So a new country beckoned and we started our journey from Pelanque to the Mexico/Guatemala border.
With the pandemic still being very much a part of life, what used to be a straight forward transition from one country to another has become less smooth, more drawn out and with more hurdles to jump.
As well as the normal passports, exit fees and entrance fees, we had to provide vaccination certificates and a negative antigen test for entry into Guatemala. This would not even have been a slight problem back in Playa del Carmen, where testing stations were everywhere, but as the test could be no older than 72 hours Pelanque was our only possible place to test.
One of the reasons we came on this trip was to let someone else do the organising for a change. Over the last couple of Covid affected years we have arranged multiple state and country border crossings (14 to be precise). All requiring slightly different combinations of passes, visas and/or tests. So it was nice to let someone else sort out the paperwork for this one. Salvador, our guide, arranged for a couple of nurses from the nearest town, about 5 miles away to set up office at our hotel. We were then marched in one by one to carry out our tests. Thirty minutes later we all had negative results, so all we had to do was hand over our Mexican pesos. Easy! Everyone was a little relieved as no one wanted to miss the chance to see Guatemala.
Crossing land borders between countries who don’t have some form of formal agreement is generally quite interesting. When you fly from The UK on your holidays you negotiate passport control in a sterile orderly environment without even a stamp. You then fly over a few countries, enjoying a gin and tonic and watching a movie, before landing in another sterile, sometimes less orderly environment. You collect your luggage, pass through immigration where sometimes you get your passport stamped depending on where you have landed, and then it’s off to the beach. Even travelling around The EU there have, until recently, been virtually no obstacles at border points.
Travelling overland in other parts of the World can sometimes be different. The principle is always the same but the execution is sometimes different. As travellers we always find border crossings a sort of exciting day. Mexico to Guatemala was a pretty standard by Latin American standards.
We drove the three hours to the border. The closer we got, the more people we saw in groups walking towards us on the roadside. Salvador explained these were immigrants who started their journey at some point in Central America and were making their way to The USA. They had initially been part of “Immigrant Caravans” several thousand strong. Mexican law allows them free, uninhibited passage as long as they stay moving, on foot, on the highway. No public transport and no cutting across countryside is allowed. Some of them do take the risk and board ‘El Bestia’, The Beast. This is a freight train that runs from Southern Mexico to The US. It is also know as ‘El tren de la muerte’, The train of death, where kidnapping, rape and murder are commonplace. The whole scenario is one of sheer desperation.
Once we arrived at the Mexican border our transport was not licensed to continue so we loaded our luggage on our backs and lined up outside the small immigration office. As is the case a lot in Mexico nothing happens very quickly. One by one we entered the office and answered a few questions in broken Spanish and English. We were pre warned there might be an exit fee to pay (but if it was not asked for, don’t offer it). It generally depends on the immigration officer!
With passports stamped and no fees paid, we picked up our luggage and set off across ‘no man’s land’. This is the area between the two border posts, generally only a few hundred metres. We did a crossing between Chile and Argentina once which was a few miles apart!
We chose to walk to Guatemala although there were a few “tuk tuk” taxis for those who didn’t fancy it. Due to the nature of the region we are in, both ends of ‘No man’s land’ have a considerable armoured militiary presence. But, to be honest, we are starting to get quite used to military uniforms and automatic rifles being present on most street corners!
We walked carefully through the potholes and up the hill to a portacabin, beyond which was another stretch of unmaintained road leading to a fence topped with barbed wire and a large gate. The portacabin was the immigration office where one person took your $US1.50 entry fee, another person checked your documents, vaccination certificate and negative test and a third person stamped your passport. Central American efficiency ….. not!
We were one of the first through and were happy to see our Guatamalen transport waiting for us outside.
Sarah started to get the call of nature so decided to look for a toilet. She still hadn’t returned from the other side of the barbed wire fence when everyone was through immigration. “Where is Sarah”, asked Salvador. “She has just popped into Guatemala for a pee”, replied Steve. “We can pick her up on the way through”. You don’t get to say that everyday!
Guatemala was immediately different from Mexico. First of all our modern Mercedes sprinter van was now replaced by a 1950’s style bus, decorated inside in true Guatemalan colour. The bus had no storage so the luggage had to be loaded through a side window, and piled on the back few seats. But it started and travelled forward ……. for now at least.
