Cristo Rey, Belize to El Remate, Guatemala

Trip Start May 09, 2008
Trip End May 22, 2008

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

When we woke up around 6 AM the next morning, it was hazy and much cooler, probably around 72 degrees or so.  Victor, the father of the Tut family, knocked on our door to make sure that we knew that breakfast was ready.  Breakfast started with a small bowl of papaya, which was followed by an egg, sausage, and refried bean burrito.  We were given bowls of the egg, sausage, and refried beans and multiple tortillas so that we could build them ourselves.  Instant coffee and tea bags were available to drink along with orange juice.

Victor had breakfast out in the dining area with us and chatted with us.  He talked about the various birds that are seen on the property and told us to get up early to see the most.  He also told us about the farmer's market going on in San Ignacio that morning and how big a deal it was to the area.  Most of the locals from miles away head to San Ignacio to do shopping on Saturday mornings.  One of the Tut brothers, Jeronie, also introduced himself to us during breakfast and talked a little about the trip to Tikal.

Shortly after we finished eating, Victor told us to grab our things and meet him in the parking lot because we needed to head to the border in order to beat the rush of tourists we had heard about the night before.  He drove us back down to San Ignacio in his pickup truck and took us across the low-water bridge and past the farmer's market to see how busy it was.  There were people everywhere shopping.  The streets were completely crowded with shoppers, cars, and the many stands overflowing out of the farmer's market grounds and onto the edges of the street.  We got our first glimpse of the local Amish, who were selling their crops while dressed in trousers, long-sleeved shirts, and straw hats.

After passing by the farmer's market, Victor heads back to the Western Highway and drives us towards Benque and the Guatemalan border.  Along the way, he points out the Cahal Pech ruins at the top of a hill overlooking San Ignacio.  This section of San Ignacio is what we had seen pictures of online and more of what we were expecting.  The hotels are significantly nicer and the area looks better off in general.  It might be a better section for somebody worried about culture shock to stay in, but we ended up being happy that we had stayed somewhere a bit more authentic. 

After leaving San Ignacio, Victor tells us all about the new place he had been building in the north part of the Cayo district near Spanish Lookout.  He tells us that he has been building there for a while now and talks about how you can hear the Jaguars roaring nearby at night.  The road begins to follow the Mopan river and he points out the hand-cranked ferry across the river used to access the road to the Xunantunich ruins.  The Mopan looked much cleaner than we were expecting based on what I had read on the Belize forum.  Many people were in it, swimming and washing clothes.  We could see some light class I or II rapids.  It looked like it would be a better river to tube or kayak down than the calm Macal around Cristo Rey and San Ignacio.

Shortly after the road leaves the river bank, it enters Benque.  Benque looked similar to San Ignacio, but a bit poorer.  We saw some of the Chinese groceries Selmo had told us about the day before when discussing demographics, but nothing else of note until we reached the border. 

Victor parked the truck and, as soon as I had exited, there was a man with a calculator walking up to me speaking Spanish to request money.  Victor said nothing but looked on, and I confusedly handed the man a $50 Bz note ($25 US), thinking that he must be asking for money for the Belize exit fee.  He started punching the keys on his calculator and dug into his pocket for a currency I hadn't seen before.  As he handed me over a small stack of Guatemalan Quetzales, I realized that he was just a vendor making money by charging to convert currencies.

We walked on into the Belizean immigration building, which basically consisted of 2 counters with officials behind them: one for paying the exit fee of $30 Bz each, and one for checking documents.  After paying the fee, we had already committed $55 US Dollars to the Tikal trip out of our total $400.  We were burning through our cash quickly, which would prove to be a small problem later.

We met Victor on the other side of the building.  The border agents knew him and let him walk past without any checks.  He introduced us to our Guatemalan driver, who was wearing a Crystal Paradise collared guide shirt.  The driver asked for our passports and 10 Quetzales each for a Guatemalan entry fee.  After doing a bit of research once we got home, I found that there is no entry fee for Guatemala and it is illegal for border officials to ask for one.  However, the driver was able to skip the line of waiting people and we later found out that 20 Quetzales is roughly $3 US, so the expense was well worth the 20 minutes or so we saved.  Victor gave the guide money for our lunch and left for Crystal Paradise, saying he would see us that afternoon.

The driver led us past the insecticide spraying stations for vehicles crossing the border, handled our documents with Guatemalan immigration as described before, and led us to the van he would be driving us in.  He drove us across the Mopan and up the dusty gravel road towards Tikal.  The first 30 Km of the road were this dusty gravel, which was bumpier than any of the roads we traveled down in Belize with the exception of the Cristo Rey road past the town of San Ignacio, which we would ride down the next day.  Vehicles on the road kick up tons of dust, which coats the trees and plants on the side of the road.  Bikers and horseback riders use the side of the road, but must get the gravel equivalent of miner's lung by doing so.

The road started in a town on the Guatemala-Belize border that was much poorer looking than any we had seen in Belize.  There were several businesses and billboards along the road for Toyota and Sprite, but they seemed to be horribly out of place.  A single Texaco station advertised gasoline for somewhere between 20 and 40 Quetzales a gallon. 

As we continued up the road, the road flattened and the countryside became much like that of Belize along the Western Highway.  We passed through villages every now and then.  Virtually every bar and restaurant had a sign with a Gallo beer ad on it, like the Coke and Pepsi signs you see in the US and the Beliken signs in Belize.  At one point, we passed a huge gravel spreading operation.  Though the road was horribly bumpy and dusty, it was well-maintained.

After about a half hour, the road became paved, but had so many potholes that we made no better time than on the gravel part.  The driver was constantly slowing down and/or driving around large potholes.  The road got significantly better about the time we started passing lakes north of the road.  The driver explained that the 2nd of the lakes we passed was volcanic and that volcanic activity would kill all of the big fish in the lake every now and then.

Shortly after passing the two lakes, we reached a crossroads and turned right to get to Tikal.  Within a couple of minutes, there was a brilliant turquoise lake on our left and our driver stopped to give us more information about it.  It was lake Peten Itza and the town on its west bank we were driving through was El Remate.  The lake is volcanic and has a 20 year water-level cycle.  We took several pictures while the van was stopped.  It was easily the prettiest lake either Erinn or I had seen.

A couple of minutes after passing Peten Itza, we stopped at a tourist trap full of tourists on tours and souvenirs for them to buy.  It even took American Express and Discover, which was exceedingly rare for Belize and that part of Guatemala.  The driver introduced us to our guide for Tikal after we got out of the van and told us to look around the shop and to use the clean restrooms if we needed to.  We looked around a bit and liked some of the pottery that we saw, but decided to wait to consider purchasing anything until we returned.
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