July 09, 2006 GMT
Leaving Colombia

It's evening in Cartagena. I sit at a restaurant table, outside, in a spacious cobblestone plaza within the walled cuidad antiqua (old city). Now imagine this: I'm with three friends from the Cuidad Perdida hike. Around us are buildings muy antiqua, dominated by a lovely 400 year old cathedral on the western edge of the plaza, tastefully showcased in spotlights. Above the iglesia, la luna de cuarto watches us from a black sky. I'm in shorts, sandals and golf shirt - not really appropriate for more formal latino americana dinner but tolerated as extranjero customers are. It is windless, the plaza protected by the old fort walls from the Caribbean sea breeze. At 10:30 PM I can't feel temperature on my skin, it is that pleasant. Merlot is served by meseros in white gloves, the starter salad and steak are to die for, full-bodied Columbian cigar and coffee follows for dessert. After eating arroz y pollo (rice & chicken) for six months, the splurge is worth it.

Later, at an open air pub, we have many Cerveza Aquila and watch caribbean mestizos dance to the penetrating sounds of african drums. I get back to my hotel at 2:30 am. It is still too hot to sleep even with the ventilador running overhead at warp speed. No blankets are needed for cover.

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During the day I wander the old walled city with its narrow streets and colonial buildings. Think of Disneyland's New Orleans quarter, fill it full of restaurants, cell phone shops, emerald and gold stores, hawkers, and sidewalk fruit vendors and you get the idea of la antiqua cuidad.

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The three story buildings create a solid front lining both sides of the one lane calles, each building decorated in 17th and 18th century colours, with ornate wooden balconies, flowers and hanging flags. Airy spaces are provided by small, leafy plazas with water fountains and statues of noble heroes, like Simon Bolivar.

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Or heroes like Don Blas de Jeso, the one-eyed, one-armed, one legged Frenchman who led the successful defence of Cartegena against Sir Edward Vernon´s massive 27,000 men and 300 cannon siege. (Blas de Jeso seemed to lose something everytime he went to battle - maybe that's where Monte Python got his idea...)

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In riding to historic Cartagena I become engaged in the time-consuming business of looking for a shipper. I need to get Katie across the Darien Gap to Panama. Luckily I stay at the absolutely super Villa Colonial Hotel, owned and operated by Alberto Akel and wife Martha Akel Alzate. English speaking daughter Daniella and son Alberto Jr are also generously helpful. They all go out of their way to make numerous phone calls for me and to drive me to the Cartagena airport in search for an air carrier for Katie.

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I even go to Club Nautico and row out to a 44' sailing vessel to check it out. Blue paint peals from the grey cement hull. I notice alarmingly gaps between the hull and deck as I climb aboard. Lash Katie to the mast, literally, offers the long-haired captain. He and his girlfriend look almost desperately hopeful I might join them. I look around the boat. The wheelhouse is apart. Pulleys are rusty. The quarters below look like a depth charge has gone off. Vague assurances are offered of actually arriving at a port in Panama where I can clear customs, and that has connection with the mainland and ROADS. The whole thing is terribly romantic but terribly unorganized. The boat looks too old and the skipper too young. Presently, according to the Club Nautico master, the cement tub is the only boat going north. It is my misfortune the planets (or is it yachts?) do not line up.

I spend my last afternoon in Cartagena on the broad fort walls overlooking the Caribbean. I'm sit comfortably in a notch where a Damascus cannon used to point to sea pirates and smoke a fine, fat Columbian cigar. I have two ice cold Aguila cerveza to keep me from getting parched.

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The sun is low but still very warm, the air feels very tropical. Hiding behind me, within the fort walls, is the cuidad antiqua of Cartagena, with its colonial buildings in the warm colours of el sol a la tarde. I toast the SBTC. I feel peaceful this time of the day, but a little lonely. It occurs to me that friends make a place come alive and that time special, more special because it will never be repeated.

The night scene, as I view later from my hotel terrace, is one of timelessness. I am not the only one who can't sleep until long after the sun has gone down. Sensual latin music drifts, boys play street soccer, old men drink beer, the women sit and visit quietly. There is a comfortable pleasantness to it all.

