April 01, 2006 GMT
Guatemalan Wanderings

On a winding road we passed many small villages and farms. The mountains started emerging out of the flat ground, forming sharp peaks and deep troughs.

We stopped at La Ceiba for refreshments. The small Tienda was well stocked, almost bursting at the seams, and the elderly Mayan proprietor was very helpful in giving directions, particularly as we did not know where we were. As we were leaving, she asked Jules if she would make a present of her sunglasses. Jules handed over the "Top-Gun" sunnies much to the delight of the woman who had no idea of how to put them on. We suspect they were her first ever pair of glasses.

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Un Regalo - Lentes de Top Gun

Coban, with its steep streets culminating at the central park and cathederal seemed like a good place to stop and explore. For five days we wandered through the streets finding at one end a 'Bizzare Bazzar' and at the other a modern shopping mall.

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Grant in the Markets

The markets were a veritable warren of stalls selling fresh produce, clothing, shoes, fabrics, electrical goods and in amoungst it all small cafés cooking their comida on open wood fires. This caused a smokey haze to drift and penetrate the tiny corridors and lanes. Our eyes watered and our throats burned, yet it was an addictive place to explore.

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Jules in the street markets

Whilst in Coban we were recommended to visit Lanquin and Semuc Champey. Maps are so deceiving! We could see that a mere 60kms separated us from said destination, this would be easy we thought, and how wrong we were to discover.

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View from the top

For the first 40kms an excellent paved motorcycle road spread before us and then it just stopped, literally dissapeared. Following the sign we turned sharply to the right and began our 1000 metre decent to the deep valley of Sierra de Santa Cruz. Our rough, rocky and loose surfaced single lane track wound for no more than 20kms to past the town of Lanquin and to the small campground/hostel named El Retiro on the banks of a fast flowing river.

After the difficult ride we set our tent up in beaming sunshine and took a refreshing dip in the cool waters of the river. Everything seemed great for the first evening and we retired early to our small home.

Sometime in the evening it began to rain, we could hear the gentle pitter-patter on our tent and thought "Hey this is the dry season..... no problems". The pitter-patter became rain and then teaming rain. On the second day of rain Grant began to feel concerned, the road out would prove testing if the weather did not improve. Oh well we thought at worst we could shove the bike on the back of a truck and try and get out that way.

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A break in the rain

So we had some fun while we waited for the rain to ease, taking a tour (something we try to avoid) out to Semuc Champey, a natural formed limestone bridge where a river runs furiously below and above pools fed by gentle waterfalls abound.

The first part of our tour was to visit a cave. We changed into our toggs and tagged along believing it would be just a matter of a short dip in a pool inside a cave. Once again we were wrong. For almost two hours we scrambled along an underground stream each holding in one hand a lit candle as our only guiding light. Many times we had to swim without extinguishing our candles, climb up a rope through an underground waterfall and squeeze through narrow crevices. It was all a little daunting and completely unexpected. However we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.

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Hike to the Mirador

Hiking up to the Mirador (lookout) viewing Semuc Champey lasted over 40 minutes but the steep climb was worth it as the limestone pools came into view and a truely natural wonder was exposed.

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View of the Limestone Bridge from the Mirador

The decent came easy, we devoured our pic-nic and swam in the beautiful clear pools approaching as close as we dared to the roaring tumultous river plunging into the cave below.

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River plunging into the cave

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Jules and Grant at Pools

Every night of our stay became a fiesta of meeting fellow travellers and swapping stories of our travels. It was most enjoyable, except for the continuing rain.

On the fourth morning the rain ceased breifly, quickly we loaded Miss Piggy, only to discovered the rear tyre almost flat. Grant reinflated it with the electric pump, hoping that it was a slow leak, and we headed out of Lanquin as the rain once again commenced. Bugger!

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Loading logs on the valley floor

We slipped and slided our way along the muddy road of the valley floor, passing loggers manually loading huge logs onto the back of trucks, and feeling somewhat apprehensive about the ascent to the pavement on the higher plateau.

