Getting to Guatemala – Visa Run Part 6
Part 6 in my series detailing our first Visa Run:
When we left off we were having our family’s first backpacker-esque experience at Lacun ha cabanas somewhere near the border between Mexico and Guatemala; no power, limited food options, free-range poultry for an alarm clock. It’s not unpleasant, but I wouldn’t want to do it long term.
After spending the night under mosquito nets and getting up to turn off lights when the power came back in the middle of the night we were ready to move on. Our driver was supposed to pick us up at 9am, so we packed and got to breakfast by 8. We enjoyed more manzanilla tea, Jason’s stomach had calmed enough for him to eat some toast, and I enjoyed the standard eggs and beans (which was good because there was no other choice.)
Other travelers had their breakfast and left in groups, some on local nature walks and some piling in vehicles for tours. Nine o’clock came and went and we were left alone in the dining hall, wondering what to do if no one showed up. There was no internet, our phones had no signal, surely there was a phone somewhere in the office but who do we call? The kids played with the dogs and swung from vines in the trees while Jason and I tried not to be nervous.
At last a van pulled up and the driver jumped out. He shooed us along, pointing at his watch and saying “trienta minutos,” and I wanted to say “Yes, you are 30 minutes late, we were here on time!” Jason loaded the bags and I called the girls who came running with fright in their eyes. One of the dogs had puppies, the girls had irritated her in some way and she had bitten June. It didn’t break the skin but her wrist was red and she was scared. I held her on the bumpy van ride and stroked her hair. She seemed more sad that the dog didn’t like her than really scared. A rough start to the day but at least we were on our way at last.
We drove half an hour back to the same spot where we had taken a glorified canoe to Yaxchilan just the day before, but this time the driver dropped us off up the road at immigration so we could get our passports stamped. As we walked away from the office I thought about the meaning of that bit of ink; even though we were still on Mexican soil, we had officially left Mexico.
We walked down to the waiting line of boats and the van driver gave our boat man directions, assuring us that he would take care of us on the other side and get our bus tickets. It was interesting to be passed from person to person with little control but I wasn’t afraid to trust them. Traveling with children I feel that we were less of a target than we might be if it was only Jason and I, that their own family values helped to keep up safe.
Instead of going down river to the ruins we went almost straight across to the stairs that would lead us into Guatemala. Boys sat on the steps and watched us wobble out of the rocking boat. There are shops and small restaurants when you reach the top of the steps but our boat man led us past them and up the hill. I was huffing and puffing a little, but we kept up.
A few blocks up the street we came to a corner where a small wooden building stood and he waved at an overgrown run down van. Was this the shuttle to the bus? The man on top yelled for us to toss up our luggage but I pretended not to hear him so I could check things out further. Unsure, I followed the boat man inside and asked if this was our bus, and he nodded, “Si, si, adelante,” (yes, yes, go ahead.) We boarded the dirty van and piled our backpacks in the back seats as the other travelers had done.
The driver had a wide friendly smile and gave us a quick speech about going to Flores in Spanish that I only understood half of, and we were off. We hadn’t gone through any kind of entry immigration, but surely we wouldn’t be far from the border. The organized part of me felt that they would want all the paperwork done promptly, probably just down the bumpy, flooded red dirt road we traveled.
We passed small houses built into the hillsides, light showing between the thin boards that made the walls. Now and then a horse was tied next to the road, grazing placidly. Dark faces glanced at us as we passed, children played outside while mothers cooked or did laundry. It was different from Chiapas but also strikingly the same.
June was sitting next to me and I asked her if she noticed anything different now that we had crossed into Guatemala. She said no, not really. We talked about borders being something that people create, an invisible line that doesn’t really make much difference in the people or the poverty we were seeing. Crossing a border doesn’t make those on one side or the other better or worse; in the past they were all one people and they aren’t that far off now. We are all connected, and not really that different after all.
The driver eased through large puddles that had almost washed away the road, bumping along the sturdier parts that must have been held together with rocks. I was amused by all the corn surrounding us, like we were back in Iowa but the ground had risen up into hills covered with crops instead of being flat to the horizon. Another “small world” moment of similarities.
It was more than half an hour before we came to a small blue building in the middle of nowhere. This isolated place was Guatemalan immigration, although I wondered how anyone would find it on their own. We got out to have our passports stamped and use the bathroom and I realized I didn’t have any Guatemalan money, only Mexican pesos. I had read that there were money changers as soon as you crossed but I hadn’t seen any yet. I had also assumed I’d have more time to look up exchange rates but I hadn’t, so I didn’t even know what a good rate would be. We also hadn’t told our bank that we were in Guatemala so we wouldn’t be able to use an ATM, we’d have to exchange cash. I felt like I was a rookie traveler again making silly mistakes and I hoped it wouldn’t cost us too much.
We used the bathroom which of course cost money. The toilets were flushed by a young girl who dipped water out of a barrel with a bucket and poured it in after we left the primitive wooden stalls. Her mother was running the place and cooking simple food while younger children played underfoot and napped in a hammock. She wasn’t very happy when I offered her pesos but she took them.
The rest of the passengers had almost finished in the office so we lined up with passports in hand to get officially stamped. It was easy, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Outside on the porch of the building was a man offering to exchange money, so we decided to get a small amount. Another traveler nearby was watching and told us that this was the only place we would find that would take pesos, that when we arrived in Flores no one would exchange them for us. Feeling a little panicked I ran back to the van and got more, but we really had no idea how much we would need. We had brought nutella and peanut butter just in case so we wouldn’t starve, but it’s not much fun to visit new places with no money.
