The group was a little subdued this morning. It was an earlier start with breakfast around 7am but also many had been up all night trying to figure out how the hell to get home. With the US closing their borders to even connecting flights they had created a huge obstacle for many.
We wondered what today had in store for us. The Mayan day was Iq', day of the wind, a turbulent day, not a good day to travel, apparently.
Breakfast for us was a repeat with Huevos Rancheros and a bacon butty with hash browns. We didn't have much time. Our launch to take us back to Frontera was ready to leave at 8am. We all got our bags, paid our bills and scrambled into the boat.
Our minibus was waiting for us at the dock. It was much smaller than the one we had on Saturday. Irene, Christoph and Christian had come with us and we dropped them off at the bus station. We all wished them good luck eventhough they have ended up booking the same flight from Guatemala to Cancun on Tuesday. "We'll see you tomorrow" we joked.
We left Rio Dulce/Frontera heading North through lush tropical landscape. The CA-13 road took us to within metres of the border with Belize, at Gracias a Dios Falls, although there was no crossing here. Guatemala have an ongoing dispute about Belize in general going back to 1859 but especially this area and there was a visibly higher military presence here.
As recent as last year there was a stand-off between both countries on the Sarstoon River which forms the Southern Belizean border where Guatemalan gunboats stopped Belizean equivalent from patrolling it.
Anyway, with heightened security we were stopped at several check-points. At one an army officer stepped into the minibus, spoke at length in Spanish, which Gabo translated into one sentence "He wants to know if you have any fruit?"
We tried our best not to burst out laughing as he had such a serious face. Richard rummaged through his bag and produced an apple but that was the sum total of fresh fruit we had between the twelve of us!
At another check-point it was more thorough as we got our passports checked and Gabo had to answer a few questions like "where have you come from? / where are you going?" By the time we got stopped for a third time it was getting a bit tedious.
We didn't drive through many towns but when we did it gave us a glimpse into rural Guatemalan life. Like in Chacte where ramshackle stores sold everything a community needed from food to motor parts and women still wore the beautiful traditional skirts.
Just before the town of San Luis we stopped at a Texaco petrol station for a comfort break. We had been on the road for about two hours and felt good to strech our legs. Some crisps and drinks were bought and we were back in the van.
Back on the road we continued up the CA-13 through some beautiful rural landscapes. All of a sudden we pulled over on the side of the road. We'd ony been driving for 15 minutes after the Texaco garage. Moments earlier I had seen Gabo turn to Lucia, showing her something on his phone which made both their jaws drop.
He got out of the minibus and was speaking to someone on the phone for quite a while. When he came back he said"Hey guys, do you remember when I said that the shit could hit the fan, .... well, the shit has just hit the fan!"
I thought Mexico had closed its border but no, Guatemala had just announced a comprehensive lockdown of its border. Effective from 00:00 Tuesday 17th March (tomorrow) no non-nationals were allowed to come in or OUT! Essentially foreign nationals had until midnight tonight to leave the country.
We were stunned into silence. Julie was close to tears.
We discussed the possibility of returning to Guatemala City but we'd already travelled two and a half hours from Rio Dulce, which itself was seven hours on a clear run from the capital. There wasn't a suitable shortcut through the Central Highlands, those roads were treacherous and much slower.
There wasn't a cats chance in hell of making it back to catch a flight tonight.
With this in mind Gabo came up with an idea, to get into Mexico overland. We all agreed that it was our only shot so he phoned the office to pitch that idea. A worrying five minutes passed, then Gabo's phone rang. They were working on the detail but yes, make a run for the border!
There was something else. Whilst the restrictions come into place at midnight the land border crossings shut at 5pm! The entire North of the country was one large jungle biosphere so our only route out of Guatemala was West, to a town called El Ceibo, which was about four and a half hours away. It was now 11am. So it was feesible.
Our thoughts then turned to the other three, Irene, Christoph and Christian. Gabo had already sent them a message and Jordan also sent them a message on the Whats App group.
Back on the road with a bit more urgency we continued North towards Flores.
Very soon we came to the town of Poptún which rather bizarely had a dirt airstrip right it in the middle of it. "Can we fly from here?" somebody asked more in jest than in hope. Gabo didn't think any commercial airline used it. "It's probably just the military." he added.
Most of the time from Poptún to Flores was spent trying to cancel our flight reservatons for tomorrow. The mobile coverage was very hit and miss so we very kindly piggy backed onto Suzie's personal hotspot who seemed to be receiveing a better signal. Expedia flight was cancelled easily, but Volaris didn't have a cancel option! Taxi from Cancun to Tulum cancelled, but our Tulum accomodation was prepaid non-refundable so we couldn't do anything about that.
When we reached Flores we stopped again at a Texaco petrol station.The driver must have a loyalty card or something! It was now about 12:30pm. We couldn't afford the time to stop for lunch so we had to grab whatever we could from the garage shop.
I got Julie a cheese and ham sandwich but I just couldn't find anything meat-free for me. In the end I resorted to buying a loaf of sliced bread and a packet of Laughing Cow cheese triangles. At least I wouldn't starve!
