The bus arrives a bit late, probably at around 5:15, which is 5:00 standard Mexico time. Time throughout the tropics seems to be a very flexible concept. Nobody is in any particular hurry. One must expect to wait. I pile onto an air-conditioned combi which flies down the Carretera Frontera (the frontier highway) to Frontera Corozal. The bus driver drops off myself and one other German tourist at the emigration office. I have saved my customs form, which usually exempts you from paying an exit tax, but not in this case. Either because I am leaving via a land-route, or because there is no one to stop him, the customs official demands I pay a 350 peso exit tax. I try to plead my case, but the man holding my passport is insistent, so I fork over the cash and proceed to the lanchas near the river. The lancha driver also extorts 20 pesos despite the fact that we paid for the full trip to Flores up front. The German and I fork over the cash. This is more moderate sum and quite frankly we see little point in arguing at this point. The boat ride lasts all of five minutes and we are whisked across the river to Bethel. There we pass through immigration. I hand the border agent my passport who stamps it but requires a 60 quetzal (the currency of Guatemala) entrance fee. There is no such fee. I point this out to him, but he claims that it is a new requirement. I try to argue that I have no quetzals as I have just crossed over the border, but he is prepared for this tack and says is willing to accept 100 pesos instead. Once again, I have no bargaining chips to play, so I pay the man his 100 pesos, which actually works out in my favor, given that it is about 2/3rds of the price of the “fee” in quetzals. As I said earlier, there is no oversight here, so the border agents feel free to extort fees to line their own pockets. I request a receipt. Clearly upset, the agent snaps, “If you want a receipt, I will hold your passport and you can go to the nearest town with a bank, which is four hours away. When you come back with your receipt maybe the office will still be open and maybe I will still have your passport.” I take my passport and walk away from the situation, not wanting to be stranded out here. The rest of my fellow travelers pay the same amount, even the Mexican, so I feel as though I got a square deal despite the fact that I was just extorted. It was still cheaper than leaving Mexico.
We board a bus and start off to Flores. The road is the worst on which I have ever been. It is its own natural speed limit. Axle-snapping, tire-swallowing, craterous potholes are impossible to avoid and prevent us from reaching even 10 km/hr. Even so, topes (speed bumps) mark our arrival in various towns that line the road. They are completely unnecessary. One does not need topes assuming that you have active nerve endings in your tail bones and a car that is made of materials with earthly mechanical limitations. This bus in particular has seen its fair share of these trips and lurches slowly. Its shocks have no life, its suspension almost scraping the ground in some places. We stop at a tire store and pick up a spare tire. “For later, explains the driver. Sure enough, about an hour into the trip, our front passenger side tire blows and we are forced to change it. The driver hops out and puts rocks behind the wheels, drops the spare with a thud, and proceeds to hammer it into place after removing the flat. The road remains unpaved for 3 hours. I have no way to gauge the distance given our slow speed, but it felt like ages. I was extremely pleased to end the bumpy, heaving section of the journal which felt vaguely like a boat being tossed around at sea during a storm.
The rest of the road was fine to Santa Elena, the larger city just south of the island of Flores. We stopped at an ATM to obtain quetzals, but the ATM did not work. A man on a scar on his face entered the bus and informed us that we needed to obtain money in Santa Elena given that the ATMs did not work on the island either. We stopped at an ATM at a grocery store to obtain money and fortunately this one did function. Scarface never did explain his presence until we reached Flores. We were dropped off at our hostel one by one. He asked all of us whether we wanted to buy tickets to Tikal through him, offering a 250 quetzal fee for transport to the ruins. He badgered us repeatedly if we refused. I later learned that it was a god thing that I turned him down too, as he his infamous for selling fake tickets to new tourists. I don’t know why the bus operators allow him to enter the buses, but something tells me that the company is not particularly scrupulous either, given a spate of knife-point robberies that occurred on its buses only two years ago. There are rumors that they colluded with bandits and delivered tourists directly to them. One man refused to give up his laptop and was stabbed, though nonfatally.
Flores itself is quite nice. It is a small island and one can circumnavigate its outer perimeter in about half an hour. Only about 4 or 5 hundred individuals reside on the island, most of them catering to tourists who come to visit Tikal. I am no different and purchase my ticket to the ruins. The rest of the day is spent catching up on emails and watching the sunset over the lake. Fishermen’s lanchas putter about the lake and come back to dock just before nightfall. My walk is interrupted by a flooded street. The lake seems to have overcome one of the barriers which may have subsided below the water-level. In a very Latin-American solution, the officials elected to close the street rather than actually fix the underlying problem. Fish dart from the shallows as I walk by, a huge cinnamon moon lighting my way back to the hostel.