Feb 7, 2003 (Updated May 9, 2005)

The Bottom Line One of these days I'm actually going to pay attention to those Government Travel Advisories

"One in five, I've heard it's one in three getting hit."

That was not what I really needed to hear.

I was sitting in the back patio of the Pension Meza, an old and famous cheap hotel and back packers' hostel in Zona 1 in Guatemala City. The place is an old Spanish Hacienda with all the rooms built facing into a central patio. This has been cut in two by the present owners who installed an office wing. The back patio is common room areas where the guests gather to do their laundry, read, play ping-pong, or just sit and gossip.

That's what I was doing. Sitting around gossiping, or rather sitting listening to others do so. Most of the half dozen or so slouched in cheap plastic chairs were swapping experiences and tips as they took a break from tramping around this small Central American country.

That's one of the reasons I'd chose to stay here when I pulled into Guatemala City earlier that day. The place is an absolute wealth of information. The owners know just about everything there is to know about Guatemala City and the immediate area and are more than willing to share this with their guests.

There are also a couple of large bulletin boards covered with posters, business cards and scribbled notes advising on everything to where's cheapest Internet café, to the best ESL school, to good hostels and B&Bs, to what beaches are worth hitting. If it isn't on that board then it probably isn't worth knowing about.

Then there are the guests themselves. Some of them live and/or work in Guatemala. Others like myself were just travelling through. Everyone though had information, tips, or just idle hearsay about something or other. Naturally all were willing to share, which is how the one in three, or one in five discussion had started.

I'd been sitting there sipping my beer and stitching up a rent in my rucksack, and just listening. During a pause in the conversation I'd mentioned my next stop would be Tikal, the ancient Mayan ruins in the north of the country. I'd decided to get there by bus, at night.

You could have heard a pin drop. Then one of two older Brits piped up with the one in five comments. His companion countered with one in three. As far as I could tell they had "dropped out" and were bumming around Central America supporting themselves as English teachers and/or work with the various NGO's and other aid agencies that abound in Central America. Then again maybe they'd never stopped travelling after University. They were both older than the early twenty something’s who made up the majority of our little gathering. They may have even been my age.

Now what brought the conversation to a screeching halt was the fact they were discussing the frequency of bus highjackings in El Peten, the wild northern region of the country I was heading up into. Depending on whom one listened to, either one in three or one in five buses was being attacked and robbed by bandits. The area had been/still was the source of most of the fighting in Guatemala's guerrilla war(s).

The actual fighting had petered out at least according to what I'd read. Those opposed to the leadership in the Palacio Nacional a couple of blocks from where we sat no longer had the financial and military backing of Cuba and the Soviets due to the changes in the world. Like their compatriots in Colombia and elsewhere they had turned to robbery, and the occasional kidnapping as a cash crop, hence the ongoing argument on whether they were in fact guerrillas or just bandits.

Now I'm basically apolitical, especially when travelling. However I decided that if someone was intent on shoving an AK-47 into my face, then I really didn't care if he was doing so because I was a representative of some ideological oppressive ruling military industrial complex, or he just wanted my stash of Andrew Jackson’s.

Then again I really did want to see Tikal and was pressed for time. I only had four more days before I had to catch my flight out of Belize City back home. Travelling by night would allow me to see Tikal and still allow an extra day in Belize or for general emergencies, being held hostage in the jungle excepted.

There was also the Brit factor to consider. I'd had it up to here on this trip with doom and gloom spouting Brits and their self-styled sense of superiority. Like some poncy group of Cassandra’s they seemed to wandering all over Central America spewing their dire warnings to one and all in upper class twit accents. Perhaps they were trying to drive off backpackers of every other nationality so they could have this tropical isthmus all to themselves.

At the beginning of this trip I'd had my first run in with one. My first night in Belize City I'd been sitting on the porch of my rooming house enjoying the cool sea breeze and an equally cool bottle of Belikin beer. All around the table were the other guests, for the most part foreigners, and for the most part young back packer types.

