Travesía Panamericana
Week 6

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The Yucatan Peninsula, Belize, and Tikal

May 13, 2002

Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo. Mexico

Odometer: 202,085

Written by: Cris

The night next to the ocean was quite pleasant, despite the loud music coming from the close-by bars until about 4 AM. For us, it was so refreshing to have finally reached the ocean after all those miles of hot and humid inland jungle, that nothing could bother us. In fact, the three of us relaxed in the beach for a portion of the night, listening to the music, watching the stars, and observing the occasional drunk gringo trying to make it back to his/her hotel.


We drove to Tulum and visited the unique archeological site situated right next to the pristine turquoise Caribbean sea, with even a white sand beach next to the ruins for the visitors comfort. This time we didn't get there early enough to avoid the Cancun tour masses, which generally clog this type of sites from 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM. Nevertheless, it was a memorable visit which balanced swims in the sea with Mayan ruins.

Later, we drove a couple of miles to the cabanas located south of the Tulum site. This place ended up being the perfect one to enjoy the Caribbean, since it is a "primitive" (a.k.a: unspoiled) setup of very basic cabanas next to a huge and empty beach. Additionally, it was very inexpensive, since we didn't need to rent a cabana, just use their shower and hanged out in the hammocks and outdoors shaded lounging area. This seems like such a better way to enjoy the area, I don't understand why 90% of the tourists go to Cancun, but oh well, it works this way for us...Chance enjoyed running freely in the beach after days of being restrained for one reason or the other.

May 14, 2002

Tulum, Quintana Roo. Mexico

Odometer: 202,126

Written by: Cris

After hanging out at the beach for a while, we headed south (it took a lot of determination to leave such a paradise). In contrast with Tulum, the places we went by today were extremely hot, humid and away from the ocean. The highway was full of muti-colored butterflies, some of which inevitably where smashed by traffic. After a while, we discovered a process going on; the many birds that we encountered next to the road for miles and miles were feeding of the hundreds of butterflies killed by motorists. Humans are part of this food chain, but not at the top in this case.

Cris at the Fabolous Lake Bacalar

By early afternoon we made it into an area that turned out to be an unexpected treat: Lake Bacalar and the Cenote Azul, close to the border with Belize. Bacalar is a huge lake with turquoise water a la Caribbean, and extremely swimming-friendly. The cenote Azul (as described in our Lonely Planet guide, cenotes are "large limestone sink holes filled with rain water", pretty common in the Yucatan peninsula) has deep blue water, is only a bit smaller than a football field, and has a depth of 90 meters. The perfect swimming spot, we literally could not leave the place. And we thought that we were done with Mexico! This country keeps us magnetized, we are having a hard time moving on to Central America in spite of the fact that we need to cover some miles.

What the heck, we decided to hold the border crossing for one more day and relax at the gorgeous and inexpensive RV park "Los Cocalitos", which is close to the cenote and on the lake Bacalar waterfront. We had the place for ourselves, I could have stayed there for a whole month...

May 15, 2002

Lago Bacalar, Quintana Roo. Mexico

Odometer: 202,273

Written by: Cris

Today was a landmark in our journey: we were finally able to leave Mexico. The crossing into Belize was a bit messy and expensive. An extra certificate for Chance was required (we still don't know what for) that cost U$S 25. On top of that, we found out right before crossing that Argentineans do need a visa to get into the country; this meant another U$S20 for both. Fumigation of the car was another chunk of money. They also informed us that we would have to pay a "departure tax" once we leave the country. As we said we were only in transit, we were given one day to reach the border with Guatemala, or such tax would be more. Fine with us, since we didn't have any Belizean currency, and snorkeling at the cays was out of the question due to its price. The crossing into Belize cost a lot more than we expected and confirmed our suspicion that border crossings will be the most frustrating and expensive part of our journey to Argentina. After about 45 minutes of paperwork, we were finally inside Belize. We didn't bother to go to the tax free zone, where you can get cheap clothes, electronics, food, and, more importantly, gasolina.

The change in architecture is pretty drastic between Mexico and Belize; the typical house is now made out of wood (as oposed to concrete/bricks), and elevated about 7 feet off the ground for flood protection, I suppose. Every now and then we saw houses that reminded us of the ones that we are used to in Oregon.

