12 Hours in Guatemala
My goal in Guatemala was to see what was going on with the migrants, first hand, and while I was there I wanted to see Tikal. Tikal is an ancient Mayan citadel in the rainforests of northern Guatemala, far from where I came ashore in Puerto Barrios. But I only have 12 hours.
I'm carrying everything I'll need (I hope) in that bag over my shoulder along with 3 cameras and a GoPro. Its a bit too much to be carrying in the jungle, but its only 12 hours.
So I planned a day excursion via TAG Airlines (Transportes Aéreos Guatemaltecos). There are no regularly scheduled flights between Puerto Barrios, where I leave my boat, and Flores, near Tikal, but there is an airstrip, however. So the adventure was on. Port to airstrip provided my first look at Guatemala.
My first impression was how this area lacked infrastructure and how many idle young people there were, everywhere. A typical street is mud and potholes (above). Even paved streets aren't much better (below), as they too are mostly potholes and mud.
I hitched a ride on an old, wooden, open-air bus for the short trip from Santo Tomas de Castilla across town to the Brigada de Infantería de Marina. There were many people on the streets, watching me watching them. Its not often they see foreigners here. One cruise ship a week docks at the main port. Most of the rest of the port activity is banana boats bound for North America.
There are few passenger cars here. All along the route I see a lot of motorcycles with multiple riders (and no helmets) and people selling whatever they have along the side of the road. Below a man sells bread. Behind the gate is a McDonalds with no customers but an armed guard in a barrier booth in front of the restaurant.
There are few single person automobiles. A few van-type vehicles packed with people pass but almost all this early morning traffic is motorbikes.
The humidity is near 100% and my cameras fog up. But I keep snapping photos. Here a woman is cooking what looks like empanadas, on the street in a homemade "tienda." There is evidence of a lot of this type of subsistence economy on the streets of Guatemala.
In this image one woman sells fruits and vegetables while another sells what looks like churros. Of course I would have liked to stop and chat at every streetside tienda but with only 12 hours I had little time to waste, and it was slow going in the heavily potholed-streets of Puerto Barrios.
The CA-9 highway leads through the heart of Puerto Barrios where there were some semblances of western-style commerce with places like this Megapaca (below). I convinced the bus driver to let me take a look inside thinking I'd get a look at a wee-stocked Guatemalan supermarket.
Megapaca was not what I expected. Not a supermarket; but more of a used clothing store kind of like Goodwill in USA, but guarded by machine gun toting guards and jam packed full of used clothes. There were lines of motorbikes out front and a few cars but no shoppers. Everyone inside was sorting and packing the mountains of used clothes.
As the bus approached the airstrip I started seeing sidewalks and paved roads. Very unusual, compared to the rest of Puerto Barrios. Everything in this barrio is labeled "La Tierra de Dios."
La Tierra de Dios translates to The Land of God. This is the name of the airstrip in Puerto Barrios, Izabal. If you love the Caribbean and friendly, inquisitive people. This is indeed the Land of God. However it can also appear to be the land that God first made and then forgot.
The bus driver is giving me a lecture about how the Guatemalan problem is caused by USA and Europe, and I agree wholeheartedly, but I'm only now a few miles into the country and seeing the desperate poverty. The degree of desperation was something I did not expect. And this is all built on the fortunes of huge American and European food brands. I know the history. The bus driver is preaching to the choir with me as the audience. Think of these images the next time you eat a Chiquita banana or a Dole pineapple.
The driver tells me the marketing strategy behind La Tierra de Dios was to connect this place on the Guatemalan Caribbean with flights from Guatemala City and from Belize and Mexico. So far, these paved roads and sidewalks are all that's happened. A very out-of-place, nicely paved road and a curious sidewalk in a land that is mostly dirt roads, muddy potholes, and littered easements.
Do Not Drink the Water!
Here in The Land of God you cannot drink the water.
The drinking water supply and sanitation sector in Guatemala is characterized by low and inconsistent service coverage, especially in areas outside of Guatemala City. There is little or no regulation and monitoring of water service provision. So, don't drink the water.
"Camiónes cisternas" or often "camiónes acuáticos" (Water Trucks) are everywhere. There are a lot of people along the roads selling bottles of water too. This is very similar to what you see in Honduras. An entire segment of society exists by selling something most of the rest of the world takes for granted.
