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It's two days before Christmas and today has been filled with ups and downs.
It started with us going down to the lobby of the hotel to look up directions to quickly escape the grasp of Mexico City, a task which we have since learned is impossible. And then we spent an hour re-evaluating the latest version of the iPad magazine app we're having built because the guy doesn't believe that he hasn't squashed all the bugs. We confirmed that no, there were still plenty left.
After that we packed up and had the hotel call us a cab to take us and our piles of crap to Motohaus BMW, where we expected to drop off our stuff and go hunt down food while they finished our bikes. But that was not to be. They were simply too efficient. I blame the German influence. Our bikes were done, cleaned, and standing ready to be loaded up by the time we'd finished paying the bill. We're still a little unclear about why it cost the same for both bikes when, theoretically, I had more done, but it was a totally reasonable price so we paid it, and decided to decipher the bill later. Unfortunately we were starving.
Dachary felt it best to flee the city than stop and attempt to find food. So we did, or, we attempted to. One of the important intersections Google maps wanted us to turn at simply wasn't there, and we found ourselves in the old historic part of town. It was incredible. I wish we had video for you, but my camera mount has been removed from the helmet (long story, will replace it shortly) and Dachary was simply too stressed by the excessive merging and lane-hopping to deal with taking a hand off the bike to turn on the camera.
Eventually we turned onto Eje 1 as the Eje's seem to be important cross streets. Unfortunately Eje 1, where we were, was about one mile of vendors lining each side of the street with tons of people, and vendors, spilling out into the road. We both agreed it would have been great to explore on foot, but sucked on the bikes. And then, it all disappeared. Dense hardly moving traffic evaporated and we were zooming down the road without interference from anything except traffic lights. A little help from the GPS and we were slowly shirking the grasp of Mexico City.
We rejoiced when we saw the sign thanking us for visiting Mexico City, but it had been ages in traffic, and we'd been up for at least five hours at that point without anything in our bellies but water. We kept going. Something would come up, just as soon as we got past the dense edge of the city. And eventually it did. We have dubbed it the Restaurante California, because while we got in easily enough we had the most incompetent waiter of my days. After clearing away our plates he disappeared. It was at least 15 minutes before he even looked our way and we were able to summon him and suggest that maybe getting us a bill would be a good thing. He then disappeared for another ten minutes.
The meal was uninspiring and way overpriced, but it was like a restaurant at any highway pull-off. They had a captive audience and could charge pretty much whatever they wanted. There was one good thing there. A map. Actually, an atlas, of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize! $210 pesos ( just under $20 US ) and it was mine. We debated if we really needed it, but I was unsure of the location of the border crossing with Guatemala, and after the insanity of the city, I wanted the reassurance of knowing that we had a good detailed map that we could use to extricate ourself from wherever we ended up. There are a lot of towns that aren't on our big map, and there are a lot of roads in Mexico with no names. And while, overall, the signage is pretty damn good. Sometimes it doesn't exist when you really need it.
At one point we followed the signs to Apizaco and found ourself in this beautiful little town that looked like someone had taken all the fancy boutique stores from a major city and tastefully laid them out side by side, block after block. (After consulting the map, we can confirm that Tlaxcala is the name of the town.) Many of the streets were even lined with stone instead of asphalt. Another great shopping place.
It was only a little after four at this point and both of us we feeling tired. The time spent in the heat of Mexico City's stop and go traffic combined with the poor meal and we were ready to call it a day. We had planned to camp that night at a campground not far away, but Dachary had checked the weather and it claimed an evening temperature in the low thirties, and while we can survive that in our sleeping bags, we know from experience that it's not pleasant… at all.
A little farther and Dachary's seriously starting to fade. We stopped in one hotel but realize it's a kiss-no-tell motel, and we don't want to pay for sixteen hours. They're usually sold in blocks of four, and 4 PM to 8 AM would be just as much as a normal hotel, plus the stress of a running clock and the complications of figuring out how to indicate our needs through a hidden window dealie… we turned around and continued down the road. The Hotel de Angels* ( I think ) appeared next with a normal nightly rate af $1222 pesos ($100 US) but he offered us a Christmas discount of only $750 pesos which I declined. As we exited that one I spotted another down the road. I don't remember the name but the woman offered us a room fro $250 pesos (just over $20 US) and suggested we could pull our motorcycles into their gated (and locked) tunnel of a driveway. So we did.
We took off our helmets and I grabbed my tank bag and followed the girl up to the room… on the 4th floor. Incapable of asking for something on a lower floor I went with it, came down and said "Ok. New strategy. We're on the fourth floor. So, we grab the valuables out of the panniers and leave them locked up on the bikes. "
At this point Dachary lost it and pretty much just sat down and started crying, and eventually sobbing. She'd severely sugar crashed a while ago and just kept holding it in until we found a place to stop and the prospect of hauling our stuff up four flights of stairs or leaving the panniers behind was simply too much. And, she desperately needed to eat. And, having her period on top of all that probably didn't help.
She got it in her head that the place, and the parking was insecure, and bad in some indescribable way, but agreed that in her current state trying to get a refund, getting back on the bikes, and continuing our search for a hotel simply wasn't going to happen. Also, I don't think either of us could do a very good job of asking for a refund.
So, unwilling to leave the panniers on the bikes, she put her helmet back on, grabbed her tank bag, and both her panniers, and proceeded to carry them all up at once, stopping frequently and not letting me help. "Stubborn" is a word that comes to mind. She felt that she couldn't deal with the stairs at all, but if she must she was only going to do it once, even if it was far more difficult that way.
I made a couple more trips for the rest of the stuff, and to lock the tires to the bike and found her undressed in her sleeping bag (with liner), under the covers instructing me to wake her when it was time to leave in the morning and that no, she wanted nothing to do with the idea of dinner.
I decided that the presence of warm food might change that perception and went out to find some. I wish she had of come, because what I found was so sweet.
The first restaurant was this green walled fluorescent soulless looking space with one person eating alone at a table. The next ( Restaurante Blanco i think) had a Christmas tree in the corner, with blinking snowmen, and lights. The family that owned the place was gathered around a table with the matriarch at the head, a fuzzy TV showing a dubbed US movie by the tree, and a child's car game on it. The tables were nicely adorned with tablecloths and the woman was wonderfully patient with my horrid spanish, and got me something along the lines of what I asked for. Grilled meat.
I asked her specifically what the name of it was before leaving, but forgot it 2 minutes later. It was some sort of thinly sliced grilled pork with lemony flavor, french fries (probably home made), some refried pinto beans, some avocado and a little tomato on the side.
I swung by the OXXO (the largest convenience store chain in Mexico) and grabbed some soda and some cookies (good source of fast sugar while the food digested), brought it back to our room, and startled Dachary out of sleep even though i'd been talking to her since before i opened the door.
It took some convincing to get her out of her cocoon ("It's cold." she claimed) but the food was delicious. The avocado went brilliantly with the fries, and I politely ordered her to eat some cookies when she finished. Within ten minutes she was a new woman. And now, she's laughing and reading her novel beside me.
So yeah. Today had some ups and downs.
Tomorrow we should make it to El Tajin. Some very impressive ruins. I don't know if we'll make it in before dark, or if they're going to be open on Christmas, but we'll see. There's a campground right next to it that's well recommended (actually, there are a few) but it's pretty cool in our room right now, and probably cold outside and the weather report didn't look like it was going to warm up much for Christmas. So, it's likely we'll end up in another hotel.
Cardo Scala G4 seems to be working well overall, but we're not 100% thrilled. When the environment is quiet (like when stopped at a gas station) they are almost imperceptibly quiet if you've got earplugs in. We find that they occasionally need to be rebooted while riding. Not a hard thing, but an annoying one. The audio becomes incredibly distorted and you can only barely make out what the other person is saying to you. When you reboot a module it requires both people to initiate the connection again but seems to fix the problem.
The noise filtering is impressive though. While the Sena is far louder we didn't realize just how much wind noise it was transmitting. Riding at speed today was practically relaxing it was so quiet. The G4 emits sound exclusively when someone is talking. Sometimes it's too aggressive about this, chopping off the beginning of the first word, and monosyllabic words like "yup" and "yes" frequently disappear into the ether.
As the outside noise increases so does the volume, and I believe the G4 performed quite well. It was still hard to hear at highway speeds with wind but no harder than the Sena. It was just a different form of hard.
The buttons on the side are difficult to find with a glove, and would probably be very difficult with winter gloves.
Oxford Spanish / English dictionary.
I'm seriously beginning to dislike this thing. It's nicely sized, and laid out, and the colored letter blocks on the edge of the pages make it easy to find the section you need but when you get there there's an 85% chance that the word you're looking for isn't there. It doesn't matter if you're looking in the Spanish or English half.
* There is no way in hell the Hotel de Angels at $1222 pesos could hold a candle to the the $970 peso Hotel Villes in Ciduaded de Villes. When I went in to check the rate there people were walking through the wonderfully decorated main hall in incredibly nice dresses and suits that pretty much told me there was no way in hell I would be spending the night there before I even found the clerk. I really regretted not being Charlie and Ewen that night. To be able to stumble across some totally swank digs and not worry about the price? That would have been excellent.
Woke up this morning and neither of us was particularly well-rested. I'd climbed into my sleeping bag and liner last night because our hotel room was so cold, and halfway through the night, Kay had to give in and grab his sleeping bag, too. It was ridiculous. When we woke up this morning, neither of us wanted to shower (too cold) so we packed our stuff and hit the road. This was perhaps our earliest start yet - we were out of the hotel at 8AM and on the road by 8:20.
Today's goal was to get to El Tajin to check out the ruins. We figured we'd probably have to drive here today, and then check out the ruins tomorrow - IF they're open on Christmas. Early in the day, it looked like we'd gotten an early enough start that we might actually be able to check out El Tajin this afternoon. But that changed when we started having road trouble.
We were traveling north on 119, and shortly after leaving Zacatlan, we ran into our first honest-to-goodness Mexican detour. 119 was completely closed - there was an ambulance parked across the road blocking it, and a guy with the obligatory machine gun waving people to a nearby dirt road. Some guys were putting up signs at the start to tell people how to detour, which didn't really help, but luckily Kay caught sight of a truck driving around a curve that looked like it terminated at a random person's house, but actually went on past into a cornfield.
This was the beginning of our 30-40 minute detour. We found ourselves riding along a red dusty dirt road through cornfields and a small village in the middle of nowhere. A young guy (I say kid, although he was probably in his late teens) was spraying down the road into the village with a hose - I presume to keep dust down. Unfortunately, this had the effect of turning the red dust to a muddy slime, which made me nervous, because I've had some bad encounters with mud. (Read: Acadia/Pachaug in Rhode Island - my bike still has some mud on it from that trip.) A large section of the road had been watered down actually, and neither of us could figure out where it all came from.
