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The People's Guide To Mexico

The Ruta Maya
Travel Tips

by Carl Franz

  Getting There:
When, Where & How?

The Ruta Maya includes a complex range of topography and climate. In January you’ll find teeth-chattering night-time temperatures in the highland villages of Guatemala’s Cuchumantanes Mountains — and humid, lazy-warm weather in the lowland jungles just a day’s travel away. Here’s just a few quick ideas to guide you toward agreeable travel conditions:

• The lowlands of Guatemala and Belize are warm virtually year ‘round, but temperatures frequently dip below 60°F in the jungle on winter nights. Expect damp fog and heavy dew if you’re camping.

• The so-called dry season is seldom entirely dry. It is more accurate to call the winter months on the Ruta Maya the ‘drier’ season, especially in Guatemala’s Peten, the Rio Dulce basin and southern Belize. I always carry a compact folding umbrella (also great for sun protection). A very light poncho is good, or you can imitate the locals and buy a colorful sheet of plastic for cheap, ready-to-use raingear.


• If you’re planning a wide-ranging Ruta Maya itinerary, the most agreeable time of year is November through March. This avoids both the hottest weather (late April through early June) and the wettest (mid-August through mid-October).

• If you have an aversion to hot weather or must travel in the summer, I’d head for the highlands of Guatemala and/or Chiapas. The weather above 5,000 feet is excellent and the rains tend to be quite moderate.

• Remember that short distances often separate dramatically different climates. Lorena and I got thoroughly soaked on the Rio Dulce in March — and found near-drought conditions just a few hours away by bus toward Guatemala City.


Planning Your Route

Planning your adventure along the Ruta Maya often comes down to rolling dice and playing connect-the-dots on a map. Because the region can be approached from several angles it is easy to get lost in a maze of tempting alternatives. The process is further complicated when you begin to make choices of travelling by air, car, bus, train or even freight canoes.

For many reasons, I often tell people to soften their focus on the nitty-gritty details of trip planning. Rather than trying to “anticipate the unexpected,” it is better to approach Ruta Maya planning from a broader, more relaxed perspective. In other words, keep advance worrying and fretting to a minimum. The beauty of the Ruta Maya is that whichever direction you choose will almost certainly lead to satisfying experiences and adventures.

Consider these possible approaches:

1) Ruta Maya via Cancun to Belize and Guatemala: Cancun continues to survive my outspoken disfavor and is now one of the world’s most popular beach resorts. The best I can say for this Caribbean mega-resort is that airlines offer frequent service and competitive fares. As a gateway, Cancun is a logical jump-off point to explore the Yucatan Peninsula (though I still prefer the much more attractive city of Merida if you can get a flight).

Yucatan side trips: See the Appendices in the latest edition of The People’s Guide To Mexico for a tried-and-tested 1,000 mile loop trip of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Fly into Cancun and go directly to the bus station. Take a direct bus to Chetumal, near the border with Belize, or: take a local bus to Playa del Carmen (an hour or less to the south of Cancun) and overnight there. From ‘Playa’, grab the first available first class bus to Chetumal. (Any class is okay but primera is definitely quicker and more comfortable.)

At the large, modern Chetumal bus terminal you’ll find easy, frequent connections to Belize City. (Lorena and I left Playa del Carmen after breakfast and were in Belize City just after dark.) Cabs are also available to take you into Belize.

2) Ruta Maya via Mexico City: Fly to Mexico City and take the overnight train from there to Oaxaca. Spend two or three days (minimum) in Oaxaca and then fly on to Villahermosa and bus to Palenque. After touring Palenque head into the highlands of Chiapas by bus and continue south, into Guatemala via the highland route (Comitan, La Mesilla, Huehuetenango, Quetzaltenango, etc.). An adventurous alternative is to enter Guatemala’s Peten through the backdoor: by bus from Palenque to Tenosique, by riverboat into Guatemala via El Naranjo, then a bus to Flores and Tikal. This alternate is very popular with European backpackers.

3) Ruta Maya via Belize City: Fly directly into Belize City. Consider a visit to the nearby Caribbean cays. If a grand, off-the-beaten-track Ruta Maya loop trip interests you, forget the local cays and hop a regularly scheduled bush plane south to Big Creek and Placencia for about $50. (A cheap bus takes all day.) Enjoy Placencia laidback charms, then continue via the teeth-rattling “Jame’s Bus” to the coastal town of Punta Gorda. Punta Gorda’s isolation has thus far protected this fascinating region from tourist-trampling. Explore the area before continuing to Livingston, Guatemala aboard a local freight canoe (cheap and quick).

Check out Livingston, then head up the Rio Dulce by mail boat or chartered launch to Lake Izabal. From the highway bridge you can make a long, butt-bruising bus ride to Flores and Tikal. Plan to break the trip and layover for at least a couple of days at Finca Ixobel, Poptun. Believe me, after an overland crossing of the Peten, you’ll deserve it. Rustic lodging at the Finca is a bargain, the food is famous and the surrounding eco-sights are well worth enjoying.

