04 APRIL (Friday)
Early on that first morning a friend gave us a ride down to the Tijuana (Mexico) airport, which is just across the border from southern San Diego, California at the Otay Lakes border crossing. Talk about instant immersion... all of a sudden we seemed to be the only non-Latinos around, and every sign we saw and conversation we heard was in Spanish. I was glad that I had brushed up on my Spanish lessons. I can understand/translate the meaning of Spanish a lot better than I can speak it, though I can speak it well enough to handle most of the basic needs and questions. (I'm sure I mangled the grammar and pronunciation most of the time, but the locals like that you at least TRY, because it makes you seem more appreciative of their culture if you get into it, rather than try to make them get into yours).
We had to change planes around midday in Mexico City. If you're flying to Central America, you'll probably pass through here. This was a fact I was unaware of until late in the trip-planning phase. If I had known that we would be passing through Mexico City on this trip (three times, in fact!), I would have tried to squeeze in a side trip to the pre-Aztec ruins of Teotihuacan (with its famous large pyramids of the Sun and Moon), which is within easy driving distance of Mexico's capital. It's probably just as well, though, as we needed all the time we could get for the Mayan ruins, and the Teotihuacan trip would take 2-3 days (when including the archeological sites and museums of Mexico City) in itself. I hope to make that trip as a three-day weekend someday in the future, though I'm currently put off by the serious crime and pollution problem there (tourists are especially good targets right now).
Anyway, boarding the next aircraft towards Guatemala was an experience that also added flavor to the trip. There's something about boarding an aircraft from the tarmac, instead of from the protected hub/gangway of an airport building, that makes you feel more like a real traveler (instead of like a herded cow). You can feel the heat of the sun, smell the local air, and watch aircraft and other vehicles move around you while the wind trys to snatch your hat.
One thing we noticed then that seemed to hold true for the rest of the trip was that when the plane's departure time is listed as 2:25, they MEAN 2:25. In the U.S., that would be the time the aircraft closed its doors because boarding should be finished. In Latin America its the time when the aircraft is rolling down the runway with the wheels starting to leave the ground.
The flight was uneventful (all of our flights were), and by the late afternoon we were in Guatemala. Going through Customs was easy, and we took a moment to exchange traveler's checks for the amount of Quetzals (Guatemalan currency) that we each thought we would need for this leg of the journey.
After picking up our bags (soft-sided luggage) that had been torn but not ruined by the local luggage-delivery system, we proceeded outside, where the rent-a-car offices were waiting. After waiting for them to get things sorted out (you might be lucky if they can even find your reservation), they brought us a big (and I do mean BIG) white Chevy Suburban. We had decided to go with something sturdier than the average rent-a-car, since we would be traveling over unpaved roads and didn't know how rough the conditions would be. This decision to 'upgrade' was one of our best decisions of the trip. We could have gotten by with a normal car, but for various reasons that became apparent later, we were glad we had the Suburban. The rent-a-car office didn't have the paperwork that they were supposed to (the papers that allowed us to take the vehicle out of country) but they said we could get it at the central office downtown.... which happened to close in a couple of minutes. We convinced them to call the main office and have them wait for us, and we headed off into the busy Guatemalan City traffic (an experience in itself) as we tried to read our map and the local street signs. I'm sure that the large size (and possibly the cost) of our vehicle helped us bully our way through the traffic.... I doubt if we would have gotten a fraction of the respect if we had had a VW bug at anytime during the next several days.
Breathing a sigh of relief when we arrived at the main office (we hadn't run into anything, anybody, gotten lost, or broken TOO many traffic rules), we went inside and had them draw up the legal paper that allowed us to take the vehicle into Honduras. Only one driver could be registered to legally drive it over the border, and to keep complications to a minimum it was put in my name. We finished our business and drove off in search of the hotel. It was a very nice large hotel that any American would feel quite at home in. We had told our travel agent to get us very good hotels in the large cities, and the best accommodations possible elsewhere. The theory was that the best hotels in Central America would be the equivalent of a good hotel back home, and with the low costs of the rooms, there was no reason to try to cut expenses. After having a nice dinner in the elegant hotel dining room, we explored a few of the nearby shops, but retreated back to the room as it got dark. We turned in early, as the road trip began first thing in the morning.