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Diary of a Latin American Travel Day

Eventually the countdown reached zero and it was time to make our move south. Thanks to the reasonable yet still occasionally irritating rules that limit non-visa visitors to a mere 90 days in Guatemala we had, as you know, been cooling our heels in southern Mexico just waiting for our moment. That moment being exactly Feb 3, to coincide with our flight home on May 3. You guessed it, 90 days later. Anyway, with the flight options costing considerably more and not saving a whole lot in the way of time or effort (see: a night in Guatemala City plus at least 5 hours by shuttle to reach the lake itself) we chose the Mexican night bus / morning border crossing / multiple chicken bus route. Logically, it all made sense. Didn’t make us any more excited to get started on our Latin American travel day, however.

Huatulco, Mexico to Lake Atitlan, Guatemala by Bus and 3 Kinds of Other Transport

Feb 2

19:10 Arrive at ADO bus terminal. Giddily stake out spot next to electrical outlet with my e-reader (very recently discovered e-reader to be completely dead).

19:40 Bus scheduled to arrive. So far, nothing, except for the beggar with the prominent stain on his crotch. Cool, but no substitute for the bus.

Charge, damn you

20:15 Still no bus. Pretty excited about e-reader battery, though. Two bars, well, it ain’t nothing.

20:30 Bus finally arrives. We take our seats. Not surprised to learn we chose a spot directly beneath one of the TV screens. Surely that will work out well.

20:45 Discovered reading lights don’t work, but road is soon too windy for reading anyway. Pleasant surprise: unlike most night buses A/C not set to “meat locker”.

22:00 Last passenger finally achieves sleep, creating a unanimously quiet darkness. This serves as cue to fire up the evening’s entertainment. A Most Wanted Man, starring the late, growly Philip Seymour Hoffman, roars to life at a volume suitable for a child’s birthday party in a ball pit.

22:15 Volume of movie increased further as driver notices two people still managing to sleep.

22:35 Trip to the bathroom at back of bus delayed by multiple sets of legs blocking aisle in attempted slumber. Passive-aggressive bumping, purposefully unsuccessful step-overs, much glaring ensues…

Feb 3

00:10 Movie ends, mercifully, although in frustrating fashion for old Philip.

00:45 Blue pill triggers enjoyable and relaxing 5-hour run of sleep. No, not that one. A different blue pill.

2:40 Bus pulls over at all-night restaurant, driver announces 30-minute stop.

2:45 Driver returns within 5 minutes, bus leaves, no explanation, just a lot of clumsy backing up.

5:50 Eyes slowly adjust to burgeoning morning light. Bag of nuts gets unceremoniously rummaged.

6:50 We arrive at Tapachula bus terminal, basically on time despite our late start and the driver’s long mid-trip cigarette break.

6:52 Emerge from bus blinking and hesitant like trolls arriving at summer BBQ.

6:55 Taxi to border town of Talisman.

7:15 Hire a tricycle taxi to take us to actual border ($1).

Crossing the border in luxury

7:25 Waiting patiently at back of Mexican customs line. Engage in various arguments regarding line-switching, covering of bases.

7:45 Immigration officer slides window shut, waves us away in dismissive, and rather baffling, fashion. Chaos ensues among lines. Eventually learn that it is shift change. See you in half an hour.

8:10 Hello, are you still here? Passport!

8:22 Obligatory border photo. Look, Mexico is here, but Guatemala is just right here. Awesome.

8:23 Took wrong turn to spite touts, accidentally returned to Mexico.

8:23 Ecstatic money changers thrilled to be given second chance. Alas, sales pitches end in sadness yet again.

8:24 Returned through customs and various gates to arrive once again at border.

8:25 Another wrong turn, welcomed back to Mexico yet again with chuckles and mounting suspicion. Money changers display admirable determination, to no great effect.

8:30 Successfully navigate our way to Guatemalan immigration. Third time really is the charm.

Typical border chaos

8:37 Purchased bottle of water. ** Foreshadowing Alert **

8:40 Agreed price with taxi to Malacatán.

9:00 Arrived in Malacatán in flurry of dust and panic. Driver blocks escape of escaping chicken bus, convinces skeptical driver that two groggy gringos would be a useful addition to his passenger list.

