After a whirlwind 72 hours last week that saw me leave home with my prized Jeep and return empty-handed, I figured the story deserved it’s own kind of post. So… welcome to my Belize-trip running diary! And yes, if you’ve ever read any of Bill Simmons’ running diaries over at Grantland.com, I’m not ashamed to say I totally “borrowed” the format from him. At the very least, I hope this gimmick makes for more interesting storytelling, as I’ll narrate it exactly as the event unfolded. On with the diary:
February 6, 2013 – The Cannonball Run
8:01 a.m: I finally load the last of my bags onto my Jeep and say goodbye to the family. Wife is so pissed that I’ve refused she go on the trip, it takes some nudging before she grudgingly says goodbye. I asked her for understanding, as I did not want to drag the family for the sake of saving time and money. She doesn’t quite buy it, but resigns herself to stay home on this go-round. Little did my family know that it would be the last time they’d see the vehicle we affectionately called “Mister Boxy”.
8:10 a.m.: Stopped for gas at the local station. I did not want to totally fill-up the car, as cheap gas here is of dubious quality. The nearest Shell gas station with “V-Power” gas is on the Pan-Am Highway, just as one enters it from the road coming from Antigua.
From experience, I now only trust Shell V-Power gas to not mess up the electronic sensors in my car. Any cars I drive from here on out in Central America and beyond, they’ll get the good stuff. Who knew I would turn into a “gas snob” this late in life? The gas station attendants check my tires’ air pressure (low), water level (a little low), and oil level (fine). I tip him 10Q after he’s done and twenty minutes later, I hit the road again.
8:37 a.m.: One last stop by Antigua’s Post Office to see if my Jeep’s new registration and license plate sticker have arrived (they hadn’t). Even though they’d been sent a week before, via Express mail, I later learned they didn’t arrive to Antigua until Saturday, the same day I was back in town from Belize. Boys and girls, DON’T EVER rely on important mail getting down here quickly, specially when you need it. Always add a two-week lead time in addition to the normal time you expect to get it otherwise. Or you can NOT BE a cheapskate like me and ask for delivery via DHL if it’s that important.
Bummed out, I head towards Belize with a scanned copy of my new registration, hoping it doesn’t cause any trouble at border-crossing time. I print the scanned PDF of my registration using the heaviest stock paper I can find, hoping it lends an air of “officialness” to it and hope for the best. Nothing I can do now but duke it out at the border if questioned.
9:22 a.m.: I finally arrive at the Shell Gas station. The bill comes up to 575.05Q and after a longer-than-usual wait for a pump to become available, I start to fret I won’t be able to make it to the border by 7p.m. It’s an 8-10 hour ride to the Peten Department and I’m in no mood for getting stopped by the Guatemalan Police for speeding.
There are too many unknown variables when one travels in Guatemala. Accidents that hold up traffic for hours. Often, groups that feel wronged by the government decide to block the main roads for hours to prove their displeasure, as the teacher’s union did the previous day, paralyzing traffic on the Periferico for 6 hours.
9:54 a.m.: I arrive at the Periferico, the main road that connects to the “Ruta al Atlantico” and that joins the country’s Pacific coast and Atlantic coast. Traffic is moving along fairly well, so I’m glad no strike has been planned for today.
10:02 a.m: I totally screw up at the fork on the road after crossing Incienso Bridge and go left, instead of right, which dumps me onto Zone 1 and the heart of Guatemala City. For someone new to Guatemala, this would’ve meant a two-hour delay, easy.
Guatemala is fairly confusing to drive around in. They lack easy overpasses and one must often have to drive miles just to find a “retorno“, or point of return. It’s like no-one at the transportation department has ever taken Civil Engineering 101 here. At the very least, you’d think the obvious move would be to place a sign saying “Zone 1 – Left, Ruta al Atlantico – Right” to at least give drivers a fighting chance.
Fortunately, I’m familiar with the layout of the city, having visited (and gotten lost in it) many, many times, so the delay is more annoying than a real schedule breaker.
10:09 a.m.: Having backtracked all the way to Roosevelt Avenue, I reenter the Periferico. Hey, at least I had a 50/50 chance of choosing the right fork on the road the first time around.
10:23 a.m.: I’m semi-slogging through traffic. Maybe because of nerves, I decide to buy some fried-plantain chips from a street vendor to at least have something to munch on while making note that I left my driveway almost two-and-a-half hours ago and I’ve yet to make it out of the city. The reason why I want to arrive before 7:00p.m. is because that’s the time the Belizean insurance office closes. It’s hit-or-miss whether you can find an agent after-hours, so I don’t want to run the risk of driving around without insurance.
