The next stop on our “just-in-time” itinerary was Antigua in the southern highlands of the country. We researched the different options that are available to make this journey, and it quickly became clear that there really is only one viable (and very common) option and that is to take the overnight bus. Once we settled on this option, in favour of the vastly more expensive flying option, we had to decide which bus line to take.
There are a few options: Linea Dorado, Maya de Oro and ADN. These companies all operate large tour coaches, including double-decker behemoths more commonly seen on the highways of Europe than Central America. All also offer what is called luxury (or VIP), first class and regular seats on their buses. Their prices vary somewhat and in the end our selection was ultimately decided by the in-house travel agency at our hostel (Los Amigos) whom we decided to trust based on their excellent reviews on TripAdvisor. Los Amigos is affiliated with Maya do Oro and we booked two VIP seats for Q330 each (Q = quetzales, Q330 = US$42) and hoped for the best. Our journey would take place in two separate trips: the first portion from Flores to the dead scary Guatemala City in the big bus, followed by a transfer from Guatemala City to Antigua in a minibus.
We read that the bus gets very cold overnight, but that the VIP seats recline all the way (and turns into a bed) and that each VIP passenger is given a blanket, a sandwich and a bottle of water. All sounded good to us, and we figured wearing long pants, and bringing a sweater for the ride would have us well prepared for the overnight journey. But, as we often told people as we were getting ready for this journey, the adventure lies in the unknown and expecting to have the unexpected taking a swing at you every now and again. Our ability to roll with the punches was about to be tested.
At about 7PM as we were getting ready for our 9PM departure, I went over to the travel agent to confirm our taxi pick-up from the hostel to take us to the Flores bus station. He proceeded to inform me that he just got off the phone with the bus line, and apparently they had just told him that their double-decker bus (the only one with VIP seats) broke down that morning and that we would have to downgrade to first class tickets. First class seats don’t recline any more than a typical short haul airliner seat, but everything else is exactly the same as the VIP bus, including having an on-board bathroom. At first we were a little bummed about this and considered staying in Flores that night and buying tickets on a different bus line for the following night, but ultimately decided that first class didn’t sound that bad, and besides we’d get a Q120 refund for the down-grade, not a bad thing for two budget oriented travellers.
When the taxi arrived promptly at 8PM to collect us our spirits lifted and we felt that the trip would go just fine. The taxi delivered us to the Santa Elena bus terminal where he told us to take the red “Maya de Oro” bus when it arrives, followed by our instructions for arrival in Guatemala City (aka Guate – accent on the ‘e’): “Don’t accept a ride from anybody at the bus station, ignore everybody and wait for a driver with a clipboard to call out your name. Then follow the driver to his minibus, get in, hand him this ticket, and he’ll take you to Antigua. Oh, and this driver may be there when the bus arrives in Guate or you may have to wait up to an hour – the traffic in Guate is a little unpredictable. Here’s a number to call if he doesn’t show up – but only use in an emergency. And remember to ignore everybody at the bus station”. After issuing this set of instructions the taxi driver disappeared and we found ourselves sticking out conspicuously and super gringo-like in a mega crowded bus terminal. Only after the local dude sitting next to me starting updating his Facebook status on his smartphone did I start relaxing (Mark Zuckerberg will be so pleased to know that Facebook appears to be at least as popular in Guatemala as in Canada). After about 20 minutes of waiting, a mostly red bus pulled up and almost immediately the entire waiting room got up and made for the door. We figured this was our cue, and hoped very hard that our seats were assigned and that people would respect those assignments; we really didn’t feel like starting an argument with the locals. We handed our backpacks to the conductor who loaded them into the luggage hold underneath the bus, and got in line to board the bus. Watching a security guard pat the passengers down and doing a quick scan through their bags made me remember that Guatemala is one of the most highly armed countries in the world with well over 60% of the population packing heat. I put this thought out of my mind but my subconscious made a little note to try to stay awake during the night.
Our seats were indeed assigned and nobody sat in them, which was a great relief – they were also right at the front, just to the right and behind the driver. Great seats, I thought, as we sat down and decided to try and settle in and relax. After everybody was on board the driver and his co-driver started walking through the bus, looking really stern, and it was at this point that I realized that the driver’s area is completely isolated from the rest of the bus, connected only by a door which had a sign on it that read that no passenger shall talk to, or in any other way try to engage the driver. Not long after this the two drivers locked themselves away from the rest of us. At this point Bev and I began wondering if we shouldn’t rather just’ve have gone camping somewhere in British Columbia for the weekend instead of traveling around the world. Little did we know that our fellow passengers would be the least of our worries.
