I almost died in Guatemala: A harrowing and hilarious story about surviving the worst and carrying on with the journey.
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I almost got stranded in Guatemala

November 14, 2017

It was a straight shot to the famed Mayan ruins at Tikal.  One right turn and we would arrive at a majestic preserve of times past.  So I thought, and I was very wrong.  Driving for two hours in Guatemala can be pretty harrowing, as I learned.  I lived to tell this cautionary tale so you can avoid enduring a grisly end.

My crew was coming from San Ignacio in neighboring Belize – a great home base for outdoors adventuring.  We planned on crossing the border some twenty minutes west and making it to our destination in just under two hours.  Once we arrived at Guatemalan customs and immigration, the first wrench was thrown into our plans.

We were swindled, bribed, motioned into various lines, extorted for a “fumigation” of our car that might have used two tablespoons of fake bug spray to check a box for governmental compliance.  Just as we were ready to drive freely, a small child convinced us that we needed to give 100 quetzales to a police officer.  He was visibly armed, but he seemed surprised when the money came his way.  Ask for a receipt if anyone tries to make you pay fees.

Then the real fun began.  Driving in Guatemala is a bit like playing frogger, only the cars are the ones in danger.  We may have counted in excess of 100 stray dogs randomly darting across the road.  Three fat pigs and various horses cluttered the two-lane road.  Many children seemed in danger of chasing a ball in front of our vehicle.  Underpowered motor scooters and bicycles forced us into passing in dangerous spots.  And finally, we almost died after a full-on Dukes of Hazzard moment on an unpaved road.

You see, earlier in the trip in Belize, we raced past a tractor-trailer and almost died in a head-on collision with another big truck.  So, passing the next one in Guatemala, our driver put the pedal to the metal to ensure we passed with a larger cushion of safety.  Little did he know, the paved road would suddenly end, and a pothole the size of a Honda Civic would send us flying heavenward, screaming like babies, until we slammed back down on the gravel and had our hearts fall back through our frightened gullets and into their proper places.

A car with fire burning under the hood. This is how I almost got stranded in Guatemala.Don’t let this be you.

It.  Was.  Brutal.  Please drive carefully and do not pass unless you are absolutely sure about the road conditions!

After realizing we were all physically okay, we slowed down, noticed the car was smoking and made an emergency stop on the side of a dirt road.  I am so thankful that the car was not actually on fire, and as a bonus we were not kidnapped by banditos and did not become modern Mayan sacrificial victims.

We eventually made it to Tikal, and had a lovely time, but the peril we were temporarily in gave us a good scare and left us wanting the comforts of home for a good few hours.  These moments will happen when you’re going on adventures, and you have to learn to cope with them and turn a positive out of a harrowing experience.

The next day, our battery was dead because OnStar would not stop making emergency calls (the system activated on impact) and we couldn’t find a way to turn it off.  Luckily, a member of our party was fluent in Spanish and was able to get a mechanic and some other locals to help jump our car.  I highly recommend brushing up on basic language skills or bringing along a native speaker if you’re going to be making this trip or doing exploration in Central America of a similar sort.  If not, rely on the guides and spend a little bit more money to stay safe.

We thankfully made it out of the country in one piece and headed to the beach to blow off some steam.  Now I need another piña colada and a massage.  Peace!

A photo of Byron smiling at the beach - surely happy to have escaped being stranded in Guatemala.


Byron Barnes
United States

Aspiring Travel Writer / Proud Introvert / Lapsed Nerd

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