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Stephan and 'Chenda Solon, UK

Round the World, in Central America

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Central America

Panama

We left the youth hostel in Guayaquil at 4:00am as we had to be at the airport 3 hours before departure because of lengthy immigration formalities.

Not for us but for Ecuadorian nationals. Good coffee and orange juice were provided by Continental Airlines in the departure lounge. When we boarded the cabin crew were a bit concerned our top box wouldn't fit into the overhead lockers but we knew better. We were veteran travellers by now. We had a good flight but didn't pass over Colombia as we hoped we might. The direct route was straight over the Pacific. It was a good short flight and amazingly a small tray of food a kid had left on an armrest didn't fall off on landing. The pilot seemed surprised I complimented him on an obviously soft landing as we left the plane.

Customs decided to search my luggage and immediately regretted it when they realised how tightly things were packed and how long it was going to take to repack it. It was 9:30am and we had plenty of time. Once past customs we put most of the luggage in storage and went after the bike, which should be waiting for us in LACSA's warehouse. A taxi took us there via a petrol station to get some oil. Every time I opened the sliding door of the taxi it fell off its runners. It was no problem for the driver to fix it though. The weather was just about as hot and humid as it had been in Ecuador but the real clue that we were in Central America now was the number of loud and colourfully painted school busses there were driving around.

It took a while to find the LACSA warehouse. It was about 5km from customs at the cargo area of the airport. Once we'd announced our presence things moved fairly smoothly with a US$14 document charge before I could proceed with customs clearance. Panama, like Ecuador has adopted the Yankee dollar as its currency although Ecuador only did so in 2000. I hear El Salvador has done so now as well.

A customs agent gave me a lift to customs, took me through the customs process, which took about half an hour and then returned me to the warehouse for no charge. I was going to like Panama even if it was obviously more expensive than Ecuador. One of the customs officers was black which reminded me that, other than tourists, I hadn't seen black people since Africa. For me that is another small measure of how different much of Latin America is to northern Europe.

I got back to LACSA at about 11:30am where 'Chenda had remained chatting to some of the customs agents, handed LACSA the relevant customs documents and the bike was released. After a short wait for the warehouse chappies to swing into action the bike in its crate was brought out. The crate had been strapped to an aluminium pallet, which is probably the only thing that saved it from damage when being lifted by forklift trucks. The crate was demolished for me and the warehouse manager asked me to give his man a "present" for doing that but he disappeared to quickly once he had finished for me to do so. Mind you, he didn't have to work that hard.

It was then our turn to work and get the bike back together. Some other warehouse workers turned up to watch and chat. One was from Guayaquil. This took about an hour and we could then carefully ride away past a customs checkpoint and out to Panama. We got fuel and returned to the airport for a bite and to collect our luggage.

 

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Once we'd relaxed properly we took a toll road with fantastic views of Panama City from one of the causeways. It was incredibly modern and felt like a different planet. We had a bit of trouble finding a hotel but eventually settled into a nice air conditioned room with cable TV for $25 located between the new and old cities. The cable channels included an Arts channel with classical music. We watched that a lot.

After dark when it had cooled down we decided to do a bit of exploring and walked to the Balboa Monument. There were lots of couples kissing with modern cars often parked next to them and beautiful views across the bay to the lights of both the old and new city. Lit up, the new city appeared to be a fantastic futuristic place like a science fiction space station to our eyes. We walked towards it passing some of the most expensive looking blocks of flats and hotels I have ever seen. One of them had built a car park on reclaimed land extending up to 200m into the bay. Eventually we found ourselves at a cinema complex with a bar/restaurant where we settled in for some scoff. It had a very American feel full of well-dressed Panamanians and we were served excellent food for reasonable money - by European standards.

Prices, although not too bad were consistently higher than we were used to and this was going to take some getting used to. Still, we were having fun and this was a great way to start Central America.

We found a Honda dealer the next morning and got and oil filter and spark plugs. Good oil was obtained from a Yamaha shop and then it was off to the jungle. Panama City has a rain forest park a short trip from the city centre within the city itself. Very odd but very nice. We left the bike by a police post after a short chat with the man on duty. He appeared to be using whatever time he had to do some studying. Walking the trails we spent lots of time seeking shade. Our shirts were soaked with sweat in minutes. We were surrounded by jungle and could hear lots of sounds from the animals there although we hardly saw any. The trail led to a lookout with good views to the new city, Miraflores Locks at the Panama Canal and Puente de los Americas, the bridge over the canal and in theory linking the continents of North and South America.