10:35 a.m.: I dodge my first Police checkpoint as I exit Guatemala City. There’s definitely an art to this. You stay as far left to the side of the road and like a football running back behind the lead blocker (usually the biggest truck or chicken bus you find), push through without making eye contact with any of the soldiers/Police stationed on both sides of the road.
I’ve successfully avoided being pulled over for months, a feat considering I was driving a big SUV without a license plate in the front, as it’s required here. This is the biggest wildcard as far as time of travel, as each time I get pulled over could bring a round of questioning and a waste of at least 10 minutes of my time while Police checks my paperwork out. The Police and soldiers are always pleasant, so I’m not concerned about anything being out of order with my paperwork, just the time consuming nature of it all.
The scoreboard: Rich 1, Checkpoints 0
11:43 a.m.: I finally hit at a recognizable landmark when I arrive at the exit for Guastatoya, the capital of El Progreso department. Besides being unbearably hot, Guastatoya is known for their huge water-park, visible as soon as one enters town. If there’s a business more suited for this region than a water-park, I don’t know what that looks like.
11:55 a.m.: I arrive at the turn-off for the Coban region, home to Guatemala’s best natural wonder after Lake Atitlan, Semuc Champey. Champey has been on my list of places to visit for a long time. It’s another 4-5 hours from here, should one take the detour and head to Coban. Not today. I’m a man on a mission, determined to check myself and my Jeep out of Guatemala today.
12:42 p.m.: I drive by the exit to Zacapa, a hotbed of narco-activity. This is the place where you’ll see roadside stands selling cold grape juice. I’ve heard from a friend that Israelis taught the farmers of this region how to raise and tend to grapevines in the arid climate. I pull over and buy some grape juice, which is a bit fizzy and tastes like sparkling cider. At 10Q a bottle it’s a little pricey, but actually pretty good.
Before I arrive into town, a little Honda Civic hatchback hops on my tail and desperately wants to pass me. I’m moving at a good clip, but he insists on passing me even when big rigs are heading the other way. I slow down a bit and he zooms past me.
12:45 p.m.: I belly laugh when I drive past the Police checkpoint in Zacapa three minutes later. They’re too busy with a little Honda Hatchback to notice me as I drive on by.
The scoreboard: Rich 2, Checkpoints 0
1:55 p.m.: I drive past the turn-off for the Quirigua archaeological site, a UNESCO World Heritage site and home of the famous monument depicting the “End-of-the-World” Mayan calendar. If they didn’t cash in when they had the chance… let’s just say there won’t be a surge of visitors anytime in the foreseeable future.
Something slows down traffic ahead. Turns out someone is herding livestock, which I slowly drive past.
2:05 p.m.: Drive past the turnoff to Playa Dorada, a beach known in Guatemala for its peculiar golden sand. Another place on my “must-visit” list.
2:25 p.m.: I finally arrive at the Tikal turnoff, which leads to Rio Dulce and the Peten region. The road continues onward to Puerto Barrios, which I’ll revisit some time later. As of now, I’m heading towards Tikal.
2:54 p.m.: I arrive at the Shell gas station just before the Rio Dulce bridge. I take my first bathroom break and fill up my now half-empty gas tank for 300Q . I continue on past Rio Dulce, a haven for sailboaters and an area worth exploring.
3:35 p.m.: This is one checkpoint I would not be dodging. I get stopped by soldiers near the entrance to the Peten region. They check my paperwork, ask me where I’m going, and I’m allowed to continue on after about 10 minutes.
The scoreboard: Rich 2, Checkpoints 1
I asked the soldier at the checkpoint how far away I actually was from the turnoff to the Melchor de Mencos border. He mentions there is one just after Potpun, that I’m not too far off. I have no idea which turnoff he’s talking about, as I believe I have to reach Santa Elena first, two hours away.
3:50 p.m.: Another mandatory checkpoint. This time it’s an agricultural inspection which everyone has to go through. They’re trying to avoid any Mediterranean Flies, which affect fruits and vegetables, from entering the Peten region. They open the Jeep’s doors, take a peek and ask if I’m carrying any fruits. I say no, and a minute later I’m back on the road. This one doesn’t count for scoreboard purposes.
4:39 p.m.: I arrive at Potpun, which offers nothing remarkable, except for the chance to say pot-POON out loud for the next five minutes. I’d been driving for over 8 hours now, so maybe I was becoming a bit unhinged.
Another feature of pot-POON (say it, it’s fun!) is how the road winds it’s way around an airport runway in a big U-shape. I’m sure there was a reason for this odd configuration, but I fail to see it. I’m just glad it breaks up the monotony of the somewhat twisty roads I’ve been seeing for a few hours.