At the centre of the table, and our attention, was a Brit on his way home after some six months working in the bush for some aid agency, when he wasn't partying on the beach that is. He regaled us newbies all night long with his adventures in exchange of course for a steady stream of Belikins.

Most of his tales revolved about how dangerous the place was. Horror stories of catching Dengue Fever and/or Malaria, almost, were his stock in trade. One could not help but be impressed that he had survived at all, let alone looked forward to doing it all again after a short break in London to sponge more money off of Mummy and Pater.

I'm sure he painted such a bleak picture that the more naive and timid of those on the porch were back at William Goldsmith International Airport bright and early the next morning trying to book the next available flight out. I'm sure they abandoned their Mountain Coop backpacks, Teva sandals, hoodies, and hackey sacks on the way to lighten the load and get out faster too.

I took his advice with a grain of salt, filing it away along with his smug grin. I did however pick up a better local version of insect repellent that he'd recommended the next night when I got to Punta Gorda. The stuff must have been strong. It melted my plastic watchstrap.

That had been the start of the trip. Now I was reaching the end of it. It had been a whirlwind run through four Central American countries. I'd seen pristine beaches, thick jungle, mountains, Mayan ruins, quaint villages, and run down urban sprawls. I'd set a gruelling pace at times travelling in everything from air-conditioned taxis, to local chicken buses, to even at one point a dug out canoe.

The last leg had been short but hard. I'd left Copan, the Mayan ruin site in Honduras high up in the mountains. I'd pushed into El Salvador and the Pacific Ocean. I'd moved up the coast to Montericco, an isolated little Guatemalan beach village, and from there on to Guatemala City that afternoon.

Around noon that day I'd dragged my rucksack off of the chicken bus that had brought me up from the coast, while actually two chicken buses and one dugout canoe, at the bus terminal. Then I treated myself to the luxury of a cab to Zona 1. There was no way I was going to try and decipher Guatemala City's public transit system, an oxymoron I assure you, for the sake of saving five bucks.

I'd been out of contact since Copan so the first thing I did after getting my room at Pension Meza was to hit an ATM and an Internet Café to check my e-mails in that order. The less said about my accommodations for the previous three nights the better, but lets just say that number three on that to do list was a shower, a long shower.

I'd sprung for the luxury of a room with a private bath, having given up on communal showers some twenty years earlier; the army does that to you. Naturally there was no hot water, but there was water pressure, well almost, which was marked improvement over Montericco. I hadn't been brave enough to enter the bathroom in the hovel I'd paid for in El Salvador.

I spent the rest of the afternoon running around and taking care of some minor things like buying stuff to repair my travel-damaged rucksack. I planned to spend the next day doing some sight seeing and some souvenir/Christmas shopping as well as making travel plans to get to Tikal. I did however splurge and pick up a pair of hand made cowboy boots for myself before heading back to the hotel. I justified it as an early Christmas present, and besides my hiking boots were starting to fall apart.

That's how I, and my new boots, came to be sitting in the back patio repairing my bag and listening to the doom and loom predictions on the percentage of buses being robbed and/or worse.

Well that was that, the odds were what one in three or one in five of my getting robbed or dragged off into the jungle and held for ransom. Considering my employers and their love and respect for me, if that happened I'd be there so long I'd make Robinson Crusoe's ordeal look like a weekend away.

Then again I might not be in the boonies very long at all. They might just cap me on the side of the road and be done with it.

But there was always the chance I'd get through without anything happening. I mean that's why one buys lottery tickets right, and the odds seemed better than those of winning the lottery. I had to go that way to get to Belize City, I couldn't backtrack it would take too long. Besides I doubted I could deal with the plumbing again.

I thought about taking a daytime bus, but the trip took some twelve hours and that meant leaving first thing in the morning. There would be no time to explore Guatemala City if I did that. I'd also be arriving in Flores, the town near Tikal after dark and have to hunt out a room there. I really wouldn't save any time either, as I wouldn't see the ruins until the next morning.

