Monday, June 12, 2017

Pana to Tapa Visa Run aka The Expat Penance

I have to tell ya: doing visa runs on the chicken buses is not for the weak! You have to be strong of mind, body, and stomach to get through it.
Strong of mind to stay on your toes during bus changes, keep your cool in stressful situations, and quell your panic as your driver passes a transport at ludicrous speed uphill in the rain and fog.
Strong of body to handle the bashing of your knees against the metal seat in front of you, the jolting of tumulos (speed bumps), and the strain on your arms from holding yourself from sliding into your neighbour on sharp curves, of which there are many.
Strong of stomach to handle the smell of chuchitos, body odor, and sometimes, yes, chickens as you're going up and down and around and around for hours and hours. *bleck*
But I lived! Yay!
This trip seemed to be all about unhelpful helpers. As I've mentioned before, on chicken buses and combis (mini-vans), there are guys called ayudantes that are there to tell you where the bus is going and to take your money. Well, I had several mishaps this trip where the helpers wheren't all that helpful!

My trip from Panajachel to Tapachula started off lucky as I caught to the direct bus from Pana to Xela at 6:30 am. (Price Q25) It's so nice not to have to change at Sololá and Los Encuentros. Just settle into your seat and a few hours later, you're at the hustle and bustle of Minerva terminal in Quetzaltenango.
This is where things got a bit messed up though. I had heard there was a bus that went directly from Xela to Malacatán, skipping San Marcos Sacatepequez. So I asked an ayudante, "Malacatán?" He said, "Yes, this one. Malacatán." I'm thinking, great! My luck is so good today! 😀
Well, not so much! I should have looked at the front of the bus where it says where they're ACTUALLY going. I started getting suspicious almost immediately when the ayudante was shouting something like "Filipe" as we exited Xela. I didn't recognize it. Then my suspicions were confirmed when he took a right instead of a left at the roundabout. I'm like, "Uh-oh. Here we go. Should I get off at the next stop? Or should I ride it out?" I had a feeling we were just going to go to Reu (Ray-oo), which is short for Retalhuleu. (I have no idea how to pronounce that!) This was the route that the private shuttle guy had taken Bert and I on when we did this run last year.
So I decided to go with the flow and enjoy a new adventure. Perhaps it would be better? Shorter? Less expensive?
None of those things. HA!
The scenery was indeed gorgeous though. It's rainy season so everything is lush and green and wet and beautiful. I gawked out the window as we descended from the hills down into the steamy hot jungley lands near Reu. (Is "jungley" a word?)
Stormy day makes for moody roadside pictures.
Bananas for miles!
 I wish I could have taken more pictures of the ride but it's difficult to take photos out the side of a bus without them just being a blurry mess. There were all manner of farm animals tied to signposts and trees alongside the roads: bony cows, scrawny horses, bedraggled sheep, completely contented goats, and one GIANT pink pig. And I'm always wide-eyed at how the landscape changes as I come down out of the highlands around Lake Atitlan. The lush jungle is more of what I expected the whole of Guatemala to look like. There are palm trees everywhere and crazy looking ferns and plants with leaves as big as me. The rivers were wide and rushing and chocolate coloured. We dodged fallen rocks. We splashed through standing water that made the kids on the bus laugh. We zoomed through the clouds. We steamed up all the windows. We even drove through a tunnel that looked like it had just been carved out! (Túnel Santa Maria video.) It can be such an adventure to ride the chicken buses! 😁

After a while, I recognized Reu as we passed by it. (It has a McDonalds!) We stopped at a market and the parade of vendors crowded onto the bus.
I thought the ladies of San Marcos were impressive (see photos later on) but the ladies of Reu blew them out of the water! They came on the bus with trays of premade food, including sub sandwiches, ensaladas, and carnitas. They smelled sooooooo yummy! Alas, I couldn't trust my stomach to enjoy it though. 
Cutest puppy on the bus watching the scenery go by.
Off we drove again, on nice paved highways. I was getting curious as to how I was going to get all the way over to Malacatán. I had a rough idea of where I was with a map in my head.
I put my camera out the window to figure out where we were. Coatepeque!
And Coatepeque, the ayudante motioned to me to get out. Alrighty then. He pointed me up the road and said that there were combis to Malacatán near the bank. Fair enough. Off I go! I was happy to find out he was right and hopped on a very nice touristy bus. 
Dude selling plantain chips on my mini van bus thingy at Coatepeque.
Well, you know of course they had to STUFF the bus full of people. There were five people sitting across, all squished together, and the windows steamed up quickly. The ride was short though, as I was once again ushered off the bus... in the middle of nowhere! Just an intersection. Hmm.