The Belize City Waterfront

We crossed through Belize at a good pace, only stopping for a brief tour of Belize City. We saw a lot of sugar cane plantations on the lowlands. After the city of Belmopan, the road starts to go up and by the time we reached the border with Guatemala we were in hill country and enjoying a much more comfortable climate.

I noticed a lot of Land Rovers in Belize (no doubt because of the British influence) and wondered if it would be a cheaper way to get one, instead of paying the ridiculous overprice in the US. On top of that, there are very few 110s in the US, and plenty of them here. I imagine importation would not be an easy task if at all possible, so decided not to explore this any further. On the radio, we heard a British station broadcasting a soccer game in the UK.


Crossing into Guatemala was relatively simple and not as expensive as our previous experience. We noticed that we had been for a whole month in Mexico and for just a day in Belize. As in the case of Mexico, they completely ignored our dog at the Guatemalan border, I hope this is a pattern from now on, although I've heard quarantine stories about Costa Rica.

Once done with all the fees, fumigation, and bureocracy at our second border crossing of the day, we proceeded to cross a one-lane bridge into town, only to be stopped by an armed soldier who demanded a "tax" that the "community" was charging. While we were stopped, dozens of local cars drove by without even slowing down. When Barbara asked why we were the only ones required to pay, the soldier replied that the other ones "had already paid". It is worth mentioning that this was small bridge, a few meters away from the border and absolutely the only way to enter to Guatemala. This was such an obscene case of bribery, that we refused to give any money. Next thing, the soldier mentions confiscating our car until we pay. We mentioned that we had just paid a lot of money at the border, were out of Guatemalan cash, and if he could make an exception. We insisted for so long, and with such a determination, that the guy had no choice but to let us go. Some days later, reading an e-mail from Los Ligato, who have recently done a similar trip in a 1978 Westfalia and are currently doing Africa, I noticed that they fell into the same trap at the bridge, exactly one year ago. In their case, and not without worries, they chose to just drive away ignoring the soldiers complaints and gestures (the tax that they were asked for was an outrageous U$S 19.85).

John and his Vanagon

Today was a long day, we crossed two borders, drove for most of the day, and didn't eat until the night, since we didn't have any Belizean currency. Tired by the time we reached Tikal National Park, we were informed that we could not access the park and use their campground with our dog, due to the potential of scaring wildlife with his presence. It was already dark and disappointment hit us. Just a few miles down the road on our way back we saw a group of visitors with a Vanagon camper and a Ford pick-up camping  for free next to the road (photo). We were welcomed to join them and a few minutes later we were treated to dinner (cans of authentic Texan chili and some pollo). How timely, we were hungry, with no place to sleep and very tired. Jeff and Nysa (with the Ford) were on their way back from visiting most (all?) of the Central American countries. They had been on the road for several months, and were planning to spend some more time in Mexico. They were also University of Oregon graduates, and were very familiar with our hometown, Eugene. The Vanagon had been Roxana and John's transportation and housing on their way down to Panama, where they left the vehicle stored and traveled in South America, getting all the way down to Argentina. They were on their way back to the US, running on three cylinders and with no rush... We all exchanged tips, places to stay, and experiences. The mother of all tips has to be the one Jeff and Nysa gave us about a Japanese freight ship that takes vehicles from Costa Rica to Ecuador, for U$S 275. This has yet to be confirmed, but if works out for us, it will help our trip immensely. After such a full day, we went to sleep very satisfied, happy to have encountered people with things in common, and thankful for their generosity and friendship.



May 16/17, 2002

Tikal National Park, Tikal. Guatemala

Odometer: 202,520

Written by: Cris

We were awaken early in the morning by the jungle sounds in our campground coming from the many birds, monkeys, and an occasional rooster sound from a nearby house. Particularly notable were the howls of the monkeys, which sounded like lion roars. How cool. We later explored the archaeological site with John, Roxana and Nysa. It was fun to caravan with John's Vanagon the few kilometers to the site, perhaps the only such vehicles in many, many miles. Tikal proved that no matter how many Mayan sites we visit, there is always room for appreciation and awe. It is such a spectacular site, architecturally different in many aspects to what we had seen before in southern Mexico, and at the same time showing connections in the basic layout and building uses to all those other sites. The site is huge, but in this case there is jungle between each cluster of structures which not only keeps you under shade (it is very hot and humid here), but also provides the opportunity of viewing some of the local wildlife, such as Tucans, monkeys, and others. The pyramids are very high and steep, they stick out of the jungle canopy in a very elegant way (see photo). Visiting most of the buildings took some energy, due to the size of it all. By early afternoon we were done with our complete yet superficial tour, and saw part of an indigenous ceremony at the Great Plaza. We said goodbye to Roxana, John, Jeff, and Nysa who were heading to Belize, and drove south.

