22.10.14

That Time We Lost All Our Money and Were Stranded in Guatemala


A year ago right now, I was on a vacation in Belize and Guatemala with my love. Eight days of sun bathing on the beach, adventuring in the jungle, and every outdoor activity you can imagine. 
Not on our list? Losing all our money and getting stranded in the jungle.
I realized I never told this story, and it's one of my better misadventures. It surely deserves telling. Especially because it happened on Phil's birthday (which, you guessed it, is this week as well. Happiest of birthdays, Phillip!), making now a good time for reminiscing. 
A bit of background.
I'm atrocious with numbers, math, and money. I almost never calculate numbers - I just guess at them - because a guess is nearly as good as my math, but takes a fraction of the time. On the other hand, Phil is a math teacher and a total whiz with numbers. Typically when we travel, he's the one in charge of currency exchanges and calculating costs of activities. 
When we planned our trip to Central America, we had our itinerary set to spend 6-days in Belize and 2-days in Guatemala. The first half of our trip would be in Belize, then we would hop across the border to Guatemala, then spend a few more days in Belize before heading home.
The main draw of Guatemala was visiting Tikal - an incredible Mayan ruin site in the jungle. The complex is much larger than the more-famous Chichen Itza (in Mexico), but most of it is still buried under the jungle. The tallest Mayan temple to be discovered - Temple IV - is on site in Tikal and is fully excavated. And the coolest part? You can climb to the top of it. And, for a bit more money, you can watch the sunrise from the top. 
Pretty freaking sweet, I know.
So when Phil and I discovered this, we decided we absolutely had to go. How cool would it be to traipse through the jungle in the dark, arrive at the temple before dawn, and then watch the sun appear over the jungle while howler monkeys and toucans serenaded us?
We timed it perfectly so that we could do it on Phil's birthday, making it his gift and celebration, of sorts. 
We found a really great deal on a hotel - the only one inside the Tikal national park - with an attached sunrise tour. It would be nearly half the price of other tours, but just as good (from what we could tell). We booked it, and I paid a deposit on it. 

Alright, so, a bit more background. In Belize, they use either Belize dollars or US dollars as their primary currency, the exchange of which is pretty simple (1BD to .5USD). In Guatemala, their currency of choice is the Quetzales, which equals out to about 8Q to 1USD. In Belize, the national language is English, while in Guatemala they speak Spanish. 


Flash forward: we are now in Belize, in the city of San Ignacio. San Ignacio is near the border with Guatemala, but is about 6-hours from Tikal. Phil and I had been staying in a hotel in the jungle and hadn't made plans on how to get to Tikal, but figured we'd find a bus or something. During our last day there, we met a couple from the US. The guy was [originally] from Argentina and on a road trip from Florida to Argentina, and his girlfriend had just flown in to visit him on his stop in Belize. He was leaving the next day for Tikal, after dropping her at the airport. After a bit of chatting, he offered to drive us to Guatemala for free [this is a story I'll save for another day - it's a goodie], which we agreed to. 