I considered flying into Flores and immediately dismissed it. There were plenty of charter flights up there usually return flights with ground transport to the ruins flown in. Mind I'd heard horror stories about Guatemalan planes before the trip. I had first hand experience on how bad they were at maintaining old school buses. There was no way I going to be at 30,000 feet with the same quality of mechanics.

As always when faced with a big decision I went out for a drink, I mean to think on it. I needed dinner anyway and a couple of cold beers wouldn't hurt. Besides I had to scuff up the new boots so I could sneak them past customs.

I grabbed dinner at the Europa bar, a well-known place a few blocks away from the pension. Incidentally it's also directly above the best, and possibly only working ATM, in that part of the city. The chicken dinner was good, and really cheap. The cold Gallo beers, there is no other brand in the country, were also cheap, so I had more than one.

There was a Yank expat at the bar, the Europa is supposed to be an expat hangout, which is why I chose it. He said he'd been living there for quite a few years so I decided to pump him for some local info. I wanted to find out if the pair of Brits back at the patio were as full of bovine excrement as they were of bottles of Gallo.

After buying him a beer I began asking him what he knew about buses, the Peten region and anything else of interest like if there was a Hertz Rent a Tank in town. Unfortunately all he seemed to know, or at least want to talk about was the Guatemalan penal system. He seemed to have an intimate and first hand recent knowledge of it in that "you ever been to a Turkish prison Billy" way, so I made my excuses and left, quickly.

It was too early to head back to the hotel so I decided to find another bar. Hey if I this was possibly my last night on earth then I was going to enjoy it. I fully intended that if I was destined to meet my maker in the next twenty-four hours than I'd do so drunk as hell or at least hung over. I'd also ensure that any banditos would not be getting any of my hard earned Quetzels or Dollars. They'd go to deserving bartenders and strippers and other sleazy woman, provided I could find some.

Every guidebook and other piece of research I'd found had said that Zona 1 of Guatemala City is dangerous especially after dark. One should not wander the streets at night, especially alone. I can presume that advice should also include that one should also not wander into sleazy small locals bars either.

Actually Zona 1 is probably not the most dangerous part of Guatemala City after dark. Nope that is reserved for the area just to the south of it, the red light district next to it. If anything could be more decrepit than Zona 1 than it had to be this area.

It was midweek though and raining so that seemed to keep most of the local ne'er to wells at home. Either that or maybe there was something good on TV that night. I seemed to have the streets mostly to myself, aside from what has to be the largest collection of transvestite prostitutes I've ever seen. Not that I really go looking for that sort of thing, but one does come across some interesting things while travelling the world.

There were clumps of them on every corner for about six blocks. That suggested to me that I'd wandered into a “special" part of town and so I beat a hasty retreat. Garish neon in the distance suggested sleazy bars and a couple of minutes walking and I was rewarded by a cold beer in a dark and sleazy establishment, the kind of place where a metal detector at the door would probably prove to be an embarrassment.

Maybe it was the quality of the "entertainment" or more likely it was just a miserable evening, but I called it an early night after only a couple of more beers. It was still raining, and cold, Guatemala City is built in a shallow valley in the uplands, when I left the last bar. I was soaked by the time I could finally flag down a cab and head back to my room.

It was a little drier there, but still cold. I ended up raiding the blankets off of the second bed midway through the night, so much for tropical Central America. Dawn couldn't come fast enough.

I spent the morning doing a little sightseeing around Zona 1 and picking up a few souvenirs and early Christmas gifts before heading back to the Pension Meza to check out. Checkout was at noon but they let me store my stuff there until the evening. I crammed all my new junk in on top of the old junk and headed out to the bus station.

Sometime during the night I'd made up my mind. There were basically two options regarding buses. Option one was to grab the local regular bus service. This was a "chicken bus," a recycled old school bus that would take all night with stops at every little place to get from Guatemala City to Tikal. The one advantage to this mode of travel was that it was cheap.

