Tyler’s Trek Driving from Utah to Costa Rica Part 3
Day 7- Tapachula
I was sad to leave Puerto Escondido but excited that I would soon be crossing a new border. Looking at the map you can see that Mexico is obviously a long country but I was shocked that it was going to take me nearly a week to get through it.
My brain and body were on autopilot now and I made my way to the border town of Tapachula. The beauty of Puerto Escondido was unfortunately replaced later that day with the grime of a border city.
As I saw signs telling me I would be getting to Tapachula I thought that perhaps I’d get a hotel on the outskirts. Knowing what a lot of border towns are like I thought I’d skip the mess and find something several miles out. The problem was I wasn’t too big a fan of the selection I was finding. For some reason every hotel outside of town was quoting me hourly rates for hotels. Why would I need a hotel room for just a few hours? I mean, I guess if I had a scrap-booking emergency pop up while I was driving and needed a few hours to bust out a few pages I could see getting a hotel room for a few hours. But other than that I found myself thoroughly confused at the looks I was getting showing up alone with my dogs to these hotels.
So I plodded on and found myself in Tapachula. Not a great town but I found a hotel that was actually fairly decent, had a killer air conditioning unit, and with just a bit of prodding and a call to a distant owner allowed me to keep the dogs there.
I found a little roadside stand that served some kicking quesadillas, happened upon some Mormon missionaries and talked shop with them, and went back to the hotel.
In talking with the desk guy, though, I felt doomed. When I asked him how long it would take me to get to the border in the morning he informed me that I was three hours away.
“Three hours!” I exclaimed, “But it looks so close on the map.”
“Okay, maybe it’s an hour and a half. The roads are windy.”
How did he just cut the distance in half while adding windy-ness to the roads?
I felt dismayed, though. I just wanted to get on to the next leg and on to Guatemala.
Day 8- Guatemala
I woke up earlier than usual expecting a 1.5 to 3 hour journey to the border.
To my surprise, 20 minutes later I was at the border. That was anti-climactic.
So there I was, probably 6 am at an empty border.
I counted my lucky stars that I would get through before the lines got backed up.
Boy was I wrong.
A few yards into the border crossing I was accosted by a half dozen locals running up to the car wanting to change money for me and have me hire them to help me through the maze of the border crossing.
I simply rolled down the window and my trusty Rottweiler flipped his lid and attempted to eat these young Guatemalans. After they were sufficiently scared and knew that no one was going to be messing with my van I had him calm down. As much as I didn’t want to I knew that I was going to need one of these guys.
Border crossings are a mess. You’ve got to get permissions and stamps to leave one country and then new permissions and stamps to enter another. They want copies in triplicate of your car title, passport, health papers on the dog, shoe sizes, preferred hemorrhoid creams, and anything else they feel like asking for that day.
So I chose the least drunk one (no, I’m not being judgmental or rude or condescending…all of them were obviously drunk from their slurred speech to smell of cheap booze) and he helped me get stamped out of Mexico. So far so good. He then informed me that we needed to drive up to the next point. No problem. And that we had to wait until a certain hour (can’t remember what time) until that part of the border opened. Looking at the clock I realized I had to wait two hours. That was before he informed me that the hour changes in Guatemala and that I’d actually have to wait three hours.
Uggh. Who can you bribe at a moment like this? Well, I tried. The guy just sitting there monitoring the border informed me that he’d be happy to take the bribe but that the computers and such just didn’t turn on until a certain hour so, bribe or no, I wasn’t going to get out of here for hours. So much for winding roads.
So I waited. I read a book. I ate some snacks.
A belligerent drunk guy came up and started pestering me. He wouldn’t leave me alone. I yelled at him. He wouldn’t leave me alone. I rolled down the window and instructed my Rottweiler to ‘tell him off’. Upon doing so the guy got so scared he scurried back, tripped over himself, and fell flat on his back.
Finally the border opened, I paid my fees, and went through.
Up until this point my GPS had been a trusty pal. It came pre-loaded with maps of the United States and Mexico so I’d seen a very high level of accuracy. The maps for Central America, though, were an open source add-on that I’d figured out how to download to the system.
I found out immediately that there was a problem. It was sending me to places where there weren’t roads and when I was on roads it swore that I wasn’t.
I don’t know how much time I lost but I do know that I ended up going directions I wasn’t supposed to and was able to rely on the help of the locals for pointing me in the right direction.
The locals were great. Every one of them was happy to help and they all seemed charitable and friendly. It seemed that I noticed churches everywhere in Guatemala and it seemed to me that the people were living up to what they were being taught there.
A few hours in my GPS seemed to sync with the satellite for the most part and I found myself back on track.
I told you before that in Mexico there aren’t freeways or highways that pass ‘through’ the towns with a few exits to allow you off. The freeways, instead, dump you into the town itself and you have to navigate through city streets, alleys, one way roads, and all the hazards that come with that. Guatemala, and every other country I passed through was the same.
Guatemala City is the biggest city in all of Central America and it was quite a mess getting through it. I did pass through a few really cool colonial spots but overall I was trudging through traffic and pollution clogged roads.
I was happy to leave the city but, once again, I found myself in incredibly windy roads behind loads of semi trucks who force you to a crawl of about 20 mph.
Fortunately, the locals have discovered how to get around this problem. You go around the problem. In other words, although there may be traffic coming up around the curve directly at you it is perfectly acceptable to pass these big trucks on these winding roads.
