We woke on Christmas eve morning to clear blue skies over Lago Peten Itza in El Remate, Guatemala. We’ve rented a studio apartment for the Christmas holiday. It has fabulously high ceilings and floor to top windows, and with its setting on the hillside and sun glistening off the lake, it reminds me of a Swiss chalet; though with the high humidity and the sun baking us like chickens in an oven, we are all thinking about swimming rather than skiing. Fortunately, the lake is great for swimming.
We crossed the border from Mexico to Guatemala on Saturday, December 19, at the Guatemalan town of El Ceibo. At the start, we were driving on a mud track through a cornfield and if we weren’t being passed by dozens of other cars, we might have turned around. We figured the road must lead somewhere that people wanted to go – why else would they be driving so fast through muddy farmland?
Eventually we ended up on a nice paved road and arrived at the border at 9:30am (it opened at 9.) I don’t have a lot of experience doing land border crossings, but I think this one was fairly smooth other than the 4 hours of waiting caused by your typical bureaucratic hassles. When we entered Mexico, we needed to leave a $200 USD deposit to dissuade us from selling our van Wesley, or otherwise keeping it in the country.
In order to retrieve our deposit, we needed to have our exit paperwork processed within the 180 days we were allowed to legally be in the country and show that we were exiting with the van. Because there was only one guy working this window at the border, and he didn’t give us any confidence that he knew what he was doing, we thought about just walking away. But we can theoretically live for 2 days on $200, so in the end we waited him out – three hours – and got our money back. Though, we are still waiting for it to show up as a credit on our credit card account. While we were waiting for him, we went to a food stand 300 meters inside Mexico, which we had just been stamped out of, and got a grilled chicken to eat.
The Guatemalan side was a little better; we only waited for an hour to be processed. Most of this time was spent standing on the sidewalk where we were supposed to pay our nonreturnable vehicle import fee of 160 Quetzales (8 Q equals about 1 USD) while the computer rebooted. The room where we got a Guatemalan entry stamp in our passport had six floor fans – giving the impression that it gets really, really hot in there - a stove, and enough tables and chairs so that it looked like the place might double as a restaurant when the border was closed. The office where we processed Wesley’s paperwork was a mobile trailer and we had to walk 200 meters into the country we weren’t legally allowed to enter yet, to get a photo copy of the passport page we just had stamped. Welcome to Guatemala.
Right away Guatemala gave us the impression of a much poorer country than Mexico. It has been raining a lot and the mud went right up to the doors of the wood and tin shacks where the people live – there are no such things as front lawns. There are a lot more pigs wandering around, and turkeys. I saw a chicken nibbling bugs by the side of the road get spooked by something and run into the road and under a pick-up truck; the first time I saw any animal get hit on this trip, even though chickens, dogs, cows, donkeys, goats, and now pigs and turkeys, are wandering around like kids after the last school bell. This really has nothing to do with the economics of a country – the chicken getting run over, I mean – but it was the most interesting thing I can remember from our drive to Flores, and now El Remate, where we have been for the last week.
Flores is a small town on an island in Lago Peten Itza. R spent some time many moons ago on the lake when she studied Spanish at a small village – San Andres – on the other side from Flores. San Andres is too small for an ATM so she and her fellow students had to get a lancha (small boat) to Flores to withdraw cash. Most of the lanchas are gone now since they’ve built a road all the way around, but you can still get a boat ride to San Miguel – directly across from Flores – to walk around and see some jungle covered Mayan ruins, which settlement was apparently visited by Hernan Cortes in the 1500’s. I’m not sure how they know this; maybe he signed the register at the hotel.
Most of our time in Flores was spent preparing for Christmas – we learned how to sew stockings, and the kids wanted a tree and presents – and trying to find the cheapest place to eat. We’ve determined in our few days here that things in Guatemala cost twice what they would cost in Mexico – a beer costs about Q 12 (around $1.50 USD) and a box of milk about Q 20 (around $2.50 USD). It’s still a bit cheaper than U.S. prices, but not as affordable as we expected. We also have to relearn the art of haggling over prices in the market; we lost our touch in Mexico because, for the most part, it isn’t part of the culture.
Of course, all of this may be because we are near Tikal, one of the top tourist destinations in the country - we’ve seen a lot more white (i.e., U.S., European, and Australian) travelers than we are accustomed to seeing. Things may be different as we put some distance between us and this place – which we plan to do after our visit to Tikal on Saturday and Sunday.