For a dirt road, it was actually pretty good. There were a few ditches and bumps that were easily avoided on our nimble motorcycles. We were amused to discover, however, that even the dirt roads in the middle of nowhere have topes. This is such a Mexican thing.
It quickly became apparent that nobody really knew where the detour was supposed to go. We followed a line of cars that was following a line of traffic eventually terminated in several parked vehicles. There was a guy standing in front of the parked vehicles waving people to the left, so we went that way. A few twists and houses later, we found ourselves in the middle of some fields and the lead car in our caravan encountered a car coming from the other direction, which essentially told us to turn back. So now we had to turn around and find a different dirt road that would lead back to the main road.
We discovered that all roads led to the blockage. What we'd thought were parked vehicles before were actually a bunch of cars waiting to pass through a section of the detour. It looked to me like there was two-way traffic on the dirt road, but it wasn't large enough to accommodate the two-way traffic, so some of the vehicles were moving and others were backing up. As soon as the blockage appeared to clear, though, a guy with a horse trailer full of horses turned out of the line and parked across the road, completely blocking it. WTF?
Kay rode up to where the horse trailer was blocking the road to try to figure out what was going on. He found that beyond the horse trailer, a semi-truck had tried coming up a steep grade and then backing down it again. The trailer went askew and the truck was effectively stuck on the slope, blocking traffic in both directions. Kay figured that we could scoot around behind the horse trailer in a ditch, between the horse trailer and the truck in front of him, and past the semi blocking the slope.
Kay was right.
Around the horse trailer we went. Between the trailer and truck, with plenty of room for our panniers. Down the slope next to the semi (although I went VERY slow because it was a somewhat steep grade, and Kay's bike slipped on a rock halfway down and wobbled a bit, making me nervous). At the bottom of the grade was a very shallow stream across the road (like 2 or 3 inches of water) - our first river crossing of the trip! Then we had to go around another bus that was parked in the road (again, plenty of room for our motos although cars couldn't pass) and past the long line of blocked traffic back to the main road.
Left to my own devices, I probably would have sat there a lot longer, waiting for the blockage to clear. I still think of myself as being a vehicle just like any other car or truck on the road - I think of myself as taking up the same amount of space, but really there are a lot of places we can go that cars can't. Today was a prime example of that. And it was FUN!
We left the rest of the cars sitting there and resumed our trip toward El Tajin. Within a few miles, though, we ran into another problem - there was a sign for the town we were trying to reach next on the route, and then the signs for the town disappeared. All we could see was a pay road to Mexico City, or a pay road to a town much further north from El Tajin. The free road to the intermediary town was nowhere to be found.
We went a way down the free road toward Mexico City, and quickly discovered that it went in the wrong direction. Kay spotted a row of stands along the side of the road and we decide that we should turn around there - and while we were at it, we'd grab lunch. This turned out to be a great call.
We got enchiladas from one of the women making things fresh, made-to-order while we waited. We sat at some picnic tables on wooden benches next to a lake under a shady canopy and waited while our food cooked, smelling the wonderful smells of fresh foods and being occasionally accosted by women trying to sell us wooden spoons. If you ever need wooden spoons (that have probably been hand-made) - this is apparently the spot in Mexico to get them. We kept trying to explain that we were on motos and there wasn't room, but they kept trying to sell them. At one point, a woman came by selling folding wooden chairs. I was half-tempted to buy one just to have the fun of trying to find a place to carry it.
The enchiladas had a surprise component that looked slightly like a green pepper that had been grilled (while Kay thought it was avocado) but turned out to be cactus! Kay figured it out, and we looked at mine and it was definitely cactus. I really liked the flavor - it was like a much more intense, brighter green pepper with a hint of something almost vinegary. Kay wasn't a fan, and tried unloading his cactus on me.
After lunch, we tried again to find the road to the next town on our route (Huauchinago). We found a tiny, pitted road leading past a cornfield that Kay is convinced was the right one, but neither of us wanted to spend all day traveling it, so we opted for the Cuota (paid road) to Tuxpan. Saw another sign where the paid road terminated for Huauchinago, and tried getting onto it - only to discover that the road was closed for construction. It was like being back in New England, in Maine - "Can't get theah from heah."
Luckily, though, we spotted a sign for a town further down our route and got back on the correct road. The rest of the afternoon went by smoothly, although we found ourselves back on slower, twisty roads over the mountains. At one point Kay looked at the GPS and found that we'd descended over a mile from the elevation we were at when we left Mexico City, and it was getting WARM! (It was quite cool in Mexico City, with lows in the 30s at night - too cold for camping.)
Sometime during this stretch, Kay was in the middle of a sentence and then I couldn't hear the rest of what he was saying. My headset disconnected. I tried re-connecting it, but it wasn't responding at all - it seemed to have turned itself off. I rebooted it, and after a bit of fussing, was able to reconnect to Kay again. But almost immediately it turned itself off. I assumed at this point that the battery was dying, so I tried reconnecting to tell Kay that, but didn't get a chance. We pulled over at a gas station to reconnoiter and figured out that it was, indeed, dead. Dunno why his was still good (and his lasted until the end of the day - a couple of hours later - without dying).
Unfortunately, after our dirt road detour in the afternoon, and the misleading signs after that, it was a little after 4PM when we rolled into Poza Rica, the big town on our route to El Tajin. We figured that El Tajin probably closed at 5PM, so it was time to find a place to spend the night and try to hit the ruins in the morning. Kay had found us an actual honest-to-goodness Mexican camping ground, so we could avoid paying for a hotel tonight… and after a little poking around, we managed to find it. However, it was a depressing gray gravel yard surrounded by a thick stone wall, directly adjacent to a main road. No grass, no peaceful camping sounds - just dreary gray stone and traffic noises. Which was somewhat surprising as it was an adjunct to a high end hotel ($1220 Mex / $100 US).
I used my veto power to say no ("this seems like a really depressing way to spend Christmas Eve") and Kay was nice enough to humor me. (I think he was afraid of another meltdown like last night.) At this point, it was nearing 5PM, the sun would be going down and I hadn't had a chance to check the 'net and was waiting to hear back from some clients… so we had the task of finding a hotel with internet for the night.
Kay suggested we drive out of Poza Rica where we might find a cheaper hotel along the road, and we stopped at pretty much the first hotel we saw coming into Papantla, the next town down (and the one that is pretty much adjacent to El Tajin). The hotel had internet and seemed nice - was a bit pricey at just over $40 but it was getting dark and Kay didn't want to put either of us through the stress of running around town pricing hotels, so we took it. It's not the nicest hotel we've stayed in (and, in fact, is more expensive than the really swank one we stayed in while we were waiting for Kay's bike in Mexico City) but Kay says it "has character." Our bikes are parked right in front of our room, literally, in a gated courtyard, and it was cake to unload our stuff into the room.
Then began our nightly ritual of trying to find food. We asked the proprietress where we could find a restaurant, and she sent us into Papantla centre. Papantla is another one of the endless colorful Mexican towns we've passed through today, but as it was around 5:30 at this point, practically everything was closed. Kay and I took turns driving around the city, looking for likely prospects, but we only found a few small spots and none of them had parking. This, is a walking town.
We were switching back to my turn to lead and pick a direction when we rounded the corner to the smell of cooking meat, and a guy with a big grill in the street cooking chicken. We backed our bikes into a parking spot on the corner (motos win again for squeezing into a spot that cars couldn't occupy!) and the grill-man brought his little daughter over to see our fancy bikes.
We followed him back to the grill, and Kay pointed and said "un pollo, por favor!" The guy asked us how we'd like to have it prepared, basically asking if we wanted some sort of spicy finish on it (I didn't catch that part, but Kay did, and let me choose… to which I almost invariably reply "sure" because I think it'll be interesting, so we had spicy chicken.)
Between the two of us, we managed to polish off an entire spicy chicken (sans one wing) with rice and tortillas. Kay discovered that if you combine the spicy chicken with some rice in a tortilla, it was the perfect blend of flavors and really elevated each of the individual components. Plus, then it wasn't so spicy and we could actually eat more of it. While we were nomming the chicken, I noticed a sign for "choco-flan" - and being a girl, and craving chocolate at this particular time of the month, I asked for it. It turned out to be a piece of moist chocolate cake with a slightly odd flavor, and a flan-like custardy-icing-topping. Totally hit the spot. Dinner was a complete success.
Tomorrow's plan is to get up early and try to hit El Tajin early before it gets too full of tourists and Mexicans trying to sell us things. I was skeptical as to whether they'd be open on Christmas, but Kay asked the proprietress of the hotel and she seemed to think it was dumb for us to have asked. "Yeah. Duh." (Not literally, but that was what we got from it.) Hopefully we won't have anymore headset problems, and then we can start heading south.
So for us, it'll be Christmas in El Tajin! A Merry Christmas to all of you folks who are reading, wherever you are.
Day 19 - Christmas - Papantla to Altotongo via El Tajin - 100 miles
(Kay this time)
Today was Christmas in every meaning of the word… well, excluding the fact that Christ was born in June or July….but that's not the point. Today was Christmas.
The past two days had eaten away at us, me especially. Dachary may have had that hard sugar crashy day, but last night I lay in bed lamenting the recent days. I was frustrated about our inability to just ride somewhere without constantly having to slow or stop for teeny towns and their topes, or the fact that you simply can't go ten minutes down the road without encountering more people, topes, towns, hovels, topes, dogs, and more topes. Our hotel room last night had gone from having "character" to smelling like a cesspool, and as we were finishing packing the bikes I was wondering if maybe this whole adventure motorcycling through foreign countries thing wasn't for me. Maybe I should have just done the Trans-America-Trail, or explore some of the Canadian wilderness in the summer.
We got to El Tajin around 9:30 after a quick trip to the ATM which we'd found while looking for food last night. We weren't able to find food beforehand because, so far, it seems that Mexicans simply don't open for business that early. But there is a minor sea of restaurants just outside the entrance to El Tajin and we went with the one whose waitress didn't attack us with a menu before even getting our helmets off.
Surprise Christmas Breakfast.
El Tajin was spectacular. We have over 400 photos to go through. It was everything you hope an ancient ruin site to be, with the exception that you're not allowed on any of the structures. We really wish they'd erect a stairway up the side of one… somewhere that didn't really affect the view of it, but would let you get a feel for what it was like up there. But we had a blast. Only note for future visitors is they don't allow video cameras for some reason. So, we said "No. No bideo," and casually didn't open the side pockets of our tank bags with our helmet cams. We use the still camera for our video anyway, but still no point in dealing with going back to the bikes or coat-checking them or whatever.
