Image of Guatemala City by Ellyn Kail
After spending a few days in Lanquin and exploring Semuc Champey, we organised a transfer through the hostel to take us to the town of Antigua. It was and still is a very common and popular route taken by travellers and they had a transfer service available every single day. It’s an eight hour drive, and we were to leave at 9am.
We got in the van with a group of other travellers and headed off. After about 45 minutes, we slowed to a stop and the driver said something to us in Spanish. We didn’t really understand him, and looked to the others to see if they knew what he said – a girl said that he said something about a delay, and asked him to repeat what he said. He repeated himself and she looked shocked. Uh oh. We had come across a group of protesters who had put up a road block, and they weren’t moving until 5pm. It was barely 10am at this point.
We immediately started to worry as the number one thing we had vowed not to do in Guatemala was to drive at night time. Literally every website, travel company, hostel, and even locals say that it’s a very bad idea. Crime is prolific, and backpacker vans like ours were often targeted and run off the road, with the passengers usually being robbed and sexually assaulted. It’s not uncommon for the actual driver to be totally corrupt and actually tip-off criminals to the vans whereabouts and facilitate the robbery, all whilst pretending to be shocked and innocent. And here we were, stuck for the next seven hours, only able to begin the rest of our eight hour drive when darkness fell.
The following information was taken from the Australian Government
‘Smart Traveller‘ website;
“Exercise a high degree of caution”
“Violent crime, including murder, carjacking, kidnapping, assault, rape and robbery is common throughout the country, including in tourist destinations. Violent crime often involves the use of firearms. To minimise the risk of becoming a victim of crime, you should remain vigilant in public areas and avoid displaying items of value such as cameras, mobile phones and tablets/laptops. Do not resist if you are robbed, as victims have been injured when resisting perpetrators.”
“Where possible, travel in groups and with a reputable tour company. Inter-city travel after dark anywhere in Guatemala is dangerous and should be avoided. Violent carjackings occur, particularly on poorly maintained roads, but also on main highways, including the Pan-American Highway (CA-1), the Pacific Coast Highway (CA-2) and the Atlantic Highway (CA-9). There have been reports of violent attacks on motorists travelling between El Salvador and Guatemala, particularly on the Guatemalan side of the border.”
“Roadblocks erected by armed gangs are common, particularly in the northern and western Departments of San Marcos, Huehuetenango, El Quiche, Alta Verapaz, El Peten and Escuintla. Criminals have been known to pose as police officers.
Inter-city buses have been forced to stop by criminal gangs who then rob and/or sexually assault passengers. Gangs have detonated bombs in Guatemala in the past.”
“Buses have been attacked near border crossings and in known tourist areas such as Panajachel and Antigua. The roads from the El Salvador border to Cuilapa and from the Belize border to El Cruce are danger spots for bus-jackings. Strikes and large demonstrations often occur with little notice and have resulted in travellers being forcibly detained at roadblocks, the closure of border-crossing points and disruption of traffic and essential services. There have been largely peaceful protests in Guatemala City and other parts of the country about corruption and transparency. Avoid all protests and demonstrations as they may turn violent.“
A few passengers, us included, agreed that we would rather go back to El Retiro and stay there another night than sit at the road block all day and risk driving at night, but the driver refused. We didn’t really have any control over the situation, so just agreed to stick together as a group and wait it out.
Here is a video that John took – apparently they were advocating for better health care? (Maybe one of our readers can translate it for us?)
Anyway, to cut a long story short, the road block cleared at five, as promised, and we began our journey. Everything went smoothly and we survived, albeit with white knuckles and covered in sweat! Most of the drive was up and down through mountains with blind corners and switchbacks, but that didn’t seem to bother our driver. His style of driving involved racing up behind the vehicle in front, and then straddling the white line in preparation for overtaking at the next ‘safe’ point to do so.
But he often decided that the safe time to do so was literally RIGHT before a blind corner as though he could see straight through the mountain – it was insane. At some point we had to stop staring through the windshield and just surrender to the circumstances, mostly out of absolute exhaustion.
To top things off, we had a very brief stop in Guatemala City to drop off a couple of travellers from our group. When we were about ten minutes out of the city, our driver spoke to us, which grabbed our attention as he had remained silent for mostly the entire drive. He stated, in great english (possible rehearsed?) that we were stopping at a bus stop out the front of a restaurant, but he was not turning off the engine. Those who were departing were to be ready with all of their belongings to jump straight off the bus and the rest of us were to stay put. He made it very clear that it was extremely unsafe to be stopped on the streets at night, hence why the whole ordeal needed to happen as quickly as possible. A few of us needed the bathroom really badly and Antigua was still about an hours drive away. When we asked him “baños, por favour?!” he seemed incredibly reluctant but obliged and told us to hurry straight into the restaurant. The stressed look on his face made John and I uneasy.
Nevertheless, we made it to Antigua safely around midnight. A few of us agreed we’d heard good things about a particular hostel, so began to walk the streets in search of it, but upon arrival were told they had no spare beds and to try again the following afternoon. We weren’t surprised as we showed up so late, so tried another hostel, only to be told they had two beds only. An Israeli couple from our group accepted the beds and the rest of us continued on. It was John and I, two girls from the Czech Republic – Marianna and Jana, and a Russian guy named Kirill. We ended up finding the address of another hostel online and when we showed up they had room for all of us.
Much to our dismay, we shared our room with a few cockroaches, but lived to tell the tale and ended up getting beds in the hostel we wanted for the next few days.