I can't help but thinking aloud, "where did the water in this camión acuático come from? And when was the truck last sanitized?" So, I'm sticking with bottled water I brought with me, but it will be a long day.
Last year I contracted salmonella from something I ate in Florida. As we slowly make our way through Puerto Barrios I can't help but wonder what pathogen I might pick up here.
Below, even in The Land of God colina many of the streets are severely potholed and full of mud. You cannot believe what you read on the internet about rainy season in Central America. Supposedly rainy season is July through September. Months later, its still rainy in places. Today is Thanksgiving Day in USA and I'm already twice drenched with rain and sweating uncontrollably.
On the other side of Guatemala, nestled between the Cuchumatanes mountain range to the north and a chain of volcanoes in the south, Guatemala's Western Highlands region is usually a striking quit of green valleys and steep forested ridges where Maya communities live and farm. Drought on that side of Guatemala is part of what is fueling the Guatemalan migration surge (more on that below). While the Western Highlands may be dry the Eastern Caribbean is very warm, and wet, and steamy, even in late November.
A lot of canals criss-cross the colinas and garbage spills down the hills into the canals. This is a scene repeated throughout Central America.
It takes an hour to drive from the port to landing strip (a 5 mile drive), and I still haven't reached the TAG Airlines office.
News reports online say that TAG offers a daily flight, Monday-Friday from Puerto Barrios to Guatemala City for $155 round trip (~1,110 Quetzales). I see no sign of those flights. Perhaps they have not commenced.
I've called ahead and made a reservation (una reserva) for a flight with no specific time. I tell the bus driver "Tenemos una reserva para el vuelo de mañana." He shrugs.
The bus driver pulls up to this gate (below) of the Aeropuerto that is heavily guarded by uniformed, machine-gun toting guards. Here, the guards turn us away. I'm beginning to think I may not make it to Tikal afterall. I am fast burning daylight.
I explain to the guards we are all on our way to the airstrip to catch a TAG charter to Flores, in northern Guatemala. They argue that there are no scheduled flights. I'm put off by the guns, as are the other passengers on the bus, so we retreat and search for another gate. The driver thinks we might have better luck at the Brigada de Infantería Marina.
The bus driver drives around the airstrip to another gate labeled "Brigada de Infantería de Marina." Here the guards are armed but not nearly as interested in our mission. The guards sit on chairs with electric fans buzzing.
A small contribution to their cause and the bus is through the gate, driving on the airstrip. I'm not sure what the Brigada is but I think it is something like the Army Reserves or ROTC or some combination. Maybe like a local militia?
Finally we come to a line of cones on a paved airstrip. There are a few pickup trucks parked here, a couple of empty old wooden buses like the one I ride, and a few very small planes.
Sitting on the runway are three very small planes, and I'm guessing this is our ride. Its kind of follow-the-leader in these situations so I set off for a plane, any plane. . .(OK, the biggest of the 3 planes) and board. Here there is no TSA to worry about. Its just get on the plane and get moving. I have no ticket, they just know who else would be showing up to get on this plane in the middle of nowhere Guatemala.
I'm committed to getting to Tikal and back and this is the only way. It would take days to drive the 200 miles to Tikal on these roads, so tiny plane it is. The price for this round-trip flight will be steep, about $600, but it will include a guided tour from the Flores airport into the Tikal Park, around the ruins, and back to Flores and ultimately to Puerto Barrios. So well-worth the considerable sum for 12 hours in Guatemala. TAG offers a lot of these types of excursion flights from larger cities in Central America. This was a specially arranged charter for a few people on this day.
Fear of Flying?
A couple of other passengers get on the plane that holds maybe 8, and we quickly taxi and takeoff low over Puerto Barrios. Aloft, its loud and shaky and there is no AC but we don't fly too high so I imagine we'll set down quickly if there is a problem. We see some communities below as we fly north first over the Amatique Bay toward Punta Gorda, Belize, then over San Luis, Guatemala, and Poptún, then Machaquila, then Boca del Monte. . .all tiny towns along the Guatemalan border with Belize. We then veer west toward our destination of Flores, which with a population of around 20,000 is a big city for the rainforests of northern Guatemala.
If you're afraid of flying, this is your nightmare flight!