One of the sturctures at Finca Ixobel

Close to Poptun we stopped at the wonderful Finca Ixobel, one of the best places we have stayed in the whole trip so far. The finca borders the jungle, and has an organic garden from which many of the meals served at their breakfast/dining area derive. They let us park our camper in  their beautiful site  for only U$S 2.50 a night, with full use of their bathrooms, showers, swimming pond, kitchen, laundry, resting areas, and the many other amenities that the place has to offer. You can also pitch a tent, rent one of the cabanas, or one of the funky tree houses (photo). On top of that, they had a soccer game each late afternoon! They also offer tours to a nearby cave, as well as horse riding trips. The finca had a mixture visitors from different parts of the world. We took advantage of being in a nice, secure place and relaxed for a couple of days, catching up with our reports and just enjoying being in the same physical place for more than 12 hours. Needless to say, Chance enjoyed this too...


May 18, 2002

Poptun. Guatemala

Odometer: 202,646

Written by: Cris

The Guatemalan Highlands

Today was a driving day. Our plans to take the gravel road going up the mountains from Modesto Mendez to Sebol and then to Coban didn't work out because, as  we were told at the roads intersection with the main highway, a group of local campesinos had blocked the road 80 kms ahead, due to a land dispute. We were told by the police that there was the probability of being able to get through (by offering them a tribute consisting of a maize bag), but this was not guaranteed. The fact that they were probably armed with machetes, angry, and in a remote area made us take the decision of staying on the main highway and battle the heat and humidity. We decided to approach Coban from the south, and after driving westward through a very busy highway that connects Guatemalas main port (Puerto Barrios) and the lowlands with Guatemala City, we were finally on a secondary road heading north (and up) towards Coban and a temperature somewhat close to our comfort zone. Unexpectedly, a heavy storm developed a short while after negotiating the first up hills and we lost most of our visibility. It was dark by then, so we asked at a roadside restaurant close to Salama if we could park for the night. The answer was yes, so we spent what no doubt has been the wettest night of our whole trip so far in their parking area, with all the gear and dog inside the car. 


May 19, 2002

Salama, Guatemala

Odometer: 202,854

Written by: Cris

The only other vehicles in the road:"Chicken Buses"

We had calculated that the road linking Coban to Sacapulas would be, in addition of a good way of getting out of the gringo trail and exploring the Guatemalan highlands, somewhat of a secondary road,  but we never anticipated such a challenging one. This one-lane gravel, dirt, and mud road goes from mountain to mountain for more than 120 kms. The steep up hills and down hills use extremely close ganchos (curves), in order to gain or loose altitude. It is necessary to honk at most of the hundreds of curves, just in case one of the racing local buses or speeding trucks (the only other traffic we encountered, apart from loaded burros) is coming against you in that particular blind spot.  We crossed streams, handled some steep cliffs, traversed muddy sections, and explored the limits of Guapo's torque and brakes while going up and down the whole day. In any case, it was fun and challenging, but we were lucky that the car didn't get damaged. We went through a couple of small towns and had the chance to glance how life is around this area of the Guatemalan highlands. By the way, this is the area where Rigoberta Menchu comes from, so our experience here allowed Barbara (who had read a book about her life) to relate to Menchu's testimony better.

We finally hit the pavement after Sacapulas, with no chance whatsoever to make it in time for market day in Chichicastenango. Extremely tired, we talked the owner of a hotel in Santa Cruz del Quiche to let us stay in his parking lot for the night.


The Cabanas next to Tulum

Camping in "Los Cocolitos"

Fellow Overland Latin America Travellers

Barbara, Roxanna and Nysa Climbing the Steep Pyramids of Tikal

The Nosy God

Two Vanagons meet in Tikal

120 kms of a challenging road (5/19)

Highlands Dwelling

Week 7