We hit the road, and because we were generally just concerned with heading southeast, and not how, we went that way found ourselves on the best road yet. Miles and miles of riding. Almost no houses, almost no topes, hardly any towns… Eventually the skies started to darken and when the hills in front of us started getting hazy and white we pulled over at an unfinished work-site and put our rain liners in our pants behind the building (such a pain) and set out again. Approximately forty-eight seconds later we hit the rain.
Having just donned our rain gear neither of us really wanted to get off and eat, but we knew we needed to soon. No more sugar-crashy Dacharys! So, after passing a number of people selling delicious smelling roast corn (and nothing else) we pulled in at the first place with carne (meat) on the sign.
We haven't had great luck with restaurant food so far, but this was pretty, and decent, but I didn't find it particularly inspiring. However, when we pulled up the people there started to move the tables so that we could pull our bikes under the porch overhang. Being drenched already we waved them off and assured them it was ok.
We rode on, through a cute town and over the mountains gaining over 3000 feet in altitude through gorgeous curvy roads with beautiful misty sights. If only the curves weren't all wet.
We came to a turn and followed the GPS, then decided, no, lets go back the other way and see if we can find a hotel. Little town, twist, turn. hmmm… Oh look, a cop. Pull over on a dinky street in front of her. "Donde esta el hotel." confused looks…then eventually the light went off. "Hotel?" "Si"
"Turn around take a left, go three blocks, left again and you'll find Hotel ??? it's good and cheap. " (only in Spanish)
Christmas Kindness #2
Find the hotel. $180 pesos! (about $15 US) And somehow manage to convey to the 17 year old proprietor that we would really like somewhere to park the bikes other than on the skinny street. Phone Phone… Another 17 year old comes over. Follow him. So we do. Up, down over, around, stop. Run across the street, unlock, and open big metal doors. "In here"…
But, we can't carry our stuff back… hell, I'm not even sure where the hotel IS. "No worries. I'll take you back. " "Our panniers too?" "Sure sure." (again, all in Spanish) Open, remove, Open remove. Unlatch Unlatch. He hauls each one to the truck as soon as we set them down. Then we climb into the tiny cab, find I need to practically sit *on* dachary for him to get it in reverse, then laugh, and giggle all the way back to the hotel.
Christmas Kindness #3
The guys carry the panniers in, we thank them, and we set off for food. "Oh look, a pastry shop. We should stop in before they close." We grab a pizza pan and tongs and start picking tasty looking things when in comes a man and his two foot high daughter who stares at us in awe as we're still in full gear because we're already wet and it's still misting and dripping out.
"Hello." I say to her.
Stare, mouth agape.
Her father, hearing Dachary and I chatting to each other, starts talking in English.
I try "Hola" to her but she just stares.
"She can't even say hello." He says with a smirk, and helps explain what one of the things I've picked up is, and then with the price. I seem to have a really hard time with any price that involves a 9. Basically, if I can't understand the number I can be relatively certain there was a 9 in it somewhere.
Christmas Kindness #4
We thank him, and as we're about to leave I have an idea. I turn back. "Can you recommend somewhere around here to eat?"
"Sure. I'll take you there."
And he does.
Alex leads us down a narrow alleyway that we would have missed entirely were we wandering around on our own. It leads into a maze of vendors stalls packed within a tiny space, and barely two feet between them to walk past. You must duck under some pinatas while going down some stairs; dodge around a rack of clothes protruding out into the aisles; weave past a display case that has been pushed too far out for the other to simply get into the tiny stall.
Like everything else in Mexico, it was colorful and full of people; a mishmash of chaotic sights and sounds and smells; of people speaking Spanish and watching us gringos with curiosity as we venture into "their" place. It was a window onto another world we hadn't seen yet in Mexico, and there's nothing like it in the United States. And sadly, we had left our hotel without a camera. Things were closing for the day, so there wasn't a chance to go back for pictures. Never leave the hotel without a camera!
Alex leads us through a hallway sized alley, past butchers with hanging pig parts. To a place with tasty quesadillas that has run out of food. Then on through more teeny alleys to a place with half a pig's head on a warming stove. There's a cutting board made from a solid foot of tree trunk, with a curve in it that matches the blade of the knife that's hacked away at it for years. He tells us to sit down at the short wooden stools, stands his daughter on the next one, and proceeds to help us order. Six little servings of two tiny tortillas, diced piggy, cilantro, red spoo, and something else. One plate each. Then, because he thought we might want more, and we showed interest, and suggested we'd eat anything, another plate of the same, only with piggy cabesa (head).
He made sure we knew how much the total would be and took off. We had no cards with us to give him. We had no camera with us to take a picture of the delicious food, the wonderful alleys, or Alex, and his daughter Katherine. He spent two years working in New York, then came back to his family in this small town.
You know, we kind of liked our cheap little room I think. Except that the toilet paper roll was directly under a pipe which got condensation and dripped on it. It was cold, of course, because few of the hotels seem to have heat, but there were plenty of thick blankets that Dachary stole and kept me pressed against her all night. We slept in till 8 (normally we wake before seven) and continued our way south. The room felt cold, but when we went outside, we discovered that the room was actually quite warm… it was COLD outside!
When we went to pick up the bikes, we found a thick fog (pea soup comes to mind) that stuck to everything and made everything damp and visibility crap. I've never seen visibility this poor, in fact - you literally couldn't see more than 20 feet away. It made driving a bit of an adventure as we couldn't see cars coming when we tried to turn out from the parking lot or turn onto the main road. Within a few miles of leaving the town, though, the fog had dissipated somewhat and visibility was a bit better - which is good, because we were entering wet twisty roads through the mountains. (Kay maintains that it wasn't fog, at all, but a low-lying cloud, since we were up quite high in the mountains at that point.)
Rode for about 30 minutes and it was getting colder… so we decided to stop at the next Pemex we found and grab some munchies and… pull out the heated gear! Yes, that's right - it was so cold this morning that we broke out the heated gear. It was in the high 30 degree range when we set out this morning. By noon, we'd gotten to a place where it was around 60 degrees and put our heated gear away… but Kay pulled his out again when we were crossing through some mountains just to have the extra layer - not for the heat. It was chilly riding today.
Eventually we had to decide… toll road, or free road? Sick of tiny towns slowing us down and wishing we were farther along in the journey than we were, we went for the toll road and it was awesome. Cost us about $140 Mex each when you added up all the toll booths but it was beautiful.
Sadly, just before the toll road there were a handful of stands with chicken on spits that looked delicious, but it wasn't quite lunch time so we pressed on. There were similar stands on the last toll road, we figured there would be on this one too. Wrong.
I think there was only one place to eat on the entire road and it was a restaurant by a Pemex. As noted before we don't have great luck with restaurants, but food was required so we went in, had something with chicken green sauce, black bean paste, fries, and rice. The fries were cold. The chicken pretty tasteless by itself, but when you combined chicken, rice, and green sauce into the tortillas it was pretty tasty… until we hit the last three tortillas that were hard and probably left over from the last batch.
New rule: if you see meat on a spit or barbecue and it's remotely close to meal time. Eat. Even if you're not really hungry yet.
In the parking lot we had a surprisingly successful conversation with a guy who turned out to have ridden from Alaska (we think… i forgot where exactly) to Guatemala. He's got a BMW, a Hayabusa, and a Harley, but said that in Mexico he almost exclusively rides the BMW. He suggested that he was too mucho for a 650 like ours and had a 1200.
Back on the road was more beautiful Nevada-like landscape with beautiful green mountains. The cuota (pay road) to Oaxaca was surprisingly picturesque. The mountains were on both sides of us for much of the day, with some wide, sweeping turns through them at points. We actually got to go around 110 KPH (around 65 MPH) for hours! And we passed people. Loads of people. This was quite novel as it's usually us getting passed for adhering to the speed limit. It was a bit of a boost to our riding spirits.
We'd decided to get a hotel again because it's still getting down into the thirties at night in central Mexico, and after some miscommunications and frustrations between ourselves we eventually grabbed one, but my dictionary failed me, and it seems that whenever i say the word for heat they think i mean color tv. So we ended up with an overpriced (but nice) room with color tv, no heat, and barely adequate blankets (when we stole the blanket from the second bed).
New rule from yesterday: When it's cold in Mexico and you're getting a hotel room always get one with two beds even if one bed would be fine. The logic being that you can then steal the blankets from the second bed.
The plan today was to get up early and visit the ruins of Monte Alban. Unfortunately, the hotel last night had internet and we ended up screwing around on the Web longer than we intended. By the time we got to Monte Alban, it was around 10:30AM, and we still hadn't eaten breakfast. We hadn't had dinner last night, so it was imperative to feed me - I was extremely crashy and would have been no good at all for the ruins. We ate breakfast at the cafe at the Monte Alban site (mine was surprisingly tasty), so it was close to 11:30 by the time we entered the ruins themselves.
What to say about the Monte Alban ruins? It's a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a pretty substantial one. The site consists of a large complex - I'm pretty sure it's larger than the site at El Tajin. The setting was also quite impressive. It's situated on a plateau surrounded by a valley, and there's mountains all around. The ruins themselves are pretty well preserved, and you can actually climb some of the temples/climb to higher levels of the complex, which is one of the things we lamented that you couldn't do at El Tajin.
But honestly? I can speak for both of us when we say that we appreciated El Tajin more. We arrived at Monte Alban late, and it was absolutely littered with people. You couldn't get a good shot of the place without people in it. There were people coming by the busload. That's a turn-off. On the one hand, it's totally great that people appreciate the site. But on the other hand, all the people make it more difficult to appreciate the site. Kay kept noting the silence when we found ourselves away from the groups for a moment, and contends that while it's not as enjoyable with the people, even without them Monte Alban just fails to spark our interest.
Kay said at one point that the site just didn't capture his imagination the way El Tajin did, and I have to agree. There were plaques around Monte Alban with information about fauna and how environment played such an important role in the lives of the Monte Albans, but I just didn't seem to see that in the way the site was built. Or at least the way it's maintained today.
The plateau where Monte Alban is situated is surrounded by cities (Oaxaca on three sides) - littered with structures and people everywhere. You can't look at the horizon and see it as the people of Monte Alban did, and it's virtually impossible to imagine it uncluttered. Technically both peoples were war-like, but the carvings at the Monte Alban site were well-preserved and images of subjugation - carvings of castrated rulers that the Monte Albans conquered and executed, images representing the cities and cultures that the Monte Alban people subjugated and ruled.