As they say, ‘When in Rome, put your life at risk and pass the semi truck.’ If I’m one thing, I’m not too good to argue with sound colloquialisms so I found myself in this macabre race that anyone in a passenger vehicle had with anyone in a smoke belching (they don’t have the same emissions standards as we do) semi-truck.
I don’t remember how many miles I went but it was likely 100 miles past Guatemala City and I think I remember it taking roughly four to five hours to make that trek. Physically and emotionally it was exhausting and I was not in the mood for finding some flea bag hotel where I would have to argue, beg, and plead for safe passage for the dogs.
I don’t remember the name of the town but I found myself about 80 miles from the Honduras border when I decided enough was enough. I had been driving for an hour in the dark, breaking once again the cardinal rule about night-time driving and I found what looked like a nice hotel.
How this hotel ended up in this spot I’ll never know. I have no idea what tourists would ever find themselves in this spot but the hotel was amazing. Anywhere in the states it would have gone for hundreds of dollars every night but it was my privilege to own a room for $40 that night. I would have happily paid more after the drive I’d had, after all I’d traveled nearly the entirety of Guatemala in one day. The hotel had pristine swimming pools with water slides. It had cages full of tropical birds and monkeys. It had gyms, a great looking restaurant, and lounge areas for the guests. And the rooms had awesome A/C, functioning showers with hot water, sheets that had recently seen the inside of a washing machine, and pure comfort everywhere. My only negative thought was that I would get to use none of these amenities.
I walked into the town that night and found a great road-side meal of some sort of meat with some tortillas.
Before going to bed I asked the ladies at reception how long it would take me to get to the Honduran border. When they informed me I had 4-5 hours left I nearly died. I thought I was so close? How could it be so far?
I fell asleep dreading a five hour drive followed by another border crossing.
Day 9- Honduras
Note to self. Stop asking people at hotels how long it takes to get to a border.
I left very early that morning, probably around 4 am. I wanted to be able to get through the border at a reasonable hour and hopefully make it through most of Honduras that same day.
Finding myself driving in pitch black on more windy mountain roads suddenly seemed like a bad idea but at least there were far fewer trucks out.
Two hours later I was at the border. I realized then, that these people I was asking about travel times didn’t have cars. Their experience with traveling around was by bus, taxi, bicycle, etc. They didn’t have the luxury of their own well-maintained vehicle so it was highly possible that an 80-90 mile trip would take them 4-5 hours.
I would have loved to stay in Guatemala for longer as it seemed like a great country but duty called.
Truthfully, the border crossing between Guatemala and Honduras is the only one I can’t remember. I don’t even know why I can’t remember it. I assume that I paid a local to help me wade through the muck that is border crossings and I obviously got through.
I’ll be honest, I don’t know if I did a good job getting through borders or not. I don’t know how other travelers have done it, I’ve read of many that absolutely refuse to give bribes.
I realized very quickly, however, that I am not above paying bribes. Bring them on. Oh really, you wanted to see some obscure vaccination for my dogs before you let me pass? I think the Senor Washington twins will have something to say about that (yes, in many spots a $2 bribe could get me going). Really, you needed three copies and not two copies of that paperwork that is sure to go in a file never to be seen again? How about I make it rain quarters and see how you feel now?
My thought process was that if it cost me a couple hundred bucks more to get across these countries due to paying bribes to border agents, police, and bureaucrats, but it was going to save me time and headache, then that was a sound investment.
Nearly every border crossing had signs up telling you not to pay bribes to the personnel and the personnel seemed to have no problem petitioning a bribe while standing mere feet from such a sign. Perhaps ‘irony’ doesn’t translate well into Spanish?
I’m sure these folks are good and normal people. I think they’ve just been caught up in a work culture and processes that make petitioning and accepting bribes a non-taboo action. I also am fully aware that I was simply perpetuating the problem by acquiescing with my greenbacks but, frankly, I don’t care. You try making a drive like this and see if you don’t welcome ways that your journey can get just a little bit easier.
Honduras was a beautiful country. I remember a lot of green, rolling hills, a lot less speed bumps than I’d been accustomed to, and plenty of civilian security guards walking around with sub machine guns as if they were the newest accessories.
I’m sure they’ve got plenty of reason for having such protective measures but I found the Hondurans to be very kind and helpful and cheerful. I was robbed zero times, never threatened, and felt completely safe the whole way through.
I found lodging that night in a run down spot in a little town which I gaged to be about 40 miles from the border (I did NOT ask the hotel clerk how long it would take me to get to Nicaragua). Darkness had closed in and this was the last hotel I saw as a candidate so I didn’t even bother asking if they allowed dogs. I knew I’d just have to figure out a way to sneak them in.
Upon checking in I was greeted by the friendly clerk and an even friendlier young man carrying an uzi, or a flame thrower, or a surface to air missile. Or something like that. I don’t know anything about guns, I’m a big supporter of a person’s right to have and carry them, I’ve just never got into them myself. In any case, he had a gun hanging cavalierly around his neck as if it were a plaything and I started thinking just how I was going to sneak in 150 lbs. of contraband dog past this guy.
I was issued my room in the opposite end of the courtyard and backed the van up to it. Like the scene of a Mission Impossible movie I waited and watched his rounds, timed them, determined when he was going to be out of sight, and then pounced.
Wait! He went out of sight but just as he did the clerk came out into the courtyard to call him over. Thwarted.
I waited again for him to resume his normal rounds and very Tom Cruise like sans-repelling gear I dashed into the room just as he re-emerged from the corner. I breathed a sigh of relief, peeled off my face changing mask, and was in for the night.
To be continued…