A Day in Guatemala

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I woke up early on a warm and humid Belizean morning and headed to breakfast at Clarissa Falls. When I arrived, I learned there weren’t enough seats on the shuttle bus to Tikal National Park with the group that Mrs. Chena originally intended for me to join. She had a plan B, though, and said she was going to make some phone calls while I ate breakfast. I ordered a Spanish omelette with toast and herbal tea, and had only taken a few bites when Mrs. Chena came back to say that she found another way for me to get to Guatemala. That woman sure knows how to work magic! The only kicker was that I needed to leave now. I stuffed my face with the omelette, and headed to her husband’s truck. Mrs. Chena handed me a packed lunch and 2 liters of water for the trip, and explained that Mr. Jose would take me to the border, and another man by the name of Manuel would help me find someone to take me Tikal. Honestly, that plan didn’t seem too legit, and she must have read the concern on my face because she told me not to worry. I shrugged and got into Mr. Jose’s truck without taking a moment to discuss payment arrangements.

Mr. Jose took me on the 10 minute drive to the Belize/Guatemala border. Along the way, he told me that Mrs. Chena works too hard, but he convinced her take a vacation recently. They went to visit her sister in Oklahoma, but he ended up working the entire time he was there by fixing the garage, painting, and all kinds of labor. He told her he wasn’t going on vacation again, and I can’t blame him!

Belize border

We arrived at the border just before 7AM, and Mr. Jose stopped by money exchangers sitting outside before guiding me to immigration. I figured I wouldn’t need any Guatemalan quetzals since there wasn’t anything I needed to buy. I already had food, and I assumed they’d take my Belizean or US dollars if I wanted souvenirs.The money exchangers were basically a group of older people sitting outside immigration on a bench, each with a 5-inch thick wad of cash. Glancing around, I didn’t see any security outside, so I briefly wondered if they had ever been robbed while sitting out there in the open. It seemed like a crime of opportunity to me.

Continuing on to immigration, there was no other person in line on the early Sunday morning. The Belizean official took my passport, asked for the departure tax in the equivalent of $18.75USD, gave me a departure stamp, and sent me on my way. At this point, Mr. Jose handed me off to Manuel, and said he’d be back to pick me up in the evening. Manuel was responsible for finding a tour operator to get me to Tikal. He was a very handsome older gentlemen that appeared to be aging like fine wine. They say “black don’t crack,” and it appears that Guatemalan doesn’t either.

Here, I sat waiting at the border between Belize and Guatemala for about an hour while Manuel worked his magic. There wasn’t much happening that early in the morning, so just people-watched. There was a little boy playing tricks on a dog that was locked on the opposite side of afence, a man on the back of a truck with a bbq pit, various tourists crossing into Belize with those awful tourist sandals. You know the ones. Some time in the midst of that, the group I was supposed to join came and went. Finally, Manuel came to let me know that Christian would be my tour operator for the day. I would be going to Tikal with him and an older white American couple.

Christian drove us across the border in the shuttle van, and took our passports to get stamped while we waited in the van. We all wondered how it was possible for one person to get stamps for multiple people, none of whom were him. Perhaps he was a trusted tour operator, and those privileges aren’t extended to everyone. Nonetheless, he went in and came out in two minutes with the stamp of approval for us to enter Guatemala. There were no complaints on my part because I’d read horror stories about the officials at the Guatemalan border holding up people for 3 hours for no reason other than to be jerks.

The ride to Tikal was 1.5 hours from the border, and Christian gave us a some history about the country along the way. Guatemala was involved in a civil war from the 60s to the 90s, and thatmade development impossible. Improvements to infrastructure have just begun in the 21st century. Also, a new president had just taken office a couple of days prior after the previous president got caught with his hands in the cookie jar. Christian seemed optimistic about the future of the country, but also understood the reality of empty promises most politicians make.

We made a stop at Lake Macanche, where women were hand-washing clothing under a canopy. The women have to take their dirty clothes down a hill to scrub them in the lake, then walk back up the hill with those same clothes which are now heavier due to the water. I can’t even imagine that being my life. I complain about having to actually take the clothes out of the washing machine and place them in the dryer.

After Lake Macanche, we made another stop at a souvenir shop for a restroom break and coffee. The shop seems to have arrangements with various tour operators because there were a lot of shuttle busesparked at this particular shop for some reason. There were a lot of cool items for sale, including beautiful sculptures made out of jade that I could not afford, painted masks, and books about the Mayans.

Guatemala souvenirs

Guatemala souvenirs

I saw a beautiful backpack that I wanted to buy for $120USD, but I talked myself out of it. I didn’t bring all of my cash with me and I wasn’t sure what the payment arrangements were with Christian. I had been whisked away so quickly that I didn’t find out who I had to pay and when.

