Travel Tuesdays: Good stories often come from bad decisions

Ian Carroll

“You haven’t left Mexico yet.” She said as we stood in Guatemala. “You have to go back, and leave Mexico.” I could tell from her vacant expression that she didn’t care at all what was about to come out of my mouth. With Christmas four hours away, and her shift dragging on, she clearly didn’t care how I spent my holiday.

Now, I hate authority. I’ve wound up in a number of bad situations over the years because I just didn’t want to jump through some stupid hoop. Border patrols, police, substitute teachers, you name it. I could tell though, that there was only one way past this border troll, and time was ticking.

A foolhardy plan

mexico to guatemala
The view from Earth Lodge on Christmas Eve is incredible.

Why was I trying to cross into Guatemala at 8 pm on one of the most sacred holidays of the year? You see, in Central America, it is traditional to set off unreasonable amounts of fireworks right at midnight on Christmas Eve. And when I say unreasonable, I mean unhealthy, ungodly, and definitely unsafe. The air is always thick with the smell of gunpowder for days, or even weeks after Christmas down here.

So, I had an image in my mind, of arriving at Earth Lodge, high up on the hill, just in time for the show. If you haven’t heard of Earth Lodge, check this out. In my head, I was going to roll in at 11:45, pour a drink at the bar and sit down for a smoke with a view of the whole pyrotechnic showdown. It was a ridiculous notion that I could drive all the way across Mexico on my own with only 48 hours, $300, and no Wifi or phone service.

You see, when you travel, you should always have a backup plan. Whether that means an emergency bank account, a secondary travel plan, or a local contact that can help you if things go south. I had none of those things. Had my car broken down part way or my tire blown, I would have been completely screwed.

road trip flat tire
A flat tire normally wouldn’t have been a big deal. But on this timeframe, it would have meant failure.

However, good stories often come from bad decisions. And coming down here like this was a pretty terrible decision. So, when she told me to go back to Mexico, I could feel victory already slipping away. I was tired, my body hurt all over, and I was starting to think about the very real possibility that I was stranded.

Intuitive leaps of faith

Most of the time, when we travel, we are constantly assessing our surroundings, reevaluating our decisions, and questioning ourselves. After all, it can be pretty hard to stay on track in foreign places. Usually, international travel is wrought with uncertainty and second-guessing.

However, call it intuition, or experience, or just blind faith, but sometimes, I just know what I need to do.

I was in the grocery store in Hidalgo, northern Mexico when realization came over me. I had taken a big fall while rock climbing and hurt my back a couple of days earlier. My headspace was shaken, and my spine wasn’t feeling right. As it stood, I still had two weeks before heading south to Guatemala. However, all the signals my body was sending said it was time to take a break from climbing.

I knew I wouldn’t need produce where I was going.
I knew I wouldn’t need produce where I was going.

My friends Mark and Kirk were loading up their shopping baskets with fresh produce, beans, meat, eggs, and tortillas. All the staples for a week of rock climbing. I left the store with a RedBull and two cookies. Mark noticed but didn’t press the matter. He knew what it meant.

That evening I filled the community food basket with what food I didn’t need. I packed up what little I had, and I said my goodbyes. I had told everyone I wanted to get an early start in the morning, but I knew that wouldn’t be enough. It was time to go, now.

I’ve never been good at quitting while I’m ahead. I’m stubborn. But something in the back of my mind told me to stop climbing, to take a break, and I listened. However, now I was presented with a new challenge. With almost 1,500 miles between me and my destination, it was already the 22nd of December. Even if I left that night, I would still have just over 48 hours to pull what Google was calling a 32-hour trip. That left me 16 hours for all meals, sleeping, gas stops and the border crossing. That’s not to mention if I got lost or something else went wrong such as being turned around at the border…

By the map, I would barely make it.
By the map, I would barely make it.

I did the gas math. Although I was scheduled to be paid after Christmas, my available funds were slim. Real slim. Besides, gas is really expensive in Latin America. It was looking like, at a conservative estimate, the trip would be $300 of gas. Fortunately, that was literally all that I had.

Be careful who you trust to help you

As an American traveler, it is very common to have locals forcefully help you. Usually, they’re just looking for a tip, sometimes they’re just a good person, trying to help out. But every now and then, they are a real snake trying to take you for all you have.

Enrique had been very helpful, he’d told me how much all the border fees were when I pulled up. He clearly made a living by helping travelers cross the border here. And he seemed to have it pretty dialed. He even walked me through town to an ATM so I could withdraw local currency, right down to the bottom of my checking account.

Unfortunately, he had also told me that it costs 400 Quetzales to import a car, or about $60. Little did he know, that that was all the Quetzales I had managed to coax out of the ATM before it started spitting blank receipts back at me. I didn’t have enough gas in my tank to make it if I spent all Q400 here. The lesson: always carry a credit card.

