Three Countries in 10 hours and New Years Celebrations

Flores, Guatemala

I didn’t sleep well.  I was nervous.  It was sometime around 4AM in the twilight hours of the last day of 2009. I had an early bus to catch, was traveling on a holiday, would spend time in 3 different countries over the next 10 hours, and had to sleep with my camera. Why the odd bedfellow?  In the absence of an alarm clock, watch, or other time keeping device – the internal clock on my Canon G11 was my sole time piece.  Luckily my internal clock held true, waking me a half hour or so before I needed to be up.

Sunset - Flores, Guatemala

I stretched, groaned at the odd noises one of the local birds was making, and then stumbled over to my locker.  A few brief minutes later I found a bench outside my dorm room and sat down, carefully making sure I had everything as I tied my shoes.  The sun had just begun to rise.  It was the start of a gloomy, but invigorating day.  The type that was made for travel – gloomy enough that you don’t feel like you’re missing something, but nice enough that downtime between buses etc. isn’t miserable.

From there it was down the uneven cobblestone streets to the waterfront where my Flores (Guatemala) -> Chetumal (Mexico) bus would pick me up at 7:30.  I confirmed my booking, then opted for a bit of breakfast at the small cafe next door.

Flores, Guatemala

As I sat down at one of the outside tables, I chuckled while making eye contact with a vibrantly colored, inquisitive parrot who was carefully perched (dare i say stranded) on top of the “Break Fast” sign.

There were a few of us out and about. All bleary eyed. All wishing we were still in bed. My food arrived, as did a bland black coffee just as there was a loud POP! Crackle! POP! From somewhere overhead.  Startled I looked over and up in time to see the large power pole begin to spark and smoke.  The two locals underneath it jumped back as I leapt out of my chair and got under the cover of the building, carefully eying the power line which stretched directly over the table i’d been sitting at.

The owner quickly grabbed a wooden broom, then ran around turning off all of the electronics as the power pole/line continued to smolder and throw off periodic sparks. Eventually it died down…just in time for the local who had previously been standing immediately under the pole to walk over and tentatively touch it.  Luckily, the danger appeared to have passed and with a wary eye I returned to my table, plowed through my food, paid my bill and made my way to the bus stop.

The bus ride itself wasn’t anything special.  A long trip with brief pauses ever hour or two.  Two quick stops – one at the Guatemala/Belize border and another at the Belize/Mexico border where we disembarked, paid a plethora of fees, then wandered aimlessly into the country.  The highlight, however, was a wonderful husband and wife who were traveling together. The husband was a scientist and professor at UNLV who shared a wealth of insights with me about climate change, recently discovered micro-organisms in extreme locations, and other like-kind scientific insights.  Our conversation was both fascinating and extremely informative which went a long way towards speeding up the trip.

Eventually we arrived at the Chetumal bus station, where we would book the second leg of our trip.  For me it was onto a 1st class bus for the 4 hour bus ride to Play del Carmen where I hoped my hostel reservation was waiting for me.  Unfortunately, the first bus was sold out, leaving an hour plus layover and adding to my anxiety.  Nervous about losing my reservation I found a tiny internet cafe in one of the Bus Station coffee shops, from which I sent a follow up/confirmation e-mail to my hostel.  “Please hold my spot, I am coming from Guatemala today! If everything goes according to plan I’ll be arriving sometime between 10-11:45”.

I was exhausted, smelled, and stressed. The last thing I wanted to do was spend New Years on a Mexican bus.  Luckily, the bus eventually appeared, was on time, and got me safely to Play del Carmen by 10:30PM.

Nervous about my reservation I made a B-line to the hostel and was relived to find that they’d received my e-mail right about the time they were debating giving the bed away.  I was in luck, they’d kept a bed set aside for me in one of the dorms. I’d made it before new years – and I was ready to celebrate.

