The Visa Run: To Tapachula, Mexico
If you’ve been in Xela a spell, you’ve realized that many ex-pats have been here a really long time. How, pray tell, do they get away with this? To stay beyond your 90-day tourist visa, you need to leave the country and return to get a new 90-day visa. While XelaWho takes no responsibility for the legality of this action, it does recommend that you go and enjoy Mexico should you decide to do so. (Note that if you go to Honduras, Nicaragua or El Salvador you won’t get the visa renewal due to their common trade agreement.)
Two great places to visit just across the border are Tapachula and Puerto Chiapas (careful because it’s also called Puerto Madero!). Tapachula is a hot, bustling city around the size of Xela; Puerto Chiapas is not much different than Champerico – a humble beach town serving mostly local visitors.
You can get to Tapachula by shuttle from several tour companies in Xela (around Q240 one-way) or by public transport (around Q50 one-way). To do the latter, start by taking a 2nd-class bus from the Minerva Terminal or the junction at Las Rosas to Retalhuleu, or Reu, for short. In Reu, transfer to a bus bound for the border at Tecún Umán – Pullmans are recommended though you may have to wait a bit. 2nd-class buses for Tecún also leave from Xela and Reu. Once in Tecún, exit when “Parque” is announced, from where you can get to the border crossing from one of the pesky bicycle shuttle drivers (Q10) or you can walk about 10 minutes down the main street, 2a Avenida. After clearing immigration, walk or ride across the bridge into Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, where you pick up one of several “combi” vans or collective taxis that leave from the city center. Those transport services terminate in downtown Tapachula.
Regarding immigration procedures, note that in Guatemala they often charge a Q10 “departure tax”, i.e. beer money for bureaucrats. It’s up to you to if you want to pay it, but bear this in mind: coming back from Mexico, if you use the same border crossing and haven’t been out of Guatemala for (the legally required, but universally ignored) three days, you may bump into the same border official, who will not have forgotten you, and will ask you to pay an “entry tax”. This will be substantially more than the “departure tax”. The smart thing to do is either chill in Mexico for three days or use different border crossings to exit and enter.
Now back to the fun part. So your combi has dropped you off in the middle of the action in downtown Tapachula. Get yourself oriented and to a hotel by first locating the zócalo, or main square, located along 8va Avenida Norte and between Avenidas 7a Poniente and 1a Poniente.
Ay Dios, you’re thinking…what’s with these funky addresses? Though confounding at first, the city is laid out in a logical grid, with addresses utilizing the four key directions (norte=north, sur=south, oriente=east, poniente=west). With some exceptions, all streets are avenidas, so the word “avenida” is typically left out of the address. The oriente to poniente avenidas (running east to west) are odd-numbered in the northern part of town and even in the southern part; the norte to sur avenidas (running north to south) are even on the poniente side of town and odd on the oriente side of town. Two axes called Avenida Central (which would be 0 Avenida) are the baseline thoroughfares.
The city center has plenty of accommodations in various price ranges. Two hotels stand out for their value. Hotel Plaza Guizar (4a Avenida Norte, No. 27, tel. +52-962-626-2488) is just off the square and offers basic clean rooms, shiny new bathrooms, hot water and wireless Internet. Rates start at MX$200 for rooms with fans and MX$300 with A/C. A bit more luxurious is the nearby Fénix Hotel (4a Avenida Norte, No. 19, tel. +52-962-628-9600), starting at MX$235 for rooms with fans and MX$405 with A/C. The last time I stayed at Fénix, I bargained down the A/C room to MX$325, saying I was looking for a room with fan only.
Once installed in your hotel, it’s time to go out and enjoy Tapachula, which locals call “La perla del Soconusco” or pearl of the Soconusco region. I love the city for its tropical vibe and weather. The streets of the zócalo and city center are bustling with activity late into the balmy nights. The massive zócalo, flanked by the lovely, historic Palacio Municpal and Catedral,is where Tapachula goes to hear music, flirt, stroll and eat ice cream. You can also dine in one of several outdoor restaurants that line the south end of the zócalo. Just off the zócalo, you’ll find tons of shopping options, most notably for you chicas. Hands down Tapachula has more women’s clothes stores per capita than anywhere I’ve visited.
Two other great food options are the cozy Café Toscana for breakfast and lunch, just south of the zócalo at 8a Avenida Norte No. 19., as well as Al Pastor for late-night tacos, located where the two Avenida Centrales meet. Across the street from the taco joint is another great urban square worth strolling through at night – my sources say security is fine, much better than in Guatemala.
If you decide to move on to a stint at the coast at Puerto Chiapas/Puerto Madero, head to 2a [Avenida] Norte and 7a Poniente to catch a combi for the 1-hour trip. While it is possible to get to the coast directly from the border at Ciudad Hidalgo, it is not recommended. Combis take a convoluted route and drop you off at the intersection of a busy highway to transfer routes. The route through Tapachula is cleaner and combis leave more frequently.
To catch a combi from Tapachula back to the border at Ciudad Hidalgo, go to Omnibus de Tapachula, located at 5a Poniente between 12a and 14a Norte. Other companies also go the border at Talismán for El Carmen in Guatemala and beyond.
For your return to Guatemala, note also that Mexico now requires a MX$256 departure tax, which you must pay at a bank before leaving the country. As opposed to Guatemala’s “beer for bureaucrats tax”, this one is real and legal and is explained on signs at the border crossing.
Note that you DO NOT need to pay this departure tax if you remain in Mexico less than 7 days. I have now returned from Mexico several times and have never had to pay it since my trips were less than 7 days.
However, if your trip is 7 days or more, you must pay the tax and must do so at a bank (that is open, of course). If it’s a holiday or the banks are closed, you’re stuck in Mexico until the banks open.