When our trip was in its initial phases, as in still just a pipedream, we always agreed a layover for a few weeks of Spanish classes on our way down to Argentina would be an important part of it. We didn’t know where and we didn’t know when, but we were certain we would make it a priority. For one reason or another, perhaps because we began feeling pressure to speed up our pace, I noticed our language regarding classes begin to change; what started as a “Yes, definitely” was becoming a “Well, maybe..”
There are basically two routes you can take if you’re trying to drive directly from Tikal in the north to Semuc Champey in central Guatemala. According to our map the most direct route was a skinny little red line, indicating a secondary road, and a more roundabout fat blue line indicating a nice paved two lane road. We decided to try to make the drive in only one day and thus did not want to take our chances on the skinny red line, despite it being a shorter distance. We aimed for the fat blue line and by mid afternoon we were making good time. At this point, we were supposed to stop driving south and catch a road to head west. Thinking we were looking for another fat blue line of a road we easily sped past the sleepy little town of Modesto Mendez. Once we realized we had possibly gone too far we double backed passing the turnoff once more. Without a decent map, and struggling to understand the directions given to us by the locals, we would waste the valuable daylight we had left searching for this supposed fat blue line. When we finally found the road it became apparent why we were able to drive past it four times. The road was dirt, wider than one lane but not by much, and ravaged by the previous rainy season.
Border crossing days can be stressful ones. It’s a day full of unknown variables that no amount of research can entirely prepare you for. Procedures seem to change regularly, new taxes or fees can be attempted to be extracted, lunch breaks can be taken at all hours of the day leaving you stranded until the officer returns, and around every corner are unofficial porters pouncing on even a momentary lapse in confidence offering their services in the hopes of scoring a few bucks. Although porters can make the process easier, and surely cost less than a cheap lunch, have no doubt, it is a form of cheating. Up to this point we have had a few notches on our border crossing bed post but it was Guatemala that taught us some important lessons, lessons that we had to learn the hard way.
From Caye Caulker we continued our travels through the small country of Belize, heading west towards the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. We had heard good things about the Belize Zoo and, even though zoos are really not our thing and even though it was expensive ($15 USD/person), we decided to stop. The zoo is filled with over 100 rescue animals native to the area, including jaguars, ocelots, howler monkeys, tapirs, and various species of birds, including the largest in central America, the Jabiru. While the jury’s still out on whether it was worth the entrance fee, it was cool to see many animals we may not get a chance to see during our travels.
I was forced to use that as a title, but I won’t say by whom.
We said our goodbyes to Mexico and moved on to our first new country in over three months. Crossing over the invisible line that separates Belize from Mexico was unlike any other border I’ve ever experienced. It was like stepping into a completely different world. Not only is the national language English but the people and food have more in common with the Caribbean islands than with the surrounding Central American countries. It was a bit of a culture shock, but after spending 3 months in a foreign culture we welcomed the respite and enjoyed our days in the comforts of our native language.
When our trip was in the early stages of planning our timeline was frequently debated. Unlike me, Jill had the advantage of a reference point. She had spent many hours on other travelers’ blogs and had a feel for a slow pace versus a quick pace. Envisioning what kind of travelers we would find ourselves to be Jill estimated accordingly. I on the other hand was shooting blind. And as is often the case, this did not stop me from defending my position fervently. I saw Jill’s position of allotting three months for Mexico as a gross overestimate. I considered the country a hurdle between us and the rest of our trip. For reasons unknown to me at the time, I found it easier imagining us cracking into cultures in Central America, and saw Mexico as an impenetrable wall. What I later came to realize was that although publicly I spoke skeptically of the perception of Mexico in the US, I was not immune to its influence. A part of me was, and I hate to say it, scared and wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. Luckily for me, I have a stubborn enough partner who kept faith that once we were into the deep I would come around. And after stepping into our first municipal market, I did.
One of the amazing things about Chiapas, that is, besides the mist-wrapped mountains and Caribbean-clear rivers, is its rich and vibrant indigenous culture. Of the 4.2 million people of Chiapas, more than 25% are indigenous groups, mostly Mayan. There are at least nine languages spoken and each ethnic group has its own beliefs, traditions and dress customs. Tzotzil and Tzetzil clothing, specifically, is the most varied and colorful in Mexico and often identifies the wearers’ village. One of the things we were most looking forward to during our stay in the state was visiting some of the smaller Mayan villages that surround San Cristóbal.
San Cristóbal was one of the cities I was really looking forward to visiting prior to our departure. Nestled in the mountains of Chiapas, the city has the familiar colonial charm we’ve become accustomed to in Mexico – cobblestone streets, colorful homes, clean and winding streets perfect for strolling. But what really makes San Cristóbal distinctive is the predominant and immediately obvious indigenous presence. Due to its location in the heart of Mexico’s Mayan population, the city is ripe with the culture and customs of the Maya.