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I must ride 651 km today, longest ever, from Cartagena to Medellin. And do it in daylight. This close to the equator means in 12 hours or less. At 6:30 a.m. Katie and I are on the road out of Cartagena.

The Caribbean lowlands have lots of picturesque fincas and haciendas. But the tradeoff is a poor road, heavy traffic with muchos camiōns moving like slugs, lots of little speed-bump towns, security checkpoints and time-burning desvios at road construction zones. As is typical, there are ejercito (army) and policia checkpoints almost every ten kilometers. It's a roulette wheel whether I get stopped or not. Today I really hope they leave me alone because I have such big miles to do. There is no crystal ball to consult to see if this trip is achievable in one day. Perhaps just as well because if I looked into one, I wouldn't have tried.

At my third and last, as it turns out, ejercito punto de control the soldiers give my passport back after the usual chit-chat but forget to return the aduana "passport" for Katie. I miss that important detail. I'm in a hurry. Murphy's Law sneeks in action here, although I don't know it at the time. Katie can't leave the country without that piece of paper!

After roaring off down the road from the last army checkpoint, Katie and I hit the Occidental Cordillera. Switchbacking up into the mountains we go from 38 C and sunshine to 20 C and heavy fog. We come across a long lineup of trucks, buses and cars. Cautiously we sneek into the oncoming lane and creep along in the blinding fog til Katie and I get to the front. No oncoming cars means roadblockville. There at the epicentre of the frozen parade is a tractor trailer unit, unhitched. The tractor is broadside in oncoming lane, its 45 foot trailer in the other with its grain contents spilt all over the road. A five ton truck amuses itself in the ditch, stuck up to the hubs in the only other route around the chaos. Lots of arm waving going on but no real action. Without asking permission, I thread Katie through a maze of hazards and get past. Just as the whole thing is turning into a clusterf**k of all traffic jams. I've learned before no latino motorist has patience so I must behave much the same out of self defence. If I wait I'll be up here on this cold mountain for a month of Sundays.

Katie and I arrive in Medellin before sundown. We've made it! Previous home to the infamous Pablo Escobar, this lovely mountain city is now more dangerous to extrajeros from the crush of humanity and resulting smog. I stay only one night but do notice, as I have been advised by every redblooded hombre since I got to Columbia, the Mujeres of Medellin DO look remarkably attractive.

Medellin to Bogotā is half the distance and I plan to return to the Hostel del Norte in North Bogotā, where I was before. Early the next morning I hit the road again but promptly get totally lost in rush hour traffic. The GPS doesn't have street detail and my paper map is hopeless. So I go to ace-up-my-sleeve Plan C. I stop a taxi and pay him 4000 pesos to lead me out of town. I doggedly follow him through jammed intersections and oncoming cars. He leads me right by where I was half an hour ago. With no road signs I could never have known this was the road I wanted. Suddenly a highway out of town appears and my taxi pilot waves goodbye.

I survive my last day on Columbian highways today. The roads these last two days are built like the 1A Highway to Morley and loaded with lumbering, smoking camiķns and suicidal buses on two wheels. Far too often I pass the crawling camiōns on narrow curves and dart between them and oncoming traffic. Katie's brakes and drive chain take a beating. The temperature varies up and down with the mountains, from a chilly 19C and rain to a wilting 42C. But by 4 PM, Katie and I arrive safe and sound in Bogotá.

Tomorrow the shipping game starts in earnest but tonight I need massive amounts of money in preparation to pay for the air freight for Katie. I try three different ATMs and none take my card. I munch on my pizza later with some distraction.

Good news: Next morning going to the airport I spot a Bancolumbia and stop in. Surprise - I get money from both the debit and Visa card so all is right with msc's money world. At 9 am I find Girag, the air cargo company, at the El Dorado International Airport. Lots of great people and they dive right into the paperwork for shipping Katie and all is going tickety-boo.

