It happens to the best of us. Even seasoned cruisers sometimes feel the need to exchange a dip in the pool for a ride on a chicken bus, trade happy hour in the hammock for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride across a watery caldera, or an evening breeze off the ocean for the smell of brakes burning.
Why, you may ask? It’s just something cruisers do! When you live a life full of stunning sunsets and scenery, it’s sometimes necessary to change gears and head inland. So, while waiting in El Salvador for a morning high tide to coincide with a decent sailing forecast, we decided to have an adventure in Guatemala along with our friends Michelle and Grant from m/v Wildest Dreams. But first, we had to get there!
There are many forms of transportation in Central America, from pick-up trucks that carry standing passengers, crowded mini-vans, bumpy Tuk Tuks, Executivo Buses with reclining seats and AC, and of course the most popular; the chicken bus.
We’ve experienced chicken buses in Mexico and El Salvador, but Guatemala takes this method of travel to an art form. Remember those yellow buses that we used to ride to school and sporting events? Remember the slippery vinyl seats, the loud engines, stinky exhaust, and bumpy rides? Ever wonder where all those classic Bluebird buses go after their seats are torn and the windows are stuck? They are donated to Guatemala!
The transformation from school bus to chicken bus is a massive project. The buses are shortened and given faster engines, so they can navigate Guatemala’s windy mountain roads, and then they’re given the all-important paint job. Because of the low literacy rate, the buses are color-coded in relation to their destinations, but the new owners go to great lengths to make their bus the fanciest bus! It seems as if no expense is spared as the bus is dolled up with bright colors, swanky round windows, chrome decorations, flashing lights, and rooftop luggage racks. There’s sure to be a sound system loud enough to compete with a heavy metal concert, a video screen to play movies on the long hauls, and of course a huge picture of Jesus surrounded by crosses and sequins.
There are a gazillion versions of the ever-present chicken bus belching black clouds of diesel fumes as they honk their way through traffic, an equal number of stories about people’s adventures on them, and there’s even a song! (click here to listen) So, we decided it was only right to begin our latest adventure on a chicken bus, albeit the less colorful Salvadoran version, with a two-hour sweaty ride to San Salvador where we explored the city a bit before checking into the Ticabus Hotel to wait for our 0530 departure to Guatemala City on an even bigger bus.
Let me just say, you just haven’t lived until you’ve stayed in a bus station hotel. The front desk staff were full of smiles and helpfulness, and the rooms were semi-clean, but we spent a sleepless night listening to the party going on in the bar located 12 steps from our door, followed by a cold shower before heading downstairs to wait for our bus. ‘Nuff said? Thankfully, an early morning vendor rode by, and answered with a heaven sent “Si!”, in response to my piteous; “Tienes café?” Saved! His bike was loaded with fresh baked treats and hot coffee; it’s amazing what you can fit on the back of a bicycle! With an overfull cup of hot coffee in hand we loaded the bus and spilled our way to our seats. Maybe a nap? What, and miss Tomb Raider playing on the video in very loud Spanish? Ah, the joys of travel.
In a few hours we found ourselves stopped along the rode while the officials checked the luggage and made a quick walk through the bus looking for…?. One passenger even had his cell phone looked at…checking his Twitter followers? The bus stopped again at the border for another round of checks, then after we crossed the bridge into Guatemala we stopped yet again at an Immigration office where we got off the bus to present our passports for the inevitable stamp. Central America officialdom is all about stamps. Bienvenido a Guatemala!
Pretty soon we pulled into Guatemala City, a huge metropolis of 3.3 million people, situated at an altitude of 5,000 feet. Our plan was to catch one of the “many shuttles to Antigua” that our guidebook had said would be waiting at the bus station. Nope! Not a shuttle in sight. Once again luck and friendly people were in abundance and we soon had a mini-van shuttle lined up with Carlos, who advised that it wasn’t safe for us to ride the chicken buses all the way to Antigua.
With tired butts and sleepy eyes, we finally arrived at our lovely hotel in Antigua, a UNESCO world heritage destination. Antigua was originally built in the 16th century and was the capital of Central America for over 200 years. It was a tough town surviving fires, floods, and volcanic eruptions, until 1773 when 6 months of major earthquakes and tremors destroyed the town. The capital was then relocated to a safer region, which is now Guatemala City, while Antigua was mostly abandoned and left to ruin.
