From Palenque, we head on a quite adventurous trip to Flores, Guatemala. Leaving at 6 in the morning, theoretically in a convoy with military and Policia Federal escort. In reality our minibus speeds off after the first two Kms, leaving the Military behind, drinking coffee. The border at this point is the Rio Usumacinta, that we cross on a launch. Arriving downriver on the other side, there’s not a pier, or even a landing point: you have to scramble hands and feet (with your overfilled backpack on your shoulders) up the riverbank, grabbing vainly to plants and roots!Bethel, this is the name of the four little huts that constitute the Bienvenido en Guatemala, acts as immigration bureau. After a couple of disoriented moments, we get pointed to the custom office (one of the four huts) and here we are – all in order!
The trip Bethel-Flores in a wrecked minibus hired from the San Juan agency (fellow travellers include 10 more gringos and a terrified turkey tied up in a plastic bag!) is a bit of an eye-opener, as much for the state of the roads (thoroughly and completely unpaved) as for the poverty of the tiny villages we pass through. Guatemala appears much poorer than Yucatan; along the way we stop to stretch our legs and to use the bathroom. The village doesn’t seem to have running water, and the WC was simply a blast of stone and a hole in the ground.
Flores is fairly touristy, as it is from here that you reach Tikal, one of the most important religious and administrative centres for the Mayan culture. Tikal is immense, spread out though the jungle. By now pyramids are a cinch and we zoom up Temple II and the majestic Temple IV (64 metres helped here by wooden steps and ladders that seem much more secure than the ancient stone staircases). The jungle from up here seems like a green sea that expands to the furthest horizon, and the tops of the other buildings break through like icebergs. There are big birds that fly over the temples and the foliage of the trees, the sun beats down fiercely and you can hear thousands of crickets … It’s breathless, and not only because of the climb!!
Flores-Guatemala city-Antigua, another night bus, this time economic class, much safer!!Antigua is postcard-pretty, a colonial city that has become a UNESCO Heritage Site. Pretty, alright, but a bit of a scene for the (numerous) tourists and the less than polite and culturally aware young European and US students. We like it, but when we get out of town to visit the surrounding villages (those perched on Lake Atitlan first, and then those around Xela) the contrast is shocking. The government is trying to improve the road, electricity and drinking water systems, and to open schools, but the major part of the people –generally indigenous– lives below the poverty threshold. According to Adolfo, travel agent – of Ladino origin – that I met in Mexico during a previous trip, and who, this time around, brings us out drinking in Antigua’s trendy bars, things are not much better than before 1996, year when the famous armistice was signed, which in theory should have stopped the guerrilla war (Editor’s note Guatemala suffered a vicious civil war from the late 1950’s to 1996, including wide spread brutality against the civilian population on the part of both the Government and Guerillas). Unfortunately the armistice did not bring the hoped peace and security, or a bit of prosperity… The indigenous population live at the margins of a society which is in the hands of 45 ladino families, and out of the 23 official languages only Spanish is taught in the schools. Some areas such as Peten and the North of the Country are isolated, at times in extreme conditions, although the government did try to ameliorate the main communication arteries. People there make their own justice, as the national justice is completely absent(there are a series of high profile lynchings in the north, while we’re in Guatemala). Politicians ‘remember’ the Indios only in election times, when they go around the villages offering aguardiente to the men, and then they load them on trucks and bring them to the voting stations: Hey amigo toma aguardiente y vota para me! (Hey buddy, drink aguardiente and vote for me!)But then, the relaxed and joyous atmosphere in Antigua is only a façade for the tourists and the UNESCO? As a matter of facts, there are armed guards on the door of many shops – and not only banks and jewellery, but also supermarkets, shoe shops and chemists.