Crossing the border between Mexico and Guatemala was an interesting experience. We thought that security would be tight but there was only one guy sitting in a little office who checked our passports and away we went. The differences in the countries was immediately noticeable. As soon as you cross the border, you feel the poverty. The streets are dirtier, the buildings are more ramshackle and the people seem to be more wary.
The landscape is amazingly different as soon as you enter Guatemala as well. The mountains just jump up in front of you and you drive through green canyons on narrow windy roads. You see farmers growing coffee and other produce on the sides of these mountains which must take some talent because they're so steep.
Our first stop in Guatemala was in a city called Xela. Our first impression of it was the same as when we entered Guatemala....dirty with a sense of wariness to it. One of the gals on our bus lived there and told us that it wasn't really safe to be out after 8pm. We thought that maybe she was exaggerating a little but on our first night, we saw that all the local shops locked up tight in the early evening. It gave us the creeps a little as we figured that if the locals were afraid to be out at night, then so should we! Needless to say, we hung out in our hostel for the 2 evenings we were there.
However, in the day it was a much different place. There are a ton of Spanish schools in the area we stayed in and so we saw lots of language students around. Lots of cool little cafes and shops too. The city has a Parc Centroamerica and all the government buildings and banks surround it. All the banks have armed guards (with shotguns!) standing out front....
And so, you must wonder what brought us to this place? The prettiest hotsprings in Guatemala! They're called Fuentes Georginas and they are nestled in a nearby mountain top. They're so far up that the air is cold which is perfect because these springs were HOT.
After a lovely day at the hotsprings, we were ready to move on from Xela. We decided that we would give the chicken buses a go and what an adventure that turned out to be.
The morning of our departure, we hopped on a collectivo (little buses that cruise around) and told the driver we wanted to go to the bus terminal. He took us to a bus terminal but it turned out that it was for the local city buses (which are just school buses). After a very confusing few minutes, we asked one of the bus drivers which bus was for Panajachel (our next destination) to which he responded with a laugh and told us in a flurry of Spanish to get on his bus and he'll take us to the right spot (at least that was the gist...). He dropped us at a highway intersection and tells us that it's the place to catch our bus. The only problem was that there was no bus station....
On old gentleman who had been on the city bus with us must have seen our very blank looks and came to our rescue (he spoke English...yahhh!). He explained that the chicken buses pick up passengers at designated intersections and you just tell the driver where you're going. They'll take you to the next 'depot' to catch an ongoing bus to your destination. We had 4 transfers and thankfully, our rescuer was going to the next town from Pana and so was able to help us with our transfers along the way.
Needless to say, we were the only gringos on the bus and so drew a fair amount of attention. Lots of people smiled and the few that did speak any English were happy to try their hand at it with us.
Definitely a good way to break ourselves in on the chicken buses (which I should mention are just big old school buses with very fancy paint jobs...think flames!) and the whole trip cost us under $2 for a 3 hour trip. Good times!