Crossing busy border from Mexico to Guatemala at Ciudad Hidalgo to Tecum Uman, we got to experience sides of Guatemala far from the idyllic postcard pictures of the Mayan pyramids at Tikal nestled in the lush jungle or indigenous women in their traditional garb at a busy market. We are on the Pan-American highway, the pumping main artery of Central America as the major highway that runs through it. We shared the border crossing with big trucks full of produce and the pedestrian bridge was full of people on bicycles or tricycles with a bike in the back and a cart in the front loaded with goods moving between the two countries. For most people, it seems that crossing the border is as easy as paying the 2 pesos to cross the pedestrian bridge and walk by the guards on either side who sometimes asks for identification. For us, it was not much harder. We actually spent longer filling out what turned out to be a tourism survey with a very friendly, professional man from Guatemalan tourism who seemed excited to actually see tourists at this crossing and asked for a photo with us. Actual immigration was as simple as “Hola!”, pass over the passport, stamp and then “Welcome to Guatemala, you have 90 days” in heavily accented English. Far from the more conventional tourist track of ancient Tikal, colonial Antigua, peaceful Lake Atitlan and the indigenous highlands of Guatemala, this border crossing onto coastal Guatemala is a little more nitty-gritty. There are the darker sides as we ride on the busy highway with blown tires littering the pavement, “Auto-Hotels” advertise “3 hours for 50 Quetzals” on signs with a scantily clad woman sprawled on it and leviathan semi-trailers thundering past on the roads. Garbage litters the side of the roads though the plumes of black smoke from people burning garbage is not really any better. The small sections of lush jungle that are so loud with birds and insects that we first thought they were the sounds of machines rather than the forest itself are surrounded by vast palm and rubber tree plantations. The forests and tree planations gives way to vast sections of clear cuts and sugar cane fields as we ride from Coatepeque to Mazatenango. Along the sugar cane fields are billboards advertising the painkiller Aleve for plantation workers cutting sugarcane by hand with a machete. A remarkable number of people speak English, but probably because a lot of people around this border crossing have worked in the United States or either currently in the process of getting there to work or have just been deported from there. The worst aspects of Americanization seems to be the norm as expensive fast food joints – Burger King, McDonalds, Taco Bell and Guatemalan fried chicken Pollo Campero among many others – and strip malls line the highway with shotgun toting guards beside polluted rivers and torn up landscapes.
However, this rather bleak rural yet industrial side is only one aspect of our experience. The glut and grease of the fast food joints and semi trucks mixes with the friendly small towns which have a frontier, cowboy feel to them. Men and women in blue jeans, button up shirts and cowboy hats ride horses down town roads and on the side of the highway. It was ironic one day as we were caught between a group of cowboys on horses on one side of us and a huge double trailer truck filled to the brim with sugar cane stalks – seemed like we were literally caught between two sides of this landscape. In the small friendly towns, everyone wants to talk to you. On the first day when we crossed, we stopped for lunch in the little town of Pajapita and we felt like celebrities. Everyone wanted to talk to you and take pictures with us.
Another side of Guatemala is how the community really gets together to have a good time. We ride into Mazatenango about 100km from the Guatemalan-Mexican border on our second day in the country looking for a hotel – the skies had darkened and looked like it was going to rain – and notice all of the colourful beer banners, bleachers and food stands set up along one side of the road. Carnaval! We had been told time and time again, Guatemala doesn’t really do Carnaval but Semana Santa (Easter) there is really something to see. Consequently, we were suprised by the large carnaval setup in this city. Well apparently, as we found out later, Guatemala usually only has small Carnaval celebrations with some decorations in each town and village but only in Mazate is it a big celebration with parades and city wide parties. The Carnaval celebration here has less financing than the huge corporate floats we saw in Merida, Mexico but it still has all of the energy and enthusiasm to have a good time.
The floats are colourful and often hand-made like many of the costumes people are wearing including children dressed up as a flock of chickens…or a group of green dinosaurs! Yikes! There are big feathers, gauzy cloths and sequins galore decorating the colourful clothes of men and women moving to the beat and people in the crowds are cheering and waving their hands. It is a community party that draws everyone to the streets. People line the streets from youngester climbing all over the Bravha banner towers, families with their small children on their shoulders, grandmas with their families and men and women slugging down beers.
As the colourful floats slowly drive by full of beautiful people in bright costumes shaking their booties to music, the crowds raise their hands. People on the floats throw out goodies – sometimes waterbottles, rolls of toilet paper or candy but also sometimes these colourful tie-dyed eggs decorated with crepe paper. These eggs are a Carnaval tradition in Guatemala. They are emptied and filled with confetti. It is good luck to smash the colourful confetti egg over someone’s head and you can see confetti in everyone’s hair. There was a family standing beside me with a mother who was very good at catching these eggs and a father carrying an infant. The father would give the infant an egg who would smash it onto the mother’s head. The mother got the little kid to smash one on my head too. People would also throw the eggs around like a projectile blessing, at the dancers on the floats and at their friends. Later, as people got more drunk and the party became more racous, the eggs became more tricky as some people started throwing decorated eggs that were still full!
