Monday, May 25, 2009

Across the Border and into Guatemala

Moving along in the the last post, Michelle and I were leaving Tiscao hoping to make it to a hotel on the outskirts of the park before dark (a nice cliff hanger... glad you liked it Candeye!). The short story is that no we did not make it before dark, but it did all work out. We caught the last collectivo of the day, and by the time we got out of the park it was getting pretty dark and it was difficult to see places as we flew by on the highway. Sure enough, the driver stopped at the turnoff to the ruins, which meant that we had missed the hotel I was hoping to find. We paid the driver and cut the umbilical cord that connected us to the outside world and turned to face our predicament. We were on a single lane road with no shoulder, it was dark and we were in the middle of nowhere with basically farmland all around us except for the tienda at the corner and a restaurant that looked closed. Barely being able to see where we were walking at this point, we quickly got off the road and asked at the restaurant, and also at the tienda at the corner, if there was a place for us to stay the night. There was some dialoge about an owner of cabanas who was there in the daytime but not there now, and they tried to call him, but he wasn't home, etc. etc.... Additionally, no one seemed to be familiar with the place I was looking for called Doña Maria Cabanas. It was really strange for us because in Mexico everyone seems to know where to find whatever you need, almost to the point of amazement, but in this situation the name did not ring a bell with anyone. At this point I was getting a little stressed, I have to admit, and that only made
communication harder. A truck pulled up to the tienda with some local drunk hombres (which was a nice added bonus to the situation and made us want to get off the dark highway even more). Thankfully a car pulled up with a guy who offered to taxi us to some cabanas he knew of. We made it to cabañas "Los Pinos" and the family running the property was extremely welcoming. They set us up with a shower and dinner right away along with a clean room. The queen of the house (the Madre) took a strong liking to Michelle, and as a result, I think she took extra good care of us. She was a really interesting woman who I could picture working at a law firm in LA. Her hair was cropped short and she had an air of sophistication, yet she lived, worked, and ran a primitive hotel with chickens, ducks, dogs, and cows.

We got the scoop from the queen bee that the ruins were closed, but that the locals just walk "all the way around the back" and get in that way. I know, you're probably thinking that "forbidden mayan ruins" is a bit of a stretch, but I had to keep it interesting.

The next morning we got up super early and headed out with no gear (nice and light) to walk to the ruins. As we left the property and entered the highway I glanced to my right and saw a faded sign on the fence next door which read "Doña Maria Cabanas." I guess that's what happens when you get info out of a book you got for free that was published in '96.....whoops. It's a really great book apart from the occasional non-existent hotel!
The ruins were in fact closed, so we casually walked the length of the fence (which went for a ways, and then dropped to a river). At the river there was an access way in and... well, I'm not going to say that we went in, but I will say that I have some photos of 'A Ruin' that we visited 'somewhere in Mexico' and at the ruin in the pictures, the views were spectacular. Also for some reason in these photos, we had the entire place to ourselves!

We booked back to the hotel to pack up and head for Guatemala, but not before Michelle had some time to feed some chickens. Her love of animals never ceases.

Our next challenge was that we were running out of money. Not sure if we had enough to make it to the border, we decided that if we could pay for the bus rides in dollars, we could make it including any exit taxes, and find a bank on the other side. The first collectivo driver said he could not take dollars. I even offered him more in dollars than it would cost in pesos, but he couldn't do it, so at this point, we knew we had to go back to Comitan and find a bank before heading to the border. In the van, an enterprising man asked if we needed pesos and he offered us cien (100) pesos for $10. The actual exchange rate was about 133 pesos for $10. But with an extra 100 P, we could exit the colectivo at the "T" intersection, and then head straight for the border and save a bunch of time. At this point, the women in the van began to giggle, and it was a really entertaining exchange. I commended him on his good negotiating skills and was proud of him for seeing an opportunity and taking it. Mid-stream during our negotiation, we were pulled over at a military checkpoint and everyone in the van was forced out. Surrounded by young men with automatic rifles, we continued to discuss the details of the transaction and the anticipated costs to the border as if the soldiers were not there. Aclimatization to Mexican ways may have become complete at this point. Back in the van, we took the deal! It was good for him and it was good for us and I was really happy he was making a profit. Everyone in the van was smiling, and it was just one of those special moments where a connection was made.

At the "T", we caught our final van bound for the border. Michelle enjoyed a wonderful conversation in the center front seat with the driver, and I was in the back with a less talkative but very friendly older man with beautiful and deep set wrinkles from many days of work in the sun.

