#15 – Guatemala & Belize

When travelling, you learn to hate bank holidays. Things get busier, more expensive or shut down entirely. It is one of the only times you need to plan ahead, so my plan to get from Xela to Cancun in a few days over the Easter holiday was always going to be a bit of a pain.

I also had to delay my leaving of Xela as I came down with some sort of illness / food poisoning. It may or may not have had something to do with a big night in Xela, ending in an after-after-after party, a story for another time but luckily I wasn’t feeling as bad as in Mexico City, but enough to knock me out for a day or two.

When I recovered I took a long bus from Xela to Guatemala City, and then a night bus from there to Flores, which is in the north of Guatemala. I’d heard some dodgy things about Guate City and from what I saw from the coach – and the fact that they locked us in to the bus terminal once we got there – backed up my thoughts that the less time spent there the better.

The bus driver on the night bus to Flores seemed intent on keeping awake all of the passengers. Whether it was randomly turning on the lights, smashing over speed bumps and even having everyone off the bus for it to be randomly searched; it was not my best night sleep.

I hadn’t booked any accommodation in Flores, which was a bit risky being Easter, but managed to get a bed in the same Hostel as  some Canadian girls I’d met on the bus. Flores is a nice enough place, a small and touristy centre that still has a tranquil vibe.

The main reason for going to Flores is to visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal, reputed to be some of the best in Latin America. Having slept through my alarm for my 5AM bus the next day, I was lucky to get myself on the 6AM for no added cost, and wow – Tikal is a magical place.

Spread over several miles, its setting in the forest amplifies its remote and atmospheric location, and due to the size and lack of tourists compared with other ruins, it’s easy to drift in to a daydream, imagining there is no one else around, discovering these ruins for the first time.

After reading up online and asking various people, they had all told me the same thing. ‘A tour is essential’, and I couldn’t agree less. True, if you take the tour then you’ll learn things that you wouldn’t have otherwise known – and probably end up forgetting them a week later, but it will be a long time before I forget finding a quiet area next some of the ruins, no one around, listening to the noises of the forest and watching the monkeys jumping from tree to tree.

If you’d rather lose yourself in your thoughts and explore this mystic nirvana away from the crowds then grab a free map from the local information point in Flores and go it alone, you won’t be disappointed.

The highest ruins of them all, an impressive 65 metres or so, still has parts which are being restored. I climbed around the back while no one was looking, and found a nice quiet spot where I lay down and drifted in to a semi-conscious nap. Away from the sounds of the tour groups, the clamor of the ‘howling monkeys’ rang in my ears like a tiger mauling its prey, as I slipped further in to my thoughts and dreams.

I was awoken around 20 minutes later by some rustling above me, and looked up to see two Police officers walking over. Oh shit, I thought – this is going to cost me.  I began stumbling my way through an apology in Spanish about why I was in the prohibited area, but they waved away my ramblings, smiling and me and started to talk to me like an old friend. Albeit an old friend that no longer speaks your language fluently.

Intently listening to try and work out what they were talking to me about, I managed to entertain them for some minutes, giving back answers which vaguely made sense, before they realized I probably wasn’t following the majority of the conversation at all. We all shook hands, exchanged pleasantries and I was on my way – it looked like the Mayan gods were smiling down on me, for this day at least – he who dares wins, rodders.

After spending the day at the ruins, and returning back to Flores, I took a walk through the small town and stumbled across a large recreation area filled with kids and teenagers playing all sorts of things – skaters, volleyball players and people just hanging out. Reminiscent of the days when I was there age, hanging out in the street, playing football, curbsy and generally being a nuisance. This is how kids should be spending their time, my inner grumpy old man mused, as I spot in one corner a group of teenage lads playing football.

I walked over to watch, hoping I’d get a bit of a kick around, especially as I had recently decided my goal for the trip was to play football with the locals of each country I visit. After 15 minutes or so of watching them play, I asked if I could join, and we played for a while with more and more locals joining in. Eventually we had enough for a small game, and then a further half hour later a tourist group of around 10 people turned up.

They saw me playing so walked over and asked if they could play, and before we know it we have a mini football tournament going. We played for hours until the sun was nearly down, bonding in a way that only football produces. I dubbed our dream ‘Guatelona’, with the winner staying on to play the team which sat out the previous game.

Only having flip flops with me at the time, the new-found blisters on my bare feet were starting to become unbearable, though always worth it, and as the last game was played and everyone said their goodbyes and went their separate ways I hobbled my way back to the hostel and to a much needed early night.

The bus to Belize left the next day, and as we arrived in to Belize City, it seemed like everyone else on the bus was making their way to an Island called Caye Caulker. I wondered why no one else was staying in the city. I soon found out – Belize City is an absolute shit hole – there is no getting around it.

The change between Guatemala and Belize is surely more dramatic then any other neighbouring countries in Latin America. Feeling more like a neglected city somewhere in the states, there was a huge Afro-Caribbean vibe, with Latin food replaced with fried meats and burgers. People spoke English with a sometimes barely comprehensible accent. It has a little how I would imagine Jamaica to look and sound.

The hostel I was staying in seemed to be like something out of an American sitcom. As I entered one of the ladies was cutting another’s hair, they said hello and ushered me inside. In the ground floor of the house there was some sort of make shift bar, with a couple of quirky characters propping it up, one seemingly talking to himself while glued to the TV. There was around 7 teeth between 4 people, and the whole place didn’t really seem real.