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Bad news: Until I try to find Katie's "passport", her Columbian Customs approved document to be in Columbia. That's when I discover it is GONE. I can't believe it. To make it more complicated, DIAN, the aduana (customs) folks, at the airport will/can not phone their colleagues in Ipiales, my border crossing of a month ago. Murphy's Law raises up in ugly letters across my empty passport holder.

Good news again: To make a long story longer, the wonderful folks at Girag do the phoning, faxing and coaxing until we have everything we need. That costs us three hours. But I'm back in business. Now more paperwork, Aduana inspection, more paperwork, Policia inspection for drugas, much to and fro and then more paperwork. Finally at the end of the day Katie is snarled up in a cellophane spider web and ready for Panama City on the 11 PM or 2 AM flight Saturday. I pay 1,131,000 Columbian Pesos to Girag. I've never paid a million for anything before, it feels kinda cool. The extra work I cause them is no extra cost so I buy the gang lunch for Monday. The whole thing comes to US$425. I just can't say enough good things about the Girag people - they sure pulled my ass out of the fire today. Thanks especially to Carolina Luque and to Gabriel Andrade, but also to Maria Elena Rodriguez, Andrea Alvarada, Andrea Yara Luque and Policia Nacional officer Patullero Paez.

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Ironically, no one asks me to disconnect the battery or drain the gas but there is a $75 charge for handling Dangerous Goods. I think the only thing dangerous is "los documentos" overkill.

Directly after Katie is taken care of, I march the kilometre over to the terminal building and buy a ticket on Avancia for a sabado, 10 am flight to Panama City.

After 6 months I leave lovely Columbia and South America tomorrow for a new continent. So far Katie and I have seen so little of this continent it's embarrassing but still, we've managed a few adventures along the way. With Panama and Central America comes a road in front that leads directly to Miss P, CC and all my loved ones. No Darien Gap stands in the way.



Posted by Murray Castle at 09:16 PM GMT
July 11, 2006 GMT
City of Panama Hats

Clearing Panama customs I head outside and get directions to the other side of the airport where the cargo companies are located. The airport terminal taxis want US $12 for the few km trip. "Muy lejos", they insist. And it is too hot and humid to walk that far. Yeh, right. In the parking lot I find one for $7. Feeling good with myself I arrive at the Girag office and step into the air conditioned comfort of the front office. I show the nice lady my shipping documents and she replies "hay no moto aqui". Huh!? Has to be! Either came in on the midnight flight or the one at 2 this morning. I repeat the promises I've been given in Bogotá. No deal, there is no motorcycle here. Come back Monday morning. Murphy, you bastard!

A bit numbed, I head outside to consider my options. There is only one logical option. Get a hotel nearby and make the best of la fin de semana (the weekend). A taxi takes me to the violently bright green and fuchia/rose Hotel 24 Horas in nearby Tocumes. I am 25 kilometers from the City of Panama Hats.

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Hotel 24 Horas turns out to be one of dual purpose, and the alternate purpose the more profitable one I'm sure. To get through front door security one must ring the buzzer. Now, for some obscure reason, the irritating buzzer rings loudly on all floors. I take it from the constant ringing that lovers come and go all night long. What a bloody zoo! And since horny latinos are not there long enough to need blankets, the hotel doesn't supply them - so I sleep in my clothes. On the TV, instead of BBC or CNN, I get two porno channels. That pretty quickly wears thin. So I watch stuff like CSI Miami and the National Geographic Channel in Spanish. And read my Central America Guidebook. Find out that the Panama/Costa Rica border is 519 km from my hotel.

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Sunday, July 9. Great tour of the canal this a.m. Didn`t realize there was an zone several km wide down both sides of the canal that was essentially American soil. In fact, the canal and properties were just turned over to Panama Dec 31, 1999. There is Panama City, a typical latin american city with extra north american influence, then right next to it is "Panama City, USA" (for lack of a better name) and the contrast is startling. The USA city next to the canal is self-sufficient with power, water, etc, and populated with huge mansions, big shady trees, decorative parks and statues, ornate buildings, theatres and curving roads. All obviously town-planned. But like Joyce and I saw in Nairobi, you just have to look at the amount of deterioration of the infrastructure to tell how long it's been since the colonial powers left.