El Tajin had some similar carvings, but there was also beauty at the site. At one part of the site, they have a straw roof erected to protect some colored paint that had survived intact. As far as I could tell, the scenes from the painted depictions were ornamental and scenes of every-day life - not the war-like scenes that dominated Monte Alban. Maybe there was paint like this in Monte Alban, too, once upon a time… and maybe I've romanticized El Tajin because I didn't read as much there about the "war-like culture" but I just didn't get the same feel from both sites.
Regardless of my perceptions versus the reality of the sites, Monte Alban was still an impressive site. I just think Kay and I didn't appreciate it as much as El Tajin. We'd 100% recommend anyone who is thinking of seeing ruins like this to check out El Tajin. Monte Alban? It's significant enough that it probably shouldn't be skipped, but we simply didn't enjoy it as much.
Oh yeah. Did I mention that we both got sunburned today? I have suntan lotion in my tank bag, which we carried around all day, and at one point I even thought of it… but then dismissed the thought. That was a mistake. Both of our faces are sunburned. Kay's arms are sunburned… mine might be, too, but it's too early to tell. (My arms are tanned to begin with.) The back of my neck is sunburned… I'd forgotten what it's like to have hair this short. And Kay insists that his eyebrows got bleached. We'll blame it on the anti-Malarial pills, which we started today (although technically we should have started it two days ago - woops!) - we chose Doxycycline, which has the side effect of making users more sensitive to sun, as opposed to the pills which make you paranoid.
Yeah. Let's just chalk this one up to the pills instead of our own idiocy.
Also? Parking at Monte Alban isn't big-bike friendly. The road up to Monte Alban is great, up until toward very top - where it turns into essentially a wide single lane or very narrow two-lane road. Even that's not bad for a motorcycle, though… until you get to the top. The top of the hill is steeply angled, and the parking lot itself is dirt. The dirt has been tracked back onto the pavement leading into the parking lot. I tried braking at the top of the paved road while waiting for another car to go into the parking lot and it didn't work - my bike started sliding backwards. There was nothing I could do about it - couldn't go forward and there was a car behind me so I just had to wait for it to stop slipping. I think it did actually hit the car behind me but they didn't seem to care so I didn't make any attempt to investigate.
Beyond that, though, the guy in the parking lot directed us with our large, heavy, overloaded motorcycles to park in the "bicycle" parking area. Basically it's a hill on an incline, covered with sparse grass and dirt, with some bike parking racks. He motioned us with our motos to park up there. Kay went first, and had to let his bike back into the wall and rest there on a pannier, because the incline was too steep and his overburdened bike would have gone over if it hadn't been resting on the wall. I did similar, but didn't have to park it against the wall.
I was freaking out as I tried to ride it up in the dirt on the incline, though. I tried to ride it a bit further and park it at a more favorable angle on the incline, but when I tried to stop, it just started sliding backward in the dirt and there wasn't anything I could do about it. The bike didn't go over, but I was extremely unnerved and left it parked badly there, annoyed that the parking lot attendant wouldn't let us park in the relatively flat dirt area used by the cars.
When we came out, I asked Kay to back my bike out and set it up for me because I didn't feel confident that I wouldn't just drop it with the dirt and the slipping and it being so heavy. Kay was obliging, and it was relatively easy to back mine out from the angle where we'd parked it (although Kay's left foot kept slipping in the dirt from the weight of the bike, but he managed to keep it upright). Unfortunately, the incline was so steep that we couldn't park it on the side stand once we got the bike back to the road. Kay had to hold it while I geared up, and then I had to mount the bike to hold it there while Kay got his bike.
His bike, on the other hand, wasn't so easy. The angle he'd parked at (so his pannier could lean against the wall, preventing his bike from falling over while parked) wasn't as favorable for backing it out and turning it around. He pulled it forward a bit and tried backing it out, but it was closer to the wall than mine had been and at one point he was stepping on the bike racks, using them for leverage to keep his foot from slipping in the dirt like mine had.
Unfortunately, the proximity to the wall didn't give him room to get a nice angle with the weight of the bike, and before he could back it all the way past the wall, the bike overbalanced and tipped with him under it. He says it was one of those really slow falls that you totally see coming but you know there's nothing you can do about it. He and the bike were too close to the bike rack for him to get enough leverage to keep it upright, so he went down with the bike tented over him.
While I was pondering whether to drop mine to go to his aid, two of the parking attendants who had been sitting on the wall and watching, smirking, while Kay pulled my bike out, ran to help. They got the bike upright and off of Kay, and helped him balance it the rest of the way out. I'm kinda glad they ended up helping with his bike - they got to see how heavy the bikes really are. It wasn't just that I'm a chick that I had Kay back my bike out… it's that these bikes are motha-effing HEAVY and I didn't think I could do it in the dirt without dropping it.
So yeah. Kay's bike got to take another dirt nap. And I was stuck sitting on my bike holding it up so I couldn't either run to help him, or photo-document it.
Aside from that, the day was pretty mundane. It took us forever to get out of Oaxaca, as we had to stop for gas and grab lunch (it was 3PM when we started to actually get out of the city). However, as we were leaving Oaxaca, Kay spotted chickens on a spit on the side of the road, which invoked our new rule of "If it's remotely close to time to eat, and you see food roasting on a spit on the side of the road, stop and eat." So we had to stop and eat chicken la carbon. An entire chicken, by the way? A bit too much for the two of us to eat.
We only made it a total of 89 miles before we had to stop for the day. The sun was starting to set and we were both just feeling drained. I'd checked the weather last night while we had internet access, and had discovered that there was only one very narrow area where it would actually be warm enough for us to camp. Otherwise, we'd be crossing mountains (which takes forever, by the way, but has lots of great twisties) and the temperatures would be too cold (sub 40-degrees) for us to comfortably camp.
Unsurprisingly, we didn't make it to the area where it would be warm enough for us to camp. We were stuck riding in the mountains* and thought we'd have to push through and ride them after dark to the next major city, but just happened upon a hotel on the side of the road at a town that we passed through in two minutes of riding. The room is tiny but clean (although it lacks a toilet seat) and we've actually taken the time to watch some TV on the iPad. For a little over $13 US, we won't complain. (Cheapest hotel yet, by the way!)
Unfortunately, as we've been sitting here, we've discovered a couple of unfortunate companions sharing the room… first an ant, which prompted me to take our snacky foods far from the bed… and then an insect that Kay has dubbed a "Thing that Must Be Killed." And proceeded to kill it with one of our boots. This has led me to examine the mysterious stains on the wall next to the bed, which appear upon closer inspection to be squashed bugs.
Ick. Hopefully they don't carry us away in our sleep. (Maybe I'll try sleeping with the light on? Or would that make it worse?)
* poor us, stuck riding beautiful twisties with the setting sun behind us.
The morning started on a positive note: neither us nor our belongings were carried off by bugs in the night. However, we'd gotten rather cold at one point and with only sheets on the bed, Kay grabbed his BMW jacket and put it over his legs. The bed was also quite possibly the cheapest bed I've ever slept in - no matter how I rolled over or tried to get out of the way, I ended up rolling into Kay. We spent the night in a lump in the middle of the bed. Listening to one of our neighbors watch Spanish TV LOUDLY, whilst another (possibly the same) made loud banging sounds.
We got up and out rather quickly this morning, and were just packing up the bikes around 8AM… when Kay suddenly started feeling queasy. He went to sit on a pile of rocks nearby while I chatted with some folks who were originally from Washington (the state, not DC) but had moved to Monterrey. They had two dogs traveling with them, and one of them kept bringing me a rock to throw. That's right. She fetched ROCKS. The couple was friendly and were giving us tons of tips and asking about our trip, while Kay was getting worse and worse. By the time I walked over to check on him, he was ready to go lean over a trash can and start hurling.
After Kay was violently ill for probably 5-10 minutes, he walked over to sit on the steps of the hotel in the shade and I went hunting some drink to settle his stomach. All I could find was Sprite. He sipped it and waited for his stomach to decide what it was doing. By around 9AM, he was feeling recovered enough to head out on the bikes, although he professed to be repulsed by the idea of food. We hadn't had breakfast and I wanted Kay to try to eat something, so we rode for a bit with me leading and waiting for Kay's stomach to settle further.
After about 40 minutes of riding, we ran across a random roadside food stand with a bunch of locals sitting around a table, and smoke coming off what appeared to be a big grill. We walked up, and I asked the girl cooking what she was making. "Quesadillas," she said. After consulting with Kay, I ordered one for each of us, thinking that should be relatively easy on his stomach. It was just a humble cheese quesadilla, but it was SURPRISINGLY tasty. Seriously good. She cooked it on a large, cast-iron convex sheet - like a big, thick, very shallow cast iron bowl.
We quickly polished off our quesadillas, and asked for two more. I was happy Kay felt like eating more and happy to polish off another tasty quesadilla. One of the guys there spoke some English and asked if we wanted some hot sauce, and laughed at us when we declined. This seems to be a recurring theme in Mexico. "Look at the gringos - they don't like hot sauce!"
Kay seemed much revived after the food, so we hit the road again. It was another morning of beautiful riding. We rode down 180 from El Camon to Jalapa, and it was lots more nice twisty roads. I've been constantly amazed by how beautiful the riding can be in Mexico. I wasn't expecting this many mountains and beautiful roads.
Nearing Jalapa on 190, Kay pointed out that his GPS thought there was a BIG honking lake off to our left. I looked at my map and confirmed it on the paper map, but we couldn't see the lake. Kay said that one of the dirt roads we passed on the left would probably lead that way, so we took one of them off in that direction.
It started heading down toward the lake… but pretty quickly turned off to the right. And led to a big yard with a couple of structures and a fence on it, and a guy standing in the middle burning things ( as Mexicans are want to do ). He seemed unhappy that we'd come down the road, and signaled very firmly for us to turn around and go back out. We both felt a little tension after that, as it was the first hostility we'd really encountered and it certainly made the idea of taking another dirt road less appealing.
After Jalapa, things started getting a bit more boring (but warmer)… and at Tehuantepec, we took a side trip into town to look for an ATM to grab some more cash. That took longer than expected, and the riding after we left Tehuantepec toward the north (to Juchitan, and then La Ventosa) went from boring to downright unpleasant. Almost as soon as we left Tehuantepec, we noticed the wind picking up. And up. We'd basically entered a big open plain, and the scrubby trees weren't doing a lot to break up the wind.
The wind was blowing us all over the road and as we approached La Ventosa, we saw that at least the locals were doing something about it… we entered a ginormous wind farm. There were dozens of large, industrial windmills (maybe even hundreds, as they were spread out over a wide area) and we kept passing a hill and then encountering more of them. From just before La Ventosa until around Niltepec (give or take…) there were tons of windmills. But as soon as we entered the hills again for good, the wind died down and the riding became more enjoyable again.