‘Close the loop’ on your Ruta Maya tour by continuing from Tikal to Belize City via Melchor de Mencos and Cayo (San Ignacio). This leg can be flown but it’s cheap and interesting (and sporadically uncomfortable) by bus.

4) Fly into the capital city but don’t plan to linger. ‘Guate’ is interesting but with the possible exception of the Pacific Coast, you’ll find more worthwhile sights and experiences in all directions. When in doubt, start by exploring the northern and western highlands by bus and shuttle van. Don’t make a fetish out of avoiding the ‘gringo trail’ here; it is well worth taking in Antigua, Panajachel, Xela and other popular ‘guidebook’ sights

When you’re ready for a dramatic change, fly to Flores (rather than taking a genuinely uncomfortable and long bus trip across the Peten). Visit Tikal and if time allows, make long side trips to Sayaxche and the Rio de La Pasion and/or Finca Ixobel, Poptun.

• Alternate: from Tikal go across Guatemala’s Peten and on into Mexico via the El Naranjo bus/boat route (see above) for a visit to Palenque.

• Yet another alternative: enter the Peten via the little-used overland route from Coban. For details, consult the Real Guide or Henry’s Hint$.

• Even more alternatives: iron the creases out of the map and create your own Ruta Maya itinerary.

Weird Bus Trip

A few years ago Steve and I decided to celebrate the 25th anniversary of our first Mexican adventure together. We had a splendid idea; since we no longer enjoyed wasting our minds on cheap tequila and loud music, we would commemorate this historic event by driving a ’64 GMC schoolbus stuffed with used bicycles and secondhand clothing from Portland, Oregon to Quintana Roo. As I said, it seemed like a good idea at the time....

Travelling from dawn to dark, with only a few stops for chiropractic adjustments in Texas, we completed our marathon bus trip in exactly 15 grueling days. After disposing of the bus and all its contents (please don’t ask for details!) for a dubious profit, we decided it would be an even more splendid idea to race each other from the Yucatan to Panajachel, Guatemala.

It has been a tradition between us, since our first trip together in the early Sixties, to make foolish wagers. Challenging Steve’s outrageous claim that he could go by bus anywhere in Latin America faster than regularly scheduled airliners, I invested my bus profits in Mexicana airline tickets: Cancun to Mexico City and Mexico City-Tuxtla Gutierrez-Guatemala City. Just to rub it in, I gave Steve a head-start by seeing him aboard the bright purple, second-class ADO coach. His proposed overland bus route was Chetumal-Palenque-Comitan-Quetzaltenango-Lake Atitlan.

The grand prize: breakfast with all the trimmings at Al Chisme, our favorite cafe hangout in Panajachel.

“I’ll be eating eggs Benedict and swilling coffee,” Steve boasted recklessly, “while you’re still chewing smog in Mexico City.”

Five long days later in Panajachel, I was nursing my second espresso of the afternoon and pondering my long-overdue compadre’s possible fate. Suddenly the door darkened. Ignoring a crowd of smirking, chain-smoking Euro-hippies, a bearded, tangle-haired apparition from the Sixties staggered through the cafe. With the melodramatic precaution of a terminal hemorrhoid sufferer, Steve sank gingerly into the wooden chair across from me. There seemed little value in rubbing his face in my victory, but just for old time’s sake, I did it anyway.

“I’ve been here for three and a half days,” I gloated. “So I’ve already eaten my way through our favorites on the breakfast menu.” At the word “breakfast”, Steve’s face went from gray to green. “But just to celebrate I’m willing to settle for the tempura fried vegetables and a slice of that double chocolate cake with coconut ice cream. Oh yeah, and I’d better have a mocha chaser, a double.”

Ignoring me, Steve mashed the heels of his hands back and forth against the sagging contours of his face. It was a familiar ritual of exhaustion and exasperation. When he finally looked up, I could see dusky bruises under his eyes and telltale deposits of pink Pepto Bismol at the corners of his mouth. A certain sour odor around the table was a further hint that Steve’s bus journey hadn’t been as excellent as he’d hoped.
“I hurt,” he explained. “In every bone, in every orifice and in every screaming fiber of my body, I hurt.”

“Bus wasn’t too comfortable after all?” I consoled.

Steve’s answered with an eloquent pathetic martyr’s grimace.


Bus Travel Tips

As Steve’s experience reminded us, there are two general classes of buses in Guatemala: inexpensive first class and dirt cheap ‘no class’.

Unlike Mexico, where first class buses are as common as bicycles, Guatemalan first class service is not extensive and departures aren’t frequent. Still, they’re worth waiting for, especially on runs of more than a couple of hours. First class also includes a small but highly appreciated fleet of ‘super’ or ‘luxury’ buses, complete with stewards, refreshments and certified sane drivers.

Second and third class buses are easily identified by their square-fendered, schoolbus-like design and buckboard comforts. Every ticket buys an adventure.