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Road before the Ascent

We began the ascent chugging the DL 1000 throught he muddy steep corners bouncing and lurching over rough rocky outcrops and plunging through deep murkey pools. It was very exciting and just plain hard work and we were happy to reach the asphalt.

As we slowed to a stop for a rest we could see the valley below enveloped in heavy cloud and felt very pleased with ourselves at riding the demanding road in such poor weather.

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View of the Valley after our Ascent

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Markets in the Clouds - Chamtacá

We traversed Guatemala City for the days ride to Antigua. Once we found the pereferico it was a relatively simple affair, but re-enforced that we had no desire to spend time in the nations capital unless absolutely necessary. Following the road from the north into the city was an obstacle course. Trucks and buses taking amazing risks to overtake and gain a minutes advantage on thier trip and spewing enourmous quantities of diesel fumes into the air.

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Guatemalan Bus

It was like swimming in diesel fumes, our faces were covered in soot - black like coal miners we were pleased to be heading into the Western Highlands away from all of that fuss and scurry.

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After the days Ride

Antiqua is a beautifuly preserved Colonial city with many ruins of grand old buildings that were destroyed in a major earthquake of 1773. It is surrounded by impressive active volcanoes and is a hub of activity for international travellers and Spanish students.

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Ruin - Antigua

One of the most poignant sites in the city is, unfortunately, the scene of families bedding down for the night on the medium strip in the town centre. Such is the paradox of Latin America.

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Markets - Antigua

Posted by Julie Rose at 10:00 PM GMT
April 03, 2006 GMT
Making Friends in Guatemala

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On the Road to Panajachel

We stayed briefly in Antigua continuing our journey to Panajachel (Pana) nestled on the shores of Lago Atitlán. The volcanoes Auga, Acatenango and Fuego are visible for miles from the road. Plumes of sulphurous smoke continually rise from the calderas whilst gasses and smoke from fumeroles envelope the forest at the base of the mountains. It was a pleasant ride.

About half way through our journey we stopped for lunch at Zaragoza perched high on a ridge top overlooking a lower valley where much of the corn and produce is grown for the local area. We and our motorcycle became the centre of attention for many small children of the village, and as it was market day the place was a hive of activity.

Reaching Solola we headed down the steep decline into the ancient crater showing magnificent views of Vulcan Tolimán towering over the picturesque blue lake.

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View from the Road to Pana

The town of Pana is a small town easily navigated. Ex-Pats from all parts of the world live in the area, it is also a centre for travellers wishing to undertake Spanish and local Mayan language courses. Calle Santander is the main craft market centre and it is hard to resist purchasing the brightly coloured textiles on offer. It is a very relaxing place sit, eat, drink and unwind.

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Evidence of the destruction by Huricaine Stan

We visited the Suzuki dealership hoping to order a new tyre and rear break pads for Miss Piggy, but to no avail. Thier suggestion was to go to Guatemala City as they were 'Solo Agencia' only an agency. We did not find this appealing.

We met Mel, from England, on his KLR who suggested we go to Quetzaltenango (Xela) as it is the second largest city in Guatemala and only 85kms away.

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View of Lago Atitlán

Xela with Vulcan Santiaguito in veiw (considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world) is a pleasant colonial town with a lovely central park dominated by a Catherderal, naturally. From our hotel Flor de Maria we had a birds eye view of the town and noticed a great deal of fine ash layering the roofs. After the first night there was ash deposited quite heavily on Miss Piggy's cover from the active volcano .

We found the recommended Honda shop (Motorcentro de Occidente, 7a Calle 5-57 Zona 2, Quetzaltenago, telephone 7763 0929) where we were able to order a tyre, break pads and spark plugs, all to be delivered from Guatemala city the next day, even though it was solely advertised as Honda they were more than happy to contact other dealers.

As we were leaving the shop Rudolpho from the local BMW club stopped and took us around to the mechanical workshop of the President of the club, Roberto Ascoli.

The slow leak of air pressure in the rear tyre was promptly repaired by Roberto using the same plug repair kit that we carry. Grant was pleased to observe a practical demonstration of how it is done. We arranged some workshop time and were invited to attend the annual BMW Convention for 2006 being held on Lago Atitlán.

