Our family of 5 travels the world full-time in a 4×4 Sprinter Van, which has taken us to over 40 countries and counting. We wanted to start documenting some of our border-crossing experiences to help others do the same. Below will you find the steps to prepare for the crossing, how to exit Mexico, how to enter Guatemala, which crossing we took, and the extra steps needed to cross with your pets.

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala


Before crossing a land border with your vehicle, you need to have your documentation in order: valid passports, valid driver’s license, current vehicle registration, and your vehicle’s title. In addition to these items, you should also have:

  1. Photocopies: we made multiple photocopies of our passports, driver’s licenses, title, and registration.
  2. Quetzals: we exchanged our Mexican pesos in San Cristobal for Guatemalan quetzals. The exchange rate is never in your favor at the exchange shop but we exchanged enough money to pay for the border crossing, the first night’s stay in Guatemala plus a little extra to be on the safe side. If you forget this step, there was a guy with a fanny pack at the border doing money exchange. Not sure what his exchange rate was versus the one in town.
  3. Pet health certificates: If you travel with pets, you must have a current health certificate. We got our certs from a veterinarian in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. We paid 150 pesos per cat and needed to show the vet their rabies paperwork. You are supposed to do this step 5 days before your crossing.
  4. Download maps: When crossing borders, there is a good chance your phone won’t work in the next country. In case this happens, it’s a good idea to download offline maps beforehand.
  5. Download languages: Just like maps, download Spanish on Google Translate or whatever app you use. Having no internet and no way to communicate at the border is an extra layer of stress you don’t need.
  6. Choose a campsite: Having a spot already selected for your first night in a new country will make your travel day go much smoother.
  7. Early start: Border crossings in Central America are notorious for being chaotic so try to get to the border as early as possible. We left San Cristobal de las Casas before the sun came up. The border will be less busy and have cooler temps the earlier you get there and will also give you enough time to cross and get to your first stop while there is daylight. 
  8. Stock up: Before the crossing, make sure you have a decent supply of food and water, propane, fuel, etc that will last you a couple of days. It’s better not to deal with grocery shopping and errands on your first day.
  9. Pick your route: Before you start driving to a random border crossing, do a bit of research on user-contributed overland sites like WikiOverland, iOverlander, and Facebook groups. And if you use iOverlander, turn on the following filters to see what others have dealt with in the past: “Customs & Immigration’, “Checkpoint” and “Warning”.

Since we were in San Cristobal de las Casas, we chose to use the La Mesilla border crossing. We left San Cris pre-sunrise at around 5 am, got to Mexico customs around 9 am, to Guatemala customs around 10 am, and officially into Guatemala around 11:20 am.


Mexico Customs


Before you enter Guatemala, you need to exit from Mexico. The building is about a mile before the actual border so make sure you don’t miss it. When we got there, we first went into immigration to return our tourist visas (FMM) and get our passports stamped out. They double-check that you haven’t overstayed your visa. After that, we went to the adjacent building to cancel our van’s temporary import permit (TIP). That involved getting our vehicle’s VIN inspected and having them take a few photos of the van. We did not pay anything to exit Mexico.

Side note: Our van had a 10-year TIP that did not require any deposit but just in case the van never returned to Mexico again, we didn’t want a TIP linked to our passports, making getting TIP for another vehicle impossible.


Guatemala Customs


In our previous border crossings, there has always been a secured-off “no man’s land” between the two countries. But this crossing was different. Vendors, shops, people, dogs, and vehicles lined the streets throughout.

When we got to the small metal gate separating Mexico and Guatemala, a Mexican official double-checked that we exited out of Mexico properly already before letting us into the Guatemala customs area.

But just before that, there was also a “fixer” while we waited our turn with the Mexican official. The fixer was dressed in dark blue like the Mexican officer and also wanted to see our paperwork. It is a little tricky because if you didn’t realize that the fixer didn’t have an official badge or writing on his clothing, you would think he worked in an official capacity. Some people like to hire a fixer to help through the border process but that was not something we wanted so we politely turned him down a few times before he walked away.

When the metal gate was lifted to allow us into the Guatemala customs area, these are the steps we took:

  1. Agriculture Department: The first thing small building we stopped at was Agriculture.  This is where the outside of our van was fumigated for a small fee of 27q. You will get a receipt for this. It was also where we had to declare that we had pets. The officer gave us a slip of paper for the pet import payment of 110q. We took this payment slip to the little bank building to pay for an import permit. One payment slip and fee covered both cats. Once we paid at the bank, we had to take our receipt back here to Agriculture to start and complete the pet import paperwork. Once we left this area, someone directed us to where to park. Our van is 22 feet long so instead of parking in the spaces in front of offices, they put us across the way with orange cones around us.
  2. Immigration: The second building we went to was immigration. This is where we filled out one form to get our 90-day tourist visas. Once that was complete, all of our passports were stamped into the country. Make sure each passport gets stamped. Friends have had trouble exiting Guatemala without a stamp in the past.
  3. TIP: The third building is where we got our van’s Temporary Import Permit (TIP) issued.  This step also included filling out a form and taking a payment slip of 160q to the bank before the process could be completed. After payment and photocopies were made (the official made copies, and didn’t ask for ours), they came over to inspect the van by first opening our slider. The official saw the kids inside and then said “camper” before closing the door. Then he inspected our VIN number before placing a sticker on our windshield and handing us our permit.
  4. Pet Import: Once all of that was done, we took our 110q payment slip, which we paid at the bank, back to Agriculture to finalize the pet import permit. We filled out a form and gave them our health certificate. The official also asked for additional vaccine information but we said no since just the health certificate is required and it already had our rabies info on it. Everything went smoothly until that point. After some back and forth and about an hour’s wait, we realized that we accidentally paid for two pet permits when they only required one permit for both cats. Some people pay bribes at borders, some people get cash back. We were the latter. Ha. But it all eventually got worked out and we were handed a paper with a QR code for the cats.

Then finally the gate was lifted and we were officially in Guatemala! It’s the 42nd country we’ve driven to and the furthest south in the Americas so far. We found ourselves at an overpriced hotel parking lot to spend the night a few miles later, exhausted and happy. 

Hope that helps some of you with the Guatemala border crossing. Safe Travels!


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