We almost snuck into Guatemala through a backroad. I had dropped a pin on my Google Maps app on the Guatemalan side of the border and tapped the button for directions without looking at the route. We were about five miles into a smugglers route across the border before Scott smelled something fishy. It didn’t seem right to him that the road to a major border crossing would be a torn-up dirt affair with almost no traffic. That guy is a thinker. I double checked our route and we promptly turned around and headed back towards the paved highway leading to Guatemala.
The first thing we had to do was check ourselves out of Belize. As with everything else in Belize this was expensive. We were charged 20 USD per person just to leave the country. Scott had to go through a door by himself and check the truck out of Belize. While I was waiting for him I struck a deal with a money changer. I had just enough Belizean dollars to pay for the border expenses. It was a bit stressful because when I did the math on how much money I would need to exchange to get through the border I didn’t think to consider that I wasn’t going to get the bank exchange rate. I think the banks were quoting 3.7 Quetzales to the Belizean dollar. The money changer first offered me 3 to 1. I told him that my “friend” got 3.5 just the other day. We ended up agreeing on 3.4 Q to the BZD.
Once we were successfully checked out of Belize with a pocketful of Quetzales it was time to navigate the Guatemalan border. Step one was a “fumigation.” This was another spittle of (hopefully) water. After we were successfully spittled we were directed to park in a handicap spot at the customs building. We were crossing our fingers that we didn’t get a ticket for that as a welcome to Guatemala! I walked over to the fumigation office and paid 18Q for the pleasure of being spritzed. Later when I looked at the receipt it showed a cost of 17Q. An inadvertent tip, I guess. Next was to get our persons checked into Guatemala. That was smooth. A nice lady wearing the molars of her children as a pendant on a necklace stamped our passports. One of the molars was inlaid with a diamond! Getting the truck checked in was more problematic. We needed to have copies made of Scott’s passport, the title, and the registration of the truck. I ended up being 1Q short of the cost of copies (he didn’t have change for a 100Q note). If I hadn’t overpaid the fumigation guy It would have been fine! Copies in hand we returned to the vehicle import desk. They issued us a bill for 160Q that was only payable at the bank. Unfortunately, the bank at the border was closed so we had to hoof it a few blocks into town to pay the bill. Inside the bank all of the seats were numbered and every time someone finished their banking we all shifted ourselves over one number. Each time we moved the plastic seats were moist with butt sweat condensation from the previous occupant. Love thy neighbor. Once we paid the bill we walked back to the border to finish getting our temporary import permit. I stopped in at the copy place and gave the guy the 1Q that I owed him. They gave us a sticker for our window and we were free to explore Guatemala. The final expense was not really a border expense but it was so close that I count it. A 20Q bridge toll that is only applicable to foreigners.
After provisioning in the border town of Melchor de Mencos we headed off to our first destination in Guatemala. Yaxha (pronounced Yash-ha). Most of the reviews we read for Yaxha promised wildlife and solitude. It definitely delivered. Mostly because we were lucky. When we were driving in we passed three school buses full of enthusiastic children going the other way. While we were there, we encountered one other couple wandering the ruins. We gave them a wide berth so that we could all feel the solitude. Yaxha is a Mayan word meaning agua verde which is Spanish for green water and it is referring to the lake the ruins are adjacent to. We had visions of exploring the ruins and cooling off in the lake when we were done. Nope. The lake was cordoned off with plastic caution tape. Apparently, the crocodiles living in the lake have been the demise of more than one unwary person. We enjoyed camping there for a couple of nights especially given that the price was right (free). Next, we ventured further up the road to another ruin called Nankum. That road was really rough. We didn’t need 4WD but our high clearance was a huge benefit. We probably wouldn’t have made it if it were the rainy season. The ruin of Nankum was smaller and most of the structures were not excavated. It was a good exercise for our imaginations. I think that the road to get there was the most fun part.
