Overland border crossings are not my favourite aspect of travel.
They’re typically rife with scams, a little confusing to get through, and often, something seems to go wrong when I’m involved in them.
There was also, of course, the time my minivan drove off and left me at the Thai-Burma border. There was the fact that I’ve had to pay a bribe every single time I’ve entered Cambodia. There was the time Dave tried to exit Malaysia on his New Zealand passport and enter Thailand on his British one and was refused entry into Thailand.
It’s a frustrating but necessary part of travel.
And Central American borders, I’d read, can be particularly sketchy.
We’d only spent two days in Belize by this point, and had filled them with butterflies and ruins. We’d barely even had enough time to get a feel for San Ignacio, let alone the entire country, and already we were leaving. There was no reason for me to sad though, like I usually am, because we would only be in Guatemala for the next 48 hours.
Why such a short visit?
Arguably the most famous of Mayan ruins, Tikal is roughly 100km into the northern part of Guatemala. From San Ignacio, you have two options for seeing it: the first is to spend a ridiculous amount of money (around $150) to do it as a day trip. You’ll end up spending seven hours sat on a bus getting there and back, and a few hours exploring the ruins. The second option is to do it yourself, saving a ton of money in the process, while also spending a few days in Guatemala, and actually getting to witness the sunrise at Tikal.
We, of course, chose the latter.
Getting from San Ignacio to the border was simple: we jumped in a cab (complete with cracked windscreen and friendly driver who spent more time telling stories and looking at us rather than on the road) from the centre of town, and paid the driver B$10 to take us the eight miles to Guatemala.
We’d not had the best border crossing from Mexico to Belize a few days earlier, with an attempted scam on the Mexico side that we’d artfully avoided and an intense questioning session from immigration as we’d entered Belize. We’d done our research on the Belize-Guatemala border, though, and had read there would be various attempts at bribes as we passed across.
We made it out of Belize without a hitch, but it was when we crossed the river and reached the Guatemalan side that we ran into problems.
The immigration official fiddled with our passports for a few seconds, flicking to the photo pages and holding them up beside our faces. Then he looked at Dave.
“You need to pay the entry fee.”
“What entry fee?” Dave asked.
“Entry to Guatemala. Twenty quetzales.”
Twenty Guatemalan quetzales is just over 2.50 U.S. dollars, so we weren’t exactly put out about having to pay it. But Dave has this thing about bribes. Well, to be more accurate, he has this thing about fairness. If something isn’t fair, he can’t rest until he does something about it.
“There’s an entrance fee?” he shot back. “I didn’t think there was one?”
“Yes. Twenty quetzales entrance fee to Guatemala.”
“Okay, well can we get a receipt for this payment then please?”
We’d tried this particular trick before in Southeast Asia when we knew we were being bribed by an immigration guy. We’d ask for a receipt because we knew it wasn’t an official fee and they wouldn’t be able to give us one. Usually they’d just say no and then we’d end up paying the bribe anyway, because we still wanted to get into the country.
In Guatemala, though, something quite different happened.
The guy took a deep breath and stared at his feet. He shook his head a few times and then quickly stamped our passports. We took them from his outstretched hand.
“No need to pay,” he told us. “Welcome to Guatemala.”
And that was, without a doubt, the most terrible attempt at a bribe I’ve ever seen.
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Aww you can’t beat the guy for trying! ;)
It’s funny, because if he’d just said, “no, I can’t give you a receipt”, we would have just paid his bribe!
I never would’ve thought to ask for a receipt. That’s genius!
Haha, thanks! It’s definitely Dave’s thing. I usually just end up paying the bribe to avoid confrontation!
Haha, I had the EXACT same bribe attempt except it was a ‘leaving fee’ and it was whilst going from Guatemala to Mexico. Except my guy lost his rag with me – essentially starting screaming and yelling at me in Spanish about how there wasn’t time to get a receipt, and how it would take hours to get to the bank and how the bus was going to leave me in the middle of nowhere alone and how I should just pay. When I told him I didn’t understand him because he was speaking too quickly, he just sneered at me and said “well, you don’t really understand very much, do you, sir?”
Yeah that guy was a real prick. I got away without paying though. That little victory has stayed with me for a long time, especially since it was during my first ever backpacking trip when I was 20! :-)
Oh, score! That’s so awesome you managed to get away without paying. Crazy how border crossings depend so much on the immigration official you get.
Haha! Well, I suppose it’s the effort that counts. ;)
Great tip on asking for a receipt, though!
I crossed the border from Guatemala to Belize earlier this year and was expecting someone to try their luck with a bribe as I’d read in several places online that it’s a common practice, but the whole thing was completely uneventful! I was actually surprised at how easy it was. It’s strange how different people’s experiences can be!
Yeah, it totally depends on the person you get!
I’m so going to try that trick next time! I always end up paying bribes when travelling between Cambodia, Laos and Thailand by bus. It might only be a few dollars but it does get irritating after a while. I remember one traveller telling me that the border guards often save up for years to pay a bribe to get the job as a guard in the first place because it’s so lucrative.
I actually managed to avoid paying the bribe when travelling from Thailand to Cambodia by asking for a receipt! Sometimes it does work!
I just left Guatemala 2 days ago with no problems and felt lucky for once to have gone 7 days un-scammed. But then going through security at Guatemala Airport one of my traveling companions had his phone and kindle stolen from the X-ray tray while security ‘guards’ watched then laughed about it. To their surprise my friend may have looked like a dumb gringo but he actually worked for the US State Dept in Guatemala City for three years before retirement last year. They targeted the wrong guy.
He started shouting making a scene then demanded to see the boss. The thief magically ‘found’ his electronics but my friend got airport management Involved who opened an investigation. Turns out the security guards are private contractors and airport management was grateful he came forward and promised to review the tapes and prosecute (believe when seen).
My friend missed our flight but got his pound of flesh and the security people were no longer laughing. He will follow up with contacts at the State Dept – he’s a bulldog like that.
Did they give you any issues or require anything for crossing the border. Do you still have to show proof of a hotel reservation?
Beyond the attempt at a bribe, no, no issues! And no, we didn’t need to show proof of a hotel reservation!