I am not a professional traveler, I don’t get paid or comped to go on adventures, and for the last 15 years I’ve had the standard 10 days of PTO per year with a scattering of holidays (but, like one-day holidays, not 6 or 12 weeks off in the summer or two week fall/spring/Christmas breaks). When I go exploring I am always conscious of how much paid time off I can afford to use. I am really lucky right now in that I have the salary and savings habits to finance my adventures and the money to pay a little extra to save some time. I’ll take the taxi or Lyft instead of wait for a local bus; I will take a short flight to save me 10 hours of driving; and I will opt for the more expensive express ferry/train/whatever instead of stopping ninety-million times on the other version. I’m not rich by any means, but I do have a little more money than I have time I can be away from the office, and I plan my vacations accordingly.
When I was researching and planning our recent trip to Belize and Guatemala I wanted to be conscious of our budget and, if possible, save our spending for adventures like SCUBA diving instead of transportation. (This was super forward thinking of me, our three days of SCUBA was some of the best adventuring Mr. Blue Eyes and I have ever done together!) In looking at the best way to get from Belize to north-eastern Guatemala to visit Tikal I was met with a couple of options: take a short 45-minute flight to Flores, Guatemala for $300+ per person, no thank you; take the 12-14+ hour local bus for about $12 per person, but also, no thank you; take a “Modern, air conditioned, luxury bus with free WiFi, bathrooms, and TVs” for $30 per person with a total trip time of four hours. Perfect.
I booked the bus and then booked transportation from our AirBnB on Caye Caulker to the bus terminal in Belize City, and arranged for our Guatemala hotel to pick us up at the bus terminal in Flores, Guatemala. Before we left for our Caribbean and Central American adventure I reconfirmed all our transportation, printed out all the confirmation documents in triplicate, just in case. And then I patted myself on the back for saving a pile of money, allowing us some WiFi’d, air conditioned decompression time where we could catch up on email or social media, I could even edit and post some of our photos from Belize! Mr. Blue Eyes could watch one of his shows! In a comfortable AIR CONDITIONED luxury bus!
Oh, dear Harriet, you cute naïve little thing.
Mr. Blue Eyes and I were picked up by our golf cart taxi on Caye Caulker at 8:30 am, caught the ferry to the Belize main land at 9:00 and arrived at the bus station by 10:00 am, perfect timing for our scheduled 10:30 am departure time. It was HELLA hot that day, like over 100 degrees plus 100% humidity. I actually was so miserable just from the open-air ferry ride that I changed from my cotton maxi dress into a knee-length t-shirt dress and I was STILL miserable.
It was at this point we were informed that there hadn’t been enough passengers for the morning bus, so they were putting us on a later one…uh…wut? I bought my ticket online after a dozen emails back and forth with the bus rep, didn’t they think it would have been appropriate to mention this YESTERDAY so we could have altered the rest of our travel plans!? But! I took a deep, muggy breath and decided to just be cool. (Um, I’m not cool. Like, hardly ever.)
We finally boarded the bus about noon and, erm, well, “luxury” must be a super fluid term. The bus was old, not anything I’d describe as “clean”, and the TVs were literally two 12” screens in the front and middle of the bus, all tricked out for a VHS tape with dangling connector cords. Ok, so, I wasn’t planning on watching TV anyway, and the bus didn’t smell, exactly, so, fine. The AC was cranking and after waiting at the terminal in the muggy heat for a few hours the bus felt delightful. The office manager from the bus company went through the bus making sure we all had our passports and the cash for the Belize exit tax ($20US or $40BZE). Finally, at 12:45 (2+ hours late), we finally pulled away from the bus terminal, about 20 passengers on a bus built for 60. We rambled through Belize City and out into the country, and for the first, oh, 30 minutes, everything was fine.
But then the AC stopped working, the bus was hot and muggy and struggling with the hilly landscape. As the engine got hotter it started to release diesel fumes into the cab of the bus. And then the pathetic excuse for a bathroom started to emit distinct shit smells. Like, not just “oh, smells like a poopy diaper is in this house” smells, but, like, an open-pit toilet in 100+ degree heat that is being sloshed around by an old janky bus.
I started to feel sick, I couldn’t read my book and was sweating through my clothes, my hair was damp and there was sweat trickling down the back of my knees. I changed seats a half-dozen times trying to find an AC vent, or get away from the diesel fumes and the shit smells. No such luck.
Aaaaaand there was no WiFi. When I asked about it the driver actually laughed at me. “Oh no, no, no, no WiFi on this bus.” Um, then why was it in all your brochures and on the big poster hanging in the window of the bus office in Belize!?
Trapped in a stinking tin can, crawling along winding country roads, no fresh air, running low on water, and HOURS left to go. The bus stopped a number of times to take on cargo of some kind, lots of cardboard boxes and bags piled in the front two rows of seats, and a few carefully hidden in the back. One stop included two machine-gun toting police/military/private army guys coming on the bus to rifle through the boxes, including the ones at the back…? I dunno. I just tried to keep my eyes down and my mouth shut.
We finally reached the Belize-Guatemala border and everyone exited the bus to walk through customs. For as carefully as the bus manager back in Belize City had ensured we all had our necessary documentation and tax fees to get across the border, there was PRECIOUS LITTLE DIRECTION at the actual border. I’m really glad a couple of fellow bus passengers pointed out the Guatemala Customs office to get our entry stamp, otherwise we’d have had a lot of trouble a few days later trying to leave the country.
