Guatemala, Part IV

“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”

Ibn Battuta

And we’re back in Guatemala! In this part I’ll be wrapping up our adventures in this amazing country.

Without further ado:

Cathedral of Guatemala City

“Be careful!”

Unbeknownst to us, we had not been the only Americans on that bus out of Belize: waiting in line at customs, we met up with Julian, a musician from L.A., and his mother Nancy, an advocate for conflict survivors for UNICEF.

We spoke with a taxi driver at the border, who agreed to 100 quetzals per person. Good deal, right?

As we were passing out of the check point, windows rolled down, we slowly passed by an outdoor bar, around which several people had gathered. I happened to lock eyes with one man, who after a pause began to yell, in accented English: “Be careful! Be careful!”

I was reminded of my youth spent yelling random things at passing cars with my friends, so I figured this was just a grown man doing the same. We thought nothing more of it.

We got to talking with Julian and his travels, which included Iceland, India, and Southeast Asia. He gave us the idea for renting an RV to drive around Iceland, as a more cost-effective combination of lodging and transportation. Nancy reflected on possibly retiring from her profession.

“Don’t do that, mom,” Julian said. “There are too many people who need you.”

We kept driving on through the dark. At one point we deviated from the main road and hit some very rocky terrain, a completely unpaved road. After several awkward moments, I asked the driver, in Spanish:

“Are we still on the highway?”

No.”

Several more minutes of bumpy driving. Then the paved road began again.

Si.”

We laughed, more nervously than genuinely. I was a little disarmed by his lack of elocution, but decided to keep it to myself. Finally, several hours later, we arrived in Flores. We produced our wallets to fish out some quetzals.

The driver shook his head. “Ciento cincuenta, por favor.” One hundred and fifty.

I shot a glance at Kristen. She was just as taken aback as I was. I politely reminded the driver that he had said a hundred quetzals per person.

The driver rubbed his eyes, clearly stressed. He began to speak a mix of broken English and rapid Spanish, telling us that the price was Q150, not Q100. All of a sudden, the bystander’s warning back at the border became clear to me. While my blood was up, I didn’t want to make the situation worse, especially not with my girlfriend and other people in the car.

“You do not understand my Spanish,” the driver said haltingly. “Do the, the–” he made the hand sign for calculator, “I did the math wrong. It is one hundred fifty.”

You didn’t do shit wrong, I muttered, and told him, in the most perfect Spanish I could muster, that we understand him in both languages, and that the reality of the situation was that we had agreed on 100, not 150.

The driver looked hard at me, and I returned an easy glance while presenting absolutely no intention of backing down. He was a thin old guy, I could take him.

“Okay, okay, one twenty five.”

Wrong as this thief was, we weren’t going to convince him to honor our agreement. So, we paid him Q125 apiece.

When we had unloaded our bags, I asked the group: “I’m not crazy, right? He said 100 quetzals apiece?”

“Yeah, totally,” Julian said. “That’s why he went down to 125. He was just trying to get extra.”

So let that be a warning to you, dear traveler. Don’t let them fluster you, and don’t let them bullshit you.

Back in Flores

We said goodbye to Julian and Nancy and found a nice room overlooking Lake Peten Itza, called La Casa de Enrico. Enrico, the man running it, reminded me very much of Jean Reno from The Professional, and could not have been more polite.

He put us up in a very nice room with wonderful amenities, and even gave us room service. The shower was not running hot, and so he offered us a free breakfast the following morning. The food we had in our room, as well as the fresh fruit juice, was some of the best we had our entire trip.

That dinner was followed by a breakfast the next morning that, rightly or wrongly, was our most memorable meal the whole trip. It was a standard desayuno tipico, a typical breakfast of scrambled eggs, fried plantains, black beans, and cheese, but it was presented so professionally and tasted so savory that it will forever stick in our minds. It really is the little things; Enrico brought out fresh slices of bread, still warm, and saucers of fresh jam, also warm, that melted across the bread like butter. To say it was delicious would be an understatement. To eat this bread and jam was to relax, and feel all your cares and worries melt away.

This was helped by the fact that we were the only people on the balcony that morning. The day was gorgeous, and so was the view overlooking the lake. We watched the boats go by, as well as people and tuk-tuks on the street below. We ate leisurely, relishing every moment together. We sipped fruit juice that had hints of cardamom, and just enjoyed the morning. After all our adventures, this was what it meant to have a true vacation.

The view from La Casa de Enrico

But things are not beautiful simply because they last forever, and eventually it was time to pick up our bags and be on our way. We left a good tip for the wait staff, and went out to flag a tuk-tuk down to Santa Elena.

Santa Elena is bigger and busier, and is where the big shopping malls, movie theaters, and bus stations are located. This time, we made sure to request the best class of bus, the Clase Oro or Gold Class, at Q220 per ticket. The driver assured us that it would have working air conditioning. Unfortunately, that bus would not be leaving for another six hours.

Child endangerment by American standards, but some cultures just do things differently. I don’t agree–at all–with what’s going on here, but I’m also not going to tell people of another country how to live.

Luckily, the station was spacious, had several restaurants and convenience markets (that only accept cash, by the way), and was air conditioned. We set out bags down and thought about what to do. There wasn’t a whole lot to go out of your way for in this part of town, but we weren’t concerned. Eventually we decided to go see a movie. Shazam! was playing at the local theater, so we got right back on a tuk-tuk and zipped on over.

The mall was very large and nice for a town of this size. I had remembered an outdoor concert being performed under the large canopy the night before, when we were driving across the causeway. We felt awkward bringing our big backpacks into the theater with us, but the staff said this wouldn’t be an issue. At Q35 a pop, the tickets were half to a third of the price as back home. With our hot dogs and drinks, we went in and sat down.

Movie theaters are a bit different in Guatemala. While still high-definition, they did not seem to be 4K quality. They are also played at lower volume, which would be perfectly fine if half the people in the theater wasn’t talking throughout the movie. Shazam! was dubbed into Spanish, and a lot of the humor seemed to translate well enough for the rest of the hispanophone audience. The fact that there was a lot more chatter actually helped in this case, as I quietly translated some of the dialogue for Kristen.

Although “Rayos de mis manos!” is pretty self-explanatory.

One thing’s for certain: half the people seated around us would not last five minutes in an Alamo Drafthouse.

In high spirits from the movie, we stopped by a Pollo Campero to load up on food, since the night bus can’t stop for meals. Accosted by one panhandler and with no Uber drivers in sight, we ended up walking back to the bus station. Even at night, there were plenty of well-lit bars and outdoor markets with plenty of other people on the street. We never feared for our safety.

Since I still weren’t 100 percent trusting that this bus would actually be comfortably air conditioned, I once again showed up in shorts and a T-shirt. My pants and hoodie were kept in my luggage, in the hold.

We were presented with big plushy chairs on the second level of the bus, with plenty of leg room, large storage spaces overhead, and a working bathroom on the first level. Yes, it had AC.

Lots of AC.

Whereas I couldn’t breathe on the first bus, I was about ready to have frost bite on this one. Kristen, having had the foresight to wear jeans and pack a jacket in her handbag, slept comfortably. I, on the other hand, was dying. Now I knew exactly what all those forums meant: these were the cold buses.

I asked the drivers if I could get my backpack out of the hold, but was told no. I asked them if they could turn the AC down, and they said they would. An hour later, it was just as frigid, and an older women climbed down to tell them that it was very cold and could they lower the AC. Again, they said they would, and never did.