4:42 p.m.: Another checkpoint, this one heavily manned by armed soldiers on both sides. I try my Jedi mind-trick of not looking at anyone’s eyes, but focusing on a point ahead on the road juuuuust past the nearest soldier. Surprisingly, even though I can see with my peripheral vision that every single soldier is staring at me, I manage to travel the seemingly endless checkpoint at 10-mph without a single soldier pulling me over. I still don’t know how that actually happened.
The scoreboard: Rich 3, Checkpoints 1
4:59 p.m.: I reach the turnoff for Melchor de Mencos that the soldier was talking about. The road looks like something people from Alabama enjoy driving on when they go “muddin’” in their big, lifted-up 4×4 trucks outfitted with swamp-tires. I drive past the turnoff, eyes blinking with a frozen “holy $&@#” look on my face. ”There is NO WAY I have to drive through that, right?” I think to myself.
I spot a couple young guys sitting by a run down gas station and make a u-turn to confirm my suspicions that this can’t be the road I have to follow. I ask them if that indeed is the road to the border. They reply in the affirmative. One of them says this road is all “terraceria” or dirt road. Sure, the path is closer he says, but you’ll get there nearly as fast if you stay on this road and take the longer route.
Relieved, I press onward on pavement.
5:30 p.m.: I hit the Santa Elena turnoff, which is on the way to the border. It’s not looking like I’ll make it to Belize by 7 p.m. I decide there’s nothing I can do right now, but whatever I do my mission is to check out of Guatemala before the clock strikes midnight. I’ll deal with insurance later.
5:53 p.m.: I come to the split on the road for Tikal and the Melchor de Mencos border town.
6:02 p.m.: I hit the first batch of rough road, which inexplicably has yet to be fully paved and has been in this state for a long time. It’s not terribly long, although my main concern now is approaching darkness and how lonely the road seems to be. First time I’m genuinely concerned about the possibility of highway robbers.
6:16 p.m.: Dusk is now turning into night and I’m now positive I won’t make it across in time.
6:24 p.m.: Another checkpoint, this time I get pulled over. Soldiers check my paperwork. I ask how far away I am from the border, he replies I’m practically there.
The scoreboard: Rich 3, Checkpoints 2
6:35 p.m.: I finally make it to the border. I avoid the bridge-crossing fee, since there’s no one at the booth. I park my Jeep and rush to the Guatemala’s immigration desk. The official (a lady), notices that my passport is due that day. She calls the Supervisor over and both look at my passport disapprovingly. Even though I’m leaving the country on time, they make a show of writing my name and passport number on a piece of paper. Alrighty then… duly noted I see. Whatever helps them hold the proverbial hammer over one’s head I guess.
6:40 p.m.: Passport stamped, I head over to the Customs desk to check out the vehicle out of the country. The official looks at me and drops the bombshell. He tells me that the time limit for my permit is done. That in order to reenter the country with my vehicle, I must wait 90 days outside the country.
I. Am. Floored.
I did not foresee being unable to reenter the country at all. I’d planned to kick back in Belize for a few days, then head back to Guatemala. I plead and brainstorm with Customs officials, who tell me there’s no way the vehicle can reenter the country, even if I had a different passport to my name (after telling me it WAS possible just five minutes earlier).
I plead for probably 15 minutes, trying to figure out if there was any way I could come back in. “No,” they say “it’s a new law that just came out this year”. The official tells me I can only apply for a 90 day extension once, for a total of 180 days (6 months) before the vehicle is required to stay outside 90 days.
Later, another official tells me that the vehicle must stay 90 days out of the country for every 90 days spent inside the country. As is the usual pattern when it comes to Guatemala’s procedural affairs, one hand has no idea what the other one is doing. Or the official sitting next to the other.
The official, with a smirk on his face the whole time, tells me it’s about dinner time for him. He gets up, turns around and just leaves me there. I wait for three minutes dumbfounded, until I ask the other official next to him if there was anything I needed, like a receipt. He says no, paperwork’s done and I’m free to leave.
Half pissed, half in shock, I stumble away from Custom’s towards my car. I change some Guatemalan into Belizean Dollars with a money changer, who proceeds to rip me off (never change more than what’s needed for Immigration in Belize, withdraw the rest from an ATM).
7:02 p.m.: I lurch toward the Belize border without any idea what to do next. Should I drive my car back to the US? Hang back in Belize for 90 days? Where would I live even if I wanted to stay out here 90 days? At this point, I don’t think I fully understand my options. But that would have to wait.
Now it was time to deal with the dreaded Belizean Immigration and Customs Officers… again.