In a small mealstrom of activity I washed up quickly, deodorized, changed and made my way up to the hostel bar.  A couple of dollars later and with a beer in each hand I set to the task of making new friends.  I quickly fell in with a Dane and some Aussies. As the seconds ticked by we counted down,  drinks held in in the air:  10, 9, 8, 7 – whew I’d made it! – 6, 5, 4 – What an amazing year.  I’d kicked it off in the Plaza del Sol 12 months earlier in Spain and now I already found myself saying goodbye to 2009 on a different continent, with equally delightful people after a year of incredible adventure – 3, 2, 1…..and then the rooftop bar exploded with a roaring cheer.   Hugs and high fives were exchanged, glasses and beer bottles clanked together and as one, people from all over the world celebrated the start of a new year and a new adventure.

After another hour or so at the Hostel bar, a group of us formed up and set out to explore a few of the local clubs.  Before long we found one along the beach with an incredible view of the ocean and great music.   For the next few hours we danced, drank, socialized, and exchanged stories.  At 4AM I realized I was quickly approaching the 24 hour mark and that I was drained of every last ounce of energy I had.   I said by goodbyes and made my way back to the hostel where I crawled into my bunk, let out a great sigh and drifted towards sleep.

Unfortunately, I was in the top bunk located in the very corner of the room, immediately between two large windows. The good news was, that the sunrise was spectacular.  The bad news was, that between the sunlight and eventual heat coming off the windows I was awake and drenched in sweat by 8:30AM.  Hungover, I set out to walk the beach and get some fresh air. To my amusement and surprise the party was still raging at one of the beach clubs.  With more than a few people passed out along the beach in front, the bar itself was full of people dancing.  Many were still in evening dresses from the night before, though most had long since lost their shoes.  Most of the guys were in similar form, though almost all had long ago abandoned their shirts.

Beach New Years Day

As I strolled along the beach I paused and couldn’t help but laugh.  Immediately in front of the club, half buried in the sand a reveler was sound asleep.  Passer-bys had decorated the individual with beer bottles, sand breasts, and upended cups.  The only sign of life was a periodic roaring snore.

Eventually feeling refreshed I made my way back to the hostel where the Air Conditioning had kicked in.  I crawled back into bed for a quick nap.

By 1 I made my way to the rooftop common area, where I settled in with a large water and my book.  Before long Daniel and Jesse joined me.  We exchanged stories from the night before, and I quickly learned that after I’d left Jesse and Daniel had continued full force.  As it turned out, much to Daniel and my entertainment – Jesse was locked out of his room.  With nothing better to do, we opted to head down to a beach front bar for a lone drink as we recovered.

Play del Carmen

Before long we’d stumbled on the site of a week long rave/music festival that was operating 24/7.  Set up around a resort’s beach front pool the area was packed with people dancing, celebrating, and relaxing. The scene was an incredible chance to people watch and full of entertaining antics.  Before long, someone volunteered to grab the first round which obliterated any hope we’d had for a relaxing 1 beer afternoon.  As the part picked up steam we drank, danced, and met an entertaining mixture of locals, travelers, and vacationers.   In what seamed like the blink of an eye 1PM had turned into 6PM which had bled into 8PM.  Hungry we tore ourselves away from the party long enough to make our way back towards the hostel.  The walk there was amazing, mostly along the beach,  and under a full Blue Moon.  Once back to the hostel we picked up a few more people, changed quickly, then found a near by dollar taco stand.  The jokes were hilarious, offensive, and often told around a mouth full of taco and Pacifico.

With laughter and salsa induced tears streaming down our faces we eventually finished dinner, before striking out to find a nightclub.  The first attempt was a failure…apparently night clubs didn’t care for one of the Australian’s ball-bulge-spedoesque-swimsuit, which set off another round of jokes and laughter.   Making a scene as we ambled through the street – often laughing hysterically or making odd faces – we eventually found a club that welcomed us with open arms…and free drinks.  From there it was on to the Blue Parrot where we watched a fire show, danced, and laughed at each other mostly because  Daniel, Jesse and I had all begun to lose our voices and sounded ridiculous.

