A grizzled bag lady lay sleeping by the entrance and a shopworn inebriated street walker with ‘viewing ports’ for her upper assets wobbled by on high heels. Standing on the sidewalk outside the Galgos Bus Line at mid-day in Guatemala City’s crusty Zone 1 is another side of life in Central America. To be fair, the Tica Bus terminal in Managua, Nicaragua is just as gritty. Be advised that bus terminals in Central America, as in most large cities anywhere, are invariably located in the older parts. Urban renewal is a foreign concept and the denizens of the dark are only worse-looking in day light.
Traveling carless in Central America is always a challenge. The choices don’t include air travel except between the major cities, which leaves buses, shuttles, taxis and the three-wheeled rattle-traps imported from India known as tuk-tuks. There are rental cars available, for the brave and the foolish: spend a few moments in traffic or on any of the roads except in El Salvador (with the best highways) and it becomes immediately clear that there’s a reason for the plastic Jesus on the dashboard.
Yes, there are roads, highways and signs: there’s also passing duels between the brightly painted ‘chicken buses’, usually involving blind uphill curves and the occasional mishap involving ‘pilot error’, a ditch and a rollover. The larger buses, aside from the premium lines such as Ticabus, Hedman-Alas and King, are typically recycled older Greyhound models, subject to the occasional malfunction, never at the junction and usually miles away from salvation or repair.
This all began as a recent foray up the Pacific Coast of Guatemala, which started in Antigua, where I hang my panama. The end point was a Mayan site known as Tak’alik Ab’aj, up-mountain from a border town with the unpronounceable name of Retalhuleu, shortened by even the locals to ‘Reu’, or slurred as ‘rayo’ or ‘rayu’. Note that the ten passenger shuttles are always filled to capacity and then some: plan on 12 at a minimum and they never make trips without at least four passengers. The taxis are invariably equally overloaded Japanese mini-models but the Pullman-styled buses are by pre-purchase ticket only, so there’s no overcrowding. The ‘chicken buses?’ Originally yellow Blue Bird brand school buses, imported from the United States and built to hold forty students? I counted over eighty passengers crowded into the last leg of this week’s journey of hell, sweat and religious sermons.
The return journey home from a few days at the Mayan site didn’t augur well: my taxi driver in Reu didn’t want to be disturbed, not even for the other half of the $40 round trip fee. To be continued.