There is no concrete reason but border crossings always make me nervous. Rationally I know thousands of people do it each day without a hitch but I tend to imagine crooked officials and endless harassment. Crossing from Belize to Guatemala was text book smooth and about as exciting as flossing your teeth (sorry to down play any dental hygiene aficionados, just saying). Shannon gives all the gory details in her border crossing reports so lets move on.
Crossing into Guatemala from Belize one quickly notices that the world has changed back to Spanish and the easy English communication found in Belize is long gone. The drive from the border to lake Peten Itza was sparsely populated jungle/agriculture/ranch/empty green/clear cut, but basically green rolling hills. We found a delightful camp on the shores of Lake Peten Itza and stayed with a Mayan family on their family compound. We arranged to meet up with HOBOtrail so we could share dog-watching duties. Why does Ducati need watching you say? The Mayan ruins of Tikal are a quick half hour drive from our camp and dogs are absolutely not allowed in the Tikal nature reserve.
After five days on the lakeshore and a visit to Tikal we pulled stakes and headed west for more camping about thirty miles away in Ixpanpajul Natural Park. Rain was unrelenting but the park staff took pity on us and let us pitch our tent under the picnic shelter for our stay.
Between squalls we took in an afternoon at the nearby town of Flores. Flores is a quaint little town built on an island in the middle of the lake. Not much to do but very pretty.
After four days at the park we needed to head south to get to Antigua to begin out three weeks of Spanish language school. The trip was planned to take two days with a stop in the central highlands but bad weather, civil unrest, and a very bad road added some extra time. In order of WTF:
1. Civil unrest: One sure way to get your point across in Guatemala is to block the main north-south highway and refuse to let anyone pass. Sixty miles north of Coban we came to a line of semi-trucks stopped on the road. Drivers were out of their vehicles chatting and everyone else was on foot walking in the opposite direction we wanted to go. After a chat with the truckers they explained there was a protest ahead; the road was blocked and people were angry. The Guatemalan truckers emphatically told us it would be “peligroso” (dangerous) to try our luck playing the dumb tourist card and try smiling our way through the roadblock. We took heed and turned around just as the heavens let loose in torrential rain, ADVENTURE!
We found a cheap and cheerful motel 15 miles back and hunkered down for the night, all our gear muddy and dripping in a tiny room in the middle of nowhere. I was petrified of driving through Guatemala City the following day so we spent the evening pouring over maps to find a route to Antigua that did not include crossing the “murder capital” of Central America. Shannon was not so worried and quietly plotted a route through the city on the GPS. Smart girl.
I awoke bright and early, map in hand to accost anyone I could find in the parking lot of the hotel. Of the three local men I talked to all confirmed the roadblocks were over, my intended route around Guatemala City would get us killed, and that the entire long distance road system in Guatemala passes through Guatemala City. In other words, Shannon was right and I worry too much.
I made one fatal error that morning by asking the hotel desk clerk on our way out of the parking lot, about the road block. He said of course it was still in place and the three other people I spoke with were wrong (my internal bullshit alarm went off but I manually over-road the alert). He proceeded to show me an alternate route on my map and his parting words were “road is fine, no problem”, in Spanish of course.
2. Very bad road: The alternate route recommended by the hotel started out as a twisty but paved road winding up into the mountains. The scenery was stunning but the complete absence of traffic had me worried. About thirty miles into our day the pavement ended in mud/loose rock/switch back/fucking steep type of road. Shannon fell over in a tight corner at the very moment we were discussing over our helmet radios if we should turn around. As we picked her bike up a 4×4 truck stopped and some local men helped us get Zippy back on her feet. They said the road only got worse from here. We turned around.
3. Bad weather: I failed to mention it was raining nonstop from the moment we left the hotel.
So our little work around cost us three hours and we found ourselves across the street from the hotel where we started that morning getting gas and asking the gas station attendants if the road block was still in place. Everyone at the station confirmed the hotel guy was crazy, the road had been open all morning. Damn that gut instinct override.
We were on our way south again wet but in good spirits. We stopped one more time before Antigua but otherwise our north-south trek across Guatemala was the spectacular stuff that I had been dreaming of most of my adult life.
The piles of dead bodies and crazed drug gangs that I anticipated at the gates of Guatemala City never materialized and Shannon’s expert routing got us through the city in less than a half hour with only a couple of stops at traffic lights. It was completely uneventful and all I saw were normal people doing normal things. I need to drink less coffee and try yoga maybe.
A year before this trip started we had selected and paid for a three-week intensive Spanish course in Antigua. We also had a two-bedroom house rented for our stay in the center of town, NICE! Antigua will always remain a special city in our hearts and we made many friends in a short amount of time whether it was weekend rides in the mountains with Eduardo, Maria, and David, chatting with Jose and Rodrigo at Mototours-CATours, and enjoying our teachers Raul and Sonia at La Union school. We truly felt we were taken in and received as friends, not tourists. I think friendships like these are the holy grail of overland travel through foreign countries.
After three weeks in Antigua we hooked up with our Guatemalan friend and fellow rider Cisco Prahl. He led the way to his family’s lakeside house on Lake Atitlan in the village of San Marcos. The house was a stunning sight to behold and we had a great weekend with Cisco.
Cisco is headed south to Argentina as well and we already have plans to meet up in El Salvador later this month. While staying at Cisco’s house we discovered our next campsite on the lake was only a half-mile away. We geared up, loaded the bikes, and traveled for four minutes. Our campsite is one of the most scenic we have had to date and it will be hard to leave this spot: perfect view, perfect temp, and perfect people sharing the property. Guess who we ran into here? Those folks from the Long Way Home who shared the Seattle Times article with us way back in August. Great family and a lot of fun.
We are going to be southbound once again and will cross into El Salvador in the next few days.
Guatemala has been a special place for us. The people are warm, friendly, and good-natured. The riding is spectacular and the scenery fantastic, it was a wonderful six weeks.
For those of our friends out there that avoid Facebook like I used to, remember you can view the S&M Boiler Works Facebook page anonymously and you do not need a Facebook account to see it. Just click the blue F Facebook icon from our website. We post a picture or two every few days as well as funny updates. Thanks for following along. Best wishes, Mike, Shannon, and Ducati.