Saturday, July 2, 2016

I Did It! (Visa Run from Pana to Tapachula)

I went from Panajachel to Tapachula by chicken bus BY MYSELF and lived to tell the tale! :D

For those readers who are just interested in the nitty gritty details of a 90-day visa run, I'll break it down for you first. Then for those readers who wanna know more about my silly adventures and musings, scroll past the boring numbers and get to the pictures!

The travel time is only the time I spent moving in a vehicle from one place to another. It doesn't include extra time I spent waiting for the next bus or bathroom breaks and such. Sometimes you sit on a bus for a half hour waiting for it to go. Sometimes you stand at the bus stop for a half hour waiting for your connection.
For Pana to Tapa, I left Pana at 7am and arrived in Tapachula at 3:45pm. (8 hr 45 min). There was a lot of waiting. I wasn't purposefully trying to be slow!
For the way back, I left Tapa at 6:30am and got to Xela at 11:20am. I went to the mall and shopped for a while. Left Xela at 2:15pm and got to Pana at 4:50pm. (4 hr 50 min + 2 hr 35 min) Much faster travel times, which allowed me to take a break and shop. :)

Notes:
  • Pana to Xela -- it is possible to get a chicken bus direct from Pana to Cuatro Caminos, or from Minerva terminal in Xela back to Pana without switching. I wasn't so lucky. :(
  • San Marcos is San Marcos Sacatepéquez, NOT San Marcos La Laguna or any other San Marcos.
  • Talismán sounds more like "tally-MAN". Not sure why the "s" gets dropped.
  • The ayudantes -- bus helpers -- for the most part actually ARE very helpful! They will help with connections and flagging down buses and getting you to your next destination.
  • Your new favourite expression is: "Quiero ir a la frontera." ("I want to go to the border.") Or substitute in any destination on the list. 
  • It is also helpful to tell the ayudante on your current bus which place you're going to next. For example, on the bus from San Marcos to Malacatán, tell the helper you're going to the border. They will let you off where you can catch the colectivo.
  • A colectivo is a mini-van type vehicle, by the way. Sometimes called a combi (cohm-bee) or shuttle.
  • In Tapachula, I caught the colectivo to go back to the border on street 17a Oriente, shown as Hwy 200 on Google maps. 
If you have any questions, please ask in the comments section and I'll try to respond.

Okay. All done with the practical stuff. On to the pix and anecdotes!  Yay!  :)

Life has been a bit crazy around here lately, and things have been changing quickly. Still, I was super excited to go on my first solo visa run. I had all my notes from last time, a very light backpack, and tons of energy when I stepped out my door at 6:30 am to walk to the bus stop in Pana.
Lake Atitlan Guatemala volcanoes river morning
Early morning view of Lake Atitlan and the volcanoes.
Hopped on the first of many chicken buses and went to Sololá and then to Los Encuentros, which actually means The Meetings. It's one of those crazy places where buses come and go constantly. Little kids stared openly at me and my bright purple backpack. The whole trip. I think I saw maybe one or two white people, so I suppose they had a reason to stare!
Los Encuentros Guatemala
Los Encuentros
I'm always a bit disappointed when I get a normal yellow school bus. I love the colourful painted chicken buses! Inside the buses is always fascinating too. For some reason, the twin Jesuses below made me giggle. They are looking at each other like brothers who are freaking so tired of tending the damn flock and are contemplating ditching the hooks and going out for a drink. :D
Twin Jesuses on the chicken bus!
One of the many "fun" things about chicken buses is you don't know quite where you're gonna get dropped off. At Cuatro Caminos (Four Roads), the driver just opened the door and let us out on the side of the road. Cuatro Caminos is a madhouse of honking buses and shouting ayudantes. I walked up to that Shell station in the picture below and asked an ayudante for the bus to San Marcos. He told me to wait there.
About an hour later, he's suddenly yelling and running after a speeding bus. San Marcos!! I bumbled after him (I hate running) and caught up to the bus a hundred meters down the road. Puff puff!
Cuatro Caminos Guatemala chicken buses
Cuatro Caminos -- It's like a Guatemalteco symphony and dance all in one!
The San Marcos bus was packed full. I had to be the sixth person in the row. Yes, sixth. That meant I was basically balanced on one butt cheek on an inch of seat with my leg propped underneath me and my arm jammed against the seat edge to keep me from falling over. Not fun.

