Friday, April 25, 2014

Buses: Guatemala

Looking like a giant jungle tree-house with its undulating stone garden courtyard, fully grown trees and steep, ladder-like steps leading to rooms, the Hostel Los Amigos in Flores, Guatemala, is one of the best hostels I've ever stayed in (joining other frontrunners Travellers House in Lisbon, Portugal, and the former HI hostel on Lake Alta in Whistler, Canada, where I stayed in 1994 and which sadly ceased 40 years of operation in 2003). Los Amigos has a restaurant with great food, a bar, a night lounge, and its own travel agency providing minibus connections to the Tikal temple complex, the big drawcard in this part of Guatemala.

A young Irish girl I befriended at the hostel, also travelling solo but right around Central America for nine months (making the Solonaut look like a lightweight), caught the minibus with me to Tikal for the sunset tour. She planned to stay the night, as did I to catch the pyramids at both sunset and sunrise (though I subsequently learned that there is no sunrise in a jungle that has 365 days of morning mist) and, both of us being backpackers, we chose the cheapest accommodation available: hammocks with mosquito nets in the campground for 85 quetzales (A$12).

I had never attempted more than an afternoon doze in a hammock. This one was made of denim and the mosquito net was actually an opaque cotton cloth forming a ceiling and four walls that draped to the concrete slab beneath my suspended arse, upon which I had visions of plummeting flat on my back mid-REM when the hammock rope sprang unwound at 3am. I was worried the full cotton enclosure might be stuffy in the steamy jungle, but on the contrary I was cold in the early hours and had to gather up the denim sides to wrap myself. All night I could hear mobile phone pings and beeps and twirrups until I realised these were the sounds of jungle nightlife. Nokia has been here with a microphone. Howler monkeys, on the other hand, sound decidedly unlike mobile phones and more like a hoarse lion, or a giant hound with whooping cough. Or rather, twenty giant hounds, as they howl in troops. If your mobile phone made a sound like that you'd set off a panicked stampede of fellow commuters. And I'm not sure exactly when howler monkeys sleep, as they make their calls to each other day and night. All in, I still actually managed six hours of sleep, though the knees were a bit sore from being stretched straight.

Los Amigos forgot they had sent us up there by the next day. The tour companies maximise profits, understandably, by sending minibuses up full, several per day. Unfortunately, they failed to send up two empty seats for our scheduled return on the final shuttle at half-noon. We found two others in the same boat, so it sounds like a common occurrence. The shuttle drivers told us we could catch the colectivo, the public service known to backpackers as a chicken bus, back into town.

The colectivo is also a minibus, seating twelve comfortably. A "conductor" rides with the passengers, manning the sliding door, collecting fares and securing any baggage on the roof via a side-mounted ladder. We left Tikal with ten people, and after a couple of roadside pick-ups soon fit twelve. We made another stop a bit further on and picked up one more. Then two more. The conductor made room by opening the side door and standing in the void, hanging on like it was a catamaran. We stopped again and let in another two. The conductor shifted to the ladder and rode outside. Then we let in a family of five. The conductor returned to the open slide door, this time to hold everyone in from falling out. After several more stops I counted thirty-three men, women and children wedged from rear window to windscreen, kids on laps and bodies pressed together standing and sitting. It was so ridiculous we all laughed about it. Guatemalans are pretty relaxed people. The conductor told us their record is forty, with people on the roof.

I complained to Los Amigos and made sure I was reimbursed for the cost of the colectivo—about $4. Hardly seems just.

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