It got so bad at one point that I had to do something drastic. Pulling my arms inside my shirt like I used to do back in elementary school was helping my top half, but not my bottom half. So, taking advantage of the darkness–and I’m really not proud of this–I slid my shorts down over my knees and calves. That way, at least all of my legs were somewhat warm, instead of one half being warm and the other half about ready to turn blue.

So let that be another warning to you, dear traveler: show up prepared for both extremes.

Back in Guate

We were dropped off at CentraNorte, another very large and very clean shopping mall. Unfortunately, we were also several miles away from the city center, and after grabbing breakfast, we had to catch an Uber into town. It was on this Uber ride that we passed through Zone 16, which was the stereotypical assortment of shacks climbing up the hillsides like lichen. It’s actually very impressive and, in a way, cool. However, be sure that areas like Zone 16 and Zone 18 are where most of the violence occurs that you hear about.

We were able to secure an Airbnb in a wonderfully spacious apartment in Zone 10 with perfectly hot water. We were just steps from a number of restaurants and in a safe area.

The next day, we went to the historic district, Zone 1, to have a look around. We had a look at the old post office, which you can explore after handing your passport to the front desk. The post office isn’t very big, and it is a functioning government building, so you won’t see too much, but the arch is quite nice.

In Parque Centenario (Centennial Park), the main plaza of Guatemala City, was a large outdoor book market. I love books and so I enjoyed browsing around the several long tables, hunting for something I had never read in Spanish. I eventually bought a Paulo Coelho book, La Quinta MontaƱa, for Q100 (talking the guy down from Q120). You will also have access to the Cathedral of Guatemala City, which is nice, but not the main attraction in Zone 1.

Cathedral of Guatemala City

We walked across the plaza to visit what I think is the main attraction, the National Palace, also known as El Palacio Nacional de la Cultura (The National Palace of Culture). More colloquially known as “El Palacio Verde” (The Green Palace), owning to the patina on the stone blocks, it was once the residence of the president, and is now mostly a museum, with only two federal departments operating there. We paid Q40 for a 45-minute guided tour.

The National Palace of Guatemala

Built between 1939 and 1943, The National Palace is an impressive structure in its own right, made five times more so if you know its history. It was ordered built by Jorge Ubico, that crazy president I mentioned back in Part I. Ubico was originally a general in the Guatemalan army, elected to power in 1931 (as the only candidate) and ruling until his removal from office by an uprising in 1944. An oppressive tyrant, he militarized a number of social institutions, and pandered to the harsh labor practices of the American United Fruit Company. He would refer to himself as “another Napoleon.”

Jorge Ubico

He was also completely obsessed with the number five.

This fixation was so well-known that he was even nicknamed “Number Five.” He found the fact that there are five letters in both “Jorge” and “Ubico” an important sign.

You will see the number five pop up a laughable number of times when learning about the National Palace. There are five levels to the palace, and five main arches on each floor. There were five main construction materials used, including concrete and oxidized copper, which gives the “Green Palace” its characteristic shine. The locals will also refer to the palace as “El Guacamolon”, or “The Big Guacamole.”

Plaza de la Paz (Plaza of Peace)

At the time of its construction, the Guatemalan quetzal had parity with the American dollar. Despite this, the palace was constructed for a relatively low cost, mainly because the lion’s share of the work was done by prisoners for next to nothing a day.

Ubico also made sure to include an entrance that only he could use. People who knew him said that he did not like to have anyone in his way.

In 1980, during the Guatemalan Civil War, a car bomb went off by the corner of the palace, prompting the removal of the president’s residence, as well as most organs of the government, to decentralize.

The Main Ballroom, location of “Kilometer Zero” for all of Guatemala’s roads

The palace was quite beautiful. My photos do not even do it justice. The gilded ceilings were some of the most intricate I’ve ever laid eyes on, and the two-ton chandelier in the Main Ballroom is beyond impressive in real life.

On the lower level of the palace, you will notice a map of Guatemala, but something will look off about it. You will notice that Belize is still considered part of Guatemala. I mentioned this to the guide, who said that, yes, Belize used to be a part of this country–

“And still is!” an older man in the tour group piped up in Spanish.

–but that it was given to the British to work on the railroads there, which apparently they never did.

“Chiapas also used to be a part of Guatemala,” another tour group member said, referencing the state in southern Mexico. Again the tour guide verified this truth, saying that Guatemala sold that region to Mexico in exchange for weapons during the long and bloody civil war.

Speaking of the Guatemalan Civil War, the peace accords were signed in the Plaza of Peace, in 1996. You can see a bronze sculpture of a hand, which holds a fresh rose. The rose is changed every day.

Next to it is a small altar containing an eternal flame. This altar is in honor of the many thousands of children killed during the conflict.

The guide spoke of the palace with palpable pride. On at least two occasions, he told anecdotes of American visitors commenting on how impressive the structure was. It’s certainly a must-see, in my opinion, and the tour will teach you a lot of interesting facts.

As we had been moving along on the tour, I began talking with some Americans from Utah, whose father was himself from Guatemala. He asked me if I wanted to be featured in a short video clip, to be sent to his friends who were too scared to go to Guatemala. I eventually agreed, and spoke for a few seconds on the safe zones I knew of, and all the beautiful things I had seen. I spoke simply and sincerely.

Our Last Night

That night, we walked over to a P.F. Chang’s and had a good dinner. We then walked over to the Red Horse Inn, owned by a British expat. Again, we felt no danger at all walking to and from our Airbnb.

My flight did not leave until afternoon on the following day, so we got up nice and late. We took an Uber to a fancy shopping mall to use most of the last of our quetzals to treat ourselves to a nice big breakfast.

We reflected on our two and a half weeks in Central America. We agreed that Belize was a bust, for the most part, but that Guatemala was worth every penny (although we’ll definitely plan smarter for next time). We certainly can not wait to get back.

And that’s the end of Guatemala! I hope you guys enjoyed these posts as much as I enjoyed writing them. Until our next voyage (Montreal!), I’ll be typing up previous adventures I’ve had. Safe travels!

THE END

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Travel Book of the Week: Dark Star Safari

“All news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there, though not for the horror, the hot spots, the massacre-and-earthquake stories you read about in the newspaper; I wanted the pleasure of being in Africa again.”

Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari

Author: Paul Theroux

Published: 2003

Geographic Area: East Africa (like, all of it)

Original Language: English

As you can see in the image above, the full title of this book is Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town. If that doesn’t make you want to pick it up right now, I really don’t know what will.

Dark Star Safari follows Theroux on a journey that he makes–solo–down the spine of Africa. He travels through a total of 10 countries, going by foot, bus, train, canoe, and goat truck. Along the way he meets a dizzying array of people, both local and foreign, and shares their stories.

This staggeringly long voyage is made no less impressive by the fact that he was 59 when he set out, celebrating his 60th along the way. However, it’s worth noting that he lived in Malawi and Uganda as a young man, so he not only speaks good Chichewa and Swahili, but also has a vast network of former colleagues and students. He meets up with many of these people throughout his voyage (including the then-prime minister of Uganda, Apolo Nsibambi), and works as a guest speaker at various local universities.

His adventures in Dark Star Safari include seeing the Pyramids, sailing down the Nile, exploring the Rift Valley, and taking a ship across Lake Victoria, visiting numerous archaeological ruins along the way. There are some wonderful moments in this book.

There are also very heavy moments in this book. Theroux shares some highly poignant scenes that put a human touch on atrocities that many westerners know only as headlines, if they’ve heard of them at all. In one chapter, an Ethiopian journalist recounts his torture in a prison during the “Derg,” a dictatorship in power during the 1970s and ’80s. Years later, after the Derg is overthrown, the journalist gets on a city bus and realizes he is sitting across from the man who tortured him.