From Flores we headed South briefly along PET-11 before turning West at La Libertad on PET-13.
We were making good time, hurtling down the road, taking advantage of there not being too many unmarked speed bumps to slow us down. The road skirted the Sierra Del Lacandón National Park as we raced towards the town of El Naranjo.
When we came to the junction for El Ceibo and Mexico the driver stopped to take a picture! We were now less than twenty minutes away and about 3:15pm. We had time to spare.
It was such a relief to have reached here with an hour and a half of breathing space. Although there were a few more hurdles to cross before we reached Mexico. This is where we said goodbye to our driver and minibus. We thanked him profusely for his valiant effort in getting us here in time. Although he hung around for a while taking more photos.
Our first obstacle was a formality, at the Guatemalan immigration office. Although Julie's first obstacle was the steps to get to the immigration office. She was right behind me but then she struggled with a step, which to be fair was the equivalent of two steps in one. Her knees buckled with fear. Her heart was racing as she began to worry that perhaps Guatemala wouldn't let her out, or maybe Mexico wouldn't let her in. She was overwhelmed. She had to be helped up.
We all handed Gabo our passports and he went into the immigration office alone. In the meantime we were briefly distracted and entertained by this muddy pig that appeared, rummaged in the dirt by the side of a lorry and then wandered off.
Gabo quickly returned with our exit stamped passports and we moved on to the next obstacle, the temperature check. Technically we were still on the Guatemalan side of the border, so I'm not sure if we failed this test would they actually stop us from leaving.
We all took the laser thermometre to the forehead and were waved on, even Julie, despite feeling the hottest she's ever been. It wasn't a good time to have a hot flush.
Ahead of us was the walk into no-mans land, leaving Guatemala behind but we were not in Mexico yet.
We walked up a caged walkway towards the Mexican immigration office and formed an orderly queue. There were others here, but thankfully not too many. Julie was just focusing on keeping her shit together but it wasn't helping that we were stood in direct sunlight.
Our driver was still with us, still taking photographs until a soldier with a machine gun told him 'No fotografias!" He left straight after that.
All of us were getting a little too hot. Thankfully when we reached the end of the walkway there was a gap in the railings where there was some shade to be found behind the office. Cooling down in no mans land we were given forms to fill. I sat on the floor to complete ours then waited our turn to go into the office.
We went in together and were greeted by a jovial immigration officer, quite a rarity. The room was wonderully air-conditioned. "Can I just sit here for a few minutes?" asked Julie which he understood was a joke and laughed politely.
He checked our forms then told us we needed to have our temperature taken, We joined the queue where medics in white coats and paper masks were taking temperatures the old fashion way, with a thermometer under the armpit.
We were stood side by side with thermometers lodged deep into our armpits, our freedom hanging in the balance. One minute felt far more than just sixty seconds as we waited for the results. Julie was rapidly becoming a sweaty mess.
They pulled hers out first. It had a digital reading and I spotted it showing 37.2C. Now that was much hotter than normal but not showing signs of a fever. She was OK! My thermometer was an old school glass and mercury, they read the temperature out loud in Spanish and wrote down 36.7C on a form against my name.
We returned to the air-conditioned immigration office to get our passport stamped and pay our $30 tourist visa because we intended on staying in Mexico for more than seven days. We were now free to stay for up to 6 months! "Let's hope it doesn't come to that!" said Julie.
One final hurdle was a bag search and scan. A small child "helped" us put our bags onto the conveyor belt then held out his hand for a reward. "You cheeky little sod" I told him as I handed over all our Guatemalan coins.
That was the final obstacle. We were in! Safely in Mexico. Julie was literally shaking with relief. It was an adrenalin rush.
By the time everyone had come through it was 4:38pm. That was a close call.
There was a minibus waiting for us and rooms had been booked in a hotel in Villahermosa, the nearest major transport hub to here. We can only applaud Intrepid for coordinating our escape from Guatemala and our continued safety in Mexico. We still had the comfort blanket of Gabo with us.
News also came through from Irene that they had arrived in Guatemala City and were now on their way to the airport. They still had a race against time to catch a flight to Cancun.
As we left El Ceibo we passed a young couple walking. They had earlier asked Gabo if 800 pesos each for a ride to the nearest town was reasonable. They felt they were being ripped off and must have decided to walk. The nearest town, Tenosique, was forty miles away!
We were now travelling through the Tabasco region of Mexico. It was a very pretty area, especially the fields of flame red sorghum all the way to the rolling hills in the distance and then the Chiapas mountain range beyond them. To us, it felt like the land of milk and honey, we were just so happy to be here.
Unfortunately our new found serenity took a bit of a knock when Julie read a post on Facebook from a "friend" suggesting we shouldn't be posting our fun whilst people can't even buy toilet rolls in the UK! (or words to that effect!) Well how we ranted, we were furious, calling her all the names under the sun. "The effing jeffing miserable old bint!" was my personal favourite.
Further down the road, just after 6pm, we were treated to a stunning sunset. It felt so good to simply stare at the sun and forget about everything.
Our calmness restored.