Our next stop on the Guatemalan ruin tour was Tikal. I had been to Tikal on an earlier trip but it was a first for Scott. The drive in was a straight shot of really nice pavement. They have instituted a system for keeping people from speeding. They give you a ticket with the time written on it at the first gate and they check your ticket on the other end. I’m not sure what the fine is for arriving too soon but you can bet we kept an eye on our speed. We camped in the yard of a hotel outside the gates where we were visited by coatis and oscillated turkeys. We decided to see as much as possible in one day because the ticket to get in was 20USD per person per day. I think we may have been spoiled by the economical nature of the other ruins we had visited. There had been a bit of development to the ruins in the twenty years that passed between my visits. Now there were wooden stairways and observation decks built around the pyramids. Gone was the thrill of walking up the narrow uneven steps to dangerous heights imagining how many people made the same journey throughout history. Tikal receives far too much traffic to allow visitors to erode the temples. I get it but I miss the raw experience as well. There were many people sharing the site with us. Most notably a young school group dressed in matching red uniform shirts. They were loud. Luckily Tikal is huge. We were able to wander the roads to the more far-flung sites in solitude. Toucans were abundant. As were monkeys. We saw spider monkeys and howler monkeys. A tiger snake crossed our path as we were leaving the site. It must have been six feet long. It didn’t look like any of the poisonous snakes I had been studying up on but we gave it plenty of space regardless. We made it through the entire site of Tikal in one day. It was a feat and we left feeling exhausted and satisfied. We had visited three ruin sites in three days and were ready for a change of scenery.
After leaving Tikal, we spent the night on the shores of Lago Petén Itzá in the town of El Remate. I sacrificed my flip-flop to the powers of sucking mud before I realized why every property has a dock stretching out into the water. Our stay there was just a quick overnight in the driveway of a tiny (two table) restaurant before heading south. We arrived at our next destination excited to recreate and promptly paid for camping. Then we realized that we were surrounded by some very high-pressure sales people, some persistent begging children, some horrific bathrooms, and a herd of pigs. The pigs were alright, but they were systematically covering our tires in a thick coating of whatever they had been wallowing in. The reason we were there was to visit a hot waterfall. It was down the road from our camp so we left the truck in the melee of our campsite and walked down a short road to a short trail to a fabulous swimming hole. It was crowded but the vibes were good. There was a waterfall delivering streams of water to the river that were too hot to stand directly beneath. It gave the river a luxurious warmth. I just floated on my back feeling the temperature fluctuate below me as the currents of warm and cool water mixed. There were small caves under the waterfall. We were feeling brave and followed a young local boy back into the underbelly of the waterfall. Claustrophobia be damned! I made it into every nook and cranny he wanted to show is. At one point I had to hold my breath and worm my way through a hole just big enough for me to pass through that was filled with warm rushing water having faith that there would be air on the other side. I am getting some anxiety writing about it all these weeks later. It was a rad experience.
Once we had our fill of soaking in the warm river we returned to camp. It was then that we decided that we didn’t need to stay there. Despite having paid to camp we didn’t want to deal with the people there so we forewent our Quetzales and headed to a super chill camp site on the shore of Lago Izabel. We had waterfront camping with the entire site to ourselves. It was a great decision. The lake was great for swimming. No crocodiles and no sucking mud. The only negative thing we experienced was a tornado of mayflies at dusk on the first night. We were camped next to a palapa that had a single bulb in it. As night began to fall and we started preparing dinner the mayflies moved in and swarmed the light like I have never seen. Luckily, we were making soup and had a lid on our food. They started swarming our stove too. We had to rush in and shut off the gas as the bodies were piling up and catching fire in our stove. We turned off the light and they dissipated. Only to return when we turned it back on again. We had no idea if the onslaught would ever end. There was one other light on by the bathrooms and it was being swarmed as well. We decided to take a break from dinner prep and watch that one. If they stopped swarming that one we would try ours again. Eventually, the air cleared. When we returned to the palapa to make dinner we were walking on a white carpet of dead mayflies. It was gross. There was over an inch of dead bugs accumulated in our stove. Crazy. Other than that, it was just a blissful time spent reading books in the hammocks.
