For Part I of the diary, go here.
To recap, my last day in Guatemala, at least on this particular tourist visa has been a disaster. While the trip itself to the Guatemala-Belize border went fine, all things considered, things had definitely taken a turn for the worse. Customs officials in Guatemala had just informed me that I’d be unable to bring the vehicle back into Guatemala for at least 90 days. Needing time to ponder my options, I headed towards Belize’s immigration building to at least check myself into the country. On with the diary:
7:05p.m.: I drive through the “fumigation” machine at the Belize border. For the honor of letting my car be sprayed with what I suspect is just water, I pay $10BZD. I park the Jeep to the side and walk towards the Customs/Immigration building, paperwork on hand.
7:09p.m.: The lines are much thinner than I expected for a Friday night. In fact, there’s just one person ahead of me in line.
7:10p.m.: The Customs official asks how long I want to stay in the country. I ask for 90 days, which is the maximum for US citizens. She takes one look at my passport and decides that because it says I was born in the Dominican Republic, Dominican rules apply and says she’ll only give me 30 days max. I call it BS, in nicer words of course, but she tells me that it’s the law and blah, blah, blah. It’s useless trying to explain to her that I’m a US citizen, as if my passport wasn’t obvious enough. She says if I want more than 30 days, I need to travel to the capital (Belmopan) and ask for an extension.
I’m always baffled as to why Belizean immigration seems so intent in keeping tourists outside the country. In my experience, they always seem to want to limit visas to the minimum requested number of days and not one more hour. I suspect it’s a way to get more money from tourists, should they want to extend their visa. At this point, I don’t want to make a scene and just want to move on to the next checkpoint.
7:15p.m.: After getting my passport stamped, I head over to the Customs desk, which is right behind the Immigration officer’s desk. I hand in my paperwork.
For the next 15 minutes, the Customs official, obviously bored, decides to ask 1,001 questions. How long do I plan to stay? Where I’m going? Why do I want to go camping? Do I have a reservation? Where do I want to go next? And on, and on, and on… The officer tells me all about the law regarding importation of vehicles. That I can’t sell it, don’t I dare sell it, but if I do sell it, to pay the duty fees first. Makes me read the “selling your vehicle in Belize” disclaimer (twice!) and sign my name to it. Even after signing the disclaimer, he stills keeps badgering me about my trip. If I had to guess, this was obviously McDonalds’s Trainee Night.
After enough pestering, the Customs official asks me to bring my vehicle around for inspection.
7:35p.m.: I pull my vehicle up to the immigration post and get out. The official checks the VIN and proceeds to look through my belongings and on to another round of questions.
“That doesn’t look like clothes for 90 days” he tells me, as if hoping to catch me saying… something.
“Have you ever heard of a contraption called a washing machine? It goes ‘swoosh’, ‘swoosh’, ‘swoosh’”, I tell him, while placing my hands on my hips and gyrating them clockwise. I kid. I wish I had the nerve to do that. Instead, I tell him that I like to “travel light”.
After a few more inane questions, including whether my flashlight could be mounted to a sniper rifle (“Well officer, gimme enough duct tape and I could make it happen!”), he begrudgingly lets me go. I honestly have no idea what he expected out of his interrogation, but whatever I did convinced him that I did want to hang out in Belize (me and my silly ideas of fun and relaxation).
7:45p.m.: I finally drive off and head towards the insurance place, just a quarter of a mile down the road. As expected, the place is now closed. Another officer at Customs had told me that I long as I stayed near the border, I should be OK to come back in the morning and buy insurance. I pull over to the side of the road to call the wife and break her the news. Fortunately, Guatemalan cell phones do have coverage near the border, which makes communication a breeze.
7:55p.m.: I head towards the Trek Stop, an Eco-Lodge near the border, where I could lay low for a bit and camp out if necessary. Which is why I’ve brought along all my camping gear, in an effort to save as much money as possible.
8:15p.m.: After asking for directions, I manage to find the Trek Stop. I walk in semi-dazed from all that’s happened in the last hour. The first person I meet is Tino, who owns the lodge. Walking into the Trek Stop turns out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made all trip, as I couldn’t have found a nicer person to help me out. I promptly spill my guts out to him and the predicament I’m in. He suggests I try to sleep on it a bit. Good idea. We watch some TV, I drink a smoothie for dinner, and I try not to think about things much right now.
10:00p.m.: Tino says it’s too dark to pitch a tent outside, so he accommodates me in a room and gives me an inexpensive rate. I crash into bed. The body wants to sleep, but the mind won’t let it. Eventually, I somehow manage to fall asleep.
February 7, 2013
6:35a.m.: Wake up a little too early for my liking. I head over to the Trek Stop’s restaurant and decide to treat myself to a nice Belizean breakfast (fryjacks included). Since the restaurant has Wi-Fi and I have the laptop with me, I decide to make it my home-base for operations.
I connect my laptop and start searching the net for solutions. After googling for a few hours, these were the options available to me:
Drive the car back to the US: This is the costliest option. Driving my car back to Florida would not only result in a huge gas bill, but I’d also have to factor in lodging, Mexican vehicle insurance, plus a mandatory credit card deposit, refundable upon exiting the country. And it would still leave me the problem of having to keep the vehicle out of Guatemala for 90 days.
Keep the car stashed somewhere in Belize: This option is possible, provided you hand Customs a letter explaining that the car was checked by a mechanic and deemed “undriveable”. Lying to foreign officials? Never a good idea, so I crossed that one off the list.
Park the car at Customs: For 15BZD/day, I could let my car sit at Customs’ parking lot. Letting the Jeep sit for close to 90 days at Customs meant racking up a bill of over $600. But then I’d have the same problem again of having to take the vehicle out of the country in 90 to 180 days, depending on which Guatemalan Customs official I chose to believe.
