I should have planned Mexico to Guatemala better. A 5 hour bus to Chetumal ended with a taxi driver persuading me to let him take me to the Belize border, where I could get an onward bus to Flores in Guatemala, and be there that evening. So it was, but Belize side, there was only a solitary chicken bus*, and it was going to Belize City, which I had hoped to skip.

The chicken bus took 5 hours, and with an unexpected stay I had to ask a taxi driver to take me to “a hostel”, the proprietor of which advised me that the streets were unsafe at night. So I stayed in my light-less lifeless room all night, waking to catch the morning bus to Guatemala.

I have started to track the whole trip on a map here, which I will try to keep updated as I go.

Life is rough for a backpacker, huh

The bus to Flores, Guatemala, dropped three of us in front of a tour agency at El Remate, on the way to Tikal, the “must see” Mayan ruins in the jungle. Of course the tour agent said there “weren’t any other buses” but he would be happy to charge us $50 each for the journey. Smelling a rat, we walked up the road to find a chicken bus doing the trip for $1. A Spanish backpacker noticed the locals were being charged 50 cents, and proceeded to have an argument with the bus conductor, asking if it was because of the colour of her skin.

I liked the idea of sleeping in a hammock in the jungle, so opted for the campsite. Unluckily, so did aforementioned Spanish girl and her boyfriend. So I waited while she argued with the camping guy too, saying that “all of Guatemala is like this, overcharging foreigners”, and then lifting up her skirt and asking “what else do you want, my body?”

Jeez. Putting aside the substantial difference in income, think about the luxury you have to faff about looking at old stuff for fun. Look around and see people working before and after their adult teeth have come and gone. Trying to get a good deal is fair enough but lifting up your skirt and playing the race card is as scanky as it is woefully ironic.

But Tikal was a special place

An entire Mayan city in the jungle, it was half archeological curiosity, half nature watch. I took a sunrise tour, climbing an ancient pyramid to look over the clouded canopy, listening to the jungle wake up in a chorus of howler monkeys and bird calls, in the company of 40 or so silent travellers. Continuing the tour,  our guide’s enthusiastic explanations of each ruin were interrupted only by his exclamations on hearing a rare bird or monkey. This place deserves its “must see” status and ticks both the nature and history boxes.  If I were to do it again I would wake up at the same time as the jungle and skip the morning clouded sunrise, and save $5 on the early entry ticket.

Lake Atitlan

A friend from Mallorca was in Lake Atitlan, and many had recommended it. So I took the overnight bus to Guatemala City, and 5 chicken buses and a boat to get to San Pedro. Speeding over the lake under a volcanic landscape, it seemed promising.

A post shared by Jack Lewis (@jacklewismusic) on

But on land, hostel after hostel had English names, staffed by gringos for gringos. Tonight was pool night in the neighbouring hostel, after beer pong and tequilas. I did meet up with Katia and we had a beer on the pier, and talked about what was wrong with this, concluding that it seemed these places were gringo owned, employing gringos, raising the price of everything with seemingly very little trickling down to the locals. But more than this it just felt peculiar.

I would loved to have spent more time elsewhere in Guatemala.  Very few of those “I’m going to murder you when you’re not looking” glares, just kind faces and curiosity leading to inquisitive conversations.  Their Spanish is also slow and easy to understand, as its their second language – their first language being one of 24 Mayan languages.

Katia was learning Spanish in a homestay so was on a different track with a bit of purpose. I decided I would leave the next day to Nicaragua and find some purpose of my own.

*Chicken buses (“camionetas”) are old school buses from the USA and Canada that have been driven down to Central America or Mexico when they are ten years old or have driven 150,000 miles, usually repainted garishly and sometimes fitted out with a badass sound system of ill-advised power. They are the backbone of local transport and local cargo across Central America, and stop anywhere on the road. I have never seen a chicken on a chicken bus.
the "chicken buses" of Guatemala

4 thoughts on “Short detour to Guatemala

  1. Loving your updates Jack! Andy and I were in Guatemala about 18 months ago and loved Tikal and Lake Atitlan! We were at lake Atitlan for Independence Day and joined in the celebrations in one of the villages! Did you stick to the main town or explore the lake side villages? Once away from the touristy/ gringo arrival point it’s a beautiful place…lots of villages to explore by foot/ boat/ kayak etc! Sounds like u were on a tight schedule though! Good luck with the next bit of your journey 😀

    1. Thanks Tanya! Yes I suspected I was seeing the worst one. San Pedro – actually there were warning signs on lonely planet but as my friend was there I thought I’d give it a go

  2. You write beautifully Jack, (must be all those English lessons you so dutifully attended) but you could make a living as a writer I think

    1. Dad, that is very kind. Of course I am a product of both of you – your resolute pedantry and verbosity and mum’s wistful, philosophical writing style. But I am always petrified of making mistakes; it is a terror you have instilled in us.

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