There we were at the dock in San Pedro bargaining for a boat to Santiago. The price seemed prohibitively high for a whimsical afternoon side trip on Lake Atitlan. Natasha, another traveler hoping to take the same boat, also questioned the price.
“You know, I have a car here. We could drive. You can just give me some gas money.”
Sounded like a reasonable alternative.
Just as we turned to leave, the boat ticket salesman's voice rose, “Carretera. Banditos. Peligroso.” (Highway. Bandits. Dangerous.) In other words: the highway is unsafe, so my boat is your only option. Assuming his opinion was a thinly veiled attempt to profit from fear, we dismissed it.
More Talk of Banditos
On the way out of town, we asked for directions. “Up there, right then left. But it’s dangerous. And there are bandits,” one taxi driver offered, without skipping a beat.
“Just up this hill and then a left. But are you sure you want to drive there? It’s notorious for bandits,” another man added in perfect English just a few blocks later.
We looked at one another, taking stock of our situation. Natasha attempted to reassure us, “I checked at my hostel. They said the road is in good condition. Otherwise I wouldn’t risk it.”
“So if there’s a bandito in the road, what would you do? Run him over?” Dan asked as he practiced his ducking skills.
“I guess so,” Natasha offered with an anxious laugh. “But, I can’t guarantee anything. So if you want to get out I completely understand.”
Dan and I sat there looking at each other, not quite sure what to do. We considered the odds. When was the last time anyone actually saw a bandito on this road?
Although personal safety was our primary concern, our photo equipment came a close second. Natasha too, for she’s a photojournalist. The compromise we negotiated with ourselves: hide our camera equipment in the trunk under blankets and bags.
Certainly no bandito would look there, now would he?
We Hit the Road
Initially, the road was superb – one of the Guatemala’s newest and smoothest. Our anxiety receded. Who could ever stop us here? We were virtually bandito-proof. But secretly we stole looks into the jungle and to the tops of hillsides for masked men.
Thirty minutes later, the highway crumbled into a hilly moonscape. We slowed and bounced to a crawl amidst huge clouds of dust. We couldn’t outrun anyone here. Roads like this dropped mufflers. Broke axles, too. I peered into the brush and coffee bushes each time we slowed, looking to see if anyone was approaching. I locked my door, rolled my window up.
Whenever a person appeared by the side of the road, I wondered suspiciously, “Now what’s he doing there?” Invariably, it was just a local carrying bags of coffee berries or a farmer returning from the fields. I wallowed in sheepishness because of my paranoia.
At the edge of one village, we pulled up to chat with and photograph some workers shoveling coffee berries into burlap sacks. Even the most innocent of scenes – men working, children playing, mothers cooking – couldn’t prevent a glance or two into the bushes to ensure the banditos weren’t coming our way.
The Road Hits Back
After enjoying Santiago, we piled back into the car. The return journey would be doubly difficult, for all those dusty moonscapes now pitched uphill.
At the first broken patch of road, Natasha drove like a champ – bobbing, weaving, and creating traction where there should have been none. But when the drive wheel finally began to spin freely, I could feel the tension rise in the car.
We kept the conversation going, chatting about the photojournalism projects Natasha might enjoy in places like Georgia (Republic of) and Xinjiang, China.
She deftly navigated the uphill, boulder-strewn dustbowl. Upon clearing it, she remarked, “I’m sweating. Thanks for continuing to talk to me through that ordeal – it helped take my mind off the situation.”
Silence is to fear what gasoline is to fire.
Fifteen minutes later we hit the hill. It was deeply rutted and covered in fine dust and stones. Natasha spun the wheel this way and that, making her way with wide turns. But halfway up, we were defeated. The drive wheel cried as it spun against a boulder. The cloud of dust was punctuated by the distinct scent of roasted clutch.
Natasha backed up to take another rutted approach.
We were going nowhere.
No more than 30 seconds later, a pickup truck full of passengers rode over the crest of the hill. They stopped, realizing our predicament. A group of locals and tourists (dressed in life vests, oddly enough) hopped off. One guy took the driver’s seat of Natasha's car. The others– together with Dan – pushed the car up and over the hill.
Video: Dust-Covered and Relieved
“It’s a minor miracle that you guys showed up when you did,” I suggested to one of the tourists in a life vest.
He laughed, “If our boat hadn’t broken down on the lake, we wouldn’t be here.”
One man’s misfortune is another man’s savior.
The remainder of the journey was pleasantly uneventful, but we breathed a sigh of relief upon arriving in San Pedro anyhow.
Travel Fear in Guatemala
Reflecting on the day's emotions, I realized that travel fear is relatively new to us. Aside from a rifle being aimed at us by Tajik army guys at the Afghan border and almost getting crushed at the Uzbek-Kazakh border, our travels throughout Asia were relatively – and fortunately – free from fear.
The risk of violence is higher in Guatemala. And the perception of that risk is higher still. Melodramatic local media plaster dead bodies on page one of the morning newspaper. And breakfast talk with locals, full of the latest busjackings, kidnappings, and murders doesn't inspire much confidence either. Those conversations offer unsettling parallels with the infamously dire travel warnings issued by the local U.S. Embassy and The State Department.
All of this is difficult to reconcile with the fact that our interactions with Guatemalans have generally been warm and welcoming. So instead of accepting the first dire warning, we consider data from all sources. After all, we didn’t travel to Guatemala (and Latin America) to sit in our hotel room and on tour buses. But we also don't want to tempt fate.
So are there really banditos on the road from San Pedro to Santiago? Or is this just a well-circulated local legend now taken as truth?
We may never know.