After relaxing at the lakeshore for a few days we headed up into the mountains to visit Semuc Champey. I had read that it was the most beautiful place in all of Guatemala. With billing like that, who could resist? The roads up there were steep, unpaved and beautiful. We were about a half hour into our drive when The Joan Wilder began to throw a temper tantrum. She started running really rough and the check engine light came on. We found a safe-ish spot to park and looked under the hood thinking that maybe one of the new sparkplug wires had come loose. No such luck. We were in the middle of nowhere and didn’t have any choice but to press on. It was very slow going. We were passed by every type of vehicle. Even tuk-tuks. Luck was on our side though and we made it to camp in one piece. Our home for the night was in a grassy parking lot adjacent to a beautiful river. It was a great place to dig into our engine issue. But first, we needed to do some sight-seeing. Semuc Champey is a series of pools in a canyon. It is unique because right before the pools begin the river dives underground and doesn’t emerge again until it pours out in a waterfall on the other end of the pools. So, we were recreating in clean clear pools suspended over a rushing underground river. They had roped off the river so that we would not inadvertently get swept into the underworld. There was a hike up to a mirador that we hit first. Thankfully there were nice ladies selling mangoes at the top because it was a serious trek up there! Like many sites, we had been to it was pretty crowded. We found a smaller pool with fewer people and had a nice swim. Then it was time to return to camp and try to fix our truck. Again. We figured that maybe it was a spark plug problem and we had a new set of plugs on board. Once the heat of the afternoon began to wane, Scott got to work switching out the plugs. We thought we might be in real trouble when one of our new sparkplug wires ripped in half. Scott managed to crimp it back together and finish the job without any further issues. We fired her up and she still sounded like garbage. Ugh. By this time, we figured that the problem was the less-than-fabulous spark plug wires we bought in Belize. We should have known they were trouble when they didn’t fit perfectly…
We had an exciting time crawling up out of the valley and though the Guatemalan Highlands in search of an auto parts shop that was open. We stopped for the night in the town of Uspantan and I had the most disgusting pizza of my entire life. Think soggy sweet-roll dough topped with way too much greasy cheese. Not recommended. We stayed the night in a hotel as there was no camping available in town. The room was grim but the price was right. Think 8’ x 10’ cement cell with walls that were once yellow but now boast a fine beige patina of mysterious origin. Shared bathroom down the hall. We were definitely missing the familiar comfort of our tent. The next morning was the Sunday prior to the beginning of Semana Santa (the week preceding Easter – a huge deal in Guatemala). This meant that our chances of finding an auto-parts store or a mechanic that was open were pretty slim. It also meant that it was market day in Uspantan. We have been to many markets during our travels and this one was exceptionally packed. Packed with vendors and customers. There was everything you could possibly want (excepting spark plug wires) for sale at that market. Live turkeys, chocolate, coffee (green), plastic tableware, wooden tables borne on the backs of slight men, machetes, clothes, socks, food processors, fresh fruits and veggies, dead chickens, saddles, so much corn, buckets and basins, hats, ropes, bras, dried fish, premium denim, army pants and backpacks, flatware, toothpaste, magical herbal remedies, used hammers, and so much more was available. Add to the chaos of the vendors the sea of shoppers flowing through the narrow streets. I was especially impressed with the little old ladies who wove their way through the crowds with their bony fingers extended stabbing people in the ribs if they didn’t get out of the way fast enough. We breathed a sigh of relief when the throng of the market squirted us out the other end and we could move freely again.
Our search for spark plug wires eventually lead us to Huehuetenanago. It was the logical choice because it was the biggest town with the least mountains on the way to get there. It was slow going. When an angry wasp flew in our window and we swatted it back out we were just barely able to drive faster than it could fly. It kept up with us for longer than we were comfortable with. We had stopped at a carwash/mechanic shop on our way out of Uspantan where Scott was certain that they would have a scanner to read our check engine light. The mechanic was on vacation for Semana Santa but the kids working the carwash let us use the scanner. We had misfires in cylinders 1, 3, & 6. Plus, a general code for multiple cylinder misfire. Yup, that sounded about right for the way The Joan was running. Huehuetenango treated us very well. We stayed at another hotel. This time it was bright, clean and comfortable. There was also a restaurant associated with the hotel that was amazing. The owner was a chef who had trained in Italy. We had freshly made pasta. And garlic bread. And red wine! It was delightful and such a treat amidst the stress of having our home on wheels breaking down.
The following day we had our choice of dozens of auto parts stores from which to buy appropriate wires. Getting to them was a bit of a challenge. Huehue is a maze of one-way streets that are not always clearly marked. Add to that an unfortunate pedestrian lying in the center of a major intersection causing the redirection of traffic through said maze. We think he was not too badly hurt because people were comforting him instead of covering him. It took us about an hour to go the last three blocks to our chosen store. Once we had our wires in hand we braved the maze again in search of some lunch. We ended up in a wild west themed steakhouse that served Scott the most beautiful salad of his life. I ordered tortillas a la diabla and got a huge serving of spicy carne with a side of tortillas. So delicious. The owner was excited to have us as customers and gifted us with a bag of coffee from his father’s farm.
With full bellies we slowly drove our way out of town to a little park that allowed camping for a ridiculously low price of 20Q. They had picnic tables under little palapa roofs and many used tires being repurposed for landscaping features. Also, the pit toilets were quirky there. The walls were short enough that you were face to face with passersby on the adjoining road while doing your business. I am unclear on the etiquette. Would this be the one time it is acceptable to ignore someone you pass on the street, or should I smile and say, “Buenos dias?” Our guide book didn’t cover that. Anyhow, it was the perfect place to wrench on The Joan. It ended up being a pretty quick job and when we fired her up she ran like a dream. We were all set to continue our exploration of Guatemala!