At this point, Kay commented that the terrain we were passing through resembled an African savannah. The trees were similar to what we've seen in video and photography from Africa, albeit more dense than we'd expect to see there. The temperatures, too, were HOT - the thermometer on my bike read 103 in the shade (one of the thermometers said 113) but both could have been off a bit from engine heat… but it was still hot. So we'd started the day in the mountains in the mid-50s, and by around 3PM, we'd reached a toasty African savannah.
By around 4PM, we were getting close to leaving the lowlands and Kay was pondering whether to stop early and try to hidey-camp. We knew that once we hit Tepanatenec and started heading toward Centalpa, we'd get into the mountains again and it would be borderline (or actually) too cold to camp, depending on where we started. Kay kept his eyes out for good hidey-camp roads, but eventually he reported that he was feeling uneasy about hidey-camping down there. I posited that perhaps it had something to do with our unpleasant encounter with the local on the dirt road earlier, and Kay agreed that might have played a role.
Whatever it was, we didn't find a road that seemed good to us until we started heading up into the mountains, and when Kay tried to communicate that he'd found a good road, I couldn't understand because the headsets were acting up. Kay was all of a sudden too distorted for me to understand. We both rebooted our headsets multiple times, but it took probably 5 to 10 minutes for us to get the headsets happily rebooted so that we could both hear one another. The Cardo Scala Rider G4s definitely still have some bugs to work out.
By then, it had been miles since the hidey-camp roads and we opted to keep going rather than turn around and start trying to explore them. So we rode through the mountains again, and eventually came out onto a plateau. We'd gone up to about 800 meters at one point, and plateaued at a little over 600 meters (we'd been at around 77 meters before we started into the mountains) and the world suddenly took on a whole new look and feel.
The riding was beautiful again. The colors seemed more vibrant. There were mountains off to the left, and some off to the right, too. It was cooler. And we both felt immensely more positive about the riding and the vibes from the place. We both agreed that we'd have felt comfortable hidey-camping on practically any of the roads we encountered on the highland plateau, and it was a stark contrast to how we'd felt in the lowlands. No idea why we felt hostility in the lowlands and why we felt positive energy in the highlands, but we did.
Sadly, it was going to be too cold to camp up here, so we rode on to Cintalapa and rode around town for a few minutes until we found a hotel that didn't seem as shady (kay: skeezy / sketchy / icky) as the ones on the edge of town. Don't think there are any bugs here, and Internet is available (for a fee) but doesn't seem to be Wi-Fi. We'll figure that out in a minute. It was a little under $30 US (more than the $13 US we paid last night) but for the peace of mind, it didn't seem too bad. We've loaded some more Dr. Who onto the iPad for our viewing pleasure, and I think I'll do some laundry and let it dry while we watch TV.
The day had its ups and downs, but seems to be ending on a positive note. (Also, I'm happy to report that Kay seems to be feeling much better now - no more tummy badness, although we're both feeling a bit tired and run-down.)
Today's goal was to reach San Cristobal de Las Casas, where we were planning to meet up with Stephen who is riding from Chicago to Central or South America. Stephen and a couple of other riders (Eric and Sabrina) are currently hanging out in San Cristobal - Stephen is waiting for a part to fix his bike, and Eric and Sabrina are taking Spanish classes at a language school here.
We headed out around 9:30AM (we got a slightly late start because Kay started feeling nauseous again today… we think the problem is when you take the anti-malaria pills first thing in the morning on an empty stomach, and then exert yourself, so Kay spent a fair amount of time resting between loading up the bike and generally taking it easy, and didn't actually hurl).
Finding breakfast in the mornings has been difficult for us on the road, because we've had trouble finding places that are open, so we have been settling for convenience store food (Oxxo hot dogs are the latest favorite) to keep us going until we can grab food on a spit around lunch time. We saw a convenience store that wasn't an Oxxo, but we thought we'd stop, because there was a coffee sign… and walked in to see that next to the convenience store was a restaurant. With real breakfast. And a surprise mochaccino, which made me very happy!
The plan was to meet up with Stephen and maybe grab a bite and trade stories/tips/info. However, passing through Tuxtla Gutierrez threw a bit of a wrench into our plans. We ran into a lot of construction, and traffic was worse going through there on 190 than it was in Mexico City. It took us well over an hour to get through the city (which probably would have only taken about 10 minutes under normal circumstances) and we didn't make as good time as we'd hoped.
The road conditions were poor in places (i.e. go into a twisty through the mountains to find sand in the road, or giant potholes, or even entire sections where the road has dropped away and they've got it blocked off, but it's suddenly one lane) and I wasn't riding as fast as we had in the morning.
At one point, we stopped because the tires that Kay is carrying were starting to sag and needed to be addressed, and discovered that we'd parked next to a town in the mountains with a lake that seemed to have flooded the town. It was interesting, but odd… we didn't figure out exactly why the proportions seemed wrong until we looked at the photos we'd downloaded from the camera and zoomed way in. But yes, that's water in those streets.
The delays and my slow riding conspired to delay us getting to San Cristobal until around 3PM. At that point, there wasn't much chance of us hanging out for very long and getting much further in the day, so we opted to spend the night here. Luckily, the school where these guys are staying also has rooms for travelers, and we were able to get a room at the school.
Stephen, Eric and Sabrina were very cool to hang out with. They took us down into the city on foot, which is a totally different experience than walking through, and we wandered around for a bit and met up with one of their friends here. Eric bought a hat, but Kay hasn't found just the right hat to replace the floppy one he thinks he left in Mexico City, so the hat quest continues. The crew grabbed food to bring back and prepare at the school, where there is a convenient kitchen, and we had an awesome meal of delicious meat, tortillas, a lovely salad that Sabrina prepared and some nice salsa and cilantro/onion mix.
Kay and I have been traveling fairly quickly. We've been making decent mileage every day, riding from around 9AM until dark most days (except when we're seeing ruins). We haven't really had a chance to just hang out with people since we started the trip. It was really nice to just sit around a table and chat, and then later sit around a fire on the roof deck with a beautiful nighttime view of San Cristobal. We chatted about gear, traveling, bikes, kit - all the stuff you'd expect adventure riders to talk about when they're gathered in one spot.
They gave us lots of info about places they've been and things they've seen, and I'm kind of envious that they're taking the trip at a much slower pace. Kay and I are on a timeframe that requires us to keep moving, and I feel like we've missed out on some of the great experiences that these guys have had by standing still for more than a night. We haven't really immersed ourselves in the culture - we've just been passing through. These guys know so much more about the area because they've spent time here - they know the stories and the cool spots and have had these interesting experiences.
Because of our timeframe, the trip we're taking is different. We're getting more really brief windows into the lives of the people we pass, instead of immersion in the culture of the places we travel through. Part of me wishes we could afford to sit here for a month and learn Spanish in this school and hang out in this town and really get to know the people. But if we did, we'd have no chance of reaching our ultimate goal - Ushuaia.
The traveling was really our goal in taking this trip. We wanted to see and experience other cultures, but we've also been interested in the roads, the great places to see and the "passing through" aspect of this trip. I'm beginning to wonder now if this wouldn't be much better done in a different sort of way, but our finances and our timeframe simply wouldn't support that right now. I do think, though, that for the next trip, we're going to want to take a lot more time and have a more open-ended plan so we can afford to stay for a week or a month and really get to know the people and places we pass through.
When Stephen, Eric and Sabrina asked if we'd like to stick around longer, apparently my face lit up (Kay says I got a huge smile) and so we've decided to stick around San Cristobal for another day. We'll hang out, maybe see some sites and chill with other like-minded folk. This will be the first rest day we've taken because we've wanted to stay for a day - the other two days we haven't traveled, we stayed because of bike-related stuff. I'm looking forward to a chill day where we're just hanging out because we want to.
Today we decided to hang out in San Cristobal de Las Casas with some other adventure riders - Stephen, who's currently tooling around Mexico on his KLR (or waiting for parts for his KLR to be repaired, more accurately) and Eric and Sabrina, who are riding 2-up on a BMW F650 Dakar. They've been in San Cristobal for a while and know some great spots, from delicious food to interesting and humbling sites to see. Today, we puttered around while Eric and Sabrina spent the morning taking their Spanish classes at the language school here, and then we went over to San Juan Chamula, an independent Mayan state about 10 KM from San Cristobal.
They had all been there before, and knew a bit about the history of the place, but Stephen, Kay and I hadn't been yet. We opted to take one of the 'combi' busses over to Chamula; on the ride over, we managed to cram 21 people into the bus designed to seat 15. It was impressive. Coming back, we were 10 people in a VW bus designed for 8, so it wasn't quite so crowded.
Just to get to the buses was an adventure. We walked down one of the main streets of San Cristobal where tons of artisans are located. Parts of this boulevard are pedestrian-only walkways, and filled with people. It's got a great energy and vibe. Then we went through the market, down narrow corridors surrounded by stalls upon stalls of handmade wares; sheltered from the sun by wafting white tents. It's an amazing place. It reminded me of the alleys that Alex took us through in Altotongo; we never would have found our way through without Eric, Sabrina and Stephen to lead us.
Off to the chicken buses, where we paid 10 pesos (less than $1 US) to ride across to Chamula. When we arrived, we proceeded pretty much immediately to the church of San Juan. Eric had told us some interesting history about the church; that when the old church had burned down, the new church was built, but the parishioners (or priests? not sure) "punished" the statues of the saints for letting the old one burn down by turning them to face the wall, and removing some of their hands. The saints have since been turned back around, but some of them are still hand-less.
The church itself is an amazing place. There are no pews; instead, it's got a bare floor covered with pine needles. Candles are everywhere; in front of saints that the parishioners are praying to, directly in front of the alter (which, incidentally, is currently decorated with lots of balloons and flashing lights - not at all what you'd find in a traditional Catholic church) or even in the middle of the floors. Priests wear white (sheepskin?) and lead chants from time to time, or assist in rituals. Eric tells us that live chickens are sacrificed from time to time, although we didn't see any while we were there today.
As much as it sounded like a spectacle, Kay and I were really impressed by the honest belief and faith we saw there. The tourists seemed out of place wandering around, gaping at the Mayan natives who were lighting candles and praying genuine and heartfelt prayers. We saw several people actually crying as they prayed, they were so fervent in their belief (and I assume, the contents of their prayer - most of them pray in Tzotzil, so even the semi-Spanish-speaking people in our party couldn't understand what they were praying about).