In another scene, this one in Nairobi, Kenya, he is riding in a taxi and witnesses a naked man being chased through the gutter by a mob of people. The mob is armed with literal sticks and stones, and it is heavily implied that they murdered the naked man.

Theroux’s main goal was to revisit the countries he lived and taught in decades ago, and see how they have improved or worsened. Keeping in mind that he narrates events that took place in 2001, his prognosis is grim: he describes an Africa that is hungrier and meaner, despite (or perhaps because of) countless dollars of foreign aid. However, it’s worth noting that much of this criticism is aimed at the urban centers of Africa; he sees much more hope in the hinterland, the towns and villages of the continent, where people are more likely to be bound by kinship than by economic necessity.

Anyone who’s been keeping up with my blog will have seen that I mention Paul Theroux’s name a few times. He is one of the most famous travel writers alive today, and he’s one of my very favorite authors, in any genre. He has written a vast number of books, fiction and non-fiction, and I will be reviewing several of them in the future.

Paul Theroux has a very unique voice, and very strong opinions, that come across in his writing. He is old school, he does not suffer fools, and he will call people, governments, and NGOs alike on their bullshit. He says “f*** you” to at least one aid worker.

Matter of fact, if he were to read this blog, he would probably condemn my practice of numbering the places I’ve been to, derisively calling me a “country-counter.”

Because of his opinions, Theroux has earned himself a lot of controversy. He very much walks the walk, no one can say he doesn’t, but at least one reviewer accused him of not doing his homework when it comes to foreign aid. I don’t know enough about this topic to speak on it, just something to keep in mind when you read his work.

Dark Star Safari is a book that delves into the African continent in a way that most westerns probably don’t think about. It is an honest look at the trials and triumphs of its people, who, like with any community on earth, have their good, bad, ugly, and beautiful.

I highly recommend this book, and whether you love it or hate, feel free to let me know in the comments below. I’m happy to hear what you think.

As always, I’ve included a link to purchase this book below. It is an affiliate link, so if you choose to make a purchase, I do get a small percentage.

Buy Dark Star Safari from Amazon

Belize

Country Count: 9

“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”

Alexander Pope

Kristen grew up in California, so beaches are very near and dear to her. Though we had hiked a volcano, been on a lake, and seen amazing ruins, we had not yet had the opportunity to lounge on a beach, and she said she wanted to go. Having heard wonderful things about Belize’s beaches, I knew that Kristen would love them. Plus, it would be a perfect opportunity to check off one more country on my list!

We bought tickets for another Fuente del Norte bus that would take us all the way to Belize City, for about Q100 apiece. This bus was just as muggy as the first, but thankfully not as crowded, and we had made sure to dress accordingly.

In several hours we had reached Melchor de Mencos, a small border town. The driver stopped us, and a man with a card shark’s mustache got on board. He held a calculator and a bulging roll of bills. He announced, in English, that Guatemalan quetzals were not accepted in Belize, only Belize dollars and American dollars, and that he would be happy to exchange any quetzals we had. I was of course unsure of this guy, so I got out my phone and did a quick conversion from quetzals to Belize dollars (if you don’t have internet connection, divide by 4 to get an idea). To the guy’s credit, he actually did give me a pretty fair exchange rate.

Belize was a British colony for well over a century, known as British Honduras. The official language is English (although Spanish and a local creole are widely understood), and their money still bears the face of Queen Elizabeth II. They did not gain their independence until 1981. I think this is an important thing to keep in mind, for reasons I’ll go into later.

Getting through customs was a case study in bureaucratic inefficiency, made worse by the fact that we had to bring every piece of luggage off the bus and carry it with us. At least we both had travel packs, and this is another situation in which I’ll recommend you invest in one.

The demographics, once again, shift dramatically. You will see a much higher percentage of Black individuals and hardly any Indigenous people. You will see virtually no women in colorful Mayan dresses, carrying bundles on their heads. Most people are dressed extremely casually; shorts are much more prevalent here than they are in Guatemala.

With brand new stamps in our passports, Kristen and I walked onto Belizean soil. We bought boxed lunches of fried chicken, rice, and plantains, and bottles of water before getting back on the bus. Everyone back on board, we continued on into the Belizean hinterland.

It strikes you as odd at first to be in a Spanish-speaking part of the world, but see shop signs in English, and towns named Unitedville, Mount Hope, and Ontario Village.

Belmopan, the nation’s capital, came and went. Blink and you’ll miss it. Instead, the former capital, Belize City, is the country’s largest. It is situated on the coast, bisected by a river. To stay north of this river is the commonly accepted generic advice; extensive gang activity has been reported in the southern half, although that is where many bus terminals are located.

The drive to Belize City gives you the impression that this country has a very chill vibe to it. It definitely strikes you as the stereotypical Caribbean getaway that many Americans and Europeans look forever to lounging in.

We lugged our bags across the street from the bus station to a curious combination of restaurant: Chinese food and fried chicken. The interior was sparsely adorned, and seemed to be owned by an Asian couple, employing local Black workers. Two men argued amicably at the bar while one of the Hunger Games movies played on a small set.

The fried chicken, served with fried rice, was delicious and decently priced. The waiter, an old man with bleary eyes and a steady gaze, asked us if we were headed up to the islands. We told him yes, San Pedro.

“Nahhhhhhh,” he said, drawing out the syllable. “No San Pedro. Caye Caulker. San Pedro too big, too much stress. Go to Caye Caulker.”

Perhaps we should have taken the gentleman’s advice. Indeed, Caye Caulker (caye pronounced “key”) is a popular destination for tourists. But for whatever reasons, we decided to go to San Pedro, and that will be the focus of this post.

We found the express ferry terminal, and bought tickets for the 1.5-hour boat ride to San Pedro. San Pedro is a small town located on the island of Ambergris Caye, on the northern edge of Belize’s maritime territory. The ticket was not cheap, at around BZ72 for each. The boat looked almost exactly like the SeaBus in Vancouver, though smaller and faster. Everyone aboard, the ferry revved its engines and disembarked, its prow rising and cutting through the waves of the Caribbean.

The ride began as exhilarating and settled into one of the most blissful voyages I’ve ever taken. The vessel rose and fell rhythmically. The sea breeze blew through the cabin. The occasional island passed us by, including one tiny atoll taken up by a single mansion. The sun climbed unhurriedly down from the sky, gilding the cerulean blue sea. I felt an urge to immortalize the scene with a photo, but to do so would have cheapened it. This moment felt more at home among synapses instead of pixels.

San Pedro

Things are not beautiful simply because they last forever, and eventually we arrived in port at San Pedro. After breaking past the ubiquitous mob of taxi drivers, we called an Uber. As we drove through the narrow streets of the small commercial center of town, I noticed that there was a substantial number of golf carts zipping around. Golf carts are to San Pedro what motorcycles are to Antigua, and the prevalence of them makes the town feel like some golf course blown out to sea by a hurricane.

I got to talking with the driver. This guy was my first real introduction to the Belize accent: it sounded to me as being similar to the Jamaican accent, if that Jamaican had been brought in a small North Country town in Upstate New York. I had read in my guidebook about gibnut (a local rodent served as a delicacy, most famously to Queen Elizabeth herself), so I asked the dude where I could get my hands on some.

“Oh, ya know, not many places around here, sir” he said. “Belmopan, the mainland, ya know, they sell that. And it’s a delicacy, ya know. Can be expensive, sir.”

“How much?” I asked.

“Oh, ya know, could be twenty dollars.”

“Belize or American?”

“American.”