We spent the next few days doing more touristy things like seeing Miraflores Locks, which felt like entering the USA even though it is now Panamanian run, and visiting the old city which felt like going in a time machine to the 1930s. Mostly, however, we spent time enjoying food. Our favourite restaurant was one called Cascades. A really Disneyland of a place! It was huge - it could probably hold 500 people - and its menu, which extended to about 10 sides of A3 continued the theme of hugeness. It was largely an outdoor place with lots of shades. The tables were arranged around a small canal containing two plastic ducks and lots of koi. At one end was the cascades. Yes, a 5m high waterfall! At strategic points were 2m high sculptures of smiling sailfish. The food, we are happy to report, is fantastic and the portions enormous. They couldn't be otherwise really.

 

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Leaving Panama City we followed the Pan American Highway yet again. We hadn't been travelling more than a couple of hours when we stopped at small shop for a drink and found two Germans with modified Yamaha XT600s. They were Frank and Axel who were father and son. They worked for VW and decided to ride their bikes from Panama to the USA during their annual holiday.

They had 5 weeks. Their plan was to leave the bikes with VW in California and return 18 months later to ride to Alaska. We met them again that day when we found ourselves staying in the same hotel in a town called Santiago.

We spent the evening together and Axel shared some of his Holsten with me.

He noticed there was some room in the crate he packed the bikes in for 10 half litre cans... This didn't do much for the handling of the bike.

The next day we found ourselves in a small highland resort town called Boquette. A nice place set in a valley surrounded by bright green hills.

It was a lovely area where lots of people spend time walking. That was something, which didn't interest us much, and besides, we were in the mood for travelling.

On the approach to the border with Costa Rica we were stooped by customs on the grounds we were a bit unusual. They sent us on our way when they realised how eager I was to talk rubbish in bad Spanish to anyone who would listen. At the border proper things seemed a bit confused but I eventually was taken care of by a customs officer. He wanted to go through our luggage and then through the bike which would have taken ages. I said I'd rather he didn't which seemed to surprise him a bit. He went off for a while and when he returned he stamped our carnet and sent us to another customs post for a further stamp. I didn't understand what that was for but had a good chat with a Costa Rican truck driver while we both waited for the same thing.

Next it was immigration and after some queuing we were free to leave the country.

 

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Costa Rica

We entered Costa Rica after about an hour and a half of Panamanian bureaucracy and rode the 100m to the customs/immigration offices, which were a series of offices with large concrete shades extending out over seating and queuing areas. It wasn't too clear what we needed to do and where we had to do it but luckily we met the truck driver I'd been speaking to on the Panamanian side of the border and he pointed us in the right direction.

Immigration formalities were quickly dealt with and it was time to process the bike. After a bit of queuing at a window a customs officer explained what I needed copies of. These I had in the bike so off I went to get them.

Back at the window after a bit more queuing I was told I also needed to get third party insurance before I could proceed further. This was sold at a nearby window and was mine after a bit of a wait and parting with about US$10. Back to customs. Ah - I also need a copy of the part of my passport with the Costa Rican immigration stamp. This was duly obtained when I was told about the need to buy road tax for about US$10. That obtained and a bit more queuing later I was able to hand over all my bits and pieces of paper and after some details had been entered into a computer I was asked to go around to a counter inside the building where I would be called when all was ready. Some of the confusion was down to my poor Spanish but by then it wasn't all that bad and it would have been easy for the customs officer to explain things more clearly so I didn't have to keep going back to her and be told of yet another thing I needed. At least where I was finally asked to wait was cool.

After about 5 minutes a man came to the counter and gave me all the papers I needed to enter Costa Rica with the bike. The whole customs and immigration process had taken about an hour and a half. Three hours in total to cross a border. If only all countries would use the carnet system to process vehicles! When I returned to the bike 'Chenda was busy chatting with our friendly lorry driver and his son. She may not speak Spanish but she was doing a good job of explaining our journey with the few words she'd been able to pick up.

To my relief the road continued in good condition but the scenery became even more tropical with huge broad leaves extending over the road giving much needed shade. We stopped for a rest. There was very little traffic - it was about lunchtime - and only a couple of cars and some kids on bicycles passed us. We continued and the road began to twist its way up to higher ground. At one point the road was brand new and very good quality for about 100kms.

