It’s true that if I learn it for myself there’s a better chance I’ll believe in it. And so it goes with car permits and immigration renewals in Guatemala during the holiday season. We knew our 90 day permits for both our passports and the car would expire on December 26, so we mentally prepared for anything from Chiquimula onward. Fortunately for us, the roads resembled something out of “Omega Man:” empty, quiet and breathable because even the camionetas aren’t running as many routes- we didn’t see one single Pullman or Ruta Orientales headed to Puerto Barrios that entire day.
A quick trip to Tapachula at 6 AM could’ve done the trick for both our visas and our car permit (as recommended by Maestro Rudy), it would’ve been geographically inconvenient. But let me back up. Why in the world would we be headed to Tapachula, Belize or El Salvador to renew anything? In a nutshell Brad and I both have tourist visas that expire every 90 days (there’s a $114 penalty and mandatory 5-day expulsion if you violate that deadline, according to El Salvadorean aduana); the same applies for our car permit which has a penalty of Guatemalan import taxes being assessed on the total value of the car (something like $3K) if we overstay the 90 days. So simple enough, just get out of the country in time. Pero fijese, no es tan facíl.
You can renew your car permit at any aduana or border crossing because those permits don’t require you to leave the Central American nations formed by the Sistema para la Integración Centroamericana or System for the Central American Integration. This means we don’t need to drive our car to Mexico, Costa Rica or Belize, but we only learned by this a trial and error process which consisted of us crossing the border at El Salvador about 20 Km before Esquipulas. Be sure to take at least two copies of your old permit, car title, registration, US driver’s license and Q40 to pay the permit. There will be much back and forth at the border, but within an hour we had our permit and we didn’t have to be out of the country for three days as my previous calls to La Mesilla aduana informed me. “We all have the same laws, seño, but each of us interprets them differently,” the La Mesilla customs agente informed me. It always helps to know people at SAT and in this case both my cousins knew people at SAT so they guided us through the process as rows upon rows of trailers parked along the El Salvador border.
You can only renew 90-day tourist visas in Mexico, Costa Rica or Belize because those are considered outside the group of Central American nations. So while we could renew the car permit in El Salvador, we could not renew our passports.
You must be out of the country at least 72 hours so that your tourist visa is renewed, except sometimes it just depends on the “kindness” of aduana agents and you pleeing that you have nowhere to stay in the other country so you have to return the same day. I am horrible at pleeing, so I asked the aduana guy in Puerto Barrios how I can ever repay him for his kindness and the inconvenience to him?
Make sure you go at least 48 hours in advance to renew your visitor visa because you will be charged a multa or fine of Q80 if you arrive on the day your visa expires because it takes one day to process and while technically you may be in the system, you are officially not legal until the day after. Go figure.
Stay more than an hour in Belize or you will incur a $30 exit tax per person.
Make sure to buy a roundtrip ticket to Punta Gorda, Belize, because you have to show that at Belize customs.
While there is a place to leave your car at the Muelle Municipal in Puerto Barrios for Q20, who knows if your car will be there when you get back. What we did was book a couple nights at MarBrissa, left our belongings and our car on the hotel premises and got a taxi for Q25 to the Muelle. MarBrissa is located at 20 Avenida 25 Calle Col Virginia, Puerto Barrios, GuatemalaPhone: +502 (0) 9 480 940. You can get a very nice room with AC, kitchenette, cable TV, free Wi-FI, pool and gym access and free breakfast for Q450, around $50. Lesson learned early on in my travels in Central America is to not skimp on hotels, especially if you’re carrying cameras and gear, because it’s just not worth it. Today we met a German student who was travelling in Belize with some friends and all of them got their expensive cameras and iPhones stolen from their hotel rooms because the windows would not lock. What’s also nice about MarBrissa is they are totally cool about you leaving your car there overnight and paying Q20 per night. It’s an insanely safe location even though it’s less than 3 Km from a large prison. The good thing is the prison now has new cement walls, not just wire mesh like it did for many years.
There are ONLY private ferries to Punta Gorda. A private ferry costs Q3,000 if you insist on taking your car over.
Livingston is not Belize.
While it may seem logical to have a ferry or water taxi that takes you from Livingston and then to Punta Gorda, only private expensive charters will do that. Most people jump off from Puerto Barrio (PB) to Livingston (30 Minutes) and then back to PB, and then hop over to Punta Gorda (1 hour) and back. Prices range from Q175 to Q250 per person and on holidays (as it was for us) it can be triple the price because of additional Belizean charges added on to lancha water taxi services. We paid a total of Q400 each way for both of us, $97.56 round trip, with Mar y Sol the company which conveniently sells you tickets from the Immigration Services office located one block from the launch off point at the Mulle Municipal in Puerto Barrios. They depart at 1 pm everday and return the same day at 4 PM. Here’s us on the lancha which only had one life preserver and I was the only one to jump for it and request we not leave without more (to no avail):