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(>Pictures at the bottom!)
Introductory part on Central America; see Part 1
….Guatemala – Belize – south-eastern part Mexico
Crossing the border into Guatemala was easy in retrospect, but when you’re standing at the counter and the customs officer asks for copies again, you soon wonder where all those paper documents go. Chantal had once again taken precautions and was always able to pull the desired copy out of the goody bag. After a stern look at our car by the official, the barrier opened and we could finally continue our journey on the Panamericana.
After the countless kilometres we had travelled in Central America, the Guatemalan traffic had no big surprises in store for us. So we moved very quickly to our first overnight stop on a ranch, where presumably only the better-off can go and enjoy a refreshing dip in the pool. We also enjoyed the freshness of the already somewhat warmer water and the cool beer at the bar.
Chantal and I once again chose the middle way of the routes suggested in the roadbook and experienced a few surprises on this Sunday: Somewhere in a small town, south of Guatemala City, the through road was immediately closed for the Sunday market and we were diverted by the police through the narrowest streets. If our jeep had been a bit bigger, we would literally have got stuck at some house corner.
In the evening we reached “Antigua Guatemala”, a very beautiful small town surrounded by extinct as well as a very active volcano. In the evening, the “Vulcán de Fuego” often shone like a candle into the night and enchanted the dark sky with a red glow. (The “Fuego Volcano” erupted again on 5 May 2023 and many residents in the vicinity had to be evacuated). Antigua itself is a town where time probably stopped after the Spanish and, apart from the car traffic, it still looks today as if the Spanish occupiers had just left.
Our journey took us down towards the Caribbean again. We turned one day into two days of driving and avoided the busy main connection to the Caribbean. We wanted to leave “Guatemala City” on the left, but a driving or navigation error led us unintentionally into the traffic jam of this big city. Somehow we found the right way out onto the country road and calmer traffic conditions.
The following day we had a completely new experience; on the side road, or was it more of a path, to “Río Dulce”, children were blocking the road with ropes and wanted some kind of obolus from us. At first we understood the situation as a game, but for them it was quite clear that we had to pay them something. Only later did we realise that we were driving through an indigenous area, and the police, who are usually omnipresent everywhere, were nowhere to be found here. In any case, we were glad to have reached “Río Dulce” and the protective place to spend the night in the marina.
Above as well as below the marina, the river “Río Dulce” spreads out into a larger and smaller lake, before the river winds its way through a mountain range towards the Caribbean. For our group, a relaxed boat tour was on the agenda, although one of the boat crews had to change to another boat halfway through, as the outboard motor no longer wanted to go properly. Unfortunately, this tour didn’t quite make it down to the Caribbean Sea, as our tour guide had other plans and we had to turn around 30 minutes before the fresh sea breeze.
Our way led us north again and due to no alternative than the main connection, we also had to use this busy road in the first part. It goes without saying that a traffic accident and the corresponding chaotic traffic jam completely disrupted our schedule. Instead, we later chose a more direct route to the Mayan ruins of “Yaxhá”. These ruins are only partially uncovered and only with a lot of imagination could we laymen recognise anything under the mounds of earth.
After so many stones from the past, we allowed ourselves a day of rest at the “Laguna de Yaxhá”, while the other group members drove to the ruins of “Tikal” the same evening to visit this site the next morning before the big tourist rush. We may have missed something, but we enjoyed the day at the lake with a beautiful sunset and cosy warmth.
From this north-eastern corner of Guatemala, the only way to enter Mexico is via Belize. Surprisingly, this border crossing was one of the easiest in all of Central America and we were able to take out the necessary insurance for the car at the border. We were already standing in the only English-speaking country in Central America and were surprised at first by their cleanliness. Where in other countries there were whole rubbish dumps on the roadsides or around the houses, in this country it was very orderly.
A short swim at the “Blue Holes” lowered our body temperature a little and refreshed, we headed for our first overnight stop in Belize. The camping infrastructure in this country is almost non-existent and so we stood on the grass at a restaurant. If you let the host feed you, you could spend the following night for free. The food was very tasty, the subsequent drink at the mobile homes lasted well into the night and hardly had we crawled under the warm blanket when the first morning trucks rattled past.
“Belize City” is supposed to be a beautiful city on the Caribbean? We were disappointed by all the trappings and the ravages of time are gnawing away at the old buildings of this city, which immediately put us off another visit. Maybe it was once a beautiful pearl of the South Seas, but here the local population would have to do a lot more than just stroll through the streets and motivate the tourists for some excursions.
