The First Border Crossing of Many

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Flag of Guatemala  ,
Sunday, August 22, 2010

I found a bus company to take me across the border from Palenque. They were supposed to come at 5 a.m., when it was still pitch black and everything was shut. They came about half an hour late, which I've come to expect now but which made me anxious. There were four other people on the bus - three friends - another Garrett (from U.K.), his girlfriend Maria (Spain) and Mauricio, from Mexico City, who was a marine biologist. They were all working on the Galapagos Islands and the two guys were working with some organization associated with the Charles Darwin research center, so I asked them a little bit about volunteering there. There was also a Dutch guy, Henri, who'd been traveling through Mexico and did a lot of organized tours. He was complaining about this tour was just an hour too long, that one was just an hour too short. I said I was finding it hard to leave Mexico and move on because there's so much to see in Mexico, and he said, "yeah, but the more of Mexico you see, the more you realize it's all the same." I had to disagree with that!

We stopped at this roadside breakfast place under a big thatched-roof porch in the jungle, where all the other tourists were who were also going to the border. Then we got to Frontera, a dusty town with low buildings and dirt roads and I got stamped out of Mexico. We drove up to the River Usumacinta and parked. I was the only one crossing the border and everyone else in my bus was going off on a tour down the river, so they took off and I got handed off by the driver to another guy who took me, two other Spanish girls and a Korean guy down to the river, into a long wooden boat and across to Guatemala! I was grinning so big - to see Mexico on one side and Guatemala on the other, it was so cool to come in this way! On the other side we climbed up a dirt road and there was another tour company on the other side that had an old bus full of a bunch of 20-year-old Brits on vacation and we were off to Flores over dirt roads for about four hours. It was all tiny villages, hills and fields dotted with palm trees, crops, etc. We passed a couple of school houses that weren't much more than cement buildings without walls. Later I heard from a local that the education system in the rural areas isn't much - the school day lasts from about 9 a.m. to 11:30, when the teacher has to catch the bus back home. We stopped at the immigration office next to a cow pasture and got stamped in as the cows looked on.

We got to Flores, an island in Lake Peten Itza. The island is so small it takes about five minutes to walk from one side to the other. It's really colorful, all the buildings painted in tropical colors, with a big church in the middle. I checked into the cheapest place I could find, about $12 a night, but I had to switch the next day. The room was just dark and depressing and there were little bugs in one corner. I haven't yet acclimated to that standard and I hope I don't have to! I got some pizza for dinner, walked around and saw a parade. It was two marching bands from two local schools, just making a parade around the island. It was so quiet and then suddenly everyone came out to follow the parade around and watch the sunset.

There were a lot of other travelers on the island. I met these two American guys, Jason and Mike, who were traveling all the way to the tip of South America too, but doing it all on bikes and taking two years for it! One of them had started in Alaska and the other one joined in in Mexico. They'd planned to stay in Flores for three days but had been there for nine - it kind of had a way of sucking you in with the island atmosphere and the lake. I ended up staying another day too because I found a great place on the other side of the island with air conditioning (it was sooo hot) and cable TV and I was reluctant to give up these comforts!

I went on a morning tour of Tikal the next day. These huge Mayan pyramids reaching up through the forest canopy. We climbed one and it went straight up above the tops of the trees so we could see the forest all around from above. We were the first people at the park when the gates opened at 6 a.m. The idea was to see a lot of wildlife, but then we stopped for breakfast and by that time a lot of other tour groups had arrived so there wasn't a lot of wildlife to see by that point, though we did see monkeys in the trees and our guide found a baby boa constrictor and picked it up to show us, plus a tarantula. I'm waiting to see more wildlife - hopefully in Costa Rica. I met another Dutchman, also named Henri, who was traveling Central America from south to north and we got some dinner together later that night. He was interesting - a geography teacher who'd done a lot of traveling in Asia, South America, lots of places. He'd pick a country to come into and another to leave from and travel in between. He did this every year - those lucky Europeans - so much vacation time!

Finally after a few days I was ready to move on - Belize was next! I got a ticket with the same company that I got the Tikal tour with and I was glad. When I got to Flores, the company that brought us in, San Juan Tours, stopped at their office to sell us tickets to Tikal and Belize, but I didn't know when I'd be leaving, so I waited to buy a ticket. Then when I got to the border with Belize a few days later, there was this European couple there that had gone with San Juan to get to Belize and San Juan had left them at the border! To cross the border, I got off my bus, got stamped out of Guatemala, walked through the Belize immigration building and the bus got me on the other side, but their bus took off without them and they had to get a plane from Belize City in a few hours. They were starting to panic, but our driver told him he was only cleared to take four people across the border and couldn't give them a lift, no matter what they paid. Yikes! I hope this doesn't happen, but I was thinking maybe there are some advantages to standing out a little here (blond, traveling alone) - hopefully I'm not likely to be forgotten at the border!
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DUDE! I'm going to San Salvador soon and it looks like you are getting close. I'll be there on Monday the 13th in the afternoon till Friday afternoon. Can you make it? You can stay with me at the Intercontinental. Let me know! xo, Christina

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