At the start of our trip, the concept of not having some accommodation booked at least a day in advance didn’t exist. We always looked something up on one of the various booking websites and got ourselves a one night minimum stay secured. As time went on, our logistical drive seemed to be dry up somewhat, replaced in spades by our ‘we’ll be alright’ philosophy. And we always were, just about.
Now, leaving Belize City, we not only had no idea of where we were going to be staying that night, but we also weren’t sure which country we would be in by the end of the day. That was a first!
‘Let’s just go as far as we can.’
Trundling south on the bus, we were ultimately aiming for Livingston – a Garifuna town on the Caribbean coast in Guatemala – but if we were too late for a direct ferry, we knew we may have had to stay in Puerto Barrios instead (still in Guatemala but not somewhere you’d want to stay for long). Failing that, Punta Gorda in Belize would have to do!
As it happened, we were getting close and the ticket seller on the bus came up to us and said, ‘Are you going to Guatemala today?’ Since we answered in the affirmative, he keenly explained that he would drop us off as close to the dock as possible, and then we’d have a five minute walk – we should just make the last boat of the day.
Grateful for his kindness, we thanked him as we exited the bus and followed his directions making it to the port just in time to buy our tickets for the crossing, although this ferry was unfortunately going to Puerto Barrios, not Livingston. So we sat for a few minutes with a German couple who were making the same trip, gazing at a wooden jetty which had a small fibreglass boat tied to it, getting buffeted by the sizeable waves of the Caribbean Sea and wondering when this ferry would be arriving. It can’t be that big a ferry if there are only four passengers…
Then the inevitable happened – yes, you guessed it, the ‘ferry’ was already there and we were looking right at it. Feeling marginally apprehensive at the prospect of riding the waves in the small boat, we hopped in and watched as the boat captain ominously wrapped our bags and some other cargo in a large tarpaulin and secured it. Were we expecting to get wet by any chance?
Yes indeed, very wet! As the driver gunned the two large outboard engines, we were thrust across the ocean with a kind of kamikaze vigour. It was similar in a way to our boat ride from Gili Trawangan back to Bali, except this time the ratio between size of waves and size of boat was much increased! Numerous times we descended into troughs, with water rising on all sides, only to accelerate up the steep slope ahead of us, cresting the wave at speed and feeling that momentary ominous weightlessness before crashing down once more onto the surface of the ocean with a huge splash of salty water in our faces.
The boat captain was sat in front of us watching the cargo and turning round with a maniacal grin each time the boat was thrown up into the air. After twenty minutes of adrenalin fuelled madness, he turned around to the four of us and said, ‘Hey, where are you going?’ ‘Erm, Puerto Barrios,’ I replied, managing to conceal my concern at his apparent lack of knowledge of his own boat’s destination. ‘And then?’ came the reply. ‘Well, tomorrow we’ll probably get a boat to Livingston.’
He contemplated this for a moment and then said, ‘You want to go to Livingston now?’ ‘Err, well, I guess,’ I said, distracted from rational thought by the continued chaotic boat ride. ‘Tell you what,’ he said, ‘You give me five dollars extra each, I’ll take you to Livingston right now.’ Although my natural instinct would be to refuse this apparent grab for more of our cash, we quickly realised that his offer would save us an unwanted night in Puerto Barrios and an unnecessary boat ride in the morning. So, with our acceptance, he whistled the driver who swung the boat to the right and changed course.
You have to arrive in Livingston by boat, you see, as there are no roads leading there from the rest of the mainland. It has roads and vehicles in it, even small lorries, but they too will have come across the water at some point. Stepping off the boat, we were expecting to be met by immigration. But instead, we were apparently free to wander around wherever we liked – to grab a bite to eat, maybe have a beer.
Tempting as it was to head straight for the nearest bar, we thought we should probably get stamped in to Guatemala – didn’t want to end up in no man’s land! The immigration office was about a five minute walk into the town although the guys behind the desk didn’t seem remotely bothered about our appearance – we could have had that beer after all!
Livingston turned out to be a pretty quiet place, with not much going on. We did spot a walk to a series of natural waterfalls and pools though, so we thought we’d give it a go. Las Siete Altares – the Seven Altars – was about an hour’s walk along the beach from the town. We made our way down there, paid a small entrance fee and were soon clambering through the forest alongside the river. Arriving at the top pool, I was keen to jump in but unsure of the depth. Luckily, a local guy turned up and leapt into the water – it was clearly pretty deep. So we spent an afternoon messing around, diving and jumping into the pool from various points and generally having fun.