We headed out the next morning for Tikal. At the border, we had to wait for quite some time for our visas to be approved. While waiting, loads of locals came up and offered to exchanged currency with us. Both Phil and our new friend agreed that we should wait to exchange our money, since it's always a bad rate near the border. At that point, we had $20BD and $10USD, and 0-Quetzales with us. 
We continued on our journey to Tikal. The drive through the jungle was beautiful, but the Guatemalan countryside was quite rural, and there were no towns or cities to be seen. We finally made it to the small town outside of Tikal, where our driver/friend's hotel was. At that point, he would drop us to get a taxi, and we would part ways. 
Being the only Spanish-speaker, he called us a taxi when we arrived in the town. From what we could tell, our hotel - inside the entrance to the park - was a bit further past the town. We decided to find an ATM for a bit of cash, although we had our credit cards with us. There was one in a nearby shop, which we found just as the taxi showed up. Phil was dealing with the taxi-driver, leaving me responsible for withdrawing money. 
I went to the ATM and entered in all the required info, at which point it asked me how much money I wanted to withdraw. 
"Uhhh, I don't remember the exchange rate... 300-Quetzales sounds pretty good though. That should cover us till we get back to Belize."
My math-less mind saw 300 and assumed it was a large sum, equating it to USD. Rookie mistake. 
I took the money and walked back to the taxi. Phil asked me how much I got, and I told him. He looked at me strangely but didn't say anything. We were both exhausted and wanted to get to our hotel, and it was starting to get dark out. We got in the taxi and headed on our way. 
The taxi continued down the road we had entered on, which quickly turned into a long, winding path through the forest. There were 'Caution: Panther' and "Watch for Capybara" signs posted every once in a while, which we found quite humorous. We watched the jungle grow dimmer and darker, and soon enough it was pitch black outside. We'd been in the taxi for about 30-minutes, and there was no sign of life on the horizon. 
I started to get a bit anxious - who knew that Tikal was so far away from the town that was supposedly 'just outside' the entrance? I asked Phil if he knew was was going on, but he figured we must be getting close. It took us about 45-minutes to get to the marked entrance of the park, at which point the driver pulled over.
"Go... pay" he said in a mix of English and Spanish that we couldn't understand. We had to pay? Pay for what?
Phil and I walked over to the small building he was pointing to, on which we saw a 'prices' sign posted when we got a bit closer. A man in the building opened the window and looked at us, waiting.
"Daytime? Two of you?"
"Tickets? Yes, we need two daytime tickets"
"It costs more to go into the park at sunrise. You can buy those tickets inside the park in the morning, though. Two daytime tickets will cost 200-quetzales."
I looked at Phil, getting a bit nervous. 200-quetzales? That was 2/3 of the total amount of cash I withdrew at the ATM.
"Uhh, do you take credit cards?"
"No, cash only."
"And we have to buy our ticket now? We can't get it tomorrow? Our hotel is in the park."
"You must buy your ticket now, even if you're staying at the Tikal Inn."
Welp. That was that. I handed over the majority of the cash I had, and prayed for the best. He handed back our tickets, and we got back in the taxi. 
"The cabby fare had better be less than 100-quetzales..." I whispered to Phil, getting seriously anxious about the money situation. 
"Don't worry about it, I'm sure there's another ATM in the park," Phil responded. 
After about 10-more minutes of driving, we finally arrived at our hotel. The cabby took out our bags and led us to the [very] dark hotel. A doorman with a flashlight greeted us.
"Sorry, the electricity is only turned on between 6:30 and 11:00pm. It should be on shortly," he said. We got our bags inside, and turned to the cabby. 
"100-quetzales" he stated. Given the extent of our journey (nearly an hour), the price didn't seem out of the ordinary. Phil and I exchanged looks as I handed over the last of our quetzales, eyeing the dollar bills still remaining in our wallets. 