9:05 Grin at each other conspiratorially over our luck – got last set of inside seats, no half-cheek hovering for us.

9:35-9:50 Fifteen full minutes of rearranging backpacks, bags, vegetables, farm implements to make enough room for one additional small bag on upper rack. A true, albeit ineffective, group effort.

10:15 Bus is officially packed. But I don’t care, we’ve got inside seats, suckers. Despite rough roads and insufficiently strong neck, I doze on and off.

Filling up as we go

10:25 Head bobs frightfully as I slide in and out of sleep.

11:00 Bus arrives in San Marcos (a much different San Marcos to our final destination, one far more urban and prone to internationally newsworthy landslides. And good tortillas, I’m told).

11:02 Our bus intercepts second bus, this one apparently chomping at the bit to make tracks for Xela. Thanks to our persuasive bus ayuda (helper) chicken bus number two hesitates just long enough for two gringos to scramble aboard. Unfortunately, once again no time for even a quick and inappropriate bathroom break. ** Foreshadowing Alert #2 **

11:40 Increasing pressure on my bladder. Back of bus empty but for elderly woman who (usually) has face covered with scarf.

11:44 Having difficulty bracing legs in very last seat, sharp curves in road battling need for physical relaxation as I rather unsuccessfully pee in empty water bottle. Occasional glances at old lady reveal no privacy issues just yet. Occasional splashing seems unavoidable.

11:47 Hand sanitizer and used tissues key components of ongoing clean-up effort.

12:15 Arrived at busy Minerva terminal in Xela where I disembark. Laynni, somehow, does not. Bus continues on as I look on, baffled and uncertain.

12:18 After brief chase on foot, bus slows just enough for me to leap back aboard, backpack and all. I notice Laynni frowning mightily in aisle behind aforementioned elderly lady.

12:20 Bus stops again. We both get off. Bus driver studiously ignores our irritated head-shaking.

12:25 Laynni acknowledges bottle of urine attached to my backpack with look of supreme distaste.

12:45 I make a variety of unseemly moaning noises while inhaling a Libro con Queso combo at McDonald’s.

12:50 Bottle of urine discarded along with remnants of delicious combo meal.

Salvation on the horizon

13:10 Check our backpacks at Walmart entrance. Laynni consults extensive list and sets off into the maws of the beast. I head off in search of Tigo cellular office.

13:15 Start process of acquiring a SIM card and mobile internet package.

13:25 Cashier informs me cash is king.

13:35 Hunt down Laynni in paper aisle, grouchily take back a wad of quetzales.

13:45 Return to Tigo office. Many more minutes of discussion regarding phone packages.

13:55 Cashier informs me latest choice is not possible.

14:00 Unwieldy group of Tigo employees discuss what is, and what is not, in fact possible at this time. The vote appears split.

14:15 Finally emerge with a working phone and about five times as much calling and messaging credit as I could ever hope to use.

14:45 Walmart shopping journey reaches cashier stage. New phone used to confirm shuttle waiting outside as $600 of groceries seems unlikely to fit in extra pockets on backpacks.

14:55 Groceries bought and paid for, including 8 dozen Brahva Extra at $0.60 per beer, and 18 giant two-ply rolls of toilet paper. Truly prepared for any eventuality.

Home of the Chicken Bus

15:10 Shuttle loaded, passengers aboard, final journey to lake begins.

15:45 Sleeping like a log. A swaying, slumping log.

16:15 Arrive at turn-off from highway down to lake. Appears as though interminably under construction road (7 years and counting) may finally be complete.

16:20 Juan enjoys large belly laugh at suggestion of completed road. Shakes head briefly in obvious amusement. Another large belly laugh.

16:22 Traffic grinds to a halt in face of ongoing construction. Which continues unabated for next 30 minutes.

17:15 Arrive at Pasaj-Cap. Greeted by fellow guests / useful grocery pack mules (i.e. Tim).

17:25 Perishables carefully stored in fridge.

17:30 Find Bill and Jan waiting at palapa with cold beer and hearty chuckles. Happy hour commences. 22 long hours of travel end with a contented burp.

21:00 Collapse in exhaustion.

The Arrival

Next up:

Volcano photos – why they aren’t just pornographic any more.

For a comprehensive look: A Guide to Lake Atitlan

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