We crossed from Honduras into Guatemala in record time…no lineups whatsoever and we were through it all in less than an hour and a half. I’d like to think we’re getting better at these crossings but I realize it’s probably just the luck of the draw (or maybe Dave’s new lucky shirt?). We actually did get a scare when the last border control guard was checking our papers and asked to see a permit or passport for Chester (our hearts sunk as we were so sure we didn’t need one for Guatemala…). Then he broke out into a huge grin and started laughing. We laughed along with him as if really had just made a hilarious joke. Yeah….funny guy…he has no idea of the hoops other countries have made us jump through for this dog. Seriously, a pet passport is actually a real thing…Google it!
Case in point: Belize. From the border, we headed straight for Antigua so we could start the application process for Chester’s Belizean import permit. To acquire this permit, we needed to apply online at least 7-10 days in advance of our entry. We also needed a health certificate from the exporting country which was less than 15 days old along with the usual proof of vaccinations. We decided Antigua would be a good place to base from so we could take care of this and a few other housekeeping tasks.
In all, we spent four nights camped at the Antigua tourist police compound doing such exciting things as:
- finding a vet and getting a new certificate for Chester;
- getting our laundry done;
- finding a mechanic to do some brake work on the truck (note: ~$65 US including parts and about 5 hours labour….I think it will be an unpleasant shock the next time we need work done at home);
- watching a utility installation on one of the old cobblestone streets; and
This wasn’t nearly as dismal as it sounds. First, the tourist police compound is one of the nicest and safest places in Antigua. It is located among the ruins of some ancient (and long forgotten) stone structure and with a great view of the nearby volcanoes; it’s actually quite pretty. It also comes complete with showers (okay an overhead cold water pipe with a valve) and bathrooms. Of the three toilets, one had a seat, one flushed reliably and one had a door that closed. I tried each of them during our time there and every morning proved an enlightening exploration of personal priorities. Really, though, it’s hard to complain because all of this is free. They just ask for a donation to maintain and improve facilities. We gave them $20 for four nights. Here’s hoping it goes towards another toilet seat.
The police compound is also something of a crossroads for all overland travelers in the Americas. Everyone goes to Antigua (it’s like the Paris of Central America) and if you are camping, it is literally the only place to stay. There were probably 9-10 other units there during our stay and it was a great opportunity to chat and catch up with fellow travelers. Although it was mostly couples (and mostly from Germany) there were also a couple families. A French Canadian family of four had traveled down in seriously sweet old VW van….and we particularly enjoyed Jonas: a toddler from Oregon who was traveling with his parents. He would occasionally pay us visits and always had lots to say.
Our other major undertaking was boot shopping. The nearby town of Pastores (known to some simply as Boot Town) is something that honestly has to be seen to be believed. The streets in this town are lined with shops selling cowboy boots. Indeed, other than a couple food stands, we did not see a single shop not selling boots. Even more impressive, though, is that all of the boots are made by hand and each shopkeeper is also a boot maker. You can literally walk in and watch them making the boots right in front of you. Fascinating! If you have time on your hands and your favoured style isn’t available in your size, you can arrange to have it made and return for pickup in 4 or five days. We couldn’t resist…we are both proud owners of a new pair of boots.
Boots in hand, we decided to head north. I think it must have been around this time that my brain shut off completely…. Some of you may recall a post from back in September where I vividly describe what I now believe to be the second worst stretch of road in Central America. It is littered with landslides, cave-ins and potholes bigger than my old toyota hatchback. Progress is painfully slow and every meeting with an oncoming vehicle feels….adventurous. (Dave’s edit: by adventurous she means shifting to 4 Low Range, driving off the single track on to a boulder field to let the other truck (there are no cars on this road) pass and then hope you can manage to return to the track up the 20% grade). As I say, some of you may recall this. I, unfortunately, did not. In my unwitting brilliance, I actually chose this route again! And there WERE viable alternatives! (Dave’s edit: By the time the road became familiar to me, I looked to Kristel and said “This isn’t that road?” but her look was the only answer I needed.)
