An Unforeseen Difficulty

A Protest Around La Unión Hold Up My Trip

As I have written before, the biggest transportation problem on my trip was getting from Copán, Honduras to Rio Dulce, Guatemala. In the end, I was right. There had at one time been shuttle buses that made the trip, but either they had been canceled or occurred only during certain times. In the end, I cut a deal with a Honduran travel agency called Baseline Tours out of the Café ViaVia to hire a car and driver to:

  1. Drive me to Rio Dulce
  2. Allow for a one- or two-hour stopover at the Maya ruins of Quiriguá on the way

I wound up paying 1,700 Guatemalan quetzales (about $217) for a car and driver to take me there. I could have taken public transportation for much cheaper, but it would have thrown a monkey wrench into my schedule. I would have had to take a collectívo to the Guatemalan border at El Florido, a Litegua bus to Chiquimula, and an (unspecified) second class bus to Quirigua, where I would have had to spend the night. And then, I would have had to face the chore of a bus from Quiriguá to Morales, and from Morales to Rio Dulce. So I spent the money and adhered to my schedule.

Except there was one little unforeseen difficulty. Midway between El Florido and Chiquimula, the highway was closed in both directions because the residents of La Unión were protesting en masse some government dictate or malfeasance. For an hour and a half, I sat in the car reading my Kindle when—quite suddenly—the local police (shown above) started letting traffic through.

It is not unusual to find whole towns in Latin America shutting down access to and from their towns while they make their point to the government. Bolivia is particularly notorious for this type of action.

In the end, I got to Quiriguá and Rio Dulce with time to spare. It was not an accident that I left early, around 8 AM, to allow for this sort of hindrance.


Speed Bumps

A Poor Man’s Speed Bump: Just Stretch a Thick Rope Across the Road

It’s not unusual to find speed bumps or humps on suburban residential streets in the U.S., but Mexico and other Latin American countries put their speed bumps on major roads that cut through populated areas. In Mexico they were called topes; in, Guatemala, tumulos. It was in Honduras that I first encountered speed bumps that were thick ropes stretched across the highway. In the above photo, the rope is on the main street through Rio Dulce (a.k.a. Fronteras).

On the route I took from Copán, Honduras, to Rio Dulce, it seems that we went over a hundred or more speed bumps. Every community seemed to have them on the main highway from Zacapa to Puerto Barrios and the Petén.



Jungle Bus

Bathroom Break at Poptún

There I was in Rio Dulce. I spent one day on a boat ride to and from Livingston, and another day trying to get information on how to get to Flores in the Petén. One of my guidebooks named two travel agencies that were on a street just north of Bruno’s, where I was staying. I spent hours going up and down streets and not finding anything that looked like a travel agency, let alone a shuttle bus service. Besides, I had the feeling that the type of people who hung out in Rio Dulce weren’t all that interested in visiting Tikal.

Finally, I decided to take a public bus to Flores. Litegua didn’t go there. I saw no office for Dorado. Fortunately, the Fuente del Norte (FDN) office was very helpful. There was a 9:30 AM bus for Flores for only 65 quetzales ($8.30 in dollars). The bus started in Guatemala City around midnight and wound up, some fifteen hours later in Flores. Technically, it was a first class bus; but I had been warned that Fuente del Norte was less than cream of the crop.

The next morning, I showed up at the FDN office just as it was opening around 9 AM. I sat down in the waiting room. Fortunately, the bus arrived just after 9:30. Being a de paso bus (i.e., filled with passengers from earlier points on the route). Sometimes, a de paso bus arrives filled to capacity with passengers; this one had space for all the passengers who were waiting at the Rio Dulce office. Among the passengers who a British and a German couple. Other than myself, the rest of the passengers were Maya.

I had been prepared for a grueling ride, and it was that. I was wearing an adult diaper in case the ride lasted long without any restroom breaks. (Fortunately, there was a bathroom break in Poptún, midway along the route.) The ride was fiercely uncomfortable because all the bus seats appeared to be broken in different ways. And, as the bus barreled down the highway at high speed, I felt I was being shaken, not stirred.

At least the bus got me there in one piece.



The Flip Side

Lago de Atitlán at Night

My type of vacation is not all beer and skittles. Sometimes it’s downright anxiety provoking, especially when it comes to transportation issues. I wanted very much to see the market at Chichicastenango, but the ATITrans shuttle from Panajachel left only at 8:00 AM on Thursdays and Sundays. But I was staying at Santiago Atitlán, which is connected to Pana pretty much only via boat. (There is a road, but it is susceptible to hijacking.) I got sweats in the middle of the night worrying about whether I could make the connection.

So I arranged at the Posada de Santiago for a launch to pick me up at the hotel’s private dock at 6:00 AM, which gave me two hours to get to the ATITrans office via fast launch and tuk-tuk. The hotel assured me that the deal was done, for a mere 250 quetzales (roughly $32.00). At 5:15 AM, without my breakfast (the restaurant opened at 7:00 AM), I wended my way in the dark down the trail to the dock, which was fortunately well lit. At six sharp, I heard the launch and saw the headlights growing larger.