I was glad to only be staying one night I thought, as I made my way upstairs to the dorms. Luckily for my sanity there were some other travellers up there, all with the same ‘I don’t want to stay here any longer then I have to’ expression. There was a guy from Hong Kong and a girl from Poland, who both were only here as a stop off for getting back to Mexico, like myself.

I took a walk through the city, but only lasted about an hour before the hustlers became too much for me in my tired state. In all the places I’ve been so far, they have never been so persistent and at times intimidating then in Belize. It is a strange place, and some of the travellers I spoke to have loved the experience.

One local came and sat at my table as I was eating my burger. It seemed friendly to begin with, and as they speak English it’s hard to use language as an excuse to not engage. I could tell he was wanting or selling something, I just hoped it wasn’t too sinister. After the usual questions of where I came from, what I was doing, he tried to convince me to come out with him in that night.

He would get me some drugs and women and after politely declining he looked dumbfounded. Well what do you enjoy? He asked, a little incredulously. I told him I was tired and only wanted an early night, and again he pressed with his direct sales approach, telling me he could sell me women or drugs. I was beginning to feel uncomfortable, and made a feeble excuse to leave. He told me to come back to the bar later, ‘yeah, I will have a nap and maybe later’. No fucking chance mate.

Hong Kong, Polish and myself rendezvoused later and tried to hatch a plan to escape Belize the next day. Not quite on the great escape scale of things, our main problem being that the next day was Easter Friday, and apparently everything in Belize was completely shut down. We ventured down to the bus station, fighting off the hustlers, trying to get money for all sorts of reasons. ‘Hey I walked you through my dangerous neighbor, do you have a dollar??’, we were all hot and fed up by the time we got to the station.

One hustler persisted to follow us, constantly at my arm ‘James… come on man, I know you’ve got a dollar you can give me’. This carried on and on as we tried to work out which buses were leaving the next day. It looked like there was nothing except one night bus, of which this night was sold out, and the next night was nearly sold out. I didn’t have the money to buy the ticket on the spot, and it would have involved spending another day in Belize, a thought I resolved, that was not going to happen, whatever I had to do.

I looked at my co-conspirators. All fed up, hot and still being hustled by anyone and everyone in the bus terminal. Staff were nowhere to be seen, and those that we did manage to speak to were less helpful then a Pope’s top 10 tips to great sex leaflet (patent pending). I wasn’t going to wait in Belize another day, and told them I was going to attempt a hitchhike to the Mexican border.

The Polish girl immediately liked the idea and asked to join, and after a few minutes Hong Kong (also known as Fred), decided he’d come too. We stocked up on some supplies, and again we were escorted by hustlers through their apparently dangerous neighbourhoods. Once of which just seemed friendly, perhaps there are people in Belize who just want to help, I thought?

Either way we couldn’t get rid of him as he followed us, providing us with help and advice which we didn’t really need or ask for. At the end, after he had shown us the supermarket, he gave us a rap song, welcoming us to Belize. A charming performance, and got a good smile out of all of us. Just as we thought we had found the one Belizean not just after our money, he then followed it up with asking us for money.

He’d helped us out and seemed like a nice guy, so I went to pick out a few coins to give to him, and as we looked for change we were swooped on by 4 or 5 guys, all vying for some change, our hustler shooed them away but it was definitely the last time I would attempt to get any money out in a remotely public area, and to be honest I should have known better. I can only imagine the carnage if I had given the bus station hustler some money in view of others.

The next day we set off for a decent place to hitch from, and after walking about 45 minutes we were at an intersection for the main motorway. We were there about two minutes, when a car pulled over. It was a taxi and he jumped out before we were able to explain the situation. Once we told him we weren’t after a taxi, but were trying to hitchhike, he was visibly angry. He laughed at us, and said its Easter, we had a 1 in a million chance of getting a lift as he slammed his door and drove off.

Two minutes later a pickup truck stopped, just as we were writing our ‘Mexico’ sign on cardboard, and asked where we were going. They could take us about three quarters of the way up, and so we jumped in to the boot at the back of the pickup truck. One in a million? well then we just won the lottery.

Lying in the back of back of the truck we whistled through Belize in stifling heat. All of us relieved to be making some progress, and exhilarated by the experience. We gave the Belizean couple some money for the petrol, and the girl said she could drop us at the border if we gave another 10 dollars or so. It was too good to turn down, so after several hours, and a little sunburnt, we had made it to the Mexican border.

Jubilant and sweaty we walked between the border crossing, each of us feeling glad to be back on Mexican soil. It felt like coming home from a terrible holiday. The feeling of relief was hard to suppress, we were all back in our Latin home – we had made it.

(Postscript: I made it to Tulum later that day in order to meet my hostel reservation, and checked out the ruins, which paled in insignificance compared to Tikal. Coincidentally, I bumped in to a couple I had met in Guadalajara over a month previous. The next day I hopped up to Playa Del Carmen for a couple of nights, which Mexicans seem to love. It’s what I expected – lots of hostels, pristine but crowded beaches, busy bars, prices listed in US Dollars – but good to unwind and party if that’s your thing. Being Easter it was insanely busy, but the hostel was friendly, and we had a fun night out with some of the hostel crew before sorting my stuff out for my next stop – Cuba!)

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