We deviated from the main road and turned onto a series of gravel roads sporting deep potholes. The driver unloaded us in front of Pedro’s Inn, a three-story white wooden building. The advantage of this place, as the woman at the front desk explained in a subtle island accent, was that we could use the beaches of all their sister hotels along the coast.

We noticed that the shower did not provide hot water, even after trying all taps and letting it run for a while. Even though I didn’t like, and I know Kristen sure as hell didn’t like it, we shrugged it off; in Guatemala, after all, this was a common problem. However, in that country, the rooms are priced accordingly. For BZ100 a night, though, this shouldn’t have been an issue. Alas, we let it go.

The very next morning, still no hot water. In our trunks, with towels wrapped around our necks and smelling of sunscreen, we complained to the front office, and they said they’d take a look at the water heater. Satisfied that this would be taken care of, we headed off to enjoy the beach.

We walked for a while, following the map the woman had provided us with. We took a shortcut and could see the blue horizon of the sea. Excited, we quickened pace until arriving at the edge of the ocean, where we were met with sand, palm trees, and the most seaweed I’ve ever seen in my life.

“Must not be the right beach,” we agreed, and we kept walking.

We walked for a long time, the sea to our left. Dividing us from the water, unfortunately, were great piles of ugly brown seaweed, two feet high in some places. In one area they were also doing construction of some kind, which further marred the white sands.

Incredulous, I went up to an outdoor bar and asked one of the waiters where the actual beach was.

“Yeah, the sargasso is very bad,” he said, motioning towards the clumps of sargassum piled up at the water’s edge. “It’s been that way for about two years now. It has hurt the tourism.”

I understand that tourism was a vital part of their economy, but there was no universe in which I could recommend these beaches. I had seen better beaches in Texas.

“Well, where are the beaches that don’t have this?” Kristen asked, exasperation evident in her voice.

“You can go to Secret Beach,” the waiter said. “That beach doesn’t have this problem.”

“Awesome,” I said. “Where’s that at?”

“About 40 minutes away,” he said. “By golf cart.”

I resisted the urge to say “Are you ****ing kidding me?” and we left. I felt especially bad for Kristen, who was visibly and vocally let down. Dejected, we went back to the hotel and made use of the pool.

In my mind, I was beginning to compare this town to one of those lazer tag arenas I had played in as a kid, the ones made up to look like some graffiti-spattered urban warehouse, when it was really just a dark room with ramps. San Pedro was a foreigner’s resort, only made up to look like an authentic islander’s village.

Through absolutely no fault of its own, Belize still feels, well, like a colony.

There are several places to eat along Coconut Drive, what locals simply call “the main road,” and over the course of our days in San Pedro we got to sample several of them.

K’s Diner nails the feel of a classic American diner, but not the taste. Interestingly, it is located right to an airstrip used by propeller-driven Tropic Air planes. You can stand right outside and toss a rock underhand and hit a plane preparing to take off. After paying BZ25 for bland fare.

El Fugon, where you can go and feel comfortable around Americans, as if there weren’t enough on the streets for you, was outright robbery, offering uninspiring skewers of chicken for BZ45.

Belikin, the national beer, tastes in no way different from Gallo, which is to say it tastes in no way different from Budweiser.

I never found a place that served gibnut.

Fed up, we ended up ordering pizza. This pizza came from PepperOni’s, and was actually really good.

For $50 a night in Central America, there is simply no reason to not have basic amenities, and so for a second time we ended up complaining to the front desk. The young woman at the counter, who to be fair was very apologetic and polite, moved us across the way to another building. Several minutes of letting the water run and it was still cold. We ended up requesting a night’s money back, which they refunded. Still did nothing about starting and ending our day with cold water.

Frustrated, we set out to get breakfast on our last day. We had found a place online called Estel’s by the Sea. Not affordable, but by then we had given up on finding something that was, and we just wanted food that didn’t suck. It was morning and already the sun was up and beating down on us. Tempers were flaring.

A woman driving a golf cart branded with El Fugon slowed down and pulled up next to us.

Oh Jesus no, I thought, been there, done that.

The woman, a very friendly older woman, instead asked us where we were headed, and if we would like a ride. If was a long walk to get to Estel’s, so we happily agreed and hopped in the back.

The woman’s name was Susannah, and she told us that we would enjoy Estel’s. We got to talking about the state of the beaches, and she echoed the bartender’s advice that Secret Beach would not disappoint us.

She also mentioned that she had grown up in San Pedro, back when it was a very different community.

“I grew up in that house right there,” she said, pointing a row of blue-colored buildings with a view of the sea, now occupied by restaurants and adventure agencies. “We all lived there. My brothers, my sisters, my mother. We would all play together and walk to school together. That was years ago. It has changed. My mother held out as long as she could, but eventually it became too expensive and she had to move.”

Susannah could not have been over 60, tops, and so it was evident that this faux resort was very new. I felt bad that she had lost her childhood home to the encroachment of capitalism, but I was also happy to have met someone who had a tie to this place, for better or for worse, who could inject some personality to this place.

Estel’s by the Sea

Estel’s ended up being a very nice seaside restaurant. The only locals you’ll see are the ones that come to your table, either with a menu or trinkets for sale, but again, we learned to lower our expectations. Their mimosas are very good, their breakfast filling and flavorful. I highly recommend ordering a serving of their fry jack, which is nothing but fried bread (sort of like the crust of an empanada), but trust me is very tasty. Spread a little of jam on it and kick back to enjoy the waves roll in and out.

Secret Beach

We talked it out over breakfast and figured that Secret Beach could in no way be any worse than anything we had seen around here. Being as we were already spending a whole lot for not a whole lot in return, what was another couple of bucks? We’d be broke anyway after this trip. Taking the bartender’s and Susannah’s recommendation, we went down to ATM Cart Rentals on Coconut Drive. $50 got us an eight-hour rental on a golf cart, plus gas.

I hadn’t driven a golf cart since my valet days, so the finicky accelerator took some getting used, as did driving on those cobblestone streets. The streets in San Pedro have little gutters running across them at various intervals. They’re small enough that you can’t really see them until you’re up on them, but they’re deep enough to bounce the hell out of your cart, so keep an eye out for them and watch your speed while in town. Other than that…this part was a ton of fun.

This excursion was the highlight of our time in Belize.

After dropping a bag of laundry off at an American-owned cleaners, and stocking up on snacks at an Asian-owned convenience store, we hit the road. Kristen played some driving music on her phone and we gassed the cart to top speed. We drove out of San Pedro and into the countryside, passing by lagoons and marshes. Eventually the paved roads ended and it was gravel back roads, with the occasional sign to tell us that, yes, we were going in the direction of Secret Beach. It’s not smooth, but we enjoyed it all the same.

Finally, you arrive at Secret Beach, which does not seem very secret at all, but is definitely a beach. A real beach.

While the San Pedro beaches we had been roaming were on the eastern, Caribbean-facing side of the caye, Secret Beach lies on the western side. Shielded from the oceanic currents, there is not a strand of sargasso in sight. There are just palm trees, white sands, and relaxing blue waves.

There were plenty of waiters and other staff keeping watch, so we stowed our stuff and waded out into the water. It was pleasantly warm. We walked over 200 yards out and could still keep our heads above water. We came back and got big coconut margaritas, relaxing in the shade of the palm trees swaying the breeze.

It was pure bliss. We chilled there for several hours, finally watching the sun go down over the waves. Having closed down the beach, we got back in the cart and took off into the night.