I’d withdrawn everything from my checking account and had no way to access more without internet.
I’d withdrawn everything from my checking account and had no way to access more without internet.

So naturally, I started thinking of how I could lie, pretend I’m a pedestrian, and skip all the car import forms. Crossing into Mexico that would have been easy. My friends drove in without stopping to get their paperwork entirely by accident. Here, it might fly.

It wasn’t going well

That’s when Enrique opened his annoying little mouth and told the border agent all about my car, and the forms I would need.

Stressed, tired, and annoyed that he had foiled my terrible plan to sneak across the border, I told him curtly, but politely, that I didn’t need his help. I speak Spanish fluently, and knew what I was doing. Also, I literally didn’t have any money for a tip. So rather than wasting his time, I suggested he move right along. I didn’t want him coming into the next building with me and screwing up more of my desperate plans. 

I felt bad at first. Enrique seemed nice enough, and he had clearly been annoyed when I told him I wouldn’t be tipping him. After all, he had shown me across town.

I pulled forwards, parked and walked into the next building still feeling bad for the little guy who had just missed his last tip before going home for Christmas. Then I got to the cashier where it was clearly posted that the cost to bring your car over the border was Q160, not the Q400 that Enrique had advertised.

The dirty, conniving snake had been planning on ‘taking care of everything for me’ and pocketing the extra cash. Literally, all I had. I have edited out the expletives that I originally wrote about the man. We’ll just say, I don’t have a high opinion of him. 

Risk vs. reward

I wasn’t done yet. I mean, I could have seen it coming, but crossing a border between two very Catholic countries on Christmas Eve is far from ideal. The main border crossing was closed entirely, and the secondary one where I found myself now was staffed to the barest minimum.

After spending half an hour convincing the next attendant that I did, in fact, have my vehicle title and registration properly in my name, she informed me that the bank was closed. No bank, means no payment. No payment, no entry.

Getting my passport and visa was just the beginning.
Getting my passport and visa was just the beginning.

Like the last lady I had spoken with, she was far from helpful. In the end, I managed to pay a local to pay my fee online for me. He was a true hero. And although I expected him at any minute to pull either a gun or an invitation to go ‘talk’ in the back out of his shady leather jacket, he didn’t. He was actually just a really nice guy that recognized my precarious predicament and his own power to make my day.

I got everything squared away, and she handed me my sticker, visa, and paperwork. But when I told her the route I would be driving, she paled with motherly concern.

The next five minutes were filled with words like, ‘dangerous in the dark, pot holes bigger than your car, I’ve blown five tires on that highway, I would NEVER drive that road at night’. It all boiled down to real bad news. After all, I can still total my car after crossing the border and wind up just as screwed as in any of the countless other scenarios where I wind up sleeping in my car on the side of the highway.

I chose risk

I looked at my clock, three hours left. A dark highway full of holes lay between me and safety, success, and a raging good time. I definitely should have driven slowly. I should have just slept in my car and driven the last bit in the morning. But like I said before, I don’t know when to quit.

Google estimated my arrival at 11:50 pm. That certainly wasn’t enough time to drive up the hill to the hotel and then do the short hike down to the bar before midnight. I’d have to blast down this highway to shave off at least twenty minutes from that arrival time. The road was full of holes the size of my car and deep enough to conduct trench warfare from. Construction started and ended without warning. At one point all the cars around me decided it would be better to cross the median into the oncoming lane rather than wait in line. Naturally, I followed suit. All the while I prayed, drank RedBull, and strained to see the next pothole in the dark.

There are no words I can write to tell you how terrifying it feels when your car slams into a three-foot deep pothole in the middle of the night at 45mph. Even as I swerved to avoid it, I knew I was going right in. I had been warned.


My route from northern Mexico to Antigua.
My route from northern Mexico to Antigua.

It was 11:55 pm when I sat down with a gin and tonic and smoke in my favorite chair. All across the valley, the fireworks were already going off. My smile held more firepower than all of them combined. Against all the odds, and great risk, I had made it, and just in the nick of time. From Mexico’s north-western corner, all the way down to Antigua Guatemala in about 50 hours. I had Q40 left in my pocket, that’s about six bucks.

Was it worth it? Hell yeah, it was. Had I wrecked my car, run out of money, been turned away at the border, or fallen into any of the other literal and figurative holes I had faced along the way, I would probably be singing a very different song. But I’m not.

Over the years I’ve learned to trust my intuition and to follow my heart. That’s how I knew what I needed to do. That’s how I had what it took to take the leap of faith. I believe it’s also what saved me from certain failure, on multiple occasions along the way.

Travel by intuition is a dangerous game. It frequently gets me in over my head in strange water. But you might say, that’s how you learn to swim. Certainly, I’ll never drive that road at that speed in the middle of the night again. But I’m sure I’ll do lots of other stupid things before my time is up. Hopefully, they all work out this well. But I wouldn’t count on it.

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ian-carroll is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival