Bienvenidos...we made it to Guatemala!
Our last breakfast in San Ignacio was back at the place where our first meal was, "Let's Go Eat."
We had a breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs, which was good but not quite as scrumptious as the ones at Erva's
. The coffee, however, was the best we'd had in the country up to then. It didn't take long for a colectivo to come swoop us to the border, and again no one else was in the vehicle besides us. I wondered who would pay for a taxi, which was three times more, but I suppose in theory we could have picked up a few more people on the way.
The crowded van to Flores
Our driver was from the border town, Benque Viejo del Carmen
, or simply Benque. It was a much larger town than I had expected--almost as large as San Ignacio. The border checkpoint was about three miles further.
The line was short, we paid the exorbitant exit fee ($37.50 US) and walked about 20 meters to the Guatemalan checkpoint, which was almost as short and simple. There we had to pay an entrance fee the equivalent of $4 US, although we had exchanged US dollars immediately after the Belize customs so we'd have quetzales
on hand for the journey inland. A man who had crossed the border from Belize pestered us for a taxi. A large bus parked in front of a dilapidated building sat idle. A man inside the shack said it wouldn't leave until 5:30, but it was well before noon and I wasn't going to wait around that long.
Riding in a tuk-tuk
No one in Belize had told us there wouldn't be transportation from the border town of Melchor de Mencos
, and I had a sneaking suspicion that despite the fact that it was Sunday, we would find something. I continued walking up the main street of town, Mark unquestionably following, while the taxi driver got in his car and drove slowly at our side, coming down slightly in price to 250 quetzales. As that was still higher than we were willing to pay (about $35 US), we continued through town until we saw a van filling up at a gas station. A man next to it was yelling out "Flores, Flores" and I knew we'd found our ride. The price was only Q 25 each!
The van started to fill up even before we had reached the point in the road where we'd started walking (it had been the wrong way, actually, but luckily we got seats).
Mark enjoying the scene at Flores
We picked up three Americans with their bicycles and gear, which they loaded on top of the van. As we headed westward out of town, we continued to pick up and drop off (mostly pick up) passengers. At one point, 28 people were stuffed inside and partially out the open side door of a vehicle designed to seat 12. We had our backpacks on our laps and were scrunched together tightly, sweating as if we were liquefying right there in the seats. But it was a fun ride. The only thing missing were the chickens, although we did slow down for a few minutes as a herd of cattle crossed the road. I was surprised to find that the road was mostly paved, with the exception of a few stretches of gravel. The ride seemed to take longer than we'd expected, but with all the stops (including unloading the boys and their bikes in Ixlu), we probably did OK. The van pulled into the town of Santa Elena, where the actual bus station was.
Our hotel, the Casa del Lacandon
Flores itself was another couple of miles away.
After a quick bathroom stop that set us back about 50 cents (USD), we hopped on a "tuk-tuk
" that sputtered along the dusty streets of town and over the causeway to the island of Flores
. The little "mototaxi" fit four people, including the driver, in a small little carriage. This was the same exact type of transportation they had in Bangkok and other Asian cities, and with the same name too. Since we didn't really have a reservation anywhere, we just asked to be dropped off somewhere in the middle. The driver didn't speak much English, but my broken Spanish was enough to convey the intent. Flores was a maze of cobblestone streets, bright colors, cafes, souvenir shops and bars, all surrounded by a peaceful lake.
Holy mojito...a frozen concoction to the rescue!
We could have been in Europe. It didn't take us long to find a hotel with an air-conditioned room for about $20 US at the Hotel Casa del Lacandon
. We didn't have a direct view of the lake, but the side window did allow a lake vista and we were only steps away from a large, quiet balcony.
But all the restaurants faced the water and it was relatively quiet, so we walked a few doors down and grabbed a late lunch and the one of the best drinks we'd ever had. Even though it wasn't yet 3pm, happy hour started (apparently it was all day during the off-season). We ordered mojitos for about $2 each and they were served frozen and heavy on the mint. Oh, they were so refreshing and delicious, it was all I could do not to suck it down in 10 seconds.
Even the food is beautiful in Flores
We did savor it a bit, and ordered another. Next came our meal, a beef tenderloin with rice, beans, vegetables, salsa and a side salad. The beans here were black as night and very flavorful. Everything was good. Belize food was simple but good, but Guatemala food seemed to be a step up with a bit more flavor and color. And the drinks were more plentiful too: mojitos, daiquiris, juices, beers, sodas. I think we could have stayed for a week just sampling them all.
After our yummy meal, we walked around the town, did some shopping and then booked our tour to Tikal
for the next day. I had to use my bank card at an ATM for the first time to pay for the ticket, even though it really wasn't that much. Without too many plans, we ambled around the next bend and found another souvenir/t-shirt shop. But who we met inside was was kept us there for a couple hours.
Local color is just around the bend
Julio, the owner, who lived in the back of his shop with his wife and two boys, was originally from Momostenango
, a city in the mountains of southwestern Guatemala. He was very friendly, but not pushy, and very eager to learn. I'm not sure what drew us into the shop, but I'm glad we ventured inside. We got to talking and he wrote down any new English words he heard. He taught us a few Spanish words, and even some in his local language of Quiche
(K'iche'), a Mayan language. Julio was actually Mayan! Most of the t-shirt designs he made were his own, and he even showed us the drawings. The sad thing was that other shops had copied and modified his designs. Of course there were no copyright laws to protect him.
Lago Peten Itza, late afternoon
But he wasn't bitter at all. I even had shown him the shirt I bought down the street and sure enough, there was a noticeable difference. I felt bad that I hadn't gotten my shirt from him, but we made up for it the next day by loading up on souvenirs to take back.
Julio introduced us to his two sons, Kevin Bryan and Jack Anderson. He explained that he didn't want to choose typical Spanish names because there are so many of the same name. So instead, he picked names of foreigners he'd encountered. He was a genuine, gentle soul and so full of wonder. By the time we left, it was nearly time to go to bed, but we opted on having a Gallo
beer at a bar down the street before they closed down for the night. Mark also got an ice cream cone and was the last sale of the evening. I thought it was really late, but by the time we got back to the room and I looked at the time, it was only 9:30. Our bus was scheduled to pick us up at 5am the next morning, so we needed to get some sleep. Another day, another country, another chapter.