The Benque Bus

At the end of our several-day excursion into this country, it was time to board the express ferry back to Belize City. While not as gorgeous as the ride over (a singular moment), it was still wonderful to be out on the waves. We were on the second level, which offered unparalleled views of the cerulean waters, which did not seem all that deep, even this far offshore. It was beyond relaxing; one of the stewards on the boat even climbed over the edge of the handrail and took a nap on the deck. He was awakened with a start by the sound of the horn going off about five feet from him.

However, upon arriving at port, we were told that the intercity buses were not running, this being so close to Easter Sunday. The man at the ferry terminal tried to pressure us into buying what seemed like very expensive passes, so Kristen decided to ask one of the local taxi drivers.

The taxi driver said he would drive us to a local bus station, and from there we would get on the bus to Benque Viejo del Carmen, a border town. From there we could get a taxi back to Flores. Not knowing what to expect from a local Belizean bus but hoping to high hell that it was nothing like a Guatemalan chicken bus, we agreed that this was the best course of action.

The “James Bus Line” station was definitely a local one; this was a bare-bones, no-frills, definitely Central American establishment. We waited with everyone else behind a wrought iron gate and waited for the buses to pull up. These buses looked similar to chicken buses: they were also repurposed school buses, albeit painted less garishly, a cardboard sign in the window declaring the destination. When the bus bearing the name “Benque” pulled up, a surge of humanity pushed through the gate and got on board. I recommend to anyone not accustomed to riding public transit to keep your hands on your phone and wallet, if you can’t put them into a bag. Not just in Central America, anywhere.

After we stowed our bags and clambered up into the school bus, I realized this was the first time I’d been on one since a debate trip back in high school. The interior was standing room only, yet the conductor told everyone to sit down at least until we were clear of the station. A young woman sitting next to me graciously had her young child sit in her lap so I could take a seat. Looking towards the front of the bus, I could see that the cardboard sign, the one outwardly displaying “Benque,” had the name of a school district on the reverse. So it really was a school bus, just not right now.

As the driver took us out of the station, he started playing music, American music, mostly from the ’80s. Cindy Lauper and the like. Was not expecting that. The ride, though a bit packed, was not half-bad. The windows were all down, so there was a wonderful breeze passing through. Along the way we picked up a variety of soldiers, or maybe military school cadets; they were all young and wore what I counted as at least three different styles of camouflage.

The driver slowly worked his way through the crowds, and after we paid our fare (BZ20 apiece), he smiled at us and said, sarcastically, “Welcome to Belize.”

I laughed. Little did he know that we had paid almost twice as much for a bus that was more crowded and had no A/C of any kind. Everything was good.

Until the rain started. What began as a slight drizzle at first turned into a torrential downpour. I’m from Texas, so I’m no stranger to driving in a downpour, but this was on another level. Up went the windows and with them the temperature inside the bus. The pungent smell of cigarette smoke wafted over us; I mentally and sincerely apologized to anyone I had ever sat next to on a train or bus back when I was a smoker. The rain came down harder.

I wasn’t worried at first, but when I started seeing cars parked on the side of the road with their hazards flashing, I began to look for the emergency exits.

I looked out the front windshield and wished I hadn’t: I couldn’t see a thing. And the driver was going pretty fast.

“I don’t like this,” said Kristen.

“I don’t either,” I said. I held her hand tight and just kept an eye on where the exits were, my anxiety rolling through any number of possibilities, including what this this thing went off a bridge and into an overflowing river?

I always travel with a pen, a “tactical” pen. It’s large, made of metal, and the tip of it is actually a sharp piece of pointed metal. Because it just looks like a beefy pen, it is the closest thing you can get to bringing a weapon with you on a plane. This tactical pen serves two purposes: fending off an attacker, or breaking glass in case of an emergency.

My other hand gripped it tight in my pocket.

This was not helped by the fact that I could hear the passengers across the aisle from us begin to whisper in Spanish.

No se ve nada,” said one of them. “You can’t see anything.”

And all the while that ****ing ’80s music kept playing.

Some Final Thoughts on Belize as a Destination for the Budget-Conscious, Time-Limited Traveler

The people of Belize, at every turn, showed us courtesy. I don’t remember having any kind of negative experiences with the locals. Indeed, Susannah offering us a ride to the restaurant, and the taxi driver helping us out, are two solid examples of the Belizean peoples’ generosity.

With this in mind, then, it pains me to shift focus and look at Belize through the eyes of a typical American, with limited time and limited funds, looking to see the world on a budget. From that point of view, I personally do not think there is much in Belize that you cannot find somewhere else, for a lot less money. The ferry rides were heavenly, Estel’s was good, and Secret Beach was nice. But again, nothing you can’t experience anywhere else. Go to Miami Beach. You’ll experience one of the great beaches of the world and eat better food.

I give Belize the benefit of the doubt that we were simply in a very watered down and overpriced part of it. It’s possible that San Pedro is like the Belizean version of Cancun; yeah, you’re in a foreign country, but not really.

I would like to point out that Belize does have the Garifuna culture, in towns like Dangriga, as well as some reportedly impressive Ancient Mayan sites, like Corozal. The Cayo District, in which Benque Viejo del Carmen is located, is said to have some impressive subterranean caves that you can explore. The Great Blue Hole, a few miles off the coast of the country, is a popular destination for diving and snorkeling.

But those activities do not come cheap. And many of them are not particularly accessible.

In other posts, I’ve mentioned that travel, to me, is much more than pretty Instagram photos. There’s what’s visually appealing on social media, and then there’s what you actually see and experience when you’re there.

You’ll notice this post was heavier on text and lighter on photos. The reason for that is I simply did not find much in San Pedro, nor in Belize City, nor anywhere between Belize City and Benque, worth taking pictures of. The topography is very flat and no towns were particularly interesting.

I never want to be that American that goes to somebody else’s country and speaks ill of it. I always look for something new and noteworthy. But looking for something doesn’t always mean you’re going to find it.

All I know is that we damn near kissed the ground after getting off that bus, and could not wait to get back to Guatemala.

A Quick Word on Email Subscriptions and Site Viewership

Hey guys!

I appreciate everyone who has not only been following my blog, but has also subscribed via email to get notifications of new posts.

It has recently come to my attention that you were able to read my entire post on your email notification. Initially, I thought that was awesome! You can read my work at a glance, which is very convenient for you.

Unfortunately, I’m going to be changing that, and let me explain why.

From here on out, I will only be allowing an excerpt of my work available in the notification you receive in your inbox. The reason for this is that when you read the post in your email, it does NOT count as a view for me. While I am very happy to share my stories and my recommendations and advice to you, I’m also trying to generate traffic on my site. To that end, from here on out, it will be necessary to click through to my site to read the full content. It will literally be just one more click or tap on your screen.

I appreciate y’all’s understanding of this!

Thank you very much and safe travels,

Alek ZD

Travel Book of the Week: On the Road

“We packed my brother’s furniture in back of the car and took off at dark promising to be back in thirty hours–thirty hours for a thousand miles north and south. But that’s the way Dean wanted it.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road
I feel like if you own a copy of this book and it’s not worn and battered, you’re doing it wrong.

Welcome to my new series of blog posts, Travel Book of the Week! Every Friday, I’ll be writing about one of my favorite books on travel, exploration, and adventure. The idea is to share my love of reading, and hopefully inspire a little wanderlust in you.

This first post features that granddaddy of the modern American travelogue, On the Road.

Author: Jack Kerouac

Published: 1957

Geographic Area: The United States, with a little bit of Mexico

Original Language: English

I found On the Road at the perfect time in my life. It was 2008, I was a sophomore in high school, and I got bit hard by the wanderlust bug. I would have trouble sleeping, so I’d sneak out of the house in the middle of the night and just go for a walk. I wouldn’t go far back then, staying within the bounds of my suburban hometown, but what mattered was that I was going somewhere. There were a lot of problems at home, and so not only did I like being away from the house, but the simple process of being in motion helped me deal with my anxiety.