By 3 we’d all started to hit a wall and eventually opted to limp our way back to the hostel and turn in.  If New Years Eve/Day was any indication, 2010 will be one hell of a great year.

The Island-City of Flores in Guatemala

Flores - Guatemala

The city of Flores is an unusually picturesque city. Situated on a small island in the middle of lake Peten Itza, Flores is connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway.  The causeway connects Flores to the two surrounding towns which are home to most of the area’s population. The two neighboring towns are Santa Elena and San Benito both of which sit along the shores of Lake Peten Itza and service Flores.

Map of Flores from Los Amigos Hostel

The island of Flores is an odd oasis.  Still concretely Guatemalan, the island has evolved into a tourist oasis.  Cleaner, more secure, and significantly more upscale than Santa Elena and San Benito, Flores is home to a wealth of hotels, restaurants, small stores, internet cafe’s and nick-knack shops.  Roughly circular in nature, the island offers an incredible 360 degree view of the lake and surrounding towns, jungles and neighboring islands.

View from Flores, Guatemala

Unlike most small islands its size, Flores sits on top of a relatively tall hill.  The hill itself is mostly invisible, submerged under hundreds of years of development, modification and cultivation.  The city has a large outer loop road which wraps around the waterfront and then a series of internal rings in smaller circles which are bisected by cobble stone streets on a gentle incline which point towards the city park and Cathedral which rest on the flattened top of the hill in the center of the island.

Outdoor Market - Flores, Guatemala

The mainland is home to the airport as well as a large series of semi-permanent outdoor market streets.  The most interesting of which was a long market street which features a ramshackle collection of street side fruit and vegetable vendors.  The sheer amount of produce was incredible. The photo above showcases one stand and is representative of the 30-50 similar stands which were set up side-by-side along the street.

Outdoor Market - Flores, Guatemala

For those feeling inquisitive it’s possible to fork off of the main drag, which serves as the produce street, onto one of several smaller mixed goods streets.  These are a seething mass of humanity, clutter, smells and small motorcycle Taxi’s called Tuk-Tuks.  As an Argentinian girl from the hostel and I made our way through the market, we paused periodically to enjoy the vibrant pulse of the marketplace.

Though the market seemed safe enough, the always visible military and security personnel standing on every other street corner with automatic weapons or sawed off machine guns at the ready, were a vivid reminder of the economic and political turmoil currently plaguing the region.

Though the market itself had a fairly visible security presence, it paled in comparison to the amount of security, police and military personnel on the Island of Flores.  In many ways the police presence left me feeling as though I was in an island fortress in the midst of some sort of great turmoil.   Stores of any significant size and even some restaurants had armed security guards.  At night the police were out in force – some 10+ motorcycle officers, each heavily armed with extended clips clearly visible.

At one point I came across an armored truck making its rounds while replenishing the local ATMs.  Most of the places I’ve traveled in the past, armored truck guards are…lazy.  They meander in, meander out and while somewhat diligent are not overly concerned.  Not so in Flores.  The guards were out of the truck, shotguns in hand, eyes sharp as they hustled in to the ATM, re-filled it, then with a jump to their step made their way back out and back into their armored truck.

Despite the general sense of added vigilance and the silent threat of violence and crime – my experience was entirely positive.  The people were friendly and helpful.  The city safe. The weather beautiful.

http://www.alex-berger.net/MainGallery/albums/CentralAmerica/normal_Guatemala_1566.JPG

As the Argentinian and I finished our exploration of the island we hopped in a Tuk Tuk and for less than $1 USD a piece were shuttled back out to the Island.  The Tuk Tuk was a fun adventure.  Though I barely fit, it offered a fun view of the city as we wound through traffic, small back streets, and then eventually made our way out to Flores.  All the while our driver was on his cellphone, driving one handed, except of course, when gesturing at other drivers or honking a horn in hello.