Option two was taking the luxury express bus service. The ride wouldn't be much shorter as both buses had to take the same set of poor roads. This one though would probably only make one or two stops at major centres. It would also be a real bus, with enclosed windows, shock absorbers, seats and no livestock.

I opted for the luxury option. My logic was that the only passengers on this one would be well-heeled locals and foreigners. Odds are it would be moving faster and probably better protected and therefore less of a target. The local Government probably didn't get their panties all in a bunch if some poor peons were held up, but the middle class and tourist no that was probably another story.

Besides on this one I could sleep. On the chicken bus even if I'd been able to fall asleep, I couldn't. If I did, someone would wander off with my luggage stored on the roof at the next stop. The express bus had a locked luggage compartment.

Five minutes after I left the Linea Dorada bus terminal with a reservation for that night's Mundo Maya express run to Flores I began to have second thoughts. If I was your basic bandito squatting by the side of the road, which bus would, I choose to ambush? Would I attack the slow moving chicken bus full of people who collectively didn't have a pot to . . . well you know what I mean? Nah. I'd probably wait until the nice shiny new express bus loaded with rich gringos came rolling by. Oh well if I was going to go, at least I'd be comfortable to the end.

I headed back to the pension to grab my stuff and make some basic preparations. En route I had to hit the ATM again. I'd spent more shopping that morning than I intended. I decided to make sure the large denomination but basically worthless Quetzels I got from the machine were easy to reach just in case. Maybe just maybe the US Dollars hidden on me might make it through any altercation.

Back at the pension I made some final preparations. I carefully repacked everything in my bag ensuring it was easy to move with and any small gifts were secreted in mounds of dirty laundry. That might save them from a cursory search. It usually did when going through customs I'd noticed.

I packed a small carry on daypack that I'd take on the bus with me. There was nothing of value in it aside from my first aid kit. I also tossed in as much bottled water and munchies as I could and finally some spare clothes, dark coloured clothes. The new boots went into the main bag and the old hiking boots went back on. If something did happen I wanted to be prepared and that included the ability to move fast if I had to.

I also hid my Asp, an expanding metal baton and both my pocketknife and the larger knife. The small knife was secreted in a hidden pocket of my jacket that also held my Passport and credit cards. The two larger items in similar hidden but easily accessible pockets in the carry on.

I had no illusions of what I'd be able to do if something did happen and I was confronted by a group of armed men. Most likely I intended to cooperate if at all possible. That's what all the training I'd had years earlier told me to do. So did common sense. However if it came down to it and I had no choice I was going down swinging.

I even picked up a Guatemalan Passport. Actually what I'd bought at a stall in the market was a cardboard Passport cover. It goes over your real Passport to protect it. For some strange reason it had Guatemala on the cover, hard to believe considering where I bought it.

I had of course no illusions that anyone would believe that I was a local if I was to start waving it around. Yeah with my pathetic command of the language and atrocious accent I'd be able to really blend in. Even if for some reason I did, all they'd have to do is open it and see all those maple leafs emblazoned on the pages.

The last part of my prep was spent across the street. There was a small Catholic Church there and I popped in for a couple of minutes. Hey it couldn't hurt. I'm not the most religious person in the world and even I knew praying for nothing to happen to me was probably the height of pathetic self-serving hypocrisy. A brief request to the man upstairs that I didn't do anything to disgrace myself if something did happen though seemed plausible.

Bag packed and prayers said there was nothing keeping me, and I set off for the bus terminal. Once there I began checking out the other passengers. There were a couple of back packer types sitting among their piles of kit in the corner. Everyone else appeared to be locals from both ends of the socio- economic scale.

Soon after I arrived the back packers and most of the other passengers trooped out and boarded their bus. It was a local chicken bus that was travelling the same route as mine, but departing an hour or so earlier. Much as I would have enjoyed their company, they were both female and cute; I breathed a silent and selfish prayer that their bus was going to be ahead of ours.