It was a humbling experience, in spite of the flashing lights at the alter, the wooden effigies of the saints in their glass display cases, and the tourists wandering around. The natives who went to the church went there for a *reason*. They were there because they had faith in their beliefs and they felt that their prayers would be heard. In spite of the rather unorthodox way the church is presented, the belief felt far more genuine than many of the religions we know here in the United States. One of the things that turns me off about a lot of religion in America is the lack of genuine belief and faith - the fact that for many people, it's just lip service, or something they do only on Sundays - not an active part of their lives.
For the Mayans in this church, it was different. Faith was something that they carried with them every day; something that sustained them. Something that moved them to come to this smoky church and light candles and pray to the saints or to God for the every-day trials of their lives. For these people, religion seemed to be an integral part of their daily life, and it was almost as though we as tourists were trespassing on their sacred place. It was humbling to see true faith. It isn't something we see very often, and it hits home when you see people praying with all of their hearts for something they need or something they believe.
Alas, the Mayans have very strong rules against photography in the church. You can be ejected from the state (or possibly imprisoned) if you take pictures within the church. It was really great to see, and we very much wanted to take pictures, but we couldn't. And part of me is kind of glad, because I'd really hate to see such a private ceremony turned into even more of a spectacle. It seems almost disrespectful to me to be taking pictures in such a place.
Entering the church was 20 pesos each (slightly less than $2 US) for tourists, although I gather it was free for the locals.
After coming out again, we were surrounded by Mayan children begging for pesos. Neither Kay nor I are inclined to give pesos (we live in Boston, so we're used to begging) so we shrugged them off, and went to go sit in the shade of a gazebo where we could watch the plaza for a bit and take some pictures of the people there. One of the children had come up to Kay with an obviously practiced look on his face; a child's idea of pouting and looking pitiful. While we were sitting, a woman came through who had pesos and tried to give a few to one child, I think… and the kids swarmed her. It was like I imagine a piranha attack would be.
There were one or two kids near her initially, but almost before you could blink, there were 10 or 15 kids surrounding her, reaching for her outstretched hand. It apparently got rough and you could see them pulling on her and her arm and hand - it was obvious that she was wishing she'd never started this. And then a fight broke out among the kids - one of them had apparently elbowed or hit another one in the face (maybe accidentally, reaching aggressively for the pesos, or maybe on purpose) and the kid who got hit started screaming and crying.
Immediately the kids split into two groups. One group gathered around the kid who got hit, while he related his side of the tale. Another group (smaller) gathered around the kid who'd apparently done the hitting, and it looked like he was ready to take on anyone who would try to dispute him for the pesos. After a few minutes, the kid who'd done the hitting vanished, and the kid who'd gotten hit in the face continued to mope around the plaza, crying occasionally and looking pitiful. His face started swelling almost immediately, and after 10 or 15 minutes you could see he'd gotten hit pretty bad. It was a harsh reminder of the reality of this place, and the difficulty of life here.
After sitting in the plaza for a bit, we wandered over to the ruins of the old church that had burned down. I'm not sure why they didn't just rebuild the new church at the ruins, but it's on the other side of town. The old church, however, still contains a massive cemetery and the graves of many Mayans. It was a sober place, and the bodies were packed so closely together that you couldn't even get to the church without walking on the grave mounds.
We poked around the ruins for a while, and then headed back to the 'combi' bus that would take us back to San Cristobal. We were tired at this point, and the VW bug bus made us feel a little sick from the fumes, etc. so we grabbed the stuff to cook dinner and then sat around for a bit, chilling. Had another lovely dinner (chicken this time) prepared by Eric, Sabrina and Stephen, and sat around chatting and later chilling around the campfire.
I've really enjoyed hanging out here with these guys. Sabrina and I both agree that it's a shame we're not leaving at the same time, because it could be fun to travel together to Palenque (where we're both heading next) but they won't be leaving for a few days and we're on a tight timeframe. It's been great to meet these guys and I wish we could meet up with them again down the road, but that's unlikely, as we'll all be traveling at a different pace. If we had more time, I'd be happy to stay with Sabrina and Eric longer (alas, Stephen is still stuck here waiting for a package to arrive, and then is going to be hanging out in Mexico longer, I think). But this part of the trip is, I think, going to be one of my favorite memories.
Day 25 - San Cristobal de Las Casas to Palenque - 159 Miles
Got off to a slightly late start after uploading things to the web while we had Internet, and saying goodbye to Stephen, Eric and Sabrina. We weren't too concerned, though, as Eric had told us that one of his teachers said it was 5 hours to Palenque, and we'd be passing 300 topes. 300! That was such a high (and precise) number that Kay decided to count them.
There are more than 300 topes between San Cristobal and Palenque. We lost count at around 330 with 50 km to go. In other words, it was a LOT (2.2 per mile average). The roads were twisty leaving San Cristobal because we were leaving the mountains, and we passed through a ton of tiny towns. It was slow going, and it felt like it.
We did run across the thing that the guy we met near El Camon warned us about - kids on the road to Palenque stretching a rope across the road to create an impromptu road block. The first time, it was a knotted grass rope and we weren't worried about it. The kids had already stopped and were swarming a combi bus, anyway, so they weren't interested in us and let the rope down so we could pass.
The second time, it was a real, thick rope. We were behind a couple of cars, and the kids let the cars pass - and it looked like they were trying to decide whether to block us or let us pass. Kay was in front and just kept going, though, so they decided to just drop the rope. It looks like they'll let you pass if you look like you mean business, so while the strategy may not be to "gun it" - it looks like it works to just keep riding like you have no intention of stopping. There was evidence of other thin knotted grass ropes as we continued.
Aside from that, the trip was relatively uneventful. We stopped for lunch near Ocosingo, which is the only sizable town between San Cristobal and Palenque. We kept being indecisive about where to stop, and got stuck at a restaurant on the edge of town because we'd already driven past all of the food stands and didn't want to go back. We were the only ones there… aside from like 13 people sitting at a long table and speaking to one another with an English accent. Our Spanish may suck, but 12 of the people at the table didn't speak Spanish at all, and you could tell that the waiter was getting frustrated by trying to take their order, etc. I felt bad for him.
Continued on our way after lunch, and got about 10 kilometers from Palenque (according to a road sign we'd passed) when we encountered a line of stopped cars. We had no idea why they'd stopped, and there weren't any cars coming from the other direction, either, which has been the case when the road is down to one lane for construction and our lane is stopped. After a few minutes, people started getting out of the cars in front of us to walk up and see what was going on, and Kay and I pulled our bikes out of line and rode up to the front to see what was happening.
We found that a semi had driven off one of the twisty roads - it had gone too wide to the right on a left-hand twisty and had gotten off the road into the brush and small incline on the side of the road. Luckily, this was an area with only a very short incline so I don't think the driver was hurt, but the semi couldn't get back up onto the roadway on its own.
When we rode to the front of the line, two tow-trucks were there trying to get the semi back to the road, and traffic was blocked in both directions. Kay got off the bike to walk up and take pictures with his big fancy camera (along with all of the other gringos going to take pictures with their big, fancy cameras) and came back to report that it looked like there was a couple of feet behind the tow truck that was working on the semi, and we could probably scoot by.
He got on the bike and started it up, and I waited to see if the flagger was going to try to stop us, but he just let us ride on by. When we got to the tow truck, a police officer was standing there supervising, but he didn't make any move to stop us. Kay scooted around at the left edge of the road, and I did, too, and we were free! Yet another case where the smaller motos could get by while the poor cars and trucks were stuck waiting for the wreck to get cleared. We stopped about half-way down the line of cars so that Kay could convey the news to the people who didn't know why they were stopped.
We arrived in Palenque around 4:30, and proceeded to find an ATM (which we were luckily able to do almost immediately), a bathroom for me at a nearby Pemex, and surprise donut holes from a street-urchin, then headed into town to grab some meat for cooking up. It was finally going to be warm enough to camp, and Palenque has actual campgrounds, so we'd finally get to camp! We passed a carniceria, where Kay sent me in to grab half a kilo of carne for our dinner. I thought that the half a kilo was surprisingly big, but we ended up eating it all!
Then we headed off to our campground - Maya Bell Campground, which Kay found in his book on Mexican campgrounds. The book promised that howler monkeys would "serenade" us in our sleep. Instead, we got a loud, but good, band and New Years Eve celebration serenading us to sleep. The campground actually did a big thing for it (it's also a hotel, and a restaurant, with fairly nice facilities) and everyone who was staying there seemed to be celebrating.
When we pulled in earlier, we were told to just go find a spot and someone would be around to collect our money. We rode off to the camping spots and saw a couple of motorcycles kitted out for adventure riding next to a tent! Of course we parked next to them, and started chatting as we took off our gear and started prepping the site. It turns out that they were Frank and Simone from Germany ( Startseite - Krad-Vagabunden.de ) , and they're in the middle of an around-the-world trip that started in Alaska.
We had a nice initial round of chatter, and then started setting up our tent and I started getting the food ready. It's the first time we've actually used the cutting board and knife at a campsite (only 25 days into the trip!) and I found that it actually worked quite well for me to put the cutting board on the SW-Motech Top Case Alu-Rack and cut there. It's almost the perfect height, and it's a decently flat surface. I cut up the carne into little bite-size pieces and proceeded to fry them in our little pan over our little stove while Kay loaded everything into our tent and got it all nice.
The carne cooked up deliciously (kay: OMG NOM) with just a little salt and pepper - it had a really nice flavor for such a simple preparation. Unfortunately, toward the end of cooking the carne, the stove started sputtering a bit and died. We put more gas into it, thinking it was just low on gas, and that seemed to fix the problem immediately. We started the water for the box of macaroni we've been carrying around since we left Texas, but before the water came to a boil, the stove sputtered and died. I re-lit it, and it worked for a few minutes, but then it sputtered and died. And died. And died. By this point, I was getting annoyed and asked Kay to take over.
Whilst we were futzing with the stove, Frank came over to say that they were cooking, also, and would like it if we'd like to join them to eat when we were done cooking. We said we'd like that, and Kay decided to dump the macaroni into the steaming water while we continued to futz with the stove, thinking that warm water should cook it, albeit slower, until we could get the water boiling. Unfortunately, the stove just kept dying, no matter what we tried, so the water just stayed warm - it never actually boiled. Eventually we tasted the pasta to see how far it had to cook, and discovered what happens if you cook pasta at too low of a heat… it turns into unappetizing, starchy pieces that turn to a gross paste when you eat them.
Before throwing it out entirely, we decided to add the cheese just to see if it would be able to salvage the gooey macaroni paste. Cheese made it slightly better, and we took our macaroni-pastey-cheese-glue and delicious carne chunks over to where Frank, Simone and another German biker they'd met (Ingolf?) were just about to start eating their dinner.