Los Amigos Hostel - Flores, Guatemala

Once back on the island it was time to relax, eat, and then settle in for a bit of socializing in the common area.  The hostel – Los Amigos – offered one of the most pleasant atmosphere’s Ive ever found in a hostel.  The entire common area was decorated with lush vegetation, hanging ornaments, or books.

Dog at Los Amigos Hostel

The hostel itself had as much space dedicated to the gardens and plant life as to beds and human comforts.  From swinging rope chairs and vegan food options to a TV documentary zone the place oozed a relaxed hippy culture. In addition to the local owners, the hostel was also home to two dogs, an Albino bunny rabbit and a parrot.  All of which had a free run of the hostel.

If you find yourself in Guatemala and are considering a trip to Tikal, Flores is a must!

My stay was entirely too short.  With new years fast approaching, I found a direct bus from Flores to Chetumal (the border between Belize and Mexico).  After confirming that the colectivo was a tourist bus, I booked my ticket and prepared for what promised to be a full day of travel.  You see, Guatemala and Mexico don’t connect directly in the north.  The only option was to back track from Flores to San Ignacio, then into Belize towards Belize City before turning north and striking up to Chetumal on the border. The trip took about 7 hours.  From Chetumal I had to wait an hour or two due to full buses (I was traveling on the 31st) before transferring to a 1st class bus to Playa del Carmen.  Nervous that I’d arrive late and lose my hostel/miss new years, I sent a hasty e-mail from the bus station, telling Hostel de lay Playa in Playa del Carmen that I was still coming and to save my new years reservation.  After three more hours on the bus I arrived – with only an hour and a half to spare – at 10:30PM.  I splashed some water on my face, checked in…and set out to welcome 2010….but that is a story for tomorrow!

The Mayan Ruins of Tikal

Hundreds of years ago a booming civilization fought its way to become a major empire with massive architectural achievements, sprawling cities, and a stunning system of roadways hacked through the lush jungle underbrush.  Each one of these accomplishments would be impressive, even by today’s technological standards and yet all of them combined and carried out over a thousand years ago? Truly spectacular!

Like any good adventure, my exploration of Tikal started curled up in my top bunk bed at Los Amigos Hostel in Flores, Guatemala. While the more hardy (morning people) had opted for the 5 O’clock bus to Tikal, I’d debated it…considered the rainy weather we’d been having and instead opted for the 6:45 bus.   While not terribly early, for a late riser like myself it presented a small challenge: The two items I’d completely forgotten to pack were a watch and an alarm clock. The good news was that about half way through the trip I realized that if I set my camera time correctly, that I could use the internal clock on my camera as a watch – I’m not sure why/how but this seemed like a better option than locating a cheap $10 watch somewhere. While somewhat awkward this solved one of my two problems – but still left me relying on my internal clock in place of an automatic alarm. Whoops!

Flores near Sunrise

Driven in part by anxiety I was up and ready to go by 6:15, which left me with plenty of time to wander around the hostel before finding my way down to the lake shore.  The view that awaited was delightful.  Though a bit after sunrise the water was smooth, the light soft and the clouds misty.  I quickly tracked down the spot where I’d been informed my tourist colectivo (not to be confused with the authentic styled colectivo I wrote about previously) would pick me up and take me the 45 minute drive to Tikal.  The drive itself was enjoyable despite a light rain.

By the time we arrived at the main complex and began to exit the bus, the rain had stopped – which given my lack of an umbrella was probably a lucky stroke. While most of the others wandered off to find coffee or breakfast, I set off straight for the park.  After purchasing a surprisingly expensive ticket (I believe it was about 150 GTQ or $20 USD) I began my extensive exploration of the park.  The park itself is massive and could easily take an entire day to explore.  The distances between major ruins is surprising, the winding paths through the jungles confusing, and the lush underbrush exciting.

