Border Crossings Round the world trip

Belize into Guatemala – a “crossing the border” experience

A “crossing the border” experience from San Ignacio to El Remate

Crossing the border between Belize and Guatemala was easy. Staying in San Ignacio for 2 days helped. We were well rested and very close to the border which was only 10Km away. We left San Ignacio relatively early. This way we had all the necessary time to make the crossing and arriving in our destination at a decent time.

A taxi took us right in front of the custom offices for just 5 Belize dollars each or USD2.5 each. This is the standard price for this journey. It was probably the easiest, fastest and cheapest border crossing transport we have ever had. We took our backpacks and we walked into the Belize immigration building. Unlike in Mexico, there are clear signs that spell out exactly how much it costs to leave the county and the split of this cost. For example, conservation fees, admin fees, etc.

Although it is very expensive at USD20 each, we felt a bit better knowing that we were going to be given a receipt for this transaction. Something that was also quite rare to experience was that we paid part of this cost via credit card! Yes, you read that right. We did not have enough Belize dollars left and we asked to pay one part in cash and the reminder via credit card. We were quite impressed our wish was granted. The border guards then took us upstairs to their admin offices to process the card transaction. In Mexico we felt we were simply giving our money to the dudes in charge at that moment, but at least in Belize we have been issued receipt 🙂 .

Into Guatemala

As soon as our passports were stamped we exited the Belize immigration office into the unknown. A minivan driver approached us the moment we walked out and quoted us GTQ 50 each to reach our intended destination of El Remate. We did not study the details on how to proceed for our journey after this point and found ourselves a bit clueless. We were only in possession of our precious pre-loaded Google maps. But approximately 6 or 7 US dollars for a quick crossing into Guatemala seemed ok. We could have been straight on our way to our desired destination and so we agreed. The only problem though was that we had no local money! We then agreed on a not so convenient exchange rate of 6.5 to 1 US dollar.

The minivan driver then assigns us an escort to walk to the Guatemala immigration building and back. We quickly had a change of hearth after realizing how easy this border crossing was. The Guatemala immigration was barely 50 meters away. Google maps indicated a bus terminal right after the border too. And so we inform our escort that we would instead find our own way rather than joining them. The dude was not very happy, but we insisted not joining them. We realized we had made an impulsive decision accepting their offer without checking other options. After all, it was only 10am in the morning…we had all the time to take a look around, find other transport options and plan our journey.

Crossing the border into Guatemala was then SUPER smooth. There was no queue, there was no fee to pay and in no time we were across.

Central America Money Changers

Inside the border “room” someone approached us with a large stack of cash in his hand. Behind him there were another 4 or 5 guys all carrying these huge bundles of cash in their hands. It seemed really dodgy, but nobody looked too troubled about this. You should also know that this immigration office was quite peculiar. It is actually just a long counter in an open room. There were no walls to confine the officers’ desks and right along one side of the space the actual road leading into Guatemala. The crossing point into the country was literally just the road and this open concept “room”.

Imagine a road where all cars, trucks, minivans, tuk tuk, motorbikes, people, dogs, etc. were passing by. Then this room facing the road, at the end of which were the long desks with the immigration officers ‘computers; armed guards left, right and centre and the dudes with the cash. It seemed a bit surreal, but then we imagined ourselves in front of a club showing-off our huge stack of cash…what could possible happen? haha!

Anyways, Central America introduced us to it’s forex services 😉

We exchanged a small amount of money for GTQ7 per USD1 and off we walked the streets of Melchor de Mencos’ town.

Money changers whilst crossing the border
Money Changers at the Border

Past the Border

Straight after crossing the border we had to walk over a bridge, which lead us into our first Guatemala’s town. We followed the road as indicated on our digital map and it took us no time to find the colectivo bus station. Just before arriving a very nice guy approached us too and asked if we were looking for transport. The gentlemen pointed us to his minivan that was right there at the colectivo bus point. For GTQ30 each we were off to El Remate, a small town on the coast of the Peten Itza lake in Northern Guatemala.

