We were feeling pretty spooked when we went into Guatemala. Everybody we'd met so far regaled us with tales of violence. Checking it out on the internet only added to our concern. The US government website lists in detail over a hundred serious armed robbery and assaults on US citizens alone over the last year, the last being a couple of weeks back – all in the areas we planned to visit.
A law was passed in 2009 forbidding pillion passengers on bikes and stating that all riders must wear a vest with their bike registration number on the back and also have the number plastered on the back of their helmets. This is because of the number of assassinations carried out by motorcycle riders in Guatemala city.
However we’d been told about a big motorcycle meeting and blessing of the bikes at Esquipulas just over the border and we thought… well they’ll be ok and we might get some useful info from them. The town is famous for one thing – a black statue of Christ in the main church, which is a mega pilgrimage site from all over Guatemala and beyond. A huge, vibrant street market sells everything from socks to holy images and cheap souvenirs and huge queues of indigenous faithful come to pray at the statue.
In the evening everybody takes to the streets on small bikes, scooters, quads, tuk-tuks, cars and pickups – round and round they go – whole families on one bike and astonishingly lots of girls in high heels and make up, who career past on scooters showing off to all the boys following on their bikes.
In the morning we woke up to find hundreds of big bikes in the church plaza, so we loaded up and joined them and were immediately surrounded by bikers chatting and taking our photos. My attention was caught by the sight of four burly, shaven-headed, heavily tattooed bikers, heads bowed as they and their bikes were blessed by a diminutive priest. However, something told me not to get my own camera out at this point….
Much cheered by our encounters, we set off to enjoy Guatemala and had a brilliant couple of weeks – not nearly long enough. Our first stop was Rio Dulce where we stayed in the wonderful Backpackers Hostel built over the river – you wouldn’t want to drop your contact lens here as you can see through the floorboards.
We woke in the night to a strange feeling of everything swaying and discovered later there had been an earthquake in El Salvador close to where we’d been the week before. All the profits from the hostel and its restaurant go to support an orphanage with 250 street kids and several of the older kids gain work experience in the hostel.
We were heading north to Tikal, one of the key Mayan sites in Central America. Lots of assaults have happened on the road to Tikal so we took advice from the tourist office who assured us that police patrols have been stepped up so the road is safe. It still feels isolated in parts so we zoomed through and yes there were more police cars around. We felt somewhat ambivalent however as Guatemalan (and let’s face it all police in Central America) have a very bad reputation for shaking down tourists for bribes. Plus we didn’t have the mandatory vests and helmets with our number plates on and could have been fined.
Tikal is extraordinary. Just one of hundreds of Mayan sites, both excavated and unexcavated, and sitting in a huge area of protected jungle, it is a haven for wildlife. We actually saw more here than anywhere else on our trip. Stepped pyramids soar above the jungle treetops – great views once you’ve huffed up to the top of them, and howler monkeys do their howling all around you.
Birdlife included ocelated turkeys (very pretty), large and very busy woodpeckers and swooping flocks of toucans. Plus brightly coloured butterflies and coatamundi skittering around in the undergrowth. Best of all for us, there were very few people around and at times we had the place to ourselves. So many theories about why the Mayan civilization fell apart – too many uncomfortable parallels for us today – over exploitation of natural resources, over population, greed for power and domination etc.
From Tikal we headed south, again taking advice on the safest roads. After an unexpected and unusual ferry crossing and a ride through countless dirt-poor Mayan villages, we ended up in Copan, on the edge of prime quetzal-spotting territory. This resplendent bird was sacred to the Mayans, and appears on both the modern currency and on the Guatemalan flag. We decided we just had to try and spot one, so we booked ourselves on an eco-tour.
We got on a local bus with Manuel, our Mayan guide, then changed onto a minibus which left when it was full to bursting and started grinding its way up into the hills. 90 minutes later, we got off and started trekking up a steep, narrow track. A couple more hours and we arrived at a wooden shack in a clearing in the cloud forest.
The house had dirt floors, chickens scratching around and a compost loo hut about 30 metres away, which meant crossed legs all night or hypothermia and a broken neck if you ventured out by torchlight.
For the next two days we lived with Manuel and his wife and 9-month old baby, which took one horrified look at us and screamed its head off, nervous dogs that were supposed to guard the chickens but instead stole the eggs, and Manuel’s aged mother, who was probably the same age as us but looked about a hundred.
We ate tortillas and frijoles (beans), frijoles and tortillas and tortillas and frijoles for two days by the light of the wood fire in the corner as electricity has not reached here. Maize and beans is virtually all they can grow at this altitude and we helped to pod the frijoles (a daily task) and attempted to learn how to pat the sludgy, ground maize into tortillas.
In between times we went for long, steep walks up into the cloud forest with Manuel hunting for the elusive quetzal – which remained just that. Turns out the air is thick with them – in April - when the food they like is abundant. To add insult to injury my brother went straight to the Natural History Museum in London so he’s seen one and we haven’t.
But the cloud forest was amazing – watching the clouds roll down over the trees in the late afternoon over a clear blue sky was amazing, through the temperature then plummeted and we had to scramble into our thermals and huddle by the fire. It was a fascinating but sobering insight into the lives of so many Mayan families – this family at least had land of its own, but Manuel still has to leave his family on a regular basis to earn enough to keep them. Our journey back was enlivened by traveling in a minivan designed for 15 seaters with 32 of us including 3 on the roof with all the luggage. Glad there weren’t any cliffs.
The next few days were a complete contrast with a stunning ride through the two mountain ranges of Alta and BajaVerapas where the vegetation changed from very arid to lush green and included 70 km of dirt road and no signs. Fortunately Pat is like a homing pigeon, even when she’s not going home, and always finds the way, despite rubbish maps that lie and no GPS to speak of.
Suddenly we were back in prime tourist territory in the beautiful Spanish colonial town of Antigua. The history of most of these towns seems to be built, destroyed by earthquake, rebuilt, destroyed by earthquake and so on – so you get to see a lot of ruins. The way up to the view over the town is considered too dangerous to walk up so the tourist police run their own free tours up there. We were the only takers that day so they took us by bike – breaking the no helmet, no pillion and no number plated jackets for starters. They were delightful and gave us a lift right back to our hostel so they could see our bikes!
We again took advice on routes to Lago de Atitlan; the best roads are unfortunately the most isolated and a motorcyclist on a rented bike had been shot and injured in one assault recently. We also took boats across the Lake for that reason, rather than riding round which was a shame as it is incredibly beautiful. The lake is dominated by three volcanoes and the drop down to it is amazing – 800 metres in 8 kms.
We stayed in the lively little town of Panajachel and hooked up with some delightful bikers and landrover travelers – thanks very much to Vincent & Maryline for the Road Book of Mexico they donated us!
We loved the south-west of Guatemala – the riding is fantastic with range after range of widely varying mountains, from thickly forested to bare uplands. The weather keeps changing too; one minute you’re overheating and half an hour later the wind is biting into you. You never get bored as you never know what the road surface will throw at you, or when the tarmac will suddenly disappear and you’re diving through potholed gravel. One incredible ride took us straight up from the tongue-twisting Hueheutenango to the altiplano at 3300 metres and an amazing view right across the plain to the next range of mountains.
We had to make ourselves leave Guatemala. We’d been really worried about safety, but as usual our fears were unfounded, though we did our research and avoided the most dangerous roads. People were friendly throughout and we had no problems with the police – in fact they were very friendly as well. So what do you believe? We certainly want to go back there as there was so much we didn’t have time for.
Posted by Sheonagh Ravensdale at April 21, 2010 10:51 AM GMT
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