We had a really good time hanging out with them over dinner, and then chatting afterwards. We talked about riding, and traveling, and info they'd gleaned about Mexico, and routes for the rest of the trip - all of the things you'd expect adventure riders to chat about in the middle of a trip. They were welcoming, and I really enjoyed chatting with them. We hung out until close to 10PM, when we finally bowed out to wash our dishes, and I was positively drooping. We were doing dishes and getting stuff ready for bed when Frank brought us over some stickers that had a link to his website. Very cool. We'll have to clean some of the dust and grime off our panniers so we can stick them.
I felt bad about it, but I was completely wiped by 10:15PM on New Years Eve. There was no chance I'd make it staying awake until midnight, and we planned to get up at 6AM so we could shower and be at Palenque when they opened at 8. Staying awake just wasn't an option.
The campground was celebrating quite loudly - there was music, and people chatting loudly and all of the stuff you'd expect at a normal New Years Eve party. And I managed to pass out and sleep right through it, I was that tired. I did wake up as they were counting down - I heard "Ocho, Siete, Seis, Cinco, Cuatro, Tres, Dos, Uno…" and general celebration. I had the vague thought that I should roll over and kiss Kay, since it was new years, but I never actually woke up enough to do it. I fell back asleep to fireworks and I'm sure they continued to party for hours afterwards but I slept through it.
Kay's note: it was great meeting Frank and Simone. Compared to them I feel like an utter newb when it comes to adventure riding (which I totally am). They have been all over Europe, and western Asia I think and have the perfect attitude for this type of journey.
Woke up with the tent fly drenched. Not a surprise, we slept in a freaking jungle. I am happy to report that everything inside the tent was condensation-free. Yay REI Quarter-Dome. I asked Frank ( Startseite - Krad-Vagabunden.de ) about breakfast possibilities and he suggested running out to the supermarket quickly before they started charging tolls to get back down the road to the ruins (and the campground). Neither of us were thrilled with that idea since we were still breaking camp and simply didn't want to deal. Instead we decided to hit the park on sugary treats and grab food there if we could. Yeah, not a brilliant idea, but the ruins were only 3k away.
Side note: I'll add details about tickets, etc. at the end.
They thought we were silly for taking our bikes there since it was so close and our stuff would be safer at the campground, but as we weren't staying another night it seemed wrong to leave our stuff there until sometime after noon. Plus it was hot, muggy, and we didn't want to walk 3k there and 3k back.
Got there early enough (8:30) to get one of the 20 or so actual parking spots. No, really… thousands of visitors a day; roughly 20 parking spots. With no food stalls in sight we grabbed tickets and a bottle of water and hit the entrance. We'd love to just walk around these places with our CamelBaks but we wear our Wolfman Ranier tank bags as backpacks (you can get backpack straps for it) because we're not about to leave them on the bike.
As soon as we went up the first steps it became pretty clear to us why the folks we met from Monterrey said it was more impressive to them than the Great Pyramids. It's simply impressive. The temples rise dramatically from the jungle floor. The main ones are in really good shape, considering they're ancient structures in the middle of a jungle. And, the place is huge. There are plenty to walk up the steps of to the point that Dachary said something to the effect of "tell me we don't have to go up that one too." It wasn't that we were going up every one. It was that it was 92 degrees F in the shade and the humidity was way up there.
Going through them became work, but not a "lets do these so we can go" (Dachary) work like Monte Alban. It was more of a difficult task that is guaranteed to give you something good at the end. The difficult task was compounded by the steps. Holy crap the steps. Steps everywhere. The Mayans who lived here must have had incredible calves.
Unfortunately, Palenque is hard to photograph and do it any sort of justice. It's even harder to photograph when all you want to do is sit in the shade and drink more water.
My only lament about Palenque is the lack of visible carvings or other artistic details. There are some, but it's essentially all wonder of the architectural variety. However, we both agree that Palenque is totally worth doing. We enjoyed El Tajin, were disappointed by Monte Alban and Palenque was a whole new scale of awesome. If you're on the edge about seeing it, see it. It's worth it. I think that if we could only have seen one ruin in Mexico, Palenque would be the one we'd want to see.
As we made our way back to the entrance Dachary noted that she'd seen a restaurant and suggested that even if it was stupid park prices we should go there, sit for a while, and refuel before taking off. I agreed heartily, and once we sat I swear it took at least half an hour, one Coke, one Fresca, and 3/4 of liter of water to get our core temperatures back to something resembling normal.
Neither of us wanted to touch the bikes, but eventually we had to, and we knew that we'd be cutting the day short in Tenosique (sixty miles away) because it's the last place with a hotel between here and Guatemala, and it'll take a full day to make it the 200 miles from there, across the border, and on to Flores Guatemala (the next place with gas) and while it's definitely warm enough to camp, neither of us were feeling it.
Thirty miles later and I was fighting to stay awake. There were sneaky potholes and unmarked topes combined with a 80kph speed limit. Dachary confirmed that she was feeling it too. Just wiped out.
The heat was doing us in.
So, when we got stopped at a police checkpoint at the edge of Tenosique I asked the cops where I could find an "economical" hotel. They pointed to the sign for the California Auto Hotel right beside them and suggested that it was the best one around. Giving comments (partially in mime) about the alternatives. There was of course, the obligatory air guitar from one of the cops at the mention of the Hotel California. So far, Mexican cops have been pretty cool.
Side note: They're just writing down names and plates of everyone. It's probably something to do with the border crossing having opened up at El Ceibo.
We pulled in. $450 pesos… pricy, but neither of us was doing well and I deemed it more important to get naked and into a cold shower than to find a better price. We were very happliy surprised to find it had Air Conditioning!!! Wi-fi with decent download speeds! And actual Hot Water… not that we used much of that.
Did I mention we were wiped out? Absolutely wiped. The temperatures were hot today, it was humid and the 60 miles from Palenque to Tenosique were the hardest 60 miles of the trip so far. The visit to Palenque probably started the dehydration and overheating, and I don't think we really recovered from that fully before setting out on the road. It's the only real explanation for why this day was so much harder than any of the other days we've done, when we only rode for a few hours and didn't cover much ground.
Feeling headachy and beat, we tried getting room service but that was not to be (again willing to pay extra to not have to move), so we suited up (in still disgustingly sweaty things) and went for the bikes, but the hotel lady caught us and told us that there was a place to eat just outside the entrance. We went back, took off icky gear and had a great dinner at a nameless place made excellent by the big woman with a huge smile who runs the place. You could not ask for someone more accommodating to people with a crap grasp of the language. Dachary ordered empanadas, but we were still hungry, so I ordered carne asada. The former was simple and decent, the latter was simple and excellent. Just beef, salt, pepper, some time over flames, and a lime to squeeze on it.
That, plus a heavy dose of ibuprofen, and air conditioning was exactly what the doctor ordered. So, now, naked, showered, and now with pretty much every article of clothing we own washed and hung to dry somewhere in the room I write to you.
* a few more pics on our Flickr Photostream
* Tickets are $51 pesos (+45 more if you want to do video)
* Tour guides are trivial to find by the ticket booth.
* bring water.
* You can't beat the tourists to Palenque, but you can get a head start on the sun. They open at 8.
* No, more water.
* Bring your umbrella. Really. To block the sun.
* When you find the Baños go left, then down the really steep stairs to the right of the temple. If you go right at them you'll end up having to come up the really steep stairs.
* maybe buy some Gatorade by the entrance.
* Do not rush it. It is huge and the heat is oppressive. Stop regularly in the shade.
The hotel didn't work out so well. The guy next door had the TV on loudly all night (we could almost drown it out with the Air Conditioner) and turned it off less than five minutes after we got up. Dachary's got what looks suspiciously like bedbug bites too. So skip the California Auto Hotel.
Before we got to the border we stopped for breakfast (location in the border crossing thread) as it was going to be a long day and finally managed to convey that we'd take whatever the guy recommended (we've been saying the right words to people but our pronunciation is apparently crap). As a result we got a tasty fried fish (the entire thing fried) the name of which we've both forgotten and some really tasty chicken fingers. The fish was actually better than the fingers and we were first offered crawfish which we weren't interested in for breakfast. In the end we both liked the fish but figured it would have been much better for any meal other than breakfast. I guess we'd not do well in Japan.
We loved the road to El Ceibo and have both decided that we really like Mexican police. They've all be really nice, and we frequently get a laugh out of them at the checkpoints.
The Mexican border was only notable in how inept we were at finding the right building to start in. We were hampered by the fact that the buildings and roads are set up in the reverse order you need them because they're for people coming in not going out. Also, wonderfully air conditioned buildings… although there didn't seem to be any running water in the nice clean bathrooms.
Guatemala was our first real crossing in my book. There was never a real question about Mexico. Guatemala though had many of the hallmarks of an adventurous crossing. A building in a truck. A Tuk Tuk ride to get copies of the stamp they just gave you. No electricity for the copy machine when you get there. Generators needing starting in order to turn on the computers to pay for your customs sticker.
It was great.
The ride into Guatemala though… that was incredible. The phrase "rolling hills" was obviously coined here. It's like God reached down and made rounded mounds of earth in endless sizes and combinations. It's beautiful. We don't have any good pictures of this incredible beauty though because we're idiots. Dachary has some video, though, which we'll upload someday when we have a good fast Internet connection.
Along the way we saw a boy riding a horse whose head was three times taller than his, many people on bicycles, villages of wooden shacks with half-naked (or entirely naked) children playing in the communal spigot whilst the adults sat nearby, and a number of bicycles with miles to go…
Food turned out to be surprisingly tricksy to find, because most everything that looked like it sold food was actually just a convenience store, and the places where people were gathering frequently didn't appear to sell food, although there were a number of them with pool tables on the covered porch. We passed by a couple possible food places because we didn't feel like turning around after noticing them and eventually stopped at a Taco stand in San Diego. The tacos were meh, but the kids were great
The motos though... We so weren't prepared for that. There are motorcycles everywhere in Guatemala, but it's not like Mexico at all. In Mexico it felt as if people had motos because they couldn't afford a car so they all had cheap red Italika bikes, or a Chinese knock-off motorcycle or scooter.
In Guatemala there are some cheap red things and Chinese scooters, but there are also lots of Yamahas and Hondas that were obviously purchased because the owner thought they looked cool and wanted to look awesome on a bike rather than just getting cheap transport.
In San Benito we also encountered our first real moto traffic. Swarms of motos and Tuk Tuks and what seemed to be three quarters of the city was making their way into the graveyard at the same time for someone's funeral. Some wrong turns, directions, blocked roads, a U-turn with a wave from a soldier, and an stop to look for Lithium batteries for our Spot tracker with an semi-hidden Mall and we eventually found our way to Isla de Flores. (Btw, no lithium batteries. These are a surprising bitch to find.)