Next, I took a tour of the Miraflores Locks and watched an ocean cargo-container ship get lifted. Truly a marvelous piece of engineering. Sure hope the maintenance for the canal stays on track.

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The highway out of Panama City doesn't lead north, as I had expected. Another geography lesson: Panama sits like a S on its side. I travel south and west instead. The good news is the Panama Panamericana is divided 4 lane, the good ol' U.S. of A's fingerprints are all over this one. Lots of stuff has happened since 15 September 1513 when the first foreigner, Vasco de Balboa, showed up. Wonder how long it took him to figure out he had to walk south to see the Pacific?

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As I move north through Central America I will be following the rainy season which will hamper daily distance: the thunderstorms can be like those on the Cook Islands - black with rain for a couple of hours, usually in the afternoon. The Pacific side of Central America is reported to be a bit drier (1700 mm rain annually compared to 4500mm on Caribbean side) and cooler so I'll tend to stick to the western side where possible.

Posted by Murray Castle at 04:02 AM GMT
July 16, 2006 GMT
Borders, bahias and bananas

Now begins the infamous Central American border crossings. For years a reputation has been passed down word of mouth among adventure travellers. "Be patient." "Negociate prices ahead of time." "Watch your stuff and watch your money." The fronteras can be time consuming, bafflingly complex with scattered offices, bits of paper and stamps (sometimes as many as five for one country) and can be expensive. It should be said the vast majority of border folks are great and work under difficult conditions. And tramitadores, young boys who lead us viajeros (travellers) through the maze, can make life much easier. But there are exceptions. And, as I found out on a Saturday, it can cost when the officials themselves are on the take.

The first border crossing was Columbia to Panama. That's where I first discovered the charming habit of one country charging for the privilege of leaving, the other the privilege of arriving.

Next, it's crossing into Costa Rica. That takes a few hours, and other than a lot of waiting and a few bucks, it is painless. I head west into this attractively lush country but aimlessly. At the first Reten Policia (a police stopcheck), the nice officer suggests I head out to Parque Nacional Marino Ballena (as in whales). Not one to argue (well, not every time) with guardians of the law, I head out to the tiny and underdeveloped village of Uvita. There, while idling down dirt "mainstreet", I stop to ask a friendly looking guy where's a good place to stay. That's how I meet Frank Thompson, finca owner and retired geologist from Winnipeg.

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Frank recommends the cheap and clean place he is staying at, "Has a Swedish sound to the name, with a V and a G and an H in it, I think." Camp Helgalva is indeed a fine place for $10 a night, with an open-air restaurant and hammocks strung among the palms.

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An easygoing lad about my age, Frank owns a comfortable little finca up by San Jose, Costa Rica that kind of grew from a retirement acreage into an interesting coffee plantation. Beans are grown and roasted right on his property. His pal Peggy Malpass is just as upbeat, with a delightful skill as a story teller. Around beers one pleasant evening she describes in compelling detail her trek with 15 other women to a Buddest temple in northern Nepal. How the sunrise burst through the temple windows as the female Buddists chanted morning prayers - I think I was there myself after listening to her story.

When not travelling, Peggy is a prof at U of Ottawa, helping law students learn the finer points of conflict resolution. As well she practises law. I suspect she is pretty damn handy at both.

In the morning we go swimming in the bathtub temperature Pacific. The green jungled hills behind are streaked with black rain. Peggy "manifests" our fate so the storm doesn't drift over to us. It seems to work. I think Miss P would like this woman.

Later Frank, Peggy and I meet some of their friends at La Parcela. To give you an idea of the view from our table, the open air restaurant was built on Sunset Point. To show you how relaxed I've become, I have ceviche as an appetizer and raw tuna for main course, washed down by some nice Chilean Sauv Blanc. When I go to pay for my share of this magical lunch, they insist it is their treat. Thank you, my friends.

