I have included a little need-to-know section towards the end of this post in case you are thinking of making a similar trip!
I found it quite hard to get specific details on how to cross the border by land between Mexico and Guatemala. There are numerous places you can do it, some safer than others, and assurances that buses go from one to the other, but not much detail on times. As I had two nights in Palenque, I figured I’d just get there and then asked around. It turned out my hotel (Casa Lakyum – see previous post for details) had details of various tours run in the region, including one which was transport between Palenque and Tikal. I actually can’t remember exactly how much it cost (bad blogger!!) but it was around 400 Mexican pesos (£16) which seemed such a small amount of money (some cocktails in London cost more than that!) that it was completely worth it for peace of mind in getting to A to B. For that money I was promised “luxury transport” including air conditioning!!
Well – as always – tours don’t quite to plan but I am still glad I chose this way to cross the border as it removed basically all stress (or at least the majority of it!) which is especially important when travelling alone. If you are stressed and don’t know where to go or what to do, you are more vulnerable!
I was picked up from my hotel at 6am and shown to the front seat of the bus. At first I was quite excited – this was luxury treatment! – until I had to sit in the middle seat at the front, with limited (ie no) leg room, the rear view mirror blocking my view, and the driver and tour guide sat either side of me, chatting over me in Spanish. As we set off, the driver announced that we would be stopping for breakfast in about an hour so I resolved to ask to change seat then.
As the sun began to rise, the countryside was stunningly beautiful, distracting me from my discomfort. The sun was bright red, and it shine through the early morning mist that lay in the valleys as if the sky was on fire. The road were quiet at that time in the morning with people just beginning their days – men walking into town for work, dogs running across the road, the occasional horse grazing.
After an hour or so, we stopped for breakfast. It was here that I discovered that everyone else in the minivan was on a different “tour” to me – they were not all crossing the border but were instead visiting some ruins right on the edge of the border, and the price of their tour included breakfast. I didn’t want to pay 90 pesos for breakfast, especially as I had a banana in my bag, so I just sat in the van. However, very kindly, one of the ladies brought me back a huge banana and a huge orange from their breakfast, and I was able to move to the door seat at the front of the bus rather than being in the middle so I was quite happy!
We made it to a small village by the border – Frontera Corazol – shortly after 9.30am. I had to go through immigration and was pointed as to where to go by the bus driver. I had to pay a “tax” in pesos. I did ask for the receipt but was actually shown one so perhaps this was legitimate?! I was not entirely sure. Another point to note is to keep the bit of paper you get when you enter the country as you will need it to leave (or will have to pay a fine).
I then walked round to find the rest of my group. My bag was unloaded from the bus and I was told just to wait for a bit. I asked the driver to keep an eye on my rucksack while I went to the bathroom and he said that was fine… However, when I came out, my rucksack was lying on the steps by itself and the rest of the group including the driver had completely disappeared! I had no idea what was happening or where to go so just kind of circulated awkwardly for what felt like ages but was in reality probably less than five minutes. The driver came back, told me I had to pay 20 pesos as entrance to the area (I was confused by this and tried to ask for more information but in the end had to just pay up – it’s not that much money anyway!), and then pointed me down towards the water.
I climbed down and got in a small boat with a number of other women. The boat took us on a five minute journey across the river and then we climbed up a steep bank into Guatemala – the small village of La Technica. Numerous people will ask you if you want to change money there – don’t, as you will not get a good rate!
We then had to wait half an hour for our next bus, giving me a chance to speak a bit to my fellow border-crossers – one German guy, two Brazilian women, two Argentinian students and a Peruvian girl. My previous tour bus had been full of Latin American travellers as well.
Finally we were on our way again, I think it was about 11am. This was definitely no longer a luxury minibus and had no air conditioning! It was a reconditioned American school bus (these form the majority of public transport in Guatemala). At least there was a lot of space as there were not many of us in it. We drove down an unpaved, muddy road for around two hours before reaching the main road, on the way stopping at customs where I was stamped into Guatemala very easily and without being asked to pay anything.
Guatemala immediately seemed a much poorer country than Mexico, in the quality of the road and in the people walking along it, carrying huge machetes and huge bundles of crops (or something!) on their backs. Tiny children sat in the shade and waved at us as we passed, women were washing clothes in a river as their children played on the banks.
