Crossing Borders: Mexico to Guatemala

The small city of Palenque, Mexico was suffocatingly saturated in tour agencies offering identical excursions at equally identical prices. Collectivos (small mini-vans) predatorily patrolled the streets looking for gringos to extort. Slamming hard on the brakes when they found their prey, the van would screech to a halt, a head would emerge from the passenger side and hang precariously out of the window shouting tourist attractions in the hope that someone would take the bait. We’d shake our heads and wave away their invitations.

In a town like this, hunting for a good price was straight-forward enough, however finding a trustworthy agency to get us across the Mexican – Guatemalan border into Flores was not. We spoke with several unscrupulous and unsavoury characters before settling on Tulum Transporta to provide transport and safe passage for just 300 Pesos (£14/$23).

Early the following morning we were picked up outside our hotel in a tall collectivo. The ensuing hour consisted of four more stops to gather passengers before heading down the worn way to Guatemala. The arduous roads ahead were badly riddled with potholes and speed bumps that our driver was having a hard time avoiding. Consequently, we were flung around as the van swerved, stopped and started to get to where we wanted to go. After an unfaltering two-hour onslaught the driver ceased and we took a welcome break with some food.

The $5 buffet restaurant served a tipico Mexican meal with rice, beans, eggs and tortillas. The basic spread when doused in hot sauce and followed by thick black aromatic coffee was enough to revitalise the inanimate.
Getting our fill we re-boarded the bus for another round of abuse. Moving onwards to the border we watched a light mist rest on the landscape and slowly evaporate as the sun climbed to its peak. Small abodes dotted the highways as the children played. Sullen skinny dogs laid in the middle of the worn road wearing a lethargic and empty look. And intimidating military checkpoints carried equally intimidating machine guns.
We soon arrived at a wide clay coloured river. Below us a buzzing port sat on the muddy banks. Small boats were traversing up and down stream, picking up people and dropping off others. The small pier had children aged no more than four or five trying to sell passengers their wares. Of these boats, one of them would ferry us upstream towards the Guatemalan border.

We found the right boat and boarded it with difficulty, having an additional 70lbs in baggage transforms one’s grace and agility into clumsiness and gigantism. We piled all of the bags at the rear of the boat, which also happened to be the guide’s place. With his head peeking over a man-made mountain the ferryman steered the boat out of the port and upstream.
The reddish-brown river was slow-moving and the bright-blue sky was cloudless. Aside from a nerve-wracking unscheduled stop in the middle of the river we arrived at our destination port in a dry 15 minutes.

Upon disembarking, clones of the children we had left a quarter of an hour downstream were swarming around our feet. Hands full of beads and embroidery were shoved to our faces, prices were being shouted at us in Spanish. A couple with wads of cash were trying to get us to change our Pesos for Quetzals. Explaining that it was our last chance to change Mexican dinero, the pair hounded us up a steep hill and continued to badger us until another money-filled boat docked. At the hilltop sat a small light-coloured hut and a bus waiting to move us onto immigration.

The small blue office was five minutes away on the plagued roads, isolated in nowhere. Manned by three thumb-twiddling officers, keeping them company; a chicken, pig and a pump-action shotgun.

Pulling into the policed area we were surprised to see the same pestering couple eagerly waiting for us. Not knowing where they would appear next on our journey we surrendered our remaining Pesos on their terms.
Inside the small dimly lit office, the officials were pleasant enough and we passed the standard checks easily. After giving them $5 (£3) exit tax we received another stamp in our passport.

Leaving behind the troublesome two for Guatemala’s next guests we continued on down the bumpy road onto Flores.

© John Brownlie 2012

Ancient Cities: Uxmal

In folklore El Adivino (the Magician’s Pyramid) in Uxmal was built in one night by a
dwarf who hatched from an iguana’s egg. The story goes that the King learnt from a
premonition that his kingdom would fall to a little person.
Not wishing to relinquish his throne he sentenced the dwarf to death. The dwarf’s mother
hearing this, pleaded with the king until he showed leniency and gave the dwarf three
near impossible tasks to spare his life.

One of the three was to build the pyramid in a single night.

The enchanting legend played through our minds as we stood at the base and looked
the 115ft (35m) to the peak. Sadly the reality could not be farther from the lore as
it took over three centuries to complete the stunning structure that stood before us.
Construction began nearly fifteen hundred years ago with Temple I and over the
following years four more temples were built on top of the original to create El Adivino.

Standing at the foot of the pyramid we were happier. Entering the grounds of Uxmal was
a much pleasanter experience than Chichen Itza. Uxmal being the less visited, meant
less tourists, less guides and equally less hassle.

Attendance was the first welcoming difference but not the last.

We left the Magician’s Pyramid and headed out to a smaller ruin on the edge of the
ancient city. After several minutes walking it became clear that this attraction was an
unpopular choice as the path was less worn and was becoming increasingly more
overgrown with every step. By the time we reached the ruin, the path was covered in
thick bush. Lacking in horticultural know-how, we pushed and bent the branches back to
get to our destination.

Not wanting to get eaten alive by whatever lived in the depths of the wild foliage we
saw what we came to see then quickly headed back to the more trodden path.

Standing quiet and still for a moment our senses became more attuned with the
surroundings. Hearing a rustling in the bushes and trees would have our eyes dart to the
origin to see a colourful bird flutter or a fat iguana running to bask on a hot rock. Other
iguanas were sitting up-right in the path, their cocked heads looking ominously at us as
we tread cautiously towards them. Some were curious and stayed momentarily
to watch us before scurrying away into the dense undergrowth. Others stood proud on
the roadside by rocks showing their dominance with their chests puffed out.

As our eyes flew around in their sockets at the sounds and movements we missed the colossal six-foot snake camouflaged within the short grass. When Alicia saw it she jumped, when she jumped, I screamed. The poor snake perturbed by the commotion slid away into the thick bushes. Wry smiles were painted on the corpulent faces of the commanding iguanas as we quickly tip-toed back to the beaten path.

The way soon opened up and we were standing with iguanas at the base of the Great
Pyramid. Open to climb for those that are brave and have stamina, the Great Pyramid
gives panoramic views over the whole of Uxmal. We soon found that we certainly had the courage but waned on the steep steps. But upon reaching the top we rewarded with a breath-taking view of the ancient city enclosed by the thick forest.

Going down was more taxing than going up, it required concentration, a sense of balance and über quad muscles. The following morning I found out which one I was lacking.

Across from the Great Pyramid were Uxmal’s palace grounds. Now empty, aside from
the occasional tourist, one can imagine the 25,000 people who once lived in the city boundaries. Now birds roosted where Kings slept, iguanas laid where jesters played and still the carvings stare at the observers.

© John Brownlie 2012