4 months is a surprisingly short amount of time for a journey like this. We have met quite a few people making a similar trip (or even longer) and there isn’t anybody with less than a year as a timeframe. So we had to make some hard choices, which countries were we going to take our time in and which countries were we going to jump over. Guatemala and Honduras were two that got the jump. Not because they’re not good places to visit (quite the opposite in fact from what little we saw), but simply because we figured they were closer and therefore easier to visit on later trips. We spent two nights in Belize, one in Guatemala and one in Honduras. This is our honorary mention to these fantastic places. Also, we hope to put out information that may help other overlanders passing through this northern route (which is much less common than the Pan-American highway to the South).
Beautiful, but tiny Belize
Natasha covered the whale sharks and most of Belize in her last post. But it’s worth mentioning just how seemingly tiny this place felt. On the drive in from the north we drove across most of the mainland in roughly 4 hours. And that was on topes covered (“bumps” in Belize) roads with no signage or lineage. Overall the roads were paved and decent enough, but the topes are more dangerous in Belize than Mexico. I say that because most have no signs or warning of any sort (except the skid marks leading up to them) and most are mountains of speed bumps. Our poor suspension got quite the beating on our way South.
Also worth mentioning was we found a small Amish community out in the Belizean country. I did a double take when we passed a white guy in suspenders on the ol’ horse and buggy. We pulled over at a nice little Mennonite farm with a bakery and asked one of the locals about it. She said there were Amish communities all over the jungle there dating back 20 years, most sent over on mission work and didn’t want to leave. That made for our random moment of the day.
A night in Guatemala
We had a late start (around 11am from Placencia) and didn’t cross into Guatemala until about 4pm. That meant we were rushing to find a place to spend the night as we had heard to absolutely be off the roads before the sun goes down in Guatemala. The most common stop along our route was near Tikal (one of the best ruins in Central America as we’ve heard). We were checking a few campsites we’d read about online (none of which we liked) when we spotted a monster overlander’s truck parked next to a hotel.
Safety in numbers we figured and pulled in. It turned out to be fantastic. The hotel let us camp on their lake front dock and got to meet Max and Heidi who have been living out of their tank of a vehicle for 7 years! The next day we started early and headed straight South. We wanted to do Tikal and Guatemala properly another time, but we’ve noted the great place to stay.
Natasha drove through most of Guatemala, and frankly she wouldn’t let me drive. She was having too much fun flying through a jungle that felt like it was out of a Jurassic Park movie. The Guatemalan countryside is absolutely stunning. Both of us felt like we were navigating our way through some sort of lost world. The absolute lack of road signs or lines on the pavement added to the mystery factor. Guatemala is somewhere we definitely intend to return to so we can explore it properly. The border crossing into Honduras was a bit funny. We actually blew right through it the first time and had to turn around and return to it. The Guatemalan side was nothing more than an assortment of shacks on the side of the road, with one border guard sitting in a lawn chair watching traffic pass. Luckily our research had warned us that it was like that, but even with the warning we missed it.
Through Honduras in less than 24 hours
After entering Honduras we had to pass through San Pedro Sula (the second most dangerous city in the country), which we got through without any problem. But we definitely had some bad vibes from that place and think it is well worth avoiding if possible. We made it to Lago de Yojoa that night. In case you lost track, that means we drove from northern Guatemala to half way through Honduras in a day, quite a bit quicker than we had guessed. We spent the night at a cool local “resort style” hotel on the lake. It was a cozy little place that had a huge wedding party the night we were there. Good for the night, but nothing to write home about.
The next morning we were on the move again by 7am and heading south for the border. We were actually surprised at how good the roads were in Honduras. Multi-lane highways, road side gas stations and almost no topez to speak of! We decided to take the southern ring road around Tegucigalpa (the capital and most dangerous city in the country). It turned out to be the best way to go as there was little traffic and it drove up the mountain side to give us landscaping views of the city. We were at the El Paraiso Nicaragua border by 2pm and hired a border “helper” for the first time. After an hour and half of paper shuffling and a nefarious attempt from the local police to get a bribe from us we were on our way.
Finally arriving in Nicaragua gave us a huge relief. Our friend, Richard Novoa, was waiting for us and a relaxing few days without any driving was in sight! We met Richard and his family (including his new born child!!!) at their home before heading off to San Juan del Sur together. All in all this challenging part of our trip was a success. We got through quicker than I imagined and after 4 border crossings in 5 days we were beginning to feel like experts. Next on our agenda: sun, surf and sleep in beautiful San Juan.
Border Crossing Info (Mexico -> Belize -> Guatemala -> Honduras -> Nicaragua)
This is to provide some info from our experience for anyone attempting the journey themselves. We found a lot of very accurate info online on other blogs with pictures, graphs and diagrams. So rather than regurgitating everything I’ll give you their links with a tad bit more info.
Mexico -> Belize
As mentioned above, when exiting Mexico stay to the right on the highway and don’t enter the little border town. There’s no customs office in the town and you’ll have to re-enter Mexico to get the deposit back from your permit. On the Belize side, there is nothing marking the fumigation area (which is near the roundabout that approaches the border). Look for the lamp post with the solar panel, there should be a small office with a guy wearing a gas mask. That’s it. The other surprise was a $15 fee from the “BMA” (Border Management Agency). This was a young guy wearing a green shirt and we were sure it was a scam. We refused, but the customs office wouldn’t let us through without paying. She was nice saying it was a “different department” and wasn’t sure of their rules. After much arguing the guy in the green shirt took me in to see his “supervisor” who was an extremely large Belizean who said the same thing $15 for all vehicles entering the country. So we paid and carried on. Be warned, I’m still not sure if this is legit or just an organized scam.
Belize -> Guatemala
A quick note. As of the time of writing this there is only one official border crossing between Belize and Guatemala, at the town of Melchor de Mencos. However, after some research online and talking to locals in Placencia I found out they are building another one in the south that will cross at the small town of Jalacte. Link here. I found someone in Placencia who said they’ve used it and it is mostly paved/good dirt road to the border, but there is no immigration/customs office there yet so it’s not good for overlanders. However, keep your eye on this one as I’m guessing it’ll be open soon.
Life Remotely’s description of this border was spot on. It took about an hour and a half and we were there at around 2pm so it was relatively busy. No issues or surprises here and nobody tried to rip us off.
Guatemala -> Honduras (Northern most border, near Puerto Barrios)
This is the border you can miss completely. It is the northern border between Guatemala and Honduras just a few miles away from the Caribbean coast. Most overlanders take other borders and we were the only foreigners here, but it was still an easy enough experience. Be sure to have a look at all Capital Southbound’s pictures of the Guatemala side as these small shacks are easy to drive right by and nobody will stop you. The customs shack on the Guatemala side is actually a few miles before the immigration shack. On the Honduras side there’s a bit of a pain when it comes to getting things photocopied, but again about an hour and a half for the whole process.
Honduras -> Nicaragua (near El Paraiso)
Again this is a much less common border, but it is the fastest way to Managua from Tegucigalpa. On another note, we found a great barbeque place in Danli just before the border. This was the first time we hired a border “helper” as recommend by Vangabonds and actually I think we will be doing this from now on. Just be sure to make it very clear what you will pay for their help. We had a very pleasant Honduran help us through for $5 and he probably cut 30min off the process. Worth it. No surprises on this border except a cop on the Nicaragua side who stopped us to inspect our documentation on the Nicaragua side. Everything kosher until we realized he was working us for a bribe. Again we played dumb and said we had all the time in the world. Want to inspect the car? No problem. He gave up and sent us on our way.
Any other questions about this traverse, just e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll answer as best we can.