As it turned out, I could have just taken ANY chicken bus from Cuatro Caminos to the Minerva terminal in Xela. The San Marcos bus that I desperately caught ended up parked at Minerva for almost an hour while the driver went off to eat lunch or something. I was treated to a constant parade of vendors up and down the bus aisle selling everything from DVDs to chuchitos to pizza slices. It's quite entertaining.
Lucky for me, the bus emptied out a bit and I got a better seat for the journey to San Marcos.

(If I ever do this chicken bus run again -- which I doubt -- I'll do this part differently. I wasted a lot of time because I was uncertain of which bus to take.)

The only other notable event on the way to the border was the changeover at Malacatán. I was chatting in my horrible broken Spanish with a friendly Guatemalan lady sitting next to me and I told her that I was going to the border. She helped me by talking to the driver, who let me off at a seemingly random location in Malacatán where he told me to wait for a ride to Talismán. The ayudante leaned out of the bus as they were driving away, yelling at me, "Espere!" (Wait!) Okay, I wait! :)
A mere three minutes later, a combi is zipping down the road towards me with another helpful ayudante leaning out the side door and motioning to me. "Tally-man?" Yes!! I hop aboard with a big grin. Look at me, all independently traveling and stuff!  :D

The border crossings are easy for me now. Stamp out of Guate, walk across the bridge, get the form, fill out the form top and bottom, stamp into Mexico, smile at the cute drug doggie, get the bags checked, walk on.
Just past Mexican border in Talisman. Take the left fork to walk to get a shuttles to Tapachula.
Go down this road where all the moto-taxis are zipping back and forth.
I found out the cool red-and-white striped moto-taxi are only 5 pesos. It's only a 5-minute walk from the border to the shuttle bus pickup area but it might be fun one time to get a ride.

Oh, I guess there was one other notable event on my trip to Tapa. I'm in a combi from the border into the city, there are a bunch of people on there too, and one by one they all get off at their destinations until there is no one but me, the ayudante, and the driver. I panic a bit and ask them if we are going to Parque Central. They assure me yes. But what ends up happening is that they drive into the parking lot of the bus station, park the van, and give me directions to walk the four blocks uphill to get to the square! Ha! Oh well. I made it!
Tapachula bus station near Parque Central
Streets of Tapachula! Busy and colourful.
Tapachula has more pharmacies per square block that any place I've been in my life. See the two big A signs in the picture above? Those are two of the same brand of pharmacy within sight. And there's a dancing Dr. Simi in the left foreground of the photo too... my pharmacy of choice! (Farmacia Similares has the best prices by far.)

After arriving in Tapa and walking to my hotel -- only a few blocks from the center square -- I collapsed into bed. I was almost immediately treated to the sound of a huge thunderstorm outside, which gave me a good reason to stay indoors and eat junk food and watch movies for the rest of the night.
Parque Central Tapachula Mexico
Early morning Parque Central, Tapachula, Mexico
I woke up super early and headed out. It gets hot in Tapa, so I knew I wanted to do some sightseeing before afternoon. I walked down to the main square and snapped some photos in the morning light.
I love the palm trees.  :)

Statue of some dude. Perhaps I should Google him.
"Benito Pablo Juárez García was a Mexican lawyer and politician of Zapotec origin from Oaxaca who served as the president of Mexico for five terms" in the 1800s.
When researching "Things To Do in Tapachula", I found out there is a big church that is kinda built in the style of the Taj Mahal. I knew it was far to the edge of town, so I flagged a taxi to take me there. I asked the price before I got in -- P$40. I thought it was high, but after several minutes driving south and further south, almost to the edge of town, I realized it was reasonable.

