The promise and the sunny road to Tikal

We woke at 4am under the promise of watching a sunrise over the Mayan ruins. Edy, the smooth linguist, who arranged our hotel room also sold us ‘the once in a lifetime trip to Tikal’. The jack-of-all-trades was quick to recommend the first bus of the day to catch the sun rising over the horizon and hitting the ancient city. ‘The jungle wakes up when sunrises’, Edy said, beginning to count the benefits on fingers. ‘Howler monkeys, exotic birds, insects fill air with the noises. There (sic) are also less busy, not as hot as afternoon and not too much rain.’

Waiting in the moonlit street surrounded by a dozen other droopy-eyed tourists, the door-to-door speech echoed in our minds. The semi-darkness hid our sleep deprived faces as we waited in silence for our ride. The realisation that we had all potentially been duped in a Third World country was worn on our faces. However, the doubt soon vanished as the distant roaring of an engine cut through the quiet.

Alerted by the welcoming noise everybody flocked towards the oncoming van waving their tickets high in the air. An uninterested portly driver stepped out and took a moment to look at the collection of diversely handwritten tickets. He chose a seemingly arbitrary couple who boarded the bus and drove away. Moments later another vehicle spurred more competition in the crowd, tickets again brandished, an equally chubby apathetic driver, more random victors. For the next hour we watched as the twelve dwindled down to two. And so there we sat, slumped and alone on the curb, in the now deserted street.

By the time our bus arrived, day and our promise had already broken. Already weary we sat down and for the next hour or so drifted in and out of sleep until our arrival at Tikal.

© John Brownlie 2012

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