My Introduction to the Colectivo

Flores Guatemala

The time came to say goodbye to San Ignacio and the amazing adventures it held.  With slightly damp shoes, a spring in my step, and my two backpacks resting on my shoulders I made my way towards the central square.

Once there, I located a Taxi driver I’d bartered with earlier in the morning, re-confirmed the fare I’d bartered for earlier (about 10 dollars) and then piled my gear into the trunk.  Before long we were lazily cruising across the Belizean country side towards the Guatemalan border.  A new country and new adventure awaited.

The ride itself was fairly brief at about 10-15 minutes. The driver was amiable and shared stories and advice before pulling up to the border station and pointing me in the direction I needed to go.

A few passport stamps and about $20 later I’d paid the exit fees and was waved into the no man’s land between borders.  There I looked across and into Guatemala and paused briefly a bit confused.  Straight ahead there was a seething mass of currency traders and taxi drivers, a small guard house to block vehicles and….an open road?  It took me a solid minute of watching before I realized that the border station was actually set to the side, giving it a somewhat optional feel.

In my general ignorance, I’d nearly (and amazingly, very well could have) walked straight into Guatemala.  Chuckling at the differences between the borders back home and those in Central America, I threaded my way through the crowd, somewhat surprised and unnerved by the large number of Guatemalan security personnel on guard with large, sawed off shotguns resting casually at their waists. Eventually I identified the right line, paid my 20 GTQ (less than $3 USD) entrance fee and got my stamp.  From there it was down to the Taxis where, despite what I’d read in the guide book, I opted to take a quick taxi ride to where the Colectivos (Collectivos in English) were.

The Adventure Begins

After talking briefly with a Taxi driver, and telling him where I wanted to go (less than a mile) – we agreed on a price of 10 GTQ or about $1.25.  I got in, and we started rolling down the street…slowly.  Before we’d gone 15 feet, he started trying to pressure me into a $40 USD Taxi ride to Flores.  A situation made that much more confusing given his lack of English and my marginal (at best) Spanish.  Not completely opposed to the idea but eager to try the Colectivo and not interested in spending $40 I countered that I’d give him $20 but wasn’t especially interested. As you can imagine, his response was less than enthusiastic.

Outside of San Ignacio

Preferring to try and pressure me into it, he slowly made his way down the street, going so far as to head through the intersection and begin towards Flores. Annoyed, I opted for a classic tactic, I’ve found to work particularly well with high-pressure sales people who won’t take no for an answer: I took my already low $20 offer, and dropped it $2 every time he countered. While they may be immune to “No” and happy to ignore it.  They tend to be far more susceptible and give up much quicker in the face of ridiculously bad (and decreasing) offers.   By the time I reached $14, he pulled over and tried to find someone who spoke English.  On his second try he found someone, who translated.  I re-iterated my stance and without further adieu was dropped off down the street in front of a Colectivo.

Before I’d had the chance to get out and grab both bags, the larger of the two was scooped up by the Colectivo’s driver.  As he turned and began to swing it up towards the Colectivo’s roof, I stopped him with a quick, “Woah, no no no!”. He paused, allowing me the time to confirm the fare – 35 GTQ or about $4 USD and destination: Flores.  That accomplished I smiled, waved, and relaxed as my bag was hoisted onto the van’s roof rack.

Now, let me preface by saying that I’ve experienced my fare share of mass transport adventures.  From odd taxi cabs, Croatian Buses teetering along steep cliff faces, and rural Greek buses.  None of those prepared me for Colectivos.

Colectivo Interior

For the uninitiated the Colectivo as I encountered it is, in effect, a van/group taxi.  The one I found had a sliding side door and had been modified to fit as many people as humanly possible.  It had three rows of forward facing seats, in addition to the front bench seat and a Jerry-rigged backward facing bench immediately behind the driver.  Each of the middle two seats had a small fold down extension that allowed passengers into the back seats, without losing any space.

Recall that I’m 6’4″ and that your average Maya/Mexican/Guatemalan in the region is perhaps 5’3″.  Now imagine the look on their faces, as I walked up and was pointed towards what I thought was the last available seat in the Colectivo: the fold down chair in the row 2nd from the back.

I paused. Scratched my head, and then decided that the only way I’d be able to actually get to/into the chair was to back in, butt first. The locals all found both my size, and my entrance highly entertaining.  As I sandwiched into the small seat, wondering if it would support my weight, my seatmate – a Mother traveling with her suckling babe – introduced herself, chuckled again softly, and offered a few words of advice.