The next day we collected our goods and chattle from the Honda shop, and Roberto changed the rear brakes for us without blinking an eye. It cost us 2 Beers! He invited us to his home for lunch the following day, which we enjoyed thoroughly - great company, great food.

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Roberto

Whilst at the work shop we met fellow motorcycle enthusiasts (all BMW riders - of course!) Gato, Bill and Franz and also Lana who is from Canada riding through Central America on her GS650. Franz is a dentist and invited us to his practice for a check up, where he found we both needed fillings and voillé fixed teeth for us both.

We agreed to meet the club at the rendevouz place and head down the hills to Pana on Thursday. At 4:00pm about 50 bikes, mostly BMW´s, were parked ready for the ride. Seven riders from Mexico joined the group, one with lights and sirens, emulating a police bike, blazing. We travelled with Lana at the back of the pack justifying it by saying we were carrying much heavier loads than the rest. The group manouvered through the late afternoon traffic as if it was not there. It was a little difficult to keep up with them. Once we arrived at Pana about 70 riders from El Salvador had also gathered bringing the total up to about 100 riders.

For the three days of the convention we partied, discussed bikes (of course!) and travel as well as taking a group ride to Xetulul (220kms return), a great fun park with rides and restaurants.

On the return Grant began to notice a hot electrical smell eminating from the radiator only when the fan kicked in. He did a cursory check and found nothing obvious and as the system was working ok decided to leave any furhter investigation until our return to Xela.

Photo Gallery - 7a Convensción International BMW Motorarad Club Guatemala

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Leaving Xela

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Carlos and BMW Chickie Babe

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Ride to Xetulul

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Over a bridge

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Dusty road

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Cane haulers on the coast

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Afternoon view of Lago

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Party Boat Chick

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Julia, Carlos, Gato and Jules

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Some dude with Julia and Grant

It was great fun and we made many friends. We chose to stay an extra night in Pana to meet up with some other motorcyclists, Richard and Sylvia who we had met a week previous. They invited us to stay at their magnificient and beautiful home overlooking Lago Atitlán. We spent a lovely evening enjoying thier company with the next day exchanging bikes for a short jaunt to San Antonio Palopó around the lake a few kilometres.

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On our ride with Richard and Sylvia

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Jules, Grant, Sylvia and Richard

Returning to Xela for a few days, Roberto changed the front tyre, Grant and Roberto disassembled the radiator to check the ventillador (fan) and thankfully found no problems, however, whilst the radiator was out Grant noticed some heated plastic cable ties near the exhaust pipe, we cleared them, completed the oil change, put everything back together and all was well!

Grant then asked Roberto if he would mind if we could clean the chain with some kerosene. Roberto then uncovered his brand new pressure cleaner and proceded to completely wash the bike inclusive of Rana René (Kermit the Frog) who afterwards had never looked so clean, as was Miss Piggy.

After saying our goodbye's we once again returned to Pana to stay the night in the 4 Star hotel on the lake, a prize Jules had won in a raffle at the Convention. Very luxurious.

We discussed alternative routes to Guatemala City with several locals and they warned us that the less frequented routes are known to be dangerous for armed robberies - better to be safe than sorry, we took the traditional route.

Once again we were in the depths of Guatemala City, some how ending up in Parqueo Central. At about this time Jules began having a panic attack and was almost in tears whilst Grant just became angry! See what cities do to us!!!

Fortunately a kind local pulled up on his 125cc Honda, saw our plight and guided us through the confusing streets and on to our way out of the city. The northern exit travels out through the mountains and down towards Rio Hondo.

On the winding narrow road we jostled for any advance through the crawling and often stopped trucks of all shapes, sizes and conditions, busses and cars. We travelled 80kms in about 3hours becoming concerned that we would not make Chiquimula, close to the Honduran border, before dark.

Thankfully the traffic eased after the mountain and we found our destination in the late afternoon. After a cold shower, a good meal and a glass of red wine we slept well during our final night in Guatemala.

