Monday, June 29, 2015

90-Day Visa Run to San Cristobal

This is the first of two parts about our recent trip from Panajachel, Guatemala, to San Cristóbal, Mexico, in order to renew our 90-day tourist visas. I'm splitting this into two parts so that I can appeal to people interested in the facts of renewing your tourist visa in Guatemala, and also the people interested in our personal adventures in San Cris.
Our shuttle at the break we took near Xela.

So here's the reasoning behind doing what is commonly called a "visa run". When you enter Guatemala, you receive a tourist visa that is good for 90 days. After 90 days in the country, you are required to either get an extension of your visa (which is done in Guatemala City), or you have to leave the country for 72 hours and re-enter to get a new 90-day tourist visa.

The visa extension process is complex, time-consuming, and irritating. It involves two trips to the city -- one to drop off your passport and forms, another to pick them up a week later -- which is something we weren't interested in doing. Plus, you can only get an extension once per year, so eventually you'll have to do a visa run anyway if you want to stay in Guatemala for longer than 12 months. That's why we chose the option to leave and re-enter Guatemala to get our new 90-day stamp.

One note: Guatemala has an agreement called the CA-4. This means that going into El Salvador, Nicaragua, or Honduras doesn't count to renew your tourist visa. You have to go to Mexico or Belize, or further out to Costa Rica or Panama... or back home, if you so desire.

Originally I had wanted to do a one-day turnaround to Tapachula, Mexico, which is the nearest border crossing to renew your Guatemalan tourist visa. I went to three different travel agencies in Panajachel and was surprised to learn that none of them would take us directly to Tapachula.

The last place I stopped in was Mario's Tours on Calle Principale. They told us that it would be cheaper to just go straight to San Cristóbal de las Casas, rather than Tapachula. So we booked with them to leave Friday morning and paid Q1,000 for two people, round trip. (If we had paid in U.S. dollars, it would have been $35 per person each way, so $140 total.)

Using TripAdvisor, I found a hotel in San Cristóbal called Posada la Media Luna (Inn of the Half Moon.) I reserved through Expedia using my Mastercard without having to pay anything up front. It was an great little hotel! I highly recommend it.

I had heard there would be moneychangers at the border but I wanted to be prepared, so I went to Guipil's on Santander in Panajachel and changed some quetzales into Mexican pesos. For Q500, I got MXN$909.09. Not bad.

GOING TO MEXICO FROM GUATEMALA:

On Friday morning, the shuttle was supposed to pick us up at our house at 6:20 am but didn't show up until 6:40, a pretty standard Guatemala time delay. Even though we booked through Mario's Tours, the bus was labeled with another tour company from Pana, Magic Travel. I guess the tour operators in Pana work together to fill each shuttle to capacity, so I imagine it wouldn't really matter who you booked with. You'll all end up on the same bus!
Our shuttle held 13 passengers, with three more people in the front: the driver and his two friends. It was clean and comfortable... at first. I have to say, anything can get uncomfortable after 10 hours! The van had air conditioning, but we had the windows open for the majority of the trip. There were seatbelts in the bus, although I think only Bert and I actually used ours.

Here's our morning timeline:
6:40 am -- picked up at our house
7:00 am -- left Panajachel after picking up other passengers around town
9:00 am -- stopped at a Shell gas station on the edge of Xela (Quetzaltenango). Bathroom break, snacks, leg stretch.
12:30 pm -- arrived at the border town of Mesilla, Guatemala (Note the long time between the last bathroom break and the border. When they say bathrooms, use them!)

One note: the driver didn't speak English. He gave instructions at each stop in Spanish. Luckily, there were bilingual passengers who helped translate for those who didn't understand. I think it would be very helpful for the tour companies to hand out flyers or have a sign hanging in the bus to explain the procedures, as many people were in the dark about what was going on. It would be a simple enough procedure to even give out a explanatory note with your receipt from the tour company. But not for you, dear reader! You're smart enough to be doing your research ahead of time by reading Chasing Marbles. You've got it all figured out.  :D

The Guatemala/Mexico border at Mesilla is a hot mess. Emphasis on the HOT. When the shuttle stopped, a man we didn't know opened the side door and told us in Spanish to go inside to get our passports stamped and then meet him back outside. We guessed (correctly) that he was our new bus driver.

At the border, be prepared to stand in line with a bunch of other tourists in mass confusion. Several shuttle buses were arriving all at once, from both sides of the border. There are moneychangers and, yes, their rates are awful. There are also beggars. Cars kick up dust as they pass by, and it's stinking hot. Fortunately, there are stores right up to the very border gates where you can get snacks or drinks, plus I heard there were some bathrooms nearby but I never used them.

The Migración office is quite small and consists only of a counter with a few men sitting behind it at desks, and a younger man who gathers the passports in bunches from the tourists to hand to the men at the computers. They only asked us were we were going. Nothing more. It was only a short wait before they handed our passports back with an exit stamp.

