Is the journey really worth it?

BEN GROUNDWATER
Last updated 05:15 17/04/2014
Guatemala
Ben Groundwater

TAKING IT SLOW: Guatemala's buses are about the spectacle, not the speed.

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It's dark outside, pitch black, when the guy with the machine gun gets on board our bus and stalks down the aisle. He's wearing a balaclava - you can only see the whites of his eyes as he scans the passengers, the gun held tight to his chest.

A few seconds ago I'd been asleep. Now I'm wide awake, and seriously pondering the wisdom of catching the bus.

The guy walks past me, staring, the gun looking huge in his hands. It takes a few seconds to spot the insignia on his jacket: police. Phew. The balaclava remains a mystery, but we're somewhere in the middle of southern Mexico and this is no time for questions.

The policeman wanders down the aisle of our bus, scanning passengers, not uttering a word, until, seemingly satisfied, he jumps out and signals us to carry on. The bus pulls back on to the lonely highway, past the roadblock, and continues on into the night.

This is a journey. It could have been quite a simple journey, with a few flights and a taxi ride, but I've opted for the more difficult, more interesting and probably more dangerous option.

I'm trying to get from Zipolite, a little surf town on Mexico's Pacific coast, to Panajachel, a lakeside settlement in Guatemala. My circuitous route, booked with romantic notions of "It's the journey, not the destination", will take two-and-a-half days and include three taxis, two local buses, an overnight bus, a cycle rickshaw, a tourist shuttle, a boat, and a border crossing on foot. It will also include countless brushes with local Mexicans and Guatemalans, some spectacular scenery, some uncomfortable nights without much sleep, and a guy in a balaclava with a machine gun. But it's all about the journey, not the destination, right?

That's why I'm throwing my backpack into an old van in Zipolite, hoping to catch a lift down the coast to Puerto Angel, the nearest transport hub on this quiet coastline. There are only beach shacks and potholed roads around here, no towns of note until we rattle into Puerto Angel.

From there I'm jumping on a small local bus for the three-hour journey to Tehuantepec, a slightly larger city with a slightly larger bus station. And from there I'll catch a slightly larger bus, too, one of the surprisingly comfortable intercity vehicles that crisscrosses Mexico, ferrying millions of people a day.

Or night, as it were, because this one is a sleeper, a rocket through the night, speeding me towards the Guatemalan border. The balaclava-clad policemen should probably make me feel safer, but in reality he does the opposite, causing a sleepless night of wondering what the big gun would be used for.

Still, I make it to Tehuantepec unharmed, the sun dawning on another glorious day as we pull into the bus station and unload the backpack once again. I could already be in Panajachel, of course, drinking a mojito on a hotel balcony. And I'm starting to think that would have been a good idea.

In Tehuantepec I'm headed for the taxi stand to make the short journey to the border. Taxis only go so far - I have to do the last few hundred metres on foot, passing the "Bienvenidos a Guatemala" sign before getting a stamp in the passport and crossing to another world. It's noticeably poorer here, noticeably shabbier as I hail a cycle rickshaw and negotiate a price to the next bus station.

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Things are about to get even more interesting. In Guatemala local buses aren't just any old buses, they're brightly painted riots of entertainment, often clapped out old things that have clearly had more money spent on their paint job than the maintenance of their engines.

I jump in one and we're on the road again, this time on a cramped, four-hour journey to the mountain town of Quetzaltenango.

I'm staying the night in Quetzaltenango - there's no other option. But this still isn't my destination. The next morning I'm checking out of the hostel and wandering back down to the bus station to board a tourist shuttle, one of the minivans that offers a little more comfort and safety at an inflated price.

They're not risk-free, however. A few of these shuttles have been stopped by robbers in the past, highway bandits who make off with the bounty of tourist wares. Today, however, we're left alone on the twisting mountain roads, cruising finally into Panajachel and to the end of the road.

Except, I'm still not there. My hotel is on the banks of Lake Atitlan, which means I'll need to take a boat to get there. And then, finally, I will have arrived. It's a beautiful destination - but it's got nothing on the journey to get there.

The writer travelled at his own expense.

Have you ever taken the more dangerous travel option? What happened? Would you do it again knowing the risks? What would you have done - jump into a small local bus for a four-hour journey or book a flight?

- FFX Aus

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