Day 39: Jungle Crossings

Overland miles: 3817 Tacocount: 53 Days without Tea: 1

So the time had come for us to finally leave Mexico and in a last minute change to our original plan to head straight to Spanish school in Guatemala, the call of the Mayan ruins of Palenque (Mexico) and Tikal (Guatemala), with a river border crossing in between proved too strong. We’ll post about our trips to Palenque and Tikal separately but first we thought our border crossing experiences deserved a separate story.

Border crossing day was 17 August and a trip that included a 6am start, jouneying on a minibus, a boat, and then another bus: all in all 10 hours of travelling through unforgivingly humid, mosquito-ridden territory.

Part one of our epic mission was leaving Mexico; this was when we had our first experience of the dodgy border crossing guards about whom we had been warned. Our minibus deposited us at the small concrete hut at Frontera Corozal that served as the Mexican border and we approached the bored-looking guard, proudly presenting our stamped and paid-for tourist cards so they could be stamped again. The guard looked at us askance and asked us to provide a receipt of payment for the cards. He then proceeded to show us what an official receipt looked like and explained patiently, in both English and Spanish, that without one we were unable to cross. The trouble was, we didn’t have a receipt in our possession, as in our naivety we presumed the official stamp was evidence we’d paid. Seconds rolled into uncomfortable minutes with the slow dawning of our realisation that we’d been well and truly had: all US$70 of our ‘entrance fee’ had simply been trousered at the Tijuana border.

After much remonstrating in bad Spanish with the border guard, we reluctantly paid the fee for the second time, grabbed our backpacks and scurried after our rapidly departing guide. We were ushered down a dirt track to a grubby looking dock where a number of lanchas (small motor boats) were moored:

No amount of photoshop could improve the scene before us

A local fired up the two-stroke engine on the nearest boat and we tentatively got on board: not the easiest thing to do when you’re balancing a 16 kilo rucksack on your back, the ground is covered in a layer of river mud and the boat is rocking precariously…

Sir, your carriage awaits

After a mercifully uneventful passage across the river, we were deposited on Guatemalan soil to face an onslaught of money changers and fight our way to the local chicken bus, the final stage of our transit…

The waiting chariot turned out to be another tired-looking minibus, complete with cracked windscreen and seats that had seen better days. We were told it was leaving in five minutes, so we let the driver load our bags on to the roof rack and camped at the side of the road. After a few minutes of patient waiting (we have become quite good at this) it became apparent that our bus wasn’t going anywhere soon. The driver and his assistant had (thankfully) identified that one of the rear tires was completely bald, so they set about swapping it for the spare. More minutes passed under the blisteringly hot midday sun. Eventually, after wrenching the bus up onto its remaining three wheels, and much “Which cowboy sold us this tire?” type sighing and tutting, they decided that the spare wheel couldn’t be fitted on to the axle, and so the original was replaced.

Now, although by this time we’d had plenty of experience on buses that wouldn’t pass any European health and safety test, we weren’t quite so sure we were ready for a trip on one that was more than likely to spin off the road entirely. Luckily for us, the Guatemalans also realised their bus was a potential death trap and another, marginally more road-worthy bus was identified. Cue an extremely acrobatic display of rucksacks being juggled from the roof of one bus to another…

Mind the gap

An hour later, and safely aboard our new bus, we bounced off along a dirt track through jungle villages, all the while, the driver blasting his horn to alert the locals of its approach approaching. The journey proceeded in this fashion, at a painfully slow pace, with women, children and various vendors getting on the bus until we reached the Guatemalan border post at Bethel. In a similarly small concrete hut, we met two smiling border guards who checked and stamped our passports, and then (surprise, surprise) demanded a fee to enter their country. Now, we knew that there is no fee to enter Guatemala, so we confidently informed them of this fact in our best Spanglish. Sticking to their (thankfully metaphorical) guns, our gatekeepers cheerfully insisted there was a tourist fee. With our recent rip-off still fresh in our minds, we asked them whether we would be given a receipt: apparently their “systems were down”. What ‘systems’ they had in their tiny hut we weren’t quite sure, but it was enough for us to refuse to pay and we swiftly left before they changed their minds. We had only saved ourselves US$10 but in Guatemala that’s the equivalent of a bed for the night in a relatively nice hotel, or a slap up meal for two.

Lakeside living in Flores, Guatemala

Finally we re-boarded our bus, which had kindly waited for us, and continued on the potholed track for a good two hours more before we reached paved road. It was still another three or so hours to our destination of Flores, a beautiful if a little ‘turistico’ town sitting on an island in the corner of Lake Peten Itza, in the north of Guatemala. From here we could visit the breath-taking Tikal ruins, and spend a few nights off the grid in towns nestled around the lake. Our Mexican adventure had come to an end and a new one in Guatemala had begun…

2 responses to “Day 39: Jungle Crossings

  1. big ooop guys, just catching up on a wealth of posts – fond memories of that journey—LOVED this mental town called livingstone on the border, full of garifunas (and their own mad style of music!). guatemala is reet up there with wales as one of the world’s most stunning / fun countries 😉 tikal – amazing too. i camped in a ruin. ps—more travel tales less food – the food doesn’t really evolve or improve from this point !!! 😉 big luv X

    • Cheers 2012wbw, glad you’re enjoying the memories of this crazy part of the world 🙂 We loved Palenque and Tikal too, although you can get templed out after a while. Food-wise we’re eating like pampered princes right now: our adopted Guatemalan mother is stuffing us silly with three hearty cooked meals a day, including fresh fish from Lake Aititlan! Xx

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