Significantly, however, the pools weren’t the most memorable part of that day. It is unfortunate that for us, the most stunning thing we saw was the huge amount of plastic that was littering the beach for the entire walk. I’m not describing the odd crushed water bottle and crisp wrapper here, I’m talking about huge piles of plastic everything that had been washed out of the ocean onto the beach. From polystyrene packing material, to drinking straws, to flip-flops, pieces of broken furniture, carrier bags – if you can make it out of plastic and then throw it away, it was on this beach somewhere. It wasn’t necessarily coming from Livingston, either, or even from Guatemala. This stuff can travel hundreds of miles, carried in ocean currents. It was a sorry state of affairs and a huge eye-opener to the massive environmental issue that is only getting worse each day.
Cruising the Rio Dulce
Our other reason for choosing Livingston as our point of entry into Guatemala is that there is a beautiful boat ride you can take along the Rio Dulce going inland. In fact, you almost have to take this trip as there is no other way out of Livingston into the rest of Guatemala. It is a real treat too; minutes after leaving Livingston, the walls of the jungle rise up dramatically on either side of the river. Vegetation inhabits all but the most sheer of rock faces and you get a sense that the river is consciously drawing you in, enclosing you to the point of it being inescapable. With twists and turns, you become entirely surrounded, with the colour of the thick green water below only serving to intensify the experience. I remember being surprised at how quickly the scene had changed from the open harbour at Livingston only minutes earlier. It reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, although his description of the enclosing jungle is far superior to my own!
Strangely however, just as quickly as you were enveloped, the jungle then suddenly releases you into the large inland lakes that house many boats during the hurricane season. The trip through the high-walled forest, a truly stunning experience, was also frustratingly short. From there on in we cruised along the calm waters all the way to Rio Dulce town where we caught a bus to Guatemala City.
As the bus progressed ever closer to the capital, we were beginning to feel a bit apprehensive. The reputation of the cities in this region is well known and summed up in a single word: dangerous. The guide book is filled with warnings about not going out after dark, taking taxis everywhere and not carrying valuable possessions with you. It was becoming problematic for us then as the bus stagnated in the city traffic and dusk closed in rapidly.
We did have a plan though. Helena had done a little search before we left and found a promising looking hostel in the city that got good reviews from previous travellers. Interestingly, unlike your normal set of reviews that rotate around vocabulary like: ‘clean’, ‘fun’, ‘cool’, ‘chilled’ – all buzzwords for travellers looking for accommodation – the ones for this hostel were all focused heavily on the theme of safety and security, and included numerous references to ‘the black door.’
It was called Theatre International Hostel, and I would recommend it to anybody looking for a safe place to stay in Guatemala City. On its own website it says, ‘Please check out the picture of our door so you can find us. We don’t have a sign.’ The reason they don’t have a sign is not negligence on the part of the management, or a lack of marketing awareness; it is simply part of the desire to remain relatively inconspicuous. Purposefully not advertising their location is part of the security strategy. There is also a big sign inside the door that reminds guests not to open it – to anyone!
It was dark by the time we arrived. We only had two blocks to go to get to the hostel so we shunned the numerous offers for taxis and walked at speed into the city. We were carrying everything – big bags full of clothes and toiletries, smaller bags with electronics, valuables, money, cards and passports – the full works. Had we been accosted, not only would we not be able to run, we would be offering up everything we had.
Fortunately however, we made it to the street, walked past a local bus stop (which is an enclosed glass cased structure with a turnstile manned by an armed guard), and found the door. We knocked, it opened. We slipped inside and it was closed firmly behind us.
Once we were there, we found a whole group of other travellers taking refuge from whatever the city may have thrown at them outside the door. We quickly got chatting, bought beer from the fridge and got to work putting our nerves at ease.
