I had been living in Mexico City for about 3 months. I was studying at the Centro de Ensenanza para Extranjeros at UNAM and living in a rundown little neighborhood downtown, within walking distance of the Zona Rosa the financial district and the Zocalo. When my session of intensive Spanish studies was over I came up with a plan to travel to the Islas de la Bahia in Honduras, the cheapest place in the world at the time, to study diving.
I believe the Zapatista conflict had just started or flared up in Chiapas before I went through. The buses traveling to Chiapas were rumored to be a popular target for bandits. These elements of danger added a small thrill to the beginning of the trip. As it turned out, the bus ride was uneventful and like most bus travel in Mexico, far more civilized than any intercity bus ride you could take in the US.
I don’t remember the specific towns where I stopped other than San Cristobal de las Casas, which I heard was something of a capitol for the Zapatistas. Some of the more beautiful places I have seen in Mexico were in Chiapas. San Cristobal was touristy — I remember lots of Americans in t-shirts and shorts — but I enjoyed it thoroughly. I browsed hand crafts and ate home made confections and walked around the streets all day. References to the Zapatistas were all over the place there.
A small town in Chiapas whose name I do not recall was the most memorable visually. The town was nestled between craggy ridges but still low enough in elevation to have thriving pine forests. I enjoyed a sunrise and sunset there with the smell of cooking fires hanging in the otherwise clean mountain air. There was a chapel on a hill that could only be reached by a set of long steep steps. I rented a bike and rode to some sort of tourist attraction that completely escapes my memory now.
Getting to the border with Honduras required climbing over some enormous pass. The regular bus lines didn’t extend that far. Instead, transportation was provided by small operators with VW buses. The demographic of the tourists was starting to change. For example, There was an unfriendly couple with dreadlocks from Italy who were in Mexico for rock climbing — I had fallen in with the backpacker tourist set. Every local I met from that point on in the trip new my type from a mile away. I was on a Lonely Planet main route. On that ride into the pass, the owner of the VW bus had to stop for fuel. I saw him purchase enough gas to account for the fares of every traveler on board, and realized he must be operating on a razor thin margin.
Compared to the giant, militarized border crossings between the United States and Mexico, the border between Mexico and Guatemala was just quaint. This border featured a 100 meters of dirt road in no mans land that had to be crossed on foot. There was no problem. The Guatemalan border guards were polite and efficient. I crossed into Guatemala and waited to catch my next bus.
The buses in Guatemala were all old school buses from the US. It wasn’t just that they bought the same models of buses that are used for school buses in the states; I saw one bus that had a thin coat of paint that failed to cover the words “Savanna Public Schools,” written in large block letters.
One of the backpacker tourists with whom I road on that trip from the border to Huehuetenango told a story about how she had been traveling someplace in India and had come down with dysentery. She had spent a month recovering in some tiny village where her accommodations included a dirt floor with a hole in the corner to use as a toilet. The hole emptied into the pig pen. When she used the toilet the eager pigs would crowd around the hole; she could see their waiting snouts. Given that many pigs in the world are kept in these conditions, I can see why so many cultures forbid the consumption of pork.
Immediately before leaving for Mexico, I had been visiting my Mom in upcountry Maui. There was a cafe within walking distance of my mom’s house that sold organic coffee. One of the varieties of freshly roasted beans that they had available was labeled “Huehuetenango.” I loved the word for its Dr. Seuss gawkiness and repeated it to myself every time I was in the Cafe. I remember discussing it with my mom too, although I don’t remember what we said. Several months later, i found myself in the town of Huehuetenango, Guatemala, the place where that coffee had come from. The outskirts of the town reminded me of Kotzebue. The roads were of dirt, but wide and well maintained and people were driving four wheelers and dirt bikes. There was a strange sense of bustle there that, combined with the rough frontier feeling of the place, I found unsettling. The evidence of industry was clear; unlike in Kotzebue many of the four wheelers were piled with bags of green coffee.
The center of Huehuetenango was a classic Spanish style town. The Lonely Planet warned me sternly about being ware of pick pockets; I took appropriate precautions. At a large drug store I ended up having a long and involved conversation with the owner. He told me that Huehuetenango was a wonderful place to live and encouraged me to relocate there. I was halfway inclined to take his advice. Four wheelers, great coffee, friendly people . . . and probably thanks to the admonitions of the Lonely Planet there wasn’t a backpacker tourist in sight.