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When they leave Uvita, I head out the next day. Travelling along the coast the highway is smooth (very unlike Costa Rica) until Dominical. Then it is two hours of rock, mud, potholes, river crossings then dust to Quepos. But then great pavement again! OK, well, that's what Katie is for.

By late afternoon I'm feeling a bit parched and pull in at a typical Costa Rican roadside diner. The place is eat-off-the-floor clean. The fruit juice is made on the spot, the asado meal equally delicious. Black sky builds while I have dine.

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Katie and I work our way to near the Nicaragua frontera to the little town of Los Cruz, Costa Rica. I stay at the Villa Amalia, with a spectacular view overlooking the Bahia de Salinas from my second story balcony. The heavy thunderstorm I arrived in rumbles and booms off to the south. With the streets still steaming I head off to the supermercado for a bottle of wine, some cheddar and nacho chips. Witnessing a sunset from such a special viewpoint as tonite is just too good to miss.

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The next day Katie and I jump the border hoops again. Exiting Costa Rica is a bit confusing. I have to ride back a mile to get to the unmarked Aduana building to stamp Katie out. I wait with a bunch of truckers who kindly point out which unmarked office I must enter when it's my turn. We play with the pencils while the ventilador hums.

Crossing no-mans land to Nicaragua, I happily discover their entry procedure is the easiest yet with all three officials sitting side by side. My documents just get handed along. I am liking Nicaragua already.

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My country for today turns out to be as clean as Costa Rica. But I do notice, as I have from Panama onwards, a definite shift to things english and north american. Besides the charming little stores, like the one above, that are indigenous to latin america, Burger Kings, billboards in english offering condo community living, Castrol Oil adverts, and a surprising number of english speaking latinos are starting to emerge. I find it a bit disappointing that pure latin america, like the old west, just isn't here anymore.

What is still commonplace in these tropical climes are bananas. Lots of bananas. Roadside stalls, on horse drawn carts, strung over bicycle handlebars, loaded to the gunnels of straining camiķns.

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I pass through many small towns or pueblos. Nicaragua seems to have civil and national pride. The common practise in other countries of using the road out of town as the city dump doesn't seem to be as popular here. Thank God for small favours. No matter how often I see garbage strewn around otherwise beautiful landscape I can't get used to it. As Bob Beliesch told me, don't let it get to you or it'll drive you crazy.

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Security in Central America, Costa Rica and Nicaragua in particular, is the square root of what Columbia employs. Not that Nicaragua doesn't have its own entertainment what with the energetic Sandinistas. Typical for here in Granada is a hired security guard with a night stick instead of an automatic. My amigo in the photo below patrols the central plaza.

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Granada, a lovely city with freshly painted buildings and cobblestone streets, sits on the shores of the expansive Lago de Nicaragua. Population 111,000 half of which must be gringos and ex-pats. Typical of latin america, streets and avenues are unmarked. I take a hospedaje near the plaza then wander around. I discover a small unmarked, unsigned shop making, you guessed it, unmarked cigars (what is it with these people?). Eddie Reyes invites me inside, shows me the five different kinds of tobacco leaf used to make good Nicaraguan cigars. I sniff each leaf dutifully as it's handed to me - geez, there is a distinct aroma to each one! Eddy offers me one of his handrolled coronas, I light it. Kind of strong Eddie, have you got anything mas sauve? He lights a freshly made robusto and hands that to me. Oh wow, now this I like. I'll take a box please. I leave with 25 cigars that would cost well over $200 at home, here they are $38. I like this charming little town. I am so pleased with myself I seriously consider a buggy ride around town. Then think better of it. I need the budget money for beer.

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The highways in Nicaragua are a motorcyclist's dream. I realize I am passing far too quickly through these countries, missing adventures, volcanos, Caribbean diving and snorkeling and much more. But I have decided to be in Dallas by the third week in August. I can always came back to the bahias and the bananas. I just have to put up with the borders.

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I make the mistake of crossing into Honduras at the lonely border crossing of Las Manos on a Saturday afternoon. By the time the dust settles, they have me for $55. Either that or go back where I came from and wait til Monday. For developing nations, this must be a primary source of income. To quote the Footprint Handbook for Central America and Mexico: "Honduras has had a succession of military and civilian rulers and there have been 300 internal rebellions, civil wars and changes of government since Independence, most of them in the 20th century." Good start to another new country, wouldn't you say, Katie?

