Monday, 22 September 2014

Days 526 to 532: Palenque and Flores and lots of buses

When the ancient Maya rulers of Palenque and Tikal, were building their cities and kingdoms, they weren't thinking about people like myself and Danielle. Palenque and Tikal were both built in the jungle, and after everything went downhill, they were lost there too, for centuries. In the meantime, the Spanish popped by and took over everything and built a bunch of colonial cities, entirely unaware of these lost jungle cities. In 1810, modern Mexico squared up to Spain, cracked its knuckles, and had a couple of years of war before Spain said "Alright, go on," and gave Mexico independence. Guatemala followed suit about a decade later. The ruins of both Maya cities were discovered, explored, and to some degree excavated. Both became tourist sites and UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Great - but they were still in the jungle, and both Mexico and Guatemala have had better things to do than build vast straight flat motorways direct from their capital cities to the ruins. Meaning that unless you're willing to shell out rather a lot on flights to the local airports, the only practical method of getting to either location is buses. Hours and hours and hours of buses. Bumpy buses, old buses, little buses, uncomfortable buses, hot and cold buses, winding paths, hills up and down, and inevitably many delays: Palenque and Tikal by road are missions to get to. Maya civilisation - next time build your empires on some nice flat plains, please.

The first bus was San Cristobal de las Casas to Palenque. It was supposed to take 5 hours; it took something like 800 (ok, ok, 8 hours maybe). I don't think the road ever straightened out once in that time; it seemed to be in a perpetually tight spiral, that the driver tackled with relish. About midway through the journey, we stopped for a while at a local bus station. Outside, an ambulance sat, lights flashing. Eventually, a handful of people got on, and we set off. Soon after, we passed the earlier bus (the 10.30am one; we were on the noon bus), looking a little beaten and battered, with a window smashed. It had crashed. We asked one of the new passengers what had happened, and he said the back wheel had caught the side of the road, and the bus had slipped backwards down the slope. A single tree had saved them. Nobody was seriously injured.
Palenque the ruins will be reviewed fairly soon, but Palenque the town will suffice with this: it's not very interesting. Just about all the hotels and restaurants are clustered in a small patch near the bus station, and the remainder of the town stretches out along a couple of other roads. Clearly, the ruins are the reason people visit Palenque, but they're around five miles away. When not visiting them, options in Palenque are limited. We had a pleasant hotel, with a pool, and the pool at least briefly occupied Danielle. We hung around the room, enjoyed the air-conditioning, and ate food at the appropriate times. We tried wandering into the town centre, but there really wasn't anything to see. Shabby buildings lined up along a dusty road... nobody will celebrate them in 1200 years time.

The second evening was spared from the ennui of small town travelling by meeting up with Ian and Sarah for dinner. They'd travelled with us from San Cristobal, although were staying in a slicker, though by the sounds of it, emptier, hotel midway between Palenque the town and Palenque the ruins. On the evening of the Scottish independence referendum, we sat with a fellow Scot and did what we like best - drink. The Englishlady, Sarah, seemed happy to oblige. We didn't drink too much, in fairness, but we managed to run up a pretty generous bill overall on food and drink at a pleasant restaurant very near our hotel (Ian had selected it as it was number 2 of 46 restaurants in Palenque). They'd seen the ruins, and have their own blog that covers it, from which I'll quote in full: "It was the most impressive bunch of stones thus far."

It was goodbye to them, as their route was in the direction of Belize. Ours was Guatemala - and another rough ride. A much rougher ride.

It kicked off at 6am, being picked at our hotel by a driver and a small minibus. He said something like "Ingles" (English) and "Flores", the name of our destination, and I said "Si", which sharp readers may already know means "yes" in Spanish. Our minibus could hold up to 15, but only another four passengers were inside, so it wasn't too packed. For around 90 minutes, we careered along small, bumpy roads, until stopping for breakfast. Along with a squadron of another ten-plus minibuses.

