajamulco at 13,845 feet we watched as local women carried baskets, vegetables and firewood on their heads, walking uphill on excessively steep roads at high altitude  (even Velma was struggling on the altitude and grade). 

The day was off to a pretty solid introduction to Guatemala. Driving into Quetzaltenango, (known locally as Xela) we got our first look at a city: bustling, full of markets and traffic strained. At the end of the day if there is any doubt, a Hot-N-Ready from Little Caesars can still be had for only 40 Quetzals (just over 5$) while McDonalds, KFC and other fast food restaurants have intertwined themselves into the fabric of outdoor markets and everyday Guatemalan life. It always surprises me how it is that some of my least favorite attributes from the United States are the things that make their presence into other countries. We chose to instead indulge in local street food. We ordered ourselves an order of pupusas and made friends with the locals. The pupusas hit the spot with their thick tortillas and savory fillings for our first night in the country. 

The next day we visited Antigua which used to be the capital of Guatemala until 1773 when an earthquake decimated a majority of the city and the capital was moved to Guatemala City. Antigua is a beautiful city consisting mostly of Spanish colonial buildings. It gained UNESCO heritage status in 1979 and has been building its status as a tourist hotspot for decades. With a huge expat community Antigua was the first place we saw gringos in Guatemala, and along with that, also the first time we had to deal with persistent touts trying to herd said gringos into buying all of the things. We carefully sidestepped the crumbling sidewalks and cobblestone streets enjoying the city atmosphere and the fantastic public market with tight halls, dark comedores (restaurants) and a more local offering and vibe. For camping in Antigua we stayed at the tourist police compound. A walled camping site with police security 24 hours a day right in downtown, intended for over landing travelers like us. They simply take a copy of your passport and have a look at your registration and permiso paperwork (basically your cars' passport stamp) from the border and they invite you to park. After being broken into in Baja the extra security allows for relaxation (a luxury when leaving the comfort of the van) while exploring the city. 

Sweet of Mexico to wish us happy travels and a quick return 
Even though all of the money changers tell you there is no bank,  low and behold an ATM to get Quetzals

When we came out of the Aduana we found this man slowly washing Velma
Our first glimpse into Guatemala's beautiful heights
Into the mist
Quetzaltenango, known as Xela

Fuel prices are in gallons here (3.36$US/Gallon)

Old U.S. buses are converted into "Red Devils" and used as city transportation
Market night scene, utter chaos
Such delicious pupusas

Just over 5$ for a Hot-N-Ready
Camarones (shrimp) for sale

Filling our shower at the water purificadora

Beautiful huipiles and cortes

Toyota SR5's for everyone

Lovely walking street in Antigua

Visiting the Cacao museum

Antigua's famous arch, Arco de Santa Catalina

Antigua market life

Behind the scenes at the market

Clearly starting training in the restaurant at an early age
Lots of signs of devout religion all over the place

Busy market day
Lots of gates on everything, including this convenience store
Microbrews, even in Guatemala
Arco de Santa Catalina, a view from the top
Central plaza 

The Overlander Tourist Compound

With our police outpost