Before long the folding seat in front of me was flipped up – catching my somewhat unawares, and smacking my knees.  With a groan I realized that my knees would be supporting the chair back for the duration of the trip. The Colectivo had two operators.  The driver, and then a 2nd individual who rode in the back and was in charge of ticketing and seating.  His approach was simple, but creative.  Cram as many bodies as humanly possible into the vehicle. Out for room?  Then open the door or a window and hang out.

As I mentioned previously, I had thought that I was one of the last to board.  Boy-o-boy was I wrong.  As time passed our numbers grew.  From 16, to 17.  From 17 to 20.  From 20 to 22. Wide eyed, I did my best to take up as little room as possible, trying to take in the experience and reminding myself that the ride was only 2 hours.  The ticket had only cost $4 and that this was a cultural experience.

Finally the door slid closed and we began our trip.  It was hot, muggy, and more than a little smelly.  Luckily I was located next to one of the windows, allowing the opportunity to mingle fresh air with the smell of body sweat, perfume, cologne, and the odd assortment of food’s several of the other travelers had packed.

We’d gone some 3 blocks when we paused again.  This time the door slid open, the woman next to me muttered, and 4 more people piled into the vehicle.  The area around the door quickly became standing room only, and after a half hearted attempt, the ticket guy swung his torso up and out the open door, to hold onto the roof rack…and we were off again.  I chuckled at the spectacle of it all as I listened to the tires ground out and rub every time we hit a small bump or pothole.

As we continued along our way we dropped people off in front of farms, or small towns and replaced them with others who we found standing along the roadside.  The roads themselves were an interesting mixture.  At times newly paved, other times so riddled with potholes that it felt more like we were dodging a minefield than driving on a major national highway.  The majority of the road, however, was packed dirt/sand which had been recently grated and was in relatively decent shape.  It’s truly a testament to the economic state of the region that the major artery connecting northern Guatemala to Belize (and Mexico in turn) is little more than a two lane dirt road in many places.

About an hour into the two hour trip – things took a turn for the interesting.  The colectivo had emptied out to a reasonable and dare I say, nearly comfortable, level when we paused and picked up a group of 5 women with children. While there were fewer people numerically, the size of our average group member had increased significantly between the newly added women and several stocky farmers we’d picked up previously.  As they boarded, the ticket man directed one towards the sliver thin space between my seatmate and I. The woman beside me muttered that the man must be out of his mind and I worked to squeeze myself as far towards the window/wall as possible. It wasn’t far enough, which meant that the woman ended up more or less sitting on my left leg. I let out a quite groan-laugh and couldn’t help but think to myself, “Well boy, you ain’t in Kansas anymore are ya’?”.

Somehow they managed to get the sliding door closed and we started forward once again.  Unfortunately, most of the women had children with them of suckling age.  As it turns out, one of those children happened to belong to the woman in my lap. Before long her daughter began to shriek, with eyes and nose running it quickly became apparent that Grandmother wouldn’t be able to quiet her. No bother! We pulled off to the side of the road and the ticket man jumped out.  Scratched his head for a minute and then began a game of musical chairs. Mom was gone – back up to the front where she could hold her daughter. Unfortunately for me, the person she switched with?  A small dude.

It was at about this point in time that the adventure was starting to turn from entertaining cultural experience into…well, something I was ready to be done with.

I opened the window a crack more, leaning as much of my body as I could towards it and the window.  Doing my best to take up as little room as possible. Then it really took a turn for the ridiculous.

It was like a lunch bell silently had gone off somewhere.  Within the course of 3 minutes – often in the middle of a conversation – three of the mother’s casually pulled down their tops and offered up their teats to their suckling babies.  On the one hand, I’m all for a more relaxed, mature and natural approach to breast feeding.  On the other hand – that’s just not something you run into in the U.S. or most of Europe and when you do, it’s typically done under the cover of a blanket.  Needless to say, I was in culture shock.

Just what IS the appropriate protocol for riding sandwiched in a small van with 20 some odd people, breasts exposed all over the place, with a dude sitting in your lap, while having a conversation with a breastfeeding woman?  Frankly, I haven’t the slightest clue.  I laughed at my discomfort, looked out the window, counted the minutes and tried to remind myself – that here, this, was normal. This was healthy.  This was natural.

Some two hours later we arrived in Flores.  I let out a sigh of relief and light groan as I slowly extricated myself from my seat, before thanking the Colectivo team for one hell of a cultural experience and taking me the extra few blocks out onto the Island of Flores itself.

In retrospect, would I do it again?  In a heart beat.  Will I be using Colectivos for trips longer than 30 minutes in the future?  Most definitely not.

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