Our Guatemala experience just started!

Point to note: the colectivo goes all the way to Flores. You would need to get off at the cross junction before El Remate and either wait for another colectivo (rare) or walk…we walked!

Check our other article about crossing the border between Costa Rica and Panama.

Arriving at El Remate
Arriving at El Remate
Border Crossings

Panama to Colombia – to fly or not to fly?

There are no roads that connect Panama and Colombia! That is astonishing, but the thick vegetation of Darien rainforest and the Colombian guerrilla controlling narcotics trafficking makes the cross best avoided. This is a nice article regarding the Darien straight.

There are many many threads online that talk about a ferry service between the countries but they all lead to nothing. Some say that it is possible to take cargo ships, but schedules and time at sea are unknown and you could be stuck waiting for a boat that departs for days.

Other crazy posts detail a dangerous land crossing with a mixed use of buses, walking and boats right on the Atlantic coast junction between Central and South America.

Some opt for parties’ sail boats that take 5 days to reach Colombia. 3 of the 5 days are spent cruising the San Blas Archipelago in Panama and then 48 straight hours of hard core waves that will ensure very little sleep and a fair amount of bruises. All of this for USD550 per person, all included, but excluding showers. A #coupletravel we met in Belize told us all the details of how bad it was not to be able to shower for 5 days even for rinsing the sea salt that remains on your skin after bathing in the ocean. But they went through 20 something bottle of Rum among 15 travelers!?

Not for us…

Obviously there are upsides such as the fact you are practically taking part to a cruise on a large sailboat and you get to enjoy the San Blas islands! You stop at various spots, visiting some of the islands, sunbathing and swimming in the crystal clear waters.

Wingo was our choice. Wingo is a new brand name that has replaced most flights that used to be operated by COPA airlines.
Wingo operates as local low cost airline within Colombia and it has a few international destination, such as the Panama-Cartagena route, which we benefit for only SGD220 for two people including a 20KG bag allowance in the aircraft and 16KG between two pieces of hand carries.
This carry-on allowance is perfect for a backpacker, but the restrictions on size may push you to purchase additional baggage.

Our flight was scheduled to depart from the Pacifico airport out of town towards the east. This used to be a military airport and it is in operation only few hours prior to any flight departure (if any). It is a very basic airport offering free internet only since a few months.
Reaching the airport via public transport required us to take a train to the main transport terminal, look for the correct bus that goes to a junction a few KMs from the airport and then a taxi to cover the last pierce of road (or a long slog with luggage and all in the heat). Probable cost USD5, depending on the taxi part.
Normal taxi services would ask between USD20 to USD30 to do the drop, however Uber is easily available in town and can take you to the airport for approx. US 9 bucks (Uber prices always change also depending on traffic etc.)

As we were going to catch a flight from a low cost carrier that operates from a small airport in the middle of nowhere, there was to expect some catch in terms of charges, i.e what type of luggage they would allow on board, very strict on Kilos in your luggage or, as expected, but not prevented, charging you for not having printed your boarding pass or done the check in.

We had so little time in Panama we were just enjoying the places we didn’t think of spending time checking in for our flight online. We had the feeling we should have printed the boarding passes as in Europe this is a classic method to charge the travelers top dollars for not printing itineraries. Yet, we went to sleep without realizing the check in online closes 5 hours prior to departure and that we needed to print our boarding passes.

Luckily we arrived 2.5 hours prior to departure when we were told that we would need to pay USD34 for having them printing our boarding passes. You may say, why luckily? Luckily because this was not the only problem that we were phasing…
We were also asked for proof on onward travel in order to board the aircraft! The flight attendant gave us just over one hour to provide her a proof of onward travel away from Colombia. We were freaking out! How to get that done if we were planning to land cross over to Ecuador from Colombia?

We frantically start reading online about how to get around this problem. In many talk about how this inconvenience resulted in them missing the flight or like us incur unrequired charges only if we had read the fine prints.

