I was about 120km north of Punta Gorda, where I could take a boat to Puerto Barrios in Guatemala. It’d have been impossible to get there that day, as they leave either late morning, or early afternoon, so I figured I’d be camping just outside town to avoid the $10-15 hostel fee. I’d heard of a land crossing in the south, at Jalacte, but hadn’t been able to find information about it online. All I knew was that they were building a road to the border which wasn’t expected to be finished until 2014. The thing is, thanks to British influence, Guatemala aren’t too happy with Belize. They don’t think that the border is defined, and some even claim Belize as a part of Guatemala, as the map I’d seen crossing the border back in February to Mexico had portrayed. There had even been talk of a referendum about the border, but it’s looking like it doesn’t have the support it needs. All that is to say, there are border issues.
The basically flat Southern Highway went on and on until I made it to the town of Dump. The only thing that stands out being a piece of fruit being projected at me and hitting my back wheel as a bus went past, idiots. I could have gone further, to PG, but I was tempted by Jalacte. Not having to pay either for the boat, a bike fee on the boat or what I heard was a heightened entry fee in Puerto Barrios seemed appealing to me. As well as that, I figured I should do some research. It wouldn’t take me long to find out if the border was crossable, and if it was then other people travelling wouldn’t be completely in the dark about the situation if they googled like I had for Jalacte Belize Guatemala border crossing.
I filled my water bottles up, the joys of drinkable tap water, and took the turn off. The road started to climb and drop, just the proximity to Guatemala was making the roads more interesting. It stayed paved the whole way to San Antonio, and then was a bit hit and miss to Santa Cruz. From there, it started to lose any form of grading and shot up and down hills with first gravel and then rocks all over the road. It made for some fun descending, from fear of getting a pinch flat hitting the rocks too hard. When I did get a flat, it was in fact from a terribly made wooden bridge. I went flying down a hill too fast, expecting the planks that crossed the bridge to be straight as they had been on the other ones. They weren’t. They were strangely angled and had gaps. Hurtling down the hill and hitting those wooden planks off-kilter lead to a huge BANG as my front tyre gave up. Considering my sidewall has been looking off for a good long time, I figured that had gone too, but it turned out it was just a simple flat.
I pulled my bike up the hill a little to get out of the way of the road, and was surrounded by 4 Mayan boys who were very animatedly acting out my stupidity amongst themselves. The crowd had grown to about 15 by the time I had finished putting in a new tube. In that group was an older guy who spoke English, and he explained that none of them had ever seen a cyclist coming through and so were excited to see me being there.
Getting back on the bike, I realised my front brake was rubbing and instead of stopping to fix it, I went with the more sensible option of disconnecting it – I got much better at descending when I just had my back brake to slow me down! It was a few km more until I got to near the border, where a group of 4 policemen in military uniforms came out and asked me what I was doing. I explained and then the one who was speaking to me searched through my bags. They told me that the guy who could stamp my passport was in Belize City and they had no idea when he would be back. The idea of turning round didn’t appeal in the slightest, so I went to one side to re-pack my bags that they’d messed up, and fix my front brakes. By the time I was done with that, the police had gone without even saying goodbye so I continued on to the village of Jalacte, the hilliest village I’ve ever been to. I got to the real police station and found two guys in normal police clothing, they stamped my passport, told me it cost B$20 (I’d heard it should be B$37.50) and then it was off to Guatemala!
I descended down the side of a hill, on a grass path, and had to wade across a shin-deep stream. Then it was up another hill, and down the other side to push through a muddy bog that was probably about 20 foot long which meant I had a bike caked in mud. Just past that, I was going down the next hill and met a couple of Belizeans who had seen me earlier in the day. We got to talking and they said it would be about another 25km (which took buses a couple of hours) until I got to pavement and as the sun would be going down soon I should stop. They spoke to a guy they knew in town and I had a place to put up my tent, in the no-mans land between Belize and Guatemala. Originally they had told me it’d cost about 20Q (8Q = $1), but when the guy got back later that evening he brought some food out to my tent and we chatted for almost an hour before he shook my hand about 10 times, let me know that we were friends and therefore I was not allowed to pay. What a lovely man! He’d even come out to spray the ant infestation that I was camping on, and when I woke up in the morning they were all dead instead of biting me.
I headed out along the 25km to the paved road and stopped at the first village, Jovente, as there was a military base there. Even if they couldn’t stamp me in, I wanted to be able to say that I’d tried to get my entrance stamp. The officer on charge said that there was nothing that they could do, that the area is officially a blind-spot, and that I should keep going until I got to the paved road at Chacte and speak to the police. The ride to the paved road was beautiful, although there are no signs of the dirt road I was riding getting worked on. It’s all well and good for Taiwan to sponsor this new road in Belize, but someone is going to have to do the same on the Guatemalan side to make it into an actual border crossing. There’d be no way to cross the whole way on anything bigger than a dirt bike, although you could take a bus to Jalacte, walk for 30-40 minutes and then take a pick-up truck on the other side. Anyone crossing it on bike is going to want to be comfortable riding down hills covered in large rocks and be ready to have to get off and push up some of the ridiculously steep hills when you invariably get to a set of rocks that you can’t ride over without losing all your momentum.
In Chacte I was told that the nearest police station was either further north in San Luis, or south in Cadenas. As north would just take me back to Tikal, I rode the 40km south to Cadenas and found the police. I explained my situation, and the officer there stamped my passport with his police stamp and wrote “Sea bienvenido a Guatemala” which I hope is good enough for the people at immigration when I get to the border with El Salvador.
By the time I got my stamp, it was about 11:30 and fairly toasty as I almost hadn’t seen a cloud since arriving in Guatemala. I found a small comedor and spent the next 4 hours there charging my things, writing the text for blog posts and organising photos. I got a couple of plates of food for only 30Q and by 4pm was ready to go. When I got outside, I realised I probably could have left at about 3 as with the breeze it wasn’t terrible, but I’d had things to do on my laptop. Of course there had been no internet, so it wasn’t quite like my McDonald’s breaks in the US where I’d spend the heat of the day in AC with wifi uploading my photos, researching the route and finding hosts on Couchsurfing or Warmshowers, but having not seen a McDonalds for a good while it was as good as it gets.
I kept going along a road that wasn’t flat for more than about 30 seconds at a time. I’m not sure that flat roads actually exist in the country outside of the very north near Tikal. I was passing through lots of small Mayan communities and was reminded of my favourite thing about Guatemala, the warmth of the people who would smile, wave and shout their support for me as I went along. I even had a group of 5 kids see me, form a line and then give me a standing ovation – simply spectacular! I also liked when a family all shouted out “gringo!!”, I replied “no no soy gringo, soy amigo” and then I heard the mum laugh and them all start shouting “amigo amigo amigo”
By the time it turned dark, I made it to the next town on my map, Rio Dulce. It was so busy that I even got stuck in a traffic jam and with all the churches blaring out the services over loudspeakers there was no way I was going to look for a place to camp there. About 5km out of town, I saw a lit up area on the side and pulled in. It was a security gate that led to a series of $4-5m condos owned by rich foreigners in Guatemala City. They fly to their private airstrip on a Friday and spend the weekend there before flying back before work starts on the Monday. As well as that, many of them own boats worth a good few million too. According to the US coastguard, the area around Rio Dulce is apparently the safest place in the Caribbean to store them during hurricane season. The guys at the security gate said it’d be fine for me to camp there, and offered me their shower, my first one in 4 days, such a delightful way to end the day.