Having started our journey in the south of Guatemala – Guatemala City to Antigua to Atitlán – my friend Annie and I had been umming and ahing about whether or not to head up north to Tikal.
These ruins, one of the largest sites of the pre-Columbian Mayan civilisation, had been described by our contacts as “unmissable”; but including a visit to Flores, the closest town, in our trip would mean a detour almost up to the Mexican border before heading back down again and across two or three more countries still to reach our flights out from San José, all in the space of ten days. Flights would be expensive, buses time consuming.
According to our trusty Lonely Planet guide:
“While bus travel at night in Guatemala is rarely a good idea for anybody, it is strongly advised that solo female travellers not catch buses at night time, the exceptions being the overnight buses travelling between Guatemala City and Flores. There have been no incident reports regarding those services.”
So we opted for this one night bus that was deemed safe, saving us the cost of one hostel night while getting us up north without “wasting” the day trapped on a bus.
From Panajachel on Lake Atitlán, we booked onto a mini-bus to take us (via Antigua for some reason) to Guatemala City, where we arrived in the dark almost five hours later. There we waited at the bus station for our “deluxe” night bus up to Flores, leaving a little after the scheduled departure of 9pm.
Now for our first experience of night buses (and the last, in fact, although a year later I was to repeat the experience a few times in South America), it could have been much worse. With my earplugs and eye mask, I actually got quite a bit of sleep.
Unfortunately the entertainment system was set to repeat the same old American film over, and over, and over – dubbed into Spanish, of course – so poor Annie eventually had to go and ask the driver to turn it off. And every time the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere I would wake up abruptly and imagine gunmen climbing on board. This is one of those times when having an active imagination is not such an advantage. Thankfully, the gunmen stayed in my imagination.
With my very limited Spanish at the time, though, it was quite an uncomfortable experience as we never knew what people were saying around us. At one point, we all had to get off and it turned out we were to show our passports, along with visiting the toilets if needed. Usually you get by if you just do what everyone else is doing…!
In any case, we survived the journey and arrived in Santa Elena around 6am, still pitch black all around us. Flores is actually on an island across from Santa Elena and apparently the bus would not take us all the way. After some hesitation, we had no choice but to get into one of the unmarked vans waiting there at the otherwise empty bus stop, and ask the driver to drop us off at Los Amigos hostel in Flores. Ah the adventure of travel. Alas, the reception didn’t open until 7am but we had a bit of luck when someone inside the gate saw us and let us in. We sneakily had a shower while waiting and eventually got a room when reception opened.
Super efficient as ever, we immediately booked onto an 8am bus to take us to the Tikal ruins. We didn’t get a guide but we had a decent map and spent a good four or five hours wandering around (at the end of which we were pretty hot and water-less). I’m so glad we decided on the detour, though, as these ruins really were spectacular. They will have been my first pre-Columbian ruins, so that’s always going to be extra special.
We took a 2pm shuttle back to the hostel (a quick visit, in the end, but plenty of time to explore!) and had a lovely relaxed afternoon after another shower.
In the evening, we indulged in strawberry daiquiris and mojitos along with a huge burrito for dinner. We were joined by Calem the Welshman, Eugene the Australian, and Baptiste the Frenchmen, and spent the night playing Cheat and Bullshit. There was also Chris who was working in the hostel since two weeks and, providentially, looked like Dennis Quaid. Which I appreciated. (Ooo I suddenly noticed the resemblance between Benedict Cumberbatch and Dennis Quaid. Interesting.)
Really, this is the best part of travelling to me, what happens in the evening. You’ve had an amazing day seeing something you’ve never seen before, you’ve had a shower, and you’re now relaxing with a cocktail while chatting to random strangers you meet in the bar. It really doesn’t get much better than that…