One easy get around is to book a flight with any American carrier. Usually American carriers allow one day “grace” period and the booking can be cancelled within 24hours of purchase. The flight confirmations you will receive is the official proof of onward travel, which in the meanwhile is being processed by the airline. If you want to deal with the refund procedure and manage the process, this is non costing anything to get your proof of onward travel.

Or use a service, which books you on flights and send you flight confirmations in minutes with itinerary and all printed PDF for USD15.
Plenty to read online about this topic…

Airplane view from Panama City to Cartagena
Border Crossings

Costa Rica/Panama – Border crossing from Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro

We read a few posts online on things to watch out during the border crossing between Costa Rica and Panama, but it could have not been any easier. Here is how we did it.

The bus service that runs from Puerto Viejo to Sixaola leaves every hour and it takes approximately one hour to complete. The fare is CRC1,700 per person and the bus was very punctual.

The bus leaves you at a terminal which is right next to the main road and the bridge that leads to Panama. As we were approaching the immigration office we were asked by a lady to stop and pay the exit fee, which is required when leaving Costa Rica. The lady did not seem too official and she was pointing out at a kiosk to pay the exit fee which looked more like a clothing shop than anything official and immigration related. We proceeded to the immigration office just to get reassurance as to what was the process.

Costa Rica exit fee payment kiosk

The officers sent back to our feet to the same clothes shop and right next to it there was a small booth with a guy collecting payments. That’s when we also saw the sign saying: PAY YOUR EXIT TEXES HERE. The fee totaled USD8 per person and receipts were issued to us.

We had to walk back to the immigration kiosk, which is located right prior to the bridge on the main road (these are very close to each other). The officers will check that exit fees were paid and they would stamp the receipts as well as your passports.

Off we were, we started walking the bridge on our way to Panama.

Immigration in Panama was very straightforward. Soon after the bridge you would see some containers probably related to transport companies. But the buildings right after are the actual immigration offices. There is a sign that will point it out, but also a bunch of people would come towards you taking you to the immigration office hoping you’d talk to them afterwards to arrange for your onward travel needs.

At immigration they will require to take finger prints and will ask how long is the planned stay in the country. I have read that they would normally also ask for proof of onward travel (i.e. when and how you’d be exiting the country), but I guess it really depends on which border is crossed and perhaps which officer you are dealing with?!

The “travel agents” will try to convince you to join their minivan and will try to say there is no bus leaving, or will try to tell you inflated prices for the bus in order for you to travel with them. It is up to you what is your preferred way to travel. Obviously the minibus is direct and relatively inexpensive. We were quoted USD5 per person, but we declined as we prefer to take the bus with the locals and to enjoy more of the local ways.

As we set off to wait for the bus (by the way the bus station is clearly marked on google maps, hence it is easy to find) another person approached us at USD4 per person for a direct connection. The temptation was there but we sticked to our chicken buses 🙂

Sixaola border between Costa Rica and Panama

The journey to Bocas del Toro required a change of bus in Changuinola. The first leg of the journey costed USD1 per person and it was fast enough (approximately 40 minutes) and the second part, from Changuinola to Almirante costed only USD1.45 and it took a bit longer as the bus goes uphill through forest areas. As predicted the bus costed half of what the taxis/minivan quoted, but obviously it was not as straightforward. Perhaps one need to look at budget and consider whether the USD2.5 dollars will affect too much and make a decision based on that…for us, even though time is a concern, we still prefer to travel with the public transport.

In our experiences usually minivan/shuttles’ fares compared to buses are far more expensive, like 4 time more expensive. In this case, the difference is relatively small and could be considered.

The bus dropped us at the main road at the junction where various taxi boat companies operate. The first booth is the one operated by a company called Valencia. There are more along the road and first impression tells me that TAXI 25, which is the last one of the stretch is the most reliable one, but we had no issue with Valencia and we got an open return ticket for USD10 each. Or you can get one way for USD6.

The boat ride only takes 20 minutes or so; expect beautiful scenery on the way, a seat on the boat where your face is almost at the same level of the water (if you stay at the back) and enjoy the beautiful place that is Bocas del Toro!