Thursday, 28 August 2014

0091 Tuxtla Gutierrez Mexico to Caterina Guatemala

Woke up in the morning and got ready to hit the road for the last time in Mexico.  Had a chat to Marshall and Heather who were next door to me over night, and are from BC – They are going to spend a little longer in Mexico before heading south to Guatemala.

My first need was to do a last shop in Mexico where I can buy a lot of “good things”, and the supermercado was just down the road, but seeing there were massive road works in between, Marshall suggested walking would be quicker / easier.  So after packing up and having my shower, off I went into town, crossing a complicated walkway bridge to get across the big main city intersection right outside, and then down, tip toeing through the roadworks to Walmart.  Got rather too much, including beer and a roast chicken (so good here, and for $5 you get these excellent peppers in with it !!), and then suffered trying to carry everything back to the car !  So much for a shower – I felt like a pack horse – Assuming packhorses get aching arms ! At least none of the plastic bags split en route !! Anyway, made it back, packed everything away as much as I could, knowing military and police checks would be in the back digging around, and set off towards Guatemala.  The plan today was to travel on the Cuota so that the day was not as long as yesterday had turned out to be on the windy and slow (but fun) mountain passes. I intended to stop overnight in Tapachula, or as close to the border as I could get, so I could be up early and at the border early, leaving me most of the day to get to my target Guatemala campsite in Panjachel, on Lake Atitlan. 

The day started well with the drive over the hills down to near the Pacific coast at Arriaga, and then turning southeast to run down along the coast (albeit inland in the hills) down to Tapachula. The Cuota roads are usually more boring, but they do get you to your destination quicker, and without any Topes, and you still always get these stunning mountain views across valleys that just take your breath away !!  So as I am approaching Tapachula at about 4 pm, and starting to look forward to a bed and a beer, I pass some very official police looking place and wonder what it is – Couldn’t get a good read on the signs.  Then not 5 minutes down the road I get flagged down in an inspection place, but by a guy in civvies, who asks if I am going to Guatemala, and if so, did I cancel my Mexican vehicle permit back at the Banjercito at Mexican customs back up the road ?  (Ah, so that was the official looking place I saw !!)  When I said No, the guy introduced himself as Victor and said his job was to help tourists, and he would take me back to the Banjercito and Mexican Customs to help me. He had an “official” pass with his name and photo on pinned to his chest, and I had heard that it was best to have one guy to take you through all the border procedures, so fair enough – Back 5 kms up the road, and I go to the Banjercito (kind of Government bank) and they give me back the US $400 deposit I had paid to import the car to Mexico (so this task a fairly important step !!), and take the import sticker off my window.  Then customs inspect Troopie, and the lady customs officer SO nearly treads on my hot roast Pollo that was sitting on the floor !  But all very friendly and completed in 5 minutes, and Victor and I set off back towards the border.

That was when it all kind of unravelled.  I couldn’t work out how he was going to find me again in the morning.  Victor has selective English – When he wants to understand, he can, but when he decides he doesn’t want to, then he understands or hears no English at all !!  (Bit like parents / grandparents dealing with their (grand)children – Kind of selective hearing !!) I am trying to ask him how the police will know I am not crossing the border till tomorrow if my import sticker is already missing.  And he says “Cross border now – No problem” !!  Not what I wanted to hear – I was already tired, had not prepared my money (locked or stashed in various hidden places around the car) and documentation papers yet for the crossing, and WAS NOT READY TO DO IT TONIGHT !    Too late, says Victor, “your pass is now cancelled as of today and you HAVE to cross tonight.  I help you, no problem”.  Back at the place where I first met Victor we stop and he picks up another (fortunately small) guy and asks if we can take him to the border – I guess so, even though there is only one passenger seat !! So this little guy climbs in, wedges himself in the one seat with Victor, and puts a big plastic bag with a white block of something inside, plus liquid on the dash – Turns out it is his queso – Cheese.  And that he is Victor’s brother Olegario (doesn’t look anything like him !).  We determine that the queso is from a cow rather than goat or anything else, and try, often in vain, to make conversation as we drive along and work out what is going on here.  I feel totally out of control – The border closes at 8 pm, it is now 5.30 pm, and I have nowhere to stay tonight, I want to fill up with diesel before I cross, and we still have some 40 kms to go to the actual border – I have 101 reasons why I didn’t want to cross tonight !  But too late – My car permit has been cancelled !

We eventually arrive at the border at about 6 pm, and come to crowds of people running in the street, tapping on the windows, calling out for me to stop.  Victor says “Wind the windows up and keep going”.  We go straight through some kind of police check without stopping, over multiple topes (to give the money and visa people who you didn’t stop for further back another chance to grab you again as you slow down !), and across a crowded bridge into a narrow street.  “Turn right here” says Victor suddenly, and I turn down this little alley with a (very unofficial) boom gate at the end. As we approach the gate, it opens up and I drive in – To a rough dirt car park filled with second hand cars (ie wrecks) !  What is going on ?  What just happened ?  Am I in Guatemala yet ?? Is this where they slit my throat and put my car up for sale ??

