Cambio, cambio! Taxi? Minibus! Hotel?
This is what you hear when you get to any frontera in Central America. Here, borders invariably feature a lot of police and military, chaotic crowds, more or less zealous passport checks and a lot of walking. Indeed, the actual border—usually a gate in the middle of the road—is often located a few kilometers from the nearest border towns, hence the need to walk or take a taxi.
We got our passports stamped at the Belizean border to exit the country and walked to the Guatemala border check, i.e. two long zigzagging lineups of travelers waiting for migracíon officers to stop talking on their cellphones and actually stamp passports. No questions asked and no phone conversation interrupted, we got a new stamp.
Then we had to take a taxi to Melchor de Mencos, the first Guatemalan town from where we had planned to take a bus to Flores. There used to be chicken buses doing the two-hour trip several times a day but apparently it’s not the case anymore: the next bus was leaving at 4:30 p.m. and it was only 10 a.m.
A few taxis tried to convince us to use their services to get to Flores, without much success. First, there was the cost factor, second, most taxis have cracked windshields and doors that don’t actually open. Fine for a short ride between towns, but not for a 100 kilometres trip.
Plan B was to take the minibus. I complain loudly to Feng: “Not the minibus! I said, not the minibus!” But it was a short tantrum since we didn’t really have the choice.
I hate minibuses. First, they are more expensive. Second, they are often packed with gringos. Third and most importantly, drivers invariably get paid by trip and tend to drive extremely fast. We have never been lucky with minibus. In 2003, going from Oaxaca to Puerto Angel in Mexico, we were both sick for hours, which is rare since neither of us get motion sickness (we later learned that the ride was dubbed “the puke ride” by travelers). More recently, last winter, I thought we were going to die in some of the Thai minibuses we took.
But this wasn’t the usual minibus ride. First, there were no other gringos. Second, the driver managed to fit at least twenty people in the minibus. Luggage went on top, on the roof, and we tied the backpacks tight to make sure they would still be there when we arrived.
We were offered the front seat, beside the driver. Two of us on one seat and no working seat belts. I sighed and glanced at the odometer as we exited the town. The needle was stuck on zero kilometres and a bunch of lights and warnings with red exclamation points were flashing.
So I choose to look out the window. The road cut through hills and green fields. Everything seemed to green, so lush! There were horses wandering around, as well as chickens and the occasional cows. Parts of the road were still unpaved and the driver didn’t hesitate to move to the left “lane”—not that there were actual lanes—to avoid the biggest holes. Of course, he also had to dodge the traffic coming from the opposite direction but he seemed to enjoy the exercise. Well, I’m sure he would have if he had stopped texting and talking on his cellphone.
A death ride, I’m telling you.
We finally got to Santa Elena two hours later and jumped into another taxi to the hotel, in Flores. Santa Elena is the dirty, dusty and chaotic part of the town, while Flores, the island in the middle of the lake, is quieter and more “upscale”. More on that later…
Alright, we made it to Guatemala for Xmas—it was where we wanted to spend the holidays. Petén jungle, llegamos!l!