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Guatemala: First Impressions

First, the border crossing:

Clearing out of Belize was pretty simple. We cancelled the vehicle permit, cleared customs, got our passports stamped and bought some Quetzals at an only somewhat ripped off price. Then we passed into no man's land between the two countries. We were required to drive through some sort of fumigation station (it looked like a drive thru car wash but it sprayed noxious poison up underneath & all around poor LoJo). Next we parked the rig behind a bunch of truckers, took all our paperwork & copies and headed to the customs desk. We filled out some forms, got our passports stamped, and moved into the next line for our vehicle permit. It was all looking really good until the system went down. Not for the locals - only the system for tourist vehicles. And it stayed down for three hours. We were SO close. I was all gung ho to get photos of our entry into Guatemala and then completely lost interest after my second hour sitting on the ground waiting for some mysterious Guatemalan computer to give us our freedom. So. No border crossing photos.

Since we have already been to Tikal, we decided to make some serious progress south. After a stop in Santa Elena to get a phone, we headed to Flores for dinner. Flores is a small island in the middle of Lake Peten, just south of Tikal. It has cobble stone streets with cute restaurants and little waterside hotels. We sat down to a simple meal of BBQ chicken, broccoli and french fries. It was hot and steamy on the lake, but the food was good and the beer was cold.

Our view from the restaurant in Flores.

Our camp spot for the night was at a nature park called Ixpanpajul and it was only 15 km down the road. A guard with a big gun let us in to the park, and it was a peaceful oasis after a hectic day. We fell asleep to howler monkeys, and woke to horses and sheep roaming the property around our rig.

Our camp spot in Ixpanpajul Nature Park, just outside of Flores.

We got on the road early the next morning, and then really started to experience driving in Guatemala.

A few of our first impressions:

Good roads are scarce: There are two main roads from the north of the country to the south. One on the West and one on the East. Each are not totally paved and each have extremely large pot holes. We chose the western route. In the middle of this drive in the town of Sayaxche, is a river with no bridge so we did our second river crossing of the trip. Last week there was a strike because some mining company had dumped chemicals into the river and killed all the fish, so the locals blocked access. We checked in Flores, and yes the ferry was running again (whew!). Three hours into our six hour drive we got to the ferry. And by ferry I really mean barge, overloaded to the gills and powered with one (one!!) 70 hp outboard motor. A motor you might find on a small fishing boat. In line in front of us were three truck loads full of live steer. We waited and waited as the barge slowly went back and forth across the river. The wait was long enough for me to watch a chicken on the side of the road eat an entire tarantula. No joke. I mentioned this to John, but by now he has dodged so many animals on the road, I barely got a look.

Waiting in line behind 3 truck loads full of steer.

This is the "ferry" we had to use, on its way back across the river. This one had a chicken bus full of kids, 6 cars & a truck full of steer.

When it was finally our turn, there was an extra long semi truck next to us that I was absolutely sure did not fit on this barge. I sure as hell didn't want to get on the barge with it. When we were finally waved on, John had to parallel park LoJo next to the edge with 6 other cars...and the semi came on right in between us. At that moment, the skies opened up and it started pouring down rain. Perfect. I held my breath as we pushed off the shore, trying not to think of what would happen if that motor failed, but we were across in no time.

Watching the unload...and hoping we get to go without the semi truck.

Our turn to load In the pouring rain. Semi went right in the middle.

Quick clip from the ferry ride. One motor, one semi, lots of rain.

(Full disclosure here...After 5 straight days of driving, John and I were a little testy with one another. Actually, we hadn't spoken a word to each other in the first 3 hours of the drive. I won't mention why we were fighting. It was ridiculous. However, crossing a river in the pouring rain on an overloaded barge in the middle of Guatemala with one lone motor will cure all communication problems a couple might have. Trust me...we started talking again).

Other impressions:

The Guns: We saw a lot of guns in the back of pick ups and in military vehicles on the road in Mexico, but there seem to be a lot more of them here. We've seen a few body guards in this country already. Some riding in the back of pick up trucks with their weapons drawn. Armed guards in front of stores, banks, restaurants, our campgrounds...everywhere.

The stares: The way people stare at us here is different. We are big, we are American, and we get stares everywhere we drive. But the stares here feel a little different. In Mexico it felt the stares were more out of curiosity, in Belize friendly, here it often feels uncomfortable and occasionally...a little menacing. Little kids yelled "Gringo" at us as we drove by, and there aren't as many waves to our "Hola's".

The heavy load of locals: All along our drive, on the side of the rural roads are locals carrying all manner of extremely heavy loads. We see fewer donkeys and horses here doing this work. The women carry their loads on their heads with not just amazing balance, but serious neck strength. Young girls with heavy loads of firewood, women with huge baskets or pots full, and often with a baby. The men carry huge loads on their backs secured with forehead strap called a mecapal. Always in traditional dress, their stature is small but they are strong and stoic as we drive past.

Those are THREE dozen eggs.

The chicken bus drivers are insane: A fact of Guatemalan travel life is the chicken bus. They are former U.S. school buses that are shipped down here after they are 10 years old or have over 150,000 miles on them. Presumably not safe anymore for kids in the US, they transport everyone here all over the place after being beefed up and spruced up. They pack people in (and on top) and load up the roof racks. They scream down the steep highways and blast their way through traffic. We have had them come up behind us, ride our ass, and honk for us to get the hell out of the way. It's like being on the autobahn in Europe only instead of a Mercedes sedan we move over for a gleaming chrome polished, neon lighted, fancy painted school bus missile.

The menacing beast closing in on us....

How they manage the STEEP downhills, I have no clue. We were in 4 low.

With constant rain all day long, we decided against stopping for any side trips around the mountains outside of Coban. We overnighted at a place called the EcoCenter Holanda on a little patch of grass above a quiet lake. We holed up in the rain with peanut butter & jelly sandwiches and TV on the laptop. We needed rest. Tomorrow would be our 6th day straight in the truck and driving here is no joke. Tomorrow we plan to hit Antigua...and stay put for a few days.

Other things I have said to John on this drive that didn't come up at home: "Watch out for those pigs!"

And... "Watch out for the baby pig!"

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