And so I drove on; in a few days I had crossed Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and was not in Guatemala. The landscape turned from a semi-savanah looking marshland into the thick tropical jungle on the Guatemalan/Mexican border. I must have taken a hundred photos as I drove along. It was a shame to have to keep driving but one thing that you do capture (driving versus flying) is that you get to see the landscape. And the landscape is very diverse in Central America ranging from desert to prairie, savanah, thick jungle and tall mountain peaks.
When I finally made it to the Mexican border I cleared the Guatemalan customs quite easily but the Mexican customs officials were quite skeptical. “A single male in a sports utility vehicle travelling Central America alone?” they asked. I explained that I was on holiday with a friend. “Where is your friend?” I explained that he continued traveling south and that I had to go back to work. I showed them all of my photos and even my military ID and told them I was rushing to get back for Army service.
I don’t think they believed me.
They took apart every piece of luggage I had and brought in a drug dog to search it and the truck. I was frisked twice by seperate agents and the dog gave me a smell also. A few technicians came in with long metal probes, about the thickness of a wire clothes hanger, and pierced the plastic interior of the truck looking for drugs packed in the interior of the car body. They opened the glove box and poked holes through the back of it, poked holes in the door panels, in the ceiling liner, in the wheel well covers, through the seats, anywhere that drugs could be hidden. And when they were done “probing,” the dog came through again and gave a thorough sniffing.
And when they found nothing, they finally let me pass. A word of warning to any tourist who might want to take some drug souveniers home: DON’T!
After they let me pass I was sent to the agricultural check point. Here they asked the standard “are you carying any produce” questions. And then they asked if I had visited any farms (I had). They didn’t seem to be interested in my luggage but asked that I put my shoes on the sidewalk. A man went around the truck and sprayed it with a chlorine solution and my shoes got the same treatment (photo below). It seems that they were concerned about the spread of Hoof and Mouth cattle disease. After everything had a nice “clean bathroom” smell they too let me pass and in no time I was back on the road.
I spent the next two days driving the length of Mexico. I’ve been asked many times about the cost of the tolls and driving expenses in Mexico. Vehicle maintenance and oil changes are about on par with the United States. Gasoline costs about twice as much as in the US and the tolls (2002 prices), it cost me about $275 to pay the tolls from Guatemala to Texas.
Along the drive I ran into numerous Army and Police checkpoints that were (no doubt) looking for drug smuggling. There were quite a few portable X-ray trucks that were likely paid for with American Federal drug funds. These X-ray devices are used to look inside the cargo containers on the big 18 wheel trucks to determine if they are carrying drugs. It seemed that they were stopping trucks at random to get screened. It looks like a good show, but as I’ve seen on television, the big drug cartels have the police paid off and know when to avoid these roadblocks.
Near the Tropic of Cancer I came to another roadblock. A soldier was questioning the man driving the truck ahead of me and I snuck a shot. I have been quite leary of shooting photos of the Police and Army at these (numerous) checkpoints as I don’t want to be thought of as a “lookout” for drug smuggling – the last thing I needed was to be detained and miss training with my Army unit.
This soldier is carrying a Heckler and Koch 7.62 mm G3 rifle, but what is interesting about this rifle is that it is sporting a 40mm grenade launcher on the bottom. The M203 grenade launcher is quite common under the M4/M-16 rifles but I’d never seen one on an H&K before.
As I neared the US border the number of road blocks became more frequent. I saw this large checkpoint about 100 miles south of the Texas border. There were dozens of trucks stopped and many had their cargo pulled and it was laid out all over the highway. Considering how many tons of drugs enter the US each year I wondered if all of these checkpoints were just for show or if they had any impact on drug smuggling operations?
I tried my best to take a stealth shot but one cop spotted my camera and glared at me as I drove by. Surprisingly, when I got to the US border, my vehicle was not searched at all. There were only two memorable events when I crossed the Mexican-American border:
The Mexican customs officer asked me where I had been, what I was doing and where I was going. I remember being asked these same questions weeks earlier when I entered Mexico except that I could not answer previously – my Spanish was sub-par. But this time, I rattled off (in Spanish) where I’d been, what I’d seen, that I was a tourist and that I was going home for military service. I had impressed myself and vowed that if I had time I would come back and study Spanish for some time.
The American customs officer asked what I was doing and when I started telling him my story he cut me off and said, “Did you meet any girls?” I answered that I’d met a Swedish girl, a German, some Canadians and he cut me off again, this time with a smile as he handed my passport back and said, “Sounds good, travel safely.” I guess I didn’t sound nervous and he didn’t take me as a drug smuggler.
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