Can you imagine trying to walk thru that? Crazy jungle.
From the middle of nowhere, another combi picked me up and drove me for a bit. Another rainy intersection and another pointed finger to wait here for my next ride. I literally stood at the side of the road and muttered, "Where the hell am I now?" HA HA!
If buses stop there, is it really a bus station?
Peering around in the drizzle, I noticed signs that helped me to figure out where I was. I was actually pretty darn close to Malacatán! I figured out I was just outside the town, but I needed to go the opposite direction to the border at El Carmen/Talisman.
I got on the correct side of the road and ignored the taxi drivers trying to coerce me into their cars. Pfft. Taxis are for rich folk! 😝
Not even five minutes and my next combi came along with the dude hanging out the side calling, "Tally-man!" In I got and off we went and soon enough I was relieved to see the familiar chaos of the Guatemala/Mexico border. I made it!

The map of where I went. I would not recommend this route. Stick to Pana -- Xela -- San Marco Sacatepequez -- Malacatán -- border.
For those interested in prices -- and for me to check back later when someone on Facebook asks me about it -- here's the breakdown.

Pana -- Xela  Q25
Xela -- Coatepeque  Q18
Coatepeque -- nowhere Q5
nowhere -- middle of nowhere Q7
middle of nowhere -- border at El Carmen/Talisman Q3

I left Pana at 6:30 am and arrived at the border just before 3 pm. (about 8.5 hours)
(Truthfully, only 4 or 5 quetzales more expensive but added about an hour to my travel time, I'd say)

NOTE: The combi/colectivo/minivan from the border into Tapachula, Mexico, is now Q20, up from Q18 when I last went in March.

I got into Tapa and went straight to my hotel. (Hotel Cervantino -- no hot water but very cheap place, centrally located, and you can pay a bit extra to get a room with air conditioning, if you like.)

And then I got sick. Ha ha! I know, right? I think there's only been one visa run where I haven't gotten sick. It's not a nice habit!
I had developed a horrible headache in the last half hour of traveling. It kept getting worse and worse. I chalked it up to dehydration, travel fatigue, and no coffee. When I got to the hotel, I took a Tylenol and lay down. Too little, too late. I barfed into the garbage can! Ewwww. I cleaned it all up, lay down for another half hour to make sure it wasn't gonna happen again, then took another Tylenol. Next thing I know, the cleaning lady is knocking on my door! It was 10 am on Saturday. Wow! 
I felt fine though so I hurriedly got dressed and heading out for my regular rounds of pharmacies and shopping and sight-seeing. 
I love the market areas. They're filled to the brim with interesting things! So many people and so much great food and a really authentic feeling. I get a lot of stares. I did not see a single white person in Tapa the entire time I was there. Not even in the fancy mall!
I believe this place is called "Flying Quesadillas Queen". Huh? It's always packed with people and smells delicious. One day I'll get up the nerve to go in by myself and try it.
I've decided that I'm not a very adventurous traveler. I don't try too many new foods. I don't go off on wild adventures to remote archeological sites. I don't join up with crazy people at some cheap hostel and go off on uncharted roads. I stick to the well-traveled path and just watch from a distance. I'm a bit shy in my homeland and being in a foreign country with poor (but improving!) Spanish makes me even more restrained. So many times I stopped to look at something like a restaurant, a vendor, a store, or a strange sight and I wanted to ask a question or compliment somebody or try something. But then I don't because I can't form the words. Plus, I have an aversion to food poisoning! Ha ha!
Cloudy day at the Central Park in Tapachula. They try hard to make the city look nice but it's just a little worn down on the edges.

I love the big palm trees and the fountains at the Central Park. Plus, there's always a lot of action going on here with clowns and vendors and musicians and pigeons and lots of people.
Me playing it relatively safe and fulfilling my cravings at the same time. Yum, Chinese food, just like at the malls back home in Canada. Rice plus two choices for only 50 pesos, or about $3.75 Canadian or $2.75 American. Good deal and I couldn't finish it all.
How would you like to have a job selling colouring books from a dollar store?
Tapa is a loud place! It has more taxis than any other city I've ever been too, barring perhaps Athens, and they're always beeping at you to let you know they're available. Every second store has speakers set outside playing loud music, even the pharmacies and the bank! There are a bazillion colectivos crowding the streets (I counted) and all the vendors shouting out what they have for sale, especially the fish mongers for some reason. They love to announce their wares! Oh, and you can't forget the religious dudes. I've seen them in a few different places. Two guys in suits -- always two of them, never one or three or four -- who clap their hands and sing Jesus songs. Some of them are quite good!
OXXO!! It's like the 7-Eleven of Mexico. So great to just walk in a "regular" convenience store.
They carry Kit Kats and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. The BEST!
Hmmm, treacherous sidewalk obstruction!
Tapa is always hot and this time it was combined with a steady drizzle, so I was pretty much thoroughly damp and sweaty by the time I finished my rounds of the pharmacies to pick up my medication for the next six months. Time to head off to the lovely cool air-conditioned mall. Ahhhhh.
It's quite a bizarre change to go from the dirty, noisy, slightly decrepit downtown area to the shiny clean mall. Fluorescent lights and Abercrombie & Fitch and ladies trying to spritz you with perfumes. There are definitely two sides to Tapachula.
I love this! She is preparing the "pads" of the prickly pear cactus, called nopales. People eat them. Very cool.
(This was in Chedraui, a big chain like a Walmart Superstore)
From the pedestrian overpass at the mall. You can kinda see a volcano in the background with some lenticular clouds forming on top. 
What'd I tell ya about colectivos? They're the public transportation of Tapa, although there are also big city buses that are less frequent. 
I took a colectivo back from the mall and the driver tried to rip me off and asked for 10 pesos instead of the usual 6. Pfft. I gave him 6 and then fumbled in my purse going, "Lo siento, un momento" (sorry, one moment) until he got irritated and waved me out of the van. Ha! Passive aggressiveness wins again!

