Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Belize–Guatemala Border

30 minutes west from Clarissa Falls, and we were at the Guatemala border. On the Belize side, we parked at the far end of the parking lot from the helpers and money changers, ever suspicious of being “taken,” and I walked towards the immigration building. However, as we’re finding at each border, the helpers are, well, helpful and we do need to change money. It’s more about how you approach them; I find that if I’m friendly and make it clear that I don’t need my hand held through the process (and won’t pay), they’ll happily volunteer information that will get me on my way.

Checkout from Belize was quick: a stop at the immigration desk which was able to point me to customs to clear the truck. To be honest, I don’t remember if/what I had to pay, but it was all on the level and there was no implication to “grease the wheels.” Back outside, I needed to change some pesos to Guatemalan quetzales and found the friendly, well-dressed guy who had first pointed me in the right direction. He suggested we go to the truck to complete the transaction. Again, I was suspicious and said no thank you we’ll do it right here. When we were done and my pockets were bursting with quetzales, the biggest bills being 100’s (about $12.50) as opposed to 500 peso ($45) notes, he listed a few fees I would have to pay on the Guatemalan side and mentioned that I should only bring just enough cash. “It’s different over there,” he added. In hindsight, from the beginning he had been suggesting I not flash a wad of cash around in the open near the border and had been looking out for me. Again, suspicion getting the better of me.

A note: The exchange rate for pesos to quetzales *sucked,* but James and Angela had mentioned that after once refusing to change money at the border, they’d gone to a bank in town and found that the bank rate was even worse. There are two lessons here: Change money at every border so you’re not stuck with currency from “one country away” and do your best to budget down to the last amount so you have as little as possible left over. If you run low, change from dollars to the local currency.

On the Guatemalan side, we drove through a large car wash-like sprayer and paid a small (couple bucks) fee on the other side for the fumigation before parking in front of an official-looking, open air building. After weaving through another round of money changers and helpers on this side, the immigration desk was again straight-forward with a professional officer who spoke some English. Customs was the same though required copies of my passport (first page and with the Guatemalan stamp), license and title. A few shacks down the road, an apathetic but efficient guy crammed as many of the documents onto the fewest sheets of paper he could, saving me a few cents.

When I returned the customs agent directed me to a bank window along the right wall to pay (55 quetzales, about $7). Again, I waved off a helper when he grabbed my form and walked it up to the front of the line of 5 or 6 people waiting in front of the window, telling him I was happy to wait for my turn. A few minutes later, the first person in line walked back to the end of the line, took my form and slipped it under the window for me. She then reached back with an open hand into which I put the 55Q and finally passed the stamped form back to me. Again, the helper had only been trying to help.

A quick inspection of the truck, application of a sticker on the inside of the window, and we were sent the actual crossing. The guard looked at our papers (I think it might be working to our advantage to have Ann in the driver’s seat) and waved us through.