Those on a budget will be glad to know that, with a little advance planning, you can cross the two of the main borders between Mexico and Guatemala on your own and for a fraction of the price offered on private shuttles. Here's our guide to help you prepare.
leaving xela, guatemala - entering tepachula, mexico
From Xela, you have two options: first is a direct bus to Malacatan, the other is taking two buses and making a necessary change at San Marcos. The indirect buses are far more frequent, and it is worth noting that even if you are told it is direct - it often isn't, so be prepared to change at San Marcos irrespective.
This bus should realistically take no longer than four hours but we have heard stories of journeys lasting up to seven - so leave with plenty of time to spare! Early bird catches the worm and all that.
On arriving into Malacatan, you will be dropped off on the side of a main road with frequent minivan collectivos passing by. Stay on the same side of the road and wait for one with a sign saying 'El Carmen' or 'La Frontera'. The collectivo drivers seem to be pretty good at stopping before being hailed - likely a backpacker standing around looking lost this close to the border is clearly heading to Mexico! This ride takes approximately 30 minutes.
The Guatemalan side of the border is a pretty manic place, with lots of young boys 'offering' to carry your bags and guide you through immigration. Due to the often large numbers that will approach at once, this could be quite intimidating but just keep an eye on your bag, politely repeat 'no, gracias' or 'esta bien' and walk the couple of minutes to the obviously sign-posted immigration office.
Please be aware that there is NO departure tax on leaving Guatemala. But this doesn't mean some immigration officials don't ask. Ours initially requested 20Q each which, although a relatively small amount of money, we knew we didn't have to pay. We calmly repeated that there was no fee, and he proceeded to make a big song and dance of checking our passport and having us fill in unnecessary paperwork and then eventually waved us through, but only after one last-ditch attempt at getting 10Q out of us. If you're Spanish isn't very good, it might be an idea to have a couple of useful phrases prepared for this eventuality.
Compared to the frenetic nature of the Guatemalan side, the couple of minutes it takes to cross into Mexico feels like an entirely different world. Once you've got your stamp and passed through a much more offical looking customs office (very friendly bunch!), walk straight ahead on the main road for about five minutes until you have the opportunity to turn left - this is where you will find collectivos for the thirty minute trip to Tepachula, where you can rest your head for the evening. There are taxis in the same spot if you prefer.
Welcome to Mexico; we think you're going to enjoy it here!
1 - Bus from Xela to Malacatan, possibly changing at San Marcos (4 hours, 25Q per person)
2- Collectivo from Malacatan to 'El Carmen' or 'La Frontera' (30 minutes, 4Q per person)
3 - Cross the border (30 minutes)
4- Collectivo from Talisman to Tepachula (30 minutes, $18MX per person)
Total time: 5-6 hours
Total cost: 29Q + $18MX per person
leaving san cristobal, mexico - entering xela, guatemala
For this one, you have to set the alarm clock early to make the OCC Terminal for either the 7 a.m. or 8.20 a.m. bus. Handily, OCC has a ticket office on Guadalupe, so we recommend purchasing your ticket there the day before. The 8.20 was slightly cheaper than the earlier bus, so we opted for that.
The pain-free journey takes four hours, with the terminus directly opposite the Mexican immigration office. Cross the road to get your passport stamped and pay your Exit Fee of $306MX. For ease and peace of mind, your best bet is to pay this off at a bank the day before you travel, where you'll receive a receipt. Simply present this, along with your passport and original exit documentation, to the immigration official and it should be a smooth transaction. As we have discussed previously, the FMM and necessary payment is a little confusing (and ripe for border-guard exploitation), however this border was satisfyingly more official.
Cross over the street again and jump into a collectivo taxi (they will wait for it to fill up - five people). They leave frequently and should cost no more than $10 pesos per person. There are also a couple of shops here if you want to spend some of the remaining pesos.
You will travel 4km for around 8-10 minutes and get dropped off at the border, at the end of a busy market. Saunter on through, changing money if necessary, and get your passport stamped. Remember, Guatemala is part of the CA4 arrangement (with Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras) and your visa will apply for 90 days to all four of these countries.
On the Guatemalan side, you can take a moto-taxi to the bus station in La Mesilla (should cost no more than 3Q) or, do as we did, and walk a sweaty 1km. For this option, head straight until you reach a fork in the road - it doesn't matter which path you take - and you'll find the bus station about 100m after.
Chicken buses east are very frequent, but if heading to Xela, will often necessitate a change in Huehuetenango. Don't be alarmed if the 'ayuda' on the first bus charges you for the entire trip only to pass you on for the remainder to the connecting bus driver (but just confirm with both of them that you don't have to pay twice!). The cost per person was 50Q and takes approximately four hours - depending on how much of a speed demon your driver is! The road takes you up into the mountains with some lovely scenery.
1 - Bus from San Cristobal to Ciudad Cuauhtemoc (4 hours, $118MX per person)
2 - Mexican exit procedures and FMM payment (15 minutes, $306MX per person)
3 - Collectivo taxi from Ciudad Cuauhtemoc to Guatemalan border (10 minutes, $10MX per person)
4 - Cross the border (10 minutes)
5 - Walk to bus station in La Mesilla (5 minutes, free)
6 - Bus to Xela, may changeat Huehuetenango (4 hours, 50Q per person)
Total time: 8-9 hours
Total cost: $454MX + 50Q per person
If you have to make a choice between which of these routes to take, then the Ciudad Cuauhtemoc - La Mesilla border is a more pleasant experience.