GETTING THERE IS HALF THE FUN
“Siete y media por la mañana,” the man at the Tierra Maya counter said, waving a slip of paper at me as I slid 600 pesos across the counter. The van would come for us at 7:30 AM. I asked how long the trip would be. “Muy rapido! Siete horas, mas o menos,” he replied. Only seven hours? Splendid! We shook his hand and went to exchange Pesos for Quetzales before heading home to pack.
It was time to renew our tourist visas. 180 days flies when you're having fun. Instead of doing something perfunctory, we decided to take a little excursion to somewhere new: Lago Atitlan, Guatemala. A fabled lake in the Guatemalan highlands created when a volcano blew its top off, yet unsullied by all-inclusive hotels and MacDo's. The photos on the internet showed shimmering waters lapping gently at the base of three volcanoes. Done. We needed little more to convince us that this would be a great way to get our visas and have our minds blown.
The next morning, we awoke at 6:30 and tidied the house, locking our small pile of valuables inside the impenetrable Second Room. Tor stationed himself outside our front gate as I stuffed last-minute things into our packs: a flashlight, headphones, our wool hats. 7:30 came and went. Finally, a white Hi-Ace, it's crazily-bungeed roof rack piled high with backpacks, made its way awkwardly down our narrow street.
We crawled inside. Ten groggy faces greeted us with the curious, early-morning regard that strangers reserve for other complete strangers at the beginning of a trip. Squashed next to the far back window, I flashed back to our nightmare van ride from Palenque to Misol-Ha in January. "Didn't we swear off vans once?" I asked Tor, who nodded and then shrugged, remembering well the butt-numbing, character-building journey we had endured through the Chiapan mountains. Ah, well.
We sped off, stopping only once for a bathroom break. We reached the frontera, or border, at Mesilla by noon. Overall, the border crossing was simple. We handed in our exit cards and had our passports stamped on the Mexican side. Then, we piled back into the van, drove another five miles and queued up on the Guatemalan side to have our passports stamped and pay a 20 peso entry fee. Our bags were not searched and we barely spent any time in the offices. Not long after, our new van for the Guatemalan leg of the journey pulled up and the group piled in.
The road out of Mesilla was sunny and pleasant. Tarp-roofed dwellings gave way to a ripple of small towns. Small tiendas and fruit vendors lined the highway. Soon, the surrounding landscape became rugged and steep, almost Alpine in nature. Houses appeared on far-off outcroppings and small flocks of cows and sheep roamed the ravines. We whizzed past flowering trees dripping with clumps of lilac and magenta petals that seemed to burst off the branches, like fruit, themselves.
We had been traveling for about an hour when the van suddenly slowed to a crawl and then came to a complete stop. Traffic was backed up, the driver explained. We would be in for a wait. Any idea how long? we collectively asked, trying not to sound whiny.
“Yo no se,” he replied with a shrug and shake of his head before sauntering off to one of the two tiny restaurants that faced each other across the highway.
It soon became apparent that this was no ordinary traffic jam. Word rippled through the growing highway grapevine that a derrumbe, or landslide, prohibited clear travel across a large section of highway up ahead. Vehicles were passing through one at a time and the backed up traffic in both directions literally went on for miles. Again, we hopped out of the van and began to scope out places in the shade.
Hours passed. We entertained ourselves with a variety of activities. The Japanese man took up residence on a nearby slab of concrete. The Swedish girl pulled out a battered copy of Charles Dickens. Like some sort of cheerful, vagabond chef, the dred-locked Brazilian guy prepared a meal of lentils and miso in his mess kit. For the non-vegans, a small army of cart-wielding vendors roamed the shoulders of the road, selling everything from fried chicken to shrimp cocktail, of all things.
We watched the endless train of indigenous people as they walked past. Elderly women in traditional dress trundled by with huge sacks of vegetables on their backs, thick straps secured around their foreheads for extra leverage. Sinewy men trotted beside them, bent under the weight of large bundles of wood and metal in tarps lashed with rope, not one of them breaking a sweat.
Finalmente! Almost four hours later, our driver suddenly threw aside his torta and emitted a round-up whistle signaling that traffic was moving again. We ran for the van like gleeful kids just as a smattering of fat rain droplets began to fall. The engine revved and we rumbled down the road, windows open, the mood inside one of near-giddiness as an early evening breeze filtered through. The tone mellowed, however, as we rolled through the landslide area. Hastily-constructed shanties leaned against the remnants of flattened houses. People milled about; uniformed soldados with guns slung over their shoulders half-heartedly tried to direct traffic. It was, in essence, a hot (muddy) mess.
The line of traffic going the other direction was a river of pained faces behind windshields. More people stood, crammed in the backs of lorries with their belongings piled haphazardly next to them. Our driver let out a long, low whistle as we inched past, finally clearing the bottleneck. "Vamanos, amigos!" he crowed, making the sign of the cross in the rear view mirror as we sped up the mountain road and into the growing darkness.
One Night in Panajachel
And so, we missed the boat. Literally. By the time we pulled into Panajachel, (the main point of embarkation on Lake Atitlan), it was close to midnight and far too late to catch a lancha to Tzan Cruz, our final destination across the water. To make it more interesting, we were some of the van's last remaining passengers, several of our fellow travelers having gotten off at Xelha and other towns along the way. So um, where are we going to sleep? Tor asked groggily, as we stood outside the van. It was a good question.
I had been sharing a seat with Ivan and his mother, Alma, an incredibly nice pair from the San Cristobal area. As we waited for the driver to throw our bags down from the roof, they suddenly turned and asked if we wanted to follow them to their hotel. Muy limpio, no es caro, Alma said reassuringly. Very clean, not expensive. It sounded like heaven. And it was. Even if it was a penny-saver near the waterfront marked by an illustrious pink gate, which Ivan banged on until a slat opened and a man's bleary face appeared.
Seventeen hours after our day had begun, we climbed the stairs towards sleep. Our room awaited with its leaky toilet, resident cockroach family, no towels or soap and a rumpled bed that looked like it had been slept in already. Overjoyed, we passed out immediately.