Just this week I entered Guatemala for the first time driving across the Chiapas border from Mexico. Looking across from the Mexican side one could see things were different there but I really was not prepared for what I was to learn so quickly, what I am still learning on a daily basis.
The process of driving across borders in Central America, like most things, benefits from impeccable timing. Timing has never been my forte and I arrived just too late to export my vehicle out of the country. The Mexican customs office had closed for the evening at 17:00 hours. At 17:20 I drove to the neighboring town of Comalapa to look for a hotel with secure parking. My mission complete, I proceeded to gorge myself for the last time on my favorite Mexican delicacies: excellent tortas and juice combinations of betabel and zanahoria (red beet and carrot) freshly made by a local Goddess. Finally time for bed, early start tomorrow to cross into Guatemala.
Borders are always interesting places. The power relationship between the neighbors is usually quite apparent. The more powerful the country the better its land, the greater control of the water supply, the more buoyant and convertible the currency. Looking across from the verdant plains of eastern Chiapas it is quite apparent that Guatemala got the short end of the stick. Immediately east are extraordinarily steep mountains, crossing the next day confirmed that we were moving from the second world into the third. Guns though prevalent in Mexico are everywhere in Guatemala, even the Pepsi delivery truck requires on-board shotgun protection.
Having been late for the customs the previous day, we pulled in early. So the Mexican customs people decided to open late for us. Opening with a skeleton staff of one we immediately hit snags. The lady complained that we had overstayed our temporary vehicle importation by a couple of weeks; we needed to pay a fine (multa) before leaving their jurisdiction. Like a plotline from Catch 22, we couldn’t leave without paying and she had no authority to determine the exact amount that we should pay. Her superior could but didn’t work Sundays we would have to come back Monday. The fact that we would be re-entering the country illegally having had our exit visas stamped didn’t seem to worry her.
Having spent some time in Mexico, a little too much maybe, I just sat down commenting that I was ‘fucked’ and waited. Eventually my presence irritated her sufficiently that she decided to take matters into her own hands and let us through for free. Onward to the border zone of Ciudad Cuahtemoc and into La Mesilla. Welcome to Guatemala!
About a mile up the road began importation proceedings. Relatively painless, $6 a person and $8 for the car but only Quetzales were accepted, no problem, Mexican Pesos and US Dollars were readily exchanged. The Quetzal, Guatemala’s currency is the only currency named after a bird. The feathers of the quetzal were amongst the most prized possessions of the Maya and the Aztec tribes. Like the gold dust they were traded for, quetzal feathers were traded far and wide. I guess money did grow on trees in Mayan Guatemala.
We were waved through the customs and fruit check though they sprayed the tires and then it was off up the steep mountains toward Huehuetanango. Many chicken busses had slipped off the sheer cliffs, their wrecks below marked on the roadsides by clusters of crosses and small shrines.
Driving in thick fog near to the highest point (at 3,670 m) of the Inter-American highway I passed through another dusty town which was if anything worse than the resettlement towns on the Chiapas side of the border. A kid cycling by pointed at me formed his fist into the shape of a gun, aimed and pulled the trigger. Maybe cars with US plates were not so welcome to Guatemala?
In Mexico the army is considered to be somewhat of a joke. They have so little to do that the USA has convinced their government that they should be used to search cars for guns and drugs to keep up US prices in the Global War On Drugs. Somehow exempt are drugs like Kentucky Bourbon, Virginia Tobacco and 1,000,000 more that are Taxable, FDA approved and protected by the inappropriately named TRIPS agreement. The Guatemalan army is somewhat different and to be given a wide berth where possible. The recent election results mean that the Army is keeping a low profile, it will be interesting to see how they react to the new president’s latest proposal to reduce their number by a third.
Just down the road was an imploded volcano, now the deep lake of Atitlan surrounded by the remains of the walls of the great volcano long evaporated. Seems like there is a safe place deep below us called San Pedro. Might be a spot to take the weight off the chassis and chill for a while? What an excellent idea!