Our only niggling problem was that we hadn’t eaten since before getting on the bus at midday. It was soon nearing 10pm and we were considering just foregoing dinner entirely, but we heard there was a corner shop within sight of the door. Looking out (with our feet still inside the hostel), we spotted it and decided it was worth a try. Leaving everything behind, we made a run for it with just enough money to grab some snacks. Wanting to minimise the time spent outside as much as possible, and with our minimal Spanish, we managed to grab a couple of bananas and a packet of crisps and were soon heading back.
So there we were, drinking beer and eating bananas for dinner – what on earth had we got ourselves into?
Speaking of Spanish… Well, I can’t – speak Spanish that is. On our day trip to Tikal with Sarah, I was approached by an extravagant guide who said with gusto, ‘¡Buenos días, amigo! ¿Como esta?’ When I replied with no more than a quizzical look, he flung his hands to the sides and exclaimed, ‘What! No Spanish?’
No, unfortunately, I have never learned Spanish. Apart from the occasional ‘¡Hola!’, the frequent ‘¡Gracias!’ and the obligatory, ‘Dos cerveza, por favor,’ I am very challenged in the understanding Spanish department. Helena got an A* in Spanish GCSE but now, by her own admittance, has regressed to a woefully weak level of understanding, frustrated all the more at having bits of language floating around in her head but being unable to connect them together coherently, let alone fluently. What she can remember, only materialises in the present tense too. At least I have an excuse!
This had never been a problem before, however. Quite apart from countries that speak English anyway, pretty much everywhere else we went in Asia, including the whole of India, we got by on English and whatever greetings we managed to learn in any given language. We were quite happily having entire conversations in English and then signing off with ‘Terima kasih’ in Malaysia, ‘Vinaka’ in Fiji, ‘Kop koon kaa,’ in Thailand, ‘Shukriya’ in India for example, and receiving smiles from locals who I suppose appreciated the gesture.
In Guatemala, however, it was not so. It was the first place where people didn’t automatically revert to English for our benefit – and not because they wouldn’t, simply because they do not speak it. Why would they? Unlike the individual nations and languages of Asia, who benefit from being able to communicate in a common language, almost the entirety of Central and South America speak Spanish. They have no use for English.
So, we were suddenly in a situation where Helena had to remember quickly, and I had to pick up as much as I could. Happily, both of these things were kick started by necessity and combined with a bit of miming and a lot of pointing, we’re not doing too badly. I don’t think I’ll be chatting about the finer points of the recent government elections in Guatemala any time soon, but I can get by ordering food, getting directions, and getting a room in a hostel.
The security of the hostel was hard to leave, but at about 2pm the following day we decided that we had to brave the city. We could have just left – many travellers do just that – but I suppose we were feeling a bit stubborn, and like we needed to connect with the place somehow. So we made a run for it – to McDonald’s.
And before you ask, no, we’re not ashamed of that choice. It’s not that we wanted to eat the food, we just needed to find our feet somewhere that we thought may be safe. Familiarity is good for that, so we stand by the decision. Plus, it worked. After a short stop off, we waved goodbye to the armed guard at the door and went for a little walk around the area.
It turned out to be quite interesting. We didn’t venture far, but we did get to eat tacos made on the street, visit the main square and spotted a few buildings worthy of pictures. We also found a bakery that sold massive donuts and I find that there’s nothing better to make you feel at ease than a cup of tea and a huge confectionery product. So it wasn’t that bad after all.
All aboard the chicken bus!
It was also here that we first heard of the concept of ‘chicken buses’: ‘You’re going to Antigua? How are you getting there? Are you going to get the chicken bus?’ and other such variants of these questions were regularly asked at Theatre International.
So what is a chicken bus? Well, very simply, it’s an old school bus that the US has deemed unfit for further use. They sell them off to Central American countries (this is not solely a Guatemalan phenomenon) who repair them (apparently), repaint them in gaudy colours reminiscent of the Philippine Jeepneys, and then run them at mind warpingly high speeds as local buses all over the country. They are called chicken buses for two reasons: 1 – because they pack you in like chickens, and 2 – because locals are not averse to transporting livestock on board, most often chickens.
So, were we going to get a chicken bus to Antigua? Hell no. Not a chance. Not when a nice coach from the bus station two blocks down was leaving at a very sociable 2pm, and for a very reasonable 45 Quetzales – about £4 or so – and especially not because we’d heard all sorts of horror stories about them being hijacked by armed gangs. We weren’t ready for that kind of excitement, not just yet anyway…