Planning a trip from San Cristobal de Las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico to Panajachel in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala? We JUST did this same route by shuttle bus, so I wanted to share our experience as well as a few helpful tips to make the process a bit smoother for those embarking on the same journey.
Crossing the Mexico-Guatemala border by land, especially right now during the pandemic, involves a few steps. But don’t worry – it’s not that hard or as scary as some people lead you to believe. Overall, our journey went well and we always felt safe.
That said, here is exactly everything we had to do to prepare to cross the Mexico-Guatemala border by land (and with our adventure cat, no less!)
In this guide, I’ll also be sharing with you our best tips for the long, 12-hour journey from San Cristobal to Panajachel.
Crossing the Mexico-Guatemala Border From San Cristóbal, Chiapas to Panajachel, Lake Atitlan
If you are like us, your destination in Guatemala will be one of the lakeside Mayan towns around Lake Atitlan – either the backpacking mecca of San Pedro La Laguna or the meditation mecca of San Marcos La Laguna.
In either case, go ahead and book a hotel for the night in Panajachel because the trip from San Cristobal to Guatemala will take all day and you will arrive too late at night to take the ferry across the lake.
That said, the easiest way to go from San Cristobal to Panajachel is with a tour agency that offers shuttle service from start to finish. You will find several agencies on the Andador Guadelupe in San Cristobal de Las Casas.
I do not recommend crossing the Mexico-Guatemala border on your own, not because I don’t think it’s safe – it is – but because it adds SO much more headache to your day as you have to organize your own transport from San Cris to the border and then hop on a public chicken bus and smaller colectivos from there to Panajachel.
For the sake of simplicity, I’d highly recommend reserving your journey with a tour agency that takes you from San Cristobal to your final destination in Guatemala.
How to Book the Trip with a Tour Agency
We booked our journey with Viajes y Hoteles in San Cristobal. Tierra Maya, Nucu Adventure Travel, and others, also offer shuttle service to Guatemala. Jalepeño Tours is currently not running its border crossing service due to the pandemic, understandably.
Also, note that the departure times and destinations in Guatemala will vary per agency.
The three most popular shuttle routes that go direct from San Cristobal are:
- Panajachel (Lake Atitlan)
Pre-COVID, there were more available routes (to Guatemala City, Antigua, Chichicastenango, etc), but now the destinations and departure times are more limited.
Right now, the agency we booked with – Viajes y Hoteles – departs from San Cristobal to Panajachel every Tuesday and Friday at 8 AM (unless you have an unfortunate early wake-up call as we did).
All you need to do to reserve your trip is walk in and ask, or you can contact them via their WhatsApp # (+52 967 135 8529).
The shuttle service from San Cristobal to Panajachel costs $1100 MXN pesos per person. That’s about $50 USD per person. If you are traveling with a pet, the price is the same. You pay for an extra seat (even if you don’t get one as we discovered…).
What You Need to Cross the Mexico-Guatemala Border By Land
Once you reserve your spot in the tourist shuttle, there are a few more things to take care of while you’re still in San Cris.
Currently, you need just two things to cross the Mexico-Guatemala border:
- Negative rapid antigen test administered within 72 hours prior to departure
- Your Visitor’s Permit (FMM) which you filled out upon entering Mexico
Note: Make sure this little slip of paper is not ripped or damaged – the immigration officer at the La Mesilla border crossing made Paul pay $500 pesos because it was slightly ripped on the corner! If yours is ripped at all, try to tape it back together as best you can before you get there.
Additionally, if you are traveling with a cat or dog, you will need a signed Veterinary Health Certificate to show at the border but again, they didn’t even ask to see our cat’s papers which was a little ridiculous (more on this below).
Do you need to pay an exit tourism fee?
There were many blogs that we read in preparation for our trip that mentioned having to pay an ‘exit tourism fee’ at immigration.
That was not the case for us. We didn’t even get asked about it!
But just to prepare anyway, we went ahead and printed our flight receipts from American Airlines which shows that we already paid the tourism tax upon entering.