Be aware that bus schedules to outlying villages and towns on secondary roads are subject to sudden change. Breakdowns, washouts, landslides, guerrilla actions, driver-hangovers and other local ‘realities’ can cause bus service to be suspended without notice. When a small community celebrates a fiesta, for example, there may be one-way bus service into town and then nothing at all, in or out, until the fiesta ends and the drivers are able to crawl behind the wheel again.

Steve will also testify that Guatemalan buses don’t waste space on unnecessary creature comforts. Although you’ll find that many second class buses are surprisingly clean and in good repair, that’s only because labor and soap are cheap. It is not unusual to see buses loaded beyond their manufacturer’s wildest nightmare, racing around hairpin curves. Jamming passengers three abreast in seats spaced only inches apart is also standard. Once the rows are filled, passengers continue to be shoehorned in.

On the long run from Guatemala City to Los Encuentros, I sat seven-across on a bus that carried at least 100 people and their ample goods. Although I rode in a sitting position, there was no seat under me — I was literally suspended ‘cheek-to-cheek’ in the aisle between an impassive nun and an Indian mother.


Important Survival Tips

Never indulge in backseat driving aboard buses; it will only lead to frazzled nerves and hyperventilation. Bus drivers may feel the need to pass on blind curves or suddenly decide to race each other for passengers on narrow mountain highways. Admire the view but don’t pay too much attention to traffic or the road ahead. Gaze out the side windows (don’t look down too often, especially on the road between Chichicastenango and Nebaj). One of the benefits of regular, deep meditation practice is my ability to ride Guatemalan buses for great distances without screaming aloud in fear

After all these warnings, how do I dare recommend the experience of exploring Guatemala by bus? Because it is the ideal combination of entertainment and education: these buses go anywhere there is a road and they are exciting, cheap and unpredictable. Bus travel also offers us endless opportunities to make contact with the Guatemalan people. On a typical ride you will literally rub elbows (and hips) with people of every imaginable class, color, tribe and character. Last but not least, uncomfortable, white-knuckle bus trips make great stories to share with your friends when you get home.


Lodging in Guatemala

Hotels, Lodges, Pensiones, Posadas, Hospedajes

The range of lodging available in Guatemala varies as dramatically as the terrain. You’ll find everything from dollar-a-night straw pallets in coldwater hospedajes to cozy $25 lodges and $100-and-up American-style tourist towers.

As a general guideline, if you’re willing to shop around and compare notes with other travellers, you should be able to find comfortable accommodations for $6 to $10 per person. These will be clean, decent rooms with bath in pleasant but unpretentious hotels.

Will there be hot water? Based on our experience as tour guides, the statistical probability of having hot water on demand will fluctuate between 76 and 94% in moderately priced hotels. This can be increased to almost 100% by paying just a few dollars more per person (and finding another hotel).

Travellers on starvation budgets will appreciate Guatemala’s numerous hospedajes. These basic inns can be found in every city and village. In fact, they may be the only lodging available at any price once you venture off the beaten track. In highland Nebaj, for example, our group enjoyed large stuffy rooms in the best place in town, the Hotel Ixil, for about $3 per person. Several rooms (with several beds each) shared two single-seat toilets and one icy shower (no waiting). Though my pillow seemed to be stuffed with corn cobs, the sheets were clean and several coarse wool blankets did an admirable job of warding off the chill night air. Comfortable or not, there’s nothing like the creak of rusty bedsprings, the tang of woodsmoke and the distant clop of horse’s hooves to stir my imagination.


Hotel Tips

• Lorena strongly recommends a hot water bottle for trips to Guatemala’s highlands. If the hotel or hospedaje doesn’t have water hot enough to warm your bones, take your water bottle to the nearest restaurant for a fill-up. (We also carry very light, very compact sleeping bags, long underwear, a wool watchcap, a synthetic fleece jacket and warm socks.)

• Don’t pinch pennies too hard. There is a risk of going beyond the point of diminishing returns when it comes to economizing on a hotel room. Unless you’re really broke, why pay one or two dollars for a cheerless, cell-like room when much nicer lodging is available across the street for just $5? Although relatively small differences in price mean a great deal to many Guatemalans, budget travellers will benefit by taking the time to investigate at least two or three hotels before making a choice.

• Carry a small, strong combination lock. Cheap hotel rooms are secured with cheap, toy-like Chinese padlocks. They not only don’t provide much protection but it’s very easy to lose the key. Also, there’s usually just one key per lock, even if two or more people share a room. With a combination lock, everyone in your party will have access to the room.

• Don’t leave valuables laying around, even if you do use your own lock. Carry your money and documents on your person, in a concealed money belt (not a neck pouch), at all times. I worry less about Guatemalan thieves than I do other travellers of doubtful honesty.

from The Peoples Guide Travel Letter #3

La Ruta Maya
Getting There

©1972-2002 by Carl Franz & Lorena Havens