It wasn't long after Gabo asked our driver (Manuel) to pull over at a service station so we could find something to eat. We had been on the road now for over 10 hours. Unfortunately they didn't have much on offer, not just for the awkward vegetarian but for everyone.
Minutes later we were driving through the centre of town called Emiliano Zapato when Gabo spotted a large open sided hangar to the left and we pulled over. The enormous shelter was called Plaza Yoli and was a food court! He had hit the jackpot!
It wasn't busy. In fact there was no one else eating but that didn't matter. There were two places still open on the near side, and another two on the opposite side. It wasn't at all touristy, although one of the stalls had photographs of all the dishes, which is a giveaway and with Palenque, (a major Mayan ruin) only an hour away they must have their fair share of passing gringos.
We all inevitably gravitated to the one with photographs and we formed an orderly queue. There was plenty of choice for everyone. Enchiladas, empanadas, toastadas and dishes we had never heard of before like panuchos, chilaquilaes, salbutes and many more.
Whilst in the queue I noticed that the stall next door also had quesdillas on their menu. Jordan had already asked if they did anything vegetarian and they shook their heads. But I thought I'd try and get a plain cheese quesadillas. "Quesadillas? queso?, uh, I mean, solo queso? non carne, sin carne?" and to my delight they nodded.
They were so cheap at only 12 pesos (50p) per quesadillas! So I ordered two, to share with Julie. Luckily I had some cash on me as we already got some pesos before leaving home.
The lady behind the counter went through into the back to start cooking and I paid her assistant. He must have been her son. He was a big strapping lad, but seemed a little simple, childlike. I mean that in the nicest possible way.
His face lit up when he saw a dollar note in my wallet. "One dollar" he said. I handed it over to him. He looked at Abraham Lincoln as if it was the first time he had held one in his hands. It was lovely to see his reaction so I gave it too him. "Keep it" I said and somehow motioned with a wave of the hand. He was so thrilled he went through to show his mum!
We sat down on some plastic furniture and he soon brought the quesadillas to our table. They were so simple yet perfect. A flour tortilla folded over some cheese and fried gently until the cheese had melted but the tortilla not burnt. The son quickly returned with some green hot chilli sauce, we were in tabasco after all. It was the perfect accompliment.
I was enjoying them so much I ate three halves! Taking one of Julie's halves.
I couldn't get enough of them, so I went back for another one! I was so hungry I could have sat here all night stuffing my face.
We got chatting with Gabo about Emiliano Zapata, this town was named after a hero of the Mexican Revolution. He lead a peasant revolt in Morelos (just South of Mexico City) and went on to inspire a movement called Zapatismo a socialist agricultural lifestyle to which even today some communities aspire. You could see Gabo's admiration for the ideology.
After we had all eaten we got back in the mini bus and set off on the final leg to Villahermosa. We still had another two hours to go.
After 400 miles and 14 hours travelling we were so grateful to finally arrive at our hotel, the Olmeca Plaza, just before 10pm.
However, there was a bit of a problem finding our reservation.
Whilst we waited for the keys we hooked onto the hotel's free wi-fi and booked our ongoing travel, a 12 hour bus ride leaving tomorrow at 5:40pm for Tulum. There was a 5am option but that wasn't going to happen.
We were all going our different ways tomorrow. Alex, Suzie, Rich, Margaret, Helen and Lucia were flying to Mexico City to find flights home. Mike and Mari were flying to Cancun whilst Jordan was catching a bus to Cancun.
We also received some good news into the Whats App group, a photo of Irene about to board a plane to Cancun. Great news, nobody got stuck in Guatemala. Hooray!
Eventually the hotel found all eight rooms booked under the name 'Colin Owen' ! "Hey, I'm not paying for them all" I joked but to be honest at 600 pesos (£24) for the night it wouldn't have broken the bank!
Before heading up to our room we went to the bar for a cold beer. On the wall they had this massive murial of a face carved in stone. These colossal heads were quite unique to the Olmec civilisation which pre-dated the Mayans and were centred in this region.
If we had the luxury of time and no worries about rapidly closing borders it would have been interesting to have explored this area a little.
We took our ice-cold beers and a cocktail glass full of spicy nuts back to our room. It wasn't the swankiest of rooms but it was clean and after the epic day we had we would have slept anywhere. What let it down was when we opened our window it was out into an internal shaft where all the air-con units were pumping out their hot air.
But it didn't matter. We were safe, fed and drinking beer.
It was almost midnight and we were strangely awake. I think all that nervous energy and adrenalin was still racing through our blood as the enormity of today dawned on us.
We checked today's pandemic news. There are now more cases outside of China than in China where it all began. In the UK there were twenty more deaths, with the first death in Wales recorded.
The government began a daily coronavirus press conference anouncing that social contact should be limited, including discouraging going to pubs, clubs and theatres. Non-essential travel should be avoided and people should work from home where possible.
Spain is now seeing a rapid increase in cases closely following Italy's trend, but a week behind. The sign of things to come for the UK no doubt.
Here in Mexico they only have 53 cases, all in the vicinity of Mexico City with no deaths. This is just the begining for them. It's not like SARS or MERS. This was not going away any time soon.