I've got another tip for you folks going to Mexico and wanting to indulge in a craving for pizza. I learned the hard way so you don't have to! Ha ha!
A medium pepperoni pizza at Domino's is 125 pesos. A large pepperoni pizza is 135 pesos. However, a medium pizza with pepperoni and mushrooms is Q175. WHAT?? I paid an extra 50 pesos for some mushrooms? When I could have gotten a large for less? Makes zero sense. Oh well. It was delicious!

Another lovely cool night's sleep in my hotel and it was time to start heading back to Guate and Pana. Deep breaths. I can do this!
Right away, a mistake. *rolls eyes* I went to the bus station and asked for "la frontera", the border. A guy puts his hand on my shoulder and pushes me towards the first minivan in line and tell me "la frontera." The driver standing next to the bus tells me "la frontera, si." I get in. I ride halfway across town, all the while listening to the ayudante yell out "Hidalgo." *sigh* Wrong bus again! What is UP with the unhelpful people?

So when they stopped to pick up more folks at the far end of town, I said to the driver, "Quiero ir a la frontera a Taliman." (I want to go to the border at Talisman.) He's like, "No Hidalgo?" I'm like, "No. Talisman." He sighs and points to another bus parked up ahead, which starts to pull away as I get out of my bus. "Talisman!" I shout. The new ayudante hears me and stops the bus for me. Always happy to get another fare! I squish in and congratulate myself on not letting my shyness lead me to extra hours of bus rides!

To be honest, there are two border crossings that can be easily reached from Tapachula: Talisman/El Carmen and Tecun Uman. They were taking me to the second one, thru the city of Hidalgo, a longer distance. It was my fault for not being clear about which border I wanted to go to, and as I learned earlier from the Malacatán diversion, a bus driver will tell you anything to get you into the bus and paying money. Live and learn, people! 😁

The combi van drops you off near this awesome sign at the border between Mexico and Guatemala. I imagine some would find this a bit offputting. I thought it was hilarious.
I was actually thinking during this trip that for all the expats who live in Guatemala and are supposedly doing visa runs, I had never seen another white person. Well, this time I did! A white guy was walking towards me as I headed for the crossing and he smiled and said, "Hello." Hello! Not hola or buenas dias. I think I stuttered out, "Hi" as he passed. Hilarious!
Truthfully, I think most of the other expats are either residents by now or paying extra to take the comfy shuttle buses. I gotta do that next time. This run is getting tiresome.
Even with the incredibly high river, there are still folks crossing illegally. Right beneath the bridge. Madness.
Crossing the border is easy-peasy for me now, with only a small feeling of worry when the Guatemalan side checks my passport and sees that I haven't been 72 hours out of the country. (Only 48. Kinda.) They stamped me back in with 90 more days of heaven though, so I was good to go! I made sure to get on the CORRECT bus back thru Malacatán to San Marcos Sacatepequez, then onwards to Xela, a stop for lunch at the mall, and home to Pana before dark.
More pics of food vendors. I love the cleverness of the little fruit hanger. I think it's only like Q5 for a package of fruit and the guy will put some lime juice and sugar and even spicy powder on it for you.
One of the ladies at San Marcos. I'm impressed at how they navigate with those huge baskets on their heads.
Their posture is impeccable!
Waiting on my bus at San Marcos, snapping pictures of vendors. Hee hee!
The guy with the nuts usually gives out one nut to try and entice you to buy a package. They're delicious!
So that's it for me for another six months. Yay! I'm heading to Florida in August to meet up with my family for a Disneyland trip, which will take care of my visa renewal, then I don't have to go back to Mexico until November. I do love the shopping there though, plus the nice stop in the fancy mall in Xela on the way back. What do I buy? Besides my medication, which is half the price in Mexico than it is in Guate, I usually pick up ... food! Ha ha! Yeah, things like onion soup mix and baking soda and chocolate, plus I bought dog bones and kitty treats and a nice pair of crocs and some bathroom items that are harder to find here. Simple stuff but it makes me happy.
I hope you're just as happy out there too, my friends! 😊

1 comment :

  1. AnonymousJune 12, 2017

    LOL that chicken bus name is "shecanitia" classic