Posted by Murray Castle at 05:17 PM GMT
July 21, 2006 GMT
Copān

This is too good to be true. As I ride up the Nicaragua-Honduras frontera at Los Manos is quiet. I am first at the Nicaragua windows to cancel my moto visa and stamp out my passport. A quick $5.00 changes hands, for what I don't know but I'm on a roll. Now I am first at the windows for entering Honduras. While I do the Border-Cross Boogey, a hired chico washs Katie for a buck. Another young tramitador is helping expedite my paperwork for 2 bucks. Things are going tickety boo until the Honduras aduana officer gets in the money game. That'll be $45 for the forms and processes to get into her country today. What!? That's Bullshit!

Turning her back on my arguments and protests, she closes the door in my face. A poster, stuck to the door, ironically suggests reporting cases of corruption to officials. My tramitador quietly suggests it is Saturday, parts of immigration are closed and if I want into Honduras, I can pay the price and go. The thought of going an hour back to the nearest Nicaraguan town and waiting til Monday is almost as distasteful as this banditry here. In the end I pay the money. It's my Stupid Penalty for not paying attention to which day it is.

The Honduran roads are good, the mountainous scenery sooths my nerves. I am into another country, it is the weekend and I can make Tegucigalpa today. Life is good again. I am one frontera closer to my lovely wife.

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The weekend in the Honduras capital of Tegucigalpa goes quietly but well enough and by Monday I am on the road to the Mayan ruins in Copān. Security is normal latin american, as evidenced by the lads helping out at the service stations. They don't pump gas for you but they will pump lead at you if you try anything criminal. I note my friendly Shell guard has a handgun casually stuck in his jeans and a shotgun so worn the blueing is polished off the receiver.

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The Gringo Trail town of Copān pretty well thrives on tourists making the pilgrimage to the Mayan ruins of Copān. The town is pretty and immaculately clean. No shortage of cobblestone, hotels, pizza, or souvenirs.

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The ruinas are brilliant and well worth the journey. Early in the morning I hire a guide and we walk the ruinas as the sunrise mists slowly lift. The ruinas de Copān mark the southeastern limit of Mayan dominance. The last estela, etched like a tall tombstone with a hieroglyphic history, was carved between 800 and 820 AD. The recorded history only stretches back for five centuries. Seems to me a pretty short time for those energetic little Mayans to build all this, live here, then walk away from it all.

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Although partially restored by the Carnegie Institute in the 1930's, most of the buildings lay unexcavated under jungle trees, roots and soil. Ancient building blocks, some decorated, lie about. Pale green moss, like a 10 day beard, grows on scattered skulls carved of stone.

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Where the temples have been restored, the now-known ceremonies showed respect for serpents, jaguars, toads (symbol of fertility), monkeys and birds. Gold was not valued, in contrast to the Incas, instead the Mayans treasured jade, sea shells, leather and bird feathers of the toucan and macaw. Buildings then were richly painted in many colors.

As found in all other Mayan ruins there is at least one ball court. Played by the best athletes, an 8 pound ball was rolled up either of the two sloping sides, the object of the game being to score by hitting one of the three stone markers. No hands or feet were used. Broken bones were common. Depending on which version you believe, either the captain of the winning or the losing team was sacrificied at the end of the game. "Tiger, we've got some good news for you and some bad. The good news is the men have picked you to be their captain...."

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Archeologists are still tunneling into the temples and pyramids and discovering hidden tombs. Seems when the old king died, his son built more temple on top. Considering it costs over $3 million to do the work these days on one temple, I'd say many more new exciting discoveries are yet to come.

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The most amazing feature is the Hieroglyphic Stairway. Each stair as it climbs the pyramid tells a story. Archeologists, such as the one below, continue to interpret the elaborately detailed history inscribed. There are portraits of the royals with inscriptions telling of great deeds done and their lineage as well as dates of birth, marriage and death.

