There are ‘rules’ for safe travel in Central America and I am about to be challenged by several of them. I am in Quiché, and flying out of Guatemala City in a couple of days. The conservative approach might be to head for the supposed safety of Antigua and book a tourist shuttle directly to the airport for the morning of my departure. Or I could travel to Guate the day before and stay somewhere near the airport. But I am happy and entertained here in Quiché and want to spend all my remaining time here. So I stay, and leave my travel for the last possible time. This means that I will be traveling by public transport to Guate the morning I am to fly home.
Normally I would allow plenty of time for traffic uncertainties as missing the flight would be a major problem, but to do that I would have to be on the camioneta at 4 or 5 am. In the dark. This is a clear rule – something one ought not to do. In general, do not travel in Guatemala at night. Especially on public transport. Especially not if you are a woman traveling alone. Especially not if you have much ‘stuff’ with you. And yes, by now, at the end of my six weeks in Guatemala, I have ‘stuff’.As hard as I try not to accumulate much, the textiles of Guatemala are fabulous, and I have caved too many times. Partly I love the textiles and will enjoy appreciating them close up and long term. Partly the indigenous women selling them need my quetzales more than I do and I want to do some directed reallocation. Half way through my time here I had to buy an extra bag to carry all the bits I’d acquired, so now I have a backpack, a daypack and a fabric bag in arms.
On my arrival home I find that my total load had grown to 55 lbs. Well, it is like babies – they grow gradually and one builds strength from carrying them around, bit by bit, never noticing the steady change.
After consideration of the options, the decision is to go for the 6 am bus. It will be starting to get light. There will be time enough if there are no major problems, and rule breaking is mostly avoided. So in the morning, as it is not really light yet, I persuade the morning clerk in the hotel to accompany me the two blocks to the bus terminal. He unlocks the iron security gate and relocks it behind us. Another broken rule averted. I am not walking alone in the dark with my bags.
Starting to Guate from Quiché turns out to be a bit of unintended wisdom. Because this is the beginning of this route, the bus is near empty when I board and I get a seat in the front. There is room for my main pack (in its boring mud-colored rain cover) in the rack above. My daypack is beside me, and my extra bag is under the seat at my feet. Another rule checked off – keep your possessions within your control.
The drive is – uh – interesting. The road is fog bound and full of hairpin turns. The driver makes cell phone calls while he hurtles through the tight turns. Occasionally, in anticipation of an especially sharp turn, he reaches for the ledge of his window to hold himself in his seat. When I see him do this, I hold the bar in front of me as well. The oddest thing of it all is that I feel not the least concern at any of this. I can see that he knows every inch of this route and feel safe as safe. Probably it helps that I never get carsick and am a bit of an adrenalin junkie, though I can’t say my adrenalin system is ever triggered by this drive.
Three and half hours later I unload from the bus and immediately a taxi driver wants my business. His manner of negotiating is offensive, playing on the supposedly helpless older solo female turista. But I am prepared. The ‘rule’ is that one should never flag down a taxi on the street in Guate, that you should call one of the taxi companies to send someone to pick you up. But I have no phone and only if instinct tells me that it is the only safe choice will I resort to this.
I know a few important things – about how long the ride to the airport should take and more or less what the cost should be. I also know that there are both marked and unmarked white taxis in Guate. I look at the car of the man who has approached me – it is unmarked. Uh no. I walk away from him without any further discussion.
I see several marked white taxis nearby, choose one and walk up to talk to the driver. We negotiate our price, I get a good, safe, reliable ride directly to the airport where the driver gives me his card for the next time I am in town. This is how the locals do it – they call their favorite drivers.
The day has gone perfectly, and it will continue the same way.
A great end to a great trip.
Read up on the latest scams in the area where you will be traveling. Ideas come and go. Knowing what is currently being tried will hone your radar.
Turn up your radar if someone suggests sharing a ride in a taxi. Shared taxi rides have been the setup for some of the serious kidnapping-type robberies. You have just arrived by plane in the country, you are carrying all your valuables on you probably including a fair stash of cash. You are tired and maybe feeling a little lost. Whatever you might save by sharing will be negated if you find yourself on the edge of town barefoot and completely broke. Think carefully about whether this ‘new friend’ is on the level. Is the taxi he ushers you to driven by someone he seems to know?
Addendum: If a pregnant lady chats you up then a car arrives and she and her friend offer to drop you off, don’t get in. This is currently scam numero uno in Nicaragua (and catching on elsewhere in Central America).
Learn what routes are considered relatively safe and which are not. The maps in my guidebook have pink highlighter on routes considered questionable. Get current local information when you are headed toward these areas.
Readers encouraged to add to this listing in comments.