After San Cristobal de las Casas we caught a bus headed towards Frontera la Mesilla, one of the overland crossings between Mexico and Guatemala. We were used to land crossings between the United States and Mexico or Canada, neither of us had ever seen a crossing like the one at La Frontera. We got our passports stamped out on the Mexican side and then walked a half mile or so through one of the busiest street markets we have ever seen! Every inch was lined with vendors selling everything imaginable with tuk-tuks and flatbeds weaving through the throngs of shoppers.
There were multiple stops that needed to be made to get the appropriate passport stamps to enter Guatemala and with no signage and tons of people it was confusing. Fortunately there are people who make a living escorting confused people through the border area and so for $5 we had help. After getting our stamps we made our was to the bus station to get on a bus to Xela (also called Quetzaltenango).
The bus system in Guatemala was vastly different than in Mexico, typically in Mexico there were different class buses and every person had a seat. For local transportation in Guatemala most of the buses were “chicken buses”, retro-fitted school buses from the US. They had cargo racks on top and the seats inside were pushed closer together to fit more people. Most people in Guatemala are on the short side, at 5’6″ I was a head taller than most women, at 6’1″ Jamie was a blonde giant in the crowds. This meant chicken bus seats were a tight fit. Another funny thing about riding the local bus in Guatemala is they just stop wherever, no announcements of where you are, you just sort of have to know where you are going or ask the driver to let you know when he is near your chosen destination. We found a bus headed to the city of Huehue where we could catch another bus to Xela. Our back were thrown up top and lashed down with an incredible amount of goods coming from Mexico. I saw cases of yogurt destined for a hot ride in the sun, eggs, crates of fruits, luggage, clothing and tons of boxes. Once everything was secured on top the bus was double its original height. The bus was fairly full leaving the border and every time a person waved the bus down along the road it would stop. We didn’t have a concept of what a “full” bus looked like until that bus ride. All told there were about 90 people on the school bus, the isles and seats were stuffed. Incredibly when we would stop in towns along the way to Huehue, vendors would squeeze through the crowds selling tamarindo drinks in baggies, chicken sandwiches, french fries with mayo and ketchup, popcorn and other foods I didn’t recognize. We were desperately hungry on the bus and Jamie took a risk at eating a chicken and mayo sandwich on white bread.
Once we got to Huehue we were hot of the hot, crowded bus and onto another chicken bus headed for Xela. This one was not nearly so full, in fact we never saw another bus that full again, though the roads took a turn for the worse. Our next bus had a bumping sound system playing all the US hip-hop hits of the mid-2000’s, as we hit potholes that bounced our heads to the ceiling Flo Rida and T-Pain’s “Low” accompanied the jolts. I was laughing hysterically, so much so that the Guatemalan man sitting in the seat in front of us started laughing a bunch as well. After a few more potholes we hopped off in Xela and found accommodation. Guatemala was more mountainous than we knew and Xela sat in a large depression surrounded by mountains. The smog there was some of the worse we had ever seen and both of us were suffering from colds from our long travels so we were eager to get away from the pollution. Despite the smog Xela was beautiful with an interesting central plaza.
As soon as we were recovered from our colds, we boarded a tourist van for the bucolic Lago Atitlán. We hopped off the van in Panajchel and caught a boat to San Marcos la Laguna. Maybe it’s the American passion for standing in line engrained in us but we were really thrown by the free for all style of loading buses and boats! No respect for those who came before just shove your way on and claim a seat! The town, though there isn’t much to it, is famous for yoga retreats. We ended up staying in the Hotel Jinava on a bluff overlooking the lake.
After a couple of days relaxing we were waiting for the boat back to Panajchel when we saw a volcano explode in the distance! Jamie and I were blown away but the local ladies didn’t even give it a second glance so we guessed it must be a fairly common occurrence.
We arm barred our way into good seats on the boat and got back to town to catch a bus to Antigua.