Another early morning, we were once again picked up at 6am in the dark streets of Palenque by a 12-person van with tinted windows. We needed to get to Guatemala, one of the purportedly most unsafe places in Central America. To add to to inconveniences is the fact that we don’t understand ANY Spanish at all, so traveling is going to get much, much more interesting in the next while.
We booked our bus to Flores, Guatemala right after we got back into town from our day tour. It was 8pm, and our shuttle driver dropped us off at the central street at what could totally pass for an illegal gambling shack. We walked in, and within 1min we paid and were told to wait outside our hotel at 6am. Not much of a guarantee or ‘professional’ customer service, but it was with the same tour company as yesterday so we had more confidence than was given.
At 6:10am, a black van with tinted windows stopped outside our hostel and picked us up, then shuttled us off to a gas station next to the highway for a transfer of buses. Confused, but okay, we went with the flow. Arriving at the same national park as yesterday, we were told to deal with the Mexican customs first. Walking 50m to a poor looking building, we walked up to the booth and wanted to get our out of country stamp. Well, apparently, the computer was down and they can’t handle any of the paperwork. We handed over 600 pesos, the lady working there said she will key in all the information later! OKAY! but since they didn’t have change the Mexican government now owes us 11pesos, or about $0.9! There was a line-up 20people deep behind us, and we didn’t want to bother with the formalities over such an amount, so we went back to our van.
In this area, the border between Mexico and Guatemala is separated by a rather wide river surrounded by forests, and our mode of transport was a wooden speedboat. This whole scene was not unlike any scenes from Discovery Channel about drug smuggling up and down rivers in the Americas, and it got a bit creepy. Luckily, on the same boat as us were the European Union of tourists, a Spaniard, an Italian and a Dutch person, all who could speak fluent English!! We waited for about 2hrs on the boat, chatting and enjoying the river scenery. The best part about traveling is definitely the people you meet and the stories you hear of other people along the way!! Well, we finally got enough people to fill the boats with a troupe of Mexican archaeologists traveling to Guatemala too.
The “border” was more of a muddy beach where the boats can dock. The moment we got onto Guatemalan soil, the whole ‘feel’ of the place suddenly shifted. There were 4 people standing around waiting for us, asking if we wanted to change for the Guatemalan currency, Quetzales. The whole village looked pretty run down and dirty. FYI, the Yaxchitlan area we left was a resort, so the difference was day and night.
So we got there at 12:30pm, and we were told that the bus we were supposed to take had ALREADY LEFT at noon, and the next one is at 4pm!! W T F!?!? Didn’t we book through a travel agency to make sure we didn’t have this problem in the first place? After some furious complaining by the other people from the boat, it finally paid off. In the end, one of the locals grabbed some cash from our boat man, drove his moped out to the main road and flagged a local “chicken bus” for us. It is so named because, surprisingly, there were actually people carrying chickens into the bus. If you read the US State Department or the Canadian Travel Advisory, they STRONGLY DISCOURAGE any foreigners riding on the chicken buses, as robberies and kidnappings occur FREQUENTLY on these buses.
So with that danger in mind, the ride gets even better. The fun part starts, because they didn’t have any spots in the bus so we had to sit at the roof top luggage rack! Sure, it was fun and games for the first 10minutes but then your ass starts to feel every bump on the dirt road and the electrical wires whack you on the back of the head from time to time. Oh, and we did actually have to go through “customs” to get our passport stamped.
Eventually, we got a seat in the chicken bus, took a nap and hoped that all is well. We eventually got to our destination at around 5pm, but it got even weirder. Flores is a city built atop a natural island in the middle of a lake! It’s really cool, but The chicken bus attendant knew we were going to Flores, and we even saw the bridge going to Flores, but he just told us to sit down and wait “Uno minuto”. It’s getting dark and apparently everything goes to shit once it gets dark. Hell, you have people robbing buses and kidnapping people in daylight, who knows what happens at night! Not sure if this was comforting or what, but outside every conceivable store, there seems to be a security guard holding a shotgun: Banks, fancy restaurants, internet cafes, you name it!
So back to the bus, as out of nowhere the bus stopped with a shady looking van parked across the street. We were told to get off the bus and transfer onto the van to get onto the island of Flores where the hotels were. Okay…. and so we did but being somewhat skeptical at first, but luckily our travel-mates can communicate and help us out, otherwise we would’ve been totally lost and in fear of getting on the wrong bus! And when dropped off at Flores, the shuttle van just helped us with our luggage and said goodbye…. we didn’t even pay! Apparently it was ‘included’ in our transport with the travel agency… Seriously don’t know how these things work… but at least we’re safe and sound in Flores.
So we checked into a decent hostel, walked 50meters and had a wonderful Italian dinner with one of our boat buddies! So things turned out rather well!
Tomorrow, we wake up at 4am to catch a 4:30am shuttle bus to the ruins of Tikal!!!