City Guide, Transportation

The road to hell.

Leaving chronology behind for a moment…

So this blog entry was supposed to be all about my time in Cancun, Mexico, not in the Zona Hotelera where you find most gringos but rather living in the Lombardo Toldano neighbourhood among the locals who work at those Zona Hotelera all-inclusive resorts.

But it’s not.  Never fear, I have much to say about my time in Cancun and about the pros and cons of the tourism industry in general but that will have to wait for another time I’m afraid, for now I want to regale you with the story of my journey from Cancun to Guatemala.

IMG_0249After a week in Cancun, it was time to hit the road to Guatemala where I intend to stay for July and August. The plan was originally to work on an IT project  a couple of weeks, collect my fee and then travel around the country.  Tikal, Rio Dulce, Semuc Champey, Antigua and Lago de Atitlan were all on the agenda.

That was the plan.  Unfortunately, the wheels came off the project and I was recruited to come in and help get it back on the rails. So, the plans changed and that’s fine.  I now had to project manage a more expansive project and work with a team of developers in 3 countries.  Can do.

So I decided it was time to move on to Guatemala to find a semi-permanent place to settle in and get this project done.  Lago de Atitlan beckoned so I found a small house for rent on the shores of the lake and booked it for the whole summer.

Now, to get there.  Since this trip was always intended to be an overland journey wherever possible, I made my way to the ADO bus station in downtown Cancun, booked the 10:15pm overnight bus to Belize City where I would catch another bus on to Flores, Guatemala, change again there to Guatemala City and from there grab a shuttle to Antigua and transfer shuttles there to Lago de Atitlan.  Sounds like a lot but I wasn’t really deterred.

It all started great.  The ADO bus was a giant pullman bus. Comfortable reclining seats, full washroom facilities and movies. It was about half full of Belizean families returning from some beach time in Cancun and gringo backpackers.

On the ADO bus from Cancun

On the ADO bus from Cancun

Again, this is where I inteded to comment about what I saw between Cancun and Chetumal at the Mexican border.  Suffice to say, I will comment on this in another post. But for now, let’s skip ahead to Belize.

We cross the Mexican / Belize border with little trouble although the Mexican border guards were some of the scariest I’ve ever seen.  Entry into Belize was fine and a little strange to be spoken to again in English after being immersed in Spanish in Cancun.

It’s about 3:30 or 4am.  I have slept maybe 20 minutes thus far.  The bus is comfortable but for some reason my brain just won’t shut off.  I’m thinking about the kids.  I’m thinking about Stacey.  I’m thinking about the project plan.

As dawn rises, I can begin to see the Belizean countryside through the grimy window.  To my eyes, the whole country is a swamp.  Everything seems to be under water.  All the houses are on stilts. Water everywhere. Houses, as I was expecting considering Belize is a developing country, are in a pretty sad state of repair.  It’s obviously an impoverished nation and even the working poor neighbourhood I just left in Cancun looks posh by comparison.

About an hour out from Belize City, it starts to rain… and rain hard.  I mean torrential hurricane volume rain but without the hurricane winds.  It was crazy.

As we pulled into the bus station in the middle of town, the rain had not let up.  I disembarked and quickly grabbed my backpack from the luggage compartment and bolted for shelter.  Thank god for goretex; I was only slightly soaked.


Drying to stay in Belize.

So, it’s 6am, I’m in Belize City and I have to get to the water taxi terminal across town where I’m told the buses to Guatemala depart and from where I can purchase a ticket.  A young, 20-something British couple who had been sitting in the row ahead of me on the bus were going to the same place to catch a boat to Caye Caulker so we shard a taxi.  The streets were flooded from the downpour and I actually thought the cab was going to stall out as the water was over the wheel wells in places but we arrive at the water taxi terminal.  Except the water taxi terminal only opens at 8am.  It’s now maybe 6:30am.

So we wait.  In the torrential rain; huddled under the awning of the Belize City post office. Fast forward to 8:30am and the guy finally shows to open the terminal.  Fine.

I ask about buses to Flores and there is one leaving with SAN JUAN TRAVEL at 9:30am.  (Let me repeat.  San Juan Travel.  Remember that name if you’re ever traveling in Belize/Guatemala.)  Great.  $25 USD.  Even better.  The signs show a big pullman bus and I ask, and they confirm, oh yeah, big luxury bus.  Awesome.

I’m starving and sleep deprived by this point having been up about 24 hours now and not having eaten since 5pm the previous night so I ask about getting a bite to eat.  Sure, they’ll have food at this little snack counter, no later than 15 minutes. I wait.

After a half hour and no sign of the lunch counter lady, I decide I better get something into me so I buy a Snickers bar.  Yeah, I know.  Breakfast of champions.  After another 25 minutes (its now about 9:25) I resign myself to not eating a real breakfast and grab a bag of Doritos to tide me over on the bus to Flores since its a 4 to 5 hour bus ride.

9:30 comes and goes.  As the day progresses, the temp and humidity ramp up.  By 10am its about 32 or 33 degrees and hovering somewhere near 98% humidity.  And there is no air con in this stuffy terminal.  Not pleasant at all is putting it mildly.

10am comes and goes.  10:30 comes and goes. 11am comes an goes.  By now, I’m a dripping wet, starving, sleep deprived pile of goo in Colombia sportswear.

Around 11:30 the bus arrives.  I’m confused when they call over the intercom because I don’t see a luxury pullman bus.  All I see is a beat to shit 15 passenger van with bald tires, no shocks and a driver with metal teeth and a greasy pony tail. Whatever… when in Rome.  I’m here now, I feel like crap and I have no place to stay in Belize City anyway so… I grab my pack and into the line I go.  I’m fourth in line.

