With such close proximity to La Frontera, the town of Copán Ruinas and further afield Copán Archaeological Site, have became one of Guatemala's most popular daytrips; especially to anyone searching for Mayan Ruins. Guatemala guidebooks all include special sections for making this border run that's became even easier than outdated information suggests.
The greatest improvement is that all connecting roads on either side of borders are now paved at all three crossings, minimizing listed travel times. Checkpoints at El Florido (outside of Copán Ruinas) and Agua Caliente are also now open 24-hours; the Caribbean coastal crossing at Corinto closes at 6:00pm.
These days, greatest decision involves whether to use public transportation, major bus companies such as Hedman Alas, or numerous private shuttles popping-up.
From Copán Ruinas, the latter two offer direct service to Antigua, with stops in Guatemala City. These are priced considerably more but cut-down on travel time without making frequent stops. The hitch is that nothing leaves until 1:00pm, or later in the day. To those looking for flexibility and adventure at a fraction of the cost, public transportation is certainly the way to go!
Colectivo vans regularly depart from Copán Ruinas a block west off the northwest corner of Parque Central. For 12Lps, it's about 20-minutes to El Florido and the Guatemalan border. The first van leaves at 6:00am. After this, exits run about every hour or when a full-load has been collected.
Tip #1 If leaving on the first van, make sure to have purchased water, snacks, or whatever needed the night before. Nothing is open in Copán Ruinas, and there's no time for buying anything at the border with that first, quick-connection waiting.
Crossing the Border
The van unloads passengers just short of the checkpoint for walking across the border. Just beyond on the right are the shabby immigration offices. They'll request to see passports, but won't stamp them for exit or re-entry at land crossings. There's a 20Lps tax for leaving Honduras, and Lps25 fee to enter Guatemala. Either station will accept Lempiras, Quetzales or US-$.
The border wasn't nearly as harrowing as information described; perhaps because it was still so early in the day. A couple of food stands and a tienda/store were already open, but the connecting colectivo was obviously waiting. There's a small bank branch on the Guatemalan side but also roving money changers. Official exchange rate was Q7.5 on the dollar; I got Q7.4 rapidly in the street.
Tip #2 Especially if planning to return to Honduras, keep the Lempiras. Exchange rate was marginally better if cashing-in US-$.
Venturing into Guatemala
Colectivos regularly head for Chiquimula; the major transportation center for this part of the country. In-transit, this was where the fun began! Unlimited stops were made through the rural region. As last passenger in at the border, I was sitting at the open, side-exit door; a front-row seat for the entertainment as riders hopped on-and-off. With such a full-load, some were left standing in the open door while clinging to the outer-roof!
Photo ops were too genuine to resist; the curious crowd chuckling at my camera monitor while begging for more. Not only did this cause peculiar distractions, I was also obstructing progress -- my 6'4"-largeness preventing more passengers from squeezing into the rear section, and also blocking the entire rumble board jammed between the first row and front seats. Driver insisted it would be more "accommodating" to move me upfront.
After a quick roadside shuffle, I got sandwiched in the middle between driver and passenger as wide as I was tall! They pleasantly addressed me as gringo; I counter-feigned as Boricua, and we were off through the rolling hills and mountains; oblivious to how many were finally crammed into that 15-passenger van.
In the picturesque valley town of Jocotán, passengers going to Chiquimula transfer to another van at no additional charge. Ride from the border to Chiquimula was Q20; the 2-hour endeavor from Copán Ruinas roughly costing $3.30, not including the $2.40 for immigration entry/exit fees.
Tip #3 When traveling by colectivo vans, luggage is tied onto roof racks. While contents may be secure, this method risks serious saturation and/or damage during random downpours, or traveling during the rainy season. Fortunately I was lucky during my entire trip, but never would've considered need for a waterproof bag. You should!
Chiquimula was quite bustling! Transportation hubs are absorbed within blocks of the outdoor markets. Upon arrival, barkers and porters immediately whisk foreign travelers off in a hustle without the hassle. Simply tell them where you're headed. And no, they didn't expect tips for carrying bags. Hospitality only speeds-up the process!
The entire country of Guatemala is accessible from this town, and changing buses again in Río Hondo is no longer necessary as information suggests. Travelers have a couple of long-haul options on battered, charter-type buses -- local, or so-called directo. The latter costs more, and either make innumerable stops in towns along the way. I recommend taking which ever one is departing first.
Tip #4 If coming to Copán Ruinas town and the Copán Archaeological Site from Guatemala, just reverse all these instructions and expect much of the same. The first van headed towards the Honduran border also leaves Chiquimula at 6:00am. With an approximate 8:00am. arrival, this leaves better part of the day for exploring the park and time to head-back if you don't plan on staying. Lonely Planet has numerous hotel and restaurant listings for Chiquimula, and I certainly wouldn't have minded looking around with more time.
-- Departing Chiquimula shortly after 8:00am, I was in Guatemala's Caribbean coastal region well before noon, for only Q40; slightly more than $5.
With a last-minute change of itenerary, I headed back to the interior rather than crossing the coastal border at Corinto which links Puerto Barrios, Guatemala to Omoa, Honduras.
From the Guatemalan town of Esquipulas, famous for its monstrosity of a basilica luring pilgrims in search of miracles, crossing borders was just as effortless. Colectivos, in the form of taxis or vans, regularly leave from 11a Calle; the main street, one-block west of the park and cathedral. The 10-minute ride to the border goes for Q15/$2.
Drop-off is in front of Guatemala immigration, which check passports without stamping them and charged no exit fees; perhaps because I'd only been in the country four days. Outside, another shuttle makes the 2km-run to the Honduran bordertown of Agua Caliente for Q5; it's too far to walk.
Upon arrival, this is where things got a little confusing simply because there's no signs for where anything is. There's quite a bit of development and activity though still nothing intense as guidebooks would have you believe. There's no need to wander off the main-road. Beyond the border crossing, immigration office is on lower-level of the large building to the right. The tax for entering Honduras is $3 or 60Lps.
Money changers are available in the street to cash in Quetzales or Dollars at fair rates. There's also a plethora of foodstands, stores, and even small hotels; likely for truckers that get jammed-up at the border. (The entire 2km stretch between the two immigration offices was lined with semi-trucks waiting for clearance.)
I had just missed the bus leaving for Nueva Ocotepeque; the nearest town of any significance which also serves as a transportation hub. It was a brief wait until enough had filled a taxi for the 30-minute ride into town costing 20Lps. The countryside is stunning as roadway weaves through pine-clad mountains.
-- From Nueva Ocotepeque, buses head north along Carretera 4 to Santa Rosa de Copán; gateway to the Ruta Lenca (90-minutes; 60Lps; sit on the right side for best views.) From Nueva Ocotepeque, it's also a brief 10-minute ride south for crossing into El Salvador at El Poy.
Tip #5 The pair of southwestern Honduras border crossings are not only close together, both must first connect through Chiquimula. If wanting to cross at Agua Caliente, simply request going to Esquipulas. Why? Mention border or la frontera, and barkers will automatically try to ship you off to El Florido towards Copán Ruinas and the Archaeological Site -- because that's where the majority are usually going!