The taxi-driver left on his merry way, and Phil and I entered the hotel. There was a battery-powered lamp on the front desk, and I could see flashlights bobbing down hallways in the distance. We checked in, and I handed over my credit card to pay for the room.
"Just a reminder, you must pay for the sunrise tour tomorrow morning if you plan on going."
"Oh, can I just pay for it here and now? I thought it was through the hotel," I asked.
"No, I'm sorry, the tour guide is private and requires a separate cash payment before it begins in the morning."
"Where is the nearest ATM?"
"There aren't any inside the park. The closest is the one in the nearby [ha! nearby!] town outside the entrance."
At this point, I about broke down in tears. This was supposed to be Phil's birthday gift, and the whole reason we came to the park! We can't have spent a whole day traveling to Tikal only to miss out on the main purpose of coming - the sunrise tour. Plus, we hadn't even considered having to pay for another taxi back, and then a bus beyond that. How were we even going to get out of the park if we couldn't get cash?
"So, is there anyway you could withdraw cash from your register as part of my hotel payment?" I pleaded.
"Well yes, but I personally can't do it. The only person who can do such a transaction is my boss, and she's on vacation."
Panic. Serious panic. I started pouring out my story to the man behind the counter, explaining my own stupidity and my desperate need for the cash so that we could at least get back to the town outside the park.
"I can try contacting her, but there's no guarantee she'll pick up," he said. I asked him to please do so. At this point, we wandered down the halls looking for our hotel room while sporting headlamps. We found our room, went in, and collapsed on the bed.
"Did you know I didn't get enough money?" I asked Phil.
"Well yeah, I mean, it didn't seem like very much, but I figured you knew what you were doing." he laughed.
PHIL WHY WOULD YOU ASSUME I KNOW WHAT I'M DOING WITH NUMBERS. At which point I half-jokingly half-seriously tried to blame our predicament on him. 
"Promise me from now on you will be the only person in charge of our money on our trips" I told him. We laughed a bit more in the dark and I pretended not to be freaking out about being stranded in the jungle, and hour away from our only chance of money/escape.
A few minutes later, the lights came on and we made our way to the hotel restaurant. Thankfully, I could pay for things inside the hotel with my credit card, otherwise we wouldn't have been eating for 24-hours either. 
I compulsively went to the front desk to check on the guy trying to get ahold of his boss. Every time I walked into the lobby, he just sadly shook his head, not having gotten a response from her. 
Phil knew how worried I was about the situation, and being the amazing person he his, tried to reassure me that it would really be ok if it didn't work out, and not to worry about it. He made the executive decision that we should go swimming in the pool for a while, rather than to stick around the lobby and stalk the desk worker. 
The pool ended up being the best decision, as it was totally dark outside, but there were fireflies everywhere and bugs of every sort chirping in the jungle just a short distance from the water's edge. Absolutely picturesque. It still couldn't stop me from going in after 30-minutes for an update. Of which there was none.
We finished up in the pool and headed indoors. By this time it was about 10:30, giving us 30 minutes more of electricity and our last hope of getting cash, and as a result, going on the sunrise tour. 
By this point, I'd basically given up on getting the money. I apologized profusely to Phil about ruining his birthday, and he of course was totally chill and mostly had to calm me down (ha ha, this is a recurring pattern). 
With ten minutes left, I went for a last trip to the hotel lobby. The man behind the desk looked up at me and said "Oh good! I was worried you went to bed. I got ahold of my boss!"
I swear, the relief I felt...
"There's a small problem though. Because of issues with taxes and our bank and credit card rules, there's a pretty hefty tax. You'll have to pay a 75% fee to withdraw money from us..."
I DON'T EVEN CARE JUST GIVE ME THE MONEY I practically shouted at him. Thankfully (or not?) my inability to calculate anything made it so that a 75% tax didn't sound terrible and totally do-able. 
I handed over my card, and he did his thing on the computer. 
"Alright, here are your quetzales," he said, as he handed me the cash.
I could have kissed his feet. I took the cash in hand, and did a happy dance down the hallway to our room. 

"PHIL WE ARE GOING ON THE SUNRISE TOUR! HAPPY BIRTHDAY!" I shouted as I jumped onto the bed. 



And that, kids, is why math is important and why you should never withdraw money without calculating exchange rates. 


PS- it was absurdly foggy the morning of the sunrise tour, so we didn't actually get to see the sun rise till about 20-minutes after it had officially risen. Still totally worth it, though. (see photo above)
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7 comments:

  1. Crazy story! Wonderfully written! I was on the edge of my seat the whole time haha! Glad you got the money :)

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  2. What an adventure! I would have been flipping out! Thanks for sharing.

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  3. I was definitely flipping out at the time! haha, though in retrospect, it's pretty funny. Glad you enjoyed it! :)

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  4. Thanks! haha I'm glad we got it too! Happy you enjoyed it :)

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  5. Hahaha oh no - this was both so adorable and so terrible. Reminds me of the time my then BF got violently ill in Puerto Rico the morning after we discovered all of our cards were locked. I have never begged so hard for a free taxi ride before (to the hospital, no less!).


    Ain't travel grand?

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  6. Oh no! hahaha that is terrible! I feel like these types of experiences always suck when you're going through them, but are great for laughing about later on.

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  7. haha great lesson at the end of the post! Not going to lie - I would have been furious at my boyfriend if he knew I was wrong and he just let me do it...then again, 'I thought you knew what you were doing' sounds like something my boyfriend would say as well! ha! I'm glad you guys weren't officially stranded in the jungle though!

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