Last Wednesday, our third housemate and friend Gavan returned to San Francisco after staying with us for three months. As Nelson and I looked at the coming schedule for the month of December and then my departure in January, we realized this would be the last weekend in which our talks of going to Guatemala could actually become a reality. With that, we set about plans to visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal.
After we said our goodbyes and dropped off Gavan at the airport, Nelson’s father took us to San Salvador where we stayed the night with Nelson’s aunt. We awoke at 4:30AM the next morning to catch the 6AM bus from San Salvador to Guatemala City. We used the famous Tica Bus line and sat ourselves down for the first of what would be many hours on a bus.
As we approached the border to El Salvador and Guatemala, the bus opened its doors at a small side area where you are given 15 minutes to buy breakfast and exchange money. When we got off the bus, we were bombarded with people trying to sell us things and have you exchange money with them. It’s kind of overwhelming in a way, but we made our through and finally got to eat some pupusas.
We got back onto the bus and headed to the Salvadorian border checkpoint. There, officials came through and checked all of our passports and travel documents. Of course my passport is always a point of confusion here in Central America. First off, my picture is from 2004 so I’m a lot younger, chubbier and have different hair. Next, I have a a fully Latino name and I can communicate in Spanish, but my Spanish is with a Mexican accent and my passport is from the United States. I always get weird looks, then asked if my parents are Salvadorian. When I say, “No,” they want to know where my parents are from and what I’m doing in Central America. I got the look over quite a few times.
Seeing as how I’m not actually up to no good, we made it across the bridge at the border and onto the other side to deal with Guatemalan customs. In Guatemala, you have to get off the bus and stand in a line at the border where more people trying to get you to change money hound at you. I got my stamp to enter Guatemala far easier then when I entered El Salvador and we continued one our way to Guatemala City.
The Tica Bus approaches Guatemala City from above and descends down into this large metropolis. As we turned a mountain road, the vast cityscape came into view. We drove through a major business area where a large Christmas tree sat in a public square. However, instead of a star it was topped with a light-up rooster. Only in Latin America.
Guatemala City is broken into 12 different subzones with the bus dropping us in Zone 10. A woman working at the Tica Bus stop informed us of a shuttle service they have that would take us into Zone 1. It’s in Zone 1 where we could buy tickets for the 10-hour overnight bus ride into Flores, the gateway to Tikal.
Our shuttle driver was a character and looking to make some money. After he dropped off the first passenger at his hotel, he focused his attention to us and asked us where we were going and what our plans were. We told him we needed to change money, buy our tickets for the El Fuente del Norte bus line and get to the Cinelux where we hoped to catch the last day of a local film festival.
The driver offered to do all of this for us for a fee of $10, under the table of course. He proceeded to tell us about how dangerous Guatemala City was and how we was really doing this for our safety. For as much as he was totally bullshitting us, he did offer some helpful bits of information and got us to everywhere we needed, even if he did end up dropping us off four blocks away from the actual Cinelux.
This turned out in our favor though, as we found ourselves in the central square of Guatemala City facing the National Palace of Culture and la Calle Sexta, which is more or less Guatemala City’s version of something like the Grove or Americana.
We strolled through the city’s main square and find our way to the Cinelux where we actually managed to watch three shorts of varying quality as part of the Icaro Central American Film and Video Festival. The first short was a surreal drama from Spain that left me scratching my head (probably the same reaction some had to “Vision”), the second was a documentary on a Guatemalan beach community and their annual sea turtle festival (Festival de la Tortuga), and finally a documentary on an African festival that takes place annually in Cuba.
Following our film screenings, Nelson and I were starving and decided to take our chances with a Chinese restaurant on the la Calle Sexta. I ordered some ‘meat’ lettuce wraps that were quite delicious and tried a Gallo, Guatemala’s national beer. Random note, I’ve had Chinese food in both San Salvador and Guatemala City, and in both cities the meals are accompanied with two pieces of white bread as opposed to white rice. Still not sure why…
After dinner, we headed over and boarded our double-decker, leather seated bus that was scheduled to depart at 9PM. Once inside, I quickly fell asleep in my seat, awaking only when we crossed over some weird pot hole or the bus made an extremely sharp turn.
When I regained consciousness, we had arrived in Peten where we boarded a small motorized rickshaw that took us across a bridge and into the island community of Flores. Flores is the hub for tourists looking to travel to the Mayan ruins of Tikal. Flores is a very beautiful and small city, but it feels like a tourist trap. Every restaurant, hotel and business is catered to foreigners and their prices for food and groceries reflect that.
Nelson and I visited the tourist center and found a hostel to stay at called, “Los Amigos.” Owned and operated by Europeans, “Los Amgios” is a lively place with a full restaurant and bar that caters to young people traveling in Latin America. It also offers a bus service to Tikal that leaves at 5AM so you can get into the national park before the crowds arrive.
One of the most surprising things I’ve learned about travelling is how much tourists end up just socializing and talking with other tourists. People leave their homeland to see the world and experience other cultures, but only want to interact with locals when it comes to ordering dinner, a beer or asking for directions. I know it comes from a desire to feel safe in a new and foreign place, but do backpackers actually want to experience another culture or just sample it and collect passport stamps?
With our room situation and bus ride to Tikal organized for the next morning, we wandered the small city of Flores and decided to take swim in the lake surrounding the island. The water was crisp, clear and clean, and it was very fun jumping off the pier into the water.
Hunger showed its face once again, so we found a small restaurant to eat dinner at in which we shared the large appetizer plater of calamari, fried eggplant, quesadilla, chicken wings and seasoned potatoes. We capped the night with drinks at a local bar which had a good jazz band playing. Initially, we were the only audience members in the whole place, but luckily for us, other foreigners showed up and relieved some of that pressure.
My alarm buzzed me awake at 4:30 the next morning and we got ready to head to Tikal.
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