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View of Lago Atitlán for Sylvia and Richard


BORDER CROSSING - EXIT GUATEMALA

You need two copies of your vehicle permit. One for the Gate Keeper and one for Customs. Ensure the Customs Officer removes your vehicle permit from your passport. Next go straight to Immigration for an exit stamp in your passport.

We were not charged any exit fees, however we have heard and read that it is quite common to be asked for a 'Fee'.

Avoid the Trabadors or helpers, it is not necessary and very easy system to follow.

Posted by Grant Guerin at 12:08 AM GMT
April 13, 2006 GMT
Bienvenidos a Honduras

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A battered welcome sign greeted us

Arriving at the border station of Aguas Calliente we were greeted by many trabajadores and money changers. We headed to immigration where we had our passports examined and stamped, paid the $US3.00 each, and presto we had a 90 day visitors pass.

Then on to the Aduana (customs) window where they required 3 copies of Grants passport, vehicle title and registration. A surley looking lady took all the papers and passport and presently shut the office and proceded to serve lunch to all the workers in the office from a large cooking pot. Obviously it was Lunch Time!

An hour passed and it appeared the office was re-opening. Four people came out with an antiquated typewriter and began quibbling over how to fill in the vehicle permit. They asked us numerous questions regarding the bike including vin chassis number, colour, number of cylinders, make and model. All of this information is clearly stated on the documents we handed them earlier. We felt like they were just toying with us.

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Macaw

After about 45 minutes they sent us to another window across the aisle where a young lady sat in front of a computer, there we had to pay approximately $7US.00 for the actual forms. We received our receipts and our papers and were then directed to pay the permit fees of $US30.00 at the bank. Again all paid and receipted. We returned to the surley lady at the first window where we had to make another set of copies of everything, she then sorted them neatly, stapeled them and requested an additonal fee of $US60.00.

We asked what it was for and she told us it was for the permit. We argued that we had paid customs and the permit at the bank already to which she again replied that it was for the permit. Asking for a receipt she stated that it was all clear in the documents. We knew this was not true.

Our vehicle permit and Grants passport was held hostage until the illegal fee was paid. We barely had the money and the bank only takes deposits (no withdrawals, changing of travellers cheques or cash machine). So what could we do, we had already spent over 4 hours at the border, we were hungry, tired and eager to get out of there. Both feeling furious at the situation and trying really hard to maintain a pleasant demenour we handed the money over. They took what we had and for the first time the surley lady smiled and handed us our documents.

Since then we have heard of other people having similar difficulties at this particular border crosssing. Feeling some what violated by the whole experience we continued. Stopping at a small restaurant 30kms on where we found the proprietors to be very helpful and friendly. This friendly nature has been endemic in all of Honduras so far, and we were not going to let the Customs experience taint our stay.

Our cheap hotel in Santa Rosa Copàn was full of surprises. One was cable tv showing funny Aussie movies, our bed had springs protruding through the cover so we had to sleep on a thick covering of towels. Also running water - not just in the shower but on the floor, under the bed, through the walls and out the door! Interestingly enough with all these soothing sounds of trickling water we slept better than we had for weeks. However it was boots on and tippy toes in the morning.

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Miss Piggy in Santa Rosa de Copán

From Santa Rosa Copán we continued on through rural honduras greeted by outstanding mountain scenery and thick forrested areas. Whilst Julie was able to appreciate much of this Grant seemed somewhat preoccupied with keeping Miss Piggy upright, for the main highway before the turn off to Ruinas de Copán was littered with road repairs.

Large square sections of pavement many the size of a car and as deep as 15cms were cut straight out the of tarmac. It was like riding on a patchwork quilt with only some of the squares at all rideable. Grant wondered why they maintained the road in this manner. Was it some peverse way of minimising speeding traffic? Or had they some how mistaken the good sections for the bad? We did not know, perhaps we should have been thankful that there was an attempt to repair the roads.

Ruinas Copán is a pretty village, multi-coloured houses with terracotta roofs line the cobble stoned streets. We parked at Parqueo Central and Julie headed off to check out the accommodation options.