Tikal’s history is fascinating.  The earliest parts of the city are said to be more than 4,000 years old, while the majority of the city was built and occupied within the last 3,000 years – predominantly between 600BC and 900AD.  Despite evidence that Tikal was conquered by Teotihuacan (located in modern day Mexico), the city served as a major military, economic and governmental power for the majority of its existence.  It is believed that at its peak, the city and surrounding area may have been home to at least 120,000 people, with potentially as many as 400,000+ in the surrounding 20 mile area.

Map of Tikal

My first stop was at the initial fork in the road.  There I was greeted by three paths – one to the left, right and one straight ahead.  Located directly to the left of the central path was a large map of the entire complex (click it to enlarge).  Eager to save a few dollars – I’d opted out of buying a map.  Instead I took a digital photo of the map, which I would later refer back to as I wandered through the complex.

As a quick aside: The more I travel the more heavily I rely on my camera as a note taking device.  My main uses include photos of maps and photos of pages in guide books, but as mentioned earlier, I’ve even used it as a watch. The potential is nearly limitless.  It’s a great way to store information and keep it readily (and easily) accessible.

Plant life in Tikal

Eager to stay as far away from the crowds as possible, I opted to go left and work my way clockwise around the ruin complex.  This path took me through a long stretch of mostly untouched jungle where I was kept company by the natural sounds of the jungle, odd looking wild plants and a number of bored spider monkeys.

Jungle Roots in Guatemala

Luckily, I’d arrived early enough that I’d beat most of the crowds.  As a result I didn’t run into another human being until some 50 minutes in.  The opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the ancient Mayans, isolated in the jungle was an energizing and slightly mystical experience.

Ruins of Tikal - Guatemala

Eventually, just as I’d begun to wonder if I had taken a wrong turn I came upon Temple VI.  A medium sized pyramid, heavily covered in moss and light vegetation.   It was the first real Mayan pyramid I’d seen since my exploration of Tulum in Mexico two weeks earlier. My limited frame of reference allowed me to appreciate its size, scope and beauty – all of which was impressive, but would later seem modest in comparison to the ruin’s other structures.

White Leaf in the Ruins of Tikal Guatemala

Eager to see more I struck back east towards the Palacio de las Acanaladuras.  A low, sprawling structure – perhaps some two stories in height, it had winding hallways that cut through the tick walls, small three sides rooms, a central common area in the middle, and what appeared to be an amphitheater like area carved into the side of the hill. The Mayan architecture itself is somewhat difficult to describe.  There are parts of it that have a natural elegance, but the general feeling I got from it was one of….solidity. The buildings, due to the way they’ve been built both look and generate a feeling of density and permanence.  Not all that unlike the feeling one might get when looking at a mountain.  It’s there, it’s been there and heaven help the person or natural elements that try to move it.

Ruins of Tikal - Guatemala

My next stop was at Temple V. Hands down the most impressive of the Pyramids and Ruins in the Tikal Complex.  Temple V is a stunning 187 feet and stands as the second tallest in the complex behind only Temple IV at 230 feet.  Unfortunately, due to the weather I didn’t make it to Temple IV – though I was able to see it in its complete splendor from the top of Temple V.

Ruins of Tikal - Guatemala

Though they’ve blocked the use of the stone stairway on Temple V, they’ve installed an incredibly steep – nearly vertical – 150+ foot staircase to the viewing platform near the top of Temple V.  For those intrepid souls willing to trust their luck on the wet wood and narrow steps, it’s a heart pounding, leg burning climb to the top.  Once there, however, the views are spectacular.

View of the Guatemalan Jungle from Pyramid V

The cloudy weather, accompanied by the briefest of light rains ended up being a wonderful boon.  Once moving it lowered the temperature to near t-shirt weather, while the humidity in the air added a crisp freshness and the periodic light rain brought out all of the rich greens, browns and yellows in the foliage.