After an intolerable wait in the terminal my bus finally boarded. I watched just to ensure my bag went into the locked luggage compartment and not some car trunk, and climbed aboard to find my reserved seat.

The bus was huge. It was a double-decker, although the first level only appeared to have luggage and cargo sections and the driver’s cab. The top level had two rows of reclining seats on either side of the aisle with lights, fans, and call buttons just like on a plane. There was a small bathroom and wonder of wonders an attendant.

After we took off, excuse me drove off, she came down the aisle flashing her smile and handing out blankets and pillows. Later on she served dinner. After that though she seemed to disappear. For all I know she got off at the first stop.

The bus was less than half full. I'd reserved a window seat in the second row, and found I had it all to myself. All the other passengers were in seats to the rear. When I booked, I thought that I'd be right behind the driver's seat. Because he was on the lower level though, the rows in front of me had an unobstructed view through the large windshield.

I thought those seats would be great if travelling by day. Even at night with nothing to see, they offered the best legroom. I was just about to move up, when a herd of passengers rushed by in the aisle. In seconds all the front row seats were gone. Oh well I could almost stretch out in the two seats I had, using my carry on as a pillow and covered by the blanket it was almost as good huddled in the fetal position in the second row. Ok no it wasn't but what else could I do.

The bus rolled out of the station and as I said the stewardess or whatever she was handed out "dinner." This too went along with the overall airliner appearance of the bus, a very cheap airline. Dinner was a couple of plastic wrapped small burritos that had obviously been thawed and "warmed" in a microwave oven. There was also a small bag of potato chips and a small bottle of a local soft drink.

Hey it was better than what I had been expecting which was nothing. I spent the first hour or so of the trip nibbling on this, snoozing and watching TV.

Around the time supper was served the TVs were turned on. There were no headphone sets as in a plane. The sound was also mercifully turned down, as it was an action adventure flick. Not that it mattered. It was some Jean Claude Van Damme straight to video release complete with subtitles, in English and Spanish? The movie was the perfect cure for insomnia and I was soon buried under the covers.

It seemed that I had just nodded off when the bus came to a rather noisy halt. I checked my watch and discovered that about two hours had gone by. I peeked out from under the blanket and noticed that Jena was still kicking assorted extras all over the 14" screen.

A look out the window and I realised that we were in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala's only seaport on the Caribbean coast. The first leg of the journey was over. Now we'd head straight north up Highway 13 a road that ran more or less parallel to the border with Belize and into the Peten. Our next stop would be Flores. That is hopefully it would be our next stop.

I crawled under the blanket and tried to get back to sleep. It was no use I kept thinking that if anything were going to happen, it would happen now. I spent the next hour or so in a restless state dropping in and out of consciousness.

Suddenly the bus came to a sudden screeching halt that woke me from my stupor. I became aware of lights immediately to the front. I glanced out the window and the only thing I could see on the road were uniformed armed men, lots of uniformed armed men.

Oh yeah this is it I thought. Any minute we're all going to be dragged out and lined up on the side of the road. Hopefully that will be the end of it. I wondered if I could sneak into the small toilet and hide there. Nah, someone had probably beaten me to it. Besides I couldn't move. I sat memorised staring at the men on the road.

They didn't appear to be doing much, just milling around. Their leaders appeared to be up at the front of the bus. I also noticed that they were all dressed in identical camouflaged uniforms, US Army BDU’s to be precise. They were also all carrying the same type of weapons. Mind this could mean nothing as I had no idea how well equipped the local bandits/guerrillas were.

They also had a couple of vehicles. A couple of camouflaged pick up trucks with M-60 machine guns mounted in the beds. By now I was fully awake and alert and realised who they were. They were Government troops. This was an army or police checkpoint. I breathed a sigh of relief as the bus started up and rolled on through the checkpoint. Then I began to have second thoughts. Was this a routine checkpoint or had something happened up the road?