Everyone finally got back on the Shit Bus and we headed west to Flores…another interminable ride smelling of broiled feces and diesel fumes, 100+ degrees temps and no AC. And no WiFi. To take my mind off the hellish experience I kept telling myself that our fancy resort in Guatemala would have a driver and car waiting for us in Flores, that we would be fiiiine, if a little smelly, and the resort showers/pool would be a little piece of heaven once we arrived. I had arranged this transportation directly with the hotel and they had specifically said to get off at the Flores bus terminal, so that was the plan I was sticking to. I had a toll-free number of the hotel that I knew could call if I ran into any problems. (False, US-based 1-800 numbers DO NOT WORK IN GUATEMALA! I know that now.)
We finally got to Flores, the Shit Bus company took one group to the bus station in Santa Elena and a few of us to Flores, I repeatedly said “I need to go to the bus terminal in Flores.” And in perfect English they kept telling me “There is no bus terminal in Flores. But we can arrange transportation for you.”
“Just come to our office in Flores and we’ll sort it out.” I figured I could call the hotel from their office and they’d come fetch us. You see where this is going, right? The ONLY number I had for our hotel didn’t work in Guatemala.
AND THERE WASN’T A LOCAL NUMBER ON THEIR WEBSITE! I looked. Several times. On the Shit Bus office guy’s phone.
I Googled. Several times. I emailed the hotel several times, no response, it was after normal business hours and I only had the one person’s contact information. It was getting late, I was hangry and stinky and sweaty and in no mood to be jerked around.
We finally ended up agreeing to have a taxi driver take us to our resort (uh, I only had the resort name, not the street address, which also wasn’t on their website or The Google, because #fancy). There was some bullshit currency conversion swindling on their part which I’m still legit pissed about; yes, I could have protested at the time, but Q7.33:$1USD is not an easy conversion to make under the best of circumstances, and while you’re angry, starving, sweating bullets, and feeling cornered AND stranded in a Shitty Bus company’s shitty office with no way to contact your lovely and carefully chosen hotel it’s damn near impossible.
So. Blue Eyes and I got in the sketch taxi with a driver who spoke zero English. We repeatedly said “La Lancha?” and he kept nodding, but who knows if there are multiple places called La Lancha, if there is a town called La Lancha, if it’s also the name of a restaurant or shopping collective? I knew from my emails with the hotel that we had about 50 minutes from “the bus terminal in Flores” to the resort….and I desperately hoped we were at least heading in the right direction. I’ll be honest, at this point I was a wreck and it’s entirely possible that I shed a few SUPER frustrated tears in the back seat of the taxi. Ugh. Even just thinking about it again makes me upset; I had done EVERYTHING I was supposed to do in order to guarantee a smooth travel experience, I was absolutely not prepared for feeling lost and vulnerable and being deliberately taken advantage of.
We started to drive around the lake…did I mention our lovely resort is located on the shores of Lake Petén Itzá? Well, it is. Soon the paved road became a gravel road, then a dirt road, then a SUPER rutted dirt road. It was getting dark and then it started to rain. Hard. There was intense, dark jungle on our right and what I hoped was still the lake on our left but it was too dark to tell.
I was white knuckling my camera and asked Blue Eyes if he thought we were going to be mugged. Or murdered. He said no, but, frankly, he wasn’t very convincing.
FINALLY, we arrived at the gates of La Lancha. We were greeted with cold hand towels that smelled of eucalyptus and indulgence, a plate of fresh fruit and cool cucumber water. I’m sure our taxi driver was waiting around for a tip, but after being scammed so much for the fare (I did the math to distract myself from jungle-murder nightmares) I didn’t even look back at him.
I explained the whole thing to the hotel manager, and would like a gold star for doing so in a polite, apologetic, and swear-free conversation. I gave him the print outs I had from his hotel confirming the location and with zero other means to contact in case of an emergency. I told him the bus company assured us there was NO bus terminal in Flores (which the manager only confirmed with “well, there isn’t, really, but there is a bus stop and that’s where our driver is still waiting for you…” It was sorted out in the end, La Lancha didn’t charge us for the driver that we didn’t end up using, and after a much needed bath in their glorious showers, a delicious dinner in the hotel’s open-air dining room, and dropping off a whole bag of stanky clothes to be laundered overnight*, Mr. Blue Eyes and I crashed in a giant king-sized bed with luxury linens picked out by Sophia Coppola** and a whirring air conditioner.
This is many many more words than I expected to write about this experience, to be honest. What I wanted to demonstrate is that I am not cut out to be a backpack traveler. Or, perhaps more accurately, I am not cut out to manage well in backpacker travel experiences (the Shit Bus, the super delayed schedule, the pre-arranged, distinctly NOT budget-traveler accommodations like a private chauffeur to our resort) combined with the timetable of a “I only have 5 days of PTO for this trip and I want to see as much as I can!”
We did not take the Shit Bus back to Belize, instead we flew back to the US after a few days in Guatemala and thankfully the rest of our travel plans went off without so much as a delayed flight.
*Two dresses, five or six shirts and several pairs of shorts laundered and returned smelling so INCREDIBLY fresh for a grand total of $8.76. Blue Eyes and I still talk about how wonderful and clean they smelled after the Guatemalan laundry got through with them!