There I was in Semuc Champey, the middle of Guatemalan nowhere, I’d explored the caves, toured the mirador, swung in a hammock for a decent amount of time, I was ready to move on.
My next stop in Guatemala would be Flores and the jungle shrouded Maya ruins of Tikal. All I had to do was get there.
Despite the co-ordinates of Semuc Champey barely being on the map, the indie traveller trail served me well and there was a minibus that took the trip to Flores in little under 5 hours (7 if you consider Guatemalan time). I was up spritely, investigating one last banana pancake overlooking the lake, taking my own sweet time. My bus was at 9am and my clock read 7.30am.
It also read 7.30am when I woke up. I looked closer. My clever multi-function watch was displaying my alarm time, not the real time. I pressed buttons in a panic then looked behind the bar for the more reliable source – the clock that determined when Happy Hour started and ended. 9.10am. Arggghhhh. I deserted my pancake remnants and fled to my cabin for my bag. The bus would surely still be there. The buses in Guatemala never leave on time, right? Wrong. The actual rule is that buses never leave on time…except when you’re running late. I watched as a trail of dust from the bus disappeared beyond a distant bend and slumped onto my backpack. I’d made plans for Tikal, I had to get there that day. There was nothing else for it. I had to take the chicken buses.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there is nothing like getting close to local life, but with the painful 16 hour chicken bus jaunt from Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula to Nicaragua still fresh in my mind, I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of another minimum 10 hour event on plastic sweat-inducing seats with my knees around my ears (which says something about the confined spaces given my 5ft height). Yet the conditions aren’t the most frustrating part of this mode of transport. It’s the lack of any real timetable.
During my recent three-month sojourn in France, using the French train system was pure pleasure. I’d check the train times and prices on fromatob from the comfort of my troglodyte cave (more comfortable than it sounds). I’d turn up 10 minutes before to buy my ticket and grab a coffee. The trains would leave on time and arrive on time. It seemed simple. Not so in Guatemala.
In the absence of the minibus I knew I’d have to take two buses to Flores, changing in the not especially alluring market town of Coban. The first bus ride worked out well. I waited less than an hour on the dusty road, keeping my eyes peeled – there are few official stops on this route, it’s a case of spy the bus and wave with fury and, if necessary, haul yourself in front of it, to make it stop. Thankfully, a casual arm wave worked on this occasion, and taking pity on the weary looking traveller, I was give a spot in the bus (sat on the roof was the other option).
I reached Coban and having learned the hard way that my own internal GPS is defective, I asked a Guatemalan man who kindly walked me from the local bus station to the long distance one. Alive with roaming cattle, bustling comidas (food shacks), hawking traders and pumped with pre-1980s, un-regulated exhaust-fumes, I got down to the business of negotiating some wheels to Flores.
The upside of being a sole female traveller clearly away from her native homeland, it didn’t take long to be set upon by ticket touts more than happy to relieve me of my tourist dollars. I was equally relieved. I could get direct to Flores and that day. Without the exchange of any money or ticket, the bus tout pointed to a step out front of one of the comidas and told me to wait. He’d be back with a bus by 2pm (which meant 3pm in Guatemala time). It was 11am. What else could I do? I bought some chicken and rice, took my spot on the step and waited.
At 3:30pm, my faith dwindling with each passing minute, my chariot arrived. I said goodbye to my new founds friends (a local mother and her daughter, the owners of the comida, three dogs and a cow) and hopped on board. The situation was promising. There was a fan and proper seats in the bus, though my rucksack was relegated to a rooftop spot, not uncommon in Central America. There was also another hour wait. The bus wasn’t leaving until it was full and I was the only passenger.
Watching the bustle of trade took the time quickly and eventually we set off. I had no illusions about the speed of travel. This was no direct service put on for tourists, it would stop whenever demand required, which it would every five minutes. Stop after stop, more people (and chickens) crammed on. When the seats were full, people stood in the aisle. When the aisle was full, they hung out of the door. When the doorway was full, they took to the roof, and so it went.
The journey was long but passed without much incident. We had to stop once when something flew off the roof. Backing up I was relieved to see it was neither a passenger nor my bag, just a potato sack. As the owner fled up the road to retrieve his goods, he opened the sack to check the contents and two dazed chickens popped their heads out. They seemed pleased to have survived, though I suspected it was a false sense of success given they were most likely on that night’s menu at their final destination. Chickens back on board we set off once again. Yes, it was going to be a much longer trip but I calculated the cost and I’d saved a whole $10 compared to the tourist bus, which would cover my bed for the night…or a few well-earned beers.
As with many of my unplanned journeys, we arrived after dark and I slung my bag on my back and went in search of my hostel. The bus seemed to have made me strong, I thought, as trudging the streets with my backpack didn’t make me tire as much as usual…or maybe it was that my bag seemed lighter. My heart sank. I checked into my hostel only to find I had been relieved of various possessions:
My pink silk sleeping bag liner – pink! All the people on top of the bus were male!
My medicine bag.
My bag lock (ironic).
My bikini top – I repeat: all of the people on the top of the bus were male!
I totted up my loss: around $60. My $10 bus saving suddenly didn’t feel so good. However, all of my valuables were intact, I’d survived the caves at Semuc Champey and once again managed the chicken buses in (almost) one piece. Overall, it was a successful part of the trip…and I had Tikal yet to come.