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The Bureacracy of Lingering


Waiting for the Rum
Somehow, in the aftermath of liberation from Spain, the people of Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador were stricken with the ugly, self-indulgent sense of nationalism. They fought over territory and trade and eventually defined some imaginary lines to mark their borders. At these borders, each posted low-level bureaucrats and armed enforcers to make sure anyone crossing those imaginary lines knew just how important their nation was with respect to the others. That became onerous, since we're talking about nations the size of New England states , so they came up with the CA-IV agreement, making it easier for Central Americans and harder for everyone else to travel in the region. Today they have about as much hassle as I do driving into California from Arizona. Also like California, they can only aspire to someday be as sensible as Iowa and Nebraska are with their borders.

In any event, today marks the 86th day since I entered Guatemala. On Monday, both my CA-IV visa and my car import permit will expire. The visa is not a big deal. The fine is only 10Q per day, payable at the border immigration office, as well as some increased vulnerability to police corruption should I get stopped in the meantime. The car permit, however, could be an issue. Import permits are handled by customs. My temporary permit cost less than $20. This spares me from paying thousands of dollars in taxes to permanently import the truck. Over-staying a temporary import permit looks an awful lot like trying to skirt the permanent import taxes. Customs likes it's taxes.
    My options are:
  1. Request extensions in the capital
  2. Make a border run
  3. Bribe someone to handle it for me

Of course it isn't so simple where bureacracy is involved. At the capital (or the capital of any CA-IV nation), I could get my CA-IV visa renewed. In Guatemala, that takes 8 days. I don't have 8 days. I have no idea what it would take in El Salvador, my next planned destination, but driving to San Salvador for the first time to renew my visa on the day of it's expiration didn't seem like a good plan. I could pay the fine for my visa but I'd be in violation of my car import permit. Process for getting an extension in Guatemala? Unknown.

A border run should be a sure-fire way to get another 90 days. Because of CA-IV, the only options are Belize (1 long day driving), Mexico (a few hours) or Costa Rica (2-3 days). Mexico is the most realistic option. Some have reported driving to the border, walking to the Guatemalan immigration and customs offices and handling everything without crossing. No 8 day wait here. However, it's quite possible that I might have to cross into Mexico for a day or two and then come back. There is no consistency. Being a border, there's always the risk that some unknown technicality could leave me stuck on the Mexican side, but it's not too likely; it's just expensive to pay both the fees in Mexico and Guatemala. Car import permits are not covered by the CA-IV agreement, so each country issues a new one. Getting one at any border should be automatic.

I also investigated the corruption angle. I found it was relatively easy to get someone to rubber-stamp a visa extension without traveling to the capital or the border but I didn't find anyone who could bypass customs.

Other than pondering, I've really been putting off dealing with this for the last couple weeks. Instead I've been driving around the mountains, breaking & repairing the truck. It's been fun, but Monday's coming. Today, I resolved to get my affairs in order to do a border run to Mexico in the morning. It was the only option available.

I drove to Antigua to get my documents in order. Each border crossing requires a certain number of photocopies of various documents. They vary from country to country and sometimes between crossings. Fortunately, there are several good sites that try to track the requirements. It's never a good idea to show up without photocopies unless you know the border crossing well. Sometimes the nearest working copy machine is miles away.

While looking for a copy shop, I saw Miguel from This European Life on the street. I employed the magic button which granted me permission to triple-park upside-down and backwards in a red zone, rolled down my window and told Miguel about my plan. "Oh no", he said, with deep concern. "If you leave, you can't come back for 90 days. It's a new rule from customs. You should talk to UnWireMe. He had to abandon his car in Belize last week."

The rules down here can be byzantine but this caught me by surprise. Really?


  1. I recently ran into a similar (but far less complicated) predicament going from South Africa into Lesotho (roughly the size of Manhattan). I don't know what the agreement is between the two countries is for locals, but it's straightforward and you can bring boxes of goat heads with you.

    As foreigners, we entered Lesotho without realizing that we'd only been given a two (!) day tourist visa. I guess when you say you want to stay for a couple of days they take "a couple" rather literally. Of course I ran out of gas on the second day and didn't clear the country, although exiting was only 40% the plan anyway and intent to leave that day was coincidence based on our overall itinerary, not for the purposes of complying to the visa requirements we didn't bother to educate ourselves about in the first place. When we showed up at the border on day three, we were thoroughly scolded for not leaving in time, and had our passports dramatically stamped overtop of the entrance stamp. Really? Are you that worried that we stayed an extra 10 hours? Oh well, it was still beautiful and highly worth visiting anyway.

    And then I blew a tire, and then I locked the keys in the car. Good times in road trip land =)

  2. Good times indeed. I don't look forward to borders but it's all part of the adventure.

  3. Sucks what happened to UnWireMe, but if you look at some of his older posts you'll find the answer you're looking for. Rich did a great writeup on extending the visa AND vehicle import permit in Guatemala City. We did it with just a few days to spare, and it really wasn't difficult at all. We were getting work done on our 4Runner, so we even had to take buses and taxis from Antigua, but it still wasn't bad at all. The only thing is the visa takes a few days of waiting to be approved, so you have to drop off you passport then come back in a few days. If you explain your situation to the folks at the aduana while waiting for your passport, you should be fine. We found them very helpful and understanding


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  5. Howdy RA - thanks for stopping by. The story continues here:

    I went through a similar process as Rich (his links were very helpful) and it turned out a-ok.