Smuggled Across the Border – El Peten, Guatemala

Smuggled Across the Guatemalan/Mexican Border

El Peten, Guatemala

It was a foggy 5:00 a.m. in Flores as Dave and I sat on the steps of our hostel, waiting for our bus. Five o’clock sharp, we were told. For good measure we arrived at fifteen before the hour. It was five after now, then ten, then fifteen and we sat, waiting for a bus (what type we did not know), to come stumbling down the cobblestone streets that lay in front of our cracked steps we referred to as seats.

At 5:20 our savior arrived, sans crown of thorns. Dave and I sleepily stumbled aboard, presenting our pre-purchased ticket. The bus slugged through the misty, stony streets, stopping at other hotels and hostels (the word “other” is somewhat odd, considering the size of Flores), picking up fellow degenerate travelers such as us.

By the time the bus crossed the bridge separating Flores and the town of Santa Elena, we had twenty travelers aboard. Upon approaching the main street in Santa Elena, we made a sharp left and gained speed, heading down the paved road. I looked out the window as we passed the local prison to see the inmates, up early, machetes in hand, chained shackles, clearing away highway foliage.

After a few days in Flores, and a rewarding trip to the jungle ruins of Tikal, Dave and I were on our way out of Guatemala, headed for infamous Chiapas, Mexico. When we arrived in Flores, we didn’t think that there would be a direct route to Chiapas. Every guidebook clearly pointed out that getting to Mexico from northern Guatemala was difficult at best, but more than likely not possible. Upon arriving at our hostel in Flores, we were surprised to find out that, in fact, there was a bus that provided transportation across the border. The fact that it was the same bus company that landed us in Flores, which was four hours late in picking us up on Belize City, should have been a red flag, but it wasn’t.

The road to the border had somewhat of a reverse Darwinian effect. Rather than improving with time, its rustic, third world charm diminished. After about an hour, we veered right down a dirt road. Clearly this was some sort of shortcut; a clever device put into action by the driver who was obviously a local. As we bounced along, luscious green hills sprouted up on either side of us, and tall palm trees bowed in submission to the prowess of our advanced technology. It seemed clear, as we rode down that dusty road that we were on the cusp of Guatemalan ingenuity. This notion seemed less clear, however, when the road became rockier and the terrain became more jungle like.

Dave and I assumed that the road would get better, but it kept getting worse and worse. Eventually, it was so bumpy that our Walkmen were rendered utterly useless. Reading was most definitely out of the question. Even talking was becoming difficult. By this time, we were deep in the jungle. A few miles down, after the last of the grass huts, we wondered if we even were even on a road at all, or if we were just foraging ahead, creating our own road.

After several hours, we reached the small village of Bethel. This was where we were to go through Guatemalan customs. As we piled out of the bus, happy to stretch our legs, we were instructed to form a line outside of the customs office. Everyone was abuzz and relieved that we weren’t going to have to pay an exit fee, a tax imposed by many other surrounding countries. This economic bubble was shortly popped, however, when those first in line came out, declaring that they were indeed charging a five U.S. dollar exit fee – in reality, a five dollar bribe that said, “We know you HAVE to pay this because you have no other options. Look around, you are in the middle of nowhere, now pay up!”

When Aldous Huxley first entered Guatemala 70 years prior, he encountered the same problem. “But as a general rule the over-compensation comes into play, and the official of a small country takes his revenge for political inferiority by personal offensiveness towards foreigners – especially the nationals of powerful states. It is an intolerable bore, but then, what else can you expect?”

This was the general feeling we had too, but others, who weren’t so keen on parting with five dollars, protested.

“What? Our guidebooks clearly show here that there is no exit tax! We will not pay it! What are they gonna do? It is against the law! I hope they know that we are planning on reporting this,” some angered Canadian backpackers yelped.

How they could be appalled and surprised that a small customs outpost in a third world country could and would do something like this is beyond me. After Dave and I stepped in, got our stamps and paid our five dollars, the dissenters questioned us.

“Did you pay?”

To which I replied with the tone of, duh, “Of course we did. I’m sure they need that money more than we do.”

It will be of no surprise to the reader that in the end, the protesters begrudgingly paid the measly five dollars and slumped on the bus.

About five minutes after leaving Bethel, the bus stopped again. The bus driver got out and motioned for everyone to follow him. Very unsure of what was going on, we cautiously stepped out of the bus and followed the driver to the back, where he began to unload our luggage. This seemed very peculiar because we were in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by trees and dirt, without a Mexican customs office in sight.

When everything was unloaded, the driver pointed down the hill and simply said, El rio, el rio. Not knowing what else to do, we grabbed our bags and headed down the hill to find two wooden canoes with outboard motors on them. We were quickly herded into the canoes and without any hesitation, we took off down the river.

For forty-five minutes we straddled the Mexican/Guatemalan border as we sailed through the murky waters, peering out at the banks and the dense foliage, wondering what lay hidden in it. Visions of Disneyland’s ride, The Jungle Cruise, came to mind. I was fully prepared for natives with big wooden masks and sharp spears to come out of the surrounding jungle, waving their fists at us and shouting in some incomprehensible dialect.

Eventually, we began to veer left, and we could see two vans waiting for us. We had hardly gotten off our boats when we were quickly ushered into the vans. “Vamanos, vamanos,” the men in the vans shouted as we piled in. I looked back at the river and noticed that the canoes were already gone. Ten minutes later we pulled over in a little town. We were told that we could use the restroom and buy snacks, “Oh, and welcome to Mexico,” one of the drivers said. It seemed a little strange to me that we hadn’t checked in at customs yet, but I figured that we would probably do it later. After restroom breaks and purchasing snacks, we returned to the vans to find that they were locked.

“Can we get in?” we inquired.

“No,” our driver bluntly said. “We have counted the money and there is only enough money for eighteen people, however, there are twenty of you here. Two of you have not paid.”

We looked around at each other, knowing that everyone had paid.

“We will go nowhere until we have all of the money.”

We had been swindled, and there was nothing we could do about it. Everyone begrudgingly reached into their wallets, money belts and purses and forked over a little bit of dough. The sum total ended up being a few dollars short, but our drivers seemed satisfied with their collection. They opened the doors and let everyone one in. I sat down with a sigh, ready to officially check into Mexico, and begin the rest of my journey in Chiapas.

I looked over at the driver. “When do we go through customs?”

“Customs? No, no customs.”