The ATITrans Office in Panajachel with List of Shuttle Destinations

They were right on time. We headed out before sunrise at high speed. It seemed we spent as much time in the air as on the surface of the lake. It was my bad luck that all four launch rides on the lake were on windy days with many whitecaps in evidence. But we made it to the public dock in Pana in three quarters of an hour. Fortunately, the tuk-tuks were already up and about, so I got to ATITrans with an hour to spare.

Fortunately, there was a fresh orange juice vendor setting up right across Calle Santander from me, so I had something of a breakfast after all. And in the end, I got to Chichicastenango in good time.


Garifuna Guatemala

Wait a Minute. Are We in Jamaica?

There are odd little corners of Guatemala where the normal culture does not prevail. I am thinking specifically of Livingston, Guatemala, where the majority population is still Maya, but where there is a significant black population.

After the British won the Seven Years’ War and took control of the Lesser Antilles. They sorted through the population of the island of St .Vincent: The inhabitants who were darker were banished by the victors to Roatán off the coast of Honduras. The inhabitants who were more Indian or Carib in appearance were allowed to stay. Over time, the banished blacks spread throughout the Caribbean coasts of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Currently, no roads lead to Livingston: Access is only by boat or shank’s mare.

The so-called Garifuna spoke an Arawakan language with elements of French, English, and Spanish.

Philip Flores, a Local Garifuna Guide

From Rio Dulce, I took an ASOCOLMORAN launch toward the river mouth and through the area known as El Golfete to the Caribbean port of Livingston. There I met with Philip Flores, a guide and local leader of the Garifuna population, and had an interesting conversation with him—in English. Philip had been to the U.S. and Europe and was well-versed not only in the ways of his community, but of the world at large.

We started out by sparring over how much each of us knew. Most tourists don’t know much about the places they visit. On the other hand, I usually read a pile of books about my chosen destinations, so I am not the usual tabula rasa. In the end, I found that much of what he had to say was interesting, so I had no problem in just listening. In the end, I gave him some money to be used for his work with local children.

If you should find yourself in Livingston, I suspect that Philip will be there to meet your boat.



Tuk-Tuk? Nyuk-Nyuk!

An India Import: Auto Rickshaws, or Tuk-Tuks, from Bajaj Auto of Pune, the World Leader

If one travels to smaller towns in Central America, one is likely to travel around town in an auto-rickshaw, called a tuk-tuk from the sound of its engine. Above are two tuk-tuks parked near the public dock in San Juan la Laguna, on the shores of the Lago de Atitlán. In towns where taxicabs exist, they generally are more competitive, costing 5 or 10 quetzales instead of 20 or 30 quetzales (or more). As of today, the quetzal is worth 12.7 cents based on OANDA Corporation’s currency converter.

Riding a tuk-tuk is sort of fun, if you relish the experience of being puréed in a blender. Given the cobblestoned streets and the quick sideways maneuvers to avoid oncoming automotive traffic, you are likely to be tossed about a bit. And if you look closely, you won’t see anything that resembles a seat belt. You just have to hold on for dear life.

In Guatemala and Honduras, I have seen tuk-tuks with a driver and up to four passengers, three sitting in the back and one perched precariously next to the driver. But then, the Maya are not a large people. You can probably fit two American adults, max, in one of these three-wheeled wonders.

Tuk-Tuk Traffic in Panajachel

At first, I was afraid of trying to ride a tuk-tuk, until I found myself stranded at the eastern edge of Antigua. I was footsore from walking too many miles on rough cobblestones and narrow, dicey sidewalks, and I didn’t see any taxes passing by the Santo Domingo Museum, but a tuk-tuk stopped for me; and I was happy to take a load off my feet.

Back from Guatemala

At Santiago Atitlán with Volcan San Pedro in the Background

Last night, after an agonizing ninety minutes going through customs after a number of jumbo jets had disgorged over a thousand Chinese, I finally returned home. We wasted no time in going to sleep, as I was still on central time. The last day of my vacation was twenty-six hours long.

All in all, the trip was a success. I went everywhere I planned to go using a variety of transportation, including airplanes, tourist shuttles, tuk-tuks (more about these later), fast motorboats, buses, taxis, and at one point a hired car. My itinerary was as follows:

  • Los Angeles
  • Guatemala City
  • Antigua
  • Panajachel
  • Santiago Atitlán
  • Chichicastenango
  • Antigua again
  • Copán, Honduras
  • Rio Dulce
  • Flores/Santa Elena
  • El Remate
  • Guatemala City
  • Los Angeles

The toughest part, as I suspected in advance, was going between Copán and Rio Dulce. That’s where I hired a driver through a Honduran travel agency to drive me to Rio Dulce with a two-hour stopover at the ruins of Quirigua, which was on the way.

In the weeks to come, I will describe the vacation in some detail, as well as including a number of historical, cultural, and other observations as they come to mind.