Palenque to Tikal, Crossing at El Ceibo

You know when you’re at a big party with loads of people, there’s a cheap bar and a pretty full-on sound system stacking it up over a busy dance floor… But the music just ain’t right – a good DJ, sure, but he keeps mixing in dubstep/goa trance/death metal/jazz (delete as appropriate). Thing is you know there’s another floor somewhere around; you heard that the bar there is not so good but that’s because the sound is perfect and everyone is moving too it. You heard, too, that no one who isn’t there will know where it is, it’s tricky to find, you might have to go out of the building to get back in and there’s another door-crew to get passed. But maybe that’s a myth, to keep the riff-raff out?

Well, Palenque and Tikal are a bit like that. You get to Palenque and the place, well, it’s definitely impressive but there’s something about it. Maybe the crowds of people, the buses, the vendredores, the welcoming door safely admitting anyone who’s paid their $4 onto the neatly trimmed lawns of the ruined city complex. It was a pretty easy glide down from San Cristobal de las Casas – there are the same faces you’ve spotted last week at a bar there and you feel you’re moving with the people on a path preordained.

So close to the end of our Mexican visa and our thoughts are always on whether to check out Tikal just over the Guatemala border. The problem is that it’s a 400 km drive in the right direction, south across the border, but then a 500km drive back north. Is Tikal gonna be worth it, we thought, when we’re so under-whelmed by Palenque? Sure, we heard that Tikal is the superior experience, its true jungle setting, a genuine lost city, hidden on another world. We also heard it was about $20 to get in.

So, you’re wandering around the first party, beer in hand, get talking to this older Canadian guy who seems to know the place well. He mentions that there is a short-cut to the secret dance-floor. It could be a secret short-cut, he says, don’t hear much mention of it. But it’s there. You get to Tikal in just a few hours and the crossing is called El Ceibo.

We checked the guidebooks but the Lonely People doesn’t mention it. Our map from 2010 doesn’t show it and there’s nothing on Google Earth. But there are some reports of it, even a few inconclusive photos, but they are Biker reports – wasn’t there a river crossing to be done at some point between Mexico and Guatemala? It seemed you could just drive through but why wasn’t on any maps?


Hence this post. This is the short cut between Palenque and Tikal; the border crossing from Mexico to Guatemala known as El Ceibo – the Mayan Tree of Life that links the 13 layers of heaven  (its roots are in hell).

El Ceibo border crossing map

From Palenque it’s half a day to get to El Ceibo, first going north towards Villa Hermosa then turning east and back down via Tenosique. There is a short cut turning to the right for a sign to La Libertad just north of Palenque – they are improving the highway further north though and should be the faster route. Tenosique is the last big town in Mexico. The last Pemex, just before and after town. Police Checkpoints everywhere. Nice enough town. Stock up on everything. The Guatemalan side of the border is 40% approx. more for diesel and up to 100% more for everything else with the exceptions of cigarettes, beef and single-scoop ice creams. Also get some photocopies of your passport, driving license and vehicle registration which you’ll need for the Guatemalans.

At the border you drive straight to park somewhere outside the first building. You go the next building to get your vehicle permit canceled. At the last small office on the left near the inbound-fumigation-unit you get your exit stamps – remember the visa slip and also the receipt for paying for it, that you got when you entered Mexico. Walk back to your vehicle and drive on through.

After 20m in Guatemala you pull up next to the truck – that is where you sort out the vehicle. First go the office behind to get your passports stamped in. Ask the guy to stamp the photocopy of your passport which the vehicle import office in the truck requires. The import cost Q60 which you pay at the green trailer next door. They accept Pesos but gave a slightly low rate for them. Next up is the fumigation which cost Q48. Check your change. No more stops or checks, nowhere really to examine or search the vehicle, nothing much, for the few hours drive to Flores.

There is a real change coming over the border. The first towns had a lovely chaos to them and reminded me of the Baluchi chaos arriving from Iranian orderliness. The first fuel station I identified was just before La Libertad which is 150 odd klicks from Tenosique. But there must be fuel available at some of the towns before. Thing is, there’s a real lack of traffic, this direct link between two of the biggest Mayan cities. This border has been around for years, so I don’t know why it’s not well known. Of course, as soon as you start partying afresh on the secret, cool dance floor, you’re kind of glad it isn’t.

Customs and vehicle registration building is on the left, passport control further along.


Vehicle check in at the white truck on the right, passport control is just behind it.

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