Surviving a Mexico/Guatemala Border Crossing with Children

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Mexico:Guat Border - 01A swarm of men rush toward our vehicle and begin clamoring all over it — stepping onto the side rails, holding onto the roof rack and yelling at us in Spanish.

Greg and I look at each other, eyes wide, wondering what in the heck is happening? Fear fills my heart and I just want to escape… but where, and how?

Over the next hour I kept myself and my children sequestered in the confines of our vehicle, afraid for my life to step out, as my husband navigates the labyrinth of border crossing fees and paperwork.

This was my first real border crossing experience.

It was on our very first road trip from the United States to Costa Rica (2007). We’d spent four weeks driving through Mexico, and although we’d been extremely nervous crossing the Mexico/US border for the first time, really, it had been a piece of cake.

Now we were approaching Guatemala as we were ‘attacked’. Our inexperience and ignorance resulted in a lot of fear. So much so that our new formed opinion of Guatemala was that it was ‘scary’. (It also tainted every other border crossing for the rest of our trip, where I kept me and my kids locked in while Greg handled all the paperwork.)

The border towns were sketchy, the people were aggressive… surely they’re not safe. It took me a few more years of travel before I began to see that border towns were not as scary as I’d made them out to be.

But on this first ‘rodeo’, despite the waning day, we were so spooked we hightailed it to Guatemala City (a 5+ hour drive), even ‘risking’ driving at night, wagering that it would be the only place we could find a safe and decent hotel.

The experience spooked us so much that we only spent two days in Guatemala. TWO DAYS!! We missed out on so much beauty, culture and ‘safe’ places to see.

Fast forward five years later, and I’m at the Mexico/Guatemala border once again (this time from the Guatemalan side). I’ve come with my husband and our five kids to renew our vehicle permit.

(Even though we’ve been in the country for 10 months, and the visa is only good for 90 days, my husband has previously gone alone to renew visas and permits — yes, you can do this. It’s only Q100 per passport, IF you talk to the right people.) We didn’t cross this border before, because we came to Guatemala via Belize (that was a really easy border crossing).

So here we are on the Guatemalan side of this border. Then in the morning we drove to El Carmen, our preferred border for renewals. This time, there’s no fear, no nervousness, no hiding out in a locked vehicle. We park and my husband heads off to take care of business while the kids and I explore and look for breakfast.

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Naturally, I should be more comfortable. I have more knowledge, and more travel experience. I know that the guys who ‘attack’ you are just trying to do their jobs — help you navigate the border maze so they can earn a propina (tip). I’ve learned that just because a border is busy and loud and looks run down doesn’t mean it’s ‘scary’ — it just is. This is the livelihood for countless people.

I’ve learned that there’s not much to really be afraid of, except for your own ignorance and fear.

So now, surviving the border is more a matter of keeping children entertained during the untold amount of time you’ll be there (borders can be a notoriously long and boring process, with many archaic requirements… like that you need to walk across the bridge and make copies of your paperwork before we can continue).

Here’s how we managed this time:

Gratefully, there was a public toilet available. Handling potty breaks can be one of the biggest challenges (of traveling with kids in general). It’s not pretty (or very clean), but it’s a toilet. Hurray! :) (Of course you should ALWAYS, ALWAYSALWAYS carry your own toilet paper.)

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Of course, there’s no running water to wash, so my doTERRA OnGuard homemade hand sanitizer is a MUST! (Studies have shown that OnGuard kills 99% of all bacteria, even MRSA).

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We also happen to find a very nice place to hangout, shaded and with tables! This is not a common occurrence, but it sure is nice when it happens.

So after eating our breakfast…

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We do some people watching (fascinating to see that here they used these motorcycle powered… things… for transportation, where in Panajachel it’s mainly tuc tucs.

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Kyah practices her photography (she took these two photos below)…

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Greg impatiently stops at a fruit stand, and begs a woman to let us use her bathroom (the first two men told us there was no bathroom to be found. We knew otherwise.)

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She reluctantly agrees, and in thanks we buy a bunch of fruit from her.

But it wasn’t a normal bathroom, and so this little girl refuses to use it. Greg drives away in exasperation, and tells her she’ll have to hold it until we arrive at the hot springs (there was nowhere else to stop anyway.)

“You need to learn use a bathroom when you have one to use, no matter how bad it is!” Greg exclaims. (This whole ‘potty thing’ is one of his BIGGEST pet peeves.)

Well, she didn’t make it. By the time we arrive she’s crying and squeezing so hard she can’t even move. When she does, she messes her pants, and as I calmly clean her off in the bathroom at Fuentes Georginas, I casually point out the lesson.

“Next time, you’ll use a bathroom when you have one, even if it’s yucky, right?”

“Yeah mom.”

They learn, even if it’s the hard way…

What are some of your best/worst border crossing experiences?

Rachel Denning
Rachel Denning is an unassuming mother of five who never really did any international traveling until she had four children. After a second honeymoon to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, she and her husband decided to sell most of their belongings and move their family abroad.

Driving from the United States to Panama, they settled in Costa Rica for a year, until the U.S. financial market crash in 2008, when they lost their location independent income. Returning to the United States to look for work, they knew they'd be back 'out' again, having been officially bitten by the travel bug!

Despite adjustments to living a simpler life (or perhaps because of it), they were able to save enough money to move to the Dominican Republic in 2009. After six months they came back to the States once more, where they were offered employment working with a non-profit organization in India.

They spent five months living in Tamil Nadu, then returned to the States once more (to Alaska) so they could have baby number five - Atlas.

From there, they set out in April of 2011 to drive, in a veggie powered truck, from Alaska to Argentina, visiting every continental country in North and South America.

Travel is a part of their life now, and they can't imagine doing anything else. Rachel photographs and writes about their incredible family travel adventures on their website, and they also have resources that encourage others to live a deliberate life.
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