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After a day of stone history I am ready for cena y cerveza. The daily, almost set-your-watch, thunderstorm inundates the ruins and town of Coban. I am safely in a restaurant when the ducha de Dios arrives.

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Posted by Murray Castle at 11:07 PM GMT
Tikal

The Honduras-Guatemala border crossing goes well. Within an hour I am riding a zigzag course for the Mayan ruinas of Tikal. As I ride the Penėnsula de Yucatān north I reflect on the history read in preparation for this amazing city of 100,000 and 60 square kilometres. The Tikal site was first inhabited around 600 BC but by AD 869, the last ruler, Hasaw Chan K'awill II, was watching the near end of his city state. By the time the conquistadors arrived in the 1500's, the Yucatán jungle had a several-century head start of invasion.

In more modern history, an interesting invasion of another sort took place. Around the turn of the 20th century, companies like the United Fruit Company and the Standard Fruit Company were developing banana plantations and in the process, getting government consessions to build railroads, ports, electricity plants, suppy shops and of course aquire much land. When exports ballooned and American interests grew to the point where 40% of all exports were US controlled, the "banana republics" revolted. That is, the latin american workers revolted. Government crackdowns occurred, happily bankrolled by US bucks and other "help-in-kind". Whether Mayan, Aztec, Sendero Luminoso, Sandinista or Zapatista, there seems no historical shortage of worthy causes to sign up for.

Hey, but then there is another kind of invader. How about two lovely women from Sweden? That can't be bad, can it? I meet Ewa Persson and Lisa Lundgren at the Hotel Tikal Inn. We have a most interesting visit in the evening by the pool. Big stars overhead. Of course we have to celebrate Lisa's birthday with a bottle of wine.

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At 4:30 a.m. I am up and walking in the dark to meet the Tikal guide. By 5:20 a group of us are sitting on the top of Temple IV 120 feet up, waiting for sunrise. It comes, but it is more like fogrise. Nevermind, the sounds of the jungle waking up at that hour make up for lack of actual sun. Howler and spider monkeys, macaws, woodpeckers and tucans all compete for air time.

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Tikal has over 3000 structures. Only 15% have been even partially restored. Our guide takes us on a quick four hour tour around the main structures; nevertheless it seems "downtown" was still a healthy 2.5 square km.

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Tikal's main structures were constructed from AD 550 to AD 900 during the Late Classic Period. For those wanting to refresh their memories, the Old Age was from 1500 BC to AD 200, the whole Classic period was from AD 200 to AD 925. The last date recorded on a Tikal stela is AD 889.

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Most archaeologists now agree the collapse of this great empire was due to warfare with neighbouring states, over population - which resulted in environmental destruction, and drought. Is anyone besides me seeing a parallel with what seems to be happening today? Who was it that said something like, "those who refuse to learn from history are damned to repeat it"?

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After Tikal, Katie and I are on the road south to the island town of Flores, on Lago Petčn Itzā. The ride with jungle trees arching over the road is cool.

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I like little towns like this. So much so that after the daily thunderstorm I go for a walk and take photos of whatever takes my fancy. I am easily amused but there is a lot to be amused by.

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Not even another evening rainstorm can discourage me from breaking out a Nicaraguan cigar, pouring a Ron Botran rum and sitting on the second story terrace of my hotel. Out of the rain of course. From my sheltered little spot I look out over the lake of Petén Itzā. Sky and lake share the same flat, uniform grey. Baby raindrops pockmark the lake's smooth skin. I can't feel the air temperature but the humidity must be 199%. To my right, a rooster crows from under a coconut palm. What in hell is a rooster doing cock-a-doodle-doing at this hour? His shelter, the palm fronds, droop heavy from the weight of all this rain. He needs a rum more than I do.
On the tan-colored gravel below my balcony, Flores' "Marine Drive", tuk-tuks splash through rain puddles. Families of three on 125 cc scooters, with child in front, dad driving, mom on back, putter by. None are wearing helmets.
Out along the shoreline, spanish voices drift from the wharf nearby, their muffled words echoing across the water. The cigar tastes smooth. So does the rum. Just a smooth day all round.