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Jules - Copán

In the mean time Grant was kept amused by 'The One Eyed Man' who reeked of the local fire water. He would constantly asked very personal questions and continuously touch every thing on the bike and Grant's amusement soon faded when he tried to don Grant's helment. Apon Jules return 'The One Eyed Man' dragged her off to find a cheap hotel which we did not find suitable. Of course he wanted a propina (tip) for all the work he had done for us (guess it cut into his drinking time). We gave him a token ammount whilst he tried to touch Julies purse and look inside. 'No Tocar' (Dont Touch) Jules pronounced firmly and sent him on his way.

We met many friends whilst in Ruinas Copán. Fred and Anne and thier wee baby Isadore, a French familily living in Tegucegalpa. Helen a mad scientist from Sydney, living in New York for many years. Lana (again) who we had met in Xela, Guatemala.

Both Helen and Lana had dealings with 'The One Eyed Man'. Helen even pushed him in the chest and told him very firmly 'NO TOCAR'. Over drinks and dinner Helens story became more and more involved until she became the psuedo-heroine of the Parque 'Señorita NoTocarita' (Miss No Touch) and he evolved into 'Señor Solo Ojo' (Mr One Eye).

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Jules, Grant, Helen and Lana

The ruins at Copán are marvellous and worth the $US10.00 per person entrance fee. The intricately carved stella are supurb and full of fine detail.

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Stella - Copán

Definitely the best Maya carving we have seen. We had, yet again, a wonderful day wandering around the ancient site.

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Ball Court - Copán

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Scull carvings - Copán

On our walk back from the ruins Grant with his eagle eye spied a piece of light mesh on the side of the road. He instantly knew that (if it was the right size) it would be perfect as a radiator guard for the Suzuki. Later that day with a bit of fiddling and banging with his tools hey presto the old guard had been supersceded by the new and improved version!

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Grand modifying radiator guard

The cobble stone streets of Ruinas Copán were always interesting on Miss Piggy and we expected many Honduran colonial towns to be similar. Though having said that, nothing could have prepared us for Gracias Lempira. The few cobble stone roads in the town seemed only navigable by 4 wheel drive Monster Trucks and the dirt roads (which comprised 90%of the town) were something akin to riding on a river bed. We were thankful (Gracias a Dios) that it was the dry season.

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Our hotel street - Gracias

Gracias, once the capital of all Central America is now a sleepy town and a great place to hide from the festivities of Semana Santa (Easter Holy Week) with three impressive cathederals and a fully restored spanish fort perched on a hill over looking the town it was easy to spend a week going for rides in the country side and exploring the town.

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Spanish Fort - Gracias

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Taxis zooming

There are no cash machines or banks that will accept anything other than Honduran currency and as everything would be closed for the 4 days of Easter it was necessary to take the ride to Santa Rosa de Copán for ready cash. The return ride is very picturesque and an excellent ride on a bike, however we were stopped no less than 4 times at Policia check points to have our documents and identification inspected, a common occurance in Honduras, however, frequency stepped up for the long weekend.

To be fair, on one occasion a coursery glance was given and a discussion on our trip ensued and we bid fare well to the Captain and his crew with a hand shake. At another check point Grant was asked sincerely if he was at all tired or stressed and needed a rest!

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Gracias 'Ass ´Street

Posted by Julie Rose at 10:47 PM GMT
April 17, 2006 GMT
Semana Santa

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Semana Santa Procession - Gracias

The Good Friday procession in Gracias Lempira was a very solomn affair. A life sized Jesus bearing a cross was carried through the village streets on the shoulders of the local parishioners to the singing of the following congregation. Stations of the cross were set up through out the town where the procession would stop for a sermon and prayer. There was a strong political message asking the Lord for assistance in matters of Human Rights and Government policy.

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Church in Gracias

From Gracias we wound our way through the hills to San Pedro Sula, the fastest growing city in Honduras before arriving on the North Coast and La Ceiba, the launch pad for the Bay Islands and diving.

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Palm Oil Plantation

We rode into the hot and dusty town and whilst looking for accommodation ended up in the wharf area were we parked under a tree as we were becomming overheated in our heavy motorcycle jackets. Almost instantly we were accosted by drunks and drug addicts looking for hand outs in the guise of helping us find a hotel.