I don’t remember if I first heard of the book from my parents, or from my English teacher, Mr. Doyle, or if it’s just one of those pop culture things that percolates down to you at some random interval. Either way, I knew immediately that I had to buy it. I picked it up from my neighborhood Barnes & Noble and, 307 pages later, I knew I had just read one of the most influential books of my entire life.

On the Road was published in the late-’50s, but actually chronicles a series of cross-country road trips taken a decade prior. The book begins with the author finding himself heavily depressed following a divorce. Befriending the free-spirited and hedonistic Dean Moriarty, Kerouac finds renewed interest in life. Thus begins what he calls his “life on the road.”

He sets out from New York City in 1947, in a pair of huarache sandals, with several notebooks in his bag and $50 in his pocket. Over the next four years, he takes us on an epic road trip of the United States, years before the advent of the Interstate Highway System. We witness his experiences from the backseats of old hot rods, from the insides of Greyhound buses, and from the beds of pickup trucks hurtling through the night in the Deep South. Along with Dean and several other companions, they go out to San Francisco by way of Denver, Los Angeles by way of New Orleans, across America’s Heartland, and even down into Mexico. Along the way he presents an intimate look at the “beat generation,” as well as firsthand accounts of the people, cities, and music of post-war America. He works various jobs, such as a nightwatchman at an army barracks, and a laborer in the cotton fields. He leaves all of these–as well as a family–opting instead to get back on the open road.

Let me be clear about something here. I recommend this book as an inspiration for just getting in your car and going somewhere on a free weekend. I do not recommend this book as justification for being completely laissez-faire about your responsibilities, which is what a lot of these guys were. Even Kerouac does not paint a particularly likable portrait of himself; depressed about a divorce at the start of these adventures, he finds himself going through another by the novel’s end.

You can think of the “beat generation” as a sort of spiritual precursor to the hippies. The beats, or beatniks, were perhaps less about drug use (although you will find plenty of that in this book) or free love (there’s a lot of that, too), instead aspiring to be more of a logical, intellectual group of poets and artists.

Dean Moriarty on the left, Jack Kerouac on the right.

Many historians agree that Jack Kerouac was not so much a beatnik himself, but more of a chronicler of the beatniks. Born in Lowell, MA in 1922, he found himself involved with the beat generation as a young man. Several of the most prominent beat writers of the time, such as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, make appearances in On the Road, albeit under aliases: “Carlo Marx” and “Old Bull Lee,” respectively. In fact, Kerouac himself goes by “Sal Paradise.” Dean Moriarity’s real name was Neal Cassady.

Several years back, I had the pleasure of attending an exhibit on Jack Kerouac at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, TX. It was there that I learned that the original manuscript of On the Road was written over the course of three weeks on one very long scroll of linotype paper.

Not only is that a neat little fun fact, but it’s also important to keep in mind when you read this work. The events are presented in a stream of consciousness style. It can get kind of wild. It does not have the more formal prose that you may expect from Paul Theroux or Jon Krakauer. I can guarantee you that much if not all of it was typed up while under the influence of narcotics.

Yes, the characters are not perfect human beings. Yes, the writing style can take some getting used to. But I feel like that’s exactly what gives this work such a unique personality, and makes it one of the most greatest travel books of all time.

You can find an interactive map of Kerouac’s road trips here.

If you like, you can purchase a copy of On the Road by clicking the image below. Just so you know, this is an affiliate link, so if you choose to make a purchase, I get a small percentage.

Buy On the Road from Amazon

Guatemala, Part III

“When it comes right down to it, wherever you go, there you are.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn
Templo I of Tikal

Meanwhile, somewhere in Guatemala…

If you browse through most any online forum about bus travel in Guatemala, you will read a near-universal complaint: the buses are cold. Fuente del Norte seemed to bear the brunt of most complaints about the A/C. Taking that advice in stride, Kristen and I showed up at the bus station prepared: me in joggers, hiking boots, and a thick hoodie, and her in jeans and two jackets.

Four hours later, I was finding it difficult to breathe.

Fast forward a week or so, and we would learn that it was the Fuente del Norte Clase Oro (Gold Class) buses that you wanted. Those are truly very nice buses. Double-decker, plenty of legroom, reclining seats, assigned seating with no roadside pick-ups, and yes, plenty of A/C. They cost more, at about Q220 for the trip from Flores down to Guatemala City, but they are very comfortable.

This was not one of those buses.

Looking back on it, the Q130 ticket price for that same route might have been a clue. Didn’t really matter at that point, because we were both miserable. The bus was full to the point where there were people standing–and sleeping–in the aisle. The bathroom was padlocked. The windows didn’t roll down, and the A/C vents were doing nothing. It was hot and muggy on that godforsaken bus. It was hot, muggy, crowded, and loud.

The trip from Guatemala City to Flores takes 10 hours.

These are the ones you want on a long trip.

The one thing that saved me in that situation was a neat little relaxation technique I had learned from a counselor once. It’s just breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. It’s that easy. But you have to breathe deep, like you’re trying to fill your entire body with air, and then exhale. Whenever you’re super stressed or anxious, try it. You’ll physically feel your shoulders relax.

Kristen, taking advantage of her small frame and her head wrap, had managed to (impressively) change into shorts and a tank top while still in her seat. I was SOL on that one. I had to wait until the bus was stopped at a checkpoint to run out and change into a tank, shorts, and sandals in a crappy roadside bathroom. Almost all public bathrooms in Guatemala charge for their use, typically two quetzals. The bathroom attendant hassled me about not paying, and I explained that it was hot as **** on that bus (in Spanish) and I just needed to change, not use the bathroom.

This was a checkpoint to check for fruit on board the bus, which might be carrying diseases. It was monitored by at least one Guatemalan soldier in body armor carrying an AR-15, and my altercation was drawing his attention. At that moment, I heard the bus’ engine engage, with passengers still on the doorstep. I told the attendant something he could go do in his free time and ran to board the now moving bus.

If you’re not accustomed to traveling international for longer periods of time, or in less developed countries, you might become frustrated and let your anger get the better for me. Lucky for me, the guard did not decide to get involved, or else I would have started a real ordeal over two quetzals. Knowing yourself and how you deal with stressful situations is paramount.

The Garifuna

The route from Guatemala City does not go straight north to Flores, but rather heads northeast, stopping at Rio Dulce, by Guatemala’s coast, before turning northwest for the second leg of the route.

It’s worth noting that in this eastern corner of the country the demographics visibly shift. I had mentioned in a previous post that Guatemala is almost entirely Latino or Indigenous. There’s virtually no ethnic diversity outside of those two groups, aside from tourists. The two exceptions are the towns of Rio Dulce and Livingston. In these areas you will find many people of African descent. They are the Garifuna.

The Garifuna were originally the indigenous Arawak islanders of St. Vincent. In the late-17th century, a slavers’ vessel was shipwrecked on the coast, and the Nigerian occupants came into contact with the islanders. In the Garifuna culture at the time, it was taboo for men to be unwed, and so the islanders offered the Nigerian men women to take as wives. Thus began a long history of mixing between these two groups, especially as more Africans were brought to the island by European slavers. Following a series of uprisings against the Europeans in the early-19th century, the Garifuna were either exiled or fled to the coast of modern-day Honduras.