Not long after we pulled away from the station the driver pulled out his cell phone for the first time (remember, we had those “great” seats right behind the driver’s area, with a perfect view of the driver and his dashboard). Bev and I convinced each other that he was just making a quick call to check on any last minute route information, but alas this was not the case. I watched him make call after call, scrolling through his address book, while steering this huge hunk of metal around the precarious Guatemalan mountain roads. At about 11PM I thought for the first time that I hope the driver had a good sleep and was fresh for his over night duties. Well, I needn’t have worried about this, because not long after this comforting thought crossed my way too busy mind, the driver reached around in his cab and brought into view his first can of Red Bull. Now he was drinking Red Bull and speaking on the phone while driving. I decided that I needed to stop looking at the driver and turned my mind to whether there was actually a bathroom on the bus.
I walked to the back of the bus and found the bathroom, which had a sign on it that read: “Solo mujeres!” (Women only). Well, this wasn’t going to be a problem for me, and I tried to open the door, only to discover that it wouldn’t open! This had me freaking out just a little bit, as there was no way I would be able to go 8 hours without a bathroom break. I went back to my seat, and luckily, not long after this the co-driver left the cab to find a seat in the back of the bus which gave me an opportunity to ask him about the bathroom. He told me to just pull the door really hard. I went back and tried it, and with a serious amount of force the door popped open. Phew.
Now the bigger issue was that my mind was back on the driver again – why was the co-driver sitting in the back of the bus? Shouldn’t he be keeping the driver company (and awake)? I once again decided it was time to try and get some sleep and hope that when I woke up we’d magically be in Gaute. Well, I did wake up…a few hours later when the bus pulled into the single biggest gas station I’ve ever seen. Here they filled up the bus and switched drivers. I sighed a major sigh of relief – the Red Bull swilling, cell phone using, sleepy looking driver was being replaced. And we were halfway there, and still alive. There was a working toilet onboard, we had food – all was well. I could go to sleep, secure in the knowledge that everything was going to be just fine.
I watched the new driver pull out of the gas station back onto the highway…and he started fiddling with the stereo. My mind was back in overdrive about how irresponsible these drivers are and in an effort to retain my fast fading state of calm I once again decided to close my eyes and try to sleep. It was at this point that I saw the driver laugh (presumably at something on the radio, but who knows). It looked rather maniacal to me in my tired and jumpy state.
After a little chit chat with myself I did get some sleep, only to wake up a short while later as the G-force on my body started approaching space shuttle launch levels. I looked back at the driver and all I saw was a man laughing out loudly to himself while wrestling a large and speeding, none too road-hugging, bus (last maintained who knows when) around what seemed to be 90 degree curves on narrow and intense mountain roads. I also needed the bathroom. I decided to risk my life getting out of my seat to do that, and I smiled to myself that the airlines were way too timid in their “fasten seat belts” regulations. Well, I did make it to the bathroom and I was successful in doing what I needed to do, but believe me when I tell you that it required all my strength not to fall over in there as the bus careened around the bends in the road. It was simply unbelievable. It was an amusement park ride without any safety restraints. And all the while I was pretty much sure that the driver was insane and that there was no good reason to think that the bus and the driver could remain on the road.
I wrestled my way back to the front of the bus to find Bev (who had done a way better job of sleeping than me) awake and shivering. Suddenly the air-conditioning had gone into hyper-drive, and it became cold, very cold. By the way, the first class seats did not come with that blanket, sandwich or water that the VIP seats are reputed to offer.
We just looked at each other, decided to hold tightly on to each other, laughed a little maniacally ourselves and got back to sleep. When we awoke again, we realized that somehow we made it to the outskirts of Guate. The bus made its way around what seemed to be a million corners, at way more responsible speeds, and we finally pulled into a most decrepit looking bus terminal. At this point we were so relieved to have survived the bus ride that we would’ve gotten off anywhere. We flew off the bus without hesitation, grabbed our backpacks and happily ignored all the offers of rides to just about anywhere in Guatemala.
We were quickly spotted by another backpacker who joined us and we suddenly felt a little more formidable in this city of ill repute. We waited for our official ride and started chatting with Natalia from Poland. She soon divulged that she had never been more scared in her life than she had just been during the bus ride. She is a travel agent who took this same bus only a few months earlier and she told us that our bus arrived in Guate a full hour earlier than the previous time she took it. The only conclusion I can make that seems to fit with our experience is that our drivers drove like bats out of hell. Adding in the maniacal laughter and it all seems to fit pretty well.
Since we arrived in Guate an hour early (at 5AM) we ended up waiting an hour for our minibus to Antigua. The wait went by quickly and without incident. The 2+ hour ride in the minibus to Antigua was significantly more relaxed and we really enjoyed the trip through Guate – a large and very diverse city.
We arrived safely in Antigua at about 9AM and checked into a wonderful hostel called Hostal Holistico. More in our next blog update!