One Week With Anna Kortschak
Anna Kortschak is on an open-ended tour of the Americas that may yet turn into an open-ended tour of the world.
She has no fixed plan or time frame and she is in no hurry to get anywhere in particular. Over the past year she has ridden from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Anna goes to some lengths to avoid riding on highways and major roads and if there is a choice between a paved road and an unpaved road she will definitely choose the dirt.
This 7-day journal tells the tale of a somewhat misguided attempt to cross the border in a remote protected wilderness area between Guatemala and Mexico, north of Tikal, on the way to the Yucatan Peninsula. Because it’s the beginning of the wet season, Anna encounters plenty of riding down muddy tracks. There are also numerous encounters with the locals and even a puma!
Read on to learn how Anna (eventually) makes it to the border of Guatemala.
Day 1 – Getting Started
I get up at first light and walk around the ruins of Tikal before the tour buses start filling up the car park. The entrance to the ruins is carefully policed and I discover that access to the road that I want to follow north into the jungle is on the other side of the barrier. I am a little reluctant to tell the officials my exact plans in case they decide, for my own good, to forbid me from carrying them out but it transpires that I need a permit to go to Uaxactun, the next village and archaeological site to the north.
Slightly anxiously, I make my way to the administrative building to ask for the permit. The men in the office have already heard about the girl on the bike and don’t ask me many questions. In the space on the form where nationality should be entered the man filling it out simply writes ‘foreigner.’ Some distinctions simply aren’t important, it seems. Armed with my official permission, I pack up camp and then return to the entrance and, soon, after the paper is carefully scrutinised, I am on my way. Uaxactun is only 23km from Tikal on a beautifully surfaced gravel road. The only thing that momentarily impedes my progress is a thorn-induced puncture.
In Uaxactun, I seek out Antonio, one of the few people who take people on tours in the uninhabited jungle to the north and who knows the roads like the back of his hand. He is also, apparently, a keen cyclist. By chance, I arrive in the middle of the World Cup qualifier between Guatemala and South Africa and Antonio’s focus is painfully divided. With eyes flickering between me and the television, he tells me that the route I want to take will be difficult, but not impossible.
We quickly agree that we will talk later, in more detail, over some maps before Antonio returns to bear witness to Guatemala’s doomed struggle with South Africa and I go out to explore Uaxactun under the merciless mid-afternoon sun. Ancient crumbling Mayan structures surround the living village but there is not a tourist to be seen anywhere. I wander alone in the afternoon heat, resting often under giant trees.
I return, eventually, to Antonio’s hotel where I set up my tent in the yard and then prepare for the road ahead by removing my mud guards. Antonio has photocopied a map of the roads to the north and tells me what I can expect to find in the jungle. He shows me the location of a couple of work camps where I can replenish my drinking water and, probably, find a bed for the night. It rained heavily earlier in the week, but not for the last two days; the roads should be passable although, without question, there will be many areas of deep mud. He casually waves aside the suggestion that I will come across the bandits, rogues, murders and rapists that the good people of El Remate seem convinced haunt the jungle, waiting for an unwary cycle tourist to pass.
The logistics of my journey sorted, Antonio donates a few tortillas to complement my avocado. He then cooks himself some eggs. After we eat, I show him photos of some previous parts of my journey.
Day 2 – A Muddy Track
In the morning, Antonio and I set off together as he has decided to accompany me for a way, to set me on the right track. We head out of the village on footpaths through the houses and then onto a road ankle deep in fine black mud. Narrow tracks, parallel the road in places, skirting the worst of the bogs but, even so, with thick viscous mud sucking at my wheels a couple of kilometres has me wondering about the feasibility of this venture. However, the road we are pushing and dragging our bikes along eventually joins another where the ground is firmer. Antonio gingerly shakes my muddy hand and then sends me on my way.
The day passes slowly, as I negotiate patches of mud and fend off clouds of mosquitoes, while toucans flap from tree to tree overhead, turkeys, guans and carassows stalk across the track and monkeys chatter and rant above me, clearly indignant at my presence. My fondness for spider monkeys is becoming somewhat tempered by their propensity to hurl missiles out of the canopy at unwanted passersby.
Antonio’s instructions on the route appear hazier in the forest than they did at his table. I count off turns to the left but I am unsure exactly what counts as a significant turn as opposed to an unremarkable one. Sometimes the road splits and branches around boggy sections and then reunites on the other side of the obstacle and at times the diversions wander from the main stream for long enough for me to start wondering if I am heading into uncharted jungle.
Eventually, a sign appears. It says Dos Lagunas and has a neatly hand carved wooden arrow painted yellow hanging below pointing to the left. I am torn, though – I thought there was one more left hand turn to pass. Leaves cover the track and the trees lean in overhead. Antonio told me not to take the second path because although it does go to Dos Lagunas the road is steep and round about… but why would anyone place such a beautiful sign directing people the wrong way? After some moments of indecision, I turn onto the path.