I tried to doze off again, and it seemed that I'd just nodded off when we hit a second checkpoint. My watch though told me we'd actually covered a fair distance since the first one. This was the same as the first, a lot of bored looking, but heavily armed draftees milling about on the highway.

About now my mind was fully awake and I had good idea of what was going on. When I'd figured it all out and put the events of the past two weeks in context I actually felt better and surprisingly safer. I wasn't driving into bandit country. Nope we were heading into the military build-up of a potential war zone.

It was now December 4, 2001. I'd landed in Belize City on November 26, 2001about two weeks earlier. The next day on the local bus south to Punta Gorda I'd borrowed a paper off of another passenger. The front-page story was all about a shooting incident on the Belize/Guatemala border.

The day before members of the Belize Defence Force had shot and killed a couple of Guatemalan soldiers who had "strayed" across the border. I can't remember all the details and depending on which side of the border you got the news from they varied greatly. It looked like there had been some minor border incursion by the Guatemalans in the south of Belize, near Punta Gorda.

When I got to Punta Gorda I did notice a couple of vehicles loaded with Belize Defence Force (BDF) troops driving around the town. Mind having never been there before, for all I know that was normal.

The next day I took the ferry to Puerto Barrios en route to Honduras. While in Guatemala, I noticed a lot of troops and heavily armed police around the town. There were also vehicle checkpoints outside the town. Again that could have been the norm for all I knew. I didn't however notice any troops in the south and west of the country, when I re-entered from Honduras and El Salvador about a week later.

While I was in Montericco before going on to Guatemala City, an expat had given me another piece of the puzzle. Guatemala has always coveted Belize. This is something I knew prior to making this trip. In fact as far as Guatemala is concerned, Belize is an integral part of the country that was stolen by the British back in the 1800's.

This became clearly evident to me when I first stepped into the Immigration and Customs office in Puerto barrios. Like all such Government offices there was a large-scale map of the country on the wall. This map, an official Government one, did not have Belize marked as an independent country but as a territory of Guatemala called Belice.

The expat in Montericco had explained that there were elections coming up in Guatemala and the uniformed hoods that ran the country were actually worried. While they had "defeated" the guerrillas in the Petan, they now faced a new enemy. Most of Guatemala's population is Indian, rather than of Spanish descent. The ruling elite is a rather small minority who've maintained power mainly because there has been little or no organised opposition. I took that to mean, that they were brutally put down, imprisoned, exiled and/or killed.

That it seemed was about to change. The various Mayan and other opposition parties were actually talking of running one slate of candidates instead of fighting against each other. This and a proposed massive vote education and registration plan meant they actually had a chance of seeing a change in Government.

I'm sure that didn't sit well with the various Colonels in the Palacio Nacional. My expat friend was convinced there was even a possibility that to draw attention away from this and the country's other problems they'd make a grab for Belize. That wasn't as far fetched as it sounded. The Argentineans had tried it in the Falklands in 1982, and almost succeeded.

When Belize gained its independence from Britain, a mutual defence treaty was agreed upon. To ensure Belize independence some 5,000 British troops complete with artillery, armoured vehicles and jet fighters were permanently based in Belize. Other troops conducted jungle training there on a regular basis.

That was then though. Various defence cutbacks and a changing political atmosphere meant that the British Garrison had long been withdrawn. Now a single battalion of infantry of less than 1,000 trained there on a somewhat regular basis. Britain though was still committed to coming to Belize's aid and their rapid deployment of troops, planes and ships could be despatched quickly as was the case in the Falklands.

Like I said though, it was now December 2001. The events of September 11th were only a couple of months past and the British military were now engaged in the war in Afghanistan alongside their American allies. The very forces that could be quickly sent to Central America, the Paratroopers, the Royal Marine Commandoes were either in Afghanistan, en route there or otherwise occupied.

