Guerrilla Backpacking – Guatemala & El Salvador

My time in Belize was short-lived. 24-hours after arriving in the country, I made my way into Guatemala. Caye Caulker was peaceful, and a good place to unwind. However, I needed some excitement, so I caught a school bus, which they use for public transportation, and went from Belize City to Benque (located at the western border).

The bus broke down after Belmopan, so I had to wait and catch the next one to Benque, then take a taxi to the border station at Melchor de Mencos, Guatemala. I payed the exit fee for Belize, then sauntered into Guatemala, forgetting to get my passport stamped (I got sidetracked by another hustling taxi driver and didn’t realize I forgot until much later).

I walked into town and caught a collectivo bus headed for Flores. It was cramped and sweaty in the typical Guatemalan fashion. Once aboard, I found out why they call them “chicken buses.” The reason is I had a woman sitting next to me with one in her lap (almost in mine) flapping around.

Also, a man entered the bus somewhere along the way brandishing a beer in one hand and a handgun in the other. In Guatemala it’s common to see regular folk carrying weapons (guns, knives, machetes, etc.) He proceeded to load and cock the gun while taking swigs of his beer. No one on the bus, other than me, seemed perturbed. A strange incident.

When I arrived in Santa Elena, I decided to find a taxi to take me directly to Tikal, an epic Maya ruin located in the Guatemalan jungle. It cost me quite a bit, but I was able to sleep in a tent for the night and woke-up numerous times hearing screeching howler monkeys, sounding like they were ready to kill.

It took a few hours to see all the ruins at Tikal, and the aerial view from the top of Templo IV was spectacular. It allowed me to watch the mist rising above the trees in the jungle. Back in Flores, I found a hostel with a great group of people to spend time with on Christmas Eve and Day. A couple of Canucks, a few Yanks, Brits and Dutch. It was a real U.N. X-Mas!

While I was in Flores, I journeyed to a cooperative community known as Nuevo Horizonte to conduct interviews for my upcoming radio documentary. The cooperative was established by former guerrilla fighters after the Guatemalan civil war ended in 1996. That same night, I caught a bus to Antigua through Guatemala City (known as ‘Guate’ by locals). A dangerous route from what I hear.

Antigua is a historically-significant, former Central American capital that dances to its own tune in this poverty-stricken nation. Walking the cobblestone streets is unlike anything you can imagine anywhere else in the country. Of course, I had to return to ‘Guate’ for a night, even despite all the horror stories I’ve been told about the bustling capital city.

Remember, I forgot to receive my entrance visa at the border, so I had to spend the day being taxied around the city to receive the stamp and find out which bus company would take me to El Salvador (Guate doesn’t have a central terminal but dozens of mini-stations around the city).

An enterprising taxi driver tried to hustle me after I got inside, saying that I owed him triple the usual cab fare. Some call it robbery, I call it a day in the life of a gringo. I agreed to pay him the extortionate amount, but when it came time to pay up I offered him the usual price. Let’s just say he wasn’t too happy with me. He picked the wrong gringo.

In San Salvador, the oppressive heat wasn’t on my side as I navigated the never-ending street market in Centro. The Palacio National and Cathedral were nice sights, but it felt like I’ve seen the same thing in every city I’ve visited in Latin America. Absolutely no charm.

Now I’m in the FMLN stronghold of Perquin for New Year’s Eve. This former guerrilla town boasts a museum dedicated to the long-fought civil war and a camp that hosted members of the current government’s party (FMLN won the 2009 Presidential elections). Long live the ‘pink tide’!

Adam Bemma is a journalist, humanitarian, and media consultant based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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