As I struggle to haul myself, my bike and my belongings along the punishing track, still wondering if I have made the wrong decision, I feel that I am indeed alone in the wilderness. There is nowhere to stop and rest, the only place where it is possible to sit is in the middle of the road itself, in the places where it is not a foot deep in mud and, anyway, to stop is to be besieged by insects. Mosquitoes whine all around me, ants swarm over the ground, stinging and biting on contact with bare skin. The canopy closes overhead; there is no vista, no way to see the lie of the land or the scope of the forest but, just when it starts to feel utterly relentless and my confidence is wavering to the extent where I am considering turning back, another sign comes into view and I go on.
Eventually the track begins to descend again and I arrive at Dos Lagunas as the shadows lengthen and the sun finally loses its sting. I sit by the lagoon watching baby crocodiles until a couple of workers appear. They are somewhat surprised to see me but welcoming enough. I cook my dinner over their kitchen fire and then collapse in my tent and try to sleep in the hot humid night.
Day 3 – Respite In A Hammock
The road between Dos Lagunas and Rio Azul is considerably less demanding than the first leg of my jungle adventure and so it’s early afternoon when Rio Azul comes into view. Rio Azul is a much larger work camp than Dos Lagunas, with numerous cabins and buildings surrounding a large cleared area, but it is practically deserted when I arrive. A young man deep in conversation with a girl, who flounces off huffily when I appear, are the only people in sight.
I quiz the guy about the border crossing to Mexico and he assures me it is not far but it is the hottest part of the day and I am still worn out from yesterday’s ride so I am happy when the young man points to some hammocks hanging in a thatched shelter. I find myself snoozing the rest of the afternoon away swinging gently in the breeze.
As the afternoon passes, the camp gradually fills up with people. Another man comes over to talk and takes me to the kitchen where the camp cook rustles up some re-fried beans and toasted tortillas for me. The first guy I spoke to comes back and shows me a cabin where I can stay the night before I return to the hammock with Como Agua por Chocolate, the novel I am attempting to read in Spanish, and my Spanish dictionary. My attention is constantly distracted from the book, however, by a group of Ocellated Turkeys going about their elaborate courtship rituals.
Eventually the dinner bell rings and I return to the kitchen to eat with the workmen.
Later, back in the hammock shelter, the men question me at length about my life and I, in turn, question them about crossing the border into Mexico. They all agree that the border is close and that there is no problem with crossing it. There is, however, no immigration post but no-one, including me, seems to think that this small detail is problematic.
Day 4 – Crossing Borders
In the morning I set off, with the intention of crossing the border back into Mexico. I am heading north towards Cancun on the Yucatan Peninsula where I hope to find a way to hop across to Cuba and this foray into Guatemala has been largely motivated by the need to get a little more visa time in Mexico in order to organise the logistics of the Cuba trip.
On the road towards the border, I pass the Rio Azul archaeological site and stop to explore. A group of three Mexican archaeologists are currently on site and many of the workmen at the camp are engaged in various tasks to do with the restoration and preservation of the structures, presumably under the direction of these archaeologists.
Nobody is around, however, and I wander about the overgrown ruins alone. On top of one of the larger structures, a rickety wooden lookout has been constructed and I climb to the top to view the jungle canopy from above. Circling the structures, I notice each one has an opening, carved through the stones, straight to the centre of it and I hope that it is possible to enter but I am thwarted in each case by a firmly locked steel door.
Finally back on the bike, I head towards the border. I really don’t know what I was expecting of a border crossing without an immigration post but as I approach it things start to get a little weird. First, I met the young Wildlife and Forestry guy from the work camp jogging along the road towards me. He stops, tells me that I am close to the border now, and jogs away. Then, the road ends. Two other guys from the camp appear from the brush pushing a four wheeler out of a ditch. I am a little confused but they gesture into the thicket and tell me that if I follow the path I will come to a road in Mexico soon. They assure me that everything is OK, the way is clear and I can go on. They check my bike over and ask me if I have enough water.
I follow the winding footpath through the forest and the warnings of the people in El Remate suddenly come back to me. They told me I was heading in to the Zona Roja – the Red Zone – where drug traffickers and people smugglers do their business across the Guatemalan/Mexican border. I keep pushing the bike along the discrete but well-trodden path while pondering on whether the guys from the camp had come this way specially to check if the way was clear for the crazy gringa on her bike, or, alternatively, if perhaps they themselves are the drug traffickers and people smugglers. They would be pretty well set up for it but they all seemed like nice guys to me.
Just after passing a small clearing on the path where people could potentially gather, while still under cover, I stumble, blinking, out of the jungle into a bizarre space. A bare strip twenty metres wide stretches away in both directions, adorned at regular intervals by white painted obelisks. On closer inspection, each obelisk, it turns out, is graced by four plaques, stating Guatemala and Mexico on opposing sides, while the other two sides are bisected by that imaginary line that makes nations.
I spend a considerable amount of time here, unable to drag myself away from this weird spectacle that makes so little sense to me. Eventually, however, after locating the road on the Mexican side of the line by dint of wandering up and down for a while, I am about to set off into Mexico when it occurs to me that, really, getting my passport back in order if I go through with this is probably going to be quite a bureaucratic nightmare.
