When we finally crossed into Guatemala, we had to pay a few bucks for some sort of mandatory agricultural spray on the underside of the vehicle. They must have been accustomed to all southward travelers only paying in Pesos, and were totally unprepared when we paid in their local currency of Quetzales – and it took them several minutes to return with change! It was quite depressing to see all of the wooden vendor stalls standing empty: a testament to truly how few people cross the border at this town. I also got to witness firsthand the underfunded Guatemalan military, seeing several troops piled into a tuk-tuk taxi for transport.
So far on this trip the most stressful parts have been border crossings. So with this final stressor complete, we continued our drive south into Guatemala. After driving for 20 minutes or so, we pulled over at a little roadside store in a village to grab an ice-cold beverage. We had a nice chat with some of the locals who wanted to learn more about the two strangers in a strange vehicle. One of the main topics of discussion was also the result of a recent presidential election in the country.
Gallo, the national beer of Guatemala
The main highway through northwestern Guatemala.
One thing Cyril noticed immediately was the Guatemalans’ recent adoption of the Mexican tradition of placing huge topes in urban areas to slow down traffic. He said that in previous years, these didn’t exist. We made it most of the way to our intended destination – Isla Flores in the heart of the Petén, just as the sun set. We drove the last 45 minutes or so in the dark, and we saw many examples of the dangers that exist on these roads after the sun goes down. Not to mention the hoards of pedestrians, there were also scores of tuk-tuk taxis and vehicles with dim or no taillights. One tactic to spot these vehicles at night is to look for the faint headlights in front of a dark object, in order not to rear-end these road hazards.
Local transport vehicle, with happy passengers.
Full moon rising at sunset.
Local transport vehicle at night with no taillights.
Tuk-tuks & topes.
Upon entry into the main urban area, we met up with one of Cyril’s buddies, Javier, who is the director of a national park in the region. We parked the 110 in the gated yard around his house, and then he gave us a ride to a hotel on the island of Flores. Safe street parking on Flores was not much of an option, but was a great community to walk around: cobblestone streets & historic buildings filled with restaurants, bars & shops drew in tourists from all over. This was a great opportunity to catch up with a few of Cyril’s friends and enjoy a few drinks, including several cuba libres. A strong tropical storm rolled through that evening, so we quickly ran down the narrow streets looking for awnings or any other way to stay dry.
Be sure to order “una Gallo” and not “un gallo,” as the results might not be the same!
Javier, director of a national park in Guatemala.
A little rum to sip on after dinner.
Cyril, not so sure about the rum.
Streets of Isla Flores.
Una cuba libre.
Cyril & his friend Berny, one of the guys who discovered the murals of San Bartolo.
I had been astonished by the sudden influx of tuk-tuks, which in Mexico I had only seen close to the Guatemala border. The next morning I finally had my chance to ride in one. Spending just a few minutes as a passenger in the backseat, I thought of the story I had read in Overland Journal about an enterprising young lady who drove one all over the Himalayas as her overlanding vehicle platform of choice. I much rather would have chosen a more suitable Toyota pickup platform, like we saw all over the place.
Tuk-tuk taxi ride.
Toyota pickup & 70 series Land Cruiser pickup – common in Guatemala.
After resupplying on food & beverage for the final leg of our journey, we made a quick stop off at an area called Remate on Lago Petén Itzá. A palapa made a nice temporary basecamp for a swim in the lake before continuing our drive south. I later found out that there are crocodiles in this lake, but thankfully we did not encounter any while in the water! Recent heavy rains had caused the lake to rise a few feet, leaving one of the piers to be fully submersed.
Remate, Lago Petén Itzá
Duck, chicken, & turkey (look out for John Madden & his turkucken recipe!).
The last Mayan site we wanted to visit was Quiriguá, which is home to some of the tallest stelae in the world. The main highway south took us through several small towns, and at times right through their main markets. Arriving after dark (against all attempts not to), we politely asked the night guards if they would allow us to park & sleep in the truck, inside the gated parking lot. Thankfully they allowed us to do so.
Highway turned into downtown market.
Making guacamole on the sink-nested cutting board, custom built by Adventure Trailers.
Seeing some of these towering stone sculptures at night was quite impressive, especially with lightning bugs dimly flashing everywhere, including high up in the trees. We managed able to get an early start walking around the ruins the next morning, and were the only tourists there. Some of these rock effigies depict rulers with small goatee beards similar to Egyptian pharaohs, which is rather different than what is has been found at other Mayan sites.
Attempt at photographing lightning bugs at night, sans tripod.
Ceiba, national tree of Guatemala.
Banana plantation next to the Mayan ruins, where they ship green bananas directly to grocery stores in the U.S.!
Jeep two track? No, just lazy footprints in the morning dew.
Remembering back to my white-knuckle navigation of the traffic around Guadalajara, I realized it was but a preparation for what I would encounter driving through Guatemala City. It wasn’t until I flew out on an airplane a few days later that I could fully see the crazy terrain that this capital city was built upon – canyons & valleys everywhere! Urban vehicular adventure complete, our drive up & over a steep mountain pass brought us into the tranquil town of Antigua.
Rooftop in Antigua.
As a UNESCO world heritage site, this pueblo retains only cobblestone streets, and all buildings must adhere to stringent requirements in order to keep that old colonial look. Honestly, it’s hard to walk around the streets here and not want to take photos. For many years now, it has drawn travelers from all over the world – not only as tourists, but also for those desiring to take Spanish language courses.
Vendors in the town square.
Cyril, looking dubious about the brand name of alcohol served here: Ilegal Mezcal.
When walking around in the evening, we spotted a few parked pinnacle overland vehicles: another Defender 110, and a Nissan Patrol towing an Outlander trailer. The downtown area is full of little cafes, bars, and restaurants. When not full of vendors, the town square with a fountain & park benches is a good place to relax. I noticed some of the most interesting motorcycle & handicap parking signs (inlaid tiles in the sidewalks). Even the alto signs are made of painted ceramic tiles framed in wrought iron.
Expedition rigs spotted in downtown Antigua.
Decorative ‘One Way’ and ‘Stop’ signs.
Decorative but inconspicuous ‘Motorcycle’ and ‘Handicap’ parking signs.
Keeping consistent with the Argentine theme of drinking yerba mate, we started out the asado with chorizo, a staple Argentine sausage. Both evenings we were treated to colorful sunsets. And after a few days of cloudy skies, I lucked out with a good glimpse of the three volcanoes that surround Antigua (one of them still active, which you can see with occasional puffs of smoke billowing from the top).
Chorizo en el asado.
Nelson, Cyril’s German Shepherd.
Clear view of the three volcanoes surrounding Antigua – one of them still active (as seen by the puff of smoke).
Now that the Defender 110 is safely delivered back to its home in Guatemala, I’ll be sad to not see it around the streets of Prescott anymore. But at least it will continue on with more overlanding adventures to the jungles & beaches of Central America.
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