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where the wild things are

The road between Dos Lagunas and Rio Azul is considerably less demanding than the first leg of my jungle adventure and so it’s early afternoon when Rio Azul comes into view. Rio Azul is a much larger work camp than Dos Lagunas, with numerous cabins and buildings surrounding a large cleared area, but it is practically deserted when I arrive. A young man deep in conversation with a girl, who flounces off huffily when I appear, are the only people in sight.

I quiz the guy about the border crossing to Mexico and he assures me it is not far but it is the hottest part of the day and I am still worn out from yesterday’s ride so I am happy when the young man points to some hammocks hanging in a thatched shelter. I find myself snoozing the rest of the afternoon away swinging gently in the breeze.

As the afternoon passes, the camp gradually fills up with people. Another man comes over to talk to me and takes me to the kitchen where the camp cook rustles up some re-fried beans and toasted tortillas for me. The first guy I spoke to comes back and shows me a cabin where I can stay the night before I return to the hammock with Como Agua por Chocolate, the novel I am attempting to read in Spanish, and my Spanish dictionary. My attention is constantly distracted from the book by a group of Ocellated Turkeys going about their elaborate courtship rituals.

Eventually the dinner bell rings and I return to the kitchen structure to eat with the workmen.

Later, back in the hammock shelter, the men question me at length about my life and I, in turn, question them about crossing the border into Mexico. They all agree that the border is close and that there is no problem with crossing it. There is, however, no immigration post but no-one seems to think that this small detail is problematic.

Rio Azul work camp.

I get a cabin to myself at the Rio Azul work camp.

A pair of Ocellated Turkeys. The male is involved in a riveting and, clearly, quite exhausting courtship dance. He keeps at it for hours and then collapses on the ground all tuckered out. The female seems largely uninterested.

In the morning I set off, with the intention of crossing the border back into Mexico. I am heading north towards Cancun on the Yucatan Peninsula where I hope to find a way to hop across to Cuba and this foray into Guatemala has been largely motivated by the need to get a little more visa time in Mexico in order to organise the logistics of the Cuba trip.

On the road towards the border, I pass the Rio Azul archeological site and stop to explore. A group of three Mexican archeologists are currently on site and many of the workmen at the camp are engaged in various tasks to do with the restoration and preservation of the structures, presumably under the direction of these archeologists.

Nobody is around, however, and I wander about the overgrown ruins alone. On top of one of the larger structures, a rickety wooden lookout has been constructed and I climb to the top to view the jungle canopy from above. Circling the structures, I notice each one has an opening, carved through the stones, straight to the centre of it and I hope that it is possible to enter but I am thwarted in each case by a firmly locked steel door.

Overgrown ruins at the Rio Azul archeological site. Rio Azul is a working site with real live archeologists doing their thing.

A raided tomb - grave robbers cut their way into the depths of these structures back in the 70s and looted the contents of the tombs at Rio Azul. Most of the artefacts, recognisable by a unique glyph associated with the Rio Azul site, are now in private collections in the States. When I told one of the archeologists that I would like to see inside she informed me that a hazardous fungus infests the tombs and they have now been sealed.

A lookout built on the top of one of the structures provides a rare opportunity to see the jungle canopy from above.

On the way back to my bike, I spy a walking trail which lures me into the jungle for a diverting hour or two.

Spectacular trees...

Coati or Pizote - this little critter is surprisingly aggressive. He catches sight of me and comes scampering down the tree towards me quite threateningly. I backed off.

Finally back on the bike, I head towards the border. I really don’t know what I was expecting of a border crossing without an immigration post but things start to get a little weird.

First, I met the young Wildlife and Forestry guy from the work camp jogging along the road towards me. He stops and tells me that I am close to the border now and jogs away.

Then, the road ends.

Two other guys from the camp appear out of the brush pushing a four wheeler out of a ditch. I look at them a little confused but they gesture into the thicket and tell me that if I follow the path I will come to the road in Mexico soon. They assure me that everything is OK, the way is clear and I can go on. They check my bike over and ask me if I have enough water. Um, yes. I push my bike into the jungle.