Garifuna parade in Livingston, Guatemala

Today, most of the 600,000 Garifuna live in Honduras, with smaller numbers in Belize and Guatemala. They typically speak Spanish or English as a first or second language, although many also speak their own language derived from Arawak. In 2001, UNESCO declared the language, dance, and culture of the Garifuna as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

After getting boxed lunches of rice, fried chicken, and plantains to go, as well as several bottles of water and Pedialyte (Guatemala’s Gatorade), we got back on the bus. Having picked up several Garifuna men and women and a few infants, the bus was even more crowded than it already was. However, as we ate and as many of the new passengers played pop songs on their phones, we actually began to relax. As the bus rumbled off in the direction of Flores, I finally began to feel calm comfortable enough to nap.

Flores

By the middle of that afternoon, we had arrived in Santa Elena, which is connected by a narrow causeway to the island of Flores. Home to approximately 14,000 people, the island is small, crossed on foot in 10 minutes. But it is absolutely wonderful. It’s the kind of place I could see myself retiring to. The buildings are several stories tall and packed closer together, painted with festive colors. The streets are stone and concrete, and feature a number of back alleys allowing quick access to the waterfront. The topography rises into a central summit, upon which is a nice little park and memorial pavilion, and a gleaming white church.

There are a number of restaurants, bars, and clubs that line the road encircling the little island, facing out onto Lake Peten Itza. Any one of the bars and restaurants is fun and serves Gallo beer, strong cocktails, and good food. Just realize that they can also get very crowded, and you may be waiting a minute for your order. I might recommend the Ristorante Terrazo for awesome pizza and pasta. La Casa de Enrico, where we stayed on our return from Belize, was an extremely good deal, and I can’t praise their breakfast enough.

We stayed at the Posada de la Jungla hotel, splurging for a room with A/C. I spoke with the people at the front desk and they set us up with a tour bus leaving for Tikal the following morning. Q70, and that included a guide. If your hotel does not offer one, you can check with any of the adventure companies scattered across the island.

Tikal

The Ancient Mayan Empire was one of the most advanced Pre-Colombian civilizations. Flourishing between AD 200 and 900, the civilization covered all of what is present-day Guatemala and Belize, and large swaths of Honduras, El Salvador, and southern Mexico. They developed one of the most advanced languages in Central America at that time, as well as an advanced (and other misinterpreted) calendar system.

It is difficult to determine if there was such a thing as a capital city of the Mayan Empire, due to the fact that it was really an alliance of five different kingdoms. However, Tikal, or Yax Mutal as the Mayans of the time would have called it, could certainly have been a contender. Having a peak population of around 90,000 people, it is one of the largest Mayan cities ever uncovered, and would have exerted tremendous military might, and political and cultural influence.

Tikal builds on you slowly. It is not sitting out there in the open, gleaming white, like the religious ruins at Chichen Itza. It entices you into the jungle, making you earn the full experience of its splendor.

First, the microbus holding you and your other (mostly European) tourists-in-arms arrives at a gate, where you pay Q150 for your ticket. Q150 is probably the most you will pay for entrance to an archaeological zone in Guatemala, but in this case I do believe it is worth it. Once everyone has paid and stocked up on snacks, water, Pedialite, and sunscreen at the nearby stand, you get back on the bus for the several miles left until you get to the ruins.

There’s a fundamental difference between the administration of a place like Chichen Itza and a place like Tikal. Chichen Itza focuses on the preservation and showcasing of the ruins. The vegetation around them is meticulously cleared, and absolutely no climbing is allowed on them (you used to be able to, until a tourist fell to her death from the Temple of Kukulcan back in the 2000s). That way the structures remain gleaming, and in perfect view of visitors. Tikal, on the other hand, is as much about the jungle as it is about the ruins. It is a perfect balance between the man-made ruins and the nature surrounding it.

As our guide Nelson explained, Temple II was actually off-limits to foot traffic that month, due to a rare species of falcon nesting in its summit.

Nelson, a part-Mayan, part-West Indian man, was a great example of someone who had found career satisfaction. The way he spoke to us about the ruins, and the jungle, and the Mayan interpretations of life, gave me a palpable sense that he genuinely cared about this place.

Nelson, our guide at Tikal

“The Mayans looked at life like a cycle,” he told us. “Just like the sun burns hot during the day, and then falls and the moon rises, you can change throughout the day. You can feel anger or jealousy during the day, but it is okay, because you go to sleep, and tomorrow is always a new day.”

Indeed, the Mayans have been wildly misunderstood on this point, as evidenced by movies like 2012. There is no Mayan End of the World Prophesy. The end of the Mayan calendar does not in any way signify the end of the world; it’s just the end of the calendar they made. That’s like buying a 2019 calendar and fearing the world will be hit by a comet just because there’s no page after December.

I pondered about what he said as we made our way along the jungle path. We eventually made the acquaintance of Marco & Margarita, a Portuguese couple who might have been in their late-30s. It came up that they had spent a lot of time in Africa, and that piqued our curiosity because we had talked about planning a big trip there next year (money permitting). They had great things to say about South Africa, other than the lingering racism, and echoed other advice I’d heard about that country being a good entrance point to the continent.

I liked them, and not just because of their humility in spite of all their experiences; when I mentioned that I had missed lunch that day, they offered me a loaf of banana bread and a bottle of yogurt.

Along the way it’s possible to see howler monkeys, birds of paradise, and more coatis. Beware of the howler monkeys though, as they are liable to urinate in great streams down to the jungle floor. At least one young woman shrieked and jumped back at this impromptu cascade.

“It’s just rain, surely,” she said in a posh British accent.

When we arrived to the central core of the ruins, Nelson showed us various stelae and other monuments, explaining their meanings to us, as well as the symbolic numeric system they used. Some of you have probably seen the dot-and-bar system that I’m talking about. It can even be seen on some stores around Guatemala, just like certain convenience stores in the Midwest will feature transliterations of Native American languages on their signage. The bars used in this numeric system, Nelson explained, actually represent fists. The dots? Knuckles. He explained this twice, switching between a mix of Spanish and Maya to a mix of English and Maya.

Epiglyphs depicting the rule of a Mayan king
Be forewarned, the steps are very steep.

Eventually our group reached the Great Plaza, or Central Plaza. This is where you can see Temple I, also called El Gran Jaguar, so named after a wooden lintel found inside that depicts a ruler sitting on a throne in the shape of a jaguar. It may also be called The Temple of Ah Cacao, named after the king buried inside, probably the ruler depicted in the lintel. Temple I is to Tikal what the Temple of Kukulcan is to Chichen Itza. If you have seen any photo of Tikal, you have seen Temple I. Built in 732 AD and rising 154 feet, the stepped limestone structure almost seems to resemble a human figure, perhaps a Mayan king draped in a cape and adorned with a ceremonial headdress.

Those two platforms at the bottom formed a ball court, where disputes were settled with a ballgame. The losers were actually sacrificed.

Directly across the plaza from Temple I is Temple II, as of April 2019 inaccessible due to the falcons roosting in it. Looking to the right from Temple II you will see a terraced area, known as the Central Acropolis, which was mainly markets. Turning 180 degrees from that, you will see a wide staircase leading up to the Southern Acropolis, which were residences. Nelson explained to us that these residences would have been inhabited by the wealthier classes of Tikal’s population, not necessarily nobility, but merchants and the like. These residences can be freely explored, although some rooms are barricaded off. Looking inside these small rectangular rooms, you can see why: etched graffiti covers many of these walls, from floor to ceiling.

Temple II
Walking on ruins to explore them is one thing, but don’t be like this.
Looking from the top of the Southern Acropolis towards the Central Acropolis

It’s worth noting that the central core of Tikal, what you see in the map above, is a fraction of the archaeological zone. They are excavating new areas all the time.

