13 Days in Central America – By All Available Means

Swift and easy travel around Central America is not an option. In contrast to South and North America, the regions land transport network is sketchy, undeveloped and certainly not geared to the requirements of travelling long distances.

I travelled from Belize City to the border with Guatemala in the local chicken bus. These are old American school buses which have passed their use by date (and probably failed their roadworthiness test) in the United States.

To brighten them up, most have been resprayed in garish colours with bright designs and artwork. This enhancement of the exterior does little to counter the fact that the seats and interior are designed on the scale of eleven year olds. In addition, there is no ticketing for the bus, so the capacity is determined by how many people are willing to squeeze themselves in to the cramped rows of seats and narrow aisles.

I met an English guy from Manchester on the bus. He was not travelling, but appeared to be doing some kind of project work in the area. He advised me that this was a very slow bus, and would take at least four hours to reach the border town of San Ignacio. He also added that it would be necessary to change buses in the country’s capital Belmopan.

Both of these things came as a surprise to me since the schedules indicated the journey should be around two hours with no changes necessary. Although he was working in the area, and should therefore know the situation, I doubted entirely that what he said was true. This proved to be entirely correct. No change was required, and I reached the town in a couple of hours. I could think it was nothing but perverse malice that had led him to try and give me the wrong travel information. Nice English guy.

All my previous border crossing in South America had been made on long distance buses, which reached the frontier, let you to climb out at the customs points, and then travelled on to the next city. This was not possible here. I needed to take another chicken bus from San Ignacio to the town at Benque Viejo and then a taxi from the main square to the frontier point.

Having walked across the border into Guatemala through the customs points, past the numerous street sellers and money changers, I was on the look out for another bus to take me on to the town of Flores, some two hours away. There were none to be seen. I had also hoped there might be some collectivos (small mini vans) to make the journey. Again there were none.

What I did see, however, were dozens and dozens of taxis, all in various states of disrepair – their drivers eagerly calling out to all passers by for their custom. I did not particularly like the idea of making the long journey by taxi. But there seemed to be no other option.

I found one of the most roadworthy looking vehicles and waited for the driver to show up. A few moments later a man arrived, who I assumed to be the driver of the vehicle. The fare down to Flores was extortionate, but it was the only possibility. He then walked off to take me to his vehicle. My ploy to find a decent means of transport had failed – for his own vehicle looked severely beaten up and run down.

After heading off away from the border at great speed, through deserted roads, with rich lush green landscape and hills all around me, my driver pulled into a petrol station. He filled up and then asked me to pay for the petrol. Apparently my over the top fare did not include petrol for the journey – this was apparently going to be extra. I could not make the local payment in Quetzals, but told the driver I would add the petrol fee to my fare in US dollars.

The journey continued and my driver engaged me in animated conversation in Spanish most of the way. Occasionally he would point out some local landmark, wolf whistle a local girl walking along the street, or ask me if I wanted to take a photograph. At one point he stopped by a small roadside market stall and bought two bags of coconut water, one of which he handed to me. I half suspected he was going to charge me again for having bought this drink – but he did not. The day was exceptional hot and muggy, and the coconut water did prove ideally refreshing to combat the heat.

My departure from Guatemala a few days later proved equally eventful. I had initially planned to travel from Guatemala City into El Salvador. But when I arrived in the city it proved entirely impossible to locate the correct bus station for the journey.

There were around a dozen different stations in the city – long distance travel was operated by several different companies – and each one had their own station located at remote points throughout the sprawling city of over a million. Even if I had located the correct one, ticket offices were only open around the time when buses departed, and these usually went just once a day, so the chances of arriving at the right time were slim.

So instead, I had caught another chicken bus up to the smaller colonial town of Antigua. Fortunately this bus was relatively uncrowded. I had seen many similar buses going through the city with the back doors open and several people standing on the back bumpers clinging on to whatever hand hold proved available.

I later learned from an American living in Guatemala who I met on the bus down to Panama that these chicken buses in the city were very dangerous – mostly from gangs who came onto the buses and robbed the passengers. According to him, there had already been 90 deaths that year of bus drivers who had been killed while robberies were in progress.

From Antigua I travelled from Guatemala into Honduras. There was a direct shuttle service in one of the collectivos that left at around four in the morning. I thought I had missed the bus as I had overslept by a few minutes. But fortunately the Latin American habit of buses arriving very late was on this occasion a blessing rather than an annoyance.

While I waited somewhat anxiously for the bus outside my hostel, there was also another man standing outside. At first I thought he was also catching the bus, so I asked if it had already left. He knew nothing about any kind of bus. He was an Irishman who had stayed out drinking all night and had now managed to lock himself out of the hostel. He had resigned himself to standing outside smoking until the doors were opened in around 3 hours time. I did make him the offer of returning to my hostel since the doors there were open, but had no idea whether he took me up on this since my collectivo arrived as we were discussing this.

I had a chance to doze off and catch up on some more sleep on the first leg of the journey between Antigua and Coban. I was sitting in the front seats of the mini van next to the driver and assistant driver. Although I was jammed in with my backpack and the luggage from the drivers, there was still more legroom than in the 15 or so seats at the back which were likewise crowded with sleepy travellers.

When we stopped for breakfast, I had chance to catch sight of the driver. I thought it was strange that even in the hours of darkness he had been wearing very thick sunglasses. As we got out of the collectivo, he removed these sunglasses and I realised that he only had one eye. This doubtless accounted for the close shaves with oncoming vehicles on the numerous passing manoeuvres made during the trip so far.

Confusion followed at the border with Honduras due to the immigration arrangements there. It was possible for those leaving Guatemala and returning to the same country in a few days to be given a simple entry ticket which would then surrender upon return. Our driver initially assumed that everyone was in this position, so took all the passports to the office and returned a few minutes later with the relevant cards.

Several of us were leaving Honduras for other destinations, so we questioned the driver whether our papers were in order, and he said that further stamps would need to be obtained. He went off again and came back with the required stamp. I realised however that there was only one stamp, whereas there should be two: one to leave Guatemala and one to enter Honduras.

When I pointed this out to the driver he advised that this was not a problem. He assured me that there were special arrangements between Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua which simplified the crossing procedures, meaning that only one stamp was required each time a border was crossed. I had no option but to believe him and see what happened when I reached the border with Nicaragua.

Ian Sumter

Latin America Studios

[http://www.latinamericastudios.com]