I follow the winding footpath through the forest and the warnings of the people in El Remate suddenly come back to me. They told me I was heading in to the Zona Roja – the Red Zone – where drug traffickers and people smugglers do their business across the Guatemalan/Mexican border. I keep pushing the bike along the path while pondering on whether the guys from the camp had come this way specially to check if the way was clear for the crazy gringa on her bike, or, alternatively, if perhaps they themselves are the drug traffickers and people smugglers. They would be pretty well set up for it but they all seemed like nice guys to me.

Intricate plots for a complicated thriller set in the jungle suggest themselves to me. All the elements are here: an exotic location; a host of intriguing characters – the foreign archeologists, the gang of rough and ready workers, with their prison style tattoos, the handsome young Wildlife and Forestry worker, with his girl trouble, the cook and her assistant, rich foreign collectors, without many scruples; pickup trucks arriving in the early hours of the morning, full of mysterious boxes; there is a shady back story, with tomb robbers; sealed up pyramids with a deadly fungus growing inside; wild animals in the forest; a whole range of illicit activities – drug trafficking, people smuggling, wildlife poaching – to add unexpected twists and turns to a labyrinthine plot line. It is bound to be a best seller and if I can tie it all in with the Mayan 2012 end of the world prophecy then Dan Brown will be eating his heart out and I will be laughing all the way to the bank!

At the end of the road in Guatemala a discrete, but clearly well-used, foot path winds through the jungle towards Mexico.

Just after passing a small clearing on the path where people could potentially gather, while still under cover, I stumble, blinking, out of the jungle into a bizarre space. A bare strip twenty metres wide stretches away in both directions, adorned at regular intervals by white painted obelisks. On closer inspection, each obelisk, it turns out, is graced by four plaques, stating Guatemala and Mexico on opposing sides, while the other two sides are bisected by that imaginary line that makes nations.

I spend a considerable amount of time here, unable to drag myself away from this weird spectacle that makes so little sense to me. The idea of nations, a relatively recent historical phenomena, has never seemed particularly real to me and I am astonished by the way this abstract concept has been physically carved into the landscape.

I emerge from virgin jungle into this weird space.

Just so as you are in no doubt as to where you are...

...everything is clearly....

...delineated and labelled... one hundred metre intervals. Absurd!

Eventually, however, after locating the road on the Mexican side of the line by dint of wandering up and down for a while, I am about to set off into Mexico when it occurs to me that, really, getting my passport back in order if I go through with this is probably going to be quite a bureaucratic nightmare. What on earth, I am going to actually tell the Mexican immigration people when I rock up to their office for my entry stamp? And what about the next time I want to enter Guatemala? How will I explain the fact I don’t have an exit stamp? Suddenly, it doesn’t look like such a good idea and it amazes me that it ever did.

So I retrace my footsteps and head back into Guatemala.

When I get back to the road I study my map. The guys at the camp had told me that there were two options for crossing the border and this one had the benefit of being the closest one. The other one is at a place called Tres Banderas, the point where the Mexico, Guatemala and Belize all converge, and the road is clearly marked on the map traversing the border. There is no immigration post there either apparently, but, perhaps, I think, if there is a continuous road, at least, I will have a more convincing story to tell the authorities.

I decide to go to investigate.

I find the junction and set off on a narrow track following a sign which informs me that it is 11 kilometres to Tres Banderas. The road doesn’t appear to get any traffic at all and it gradually gets more and more overgrown but I persevere. Sticks and vines constantly find ways to wrap themselves around the spokes of my wheels and my chain drive and eventually since I am having to stop to remove them every few metres, I get off the bike and push.

Suddenly, some way ahead of me I see a brown shape moving on the road. I stop and grope for my binoculars. A puma! The animal is walking down the track towards me, casually doing puma things, oblivious to my presence. It stops and I lose sight of it for a second as it rolls in the grass and then gets up and continues on its way, pausing again to rub its face on a vine hanging over the road.