You can find this on your flight receipt under “Your Receipts” on AA.com. We downloaded these and printed them at a local shop in San Cris for just 2 pesos. A pretty cheap way to (potentially) save having to pay $25 USD or approx. $500 MXN at the border if asked about it.
Getting an Antigen COVID-19 Test in San Cristobal for Entering Guatemala By Land
To cross the Mexico Guatemala border, you need to show proof of a negative COVID test taken no more than 72 hours before departure.
The test you can take is a rapid antigen test – aka a nose swab. You will get your results within 15 minutes. On the spot!
So, where can you get it?
Go to the Ahorra pharmacy (Farmacia) at 9 AM sharp on the corner of the pedestrian street of Real de Guadalupe that faces the main square or Zócalo. It is just opposite the yellow San Nicolas Temple on Av. General Utrilla 2.
First, you will go inside the pharmacy and ask for a COVID test. If you are a couple, note that you will be asked to pay for them one at a time (so we ran our card twice).
Then, you will wait in line just outside the building. On the street, there is a small door and a set of metal stairs that lead up to the doctor’s office.
Present the slip of paper you received from paying at the pharmacy.
The doctor will then give you an appointment later in the day to come back for your test. (Yep, you have to come back).
It’s important to go early to pay for your test to get your appointment because they are scheduled every 15 minutes per person. The fewer people in front of you, the earlier you can take your test.
When it’s time for your appointment, get there about 10 minutes early. The antigen test is a nose swab. Expect tickling and a few seconds of discomfort. The test doesn’t hurt but it does sting a little!
Like a pregnancy test, your results will show up via lines. One line for negative, two for positive. It takes approx. 10-15 minutes to get your results.
The doctor will hand you a signed paper, which you must keep safe and present at the border crossing inside the COVID checkpoint.
What to Expect & How to Prepare for the 12-Hour Journey
I won’t sugarcoat it! The journey from San Cristobal to Panajachel is long.
Overall, you are traveling for about 12 hours. About 9 hours of that is just the time you sit in the shuttle van.
The other 2-3 hours includes time to cross the Mexico-Guatemala border (depending on waiting times/queues) and breaks.
We were picked up at around 6:30 AM due to a roadblock on the highway, instead of the scheduled 8 AM pick-up time. The shuttle will come by your hotel/Airbnb and depending on if you’re first or last to be picked up, you may not have much choice for seating.
Our van was packed full – about 16-8 people in a 20-seater van.
You have to wear your mask for the duration of the trip, but unfortunately, some people didn’t abide by this rule. Double mask if you can!
In Comítan, you will have your first break. Normally breaks are around 25 minutes, but I think because we were ahead of schedule, ours lasted 45 minutes. Giving us plenty of time to use the restroom (bring $5 pesos coins) and stock up on snacks – though we had already done this prior to our trip.
From there, it’s about another 1.5 hours to reach the border.
What Happens at the Border Crossing & Immigration
Nearing the border at La Mesilla, you will pass by the Ciudad Cuauhtemoc. Here, you will hop out of the van to return your Visitor’s Permit (FMM) to immigration. This is so that you can get “stamped out” of Mexico.
Once that’s done, it’s another 10 minutes to reach La Mesilla border crossing. Everyone will get out, collect their bags, and then you must walk with your bags through the bustling border town to reach the Guatemalan border.
You will cross over the border by foot and line up to present your negative COVID results in the tent checkpoint just below the big blue “Bienvenidos a Guatemala / Welcome to Guatemala” sign.
After that, you will file through immigration, hand over your test results and the slip of paper you received from the tent, along with your passport.
After getting your Guatemala stamp, you will board another shuttle van that will transport you to your final destination. As such, our big group got split up into separate vans going to different destinations. About half went to Pana and the other half to Antigua.
We found that the Guatmelana shuttles – and drivers – were much more clean and strict about wearing masks and social distancing than the ones in Mexico.
From the border crossing, it takes about 5.5 more hours to reach Panajachel, including one more 25-minute break.
We arrived around 8 PM and our van dropped us off right in front of our hotel for the night – Hospedaje El Viajero (highly recommended for a no-fuss, easy stay).
