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Goodbye Mezcal…Hello Rum! (and toilet seats!) (Day 101) – Juchitan, Mexico to Malacatán, Guatemala | We're Not There Yet

We caught an overnight bus out of Juchitan, in order to skip about 4 days of riding through the brutally hot region of the Mexican Isthmus.  The Mexicans we spoke with assured us that we were missing nothing, and we just don’t have the patience to keep riding.  We’ve begun to think almost exclusively in terms of “time is money” and that, given our daily budget, we can only afford to travel for a few more months.  The idea that we’d give up five days of travel somewhere further down the road just to ride through this brutal landscape just doesn’t seem worth it. So we took a bus.

The bus dropped us off in Mexico’s southernmost city, Tapachula, around 7 AM.  Our plan had been to spend the day and night Tapachula, resting from the overnight bus ride and taking care of whatever we needed to take care of, before sleeping and then crossing the border the next day.  So we rode from the bus station to the center of town.

There’s not much to say about Tapachula except that the first thing to strike you upon arriving is the utterly massive, finely pointed volcano that looms to the north of the city.  It is an ever-present silhouette, sort of like a rural skyscraper, and it served as a warning to us that the area we are about to head into in Guatemala is utterly, stupendously, and exhaustingly comprised of mountains and volcanoes.

The second thing that we noticed is that there are tons of Chinese restaurants here.  Not the “wow, I’ve seen 5 Chinese restaurants in this town” kind of “tons” but the bad-neighborhood-in-Brooklyn kind of tons.  A Chinese restaurant on every block.  We can’t quite figure it out, since we haven’t seen all that many Chinese people walking around.  But it is definitely noticeable…and amazing.

The last strange thing about this town, and another sample of what we expect in Guatemala is that there are coffee shops everywhere.  Mexicans, like most poor countries that produce coffee, actually only drink instant coffee (e.g. Nescafe).  The good beans are exported to wealthier countries and the locals just drink the lousy factory-made stuff.  We’ve heard that Guatemala is the exception to that rule, and this close to the border there seem to be quite a few people (if the number of cafés is anything to go by) that drink the good stuff.  Which is good news for us, because a day doesn’t really start until we’ve had some coffee.

We lingered around the square long enough to find some too-expensive hotels and to talk to a guy who spoke great English but had a very sad tale of legal woes, amounting to his false accusation of assault in a border town.  Apparently he was framed by police after refusing to bribe them, and he was fighting the case in court and if he won, the police chief and mayor would be pressured to step down.  It sounded kind of believable, and sort of intriguing, but at 7:30 AM it was just a little too much, too soon.  I finally looked at M and asked whether she had the energy just to leave Mexico, and she did, so we just put on our cycling clothes and headed the 15 km to the border.

Why not?

The border was a chaotic and unpleasant scene.  Money changers nagged us constantly to change money, and we shooed them away in annoyance.  It was in trying to leave Mexico that we realized we needed around $50 cash in “exit fees” and we needed Guatemalan money to pay a $3 entry fee.  There are no banks in that area, so I ended up having to work my way through the line of money changers, bargaining as hard as I could until I got an exchange rate that wasn’t too terrible.

Ah-oooooooo, Guatemala!

The Mexican-Guatemalan border is actually a river, and while I stood on the bridge, haggling, we saw a group of people wading across the river below us, towards Guatemala, with big baskets full of goods held up over their heads.  The money changers pointed out the Mexican soldier and told me that they had been caught trying to sneak into Mexico and were now being forced back across the border.  It felt a bit ironic.

This was happening right under the bridge

All it took was one look from the Mexican soldier with a big gun to get these three to turn around and go right back where they came from. And probably try again tomorrow.

After making it past the border we cycled another 15 km or so into our first Guatemalan town, Malacatán.  The scene on arrival was of a massive rally.  The presidential election is going to be held on September 11, and the whole countryside is aflame with rallies, posters and billboards advertising the 12 or so parties running in the election.

We found a very nice hotel for the bargain price of $14 and settled in for a relaxing day of reading, eating and sleeping.

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