Grant headed across the street and was immediately tagged by a fellow with the story of how he lived on Roatan and had come over to visit the hospital (his scabby arm was waivered in front of Grant as evidence) and now had no money to return home. He insisted he was very sick yet reeked of stale alcohol. In the mean time Jules was beeing heckeled and cat called from men lying about in the near by park as a man approached her and explained we were in the most dangerous part of town and should get out as soon as possible. We suspected it was fine during the day, with hung over drunks to avoid, yet at night it could be quite intimidating or even dangerous.

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Colours of Honduras

We found accommodation in the Zona Viva (much better part of town) on the beach at the Hotel Rotterdam where the proprietor let us park Miss Piggy at our door and cook in the garden. The mosquitos were ferocious in our room and we were thank full for aeroguard and to be taking our anti-malerials, even though Grant was having a bad reaction to them with bad headaches, aching muscles and nausea. Ironically similar to a mild case of maleria!!

La Cieba did not appeal to us at all so we moved on to Trujillo nestled on a beautiful bay, a stones throw away from 'La Mosquitia' - The Mosquito Coast.

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Road to Trujillo

For two days we stayed in the small town prefering a slightly more up-market hotel with air conditioning before heading out of town to Casa Kiwi on the road to Puerto Castillo.

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Spanish Fort - Trujillo

Casa Kiwi, (www.casakiwi.com) is owned by Chaz from New Zealand and is perched at the waters edge on an idillyic tranquill beach.

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Casa Kiwi

We stayed for almost two weeks securing some work around the hotel in exchange for room and board. In between fighting fires (a common occurance during the dry season) and no-see-ums (midges) we constructed a new large clothes line, undertook odd jobs and helped out at the bar and in the kitchen. It was a good leveller after 11 months of travelling.

On most days we would work in the hot sun and finish the working day by watching the most spectucular sunsets we have ever seen from the warm waters of Caribean Sea. We would have stayed longer had our 'itchy feet' not beckoned us to move on.

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Our 10th Anniversary together

Returning to San Pedro Sula we secured our cheap accommodation and slept peacefully. The following morning, 1st May - Labour Day - as we sat in the hotel court yard we could hear shouts and horns sounding from the main street, 2 blocks away. Guessing it was to do with Labour Day, and having not seen a parade in a while, we wandered up the street.

Watching and taking photos we mingle with the ensuing crowd whilst a small contingent of local police stand guard. For ten minutes we enjoy the seemingly passive and colourful parade of workers marching by. Julie notices some way up from where we stood the armed millitary personnel in full riot gear. Grant thinks this would be a good photo however we turned back to the crowd and the parade which is more or less turning into a rowdy protest.

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May Day Parade

We look to where the parade was heading, Central Park. A large crowd is forming with a great deal of shouting and noise eminating whilst smoke from exploding fire crackers envelopes the banner waving crowd.

Right then two crackers explode on the ground next to us temporarily deafening us some what. Mean while a large athletic man wearing a baseball cap and carrying a basket of chips walks past and pronounces to us 'Fuera Gringos' ('Out Gringos'). 'Ok' we think, 'one mans opinion voiced, no big deal'. It was then that the calls from the demonstraters became clearer 'Fuera Gringos'. We look at each other and then up and down the crowded street. There is not another Gringo in sight: Euro, US or otherwise. Possibly this was not the ideal location for us at present. If the crowd became passionate enough we may be caught up in something more unsavoury.

There we stood lone blond haired, fair skinned Gringos feeling vulnerable in the middle of 'Hondo-Mania' down town San Pedro Sula. Briskly we left the crowd and returned to our hotel where we spent the rest of the morning listening to the emotional outpourings from the protests.

In some ways we felt sympathetic to their causes, bearing in mind that many large international corporations in all of Central America manipulate the rights and conditions of workers to suit their economic status, on the other hand, with out large foreign investment there would be even fewer jobs to be had.

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Market Stalls - San Pedro Sula

Posted by Grant Guerin at 11:39 PM GMT
 


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