The van started off again down the road and listening to the other passengers I realized this was the bus to Flores. We had gotten a little spoiled by the comfort of Mexico’s ADO so I had expected something similar here, but this was old, dirty and loud. Still, it wasn’t uncomfortable and we had plenty of room, the kids happily listening to their ipods and Jason napping.
An Interesting Travel companion
Across from me was an odd man traveling alone with several backpacks who had initially spoken in Spanish with the driver. He was thin and matched the bus in dinginess and age. I watched him pull out various foods wrapped in plastic bags and take bites out of them; a lump of hard white cheese, an avocado, some seeds. As he spoke sporadically I realized he spoke English, and then I realized that he was American. He said he had done this trip many times so I started asking him questions, mostly just listening as he started to ramble. Although he was clean cut he was an old hippie and had left the U. S. to live in Mexico 20 years ago. He hadn’t been back at all since 2008 but after all this time he was still on a tourist visa that needed renewing every 6 months like ours.
He made his living making and selling batik t-shirts to vendors at the ruins who then marked them up and sold them to the tourists. He said he used to make tie-dye shirts but “the kids don’t buy those anymore.” Sensing interest he pulled them out and some of the passengers bought them at whole sale, about $6.50 usd instead of $20 or $25 at the ruins. He knew a lot of about various ruins and the history of the Mayan culture, could name the stelas and glyphs that decorated the shirts and tell you what ruin they were from, although I promptly forgot which ones were on the shirts June and I bought.
The most astonishing thing about him was that he had never used a computer. He had never seen the internet. He didn’t own a cell phone, still using calling cards and pay phones to call his parents in the states or contact clients in various parts of Mexico. At night his AM radio would pick up some of the southern stations in the U.S. and that was all the news he got, although he preferred to listen to baseball games. What would that be like, to not have the world wide web of googled instant answers? To not hear the alarm bells of the media? I couldn’t decide if I was envious of his autonomy or horrified at his isolation.
When we reached the city and our van stopped at the last ATM before we went to hotels he gathered up his bags of t-shirts and leapt off the bus. I realized later I never got his name.
As we drove through Flores I looked out the window, excited to get to know a new place. Guatemala looked very similar to Mexico, shabby to our eyes and utilitarian. We were herded off our little van into a slightly larger one with some other passengers to be taken the last bit of the journey to our various hotels. As we drove across a bridge out to the island of Flores I realized that we were leaving the dusty reality of the city behind and entering a prettier tourist area. It was almost completely hotels and shops and restaurants -we were being marooned on tourist island. Preferring authentic travel I was disappointed, but resolved that maybe we could explore the city later. We had been traveling for about 6 hours so just being off the bus was an improvement.
The bus dropped people here and there, vaguely indicating the direction of hotels and with a little wandering in the narrow streets we found Hotel Casa Amelia. I was excited to stay in a place that shared my name and the location looking out over the water was lovely. The building itself was not as pretty as some, but it seemed adequate.
Until we reached our room. There was one double bed and one twin, sleeping space for 3 people. Rory might be the smallest of us but she sprawled when she slept and the girls often had trouble sharing a double bed, no way was a twin going to work. We put down our bags but didn’t touch anything and I went back down stairs to the desk. I explained to the clerk that there were 4 of us and only sleeping spaces for 3, we would need a different room. He said the reservation was for a room with two beds and that room had two beds. I argued with him for a few minutes, him pointing at the email sent by the company that had reserved the room for us and me pointing out the math. Obviously he thought I was being difficult, but finally he offered to bring another bed. Thinking it would be a second twin I agreed.
What he brought was a second double bed, smaller than the first one but still not enough room for two people unless they slept up against each other. He was going to replace the twin with it, but that wasn’t going to work either. Jason and I discussed quickly while the clerk and a maid worked on removing the twin, then I restarted the argument. This was the only bed available, there was no other room with two large beds, the options were more and more limited. Finally I asked if we could just keep both beds.
“You want 3 beds?” he asked incredulously. When I said yes he threw up his hands and walked away, giving instructions to the maid to put both beds back into the room. I didn’t appreciate the attitude, but at least we all would have a place to sleep. With some rearranging after they left we got everyone settled and started to unpack.
There was a restaurant downstairs and after spending all day on a bus eating granola bars we were starving. We ate looking out at the water of Lake Petén Itzá, the second largest lake in Guatemala. There were other little islands nearby and long colorful skiffs of the same style as the one that had brought us across the river that morning were ferrying people back and forth.
A man called hello and we were surprised to see Glen from Connecticut, a man we had chatted with at the breakfast stop on the way to the ruins of Yaxchilan. He had arrived the day before and already visited Tikal, so he offered to give us the map he had bought. He was staying only two hotels down, in a hotel who trees were full of very loud birds. Another small world moment.
Across the street vendors had set up tents and we found ourselves regretting eating dinner before looking as they laid out all kinds of fresh handmade local foods. We walked around a little bit but the sun was fading and we were tired. A small store offered water and snacks and white bread so we could make sandwiches.
Our tour operator for tomorrow’s visit to Tikal visited and arranged for us to be picked up “8, maybe 825” in the morning. We figured that meant they would be late. He snapped a picture of me and the girls to send to the main office back in Palenque “so they won’t worry about you” which I found pretty funny.
Jason and I relaxed on the roof top watching the stars as the girls played hide and seek in the potted plants. We had made it to Guatemala.