You see, we got to thinking after Palenque. We don't want to have another miserable day of overheated riding. Plus, Tikal appears to be like 30km from Flores. So, getting up crazy early to attempt to beat crowds and sun, riding 30km, walking a huge ruin in the jungle for a couple hours in our motorcycle pants and boots, and then setting out again when much of the sunlight had already been burned… It just didn't sound a great idea.
No, a hotel… That was a great idea. Drop our crap in a hotel with some safe place for the bikes, take a bus to Tikal and back (maybe read some on the way), then relax again in the evening. That was the way to do it.
Only one catch. There's only one hotel in Flores with anywhere to park. The Gran Hotel De La Isla. It's the snazziest place on the island I think, but it has locked gates in front of the garage, and a steel door behind that. You can't see the bikes and you can't get to them. Also, an armed guard at the front door. Oh, and fast internet uploads, air conditioning… there was even one of those floor towels that go outside of the shower and a hair dryer *gasp in disbelief*. We're paying through the nose for it (we think… we're still not sure what it works out to in US dollars), but we don't like the idea of leaving the bikes unattended for a day in a place that doesn't really have secure parking and the sun had set by the time we got here so we weren't up for going back to icky San Benito and looking through those which were far less likely to have a safe place for unattended bikes.
But the getting of the room was even better. I go in in my gear, long hair out and held back by a Buff and ask how much for a room for two people. It's pricey but… I ask if I can see the room. "One bed or two?" "One please." He grabs a key… no, he grabs a different key, and he leads me there with a little swing in his hips. Nice room, on the side with a view of the lake. I'll take it. He makes sure I notice his long manicured nails while filling in the form, tells me my hair looks "bonito" in my Buff. "Gracias" I reply. If there's one thing I've learned is that when a good looking gay man compliments your looks you say "thank you" regardless of your gender. It's about the best compliment you can get on them.
I realize, of course, that we probably got the room with the view because he assumed that, being on bikes, both of the people in the single bed would be male. Dachary and I both felt bad about disabusing him of this impression when we had to stop by the desk and ask for the internet password before heading out for food.
Flores, it turns out, is a small tourist town, so the secure parking is even more important, as people don't feel nearly as guilty about ripping off "rich tourists" I think. But, it also means that it's a nice place to walk around when hunting for food. There was a heavy American cant to the menu offerings, and I hate to admit it, but the idea of Pizza sounded great to me. I love the flat cows and flat pigs we've been getting recently but a little honest-to-goodness pizza sounded lovely, and I was betting that in a tourist town I might find something resembling the pizzas back home, and I was right! Tasty Hawaiian pizza to the sound of a vibraphone and drum band, and afterwards an interminable wait in line next door for a Banana Split.
I never thought I would ever be in a situation where I couldn't wait to escape the sound of a Vibraphone. Normally I love the sound, but at the end they were playing a carribean sounding some that suspiciously resembled "this is the song that never ends… it just goes on and on my friend…" not in its tune, but in that it played the same 8 bars over and over and never effing ended!
We finally got our Split and split to eat it by the edge of the lake before returning to our room. Dachary is passed out beside me and I'm about to join her.
We planned to see Tikal today, and given our experience at Palenque (getting all hot, sweaty and overheated at the ruins and then absolutely drooping on the ride afterwards) we decided to establish a base of operations at nearby Flores and spend two nights, instead. That way we could leave the bikes at the hotel, ride up to Tikal in a bus and wear our walking around shoes and pants instead of our motorcycle pants. Afterwards, we could catch a ride back to Flores and shower and chill in the hotel, instead of trying to ride somewhere with the rest of the day.
This turned out to be absolutely the right call.
The only hotel in Flores with secure parking (or parking at all?) was the Gran Hotel De La Isla. It was more than our typical budget, but we've been staying in cheap hotels that always end up smelling like cesspools for a while. We decided to splurge on this place - partially because by paying with cash, we got a 10% discount and breakfast included. We rationalized that it helped to offset the cost somewhat and stayed here.
Breakfast was surprisingly important today. We were up late last night (going out to dinner after a full day of riding makes everything run late) so the earliest we could drag ourselves from bed today was 7AM. There's a sunrise in Tikal thing that sounded vaguely neat but neither of us wanted to get up that early. So we got up at 7, grabbed breakfast at around 7:30 and took a tuk-tuk to a place where we could catch a 9AM bus to Tikal. Ran around for a few minutes looking for water to fill our Camelbaks, which we wisely brought with us, and got on the bus to Tikal.
Surprisingly, we really enjoyed the break of riding a bus somewhere. We both agree that we wouldn't want to do it regularly, but it was nice to just sit back and look at the scenery and let someone else take care of the driving. The bus ride up to Tikal took around an hour (turns out it was 60km away not 30), and a surprising amount of that was through the Tikal National Park. Almost as soon as we entered the park, the jungle encroached right up to the road, and we were passing constant "Animal Crossing" signs for a wide range of animals. We saw animal crossing signs for a big cat (jaguar?), snake, turkey, and something we think might be a tapir but we're not sure.
Bus dropped us off at Tikal shortly after 10AM, and we got our tickets (150 quetzals each! At the slightly different rate, that's the equivalent of 450 pesos for the two of us, where the ruins we visited in Mexico were all 102 pesos for each of us… so Guatemala is over 4 times the price? It was expensive!) We started heading into the park, and saw a sign just after "ticket control" (where they check your ticket and punch a hole in it to validate it) saying that it was a 25 minute walk to the Great Plaza…
Yikes! We'd read that Tikal was large, but we had no idea the scale of the place. It was probably a 20 minute walk from the ticket booth to the central plaza, which had a lot of impressive stuff; two temples (but you could only climb one of them), an acropolis and some other impressive structures that apparently used to be residential in nature. This main collection of structures was quite impressive in and of itself.
Then we started wandering toward the outlying structures. Kay had gotten a "Central America on a Budget" book (Rough Guide, I think?) that happened to have a map of Tikal in it, and we needed it. Tikal is huge. Unfortunately, the scale on the map is a bit misleading… it makes structures look closer together than they actually are. Also, the jungle is quite dense, so you could be walking right past a structure at times and miss it. (We missed a few buildings, we later realized, when we went back to look at the map.)
Tikal is great, though. In spite of all of the walking around, we just found it really impressive. In fact, the walking around through the jungle on un-manicured paths full of tree roots, vines and rocks just waiting to trip the unwary… that's half of Tikal's charm. We really enjoyed walking through the jungle and not seeing another person, and then emerging at a structure and suddenly there are people. At one point, Kay said "How are all of these people *getting* to the structures? We're not seeing them walking through the jungle. Do they just spontaneously appear wherever you find a structure?"
We also enjoyed the quiet of Tikal. Yes, tons of people visit it. But the site is spread out over such a large area that the people aren't all concentrated in one place. And the jungle is so dense that as soon as you walk away from a collection of structures, you can't hear the people anymore. It's quite peaceful and awesome. At one point, later in the day, we'd walked to a group of outlying buildings and the path looked like people rarely came there. We were just commenting on that when I noticed a monkey in the canopy, and we started snapping shots. These guys were just hanging out, and they were the first monkeys we'd seen, in spite of the warning when we entered the park.
In all, we spent five and a half hours wandering around Tikal, and we missed stuff. There was more to see. We were getting really tired at that point, since it was around 3:30PM and we hadn't eaten anything except Doritos since breakfast, and the last bus was at 5PM but we were hoping to catch the 4pm "just in case" - so we headed out. But we both agreed that we were still interested in Tikal at that point… it wasn't like Monte Alban where we were just like "Yeah, yeah, let's go see it so we can leave." If we'd had the time and the energy we would have happily kept exploring.
I don't think words or photos can do it justice, honestly. Tikal is amazing. It's the entire experience - walking through the jungle, surrounded by wildlife, and stumbling unexpectedly across these really impressive ruins. We climbed 4 of the 5 temples (one isn't climbable) and a number of smaller structures, and it wore us out. But I have no doubt that if there'd been more tall things to climb, we would have tried, because we were really enjoying it. I think it's our favorite ruin so far, and I worry that nothing else is going to compare to it.
So yeah. If you're going to be in Guatemala, see Tikal. Even though it is 150 quetzals and takes a while - make the time for it. It's really impressive. Our early quote of the day was going to be "Tikal - It's Pretty Kick-Ass." But later we had to amend that to "awesome" or "impressive" - I don't think we ever decided, but it's a little bit of all of the above.
When the time came to catch the 4PM bus back to Flores, we were happy to be on the bus. We were physically tired and hadn't eaten, and the idea of trying to ride a bike back at that point would have been daunting. Also, it was so late in the day that if we *had* planned to try to make forward progress after Tikal, we hardly would have gotten anywhere - maybe not even back to our starting point. So taking an extra day at the hotel and leaving the bikes here so we could explore on foot was absolutely the right call.
After we got back to Flores, we stopped at the first restaurant we saw to grab dinner and were surprised with a lovely "soup of the day" with our orders - chicken consomme. It was basically chicken and rice soup, and while neither of us had been particularly craving soup, it was exactly what the doctor ordered. It was delicious and wonderful. Unfortunately, the entrees that we ordered were basically gringo food, and we found it surprisingly disappointing. So far, the food in Mexico has trumped the food in Guatemala by a big margin.
It was luxurious to wander back to our hotel afterwards, and play on the internet. We're planning to watch a little TV and otherwise unwind. Staying here in Flores for two nights was a splurge, but we've really enjoyed it.
As usual, you'll find additional photos on Flickr, and we've made a set for Tikal.
I loved Guatemala. She was so beautiful, and the riding was so wonderful. Miles and miles between settlements with nice roads and even nicer people. Oh my gods the level of kindness and generosity we encountered here was incredible. The 3 kids on a moto who drove us out of the squirrely, complicated, town of La Union, then the woman in La Union who helped us with directions, then drove us back through town to the hotel, and helped pick up Dacharys bike when we dropped it (twice). The hotel clerk who walked us to the parking, helped carry a pannier back, then wouldn't be content with sending me up the street to get food. No, he led me there, helped get the process of ordering stared, and then waited while the food was cooked.
Mexico landscapes were more dramatic, but that was because we kept going back and forth across the mountains. But the people we encountered seemed no more, or less, kind than those in the US (with the exception of the great folks at Motohaus BMW). People were along every foot of almost every road it seemed, like a cancerous growth spreading along the veins. You had to work hard it seemed to find the country without the constant onslaught of humanity.
In the Guatemala we saw the people live in towns. Actual towns, some teeny, some not so teeny; with beautiful space spread out in-between. I even enjoyed going through most of the towns. It was just a wonderful feeling riding there. We didn't see much of it, but I can't recommend it highly enough.
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