Sell the car in Belize: In order to sell my car in Belize, I’d have to first pay import taxes. Which are ASTRONOMICAL. Well, at least when you think what one would deem “fair”. While Belize isn’t certainly the highest in the world, it’s not cheap either. For the pleasure of importing my car I’d have to pay 65.43% of it’s “book value”. This value is assigned by a Customs official and it fluctuates based on whether he had an argument with his wife that morning, had a great breakfast, wore itchy underpants… in other words, subject to their mood and whims. Oh, and there’s the fact that any tourist changing their mind and wanting to sell a vehicle AFTER going through Customs is subject to a 500BZD fine.
After researching for most of the morning, the most logical conclusion was to cut my losses and sell the Jeep. It was definitely becoming a drag, since I still had to keep paying insurance and registration in the US. Sometimes, you have to let go if you truly want to have freedom, and the car was next on the list.
1:30p.m.: To sell the car and find a buyer, I first needed to find out how much would a buyer have to potentially end up paying in duty fees. Online, I found the name of Stephen Kuyler Sr., a highly-recommended auto broker in Belize. After a little digging, I found his e-mail address and told him about my problem. Stephen was gracious enough to answer my questions, give me an estimate of the duty fees for my car – 3,500 BZD, and send me the name of another broker closer to the side of the border I was in. If you ever want to import your car to Belize, this is the guy to talk to:
Stephen Kuyler Sr. – Belize Auto Broker
Cell #: 501610-4213
3:30p.m.: I called up the broker Stephen had recommended. This broker advised that in order to avoid Customs’ fine, it was better to properly check the car out of Belize first, then sell the car to the prospective buyer before walking over to Guatemala. Basics of the plan worked out, all I needed was a buyer willing to pony up the duty fees while I would get the difference in cash.
February 8, 2013
12:00p.m.: Found a buyer! We agreed on a price of $X,XXX + duty fees, so I wouldn’t have to put anything out of pocket. Now the trouble was carrying all that money around, plus a bunch of assorted luggage, or as much as I could get out of the vehicle. I did a sweep of the vehicle and took out what I could carry with me.
2:00p.m.: I make some phone calls and find out that the latest direct bus, from Melchor de Mencos to Guatemala City, leaves at 8:00p.m. This is more than enough time to take care of the sale and make a run for the bus station.
But first, there’s the pesky detail of actually having to safely carry the money with me. Belize has tight currency controls. If you want to send anything overseas in an amount higher than 2,000BZD, you must first get a permit from Belize’s Central Bank. Even Western Union has this restriction (not to mention, exorbitant fees). I decided to send part of the money via Western Union to myself in Guatemala. As for the rest of the money, it could either be converted in dollars at a bank, or in Quetzales at the border. To avoid the double fee of converting the money to dollars, then Quetzales, I decided to change the rest into Quetzales at the border, which is the only place where I could change Belizean Dollars into Qeutzales.
3:00p.m.: After a quick trip to Western Union, it was time to head to the border.
Before crossing, I changed all the money I had on me into Quetzales and distributed it among my luggage. My main concern was my bus running into a Police checkpoint and having to convince Police or the Army that this was not money I’d acquired in a drug deal.
3:15p.m.: I take a deep breath and head towards the Immigration office, hoping it all goes well. And that I don’t run into McQuestion-A-Lot again. The passport stamping goes well. I pay my exit fee and then I head over to the Customs area. I’m relieved the personnel at the Customs’ area is not the same from two days ago. The officer remarks that my stay is much shorter than I’d anticipated. I tell him I need to go back to see my family. He doesn’t ask further questions and checks my vehicle out of Belize by canceling the permit.
3:35p.m.: I speed-walk as fast as I can to the vehicle and drive my car to the checkpoint. I get my car in line behind a couple others and slowly drive past the gatekeeper, whom I wave goodbye to. As I proceed to the parking area, I notice a Belize officer wave at me, asking me to come back.
The officer approaches me and I walk towards her. We meet half way and she tells me that she just needed to check my paperwork one more time. We walk back towards the building.
She checks my paperwork one more time and apologizes for the gatekeeper letting me through so quickly, before the final check. We laugh about it, I say it’s fine (no, really! We all make mistakes!) and she hands me my paperwork back as I walk back to the car, jello-legged.
The buyer meets me in the parking lot in No-Man’s land between Guatemala and Belize. I hand him the keys, sign the title over, and shake hands. Luckily, there was a “runner” waiting in the parking lot willing to drag me and my bags across to the other side. He offers to give me a ride for whatever I want to give him. Since the bust stop for Fuente del Norte is less than a quarter of a mile away, right after the Guatemalan bridge, I figure it can’t be much.
3:50p.m.: A bored Guatemalan Immigration official stamps my passport, giving me a fresh 90 days. From there, the guy drops me off at the bus station. I pay him 20Q for the quarter-mile long ride.
7:45p.m.: We start boarding the spacious, air-conditioned double decker bus. For an extra 40Q and a total fare of 220Q, I get to ride in the more spacious reclining seats on the first floor. The attendant says we’ll be arriving in Guatemala City at about 6:30a.m. the following morning.
February 8, 2013
6:45a.m.: We arrive at the terminal in Guatemala City, after an uneventful ride. I even managed to sleep for a few hours in semi-comfort. A half-hour later I’m reunited with my wife, grateful to be back together.
The whole experience has left me no desire to engage in further border-crossing shenanigans. I’ve rethought my whole travel strategy and have decided I’m not ready to leave Guatemala just yet. I really like this place and I’d rather we leave when we feel it’s time, not because there’s an invisible schedule pushing us to move.
Up next? Now we need to find a car locally, which I’m sure will be yet another story to tell. The fun never stops here.