Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Driving in Guate: not for the faint of heart

There are three major challenges to driving in Guatemala: the roads (and I mean here the physical condition), the lack of clear signage, and the drivers. The main highway, the Panamericana, is only a divided four-lane highway for part of its length. The road does not pass around cities and towns along its trajectory but goes right through them, for the most part.  The landscape, of course, is spectacular -- not that a driver gets to admire it much as she manuevers around hairpin turns, steep ascents and descents, and the frequent construction zones. Last year's rainy season was one of the worst in recent memory, by all accounts, and the evidence can be seen (still) alongside the highway. Not all of the landslides have been cleared, and between Tecpan and Chimaltenango there are frequent signs warning motorists of an upcoming desvio (detour) as crews are out trying to clean up the rubble. In some places it looks as though half the mountain came down on the road surface (I had the dubious pleasure of driving this same highway last August during the rainy season and early one morning came up a school bus half buried in dirt, rocks and mud). 

Much of the country, however, does not have what we (in the states) would consider "highways", although the word carretera seems to be used pretty loosely.  Outside of the town limits of Chinique, the roads are dirt, gravel, and rock. Heading up to Tapesquillo, where a lot of my acquaintances live, the road is terraceria (unpaved, gravel). For some of the steepest stretches, there are two cement tracks, each slightly wider than a car's tire. However, there is sometimes a big gap between the dirt/rock surface and where the "track" starts (or ends, if you are coming down hill), so you have to catch the track at just the right angle. Sometimes the space between the two tracks has rocks jutting up, or conversely, is a deep rut so that if one of your wheels goes off the track, it can be hard to get your car back on track. Also, did I mention that many stretches of hese roads are usually just a single lane? So if you encounter a vehicle coming in the opposite direction, someone has to back up to a point at which the road is wide enough for the other vehicle to pass. 

Then there is the lack of clear signage. In order to successfully get somewhere in Guatemala, one really needs to have gone there before. Entering Antigua, for example, from the north, the first exit to Antigua is more or less clearly marked from the highway at Chimaltenango. However, after that, you're pretty much on your own.  The road goes straight ahead for about half a kilometer and then comes to a T: no signage. If you have made the correct choice at this point (turn LEFT), then you continue for a while. You eventually come to a town called Pastores, and the road you are on runs along the right hand side of the central plaza. If you continue straight ahead (which I did the first time I came this way) the road goes through neighborhoods and kind of peters out. What you actually need to do is turn left when you first arrive at the square (although there is no sign saying "Antigua thataway").  Then you zip along for another little stretch, the road is relatively well paved and goes past lush fields and a few little shops and restaurants out in the middle of the countryside. There are very few vehicles, and a couple of guys on foot or bicycle in the late afternoon (so almost nowhere or no one to ask for directions). The road eventually comes to a pretty important-looking crossroads. One sign points you to Escuintla. Another sign directs you to Jocotenango. I think there is a third that directs you to Chimaltenango or maybe Guatemala. But nothing indicating which road you take for Antigua (which presumably was your intention when you turned off the highway). To save you all trouble: take the road for Jocotenango, which is the town just before Antigua, and just keep on following it.

When the route passes through towns such as Chichicastenango or Santa Cruz del Quiché, it stops being a highway. It does not go straight through the town. Instead, you have to work your way through city streets.  Chichi is all narrow cobblestoned streets, with many speed bumps (as though you could drive fast over the cobblestones and needed to be slowed down even further). The streets are usually thronged with red and white tuk-tuks ( moto-taxis that are the size of a pedicab), flamboyantly painted interurban buses, and pedestrians. To get through Chichi (say, if you are heading to Guatemala City from Quiché), the route makes frequent turns (almost none of which are marked). Once last summer I was driving through Chichi at about 4:30 a.m. and couldn't clearly see which streets to follow and ended up in the central market plaza (which is normally closed off to vehicular traffic but there were no barriers up at that hour of the morning), driving near the base of the church steps, past a few small bonfires that had been lit by people who were camping out on the steps or in the plaza.

Well, assuming you can figure out where you are going, then you need to take into consideration the other vehicles on the road and the people who are driving them. Most of my Guatemalan friends agree that Guatemala is full of exceedingly awful drivers. It's not that they are incompetent but many are extremely reckless and aggressive.  Especially noteworthy are the drivers of inter-urban buses and mini-buses (called camionetas). The drivers think nothing of passing on a hairpin turn with no guardrail and a steep drop over the side. These are 2-lane roads; no one pays the least attention to the road side signs saying "Disminuye su velocidad" (diminish your speed) or "Maneje con precaucion" (drive carefully).  Or the signs that indicate no passing. The occasional PMT (police) vehicles that traverse the highways pay little or no attention to the clear violations of not only traffic rules (if there indeed are any) but common sense. This morning I saw a police officer wave out his window at a bus driver who zipped around into the oncoming traffic lane and passed three vehicles, including that of the police officer.

Then, of course, there are the vehicles. One of the most favored vehicles, perhaps the archetypal vehicle in the altiplano, is a Toyota pick up. As my friend Patrick noted some time back, it should probably have Rhode Island or Massachusetts plates.  I personally know three people in Quiché with maroon Toyota pick-ups. There are other brands around: Isuzu, Mitsubishi, the occasional Ford. But Toyota seems to be the pick-up of choice. And they do seem to last forever: I saw several for sale that were models from the mid-to-late 1980s that all looked (and sounded) to be in decent condition.

Of course, I'm talking about everyday vehicles used by people in rural areas -- vehicles used to take goods to market, bring merchandise to small stores, or to carry animals, people, furniture. In the cities like Antigua and Guatemala City one sees more upscale vehicles  -- and there are certainly some of these also in Quiché (but they are outnumbered by the more modest, "working" vehicles). 

I've started this entry off in a lighthearted tone. However, in the last year or so there has been a rash of extortionists who have been attacking and killing bus drivers, primarily in Guatemala City. 

And many people don't have cars. If you live in a rural aldea, it might take over an hour of solid walking to get to the nearest town.  Getting a ride in a pick up truck, van or tuk-tuk can cost as much as Q50 each way. So getting to town is a time-consuming and/or costly proposition. 

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