Its about an hour of shaky, low-altitude flying to Flores. The planes look bigger when we land in Flores and the land is drier with lots of red-clay dirt roads visible from above. Here the planes are all parked together on the tarmac at the Mundo Maya Aeropuerto.
Flores' Mundo Maya resembles a regional airport in USA but there is no security and there are no commercial flights on this day. Passengers walk right through the little airport terminal to a waiting van to be whisked the remaining 40 miles north into the rainforest and Tikal.
This entire region of Guatemala is jungle. It is known as the Reserva de Biosfera Maya and the Biotopo Protegido San Miguel La Palotada. Within this vast reserve are Parque Nacional El Mirador, Parque Nacional Tikal, Parque Nacional Laguna Del Tigre, and Parque Nacional Sierra Del Lacandón. To the north is Campeche, Mexico. To the west is Chiapas, Mexico.
The Maya Biosphere Reserve covers an area over 8,000 mi². This reserve protects the largest area of American tropical forest remaining north of the Amazon.
This area of Guatemala is sparsely populated and there are few roads. We take PET-3 north toward Tikal. As far as I know the road only goes as far north as Uaxactun. So there are no migrant caravans on this route. Heading for America would require an exit through Chiapas.
Along the two lane highway PET-3 there are lots of little tiendas (stores) and open-air restaurants. I'll eat at one of these after exploring Tikal.
There is a modern town of Tikal but it is tiny, not even as large as the ruins themselves. However the town does have a couple of hotel-like businesses; the Jungle Lodge and the Tikal Inn. The Jungle Lodge is the fancier establishment with rooms for about $100/night. The Tikal Inn has $50 rooms and is austere but does have a nice swimming pool, important when spending time trekking in the jungle.
The van driver asks if we want to stop at a tienda. We stop at a few of these little stores along the way to Tikal. They all feature a very shy woman cooking traditional foods along with some bottled beverages and always hibiscus tea. You can buy locally made sweets and breads. There are always stray dogs around. I want to bring all the dogs home with me so I have to look away.
When we reach Tikal there is some negotiation to get in the gates. It is a busy place with tourists coming from Western Guatemala on day trips from Puerto Quetzal and the capital, Guatemala City.
Most of the tourists I see are Asian or Central American. Very few Europeans or North Americans here. After paying some bribes we are quickly whisked passed the lines of Asian tourists and to some central processing point at the entrance to the ancient citadel. There our little group receives wrist bands and bright orange stickers to identify us (and so we stay together). We drive into the ancient city while most people are forced to walk about an hour from the front gate. I'm very thankful for this part of the TAG Airlines tour package. The driver explains that there wouldn't be time to get us back to Puerto Barrios in our 12 hour window, if we walked. I'm fine with that and my exploration of Tikal begins.
Tikal Temple of the Grand Jaguar
Homeland Security officials have for the first time offered an explanation for a puzzling increase in the number of Guatemalan families showing up at the US border this year, seeking asylum.
Rather than a spike in violence, the families appear to be fleeing a hunger crisis in Guatemala's western highlands, according to US Customs and Border Protection, citing UN and USAID food insecurity data as well as the agency's own intelligence assessments.
Years of meager harvests, drought and the devastating effects of "coffee rust" fungus on an industry that employs large number of rural Guatemalans is speeding up and exodus of families from villages bereft of food.
It also explains why larger numbers of indigenous villagers who speak little or no Spanish have arrived with their children to turn themselves in to US border agents, creating communication challenges for enforcement officials and immigration courts.
A new inter-agency study found a correlation between the prolonged droughts in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—exacerbated by El Niño phenomenon from 2014 to 2016—and the increase in irregular migration from these countries to the United States.
The study shows a trend of younger and more vulnerable people leaving food-insecure areas, especially in the Dry Corridor, a drought-prone area that crosses these countries.
Why people flee and the impact on family members left behind in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras
Migration from Central America to North America is not a new phenomenon, nor is it one that is likely to end soon. The number of irregular migrants apprehended at the United States of America border with Mexico increased fivefold from 2010 to 2015. The numbers of unaccompanied children picked up arriving from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras surged between 2015 and 2016. This flow of people coincided with a period of heightened food insecurity in the Dry Corridor that traverses these three countries, known for its prolonged dry spells and droughts.