The night bus is not one of my favorite activities. This one, from Oaxaca to San Cristobal de las Casas, is 10 hours and snakes around cliffs on tiny narrow roads. Narrowly avoiding oncoming traffic, we see bible passage quotations painted on the rocks at each treacherous turn. We have the front seats. We can see our narrow escapes accompanied by the various soundtracks courtesy of the drivers. The first being hard euro dance and the latter having a more authentic mariachi feel. Eventually, we arrive in San Cristobal. A small mountain town 2000m up. The sun is out and we decide to walk to our hostel and to our surprise, we both agree that this is one of the most picturesque scenes we have ever come across. The mountains that poke through the clouds frame the streets of multi-coloured red tiled houses. We find ourselves in the main square, and, overcome by the smell of fresh roasted coffee, we are tempted and sit to let the day begin around us.
San Cristobal was only on our list of destinations as a jump off point for Guatemala, and originally planned to not stay in the town and just leave on the next bus south. We then decided to stay for two nights. We stayed for five days in the end. Arriving at the charming hostel ‘Casa El Abuelito’, we were greeted by tranquil courtyard populated mainly by the French. This really did feel like we had somehow found our way into the Alps. We relaxed with more coffee for a few hours and after a quick nap went out to explore the town. Wandering through the streets, we immediately began to relax and found ourselves at a local bar and listened to a busker play until it started to rain. We decided to treat ourselves, after a month of eating from the street and had some steak and wine at the Argentinian steak house. It was awesome! Wandering home in the drizzle we felt quite content. We booked an extra night when we returned.
The following days were similarly spent, just walking around and taking stock of our month so far in Mexico. The town has obviously seen some money recently, with boutique shops along the main drag, mainly peddling the local specialty that is Amber. Not only backpackers swarm here, there are all sorts of tourists who are mainly European.
There is darker side to this little bastion of calm. The town is surrounded by a poverty-stricken area known colourfully as ‘the belt of misery’. The occupants of this violent area are mainly ex-inhabitants of nearby Tzotzil villages, such as San Juan Chamula. Reasons for expulsion are mainly due to politico-religious tensions as the Chamulans, who still preserve some Mayan ways of life, are apparently fiercely independent and follow their own brand of ‘Chamulan Catholicism’ (which I am told heavily involves praying with Pepsi and burping to ward off evil). The adults fill the streets attempting to sell clothes and handicrafts (many of which are well made and attractive), while children as young as five approach you and ask for money with huge sorrow filled eyes. The area is also famed for being the base of the EZLN Zapatista movement from 1994. The town still has a slight hint of rebellion in the air and there are anarchistic slogans painted on walls all around the backstreets. It may be because of this history that the town attracts many Europeans with dreadlocks, who seem to have stayed to try to make a living out of making jewellery. Chiapas is one of the poorest states in Mexico and is the most in your face that we have experienced along the way.
On a lighter note, the place is wonderful and all sorts of activities can be undertaken in the surrounding area. We did not partake which led to a German from our hostel labelling me ‘the lazy Englishman.’ We explored all the town had to offer, but mainly relaxed. The weather is beautiful in the morning when the sun is out. But when it goes away, you are very aware of the temperature, which led to three layers and wooly hats at times. We were ready to go. Bus booked to Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, when we had a call from the bus company advising us that due to some kind of protest, we were unable to go. So we spent another night, this time in the company of a German/Swiss couple who were on a similar mission, drinking red wine and complaining about the temperature.
We finally managed to get on the small transport bus the next morning to take us to the Mexican/Guatemalan border. The town of Ciudad Cuauhtemoc was a four hour stint, steadily descending as we went in the company of 14 other souls. The roads were again treacherous, and the driving a touch risky at times, but we made it. On the way, I was feeling like we had cheated a bit by booking full transport to our final destination and not trying to do wander through the town of La Mesilla on the Guatemalan side and jump on the next chicken bus south. For a total of M$300 pesos (US$22) each, it was hard not to take the easy option, and also, as we discovered quite quickly at the border, a good thing we had!
Mexican immigration was a quick process, having already paid the M$295 pesos on our arrival in Baja at a bank, they wanted no more cash from us and stamped us through. Walking through the Mexican side was ‘an experience’ that I will never forget. Markets selling everything and nothing, offering last chances to buy that crap you could have bought everywhere else in the country with a cacophony of sounds and smells attacking us as we gingerly followed the driver through. There were some desperate looking people lining the road begging for money, that were at times heart breaking and far too much to take in all at once. “Dude, did you see that guy with his skull exposed?” asked the Aussie I had been chatting to. Unfortunately I had, and it’s something I am going to find hard to forget. We were taken to Guatemalan customs by the bus driver, who left us after we all got stamped through (without any hint of bribes from the officials I may add). We then all squeezed (I can’t emphasize that word enough) into a smaller van, once the driver had done a DIY wheel change, and off we went into the rugged jungle hills of country number 3,Guatemala….
If your reading this and thinking about fighting your way through this border and finding transport in Guatemala to ‘keep it real’, I can only suggest you take the easy option as it is a hectic and confusing place. Pay the few bucks more and save your chicken bus adventures for later on!
The journey is tough. The road is poor, the bumps many and the five hours punishingly slow, yet hectic as the driver nearly kills us at least three times by racing chicken buses along the passes. All around however, the terrain is majestic. Jungle-clad hills cover as far as the eye can see, as we snake through following a river upstream to our destination. After we let passengers off near Xela, the bus sighed with relief and we shuffled a bit, but then two more came on board, including a giant jolly Swedish guy, who oblivious to our struggle and pained expressions wanted to talk about his adventures. “You know in zee caves, zere are zese blind shrimp, zat will clean your teeth. But if you pick zee wrong shrimp, zey will start to strip your mouth. So far, I have only had ze good shrimp”. (Not mocking the dudes language skills as they were much better than my own, but the comedy accent made it even better!) With chat like that, I slowly warmed and the time passed a bit quicker.
We got there. Panajachel on the shores of Lake Atitlan. 11 hours later and the lake slowly revealed itself to us as we descended. At first only seeing the peaks of the three volcanos that surrounded it with quick peep here and there of the lake itself. After finding a room, it was too dark to see, so we settled for some beers and grub to toast our new country. The next morning, we awoke to see the lake in all its glory.
We may stay here for a while….