First, I discovered that it would be too expensive to fly to Mexico with all the luggage that I had gradually brought down to Nicaragua (with the intention of staying for good), and did not feel comfortable merely postponing the problem by leaving much of my possessions in storage in Nicaragua. Flying would have required two trips to permit the number of items I would be bringing with me (14), with business class to allow for several trunks weighing over 50 lbs, and high fees ($150-200 per item) for several of the bags on each trip. Sending things by freight was out of the question, because I would not yet have residency in Mexico and so would potentially have duties imposed on all my goods in the absence of the document for residents permitting the one-time importation of household goods. Long-distance buses sounded like a possibility, but there was no guarantee of any help transferring luggage from bus to hotel, to bus, etc., and I certainly didn’t have the strength to do all that myself, even if they permitted all my luggage to travel on the buses with me, while the risk of something going missing en route was high. Traveling by ship was proposed, but apparently required months of advance planning, so I determined that the most practical solution was finding someone to drive me to Mexico and hence I posted requests on a number of Facebook groups. Two reasonable-sounding offers came in, but ultimately both were withdrawn over title issues on the vehicles to be driven north.
Finally, a viable plan came together: a Facebook friend now living in the Yucatán asked me to bring with me her remaining items from storage in San Juan Del Sur to my destination of Progreso, Yucatán, and made arrangements for them to be driven not only to me from the storage location, but with me and my own luggage to León, Nicaragua, from whence the second leg of my trip would begin. Another friend arranged for the head of a tour company based in León, with whom she had worked in the past, to drive me from there through Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and through the border into Mexico, to San Cristóbal de Las Casas–the longest leg of the journey. When I requested hotel recommendations on a San Cristóbal expats Facebook page, a couple whom I had met in Granada and who have homes both in Granada and in San Cristóbal kindly invited me to stay in there home there as their guest. Originally meant to be an overnight stay, it turned into three nights before the last leg of my trip, driving north up the Yucatán Peninsula to my destination, could begin. Following another Facebook posting, another kind person in Progreso proposed my trip needs to a tour company in Mérida with whom she works, and a driver in the largest tour van I had ever seen was dispatched on Saturday to drive me to Progreso, leaving Sunday morning at 4:00 a.m. After what seemed like weeks of waiting and hoping, my move was planned!
Three Legs, Five Countries and an Earthquake!
Travel Days 1 and 2: San Juan Del Sur to León, and León to Antigua
It was quite a journey! Although the first leg, driving to León, was a mere few hours, we drove through some heavy rain, minus the tarp my friend had thoughtfully requested the driver ensure was available for just such a situation. Then we got lost in León’s crowded one-way street system, and we drove around for an hour trying to find the office of the tour company in order to unload the luggage to be transferred to the van we would be taking. It was a very short night’s sleep as the two tour vans departed at 2:00 a.m: one containing a group of backpackers and younger tourists, and the other containing myself, the driver, and all my luggage (4 footlockers under a tarp on the roof and everything else packed tightly inside the van). We cleared the Nicaraguan border and crossed into Honduras long before daylight and I was fascinated to see how much activity takes place well before dawn—a very young child sitting alone near the road quite far from the nearest house, clusters of school children in uniforms waiting at bus stops at 5 a.m., and people riding bicycles, horses, or scooters, heading off to their destinations in the dark. The roads in Honduras were in a very poor states of repair, with frequent potholes and washouts from what has been a wetter rainy season than Central America has seen in five years. With the extra weight of all my luggage, I worried about the vehicle’s shocks! The border crossings into Honduras and El Salvador were straightforward, however, and took relatively little time.
The roads in El Salvador were far better and we drove parallel to the coast for a while, including to a small, rather sweet, little beach town called Playa El Tunko, where we dropped off some of the passengers and their surfboards from the other van.
The rest of us drove on into Guatemala and arrived in the lovely old city of Antigua at around 5 p.m. It was a looooong day! It turned out that the hotel a kind friend had booked for me was totally unsuitable—a rather deserted hostel on a dark street far from the restaurants and center of town—but we were able to cancel my reservation and my driver, who used to run his tour business out of Antigua, took me instead to a charming hotel very close to the town center for almost the same price.
The next morning at 5:00 a.m., the tour company boss met me at my hotel and we headed out of Antigua and north towards Mexico, while the second van returned to León. This morning with just the two of us, we got to admire a lovely sunrise, followed by fog banks hanging over a valley ahead. Shortly after this we stopped to take photographs of three volcanoes rising up above the clouds. It was spectacular! Then we stopped at a beautifully located, elegant 2-storey restaurant, where we were treated to a real breakfast served by gracious wait-staff, and a lovely view of the surrounding mountains.
Later in the afternoon we descended through the mountains, noting new, often elaborate, construction in many of the charming Mayan villages. We finally arrived at the Guatemalan border with Mexico, where we encountered our only big hiccup: my driver, being a citizen of the C4 countries (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua) where only a vehicle permit and ID are required to cross borders, had not brought his passport with him to enter Mexico. As a result, I spent a couple of very anxious hours waiting with the van containing all my worldly goods, unsure what was happening, as he walked up the street, then down the street, and then disappeared towards some border office for a very long time!