The animal moves with a steady feline grace. It seems that the beast is just going to keep on walking down the track until it runs straight into me and I am quite tempted to allow this to happen but at about 80 metres caution prevails and I decide to let it know that I am here.

I wave my arms in the air and say, “Hi, Puma!”

The animal stops immediately and regards me very intently for almost a minute before turning – slowly, disdainfully – and walking, at exactly the same pace as previously, back the way it came before disappearing into the jungle to one side of the track. I wait a little while before continuing on my way past the place it vanished. The forest is so dense that I can barely see 10 metres into it.

It is not long before I come to a point where the track, regardless of the information provided by my map, is suddenly swallowed up by the jungle and there is nothing left for me to do but attempt to get back to Rio Azul before dark.

Puma! I am a bit over-excited (the puma is only about 80 metres away and walking straight towards me) and the light isn't great so, sadly, the quality of this image doesn't do the animal justice. In fact, the photo is barely intelligible and I shouldn't post it but I just can't help myself!.

The men at the camp are astonished to see me. “Couldn’t you find the road?” they enquire. I explain that, really, an illegal border crossing isn’t very convenient for me and they consider this unexpected fact. My only option now is to head due south to where I can cross the border legally into Belize and then north from there towards Mexico – a venture which requires tackling another 100 kilometres or so of muddy jungle road to the border town of Melchor and then traversing Belize to get more or less back to the point where I am now, only about 50 kilometres to the east and legal.

I almost ran straight over this little fellow and after photographing him where he was on the road I heard a rare vehicle approaching so I moved him out of harm's way.

Groups of butterflies in tasteful colour combinations sit on the road.

The mud situation is beginning to get tiresome; after a good start, the track degenerates and I have another difficult messy day ahead of me.

The gateway to the jungle... unfortunately, I am leaving it behind... About fifty metres past this symbolic gateway there is a real barrier manned by military personnel. They were truly astonished to see me appear out of the wilderness on my bike.

A sorry sight on re-entering the lands where humans hold sway.

{ 8 } Comments

  1. Javier | June 19, 2010 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    Awesome Anna. Good luck with the Cuba trip.

    PS: I miss biking almost since the day I arrived in Europe again. Shit.

  2. anna | June 20, 2010 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    So…if you are missing your bike, you and Asa should come and join me! I’m sure we would have some great adventures…

  3. Billie | June 21, 2010 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    Hi! My husband and I met you in Xcacel. I lent you the snorkel mask! I hope that your travels are still going well. I will be keeping up by reading your blog. Safe travels!

  4. anna | June 21, 2010 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Hi there, thanks for visiting the blog and thanks for the loan of the snorkelling mask!

  5. Jonathan | June 21, 2010 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    Hi Anna, fabulous account – write that book!

  6. anna | June 21, 2010 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    I thought something about the idea of that novel might appeal to you, Jonathan, and perhaps you can help me get my Mayan facts straight.

  7. Fernando | December 27, 2010 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    Hola Anna I m Fernando from Parroquia Hostel hope you are having great hollidays and safe trips around. Now I m planning a trip with some friends to El Mirador the way you did throug the jungle acrossing the hidden small road you show me and I m wondering which is the last town in the Campeche s side??? do you remember that?

    How I going to be able to get the white momuments you displayed in your pictures right on the boarder of mex-guatemala.

    Is there aany town by the mexican boarder??? I m thinking about arroyo Negro.

    Well hoe you are having good hollidays and I m so impressed with your pictures, they are amazing!!!

  8. M. Marty | March 1, 2011 at 1:29 am | Permalink


    yes you’re right this is Arroyo Negro beyond the Mexican border.
    You can see this village if you climb the Mirador in the archeological site of Rio Azul.
    Unfortunately the jungle has disappeared and destroyed in this area to leave place for farmland.

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