Antigua is a great city to explore on foot. When you enter the city, you know you’re surrounded by history as you wind your way through the straight-line grid of narrow cobblestone streets, where all the homes and businesses are fronted by stucco walls and ornate doors that open onto beautiful courtyards or shops selling Mayan and Guatemalan hand crafts. There are town squares with fountains and huge shade trees, ruins of old churches and monasteries, and plenty of places to relax and check out the view of the volcano spewing black ash just a few miles to the south.
The Mayan people are beautiful, but they sure live a tough life. The women still dress in the traditional “traje”, which is a combination of a skillfully woven, multicolored blouse called a huipil, a wraparound skirt woven on a foot loom, composed of about 5 yards of material that is wrapped several times around the woman’s lower body and reaches to the ankles, all held together by a faja (sash) at the waist. Traditionally, one could guess the village that a woman was from by the colors and design of the huipil that a Mayan woman wore, a tradition in place long before the conquistadors ever set foot in the Americas.
After a couple of days of wandering the streets of Antigua looking at ruins and tasting Guatemalan treats at the restaurants, we boarded yet another bus for the trip to Lake Atitlan. The bus ride started with a teeth-rattling drive on the cobblestones while picking up passengers. Pretty soon the bus was filled with lots of young adventurous types from Belgium, Australia, Germany, and Sweden, along with these four oldsters from the states! The ride was windy and steep, and concluded with a brake burning descent to the lake. The driver even carried spare brake pads behind the seat! We arrived at Panajchel, the main town on the lake, which was MUCH bigger than we imagined. Our hotel was in San Pedro, so we piled into a “publico” panga for the 20 minute, 25 Quetzales (about $3.50) ride across the lake. Once there, we squeezed our way into Tuk Tuks for a bumpy ride to the hotel. Phew!
The Tuk Tuk is yet another version of Mr. Toad’s wild ride. Barreling through narrow (really narrow) streets beeping the horn at every corner to hopefully avoid another Tuk Tuk or worse coming around the blind corner from the other direction, Edgar talked non-stop over his shoulder to us in Spanish explaining the sights! At one point it looked as though we were going to drive right through someone’s front door, when zip, off we went in another direction down what looked to be a footpath! Local knowledge is a good thing!
After checking into our hotel, we decided to take Edgar and Javier up on their offer to give us a tour of the local sights (everyone’s an entrepreneur in Central America). Our little Tuk Tuk downshifted it’s way up a steep hill to El Mirador, (translates as The Looker, but I think it means Viewpoint), then coasted back down to San Pedro church where there’s a statue of St. Peter with a gallo/rooster (the cock crows three times…remember?), bumped over a dirt road to a textile co-op where 20 families work together to make and sell woven crafts, then a honey farm, and finally a chocolate “factory”. It was a great trip to get a quick taste of the sights and sounds of San Pedro, a crazy busy colorful town perched on the shore of a lake surrounded by volcanoes. What a place!
Our hotel was a peaceful respite from the hustle and bustle of our travels and it was with great pleasure that we put our feet up to enjoy a cold Gallo (the local cerveza) while looking out to the lake. Ahhhhh…
The next day we had to start the entire trip in reverse; Tuk Tuk to Publico Launcha to Mini-van to bus station hotel to Ticabus to taxi to Happy Dance! There were some funny moments along the way of course; especially when the wind whipped up the lake making our panga ride a wild one! With Marty bouncing in the bow hanging on for dear life, (click here for the video!) we slammed our way over the waves, and took plenty of water over the side. At one point the driver stopped and handed up a tarp so we could cover ourselves (after we were soaked to the skin), and the locals were all grabbing life jackets!
Guatemala provided us with plenty of smiles and fun memories. It’s a beautiful country, full of resilient people and extreme landscapes, and chicken buses!
So now we’re back in El Salvador, watching the weather and waiting. We’ll soon head southeast to new adventures and stories to tell! Ah, it’s a good life.