TIP: Interesting thing about taxis in Tapa: they do a little honk at you if they are free and they think you need a ride. Being a white woman, I got honked at a lot! :D

The taxi driver answered some questions for me as we drove. A city bus costs P$6 and you need exact change cuz it's a coin slot, like buses back home. A colectivo around town is also P$6, although I imagine if you were going a short distance it would be less. The destinations are written on the sides of the colectivo.

We finally arrived at our destination. The taxi went around into a kinda shady neighbourhood but I figured out it was because only the side gate to the church was open, not the main front gate. (It was probably not even 7am at this point!)
I had a momentary sense of unease as I paid the driver and he left me alone there, so I quickly walked onto the church grounds. Somehow I figured no one would bug me if I was on holy ground! The only other person I saw was a groundskeeper. It was lovely and quiet.

The church is called Iglesia La Luz del Mundo -- Church of the Light of the World. It is pretty impressive! Here is a map of the location if you care to visit.
Looks like a lighthouse.
Poked my head inside and took a quick picture. The stained glass windows were amazing!
Now it looks like a castle.
The pathways made me feel like I was Alice in Wonderland. It was a labyrinth of hedges, perfect for meandering.
The shot from the big entranceway, which was locked. Sad there were no fountains running.
The bulb looks like a big Hershey's Kiss!
It was pretty impressive, I have to say, but it didn't take long to see it all. A quick sightseeing adventure.
It was already starting to heat up as the sun rose. I decided to catch a city bus to the mall that I had passed on the way to the temple. I didn't have exact change, so I dropped a P$10 coin in the slot. The bus was just like a bus from home. Felt weird though. I haven't been on a bus in probably two years!

At the bus stop, the sign underneath the posters is telling people to boycott the colectivos.
I thought the picture of the colectivo with all the people crammed inside was pretty accurate!
Hopped off at the Crystal Plaza mall, and strolled over to the nearby Burger King hoping to get a breakfast sandwich and a coffee. No such luck. Closed until 9am. Went to the mall entrance. No luck there either. Closed until 10am. Sheesh! I glanced around and noticed cars parked closer to the back of the mall. There was a Chedraui!! And it was open. Hurrah!

Strolled in, used the bathrooms, bought a star-shaped muffin and a yogurt drink for breakfast, and stood outside to eat. Then I went back in the store and wandered up and down for over two hours. And it didn't even feel that long. So much to see! I'm not much of a shopper, but it was cool and clean inside, and I needed a few specific items, so I took my time perusing the aisles. (Sorry, no pictures.)

Just past 10am, the mall opened. I walked out and down the hall...and that was it. There were maybe 10 stores. What??? This is a mall?
Grabbed a coffee and sat in the food court for a bit. That's when I noticed a lot of people going in and out of some sliding glass doors into a place called Fabricas de Francia. I had glanced at it before as I passed it and figured it was a dumb clothing store. Well, it kinda was, but it was actually more of a Eaton's or The Bay or Sears or some such department store. I went inside and immediately felt like a dirty, poor, gawking backpacker!
Looks just like an Eatons or The Bay from Canada! So shiny.
So many fancy expensive things.
How helpful! "This style favors these silhouettes: heart, apple, hourglass, pear."
The literal translation of hourglass is "clock of sand"!
The actually had a plus-sized clothing section but it was all super expensive and mostly polyester. Why would anyone wear polyester in this heat?? It's also a bit of a shock to see prices with a dollar sign, like $499 for a pair of pants. (The peso symbol is a dollar sign. Not sure why.)
Brain-shredding pink section!
Fabricas de Francia had sections for Levi's and Abercrombie & Fitch and other premium brands, plus perfume, clothes, appliances, and all that jazz. I was interested in more local things, so I moved on pretty quickly.
Taken from a pedestrian overpass that no one but me used, just outside the Crystal Palace Mall.
Tapachula has Burger King!!  :D
I knew it was pretty far back to the central park but I figured it wouldn't be a trip to Mexico if I didn't get sweaty and sunburnt, so why not walk? :D