We went back outside into the hot hot hot hot hot sun and stood with the new man. Once he had matched all of the bus passengers to his paper, he asked us to follow him. We picked up our bags and walked across the border, which is just a big grey steel gate across the road. We then walked a few more blocks to where he had parked his van and all loaded all into this nicer, newer, more comfy shuttle and we were off... for five minutes.

That's when we arrived at Mexican immigration. This was a bit more complex. We all stood in line to get our passports checked, and to receive a form from the single man working behind the counter. He waved us away to a table to fill out the form, which luckily had English instructions. We still didn't do it right though! Once we filled out the form, we all got back in line, only to find out that we were supposed to fill out the top AND the bottom. We all scrambled to scribble in the information with the few available pens. (TIP: always carry a pen!) Finally handed in the correctly filled-out forms and our passports and got a stamp and a portion of that form back. HANG ON to that paper! You'll need it for your return trip.

That was it! We were officially in Mexico, and could stay for 180 days, if we wished. However, if we did stay longer than seven days, we would have to pay an exit fee. Also, Mexico observes daylight savings, so we had to turn our watches forward one hour.

The rest of the journey from the border to San Cristóbal was pretty uneventful. We went through a military checkpoint a few miles into the country, but the armed guard simply opened the side door, looked us over, and asked the driver a few questions in Spanish. About an hour's drive into Mexico, we drove into another checkpoint area, a big fancy new building, and we all had to unload from the bus and take our luggage off the top rack. We went into the building and put our luggage through an X-ray machine. Then there was a button to press. Oooh, fun! If it the light turned green, you were free to go. If it turned red, you had to get your luggage inspected by a guard. Bert got RED! Ha! But he was only carrying his Guatemala "man-purse", so the guard just waved him off.

We only made one more pit stop for snacks and bathrooms, then arrived in San Cristóbal at around 5:00 pm Guatemalan time, 6:00 pm Mexican time. That's about 10 hours in travel time and plenty of sore rear ends! They dropped us off in the main square, the Zocalo (map here), which was unexpected. Luckily, I had done my research beforehand and knew how to walk to our hotel, which was very close.
Statue in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico
RETURNING TO GUATEMALA FROM MEXICO:

After two nights and one fun-filled day in San Cristóbal, we awoke early on Sunday to catch the shuttle home. We stood outside in the cold -- yes, cold! -- for an hour waiting for the shuttle. Fretting, I went back into our hotel and asked the receptionist to call the tour bus number but there was no answer. Just as I was getting panicky that we'd been left behind in Mexico, our shuttle showed up. Yay! We hopped in and then proceeded to waste an hour driving around town searching for four lost passengers. Finally, the driver got a phone call to go to the main square where the lost four were anxiously waiting. We loaded up and were on our way, leaving town around 8:00 am.

We stopped once for breakfast at a rather expensive and not tasty restaurant. They gave us 40 minutes to eat, which I thought was strange but it made sense later.

The way back into Guatemala from Mexico was the same as leaving, only in reverse. We arrived at the Mexican immigration office, the same one we went into on the way to San Cris, just around 11:00 am. We handed in that slip of paper to the man, and he ran it through his computer, then stamped us out of Mexico. We got back on the bus, drove to a parking spot, walked across the border back into Guatemala, then went back into the same immigration office, where they stamped us into Guatemala.

(SIDE NOTE: We had been out of Guatemala for less than 72 hours. We worried that this would be a problem, but no one batted an eye. We received our new stamps, double-checked them to ensure they said 90 days, and left with relieved smiles!)

So we had our new stamps and were ready to go... but there was no shuttle. We waited in the sun, the hot freaking sun, until 12:55. We figured out that we had been waiting for the shuttle that was coming from Panajachel to the border, the one that should have left Pana at 6:30 am. Just another sign of inefficiency in the process. If the shuttles have to meet at the border to "switch off", and it's five hours from the Guat side and a little over three hours from the Mexican side, why not leave later from San Cristóbal rather than making us wait almost two hours in the stinking hot dust of the border? Hmph. Not impressed. Anyway, just be warned. Patience is required. :)

We finally got loaded onto the new shuttle and completed the curvy journey back through Guatemala to Panajachel. Made two stops for bathrooms, snacks, and leg stretches, and arrived in Pana a little late at around 5:30 pm.

So that's the nitty gritty of doing a visa run from Guatemala to Mexico. If you want to hear more of a personal take on it, tune in tomorrow for my account of our trip and some pictures of lovely San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Here are some links that I used to do research and to hear others' stories of their visa runs:
The Visa Run: To Tapachula, Mexico 
Xela to Tapachula Visa Run
Guatemala Visa Renewal and Guatemala Visa Run
Living in Guatemala Visa Renewal Trip

1 comment :

  1. This was very helpful. Thank you Cee. I'm nervous about the whole trip. We're going to San Cristobal next week and I'd prefer not to have to deal with the money changers at the border. Good to know about Guipil's and the rate of exchange. I'm kinda prepared for the whole thing to be a bit of a pain in the butt and you confirmed my suspicion about the delays and confusion. I was going to buy our non-refundable tickets on the OCC to Puerto Escondido beforehand but especially after reading this, I'm glad I wait until we get there.

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