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Dillon family stuck in Guatemala as borders remain closed during pandemic

Shannon, from left, Noah and Gregg Jakoby pose in front of their RV in Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.
Courtesy Jakoby family

A Dillon family of three has been stuck in Guatemala since the new coronavirus pandemic closed borders across the world in mid-March.

Shannon and Gregg Jakoby, their 10-year-old son, Noah, and dog, Quito, began an RV journey into Central America in the fall. The Jakoby family planned the adventure in order to live a more meaningful life that emphasized the value of experiences over material things. As they travel, the family has been writing about their journey in their blog, Living Outside the Zoo.

While Shannon and Gregg always talked about traveling as a family, they began making plans three years ago to drive part of the Pan-American Highway. 

“We saved for two years, sold our cars,” Shannon said. “We both quit our jobs with the idea that, ‘You know what? We can get a job another time.’ But you don’t have all the time in the world to spend this kind of quality time with your family and to have these types of experiences.”

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The Jakobys’ blog follows their life as they travel and come across new people and cultures. The couple hopes they can teach their son important life lessons through their travels. 

“The whole premise of life outside the zoo is that life is crazy, and you are in a cage of doing the same thing over and over again,” Shannon said. “You go to school. You get a job. Then you work 50 years. Then you die.

“We just want to stop life for a while and make sure we are living it for the right reasons,” she said. “We want to show our son it is about experiences and people and relationships and not things and the size of your house.”

The family left their Dillon home in September 2019, weaving their way through Colorado and Utah to California. They then traveled down the length of the Baha and ferried their RV to mainland Mexico during the new year. Their plan was to spend a month in mainland Mexico, one to two months in Guatemala and Belize, and then to zigzag back up through Mexico. 

The family has used their travel as an opportunity to improve in their language skills.

“We spent a month in Oaxaca, Mexico, to take Spanish classes before going to Guatemala,” Shannon said. 

Throughout their travels, the family has been volunteering their time to clean up beaches and help abandoned animals get veterinary care and adopted homes. 

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic changed their plans. 

“We began to have a fuller understanding of what was happening with the virus, and we realized if we want to get to Guatemala, we got to go now,” Shannon said. “(Guatemala) had already shut down their borders for people coming from Europe. So we cut our time short in Mexico and headed for the Guatemala border.”

While the family considered cutting their trip short and returning to the United States, the extent of the pandemic was yet to be revealed.

“It was not built up to the thing it is now,” she said. “Everybody was still open, borders were beginning to close. We can always go back to the United States. Then all the sudden, now we can’t because towns are closed, and they are not allowing people to travel between towns. We are really not welcome back into Mexico.”

The Jakobys are now living in their RV in a campground in Guatemala until they can return through Mexico.

Jakoby pointed out that they are potentially safer in Guatemala than the United States.

“We worry about what we are seeing on the news, with things opening up maybe a little too quickly,” she said. “We don’t want to put ourselves in a bad situation where we are less safe than we are here.”

Shannon emphasized that while she knows everyone is suffering right now, rural communities in Guatemala are being hit hard by the lack of tourism. 

“There are villages so far out it takes people hauling trucks of grain to them so they can feed their families, especially after they have lost such income,” she said. “Their lives depend on tourism, and tourism is a thing of the past right now.”

Despite being a long way from home, the Jakoby family feels secure in its current position for the time being.

“Our camp is safe,” Shannon said. “We can walk into town to buy groceries, we have electricity, we are comfortable, and we do not want to trade that for the unknown or something less ideal like being trapped between two countries.”

At the same time, the Jakobys cannot remain in Guatemala much longer. 

“We have about a month left on our visas, after which we can stay, but we are basically illegal,” Shannon said. “We will be fined at the border, and there are only particular borders we would be allowed to cross.”

While the family hopes they can begin their journey north soon, crossing the border from Guatemala to Mexico is complicated. While Guatemala will allow people to exit the border, some travelers have been stranded in the stretch of land between the Guatemalan and Mexican borders as locals set up roadblocks to prevent travel. 

“There are people and locals in that area who are not letting travelers get to the Mexico border because they do not agree with the borders being open,” Shannon said. “They think that foreigners and tourists are the ones who brought the virus, so they don’t want us there.”

The Jakoby family has reached out to the U.S. embassy in Mexico but has not received help to cross the border. The embassy instructed the Jakobys not to travel for nonessential purposes, but the family is concerned about the looming expiration of their visas.

“Getting home to my home country at some point is going to be an essential purpose,” Shannon said.

Until disputes over border travel are settled, the Jakobys are remaining in place. 

“We have food. We are comfortable,” she said. “The camp hosts are watching out for us. We do not want to trade that for being stuck between two countries on a bridge. We are waiting it out to see when it feels the safest.”


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