At the border, we lucked out with NO EXIT TAX, probably due to the need to stimulate tourism in Mexico after the flu fiasco. Our collectivo van was not allowed to go all the way to the border. Instead, small orange taxis were used to go the final 5 Km. between the two countries. We took a bright orange taxi and immediately began our ascent along the foothills to the border which was at the base of the mountains separating the two countries. You can see the mountains of Guatemala in the photos.

The border crossing itself was chaotic and busy. It was more like an outdoor shopping mall "with an end of the year sale" than a border crossing. The street rose steeply through the market as it carried us to the crossing. Before immigration would allow us into the country we were required to have a separate ''health screening'' to ensure we were free of the swine flu. This consisted of a series of questions from a person in a surgical mask like, ''how are you feeling?'' and ''do you have a cough?'' After we were given our health clearance we lucked out again because the immigration officials didn't require any entrance fees.

We were on full alert due to the nature of borders and due to the reputation Guatemala has been getting recently. I found myself scanning people and situations for possible problems, just wanting to get through the mess. We found a bank and my card didn't work because my pin was longer than the bank allowed. Michelle's thankfully worked and we had some much needed cashola.

We took a pretty cool little rickshaw-motorcycle-pickup truck from the bank all the way to the bus "terminal." Everything happened really fast at this point. I had hoped to find a shuttle van, but we didn't see any there and the moment we arrived we were herded onto a moving bus. Before the rickshaw stopped, a guy was already pulling our backpacks out of the back and loading them on the top of a Chicken Bus as the bus was moving. Michelle tried to watch as the guy loaded them up top, but the bus was picking up speed, and I hopped on not wanting to miss it. Michelle ran and hopped on too just before it sped off. WELCOME TO GUATEMALA! Pretty much everything from that point to our destination matched the abrupt entry we experienced upon entering the country. It's not for the faint of heart, that's for sure, but everyone here involved in transportation seems to know exactly what you need and the split second it's time to hit the gas and hit it hard.

The driver of our retired US school bus drove it like an Indy 500 race car and he took his job seriously. If parents knew what these buses where capable of, they would never put their children on one. We quickly got used to the fast pace of transport, and began to enjoy the beatiful canyons we followed as the bus careened towards Xela (Quetzaltenango) pronounced "sheyla". The people along the side of the road who lived in bamboo huts or worked from bamboo tiendas were absolutely beautiful and their children were too.

Part of the fun, as we have learned with these Chicken Buses in general, is that the predicted travel times are totally unpredictable. We were told that the trip to Xela would take 3 hours, and it ended up taking almost 6. Good Times...Great Times.

For good reasons, we had wanted to arrive at our destination before dark, but sure enough, the sun set, and the bus was still moving along flying around corners. Then the rain started, and someone told me that something was happening with our bags on top. I went to the back door, and found it ajar. The bus assistant had climbed out the back door, up a slippery metal ladder and was hoisting our heavy packs down, flinging them in the back door with one hand as he held on to the wet ladder with the other while the bus flew around corners at freeway speeds without functioning windshield wipers. Again....Welcome to Guatemala! I helped him by pulling them in, but that was about as far as I was willing to go at those speeds.

We arrived in Xela at close to 10pm and shared a taxi with an American who happened to be on the same bus. An interesting note here is that we didn't even bother looking in our guide book (feeling more comfortable at just "winging it"), but the American had scouted out a place that looked good and we just told the cab to "take us there." He made a great pick with Casa Argentina which turned out to be a significant hub for tourist activities in the city, including the office for Quetzaltrekkers, a popular company that guides people on various multi-day hikes in the region.

The price for the hotel was $30 Quetzales per person, or $60Q total which worked out to be $7.50 US dollars per night. The moment we arrived we were approached by a friendly young guy named Dan who was carrying a plate of food and who invited us to participate in a big potluck and fiesta. It was fantastic. We moved our backpacks to our new room and joined a group of about 25 other international travelers who were having a big party with a lot of delicious vegetarian food and drink. Welcome to Xela!

Thanks for reading! That concludes our journey to Xela, and in subsequent posts we will blog about life in the city and our adventures in Spanish School here.


  1. The adventure continues to lurk the two of you into treacherous situations. So far, so good. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. So, keep trekking. Lisa

  2. Wow you two, what an adventure!

  3. When driving through intersections do they flash their lights or honk their horns? That is what they did in Argentina. I love the bus system they get you where you want to go in a hurry. You never know if it'll be your last bus ride.

  4. thanks for the riveting travelogue! Glad to hear you two are making the most of your adventure. I await the next installment.

    your stateside pal, Lou