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Posted by Murray Castle at 11:24 PM GMT
July 26, 2006 GMT
Riding to Lago de Atitlān

I get a great suggestion from a fellow biker, a typically friendly Guatemalan who very untypically rides a Honda 600. The road he suggests is seldomed travelled because unruly rivers keep taking out the bridges. He assures me the road is asphalt and the rivers can be crossed.

True to his word, the highway, although not well signed at the junctions, is paved and is a treat. This is real Guatemala, untouched by commercialism or tourism. Tiny villages, fields of ripening crops, and locals herding their bramhas along the roadside.
The first bridge out has a bailey bridge and earthern causeway replacement. Next good rainstorm'll knock out this baby. But what the hell, Katie and I get across, following four cowboys on horseback leading the way. Difference is, these hayburnin' caballos are the main source of transport for vaqueros in these parts.
The next river crossing is even more unique. A barge docks in the most casual way on my shore. Trucks drive onboard with random carelessness. Katie and I jump the line and board just before the ramp is lifted. We squeeze into a neglected corner.

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I am fascinated to watch the ferry's power source: two 75 HP outboards bolted to half barrel-on-a-swivel creations. This is all that gets the barge across the river in this current? Yet Captain Cook does it with an ease that amazes. I give him the thumbs up when we arrive on the other side. He grins.

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Along the highway going south to Cobān, I see more Life in Basic Form. Ladies doing the household wash in a roadside pond by a culvert. They are shy at first but after I show them the images taken on my digital camera, they are all smiles and talking again. I don't understand a word they are speaking. I remember now that many campesinos in the Petčn speak only Mayan, not even Spanish.

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Katie and I have passed through 100's of villages just like this but never seem to stop long enough to take a picture. The hubbub of activity is not captured in this image, but trust me, life is thriving. It may be a simple life but people are mostly smiling.

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When I get to Coban I have to ask directions to the Hotel D' Atuņa. I always enjoy these experiences because I know I will get a friendly response and sometimes even get accurate information. These two guys give me both. They want to trade their Chinese 100 cc bike for mine but when one realizes neither could reach the ground they break out in laughter. I am charmed by their easy humour.

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Ladies in traditional garb carry loads large and small on their heads. They do it so gracefully it seems the cargo is more like a hat. The scene is so commonplace I forget to capture it until now.

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At the most excellent Hotel D' Atuņa I meet fellow adventure traveller Louis Elias. Louis started his RTW (or Round The World, to the uninitated) trip from his Ontario home. Riding a BMW Dakar with more accessories than the Space Ship Columbia, Louis is off on a two year life-changing experience. We celebrate our happy meeting by swapping maps and guide books, then share stories, three bottles of wine and a couple of cigars.

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Although I am heading north, he south, we decide to ride to Lake Atitlān together and spend a couple of days exploring, as Aldous Huxley called it, "the most beautiful lake in the world".

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The day long cruise from Coban to Lago de Atitlān takes us through Cuidad de Guatemala. Luckily for us it is Domingo and the roads are only choked with Sunday traffic, not paralysed with weekday mayhem. Once clear of the city we enjoy the wide open Pan Americana leading to Atitlān.

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The lake is over 5000 feet above sea level, the volcanos surrounding it reach to 11,600 ft. The views are truly magic. Several tiny villages are dotted around the shore, each reachable by a small passenger ferry. Louis and I want to ride the dirt road that circumnavigates the lake but advice from the tourist bureau discourages that thought. Last year at the remote south end of the lake, 15 armed guerrillas robbed some tourists of all they possessed, including clothes.

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We ride the well frequented road to San Antonio Palopķ. It takes only a couple of hours but we do enjoy different views of the lake. Aldous might have been right.

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After Panajachel, hippy haven of days of yorn, Louis splits off for Antiqua, I head west towards the Mexican border at Paso Honda. Riding together was fun but now I find, surprisingly, I am happy to be alone again.

Posted by Murray Castle at 10:28 PM GMT
 



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