That night we ate at an Italian restaurant to pay by card, then in the morning changed over our remaining pesos to quetzals (the exchange rate we got was 0.25 quetzals per peso – not great), and grabbed our first cup of Guatemalan coffee at Crossroads Cafe.
Overall, I’d say the trip went fairly smoothly. Except for some disrespectful fellow travelers and having to pay this stupid $500 MXN fee for a ripped FMM, we were pretty happy with the experience!
Crossing Mexico-Guatemala Border with a Cat
Now, if you are like us then you may be searching online for information about crossing the Mexico-Guatemala border with a cat!
We couldn’t find anything about it, so I wrote to several embassies who all sent back this attachment, stating that, essentially, the animal needs to be free of rabies, is vaccinated with x, y, z, and has a Veterinary Health Certificated, sign and dated no more than 7 days of the trip.
These are the same steps we take when traveling with our cat by plane.
The only difference this time is that:
- The vet in San Cristobal actually didn’t give Yoda a physical exam (like they’re supposed to) and still signed and dated that he was healthy. The exam, with the certificate, only costs $200 MXN pesos.
- The Guatemalan or Mexican immigration didn’t ask or even care that we were traveling overland with our cat. And yet, he was right in front of their eyeballs as I was wearing his backpack in front of me!
If you are traveling with a dog, you likely won’t pass “incognito” as we were able to (although not on purpose!).
In any case, I hope this information helps anyone seeking how to cross the Mexico Guatemalan border with a cat or pet!
Last Tips for Traveling From San Cristobal to Lake Atitlan
To wrap this up, here are a few final tips about traveling from San Cristobal in Chiapas, Mexico to Panajachel in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.
Your luggage allowance in the shuttle isn’t exactly limited, but try to reduce as much as possible. We had 4 backpacks (2 big, 2 small), a guitar, a miscellaneous bag, and Yoda inside his cat backpack.
Carry your electronics and valuables (i.e. documents, money, passports) in a small bag inside the shuttle. All the rest gets buried under everyone’s bags in the back.
You don’t need to stock up on snacks and drinks before the trip as you will have breaks at gas stations (once en route before the border and once after).
Although, note that if you don’t have quetzals on you, you won’t be able to buy anything at the gas stations after the border.
Bring small change as well, like $5 peso coins, to use the restroom on the Mexican side as the OXXO there doesn’t have a public free bathroom.
What to Wear
San Cristobal is fairly chilly, especially in the morning. However, once you head south to the border, the air will become much warmer and humid. Try to wear layers that are easily removable but ditch the heavy jackets and bulky clothes so you don’t have to carry them over your arms. Check out my packing guide to Mexico and download my free checklist!
Backpacks VS. Suitcases
Though most travelers crossing the Mexico Guatemalan border are backpackers in the traditional sense, there are those who take suitcases. Note that the staff will not offer to help you with your bags, so travel as light as possible because you will have to lug everything up the hill on foot across the border, including up the hill!
Book a Hotel in Panajachel
To avoid any travel mishaps and upsets, don’t even try to take the ferry at night after you arrive in Pana. Just go ahead and take a night or two in a hotel to rest before crossing over to San Pedro or San Marcos.
Taking the Boat Across Lake Atitlan
You can take either a public or private boat across Lake Atitlan to any of the lakeside villages.
The public boat from Panajachel costs Q25 and will take 30 minutes to reach San Pedro, stopping along the way (in order) at Santa Cruz, Jaibalito, Tzununa, and San Marcos before finally getting to San Pedro.
Our kitty Yoda is happy to travel on planes, bikes, in cars, and vans, but he said the boat ride across the lake is too much! It is loud, extremely bumpy, and windy. Let’s just say we were happy to finally arrive in San Pedro, lol.
Now that you have arrived in your lakeside town in Lake Atitlan, enjoy and maybe see you around!
I hope this guide to crossing the border from San Cristobal to Panajachel helped plan your trip from Mexico to Guatemala. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out by email or drop your thoughts in the comments below!
Before you go, also check out:
- 15 Adventurous Things to Do in Chiapas, Mexico
- The Most Epic Chiapas, Mexico Road Trip Itinerary
- The Ultimate Digital Nomad Guide to Mexico
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