Adventures on Guatemalan public transport

Trip Start Feb 17, 2006
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Trip End Aug 2006


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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Moved around quite a bit since the last time I wrote. Finished my time in Quetzaltenango with a rather rubbish day out. Paid $30 to visit an Olmec ruin and a village abandoned following a volcanic erruption. The "guide", Elvis, drove us around in his car on his own personal tour, stopping at a little market, various tiendas along the way, a water park, a church and anywhere else he thought we might find interesting (but didn´t). Basically meandering along at his own pace. The three of us on the tour were somewhat surprised, but stuck with it. We did eventually get to the Olmec site, Takalik Abaj, small but interesting in beautiful parkland. Lunch soured the day when Elvis used the tip money we left to pay for his own meal then lied and said he hadn´t. Never made it to the abandoned village, the Pompeii of Guatemala. Elvis didn´t know how to get there, and when a man along the way pointed us in the right direction and said a large group had just gone there, he translated it back to us as "the river is too dangerous to cross so we can´t go any further". By that time we just wanted the tour done with, we were running very late, and went back to the car. Not exactly as friendly a return journey. If you are ever in Xela don´t use Tours del Enrique!!

Next day I chicken-bused it to a small town in the mountains, Nebaj. Pretty easy and cheap journey and treated very courteously - at one point on a very crouded bus I was given an upturned bucket next to the driver to sit on like a proper teacher´s pet! It was pretty chilly in Nebaj (maybe that is what thankfully drove away the flea I´d picked up in Xela) and rained very heavily for hours on end. Did a couple of tours through the lovely surrounding countryside with young Carlos of Pablo´s Tours. Went to caves, Mayan ritual sites, cheese factories and miradors with amazing views. No pampered pooch to accompany us this time, instead we were nearly savaged by snarling beasts on a couple of occasions. As you´ll have guessed I bravely ran away at the earliest opportunity. Ended up giving an impromptue English lesson to Carlos and his brother Miguel. Fun to prepare a whistle stop tour of the words & phrases I thought they might use most in the tour business, and they were attentive students.

Other Nebaj activities were learning to make a boiled huiskil dish (can also do with spinach, which I suspect will be easier to find in Sainsburys) and learning different survival techniques playing The Ultimate Survival Handbook board game with two American travellers. Did you know in bear infested woods it is better to make lots of noise to let the bears know you are there than to carry a pot of honey to smear on the trees to distract them while you run away? Well you do now.

Carefully planned my route on to Cobán. In the Lonely Planet a coach was listed going from Sacapulas to Cobán. This appealed to me as I´d heard the route is, though spectacular for its views, rather daunting and potentially dangerous. Not a journey I fancied doing in a chicken bus or crammed minibus. Was up at 4am and got to Sacapulas no problems, but it then transpired there was no coach. No minibus was around either but a pickup truck was heading to Cobán, 4.5 hours away according to the driver. As it was dry and warm I thought this wouldn´t be too bad, a bit of an adventure, and a clear view of the scenery through the mountain passes. 8 hours later I staggered into Cobán, having had barely any food or water all day and spent most of it stood in the back of the pickup hanging on over the single-lane pot-holed track around hairpin bends. We had 2 wheels blow out, which could have easily sent us swerving off the edge of the mountain, broke down a couple of times, constantly stopped to top the smoking engine up with water, waited at two maintenance road blocks and stopped at a mechanics to fix the wheels. Plus it rained for a while so got pretty wet despite my mac and brolly. My fellow passengers were nice though and I did make it in the end. And the views were indeed very impressive. Had to hang on with both hands, so no photos unfortunately.

So that turned out to be more of an adventure than I anticipated.

Recovered in Cobán for a few days. Went to a beautiful waterfall you can swim in, into some caves near Lanquin and round a coffee plantation - drank my first ever cup of coffee. Wasn´t too bad with a few sugars.
Cobán is a nice enough town, small and easy to get around, felt relatively friendly and safe though totally mystified a cafe owner by asking for tea with milk. Was told I could have coffee with milk, or tea and milk separately. Tried to explain I wanted the same as coffee with milk, only tea instead of coffee. This was such a bizarre request the manager was summoned to talk with me. Just had food.