Well, first Victor says “Stay here, and give me 305 pesos”.  He mentions something about cancelling my tourist pass, and off he goes, leaving me with Olegario his brother (and the cheese), and about 30 locals of varying ages from 10 to 50, some of whom want to change pesos, some want to change dollars, and one old man wants to buy my bicycle off the back of Troopie !  The rest just stare.  So I switched on my “English abroad” look, and promptly handed out boiled sweets (from a secret stash I keep in my door pocket just for times like this) and we settled into a mutually amicable sweet sucking fest, and once I had them sorted in my mind and had sized the key players up, I changed my money (after negotiating exchange rates for a while !!)   Soon after, Victor returns and says I have to go and sign a piece of paper, and he gives me back the 305 pesos so I can pay the man.  5 minutes walk back into Mexico customs, find the man, hand everything over, sign my piece of paper, and he asks for the money – 306 pesos !!!  Big sign says 306 pesos.  Well, I only have 305 !!  I have just changed everything else in Guatemalan quetzals – and my few unchangeable Mexican coins are back in my car in that car park !  And Victor and Olegario are back there too !  So I go outside and start doing my “Englishman abroad” bit again – I need to cross into Guatemala, or at least no mans land, without a passport (the Aduane man waiting on 1 peso kept that !!), go back to the “parking lot” just to find one miserable peso !!  About 8 cents.  Hmm, How come Victor didn’t know the price was 306 pesos ?  Something fishy.   Anyway, luckily I find Oligario hanging around on the bridge and tell him to give me a peso, which I dutifully take back to the Aduane man and pay him – Much to his amusement !  Then he returns my passport and off I go back to that car park.

Getting dark now !   In between all this I have told Victor I will pay him nothing unless he personally takes me to a suitable hotel – To which he surprisingly agrees.  I am exhausted and do not intend to find a Guatemalan hotel by myself !  And in the mean time I learn from Olegario that he and Victor are Guatemalan and not Mexican, live here on the border, and that cheese is very difficult (ie expensive) to bring across the border from Mexico to Guatemala.  So I realise that I have just given these guys a free lift home from where I picked them up, and also got his cheese across the border for him !

Anyway, probably 2 more hours pass of Victor running off with money (my money) to pay for things like a fumigation spray of the car, and a Guatemalan vehicle import permit. This last one is where it all went pear shaped.  ALL the paperwork I have read about for crossing the border says you get an import permit just for Guatemala for about 40 quetzales – About $8.  But Victor just laughs and says there is no such thing – They now have a single vehicle import permit for ALL the central American countries all the way through Panama – And you pay no more at any border – Just get them to stamp the pass.  Trouble was it is 2000 Q’s !  $272 !   Anyway, by this time I had had enough, so we went down to Guatemala customs and got this pass which was stuck on my window, and the only thing that gave me a glimmer of hope was that the paper that accompanied it did indeed have 5 spots for the stamps for 5 countries to stamp as I passed through – The detail I was unable to read !!

Then we drive out of the “car park”, get the underneath of Troopie sprayed by someone wearing a big breathing mask (how bad is this stuff ??) and then go through the official border (about 30 topes in 10 metres) into Guatemala.

By now it is pitch dark, I still have Victor and Olegario (and his presumably free smuggled cheese courtesy of this gringo) in the car, and we are heading for a hotel.  Narrow roads, people walking, wheeling wheel barrows, riding burros, or cycling along the edge, and traffic coming the other way either blinding me or not having any lights on at all – I can’t see a thing, and as a result am going quite slowly, which means all the traffic behind is trying to overtake me - While I am trying to overtake and avoid the pedestrians and wheel barrows (don’t ask me why wheel barrows !).  Chaos.  Meanwhile Victor is now moaning that the hotel is 20 kms away, and he and Olegario will have to catch a taxi home after we get to the hotel.

I sob in despair as I try to avoid another wheel barrow on my right, look for Topes in the dark, and keep my eyes open.   IF we reach the hotel, you mean, Victor, IF !! 

Eventually we reach the Hotel Bella Vista (Beautiful View ??) in some village (with no view) somewhere in Guatemala called Caterina. Have not got a clue where I am.  But I settle up with Victor, return the one peso that Olegario had lent me at the border, believe 110 % that I have just been had in so many ways, but what the hell, I am in Guatemala and still alive !!  In parting, I promise that if his 2000 quetzales border pass doesn’t get me all the way to Panama, I will personally come all the way back to Mexico and wring his (not so) scrawny neck, and stuff Olegario’s cheese down his throat. Then smiling, I thank them, and give them a “gold” kangaroo stick pin each, and go to bed in a not too bad room, including clean sheets, TV,  a/c and personal bano and shower, which all cost just $21 !  No wifi – But I was going to sleep…………….

Before I nodded off, I checked on Google Maps, hit the “Where am I ?” button, and found out that Caterina was really in the middle of nowhere, but was at least roughly in the direction I planned to go tomorrow, so with that thought in mind, I collapsed into a dreamless sleep.

WHAT A DAY !  Life is like a box of chocolates………………………..

Pics are here : -

1 comment:

  1. ROFL!
    Giles, I can only begin to understand your helplessness!! But I'm glad my 3rd cousin, Victor, caught up with you.
    Now I'm off to the next episode.............J