Guatemala, El Salvador & Honduras - January-February 2011

From January 25th to February 5th, 2011

The border crossing of Benque del Carmen / Melchor de Mencos between Belize and Guatemala was fairly easy. First, we had to pay the Belize exit fees of B 37.50 (~ 19 USD) per person and had to cancel our vehicle transit permit. We had to go through the fumigation for Q 40 and proceed to the immigration on the Guatemalan side (20 Q per person). For the vehicle permit, we had to pay another 55 Q. The 3rd party insurance was not compulsory.

We spent our first night in Guatemala, at the entrance to the archaeological site of Tikal, one of the most important sites of the Mayan empire. Next to our vehicle, another red Volkswagen van (T-4, the latest model) with German registration was installed. Helga and Karl, a retired couple, shipped their vehicle from Germany to Sao Polo and have traveled the roads of South America and Central America up to Guatemala. We spent a good part of the evening sharing our stories and exchanging addresses of Volkswagen workshops in South America and North America. We even managed to exchange some Mexican pesos (that we have failed to change before leaving Mexico) against Peruvian Pesos that the couple forgot in a pocket.

The next day, we entered the vast archaeological site of Tikal. We walked along the path, surrounded by jungle and animal sounds. We recognized the sound of howler monkeys which can be quite impressive when you don't know what it is. Unlike Chichen Itza, it is here authorized to climb the pyramids and temples, which gives some adrenaline to the visit. Some steps which have more the inclination of a ladder were installed on several monuments. The most impressive is the Temple III. I don't usually suffer from dizziness but once at the top, it made my legs feel funny. The step which goes all the way around the pyramid was not more than a meter wide, on one side, the wall, on the other, a few meters drop. The view was spectacular. You could see jungle for miles and the tip of some pyramids overlooking the jungle.


After driving through the good roads of the Belizean plateau, we forgot not to underestimate distances. In fact, we shouldn't count in kilometers, but in time. We crossed hills which became mountains, clouds turned into rain, concrete houses became wooden huts. We discovered Mayan lives a way which was not visible in Mexico. Everyone had their role, collecting firewood, carrying bags on their heads, cutting weeds, sweeping rain water that turned earth into mud, etc. We quickly discovered that as a vegetarian, we would not have much food diversity. In fact, apart from rice, beans and eggs, there is not much. At dusk, we were still far from our destination and decided to spend the night in a flooded camping in a small village. The next day, after experimenting some trouble with the accelerator pedal and driving the last 10 kilometers on a dirt mountain road, we finally arrived in the small town of Lankin. We camped in the parking of a guest house. Carlos, a tourist driver helped us to temporary fix our pedal. Once done, we discovered a switch problem. The only way to start the vehicle was to play MacGiver by connecting wires together. I wonder why we are using an ignition key when it is so easy to play with cables ... In order not to spend the end of the day playing mechanics we decided to explore Lankin cave. Once the lights were turned off, thousands of bats flew out of the cave.

After a good night rest, we found a 4x4 driver and reached Semuc Champey going through 10 kilometers of winding and very steep dirt road. We discovered this magic river. The torrent rushes into a cave and emerges a few hundred meters below. On top of this limestone cave is another wonder. Beautiful natural pools filled with turquoise waters fed by other small waterfalls throwing into one another. Swimming was a treat!


The next day, Carlos encountered a temporary replacement switch for us. Crossing Guatemala City, we came across a Volkswagen mechanic where we fixed our accelerator pedal. As the spare parts store was closed on Saturday we had to drive back from Antigua on Monday to do the rest of work. Meanwhile, we spend the rest of the weekend in the small colonial town of Antigua. The streets were nicely paved, the houses were colorful and the three volcanoes (one active) that surrounded the city transformed each view into a perfect postcard. Each facade hided a majestic courtyard decorated with fountains and vegetation.


On Monday, we left Antigua for Guatemala City. Our switch found its initial function, the accelerator pedal was fixed, our sliding door opened without using any force, the brake fluid was changed, the hand brake was set. Our brakes have never been working as well.

After reaching an elevation of 2600 meters, we dove into the very steep curves leading to Panajachel, on the shores of the lake. The change of the brakes fluid was not sufficient. In the last curve before the village, we lost the breaks for a moment. It was nothing like the first time in Mexico, we were driving so slow that the handbrake was sufficient to stop us after a few meters.

The scenery was breathtaking. The water of lake was so flat that the surrounding volcanoes and the blue sky were reflecting into it. The lake used to be a huge volcano which erupted nearly 85,000 years ago. We decide to go for a dive trip into the lake to explore the lava formations. The water was just 20 ° C, despite the 7mm wetsuit, I was glad to get out of the water after 35 minutes. We took a small boat to reach the shore of San Pedro where we met Jimmy and Ji (www…), a couple traveling across the continent from Canada to Argentina with their vehicle. We were put in contact with them a few weeks earlier as we might share a 40' container from Panama to Colombia.


From there, we reached the sea level and crossed the border for El Salvador in Ciudad Pedro de Alvarado. Upon cancellation of the Guatemalan transit permit, the vehicle must wait three months before returning to the country. If we have a problem crossing from El Salvador to Honduras, we will not have the option to return to Guatemala. If we do not cancel it, when entering Guatemala next time, we would have to pay taxes. We decided to cancel the permit. On the El Salvador side, were signs informing that customs is 100% free and that corruption must be denounced. This was the first border crossing where everything was free. Apart from the delay due to the long truck line, we didn't have any issue. Two and a half hours later, we were officially in El Salvador. We reached the beach called El Tunco just after nightfall. The surf beach is located on the Pacific coast. Non surfers had no particular reason of staying for too long on this small village.

At breakfast, we met Mary and Richard, a couple from Quebec traveling for 6 weeks in Central America. In order to avoid them a painful transport out of El Salvador, we invited them to embark on a journey in our Volkswagen van. We spent the next night on the beach of El Cuco. Our friends found a nice small hotel with an amazing view overlooking the sea. The owner agreed to let us park in the courtyard of his hotel and spend the night in our vehicle for free. We spent the late afternoon in the swimming pool contemplating the sunset.


The next day, not only we had a long way to go, but two borders to cross before nightfall. We entered Honduras at El Amatillo. We cancelled our transit permit and did the exit formalities. When entering Guatemala, we were informed that under the agreement CA-4, we can travel freely between Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. Here, they did not want to hear about it, we had to pay an extra 35 USD for the vehicle and 3 USD per person and another 3 USD for the fumigation. Many people seem to have had difficulty crossing this border, we didn't. An hour later, we were ready to drive on the Honduras roads.

We finally arrived at the Guasaule border to enter Nicaragua. We had to pay 12 USD per person plus an extra 12 USD for the liability insurance, valid for 30 days. The procedure took about an hour.

Overall, most of the roads we drove through Central America so far were in relatively good conditions. Sometimes we had to avoid herds of cows or horses on the road. The trucks carried all sorts of things, including humans (see picture) ... We often felt people were trying to make extra money from tourists. Some displayed a tourist price between 5 and 10 times more than what the locals would pay for the same service. When we asked our way in Spanish, people often ignored us.


We went across three police checks on the same day between Honduras and Nicaragua. All wanted to see our passport, vehicle documents and our insurance certificate. One of them gently asked if we can buy him a liter of gasoline at the nearby petrol station. Another argued on the fact that Aless was not wearing a t-shirt. The last one wanted to see our emergency triangle and our fire extinguisher thinking we would not have the latest. Being very patient, we managed to get out of it all without leaving a penny.

Click here to read the following story in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.

See the album "Guatemala, El Salvador & Honduras - January-February 2011"