I Hear Guatemala Is Very Dangerous

Guatemala Is Dangerous?

We thought were prepared for Guatemala. This was to be the REAL danger-zone of the trip. We take everything we read in the mainstream media with a grain of salt; there are just too many agendas that shape the information before it reaches us to be taken at face value. Our most reliable information comes from fellow overland travelers and people with whom we are connected living in the area. But, even the overland forums had something to say about the dangers of Guatemala, not the least of which was the Zetas, and other cartels that had recently become a presence in Guatemala, and not just in the big cities. Car-jackings during traffic jams have become so prevalent in Guatemala City that one woman was robbed at gunpoint twice while waiting in 20 minutes of traffic. With all of this in mind we hid our electronics, brought out our ‘dummy’ computer (+cell phone, ipod), placed our self-defense can of Raid wasp spray within arms reach, and headed for the border with Sprinter Life.

This border was actually pretty easy. Leaving Belize was more of a hassle than entering Guatemala. At the Guatemalan checkpoint all the windows and counters you needed to visit were located under one open-faced structure. Everything was so lax that no one looked in the van or even saw Luna, and we therefore didn’t even have to declare (or pay for) our dog. This was definitely one of the more pleasant border crossing experiences. The caravan of SprinterLife and PleasureDevice had now entered infamous Guatemala, and we were all headed down towards Tikal and El Remate.

We followed SprinterLife directly to gates at Tikal, hoping to see the ruins before it got dark. At the entrance some guy started making a big deal about Luna, who was in plain sight up near the front in her ‘driving’ position. They said that dogs weren’t allowed in the park. There were no signs to this effect, but all the attendants there seemed pretty adamant about it and hostile towards us, as if we had been trying to smuggle Luna in. We pulled over to the side to talk about it with the guy. He didn’t just immediately turn as away, which gave us the impression there was some ‘room for interpretation’ of the no dogs thing if we slip him some money. We told him that Luna would stay in the car and we would not be camping in the park overnight. That didn’t work. We told him there were no signs saying that dogs weren’t allowed and asked him what we could do and he just got more agitated. It was weird, and the opportunity for a bribe never really presented itself, but he also never really flat out turned us away. So, after 5 minutes of discussion, we turned around and left the park entrance just as pissed-off as the park employees seemed to be. None of the guidebooks or blogs about Tikal mention this, but apparently DOGS ARE NOT ALLOWED AT TIKAl. I understand the reasoning, it’s a national park with lots of wildlife and an ecosystem they don’t want disturbed by other animals, but a sign somewhere before the 20 min drive to the entrance would be nice. SprinterLife had gotten down the road into the Tikal park a bit during all this and we had no way to let them know what was going on. They had a dog with them too, but had gotten through ok. We figured they would go ahead and explore the park and we’d meet up later somewhere in El Remate. A few minutes later they actually pulled up behind us down the road. We told them our story and they decided to wait and do Tikal early the next morning. For now we were off to find lodging in El Remate.

El Remate is a sleepy little ‘town’ on the northeastern corner of Peten Itza, a lake between Tikal and LasFlores. Lots of horses and little docks lined the shore. The water was the most amazing teal-green color and the perfect temperature. The first place we checked was  MonAmi Hotel. At $70 USD per night, this place was not an option for us, but Tree had heard that the only internet in the area was to be found at MonAmi, so he and Stevie were staying put. There were plenty of little hotel/restaurants down that little stretch of road that curved around then lake. We stopped at Casa De Ernesto’s (casadernesto@hotmail.com/ (502)5750-8375…5164-8862) to ask about camping or their cheapest room option. When we pulled up, the restaurant was in preparation for a baby-shower that evening. One of Ernesto’s daughters, Gloria?, was very much pregnant and told us we could camp for free if we purchase our meals at the restaurant. She also invited us back for the baby shower. Everyone there was really nice and we were actually looking forward to coming back to the baby shower later. Our camp spot was just up the driveway on a level piece of land between the restaurant and cabinas. We were surrounded by trees and plants, and had only a short walk to the restroom/showers. It was perfect.

We walked the short hike back to where Tree and Stevie were staying to get in on some internet action and let them know our whereabouts. The restaurant at MonAmi had a really cool vibe and we stayed a while to have some wine with our friends. The food, we were told, was not very good and very much over-priced, so we stuck to drinking. By the time we made it back to Ernesto’s, the baby shower was pretty much done and the restaurant was closed as they cleaned up in the aftermath. They did, however, let us drink some beers and gave us each a plate leftover from the baby shower. Babyshower cake served alongside a homemade chicken tamale is a genius combination. I could have had 3 plates, easy.

The next morning we had our first ‘tipico’ Guatemalan breakfast plate: eggs, black refried beans with cream, cheese, plantains, and tortillas. The tortillas we encountered in Guatemala, were more like small pancakes. They were very thick and substantial. You could only eat one or two of these things, and don’t even think about trying to fold it over taco-style, it’ll never work. So far, the food in Guatemala had been amazing.

The next few days were spent enjoying Peten Itza. A short walk down the road from Ernesto’s was a wooden dock/walkway that extended out into the lake about 100ft with a small palm/thatch covered platform at the end. There were other similar setups all along the shore, but for some reason this one felt right to us, so we didn’t mind the short walk. We usually had the place to ourselves with the exception of the mom and two little girls across the street. They thought it was hilarious that Luna liked to swim. It was pretty nuts. Luna would literally swim for hours each day. The water was so clear and beautiful with a blanket of tiny, white shells covering the muddy bottom. The local men could be seen walking up the road with a mask and speargun. Apparently bass fishing is huge in this lake, although we never saw or ate one.