In the middle of the plaza, a small group had gathered. A man in the middle had started a fire, and was walking around its perimeter, inviting people to join him in a blend of Spanish and what I assumed was Maya. I asked Nelson what the meaning of it was, and he hesitantly replied that it was an offering to spirits for a blessing. That blessing, he said, could be money, or love, or luck.

He observed at the scene, noting that the man by the fire had a young girl with him. “I don’t like it when they get the kids involved,” he said after a moment. “Because like in life, it is a balance. There are gods to give”–he shot me a knowing glance–“and gods to take away.”

The best, however, was yet to come. After a short break, Nelson lead our group on to Temple IV, the tallest building in Tikal. In fact, at 212 feet, Temple IV holds the distinction of being the tallest Pre-Columbian structure still standing in the New World. The summit is accessible by a series of steps and walkways that takes you high up in the jungle canopy. As you step out onto the temple’s summit, you are presented with a beautiful vista of the jungle, with Temples I, II, and III jutting out in the distance.

We sat up there relaxing together for a while. Some of the other people began to leave, saying there was another temple you could climb a short walk away, but we were in no hurry.

I can honestly say that Tikal is one of my new happy places.

Sunset over the jungle

You can find some videos of the ruins at Tikal on my Facebook page.

 

 

Essential Travel Gear

You don’t need the newest, fanciest, most expensive gear to enjoy your travels. I’ve met plenty of nomads who made due with very little, including one Slovenian guy who rode a motorcycle through Central Asia wearing one pair of pants.

Having said that, you could make your travels more hassle-free and enjoyable by investing in the items I’ve outlined below. These are things that I consider essential travel gear:

1. Your Brain

Didn’t think I was going to get all intangible on you, did you? Well, the very first thing you should pack before going on a trip is your brain. Do research beforehand. Be aware of your surroundings. Know yourself and what situations trigger you. Lastly, keep an open mind to the adventures awaiting you.

2. Travel Backpack

I 110% recommend you get a travel backpack. Not a duffel bag, not a rolling suitcase, but a travel backpack. This keeps your hands free and greatly improves your mobility. I remember being in Philadelphia and Chicago back in 2017, and having my rolling luggage bounce awkwardly over the cobblestone sidewalks on my way to the hostel. Never again. A good travel backpack is a serious game-changer.

If you’re in the market for a travel pack, look for one that has the following features:

Opens like a suitcase

Get one that zips all the way around and opens up flat, like a luggage, NOT from the top like a hiking backpack. This ensures that you can easily access all of your belongings at any time.

The Rule of 45

The Rule of 45 refers to either 45 liters, or 45 linear inches, whichever is bigger. Let me explain why this is important. Airlines restrict carry-ons based on linear inches, that is, the length plus the width plus the height of your bag. Virtually any airline I’ve ever flown allows up to 45 linear inches (some budget airlines do 44, but I’ve never had a problem either way). It just so happens that 45 linear inches tends to match up to about the size of a 45L backpack. So if you pack your bag well, you should be able to go for a two-week trip with just a carry-on. That’s right, you’ll be able to bring your pack aboard the plane without having to pay checked bag fees.

Hip belt

The hip belt allows 60% of the weight of your bag to rest on your hips, instead of your shoulders. Will it look a little nerdy? Yeah, maybe. But you really won’t care once you notice how much lighter you feel. Just make sure that the hip belt is adjusted to sit high up on your hips, and cinch it good and tight.

It fits your torso

Lastly, always make sure you get a pack that fits your torso. Anyone at an REI or other sporting goods store can help you with this.

Bonus: Stowaway straps

A lot of travel packs have this cool feature that allows you to tuck the straps into the bag itself. This is great to do before you board the plane, so that you’re not smacking other passengers with the hip belt. Also makes it easier to fit into the overhead compartment.

So, what travel backpack do I use? I actually have an old Tortuga V2 44L that I got on Craigslist for $50. It’s not the most up-to-date pack out there, but it’s been serving me well for over a year, and it has all the features I mentioned above. Tortuga offers newer, more advanced models such as the Outbreaker and the Setout, in 35L and 45L versions. These backpacks have actually won various awards for best travel pack. If I personally were to get a brand new travel backpack today, I would get the Tortuga Setout 45L.

Kristen uses the Osprey Fairview 40L, which is the women’s version of the Osprey Farpoint 40L. It’s sturdy, very well-designed, comfortable, and has plenty of space for her things. She loves it. The Fairview and Farpoint are priced a little more competitively than the Tortuga packs, and they are some of the more popular models in use today. You can find affiliate links to both these packs below:

Men’s Farpoint 40 Travel Backpack
Women’s Fairview 40 Travel Backpack

3. Packing Cubes

Another game-changer. These simple little nylon pouches keep your clothing compressed, so you can fit more into your pack. They also keep things more organized. It’s not a bad idea to keep an extra one for dirty laundry.

TravelWise Packing Cube Set

4. Packable Daypack

Once you get to your destination, you’re probably not going to want to take your travel pack on all your excursions. Rather, you need a smaller daypack for holding your water, camera, and other essentials.

I personally use one from REI Co-Op that fits into its own pouch. It’s about the size and thickness of a small disc golf disc when packed. There are ones that pack even smaller, but keep in mind that the smaller you go, the thinner the material is going to be, especially the shoulder straps. I like mine because it packs decently small, while still being durable, with slightly padded straps. You can find an affiliate link for an example of this kind of pack below:

Osprey Ultralight Stuff Pack

Another advantage of this kind of pack is that, if you’re on a long trip and just couldn’t fit every little thing into your travel backpack, you can use your packable daypack for extra space. It will count as your personal item, so still no checked bag fees.

Super Bonus: Want to travel even lighter? Revelar Workshop Kickstarted their line of CubePacks, which are packing cubes that double as daypacks. As of May 2019 these are not being shipped yet, so I haven’t been able to review them, but it could be a piece of equipment to keep your eye on.

5. Collapsible Water Bottle

There are many different versions of this, from pouches that fold up to bottles that compress into a spiral. The idea is that you have an item that does not take up much space when it’s not in use. I personally use a Vapur water pouch. It folds down nice and small, stands up on its own, and holds 700ml. Also made in the USA and comes in cool colors.

Vapur 0.7L Collapsible Water Bottle

6. First Aid Kit

You always want one of these with you. Be sure to move it from your travel pack to your daypack whenever you’re ready to go out exploring, even if you’re not going into the wilderness. On top of the usual contents, I would add some water purification tablets and extra headache and allergy medicine.

66 pc. Mini First Aid Kit

7. Combination Lock

This one’s for those of you planning on sleeping in the dormitory rooms in hostels. You definitely want to bring a lock to secure your belongings in the hostel-provided lockers. For sure err on the side of having a smaller lock, as some hostels I’ve been to have tiny latches for their lockers. And get a combo lock so you don’t have to worry about keeping track of a key.

Master Lock Combination Lock

8. BONUS: Travel Insurance

I might get a lot of negative feedback for saying this, but I personally have never found it necessary to have travel insurance. If you do want to opt for it, then by all means check out World Nomads. They’re the undisputed industry standard, and they even run a cool podcast. However, as a budget traveler, and as someone who doesn’t typically take trips longer than one week, I would not say this is absolutely necessary. I would recommend it if you are a fan of adventure travel, where there is a lot more risk of injury involved, or if you are traveling to some legitimately high-risk areas. Most of the time, though, don’t worry about it.

With this equipment, you should be able to tackle most any adventure out there. Is there anything else you never go overseas without? Let me know in the comments!