This article is part of our Border Crossing Report series.
Border name: San Cristóbal
Closest major cities: El Progreso, Guatemala and Santa Ana, El Salvador
Cost for visas: $0.
Cost for vehicle: $0. ($.60 for copies)
Total time: 1 hour 45 minutes
There are 4 border crossings between El Salvador and Guatemala. San Cristóbal is the third when counting East to West. It is the largest of the 4 crossings, and also the route of the Pan-American Highway. The entire crossing took us just under two hours, most of that time was spent waiting for vehicle permit paperwork.
We also somehow managed to miss the customs office when entering El Salvador and had to loop back around to get our permit, which cost us a bit of time. Here’s our story:
We left early in the morning from central Guatemala, near the Biotopo del Quetzal (an hour or so south of Cobán). We arrived at the border around 2pm on a Sunday. Guatemalan border area is two buildings, one on the right of the road and one on the left with a huge covered arch over the road, that connects both buildings. Unlike most crossings, the right and left sides are NOT entry and exit, they are customs and immigration respectively.
When we arrived, it wasn’t clear where the customs area was located. We stopped at the (open) road block gate and asked at the small white and blue booth on the left side of the road. At the booth were two SAT employees (SAT administers the import permits for Guatemala).
The agents took our vehicle permit and instructed us to park at the big lot on the right side, just before the buildings and arch. They double checked the VIN, took off the permit sticker, and walked us to the customs counter (at the building on the right). The customs agent took our paperwork, but said that we needed to cancel our passports before they could cancel the permit.
We walked across the street to migración. The official took our passports and stamped our exit without hassles.
We went back across to the customs window, where the official took the permit paperwork and the drivers passport. After what was a slightly ridiculous amount of time (probably 30 minutes), the official returned with a canceled permit. They made copies of what was needed. All of our originals were returned except the original vehicle permit, we were given a copy.
With the cancelled permit in hand we drove to the El Salvador station, another covered drive through area with a huge building in the center. The right side is for entry, the left is exit. The first set of windows is for customs and the second set is immigration. Unfortunately, we drove right past the customs window, parked in the line and went up to the immigration window. They kindly told us to wait until our car was first in line. Unfortunately there was a bus load of tourists in front so it took another 20 minutes until they were ready to stamp our passports.
While we were waiting, we got the impression that we needed to get a permit first. Kobus asked a guard where we needed to go to get a permit and he replied that we only needed to go to immigration. Lesson learned: don’t as immigration advice from security guards.
At the immigration window, an official took our passports into the office, stamped them, and returned in a few minutes. Easy, we didn’t even need to get out of the car. Kobus asked again if we needed a permit for the car. The official said it wasn’t needed and waved us on to the exit where the guard promptly asked for our vehicle permit. Doh.
Usually I would blame this on bad Spanish, but nothing was unclear about this situation. I blame misinformed employees. So we turned around and parked on the wrong side of the border (the left when you are headed to El Salvador). We walked back around to the customs windows and politely asked for a permit for our vehicle.
We handed the man at the desk our title and the driver’s passport. He took 10 minutes to enter a bunch of stuff in the computer, and then handed us a very long form to fill out. We had to fill out a huge list of information about our car. All in Spanish. This included the usual items: make, model, VIN, year, intended use, etc. But it also included a whole pile of things we had never needed before: number of doors, vehicle weight, engine number, engine size (cc and cylinders), manufacture date, cleanliness of the vehicle, right or left hand drive, documents provided and their numbers. Ugh. It took another another 10 minutes for all of this info to be entered into the computer.
He printed a few things then passed our paperwork to another lady at the window on the far left. She asked us for the Guatemalan permit. We handed her a copy and she asked for us to make another copy for her to keep. Thankfully there was a nearby shop that helped out for a whole $.30.
We returned to the same window and handed the copy of the cancelled Guatemala permit. She spent at least another 10 minutes on her computer and then handed us back all of our originals, and a new El Salvador permit. It did not cost anything.
She told us to make two copies of the El Salvador permit. One we would give to the guard at the exit, and the other we would surrender when we left El Salvador. She also warned us that all police check points would want to see the original permit.
We returned to the copy stand to make another $.30 of copies. Then permit, passports, and copies in hand we returned to our car. Here we politely explained to the guard that we were in fact going to cross the border and needed to drive the wrong way to get back to the exit gate. He couldn’t care less, and so we looped back around to the exit gate.
The guard at the gate took our original permit and the copy and checked to make sure the VIN number matched. He returned the original and wished us a safe journey.
Worst part about this border: Waiting forever for vehicle permits.
Best part about this border: Cost to cross is no more than the cost of photocopies.