SprinterLife return from Tikal with the declaration that we simply had to go there. They admitted to being burnt out on ruins during this trip, but Tikal, they said, was not to be missed. We said we would go, but suspected we wouldn’t. I was definitely burnt out on ruins, and to be honest wasn’t all that impressed with Teotihuacan and Chitzen Itza. I was expecting more jungle and not so much tourist crap. Plus, there was the matter of what to do with Luna. We could leave her in the van and take a bus early in the morning, but the bus was expensive (when combined with the entrance fee to Tikal itself) and didn’t return until 3 in the afternoon. That was way too long to leave Luna in the car. It seemed like a lot of hassle to go through just to see a bunch of really old buildings and get hassled every 5 ft. by some guy wanting you to buy a ‘genuine Mayan chess board’ or t-shirt. Now that they had seen Tikal, SprinterLife was ready to head south towards Guatemala City and Antigua. We were not ready to leave our peaceful lakeshore post-up, and decided to stay for a while. It was cheap and beautiful. We said our goodbyes and figured on meeting up again somewhere on the road to El Salvador.

They next day, we decided to check out the local BioTropo. It was just a mile up the road and boasted a decent amount of wildlife, flora, and a stunning view of the lake from atop the hill. The admission price was definitely slanted in local favor. Locals paid $1 and everyone else had to pay $10. We gave it a go. It was a long, steep hike through a lot of greenery. We didn’t see any wildlife, except for one really big grasshopper. Not even a bird. The view of the lake was nice, but the hype on this place was a little over-done. At least no one tried to sell us anything, and we got some good exercise.

We were getting low on cash and it was time to head towards LosFlores and the nearest ATM. LosFlores was about 45 min. south, and we figured that we might just go ahead and continue on south towards Rio Dulce. We said goodbye to Ernesto and his nice family. They thought we were crazy to leave without visiting Tikal, but we just couldn’t swing it, we said. We were definitely going to miss it there and were a little bummed at the thought of leaving. The night before we met a guy named Robert Zoon who was headed that way and we said we’d give him a ride. Robert was backpacking alone and ElRemate was too quiet for him. He wanted to be around a little bit more of a social scene. LosFlores, he hoped, would fit the bill. On the road to LosFlores we were stopped at a Police checkpoint. The officer who was talking with us asked us how we liked Tikal. When we told him we didn’t go, and he looked genuinely sad for us. He said, “it’s so beautiful, you have to go”. The sincerity on this man’s face convinced us immediately that we needed to see Tikal.

LosFlores is an island on Peten Itza. You drive over a short bridge to this small, circular little town and there you are. It’s really pretty and very small. We had walked around the entire island in no time. We tooled around LosFlores for an hour or so, said goodbye to Robert, and happily headed back to Casa de Ernesto’s. We pulled in and told them that we missed them too much to leave. Then, we rented a cabina, with the intention of leaving Luna in the room the next morning while we drove to Tikal. Driving ourselves, we figured we could be back by 10am.

We arrived at the gates to Tikal at 6:15 am with another couple who hitched a ride with us to the ruins. Tikal cost us $20 each, not bad by ruins prices. It was beautifully silent in the misty early morning. It would be a while before the sun would penetrate the dense canopy of the park’s tree line.  As we got further into the huge park, we began to hear lone sounds that would echo through the cavernous jungle. This was finally the ancient ruins experience we had been hoping for. There was no one around and we were overcome by a silent reverence and awe befitting such a mystical place. The magic hadn’t been sucked out of Tikal by vendors and tourism. The jungle still ruled this place. We saw lots of birds and rodents, but we really wanted some monkeys. We could hear howler monkeys somewhere off in the distance with their eerie growl sounding like a demon in the mist covered ruins.

I stopped to mess with my camera, and behind me something splattered on the ground. I spun around and saw a bunch of green and orange-ish baby-food on the ground just behind me. Looking up I saw some movement. There he was, a monkey sitting up in the tree trying to crap on me. I don’t know my monkeys very well, but he wasn’t a howler or a whiteface, so I assume he was a spider-monkey. I called Emily over and we watched him for a while as he wandered the tree tops in search of more poo fuel. It was awesome. Emily was a little bummed that the monkey missed me with its fecal attempt. So now we knew the trick. We could search the ground for the droppings and then look to the trees for the culprit. We had seen those droppings before and definitely run into areas that had the smell, we just didn’t know that’s what it was. The smell was very distinctive: sort of like the cheese and olive section of a Whole Foods market.

Reaching the far edge of the park, we encountered some wooden scaffolding that ascended the side of one of the observation structures at Tikal. When we finally reached the top, we saw that view that you see in movies and postcards from this place. We were looking above the tree line back towards the rest of the park, with a few ruins structures poking out from the misty trees. This was still such a mystical place, even now in this age of technology and information it can still drop your jaw and leave you speechless. To our right sitting just above the tree line, almost 100 yards away perched a Tucan. His bright yellow beak standing out drastically against the green backdrop. It was a perfect day. We left believers. Tikal is not to be missed.

We could now leave El Remate feeling satisfied that we had seen what we needed to see. SprinterLife had been in RioDulce for a few days and was now headed towards Antigua. We wouldn’t see them again till El Salvador. As you can tell, Guatemala is really very dangerous.

Next RioDulce, Guatemala

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~ by pleasuredevice on 04/16/2011.

One Response to “I Hear Guatemala Is Very Dangerous”

  1. Hi,
    I was wondering if we could get a new post soon? Please?

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