If you don't walk places, you miss neat stuff like this statue.
Piñatas are truly a work of art in Mexico -- and Guatemala too!
I got a bit off track and ended up at Parque Bicentenario instead of Central, but some nice folks gave me directions. The streets of Tapachula are all numbered so it's not too hard to get around actually. I had just gone east (oriente) when I should have gone west (poniente).

I was back in my hotel room by noon and it was already cleaned. Nice! Drank about 4 liters of water and took a rest to pass the heat of the day.
A lovely metal rooster in my hotel (Hotel Cervantino)
Somewhere on my walk that morning, I had lost my favourite purple bandana, which I had tied to my purse. Sadness!! I decided to go searching for another one as I completed my rounds of the Simi's pharmacies to pick up my medication. (I usually buy four packages to get thru the three months between visa runs but each pharmacy seems to only ever stock one or two. So I have to hit up a few of them.)
3rd Street in Tapachula. Great place to stroll and shop.
I think Tapachula is a neat place to shop and browse. I suppose I'll get bored of it eventually, but not yet! It's even more fun if you head down the less commercialized streets and into the more local areas. That's where I found a new purple bandana for only P$10. Yay!
Do they know a "loo" is a bathroom?? Ha! It was actually a big grocery store with bulk stuff. Very busy.
Strolled around gawking like the tourist that I am until my stomach and the cloudy skies both started grumbling. Got confused trying to find Domino's Pizza, so got help from some nice boys selling sweets. Got a HUGE pizza -- they were "all out" of mediums?? -- and gave the boys a thumbs up as I passed them in the rain on my way back to my hotel. Watched the original Star Wars in Spanish, gorged on pizza, and fell asleep sunburnt, footsore, and happy!

Up early again on Sunday morning to start the trip back home to Pana. Not much new to report. I swear it was the same lady at Migracion as on our last trip to Tapachula, the one where I was sick with pneumonia and she hesitated to let us through after only one day gone. No hesitation this time, just a stamp and done! Yay, back in Guate. :)
Helpful dude who showed me where the boss station was in Malacatan.

So green and lovely.
The ride between Malacatán and San Marcos is the second most beautiful part of this trip. (The first of course being the descent to Lake Atitlan.) I took some videos but I could only see out one side of the bus. Both sides have amazing vistas! One video is posted below. It's about 11 minutes long, but you can jump around to some key vistas. Check my YouTube channel for other videos.


"We are not responsible for lost objects and women." Funny!
"People who board this unit, if they want something, talk to the Ayudante because the driver is in charge of the crew member." HUH?
San Marco bus station, Sacatepéquez
Xela chicken bus terminal (Minerva)
I had made such good time getting to Xela that I decided to take a break from traveling and go shopping at MegaPaca, which is just up the street from the chicken bus terminal. Popped into the mall too for some Burger King that I missed getting in Mexico. I know it's horrible stuff but when you haven't had fast food in months, it tastes soooooooo good. Plus I had to pick up a can of A&W Root Beer for the ride back to Pana! :D

So that's about it for my latest visa run. Sorry this blog was so slow in coming. It took quite a bit of time to write! Plus I've been unpacking at my new apartment. Yes, I moved again. *sigh* Dumb story, not worth telling. Just know that I am happy and moving forward. To me, it seems like a fresh 90-day tourist visa stamp is a new chapter. All the negatively has been erased and I have another 90 days ahead of me to make the best of. So I'm getting off this computer to go do so! Adios! 

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