​After that stop at the souvenir shop, we made the final trek to Tikal. Call me whatever you want, but I knew very little about the Maya civilization, and did zero research before I arrived at Tikal. Blame my public school education. With that being said, I learned a lot from Christian, and will probably add a tour of other Mayan ruins to my bucket list.One thing about Tikal is that this would never exist in the U.S. – not in its current setup at least. I can imagine the lawsuits that would happen if this were in the U.S. because someone injured himself during the climb, or someone fell to his death from the top of a pyramid. Then again, the Grand Canyon isn’t that secure either.

DSC_0214.jpgDSC_0267.jpgDSC_0257.jpgAccording to Christian, the Mayans are descendants of Asia who arrived at the northern part of the land, and moved southward looking for land with resources strong enough for agricultural development. They found success in Mexico, Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador until the collapse in the latter part of the 900s A.D. No one is certain for the abandonment of Tikal, but they assume it is because of lack of water due to drought.

He showed us a lot of the various ceiba trees at the site. The ceiba was considered a sacred tree to the Mayans, and is now the national tree of Guatemala.

By 1:00, I had stopped listening to everything Christian was saying because I got hungry, and I started to worry that I didn’t have enough water to stay hydrated until the end of the tour. The couple with me had energy bars which I should have thought to do. I totally failed National Parks 101. There were vendors at various spots in the park, but it was mostly junk food and nothing of substance. I did smell something really good cooking in the distance, but never figured out what and where it was.

After more hiking and climbing pyramids, we got back to the parking lot at around 3:00 and headed to lunch. The lunch Mrs. Chena packed for me was a shredded seasoned chicken sandwich with cheese, lettuce, and tomato. I also had chips and a snack. That satisfied my craving, and I actually had to fight my sleep on the way back to the border. The couple with me had a hot meal at a restaurant that consisted of fajitas and some sort of soup. We sat there and chatted about the other places we’d been. The wife had just begun her master’s program, and the husband was already feeling her stress. Mayan ruins was on her bucket list. Naturally, the wife was more talkative than the husband.

Christian told us on the way back that he was Guatemalan, but was blessed to be able to go to school in Belize and learn English. He lives in Belize now with his wife, Anita. We made one last stop before getting back to Belize. This was another lake where locals were swimming. That was a mistake. I took a few photos and was heading back to join everyone else who were standing next to the shuttle when I noticed someone following me. I thought he was going to the vehicle that was parked next to the shuttle, but he was coming to me. The Guatemalan fellow who appeared to have a developmental disability was trying to sell me pyramid keychains made out of wood for 20 quetzals, which is about $2.50USD. Of course, I didn’t exchange any quetzals earlier in the day so I couldn’t buy anything. I shook my head no, but he wasn’t having it. Then, a beautiful little girl appeared out of nowhere with a Disney backpack filled with wooden keychains of canoes that she was trying to sell for the same price. It was time for me to go. I felt awful because I understand that they were just trying to make a living. If I had quetzals with me, I probably would have bought the keychain. I left the country without a single souvenir.

When we got to the border, Christian again took all of our passports and got them stamped without anyone seeing our faces again. We crossed the border into Belize where we went through fumigation. ​I’m wasn’t sure about the purpose of the spray, but I doubt it was very effective.

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After that, we said our goodbyes to Christian and I was on my way into Belize. The line to get back into Belize was much longer than when I left that morning. There was no line in the morning morning, but I returned in the evening to this:

Belize border

I learned from my airport transfer driver that Sunday is the day many western Belizeans cross the border into Guatemala for duty free beer and such. I guess everyone had their fun, and was returning home.

The border official asked me where I was staying and how long, then stared long and hard at my face and my passport photo. She seemed to be following the proper protocol with me, while everyone prior to that just got a stamp moved along. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t a resident of the country. She handed me my passport and I walked right past customs without any issues. There was a sign that said people weren’t allow to bring chicken into the country, but it doesn’t appear that anyone cared because no one stopped to check my belongings.

​Mr. Jose was waiting for me whenever I walked out of the office, and we headed back to Clarissa Falls. Along the way he told me about how the Chinese and the Mennonites own the majority of business in Belize. There are two types of Mennonites in Belize: the progressive and the Amish. According to Jose, the Amish are the ones with the stair-step babies. I could not help but laugh. We approached a police checkpoint along the way, but the police weren’t concerned with Mr. Jose. They did a thorough inspection of the vehicle in front of us, but let Mr. Jose drive right by. He said it was because he was in the military for 40 years, and also because Mrs. Chena throws a big party every year for the police!

​Back at Clarissa Falls, I had fried fish, vegetables, rice, and a refreshing lemonade for dinner. There was a group of students from a university in Virginia there, and one girl invited me to hang out with them later that night. I thanked her for the invite, but I knew that I was about to shower and sleep. Tikal had exhausted all of my energy for the day.

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