Fortunately, he is Guatemalan, and in the absence of a passport they were able to create a permit to allow him to enter Mexico, although stipulating that he could only drive in the morning hours (it was by then around 4 or 5 in the afternoon!) (Presumably because there are banditos in Mexico, who tend to target Guatemalans, with sometimes fatal results, I’m told) and only as far as a certain town, which was about halfway to where we were headed. They also searched about 6 bags in the van, but finding that the contents matched the descriptions in my prepared lists in Spanish, they finally relented and let us through.
Compared to that, entering Mexico was a breeze and I was awarded my 180 day tourist visa with only a minor examination of the luggage. We drove on into Mexico without incident, and my fear of bandits was rapidly replaced with a fear of hitting an unnoticed “tope” or speed bump, of which there are many everywhere in Mexico! Because of the long delay at the border we finally arrived in San Cristóbal de Las Casas shortly before 10:00 and were greeted warmly with soup and friendliness. The luggage was unloaded into the house and my driver headed off to stay the night somewhere before returning to Nicaragua, with my undying gratitude for getting us there safely.
A Respite from the Road!
Because my ride to Progreso could not leave until early Sunday morning, I had a two-day break from traveling, and was, fortunately, with warm, friendly people who were happy to show me some of the sights of the lovely colonial city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas and surrounding area. But first, as we were sitting and standing around in the kitchen chatting shortly after my arrival, the house shook and swayed and rolled. It took me a minute to recognize that we were experiencing an earthquake because I’d been on the road since 5 a.m. and my body felt like it was still moving, but once I noticed, it was the longest, strongest earthquake I had ever experienced, after approximately 37 years of living on the west coast of Canada and the U.S. My hosts reassured me that the house was built on bedrock, and indeed, not a plate, or cup, or ornament, even rattled, let alone broke. We were to see more earthquake damage in the area before the end of my stay, however. It turned out that this was the 8.1 ‘quake centered about 100 miles out in the Pacific ocean, and therefore several hundred miles south of us. Sadly, there was considerably more damage in southern Chiapas state and in the state of Oaxaca.
The following morning my hosts walked around town with me and we observed a chunk of masonry that had fallen from a public building in the center of town.
There were frequent, deafening sirens apparently signaling aftershocks, though I don’t remember feeling these, and everyone in town seemed to be in “business-as-usual” mode, including a display of dancing, and people shopping or eating at sidewalk cafes.
Later we met friends of my hosts for a mid-afternoon meal at tables outside a bar on a popular pedestrian street, where we enjoyed good food and interesting conversation and people-watching.
The following day would be my last before I left early Sunday morning to drive to Progreso. My hostess asked if I would like to visit some of the smaller towns close by and we took a taxi there. In the first town we visited a charming church that took my breath away as we entered.
Pine branches were strewn on the floor, giving off that wonderful, woodsy fragrance, there were no pews in the center of the church at all but around the outer edges were effigies of various saints in display cases. On tables around the edges of the church were thousands of lit candles. Small groups of people sat on the floor in various locations around the church, some carrying a live chicken, apparently used (and slaughtered) in curandero rituals. In one group, an older woman waved the chicken around a young child, who appeared undisturbed by it. Shafts of light entered the church from the roof, adding a magical quality to the atmosphere of the fragrance of pine and the flickering candles—at first I thought they were deliberate, but then realized the rays were entering the church where tiles from the roof had fallen during the earthquake. Unfortunately, photography was not permitted inside the church, so I will have to rely on my memory of the breathtaking experience of first entering this doubly sacred place—to the Catholics who constructed the building in the hopes of converting the Mayans in the area and bringing them under the thumb of Spain, and to the Mayans who had claimed it for their own culture, rituals and spirituality.
After leaving the church, we explored the adjacent square, noting that the produce vendors piled all their wares into elegant pyramids. We were shown the town cemetery and the symbolism of the different colored crosses was explained to us (white crosses were for children who had died; black for those who died of illness, green for those who died of old age, etc., and clusters of crosses denoted a single family). We also visited a site where several crafts were offered and on display: embroidered clothing, woven purses and other items, local produce, liqueurs, and tacos with various appetizing fillings were offered for a donation, which made us an excellent lunch. One room had a display of previous and current men’s and women’s uniquely styled clothing for each of the surrounding towns—all handmade and beautifully embroidered. We then drove to another town and observed the damage to its church: a pile of rubble in front indicated where a tower and facing had fallen during the earthquake. We learned later that certain neighborhoods and towns, mostly where poorer people lived, whose homes were less well constructed, had suffered more damage than we had seen, and of course, the epicenter of this 8.1 quake was hundreds of miles from us, with severe damage to towns further south in the States of Chiapas and Oaxaca .
Travel Day 3: San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas to Progreso, Yucatán:
The rest of my visit passed pleasantly with my hosts and around town admiring the lovely old colonial buildings, and on Saturday evening my driver came to find the house and was persuaded to load up most of the luggage that evening, rather than waiting until 3:00 a.m. to do it, allowing us all a little extra time to sleep. We promptly departed at 4:00 a.m. and spent the pre-dawn hours driving through mountains and along rivers, among scenery I only wish I could have captured on camera, but had insufficient light to do so. On this leg of the journey, driving was the business at hand, and aside from two stops at Oxxo (Mexico’s equivalent of 711) for gas, bathrooms, and snacks, we kept moving all the way to Progreso, where we arrived at 5:00 p.m. at my Air Bnb, and everything was successfully unloaded.
I had made it!