There was rubbish strewn everywhere, plastic bottles lining the roadside even before we reached a main road. It is something I really hate seeing but I suppose if you have grown up somewhere with no rubbish bin collection, where there are no rubbish bins, the fact that you should dispose of things properly is perhaps just not something you are aware of? Later on I was speaking to someone who’s sister had volunteered in a village by Lake Atitlan. One of the things she managed to do was to install the village’s first bin! This was a huge endeavour as it needed the mayor’s consent, as public funds would be needed to pay for the bin collection service. Its one of those things that tourism really helps – tourists don’t like rubbish everywhere so hotels start to clear it up and gradually the awareness and support for cleaner villages and countryside extends.
We stopped after several hours at a petrol station for a toilet break, to use the cash machine and to buy some snacks and it was unbelievably hot – the hottest I had felt it all holiday. Make sure you ask your driver to stop at an ATM either in the way or at Santa Elena as there is only one ATM in Flores that often doesn’t work. Then we were on our way again and I managed to fall asleep for a while.
I woke up as the bus had stopped by the side of the road. The driver and another Guatemalan man on the bus had got out and there seemed to be some commotion. “What happened?” I asked. The answer was slightly confused, firstly because it was in Spanish, and although my Spanish is pretty good it is so far from being fluent, and secondly because the person telling me wasn’t entirely sure herself! What I managed to grasp was that there had been a puncture in both of our right tyres, apparently because a machete had been lying in the road that had gone into one tyre and then bounced into the other! Deciphering why there was a machete in the middle of the road was however beyond me.
We all got out while it was fixed and it was SO hot. We ended up sat on the road right by the front of the bus in order to fit into the only little bit of shade there was. One of the Brazilian women said she had been really scared when the tyre burst and had thought in fact someone had placed the machete there to stop us so they could rob us at gunpoint – apparently this is something that happens in Brazil! We also got talking to the daughter of the driver, a beautiful Guatemalan girl with incredibly straight, perfect white teeth who wanted to be a mechanic. She said it was difficult as very few women in Guatemala are mechanics but that was what she most wanted to do. I hope she manages it! It didn’t take too long before both tyres were fixed and we were back on our way.
From there it was only a few hours later that we arrived in Santa Elena, a town just across the bridge from Flores, our final destination. We were met by a tour guide from a company in Flores and were told that our bus had to go back to the border so we had to wait for another bus. I think this was a complete scam – it turned out that we were only 2 minutes from our final destination and despite the flat tyres we were only 15 minutes later than we should have been. Instead, we waited for a bit and then this different tour company took us to their offices and tried to sell us tours to all over Guatemala!
Flores did look really nice as I left as the sun was setting – I would have loved to sit out by the lakeside with a cold beer but I hadn’t come to go to Flores, and there was going to be more than enough time for lakeside drinking in Lake Atitlan. I had come for Tikal, and in order to maximise both my time there and how much energy I had (ie not to have to get up at 4am), I paid 500 quetzals (about £43) for a one-way taxi, having missed the last public bus.
This taxi ended up breaking down twice on the way due to overheating so the journey took a bit longer than the hour 15 it should have taken! The second time, the driver jumped out of the car and opened the bonnet, on a slight hill, without putting the handbreak on… So the car started to roll backwards with me in it until I put the handbreak on myself!!
Finally I arrived at Jaguar Inn after over 12 hours travelling. I was exhausted and was offered a hotel room for 500 quetzals or a tent for 110… I had planned to camp but I just felt so tired that I went for the hotel room. In the end it was a stupid decision as I would have slept anywhere!! It had been an expensive few hours.
A quick dinner of a chicken panini and a glass of wine and I retired to read in bed, turning out the light shortly after 8pm as I couldn’t keep my eyes open!
Would I recommend booking a tour? I am not sure – not having done it the other way it is hard to say. I certainly think it was much easier than trying to catch numerous buses and find out where those buses were going to and when they were leaving and how to work out the border crossing. If I could do it again, I would have researched the tour company properly before booking – to see whether they had any reviews and what other tour companies were available. But as I had no wifi in Casa Lakyum, I didn’t really have that option! But anyway – now you have all the details about what it was like with that particular tour company, you can make your own mind up 🙂
Need to know: there are numerous tour companies in Palenque that will offer transport between Palenque and Flores, leaving Palenque at 6am and aiming to arrive at Flores at 4pm. This will be too late for a public bus to the ruins, so unless you don’t mind spending the money or will be sharing a taxi with a group, its probably best to stay in Flores. There are numerous places you can stay right outside the entrance to Tikal, including a campsite. At Jaguar Inn there is a restaurant, wifi that barely works, and you can rent a tent with a pillow and mattress, or a room. There are also a number of other hotels. You don’t have to arrive at the park before it closes (6pm) to be able to get to the hotels!