As we finished our breakfast - a lovely outdoors buffet - a different bus driver approached us. Was I "McNeil?" Hmm, well close, but his other questions suggested that I was indeed McNeil, at least as far as he needed to know. It transpired that we'd been on the wrong bus. This new driver found this awfully hilarious. The original driver had been due to pick up two people from our hotel at the same time (they were conspicuously absent while we'd been waiting), and apparently he'd actually greeted me by asking "Iglesias? Flores." He'd been looking for a woman called Maria Iglesias, and her partner, and I'd accidentally taken their place.

We duly changed minibus, to a virtually full one, being forced to squeeze in the very back seats. The road was bumpier. The back seat felt every single bump and magnified it. The next couple of hours weren't great fun.

Eventually we got to the border, a tiny border crossing, where Mexican border control ripped us off about £30, for very vague "taxes", no receipt possible. Danielle put up a spirited fight, but ultimately the man with the stamp had the power, and we were holding up the rest of our bus. Things got a little better then - the border between Mexico and Guatemala at this point is a river, and there are no bridges. A little boat it is then.

On the Guatemalan side, we had a little bit of a wait. By now, it was hot. The border town we were in was pretty much shacks and dust, with pigs roaming free. We chatted to our fellow travellers, a mixed bunch from the likes of New Zealand, England, Israel, Germany, and Austria. The Austrians were particularly glum souls, who seemed quite determined to avoid contact with the rest of us - I do wonder why some people travel. But the others were nice, and this brightened the wait. Eventually our bus came, but the driver explained, apologetically, we had to wait a little longer, as two more people were due. Eventually, after another hour or two had passed, they arrived, a very glum-looking Mexican couple. The woman especially was competing with the Austrian girl for Tripadvisor's Glum Traveller of 2014 (Female Category). Only later on the bus did Danielle turn to me, lightbulb blinking above her head, and say quietly "Maria Iglesias?" This poor couple must have waited in the hotel for a bus that never came, although somebody must have eventually collected them, hours later, and taken them to the border to join us.

The next five or so hours are best forgotten. Our bus was a shell of a vehicle, and the roads we took made it apparent why this was. Hours and hours of dusty dirt tracks, in a vehicle that suspension forgot. Naturally, air conditioning was not part of the deal, and even with all windows open, the slow speed of the bus made the heat sticky and draining. We'd been due to arrive in Flores around 3.30pm, it was after 7pm by the time we made it, sapped of spirit and energy. The only thing that cheered Danielle and I were the Austrians, who had slumped into a glumness hitherto unknown to be possible. Tripadvisor had a winner!

Fortunately, Flores and our hotel were lovely. Flores is part of a much larger city called Santa Elena, but exists like a charming boil on its side. It's a tiny island on a lake, connected to the mainland by a road, and the streetplan is effectively two roads going round in a circle. The buildings are shabby colonial, and the atmosphere is sleepy but with sparks of life. It is a very pretty place, with very pretty views of the lake, and is difficult not to like. Hence, we liked it. Especially as everywhere we cocktails deals, two for 20 Quetzals (about £1.70). Beer was about 80p - anywhere that has bars with sub-pound beer gets my thumbs up.

Our reason for being in Flores is because it's the launchpad for visiting Tikal, the extensive Maya jungle ruins about an hour away. We went the following morning, staying onsite overnight, and my review will appear in good time, but as a quick review preview - it's a big hitter. By the time we arrived back in Flores, the following afternoon, I'd spent a couple of days doing a lot of walking, so was pretty tired. Danielle went out for coffee, I relaxed in our air-conditioned hotel room, enjoying the splendid views of the lake. We had some cocktails later, and bumped into Emma and Alicia, the English girl and Kiwi girl we'd met on the Palenque-to-Flores bus experience. They brought with them the entire contents of their hostel, a friendly but very young crowd of backpackers, who had clearly already had a few drinks. We joined them for some more until Danielle and I looked at each other and said "We're too old for this kind of thing..." and left the youngsters to their youthful effervescence.

The next morning, it was goodbye to Flores and to Guatemala. The final stretch of our trip awaited - five days in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. After almost ten months, the travels are almost over. And to get there involved just one thing - a gruelling minibus to Mexico's border town, Chetumal, via Belize, and then another bus to the beach town of Tulum. Taking what turned out to be over 17 hours. I think we've had it with buses.

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