Many travelers enter Guatemala  by bus, as part of larger explorations encompassing neighboring countries. If traveling by car or bus, try to make the border crossing as early in the day as possible, as there are few serviceable hotels and restaurants in border towns and they are notorious for their seedy atmosphere. Onward bus service tends to wind down further into the day, so try to get a move on while you can.
When I was 10 years old, my parents moved my family to Guatemala from New Jersey. A year later, we took a trip back north with the mission of driving our Toyota van, left in the care of friends, down to Guatemala. I don’t remember much about the trip, quite honestly; just a lot of highways, countless hours in a van with my family, a diet of fast food, and nights spent in roadside motels. Once we crossed the border into Mexico, I do remember staying at some pleasant hotels where we would relax in swimming pools after a long day of driving.
The trip also served as a good lesson in geopolitics, as the wealth disparities between the United States and Mexico became readily apparent as soon as we crossed the border. Another oddity was the unavailability of unleaded fuel in Mexico in 1986, which caused our van to make a loud clickety-clack noise during our entire run through Mexico. I remember Guatemala felt somewhat more civilized than our northern neighbor simply because we had gas stations other than Pemex and (gasp) unleaded fuel.
Many folks make the overland trip to Guatemala. The country’s location in the northernmost reaches of Central America keeps border crossings to a minimum. Rest assured, unleaded fuel is now available in Mexico. The advent of the Internet has also made it easy to find information for planning your road trip.
Most people cross into Mexico from the United States via Brownsville and then take the route through Mexico along the Pacific Coast. You can also travel via Mexico City or along the Atlantic side, but the Mexican capital’s traffic and the inferior roads on the Atlantic side make the route less desirable. You’ll need a tourist visa ($25) or a transmigrante visa to travel through Mexico, but many experienced road-trippers discourage getting the transmigrante visa, deeming it unnecessary and more difficult to process.
For Mexican vehicle insurance, some travelers have recommended Sanborn’s Insurance (www.sanbornsinsurance.com ). More detailed information for planning the drive to Guatemala is available in the Gringo’s Guide to Driving Through Mexico and Central America (www.drivemeloco.com ).
In Guatemala, you will also find many people make a living from bringing used American cars into the country, known as vehículos rodados, and then selling them locally.
If you’re just driving a car to Guatemala but don’t plan to leave it or sell it there, you’ll need to have the following documents with you to get the car into the country:
Be aware you must leave the country with the vehicle you originally entered with. In terms of fees and paperwork for getting your vehicle into the country, you’ll need to get a tourist permit ($1.50), a vehicle entry form (RP-131) and sticker ($5) and, sometimes, fumigation ($3). The vehicle entry sticker is valid for 30 days (no extensions) and will be marked “SAT,” which stands for Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria. This is the Guatemalan equivalent of an IRS/customs hybrid. After you’ve presented all the necessary paperwork, SAT agents will look through your car and you may be required to wait a few hours while your vehicle awaits processing.
It is at this point where most foreigners have issues with the entry process, since you’ve already presented all the necessary documents and are mentally ready to be on your way. While an opening exists for corrupt government officials to collect bribes in an attempt to expedite your claim, SAT has made serious inroads in recent years to reduce waiting times for customs transactions and has generally done quite well at cracking down on corrupt officials. In June 2008, 24 SAT officials at the El Carmen border were relieved of their duties after undercover Siglo XXI newspaper reporters revealed they were collectively charging about $8,000 a day in illegal processing fees.
Be patient and you’ll soon be on your way. Also be advised that, once in Guatemala, you may run into military checkpoints a few kilometers down the road from the border crossing. If you are flagged down to stop, present all the required documents and be courteous and friendly.
The main border crossings on the Pacific flatlands are Ciudad Hidalgo/Tecún Umán and Talismán/El Carmen, near Tapachula, Mexico .
On the Pan-American Highway, the border crossing is at Ciudad Cuauhtemoc/La Mesilla between Comitán, Mexico , and Huehuetenango, Guatemala . Many travelers recommend this last route as the best entry point into Guatemala from Mexico when traveling in your own vehicle.
All of these border towns have frequent bus service to nearby cities within both countries.
There is direct bus service to Flores  from Chetumal  on Linea Dorada (www.tikalmayanworld.com ) and San Juan Travel (tel. 7926-0041 or 5461-6010). Both services stop in Belize City  en route with a total trip duration of about eight hours.
At the time of publication, a new road was being completed from western Petén into Mexico via El Ceibo; it may soon be possible to travel overland between Petén and Mexico’s Tabasco state.
There is twice-daily bus service from Belize City  to Flores  via Linea Dorada (www.tikalmayanworld.com ). The trip lasts 4–5 hours and costs $15. San Juan Travel (tel. 7926-0041 or 5461-6010) also has a daily bus covering the route.
A less expensive option is to take Novelo’s or Batty’s buses from Belize City to the border and make onward connections to other points in Guatemala on frequent buses and minibuses from Melchor de Mencos.
The main border crossings are at El Florido (between Copán Ruinas, Honduras , and Chiquimula, Guatemala ), Agua Caliente (between Nueva Ocotepeque, Honduras , and Esquipulas, Guatemala ), and Corinto (between 82285 link Omoa, Honduras], and Puerto Barrios, Guatemala ).
There are shuttle minibuses running between Copán , Guatemala City , and Antigua , as well as first-class bus service to Guatemala City from the main Honduran cities. Hedman Alas (www.hedmanalas.com ) has daily service to Guatemala City via the El Florido border from Copán, San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa, and La Ceiba.
El Salvador’s numerous borders with Guatemala are at Las Chinamas/Valle Nuevo (Highway CA-8), La Hachadura/Ciudad Pedro de Alvarado on Pacific Coast Highway (CA-2), San Cristóbal/San Cristóbal on the Pan-American Highway (CA-1), and Anguiatu/Anguiatu (Highway CA-10).
Ticabus (www.ticabus.com ) connects Guatemala City to San Salvador, Managua, San José , and Panama City , taking several days to make the trip and stopping in the listed capitals along the way. A one-way ticket from Guatemala City to San José, Costa Rica, costs about $50.