Unfortunately, we had to skip all the reefs that lie out in the Caribbean and invite snorkelling; the roadbook set our pace and the next adventure in Mexico was within reach. So we roamed the flat landscape of “Belize City” at lightning speed. Maybe the treasures really are out in the sea. The inland route to the Mexican border had no special features or beauty to offer.
So a short time later we were already at the border to Mexico and were surprised to see that here too there was a lot of bureaucracy for crossing the border. We also had to deposit $800 here at the border for our jeep, as our jeep is neither a normal car nor a camper. And last but not least, the border official cut our stay from the possible 6 months to 60 days. Maybe we made an inappropriate remark at the wrong moment and it happened!
After the “sniffing” by the drug dog, nothing stood in the way of our continuing our journey to the south-eastern provinces of Mexico. Geographically, these provinces are still in Central America; the other provinces west of the approximate line “Coatzacoalcos – Salina Cruz” are on the North American continental plate.
What already began in Nicaragua and Guatemala with the Mayan ruins continued with great intensity on the “Yucatán” peninsula. Everywhere there was something to marvel at and admire. After the Mayas, the Aztecs were also very present before the arrival of the Spaniards and left an extremely strong mark on the past. It is no secret that the Spaniards were not particularly squeamish with the indigenous population, and diseases brought in from Europe wiped out almost the entire indigenous population; the rest made it by the sword or slave labour.
After the many historical sites, the increasing heat got to us more and more. It was up to 40°C during the day and in the evening there was often no refreshing breeze. We tossed and turned in our narrow beds for nights on end, always hoping for a refreshing breeze. So we increasingly sought out the refreshing “cenotes”, actual limestone eruptions into deeper and underground water rivers. We dispensed with various guided tours of any Mayan site and preferred to enjoy the underworld. The refreshment in these bathing pools was always a special experience. The highlight we experienced was a walk through a long cave system, where we swam and wandered from one chamber to the next.
With so much heat, a pleasant swim in the Caribbean would also have been an alternative. But already the algae deposits on the beaches as well as the algae carpets in the sea spoiled the jump into the refreshing sea. The Mexicans believe that this algae plague originates in the Amazon basin; intensive agriculture with the large use of fertilisers is mainly responsible for the algae growth in the Caribbean. The ocean currents and the warm sea water favour this development and have already disfigured many parts of the western coastal region of the “Yucatán” peninsula with huge algae accumulations.
We skipped the holiday destination of the “Yanks” (“Cancún”) and crossed the peninsula in a westerly direction from “Playa del Carmen”. On the west side, a large flamingo colony was waiting for our visit. We were taken from the campsite to the jetty by tuck-trucks, and as soon as we left, the boatman told us that there were only a few flamingos due to the season. Nevertheless, a boat trip is always great and the fresh breeze on the lagoon was not to be underestimated.
We continued to follow the Gulf of Mexico through wide plains in the hinterland and wonderful light shows over the Gulf. After Ciudad del Carmen, we drove through these wide plains, which are mostly cultivated by large landowners with huge herds of cattle, towards the first large mountain range and Palenque. In the national park of “Palenque” there is a huge Maya site, only a small part of which has been uncovered today. However, these excavations revealed unexpectedly large treasures as well as burial chambers. The site was certainly worth seeing, and the subsequent swim in the pool gave us all the cooling we needed in this tropical region, accompanied by the roar of howler monkeys.
The onward journey to “San Cristóbal de las Casas” was quickly cancelled by the tour guide because highwaymen were responsible for several robberies on the access road and the German Foreign Office immediately issued an urgent travel warning. Well, when you are travelling with a German organisation, something like that can happen relatively quickly!
So we – Chantal and I – drove through the foothills again towards the “Gulf of Mexico” and north of “Villahermosa” we followed a “shore path” in a westerly direction. As this was not an official road, we had to pay several times at the respective customs offices of the indigenous people. Whether they only collect and do nothing for the road maintenance was always a long discussion among us. After a towing exercise by another “Panamerican” couple, there was a swim in the sea and a night with the sound of the sea far away from any civilisation, and – many blackflies that stung Chantal x-hundred times.
On our way, we made a short detour through “La Venta”, where the “Olmecs” had their religious centre until after 400 AD and erected oversized heads all over the area. Very little is actually known about this culture and they can hardly be considered a pre-Mayan culture because of the large gap in time.
We continued our journey westwards over wide plains along countless pineapple cultures towards “Tuxtepec”. We wanted to go into the mountains, where the temperatures should be much more pleasant. No sooner had we taken this route than we had left Central America and were already moving onto the North American continent.
Yes, we were moving forward on the “Panamericana”!
Chantal & Tom/May 2023
>Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator