Guatemala was calling, we just had to decide which way to get there. Through Yucatan and Belize, back towards San Cristobal or the loop, along the Guatemalan border past Bonampak, Yaxchilan and the Montebello Lakes. We decided on the road less travelled and take the loop. According the guide books, the road hasn’t been paved all that long so it sounded a bit more adventurous. Ruth and Merv decided to come with us, the Belize option being an expensive one.
First, however, we wanted to see the Mayan ruins at Palenque, the town itself is largely unmemorable, the only good thing about it was we stayed in a hotel with excellent parking and a pool!! All for 50 pesos each a night. Normally the only pools we get are on the bathroom floor, just a pity it was too cold to take advantage and go for a swim.
The ruins at Palenque were as spectacular as I remembered ,the sheer size of the site and the jungle setting making it so memorable.
The next day we left our posh hotel and headed towards Bonampak. No sooner had we left the main road from Palenque, the rain began, at first just a light drizzle but then full on, we were glad we were taking the paved road and not some of the muddy tracks that branched off. We reached Bonampak in about 3 hours, parked the bikes and were taken by the local Lancandonian Indians to the ruins.
The rain actually stopped for the couple of hours we were looking round the ruins, which were worth the ride, but kept up for the rest of the day. Accommodation was a bit tricky to find, due to signs that pointed off to non – existent campsites or cabanas in the jungle. Tarmac turned to dirt (read mud) as the daylight threatened to disappear before we were safely off the road.
We found a place across an interestingly constructed bridge
that had wooden huts in the jungle for an ecological rather than economical price, but it was preferable to camping. As we lugged our stuff from the bikes, down the ever darker jungle paths the rain continued. I read that there were only an average of 3 rainy days in November in Mexico, I think we have had all Decembers rain too. Good news for those here this month then!!
We survived our night in the jungle, despite the spiders, mosquitoes and our own cooking. It wasn’t actually raining the next day, so we set off for the Lagos de Montebello, several beautiful lakes near the border, hardly visited and a great place to camp, walk and swim – ha, we should be so lucky!!
The road, was in the morning rather boring, only made a little more interesting by the military checkpoints about every 75kms. The same routine; stop, hand over passport and tourist card, chat politely until all details entered onto their forms then off we go with a smile and a wave. The afternoon brought much more interesting scenery and roads and less checkpoints, manned ones anyway. The hillsides were jungle and the road wound up and down through the mountains. At one point we were so high, and in cloud so thick, we couldn’t see more than 15m or so ahead.
Unfortunately this cloud followed us and discharged its rain as we entered the Montebello National Park. So, as we rode past, we could only just make out the lakes I had so wanted to see. There was no point staying by the lakes in the rain, so we rode straight on to Comitan and checked into a hotel with hot showers!! It would have been a great trip, but for the weather!!
An early morning start is the norm for border crossing days, however, with only 160 km’s to ride today and news from other travellers that the border at Ciudad Cuautémoc / La Mesilla is reasonably quick and painless we took it a little easier.
We almost missed the Mexican side, but got stamped out and received confirmation that we had exported our bikes. It was all very calm, with only a few people hanging around, and the odd bus coming from the direction of Guatemala. Odd, I thought, this being a Saturday too, I expected a little more to be happening.
We then rode the 4km’s to the Guatemalan side – a completely different story!! It was like Piccadilly Circus, there were so many people that we could hardly drive our bikes through. Helpful bystanders pointed out where we needed to go, first stop was the fumigator who sprayed our bikes for 18.60 Quetzals each. Of course we hadn’t got quetzals yet, so off to find the money changers, ah the “helpful bystanders” should have guessed!! After a bit of haggling we changed our pesos, paid the fumigator and then headed to immigration. Another stamp, a piece of yellow paper and 30 pesos lighter (good we didn’t change all of our pesos!) then it was the turn of customs. This took a little longer, photocopies of everything, forms filled out, data entered into a computer, into the bank next door to pay 46 Quetzales, then we were given a blue sticker for the bike and they wished us a nice stay in Guatemala.
I somehow don’t think that other borders are going to be as easy as this. After all the formalities were finished with, we chatted to Robert, a Spanish guy travelling on a Brazilian registered XT, who was coming into Mexico. Swapped information and our last pesos, then it was time to do some riding in our third country.
Our first volcano climb of the trip so far, hard work but worth it. No flowing lava or burning rocks, that was all happening on Volcan Fuego, out of bounds to climb, but visible from Antigua on clear nights. Volcan Pacaya is definitely active, we could see the clouds of steam erupting from the crater peak as we walked, but it is considered safe enough to allow tourists to visit.
It was a long walk up to the summit of the volcano, the guide kept stopping for short breaks, pointing out things of interest and ensuring that the group didn’t become too spread out. We had all heard the stories of the robbers who used to target groups of tourists and relieve them of all their money and cameras. Increased security has improved things here and the robbers seem to have moved on elsewhere. Our guide still carried a few good sized rocks in his jacket however, and there were a few uniformed lads with guns, just in case. We got to the steaming crater, that was the summit, as the sun was beginning to go down.
Sian holding her breath at the summit of Volcan Pacaya
After the obligatory photos and the odd lung full of sulphurous gas, we started the descent.
By the time we got half way down the volcano, the sun had set and the only light we had was from the moon and a couple of torches. We all stumbled ungracefully down to the waiting minibus, now very glad that we hadn’t ridden here. It was good to be able to sit and rest our aching legs while someone else fought with the night-time traffic. Day time riding was bad enough, the difference was noticeable immediately on crossing the border, no-one pays any attention to any of the rules and drives as fast as possible. I think only the lack of traffic prevents more major accidents of which we saw surprisingly few. However, I never saw one vehicle on the road that didn’t have a scratch, dent or broken light.
We had planned to learn Spanish in Todos Santos, but ended up in Antigua along with everyone else.
The Famous arch in Antigua, with yet another volcano as a backdrop
December is apparently a slow time for the language schools, so we were able to pick and choose – not easy with 60 or so to choose from. We decided to share a teacher to save a little money, it worked out well as we learnt the same things and were able to practice together. Diligent students that we were, we didn’t have too much time to take part in the laid on activities, we also had ‘bikey’ things to do.
We had been given the name of a local guy, Roberto, who rode a K100, we met up after class one day and went to the local café where the riders from Guatemala city hang out on the weekend. Swapped stories, speaking a mixture of English, Spanish and German, as it turns out that his wife is of German descent. He offered to let us use his place to do our oil changes and some routine bike maintenance, so the following Sunday we rode up the racetrack that links Antigua to Guatemala city to Roberto’s house, picking up some oil from the petrol station along the way. The oil change done in a few hours, Arno took the starter motor out, it has been making very strange noises since Mexico and he feels it is only a matter of time before it gives up the ghost. Of course I am just as keen to find a solution as guess who will be pushing Black Betty if the electric starter doesn’t?! Roberto offered to take the part into his work place and get one of the electrician’s to look at it. So after a lovely BBQ with him and his family, we left the BMW at his place and rode back down to Antigua on the XT.
Roberto looking on as Arno changes the oil
A couple of days later, we went back to Roberto’s, to re-fit the starter motor, which had been fixed. Arno was delighted and so was I, no more pushing the bike for me, or so I thought…..
We had arrived in Antigua on a Sunday afternoon, having ridden with Ruth & Merv from Huehuetenango, where we had spent our first, almost penniless, night in Guatemala. The ATM’s in town wouldn’t accept any of our proffered cards and it was pure luck that we found a bank just before it closed, where we could get cash advances on our Visa cards.
Parked by the famous arch, noses in the guide books, our search for accommodation was interrupted by Gustavo, who lived in a nearby village. He told us that he and his wife Leonore, had ridden their motorbike down to South America a couple of years ago. We swapped email addresses and agreed to meet up while we were in the city. We finally made it to their place one afternoon after class. They lived a lovely 45 minute ride from Antigua, the road winding through several villages and hundreds of fields that must have totally supplied the area with all its fruit and vegetable needs.
Their house had been built by Leonore’s father, who had at one time worked in Switzerland. It was the Guatemalan interpretation of a Swiss cottage, complete with sloping roof, balcony with flowers and inside a huge stone fireplace.
Us with Gustavo, Leonore and the bike they rode down to South America
It was a wonderful place and a wonderful afternoon as Gustavo & Leonore told us of their trip and also a little of their history. An added bonus for us was that we managed to speak Spanish almost the whole time – 2 weeks of lessons do make a difference! A shame we didn’t have more time, but our 2 weeks in Antigua were over and it was time to move on if we were to see more of Guatemala than just a classroom.
Our bikes were packed, we’d waved goodbye to our family and our final task in Antigua was to check email. Arno’s bike however had other ideas. The repaired starter motor, now refused to work!! While I was internetting, Arno was outside with pieces of BMW spread over the pavement, trying to fix it. He got it working, but we decided enough!! Time to replace the wretched thing. We rode into Guatemala City and were taken to the BMW dealership by a biker that we had asked directions from. We knew that they had the part in stock, we just had to speak to our contact and hand over the Visa card – Ouch!!
Arno taking the dodgy starter motor out for the very last time!
Arno put the shiny new starter motor into Black Betty in about 30 mins, on the forecourt outside the dealership. Alongside him, brand new cars, waiting for their owners to come pick them up and put the first dents into the bodywork. Another bike rider led us out of the city and by lunchtime we were finally on our way to Lake Atitlan.
It was nice to relax at the lake for awhile, no homework or classes to go to. We drove a little way around the lake, but were nervous about going too far.
Recently a European tourist had been killed when shots were fired at the minibus she was in. There was now quite a noticeable police presence, but we didn’t want to take any chances, so hung out at the very touristy Panajachel. In hindsight, it would have been more interesting to have stayed in Solola, high above the lake, less touristy and more happening, especially on market days.
We had to ride through Guatemala City yet again, to get to Coban. Despite trying to go around, we ended up in the middle again. People were really helpful and gave us good directions or told us to follow them, so we were soon on our way. Once we had left the crazy traffic of the main highway that led to the coast, the road up to Coban was great to ride. Nice scenery and a good road that twisted up through the mountains. The rain came to greet us for the first time since we had crossed the border, so we arrived in the town a little soggy. Found a nice Hospadaje, not yet in the guide books – always a bonus, that had parking for the bikes. The owner had a lorry and backed it out of his garage, so we could squeeze the bikes in front. The bikes were holding each other up almost, Arno had to lean his against the wall, no room for the side stand! At least we knew that they wouldn’t be going anywhere.
The bikes squashed into the garage
The next day the rain had stopped, and we headed out of town towards the junction that would take us towards Lanquín. The maps that we had, showed the road as being of the same standard as yesterday, i.e. tarmac. The road out of the next village was most definitely not tarmac. We turned back and asked directions, thinking we had missed a turn. No, we were pointed back to the dirt road, where an earth mover was busy doing its thing. I thought to myself, “ah, that’s ok, they are just digging up the road here, it will get better soon” After 10kms, I had to face the fact that the next 180kms were not going to be any better – in fact things got rather worse. The road was nice and wide, something to be thankful for as there was plenty of traffic, buses, pickups and lorries, but it was also nice and muddy thanks to yesterdays rain and it wasn’t long before the bikes and ourselves were plastered.
Plastered with mud, on a pretty good section of the road
We got to the Lanquín turnoff at around 10am, now clear that stopping off for a “quick look” at the caves was not really possible, we rode on. The road began to narrow as it climbed higher and by the time we got to a largish village I was finding it tough going. The usual one way system was in place, even here and we were directed around the houses and up a really steep stony road that would have been difficult in the dry. Now nice and slippery, I couldn’t make it. Arno having ridden ahead, and then seen a lorry, wheels spinning and sliding, came running back down the hill to ride the XT up for me, while I ran up the hill to look out for his bike. He made it up, no thanks to the chain, which jumped off at a crucial moment and the bus coming up behind him with no room to pass!! We had a break here and for the first time on the trip really, a group of people gathered around the bikes.
Ready to go again after our break
It was all good-natured and we practised our Spanish as we were asked all the usual questions plus a few more. Time was moving on and we had to get going, at the Sebol junction we headed for Frey, where there was tarmac, but only in the centre of town! The road then turned to gravel, but good solid gravel and we were able to speed along, much easier than trying to avoid the many pot holes. At 3pm, after 7 hours of riding dirt, we finally reached the junction at Modesto Menedez and tarmac. From there it was a rainy but smooth hours ride to Poptún, to the Finca where we stayed the night.