After nine hours of bumping along this pathetic excuse of a road, we made it through the worst of it and stumbled on a place to stay for the night. Our clean truck was nowhere near clean anymore. Dave was still talking to me but may have been somewhat frustrated by this point. There was precisely about one shot left in our bottle of rum so I suggested to Dave that he had probably earned a brief hiatus from Sober January (see – who says I can’t be thoughtful?). (Dave’s edit: I don’t recall this offer, but I do remember the rum…and feel no guilt.)
Next morning, we hopped back on the road for another long drive to Lago Peten Itza. In retrospect, I think these two days were probably only bearable because we had become completely absorbed by the podcast “Serial”. If you haven’t listened to it, you should. It’s well presented, thought provoking and just plain addictive.
I had initially hoped that we could find a place to stay in Flores, a picturesque old city located on an island in Lago Peten Itza and connected to the mainland via a causeway. However, one short visit to the lovely town proved my idea to be a pipe dream. The narrow cobbled streets were not fit for anything much bigger than the tuk-tuks that were barreling up and down the streets and just finding a parking spot proved to be a challenge.
We opted instead to make our Flores visit a day trip and made camp at nearby Ixpanpajul National Park. This park had an honest-to-goodness campground and was basically the opposite of the Police compound in just about every way imaginable. The facilities included shiny new bathroom and shower buildings which were absolutely pristine. We had a covered shelter all to ourselves complete with picnic table, lighting, and even a kitchen sink with running water. That’s right it had everything including the kitchen sink! It was quiet, peaceful…and completely deserted. In spite of the various cabins and bungalows, the horse stables and newly built canopy tour, the much-touted hanging bridges hike, there were virtually no tourists. We probably saw about 15 staff while we were there and only two other campers (a local couple tented for one night). It was actually a bit eerie. The whole place had the feel of a North American (or European?) campground that had been transplanted into the middle of Guatemala. I suspect it must have been built as the result of some well-meaning development grant, because it seems impossible that it could be remotely financially sustainable.
After a couple nights here, we moved to El Remate, a village on the northeast corner of the lake. From here, we could easily take a shuttle to visit Tikal ruins and we even found a free place to stay at Hotel Mon Ami. In exchange for eating at the restaurant (not exactly a hardship), we got access to bathrooms, glorious hot showers and a camping spot on one of the most beautiful lakes in the world.
Tikal, itself, was everything I hoped it would be. My mother actually asked me whether we were “ruined” out yet (and we have admittedly visited a lot of ruins) but each one really has its own distinct feel. Though I’m no history buff, I find it fascinating to wander through these ancient cities, imagining the market that may have taken place in the plaza, the athletes that played in the ball court, the royals that presided over it all….even the animal and human sacrifices that are believed to have taken place. Tikal is a sprawling site with many of the major structures separated by hundreds of meters.
It takes hours to explore it all and one of the surprise highlights for us was the prevalence of wildlife as we wandered along the jungle paths:
- we were serenaded by countless birds;
- we watched troops of monkeys frolicking in the trees (and yes I do believe frolicking is the only appropriate word to describe their behaviour);
- we watched a great green macaw peck its way into some type of cantaloupe, carelessly dropping chunks on us as he did so;
- we shared our path with a group of Ocellated Turkeys; and
- we spotted a peccary foraging for food.
It was magical enough that we planned to hit one more ruins site the following day. Yaxha was enroute (Dave’ edit: by enroute she means just 11 kilometers of dirt track from the highway) to the Belizean border; it had a campground and was reported to be another wildlife hot spot. Unfortunately, what we didn’t realize is that dogs are not allowed into the park. With no backup option and only about 30 kilometres outside of Belize, we decided to try and cross over one day ahead of schedule. Dave forgot to don his lucky shirt but we seemed to manage all the same (Dave’s edit: I am confused…what do I wear next time?). This was our first English speaking crossing since entering the United States which simplified things immensely. We did unfortunately have to say goodbye to all of our fruit, vegetables and meat. Ah well – such is life.
So long Guatemala and hello Belize!