With Sarah on board we chugged our way into a new country and towards the town of Flores on Lake Peten.
To be honest, we weren’t expecting much from Guatemala. There are lots of places in The World where we want to go, and some we feel we should go just to experience them. Guatemala was one of the latter. Surprise surprise, Flores turned out to be better than expected.
The small town is on an island in the lake, connected to the mainland by a bridge. Our hotel was small and clean, and right on the lake front. The lake itself was a beautiful setting and the whole place had a holiday feel to it. The shops, bars and restaurants were plentiful and modern and so colourful. It was all so much better than we had expected.
A few of us jumped on a wooden long boat and the driver took us across the lake to a beach with Howler Monkeys in the trees. Some of the group had a swim in the warm water and then we made our way back drinking rum punch as the sun went down. A long day but a memorable one.
The following day we visited Tikal. This is probably the most visited attraction in Guatemala. It is a huge Mayan city in the jungle and was the fourth Mayan city we have visited and they have all been different in some way. Tikal was the biggest and had some impressive structures.
The day involved a lot of walking and our guide had a vast amount of knowledge which he wanted to pass on to us. To be honest, it was too much and everyone agreed the constant facts and figures was overwhelming. In the end we wandered off and just enjoyed the atmosphere of the beautiful setting.
Probably the highlight of Tikal was the temple where some of the Star Wars movies were filmed. It was a bit of fun to watch a clip on ‘Youtube’ and then position ourselves where the actors were stood ….. We couldn’t work out how Han Solo managed to land The Millennium Falcon in that thick jungle though!
On our way back to town our less than plush bus was really starting to sound awful. Steve was convinced the driver was unaware he had a clutch as he rammed the gears into place. Eventually, something fell off the underside of the bus with a loud bang and the bus coasted to a stop!! To be fair, it was inevitable, it was just a matter of time before it gave up the ghost. The driver made a few calls, another bus was dispatched and on the side of the road we did a luggage switch, out of one window and into another, and off we went again as if it was an everyday occurrence.
Our brief trip into Guatemala was over far too quickly. Steve in particular could have spent another couple of days in Flores for sure. But that is one of the downsides to tours. One of the upsides though is the great and interesting people you meet.
Our travel day to Belize began in a very unexpected manner. Again, we had to provide a negative antigen test to enter but this time it had to be done at the border. This caused a few slight concerns for some as it was unclear what would happen if a positive result was obtained. Belize would definitely not allow entry but would Guatemala let you back in after being stamped out, having tested positive? No one could find a definite answer.
It’s probably a good time to point out that the tour we were on was only the second time it had been run in over two years (due to the pandemic). The first time, five of the group had tested positive in Mexico, at which point it was cancelled. We were now effectively acting as Guinea pigs. So, when we were gathered in the hotel reception at 5.30am ready to depart to Belize, it came as a bit of a shock when Salvador emerged wrapped in a blanket. He told us all to go outside and stand on the other side of the street and revealed to us he had felt unwell the previous evening and self tested with a positive result!! He now had to self isolate in the hotel and we had to move onto Belize without him.
We piled our luggage through the windows of the bus, in what was becoming a familiar routine, and set off on the three hour trip to the border. Another stamp out of Guatemala and a trek across ‘No Man’s Land’ and we arrived at the barbed wire fence, gate and automatic machine gun carrying guards that was Belize immigration.
The reason for our very early start was the land border was only open between 9am and 12 noon, so we needed to be nearer the front of the queue than the rear to be of sure of getting in. Luckily there was only a handful of people before us and we joined the queue for an antigen test. There was certainly a small amount of apprehension as one by one we stepped forward to have our test and wait for a result. A positive test would bring with it some uncertainty. Which country would we end up in?Where would we do our quarantine? Where would we go afterwards?
One by one we were called forward for our results. “Geraldine negative”, “Amanda negative”, “Christos negative” “Steve negative”, “Sarah positive”………”Oh no, sorry, negative”
We all received negative tests even though Salvador had tested positive the previous evening. We jumped into our new transport with the ink from our Belize passport stamp still wet and drove the 15 minutes to San Ignacio, the second largest town in Belize.
We were going to cover Belize in this post but we have waffled on too long and we did have one very special day in Belize which will take even more waffling, so we will leave it until next time.