In addition The US itself was rather preoccupied with events at home and elsewhere in the world. That might have made a quick little invasion quite tempting. The small Belize Defence Force was, at least according to the press reports all deployed in the south of the country where the shooting took place.
This was at the other end of the country from the one land border crossing at Melchor de Mencos.

It was only a couple of hours' drive from this border crossing to Belize City on the coast and the International Airport. Something started at dawn would be all but over by suppertime. By the time the British and Americans were even aware of it, they would be popping the champagne corks in the Palacio Nacional in Zona 1. I must admit it did look tempting, the chance to add Belize, and its ready-made tourist infrastructure to a country whose economy was in a mess.

The one road that lead to this border crossing, the road any invasion would have to use, was of course the one I was now travelling on. That explained why it appeared to be packed with troops that night.

I never did find out if the Guatemalan's were considering an invasion. Maybe the troop build-up was a natural reaction to the border incident and that's all. For all I know it could have been a decision to finally deal with the bandits or even a military exercise planned months before.

For whatever reason though, that stretch of Highway 13 was probably the most heavily guarded piece of asphalt in Central America that night. It seemed that every couple of miles we passed another check point. Some waved us to a stop, but most just waved us on past.

Despite this I still couldn't get back to sleep. It's not that I didn't trust the Guatemalan military, ok I didn't, basically what I'd seen hadn't really impressed me. No it was the fact we were always stopping and starting as we hit the checkpoints that kept me in a semi comatose stupor. They never even came aboard the bus either. They just waved it to a halt, maybe talked to the driver, and then waved us on again.

Just before dawn we pulled into Flores the sleepy little northern Guatemalan town that was the jumping off point for Tikal and points onward to the borders with Belize and Mexico. The bus stopped at a local hotel that served as a passenger drop off and pick up point. Someone had told me I could catch one of the dozens of mini buses that ferried visitors to Tikal from here. Judging by the half a dozen or so mini buses parked there, I guess they were right.

Still more asleep than awake I dragged my backpack into the lobby of the place. The night manager came forward and enquired if I wanted a room. I was only half listening to him. My eyes were on a coffee pot and continental breakfast display on a side table, obviously for guests. Right about then I really needed a strong coffee to jump-start my brain.

I told him no, all I wanted was a ticket on one of the buses that went to Tikal. Suddenly someone appeared out of nowhere and literally shoved a ticket into my face while jabbering rapidly in Spanish. He quickly switched to English as he began to guide me back outside and toward one of the mini buses.

A helper relieved me of my bag and I watched as it was passed to another person and heaved onto the roof of the bus and tied down. Fortunately it was the same bus I was being lead to. It took a couple of seconds to explain that I only wanted a one-way trip, not the standard return ticket. There was no point in returning to Flores. Tikal was roughly the midpoint between there and Belize. I handed over a pile of Quetzels, was given a ticket and jumped aboard the bus.

I had the last seat, and as soon as I was aboard the bus took off. I quickly took stock of my fellow passengers. It was obvious that they were all guests of the hotel or some other establishment. Most were sipping at Styrofoam cups of coffee. They were a quiet and subdued group, probably because they had been forced to rise early to catch this tour.

Hey at least they had spent the night in a nice hotel room. I became acutely aware of the fact that I really needed a shower. I was also staring with envy at their coffee cups.

There was a guide in the front seat beside the driver. He began a quick monologue about Tikal as we sped down the highway. Not many appeared interested, and it was mainly about how it was essential to hire him for a guided tour of the site to fully appreciate it. Most of the passengers were dozing. I tried to, but found myself staring out the window, locking for army roadblocks or anything else.

At El Remate we turned off the main road for the access road for Tikal. Here driving beside Lago (lake) de Peten Itza the sun finally came up. I found I could finally begin to relax and look forward to what I'd be seeing later on.

By the time night fell again I was safely across the border in Belize and perched on a stool at my hotel's bar I reflected on what was certainly one of the longer nights of my life.

Other Articles on Guatemala



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Puerto Barrios

Border crossing Honduras/Guatemala

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