Bryan with his curly blond hair and cheerful attitude was a total hit. The girls on the floats blow him kisses and everyone cheers when he cheers. We seem to be the only gringos in the celebration and a real novety. The Gallo Beer girls invite us onto their party bus and we actually ride through Carnival IN THE PARADE! There was a DJ and host on the bus getting us to dance and jump so we would rock the bus.
People whipped confetti eggs at us and then as the hours passed on the parade (it goes really slow), people started squirting water…then sometimes juice and beer. This basically turned into a waterfight as we would squirt water back at the crowds. They would run and get more water to fight back while we would quickly try to raise the windows in our mobile bunker. Gallo is Spanish for chicken and Guatemala is infamous for the “chicken buses” – which are old North American school buses painted with bright colours and used as the main buses in the country.
Carnaval is really amazing because it brings together the whole community. We watched the parade beside little Mayan ladies in their traditional dress holding on to their small children, drunken teenagers, men in cowboy hats and people jumping on the back of pickup tricks to make them bounce. It was so much fun to hang out with the whole community having a good time. We’re riding through a lot of sugar cane plantations on the side of the busy Pan American highway so there is a lot of busy-ness and a lot of inequality from the upper-middle class people passing through and the more poor and often indigenous people working in the fields. However, for Carnaval, everyone was there and we were all one, dancing in the streets.
From Mazatenango, we rode to the junction of Cocales, which is a busy place full of little wooden shacks on the side of the road selling pop, meals and coconuts to drivers passing by. From there, it was basically 33km of sheer uphill to get to Lake Atitlan. It was quite gradual at first past the first and only real town, Patulul. Then it got steeper and steeper. The last 10km was a real grind and by then, the afternoon rains had also arrived. However, about half way up from Patulul, just as it was getting really hot and starting to get steep, there was magically a cheese and ice cream “farm” (factory). Finca la Parma had delicious soft serve ice cream, made fresh from their own milk, and amazing paninis with their great cheese and other fillings which was completely unexpected in our ride through the more remote countryside. It was also there that we waited through the first rainstorm with second cones of ice cream each. The rest of the day was drizzly but beautiful as we climbed through rainforest and hills terraced with coffee plants. We made an incredible over 1400m climb that day to San Lucas Toliman, the most in a day yet for us.
The next day, we rode the scenic ride from San Lucas to Santiago Atitlan on the slopes of the volcano. The slopes were covered in coffee plants and people working on them, speaking in Mayan. We got to Santiago and almost immediately caught the ferry to San Pedro de la Laguna where I had celebrated my 21st birthday six years ago hiking to the top of the volcano.
In some ways, San Pedro has not changed. It is still a backpacking mecca with cheap accommodation tucked in the gardens and forests shadowed by the tall volcano beside it.
The maze of winding streets beside the lakefront becomes a labyrinth at times, turning many corners in the narrow walkways that go around buildings rather than buildings built on the side of the street.
Women dress in traditional clothes of a “peasant-style” blouse with puffed short sleeves, a colourful and intricately woven floor length skirt with an equally colourful and intricately woven apron in the front and a broad sash as a belt. The traditional dress is a statement of cultural and personal identity. Each village has their own style of weaving and dress so you can actually tell which village people are from by the style of their clothing. There are also some older men who also dress in embroidered trousers and shirts and cowboy hats evocatively nicknamed the “space cowboy” style distinctive for this area. Sometimes you hear a clip, clop from around the corner and you have to back up to the walls of the narrow walkway as a man leading some horses rides through. Like the last time we were here, the lake continues to be a calm, meditative mirror and the lakefront maze of hotels, cafes and restaurants have a peaceful vibe. In this beautiful crater lake, time still seems to slow down and for many, it seems to be a perfect anti-thesis to their busy life at home or even the sometimes hectic journeys of backpacking. Creative juices flow and there is a vibrant community of artists, writers and musicans. Many visitors still find themselves staying longer than expected.
However, there has been some changes since the last time we were here six years ago. First of all, a landslide about five years ago blocked the river out of the lake and the water level has been steadily going up. Apparently, it has to rise 40m before the next opportunity for the water to flow out. Some of the lakefront property as become lake property and the shore is dotted with the frames of empty flooded buildings and tall now dead trees. Some of the walkways that were dirt before are now paved with paving stones. However, it seems like now there is a Spanish school on every corner. Also, there are now more older, retired visitors wheeling their luggage through the streets rather than slugging around gigantic backpacks. Where before it was mainly hippies, artists and backpackers who retreated here to escape the rest of the world, now the visitors to San Pedro has expanded with more students, retired expats and conventional tourists. It firmly on the traveller’s track with tourists visiting Antigua, Tikal and then Lake Atitlan. We spend a week here in San Pedro, chilling in hammocks and watching the sunlight shimmer on the calm lake.