What on earth, I am going to actually tell the Mexican immigration people when I rock up to their office for my entry stamp? And what about the next time I want to enter Guatemala? How will I explain the fact I don’t have an exit stamp? Suddenly, it doesn’t look like such a good idea so, reluctantly, I retrace my footsteps and head back into Guatemala.
When I get back to the road, I study my map. The guys at the camp had told me that there were two options for crossing the border and this one had the main benefit of being the closest one. The other one is at a place called Tres Banderas, the point where the Mexico, Guatemala and Belize all converge, and the road is clearly marked on the map traversing the border. There is no immigration post there either apparently, but, perhaps, I think, if there is a continuous road, at least, I will have a more convincing story to tell the authorities. I decide to go to investigate.
I find the junction and set off on a narrow track following a sign which informs me that it is 11 kilometres to Tres Banderas. The road doesn’t appear to get any traffic at all and it gradually gets more and more overgrown but I persevere. Sticks and vines constantly find ways to wrap themselves around the spokes of my wheels and my chain drive and eventually since I am having to stop to remove them every few metres, I get off the bike and push.
Suddenly, some way ahead of me I see a brown shape moving on the road. I stop and grope for my binoculars.
The animal is walking down the track towards me, casually doing puma things, oblivious to my presence. It stops and I lose sight of it for a second as it rolls in the grass and then gets up and continues on its way, pausing again to rub its face on a vine hanging over the road. The animal moves with a steady feline grace. It seems that the beast is just going to keep on walking down the track until it runs straight into me and I am quite tempted to allow this to happen but at about 80 metres caution prevails and I decide to let it know that I am here.
I wave my arms in the air and say, “Hi, Puma!”
The animal stops immediately and regards me very intently for almost a minute before turning – slowly, disdainfully – and walking, at exactly the same pace as previously, back the way it came before disappearing into the jungle to one side of the track. I wait a little while before continuing on my way past the place it vanished. The forest is so dense that I can barely see 10 metres into it.
It is not long before I come to a point where the track, regardless of the information provided by my map, is suddenly swallowed up by the jungle and there is nothing left for me to do but attempt to get back to Rio Azul before dark.
The men at the camp are astonished to see me again. “Couldn’t you find the road?” they enquire. I explain that, really, an illegal border crossing isn’t very convenient for me and they consider this unexpected fact.
Day 5 – Change Of Plans
My only option now is to head south to where I can cross the border legally into Belize and then north from there towards Mexico – a venture which requires tackling another 100 kilometres or so of muddy jungle road to the border town of Melchor and then traversing Belize to get more or less back to the point where I am now, only about 50 kilometres to the east and legal.
The road starts of nicely, leaving Rio Azul, but quickly degenerates into a muddy mess which I struggle along all day. I will pass another work camp on the way to Melchor but night falls before I reach it and I set up my tent in a small clearing in the dense jungle provided by a track to one side of the road.
I pitch the mosquito netting inner of my tent, without bothering with the fly, and dive into it as quickly as I can, still covered in mud, to escape the dense cloud of mosquitoes savaging me. Dinner is tuna eaten straight from the tin. I lie in my tent stark naked, sweating, unable to sleep because of the heat.
Day 6 – Exhausing Cycling In The Heat
I wake in the morning to the sound of a rooster crowing and discover that I set up my tent less than 50 metres from the turn off to the work camp. I have high hopes of a decent breakfast but the place is deserted and so I ride on after refilling my water bottles. The road is reasonably solid now but there are a number of intersections and I have no information about which way to proceed. I navigate by the simple, but not necessarily reliable, expedient of following the road which appears to get the most traffic.
Early afternoon, I come to a barrier manned by three uniformed soldiers armed with huge assault rifles. They are speechless on seeing me emerge from the jungle on a bicycle. They make me wait while one of them disappears and then returns with a man from the organisation that manages the protected wilderness area and he questions me at length about where I have come from while he stares incredulously at my mud encrusted bike. Eventually, they raise the barrier and, as I round the corner, I leave the jungle behind me.
Riding along the road which traverses cleared land outside the protected area the sun beats down relentlessly and before long I have to stop and take shelter under a lonely tree for a few hours until the heat eases a little.
Late afternoon, another hour of riding brings me to Melchor where I search out, first, an ice drink and, then, the cheapest hotel I can. The room is a cell-like concrete box containing nothing other than a single bed and a rickety ceiling fan. The jail ambiance is reinforced by the small window set high in the wall and a hatch in the door which allows you to view a person on the other side without opening the door. The shared bathrooms down the hall are similarly sparse; a tiled box with a bare pipe emerging from the wall, unadorned by any form of shower head.
Shower. Food. Bed.
Day 7 – Arrival in Melchor!
Melchor, on closer inspection, is a town of few charms but everything I own is mud encrusted and filthy and I am utterly exhausted so leaving immediately isn’t really an option. I spend the morning washing my bike and then my clothes before I seek out an internet connection and spend the rest of the day plugged in to cyberspace with only occasional food breaks.
Read more of Anna’s adventures on her blog: 1000 WORDS. All pictures on this page are courtesy of Anna.