As I’m standing there waiting to pass my bag up to Jaws from the James Bond movies, who is loading the bags onto the van roof rack, I hear a commotion behind me.  As I turn around, its then that I noticed the problem.  Quickly doing the math in my head, I count at least 24 or 25 people in this line.  All gringos and all with backpacks bigger than mine.  Mine is large at 55 litters.  Some were 100 litre backs.  Insane.

Did I mention it was a FIFTEEN passenger van?

A near riot erupts with everyone pushing and shoving and trying to throw their backpacks on the top of the van and jumping in to grab one of the few seats.

Chaos. As 12 or 14 people jump in line ahead of me I was having none of that!  Some harsh words were spoken and fists nearly flew (care to guess the nationality of the worst offenders?) but I’m not a small man and I used my weight and size to my advantage.  If anyone other than the 4 people ahead of me in line wanted to get in that van before I do, they will be doing so with black eyes and missing teeth.

I managed to get my bag up onto the van roof and grab a seat in the back. In the end, the incompetent San Juan Travel employees ram 18 people into 15 seats and 2 sitting on the soaking wet floor. It’s 36 degrees and 98 humidity and there is still fighting outside the van for another hour or so while we parr boil inside this death trap.

Then the first girl to board the bus ahead of everyone decides she wants to get off so we wait another 20 minutes while they undo the roof rack and find her bag. Seriously, she’s lucky she made it out of the van alive.

Van to hell.

Van to hell.

We finally leave for the 5 hour drive to Flores crammed in like a clown car. Me with a heavy day bag with my computer and iPad and other stuff where my feet should be with my feet crammed wherever they fit.  The seats… ha!  More broken springs than padding.  It was like getting pucnhed in the nuts with each pot hole… and there were lots of pot holes.

Horror roads. Chip sealed, and not well. For my readers back home, think Route 114 to Fundy before they fixed it a few years ago. Speed bumps every 2 km for 400km. Not to mention normal pot holes and swerving to avoid insane drivers.

Air con… ha! I had to keep the window open and ended up with wind burn on the left side of my face.

We finally get to the Belize /Guatemala border and the rain ends which only amps up the humidity level to something like 188%!   This must be what a lobster goes through in its final moments.

As we cross over to Guatemala, we’ve entered what appears to be a DMZ. Assault rifles everywhere. For those not aware, Guatemala had gone through a brutal 35 year civil war that invloved death squads and ethic cleansing of certain Mayan groups.  While this war ended in 2006 and Guatemala was now a safe place to travel again (relatively speaking), the scars of that war are still in evidence, especially at borders.  I will discuss this topic too in more detail in a future blog entry.

As we depart the border for Flores, the road turns into dirt in parts. Or should I say corduroy. The steel-toothed San Juan guy is talking about all their services and I realize that after we get to Flores my options are to transfer to another “bus” to Guatemala City, if it is even actually a bus this time, then overnight there or to stop in Flores and find a hostel.  I’m not liking the Flores idea because of the heat and humdity.  I’m done with it at this point.  Very little toeralnce or patience left but another 8 hours on a bus…not gonna happen so I begin praying to god, yaweh, Allah, Ganesh and the Flying Spaghetti Monster that I can find a room with Air Con in Flores.

About 20 km from Flores it hits me as my head hits the roof from another bump… The salivating… Oh oh. I know what’s coming next.

My mind races. I’m jammed in the back seat of an overstuffed 15 passenger van travelling at 100km an hour on bad roads.

Option one: turn around and chuck into the narrow space between my seat and the rear gate.

No. My day bag is there with my computer.  I rammed it in there at the border to get more foot room.

Option two: Bend over and spray my shoes.

Screw that I paid $179 for those and they’re literally the only shoes I own.

Option three: projectile vomit on the back of the head of the nice Mexican girl in the seat in front of me.

Of course not.

Option four: Frantically open the window beside the Mexican girl and somehow contort my body to hang my head out and let it rip.

Option accepted!  As I was about to perform this feat of contortion, a tractor trailer whizzes past in the opposite direction and it occurs to me this could lead to decapitation. Ahhhh!

Option 4.1

Somehow keep my head inside and skillfully aim out the window without splashing the above mentioned Mexican girl.

Oh Gsus… Ok willpower… Stuff it down. You’re not going to puke. You’re not going to puke. Yes saliva glands, I hear you, you want to produce several gallons a minute. Screw you. I haven’t eaten anything solid but a few handfuls of Doritos and a Snickers bar in 24 hours there’s plenty of room in my stomach for you! Swallow. Swallow. Swallow.  Willpower.

Then I hear the Israeli girls up front talking to San Juan guy about flights from Flores to Guatemala City. He says there is one today  and the price even includes a personal airport pickup and shuttle to Antigua.

That’s all I need. My brain finally wins the bare fists cage match with my stomach and I yell from the back of the bus…

“Book me on that flight!”


5 thoughts on “The road to hell.

  1. Gloria Beers says:

    Hey Scott. I am reading your blog and so far it is very interesting and eye opening. Your last post was craziness. Keep blogging and stay safe. Gloria 🙂

  2. Pingback: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men often go awry” | World Wide Wanderers

  3. Wow… what a journey. We’ll be doing this route next spring. I think we might try and catch that flight, or maybe cycling. Although those roads sound treacherous. Thanks for the heads up.

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