We hadn’t planned to go to Tikal, but so many people had said how good it was and we had met other people who had driven or ridden there without any problems, that we decided to ride up there and see what all the fuss was about.
We left Poptún and got to the park gate far too early. We wanted to get to the site in time for the sunset and be able to see the following days sunrise. This was possible on one days ticket but only after 3pm. Tried to convince the guard that we wouldn’t actually go into the ruins until after 3, but if they could let us in so we could pitch up our tent and have lunch…….. No chance!! Instead we rode back to El Cruce, by the lake, had an early lunch, then went and sat down by the lake. I crashed out and slept for 3 hours!!
Sian asleep by Lago Petén Itzá
Got back to the gate at 3pm on the dot, bought our tickets, then headed for the ruins. Left the bikes at the Jaguar Inn, where we were going to camp and went in to see the ruins. They truly were spectacular, bathed in the glow of the setting sun, tops of pyramids poking out of the jungle. After the sun had done its thing, we went to put up our tent and fell asleep to sounds of the jungle.
We got up the next morning around 5 and walked back to the ruins. Climbed a pyramid and waited for the sun to appear. It was really misty and as we waited the mist thickened instead of clearing and the sun stayed stubbornly hidden. It was very atmospheric though.
Tikal in the morning mist
After another few hours, wandering around the ancient city seeing lots of wildlife and not many tourists, it was time to ride back to the Finca near Poptún, where we were going to spend Christmas.
It was Christmas Eve, but before we could relax, we had to do some ‘bikey stuff’ The first task was to wash the bikes and get rid of the mud that was still baked on to most surfaces, that done, it was the turn of my chain. It had lengthened to such an extent it was jumping off at regular intervals. We wanted to get a few thousand more kilometres out of it, so decided to take out some links. I had a couple of chain connectors with me, so Arno took the chain off, gave it a good clean and oiling, then fitted it back on. It was only when he came to fit the chain connector did we find out it wasn’t the correct size, too big!!
After lots of swearing and forcing, we rode into Poptún to see if we could get another one. We weren’t really surprised when we couldn’t, it being late afternoon on Christmas Eve. Back at the Finca, we tried filing the holes a little bigger, also without much success. Luckily there happened to be a nice big bench drill in the workshop, so Arno used that to drill the holes just big enough to get the connectors through. Whew, with only 3 days left on our bike permits that could have become a tricky problem!
We did manage to relax a little more on Christmas Day, thankgoodness, spent a lot of time chatting with Mike & Sharon, swapping stories and infos. They are driving their Landrover around Central America for a few months and are searching out all those lovely dirt roads.
With Christmas over, it was time to leave Guatemala and head to Honduras. Ruth & Merv had done the border crossing 2 weeks ago or so at El Florido and we were headed for the same crossing, with a list of what we were prepared to pay. Honduran border officials are renowned for being the most ‘inexact’ in Central America. No one ever seems to pay the same fees, it has been reported as costing between U$20 and U$60 and taking between 2 hours and 3 days!!
We had spent the night in Chiquimula, less than an hours ride to the Guatemalan side of the border. Things went smoothly, we paid 10 Quetzales at migracion to leave and nothing for the bikes – they didn’t even remove the blue stickers. Rode the 30 metres to Honduras, arriving the same time as a bus full of Copán bound tourists. Now wishing we hadn’t lingered over breakfast, we had to queue for a good hour to pay our U$1 to get our passport stamped.
Waiting around, we noticed that there were oranges in little piles everywhere and every now and again, people would just help themselves. The mystery was solved when we looked across the road and saw the underside of a lorry staring back, the axles at a rather strange angle. On closer inspection it seems that the vehicle had toppled off the road and into the riverbed below, its cargo of loose oranges escaping for all to help themselves. As we started the customs process, another lorry arrived to pick up the ever diminishing pile of fruit, which was now being transferred into sacks by an army of workers.
The source of the border oranges
Customs or aduana is usually the tricky bit, it took awhile as our bikes were thoroughly inspected, the details noted and then laboriously typed up onto forms. Receipts for everything were written out and the amounts actually corresponded with the huge notice on the wall detailing the fees, and with what we were expecting to pay. It took about 2 hours and cost us each U$28, a border crossing to be recommended. Welcome to Honduras.
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