Next stop was the Biotopo del Quetzal, an hour south of Cobán. Stayed in an amazing hotel, Ram Tzul, luxurious room with huge windows looking out over the forests. Met up with Byron so had an expert to bird watch with. Unfortunately didn´t see any Quetzals though it is the place and the season to spot them, but did see quite a few other including a large Swallow-tailed kite and a woody woodpecker with a lovely red mohican. Evenings playing cards round the fire (still in the highlands, in the aptly named Cloud Forests, so cool and wet most of the time) and sampling the umm, experimental menu from the Ram Tzul´s chef (oriental sandwich, marmalade omlette, ginger flavoured mushroom stroganoff...).

Yesterday was the second travel adventure of recent weeks. Got a minibus to the bus terminal at Cobán and caught another minibus up North towards Sayaxche. Changed to a third minibus where had to sit on a wooden box for some of the time half way to Sayaxche. Suddenly, about 35k outside of Sayaxche there was a road block, just a line of stones across the road. No one around and a car coming the opposite way moved some out of the way to pass. We passed as well, but soon came to another road block. The landscape was pretty flat, not many houses around, or many people. The driver didn´t like this second road block, chucked us all out then drove off, with my rucksack still on the roof. A Dutch couple in the same minibus also had their rucksacks on the bus. There were a few curses put on the driver´s head and much wringing of hands. Thankfully the driver´s helper was with us, that days takings clutched tight, so I tried to reassure myself the driver wouldn´t go far with out him. We walked for a kilometer or so and then spotted the minibus on the road in the distance. Then he drove off again! I did think about bursting into tears at that point. The helpers assurance that the driver would have left our bags by the road was thankfully right and nothing had been stolen. As I had my day pack and money belt with me, the only irreplaceable thing in the rucksack was my diary, but even so it would have been horrible to lose the whole bag. The driver knew our bags were on the roof and drove off deliberately so we would have to walk back to collect them.

But as seems to have happened consistently throughout this trip the black cloud had a silver lining. We collected our bags and went to a tienda to get some water and snacks as it was about 3pm by this time. The Dutch girl, Durska, flagged down a passing car and the driver very kindly gave us a lift up the road. After a few kilometers we came to the main road block where a long line of coaches, trucks, cars, tourist shuttles were waiting patiently in both directions. No one was complaining, sounding their horns, getting angry or trying to breach the block; just sat by the road, or under the trees or lorries when it started raining, waiting. Since getting our rucksacks back we´d decided to head forward towards Sayaxche regardless so we started walking passed the vehicles. There were different stories flying about, but it seems that local people had blocked the road at 4am to protest about the poor electricity supply to the area. Apparently it is to go on for 8 days and as it is a major road north they are likely to cause a fair amount of disruption. However, no one waiting seemed especially put out, and there were no officials or police or media around, so I´m not convinced many people not directly involved will even know the protest has taken place.

After just a few minutes walking, a big car with two young men drove past us for the third time, and stopped. To pass the time while they waited to get south, they were just driving up and down so offered us a lift up to the last in the series of road blocks where we might be able to get a minibus on to Sayaxche. There was indeed a pickup waiting the other side of the roadblock (the protesters, a very subdued lot, didn´t seem to mind people passing on foot) so the rest of the journey to Sayaxche, over the Rio de la Pasión and onto Flores was uneventful. It is nice to have some time travelling myself, but I was so relieved to have the company of Durska and Owen. Wouldn´t have wanted to go through that day alone, though never felt in any danger as such.

Doubt I´ll ever know how long the road block lasted in the end. We definitely made the right decision to keep going, and as usual the Guatemalans we met mostly helped us out very generously.

Spent the today day in Flores and Santa Elena running errands to the bank and the laundry and finding a new umbrella since I lost mine on the last minibus here yesterday. Walked past a guy on a main street in Santa Elena (small town on the mainland but quite busy). He was lying face down, but that isn´t unusual as you often pass drunks sleeping in the street and no one else was taking any notice including the woman running the fruit stall a meter from his feet. But on my way back a few minutes later there were crouds stood around including police and a soldier. I guess he was dead, though no one including the police was doing more than staring and chatting. He looked young though I didn´t see his face, and quite well dressed with a bag and his hat on the ground near by. It was such a strange, sad scene at 10.30 in the morning: had he been there all night, but people had only just realised he was dead? If the incident had only just happened I´d have thought there would have been crouds and excitement when I passed by the first time. Very strange, and another thing I´ll probably hear no more about. Think the first dead body I´ve ever seen.

Two nights here in Flores, and have a ticket for tomorrow to Belize. Plan to spend a few days in the Caye islands. Have gone for the easy (fingers x´d no more road blocks) option of the tourist shuttle bus, had enough of public transport for a while.
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