Ruins of Tikal - Guatemala

Blown away by the incredible beauty of the wild jungle as it swept away into the distance before fading gently into the mists, I paused on top of Tempe V to enjoy the moment, let the entirety of the experience soak into my core, and to reflect on the wonderful opportunity I was experiencing.

Ruins of Tikal - Guatemala

The platform at the top of Pyramid V is an interesting experience.  The very front has been completely restored and ranges between 2ft-5ft wide.  The challenge of course comes in the narrower sections when trying to pass other tourists.  At 170 feet up, without any safety rails or ropes – it’s definitely a “watch your step” moment.  For those feeling a little gutsy, it’s possible to wrap around to the side of the pyramid (pictured earlier).  There the ledge quickly fades into crumbling rock and steep drop as it transitions from the restored half of the pyramid, to the back two sides which are still crumbling and inaccessible.

The vista itself was spectacular.  Clean Air.  A crisp freshness to the slight breeze.  The gentle kiss of humidity. Sprawling jungle in every direction.  A powerful sensation: Life.

Ruins of Tikal - Guatemala

After a long stay on top of Pyramid V I eventually gathered my thoughts and set off to see what other wonders Tikal held.  The trip back down the stairs was hair raising. The age old question quickly presented itself – is it better to go forward or backward?  I opted for a mixture of the two, trying to pace myself and forcing a pause at each of the platforms to stop, look out, and wait for the person below.

Ruins of Tikal - Guatemala

My path led me up past Mundo Perdido and a large series of medium sized structures to a partially restored, mid-sized, pyramid which I was able to climb before wrapping back to the south towards the central Acropolis.

Ruins of Tikal - Guatemala

The Central Acropolis is a sprawling series of ruins which are home to a large raised structure as well as two large pyramids sitting at opposite ends of a courtyard which delivers stunning acoustics.  One of the two has a large ledge about halfway up which has been stabilized to serve as a viewing platform.  The other remains unscalable. The scope of the Central Acropolis is spectacular and truly a tribute to what must have been an incredibly powerful, economically successful and technologically advanced civilization.

Ruins of Tikal - Guatemala

The ruins are famous for the wildlife, particularly the howler monkeys which seem to have a fondness for the ancient stone buildings and their acoustics.  Unfortunately, due to weather and timing I missed both the Howler Monkeys and the Wild Toucans.  I did, however, have the opportunity to see wild Spider Monkeys, Coatis (a weird type of long nosed raccoon), Leaf Cutter ants and vibrantly colored wild Turkeys.

Ruins of Tikal - Turkey

Why mention wild turkeys?  If you’re like me, you probably typically think of turkeys as rather unimpressive, with subdued, lack-luster coloring.  Definitely not the case in Tikal.  In many ways they reminded me of a Central American version of the pheasants common in many European castles and palaces.  Their coloring was fantastic and even their heads and skin had an exotic blue/orange coloration. Looking back through my photos, I think I ended up with nearly as many shots of the turkeys as I did of the Central Acropolis, though as fascinating as the turkeys were – the Acropolis was far more impressive.

Ruins of Tikal - Guatemala

With stiff legs and a growling stomach I made my way back towards the entrance. Pausing briefly to take in one last view of the ancient pyramids before walking the half mile or so back to the car park, where I caught one of the noon buses back through the rain to Flores.

Tikal was easily one of the most incredible things I’ve ever experienced.  The scale, the scope, the technology and the terrain all combine to create a magical experience.  One I highly recommend to anyone planning on exploring Central America.

Comments or questions?  Don’t hesitate to post them here! As always, thanks for reading!

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.

<object width=”560″ height=”340″><param name=”movie” value=”http://www.youtube.com/v/cN-ANxRKjWw&hl=en_US&fs=1&hd=1″></param><param name=”allowFullScreen” value=”true”></param><param name=”allowscriptaccess” value=”always”></param><embed src=”http://www.youtube.com/v/cN-ANxRKjWw&hl=en_US&fs=1&hd=1″ type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true” width=”560″ height=”340″></embed></object>