Guatemala in a Pickup

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Phil and I were three miles from the border of Belize and Guatemala, with a vengeful sun beating down on us and the air feeling like a convection oven. We were leaving the town of Succotz fully loaded with our backpacks and planning to walk to the border and (hopefully) grab a local “chicken” bus on the Guatemala side into the town of Flores. This we would use as our base for exploring Flores and surrounding towns as well as a trip up to the legendary Mayan ruins of Tikal further north. There was nothing to do but start walking, but it didn’t take many steps to realize it was going to be a miserable hike in this heat and so laden. A taxi offered us a ride for $5 Belize each which we declined nonetheless. We continued on. Vehicles were coming up on us from behind and I thrust my thumb out in what I hoped was an acceptable gesture for hitchhiking and the third and final truck in the pack pulled over and waved us in. We ran.

We ran towards the truck, of course, not away from it. A young man in a straw hat stepped out from the back and gave us a hearty greeting. I recognized that accent! Alabama. “Are you guys heading for the border?” I asked. “We sure are, want a lift?” he offered, and we excitedly accepted. He jumped in the back of the truck box with us and we drove well over 3 miles to the border while getting to know our host. He and his father (in the cab) were heading to Flores and were happy to give us a lift all the way there, two hours away. That was a great turn of events. Not only was transportation free, but it was right away, it was fast (maybe a bit too fast at some points) and we had a great view of Belize receding from us after we went through the border rigamarole (and paid our $20ish fees to leave the country). Although hard on the butts, the ride to Flores was great. We took our backpacking up a notch.

Arriving in Flores, we checked ourselves into Los Amigos hostel, which costs about $3.75 / night for a dorm bed. While I was waiting for Phil to get ready, I overheard some people who had just had their camera and cash taken at gunpoint by two guys that were driving by on a motorbike. They were fine and the girl had the guts to remove the memory card before handing over the camera, but that’s a scary story to hear in a town you’re about to amble around. I later discovered that they had been swimming with their money and were fanning it out to dry, which probably isn’t the most discreet behaviour but even so... a person has to be careful, and having Phil around still hopefully helps deter these sorts of encounters. We definitely had no problems as we wandered around, but unfortunately we arrived on a Sunday which meant many things were closed and it felt a little dead. We went for a beer in a restaurant overlooking the lake to the west, strolled some more, and came back to our hostel to visit, shower, eat, and have a few more drinks with other backpackers. I quite like the hostel, it’s got a very communal layout that really encourages fraternizing, though it does also segment people into smaller cliques too. We ate dinner here (nice but pricey), Skype’d home, and visited with some others before heading to bed.

The next day, Phil and I took a much needed recoup day. By which I mean we made no plans aside from getting laundry done and going to the bank to finally get some Quetzales, the Guatemalan currency. The bank is about 3km away, near the airport and in the pouring sun it felt much longer. Getting my traveller’s cheques cashed was a bit of an ordeal, standing in the wrong line, and most annoyingly, watching somebody who had clearly never done this before attempt it – for over half an hour. There is no magic to traveller’s cheques. They’re a guarantee from American Express to pay $50 US if you have a properly signed copy and some indication that you’ve seen proper ID. Most people, you sign it and print your name and passport number on the back, perhaps signing it again too. Then they give you the equivalent amount (minus commission hidden in the exchange rate) of local currency. Done. 3 minutes. At this bank, it was, without exaggeration, 45. Why they have to detain you so long while they do who knows what is beyond me. But eventually I was flush with Quetzales and we walked back towards the hostel.

On the way, there was a little shop/restaurant that we’d stopped at to make sure that there was indeed a bank this far out. She was very nice and helpful and it looked local and cheap so we stopped back to have lunch there. This may well have been the best thing we did in Flores. Although there was a shop front from which the woman sold drinks, she did the cooking in her home kitchen, conveniently located next door. The lunch, in my case a beefy cut of pork full of flavour, came with a bowl of soup (excellent!), home fries, and salad and a Dorado beer for 24 Q or $3. In contrast, the meal at our hostel, which was an admittedly delicious though obviously cheaper skewer of veggies with rice cost 36 and beer an additional 15. The rest of that day was spent relaxing at the hostel and having dinner with a pretty cool doctor from California. We had to take the 7 AM bus to Tikal the next morning (60 Q) which is the Angkor Wat of the Mayan world, and so to prepare, Phil and I watched Apocalypto then crashed. I should mention that this movie, though completely ignorant of the timeline of history, and a project of Mel Gibson’s, far exceeded my expectations and further was great preparation for Tikal if only to stimulate our imaginations about the lives that had been led around the temples.

The ruins cost 150 (about $20) to enter unless you are Guatemalan, but you can’t be here and not see Tikal. Yes, it’s part of the “checklist” but it’s also an amazing site and worth every cent even considering that you have to wake early and pay an additional 60 for the hour long ride to get there. Tikal, like Angkor Wat, isn’t one temple or pyramid but a collection of many complexes spread throughout a very large area with large tracts of jungle between them. This is why everybody tries to go early, usually for sunrise: it’s not about getting a great sunrise photo, it’s about the wildlife living all around the area. But it’s pretty much inevitable that you’ll spot something whenever you go though, even if it’s just birds. The first bus back is at 12:30 which would’ve meant more time than we really wanted to spend there going at 5. 7:00 was perfect though 6:00 would’ve been acceptable since we did miss the northern “Q” complex in favour of sitting on top of Temple 5 for a long time. But I digress. I’ve wanted to see Tikal ever since I saw it in A New Hope which is nerdy but true. And it was great. We did see plenty of wildlife, especially some little anteater type creatures with long snouts. The temples were massive and impressive, and it wasn’t hard to imagine a population of 250,000 Mayans spread among these complexes (and presumably far beyond). I feel like I’m giving it short shrift here but I’m not sure what I can add aside from that it was excellent.

We got the bus to drop us off at that same restaurant for lunch on the way back (really good again) then spent the afternoon strolling around Flores. It’s a pretty nice place and they’re putting some serious effort into making it cleaner. We sat and had a mojito on the waterfront where they were putting in cobblestone and burying power lines, for example. Around sunset we watched some locals playing basketball (a serious game with two refs and a scorekeeper) in the park at the top of the town, had a quesadilla and booked a minibus to our next stop, Coban, for 90 Q including a taxi ride to the bus station at 5:30 AM. This was the best deal we could find (and 60 Q cheaper than the hostel was charging) and took some serious negotiating so your mileage may vary. From there, we would take another bus to Semuc Champey, a place that a friend from back home, Megan, had insisted we visit. South, mis amigos, south we go.

Flores and Tikal Photos

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