It was on this stretch we met Dag and Bente, a Norwegian couple on a Triumph Tiger heading in the opposite direction to us. It turned out they knew the Canadian couple we'd met in Argentina also travelling on a Triumph Tiger. It's strange when things like that happen. They'd spent quite a while in the US where they needed to replace the engine mounts which had, unknown to them, been cracked ever since Dag grounded the bike while trail riding in Norway. They were lucky this had been spotted before anything serious happened. They also had to have the rear shock replaced in Costa Rica, which seemed to be just one more excuse to stay longer in a country they were really enjoying. They warned us that it would be necessary to use a guide to get through the Nicaraguan border formalities as despite speaking excellent Spanish they found it really hard to work it all out.

 

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It was really nice to be meeting more travellers using bikes. We exchanged e-mail addresses, took photos and as we had started to feel a bit vulnerable on that bit of road - trucks were passing very close to the bikes - we were on our way. While I was turning the bike around I overbalanced slightly and had to really strain to get it back upright and pointing in the right direction. I hoped I would be all right but could feel my lower back and left forearm complaining the next 100kms to San Isidro.

At San Isidro we found a nice cheap hotel on the main square for about US$10. While unpacking the bike I got chatting to a man who was a biker and happened to run a cyber-cafe. I made a note to find his cafe later. San Isidro was a pleasant medium size town and a good introduction to Costa Rica. We enjoyed a good meal at what was probably one of the more expensive places in town and later moved on to the cyber-cafe where I finally managed to finish my write up of our South American Adventures. Just in time for Christmas which was in about a week.

The next morning my lower back started protesting really loudly the second I started to ride. Bugger! Everything I would try to do for the next 3 days would be overshadowed by the pain. Meeting an English resident of Costa Rica where we got petrol, riding on good roads through passes taking us up to 3000m via wonderful scenery and meeting Frank and Axel again on the outskirts of the capital, San Jose was all wonderful, but also painful. San Jose was crowded and very hard to pass through. The hotel we were looking for seemed to have disappeared and the alternatives nearby looked grim.

After about an hour of stop start riding and my back screaming at me we pulled up at a smart looking hotel around the corner from the main bus station. At $40 per night it was very expensive but I really didn't want to ride anymore and felt like I needed a nice room. There was a high probability I was going to spend a lot of time in it.

We spent 4 nights there before I felt I could comfortably ride again.

Luckily I had just strained my muscles and not affected a disk. About 9 years previously I had been laid up for a week after only mildly damaging a disk in my lower back and needed treatment by an osteopath for a couple of months. Sometimes I get paranoid that this will happen again.

San Jose was interesting but definitely not my favourite place. It was a bustling big city with a very modern centre giving way to a crowded and chaotic series of small shops and market area. It was a place to do business with some historical buildings as a sideshow and Peruvian/Bolivian musicians playing Simon & Garfunkle tunes brought in for the tourists. Everywhere that wasn't pedestrianised was full of slow moving bumper to bumper traffic. To be fair, I've been to far less pleasant places. I just think it doesn't deserve more than 2 days. The high point for me was picking up post, which included some Christmas presents.

 

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Christmas on the beach

After a few wrong turnings we managed to get ourselves back on to the Pan Am and heading north to the Nicoya peninsula. We had a pleasant ride and although my back was still making itself felt, it wasn't causing a problem.

We had lunch at a very modern food court that would not be out of place in the USA at the junction of the Pan Am with the road onto the Nicoya Peninsula where we intended to spend Christmas.

We chose Playa Coco as a good village, which caters well for both locals, and foreigners seeking to forget the rest of the world exists. We wanted a holiday from travelling and found the perfect small place with reasonable rooms, great pool and well-maintained grounds all within a short walk of the beach and other restaurants. It was run by an Italian expat and his Costa Rican wife who was expecting their first child. The chef was an old friend of the owner. All very cosy.

Spending Christmas on a tropical beach is great. Everyone should do it at least once if they get the opportunity. For both of us, however, Christmas is very much about being with family and it was strange to not be with them.

Still, we called various people up and thought about them as we ate one of our Christmas presents by the pool - the best Christmas cake ever produced in a bake bean tin by 'Chenda's sister Sally-Ann. We did intend to have Christmas dinner at the hotel as the quantity and quality of the barbecue there was wonderful. Unfortunately the chef was too drunk after a daylong session with the owner so we decided to try the local fish restaurant which our guide gave a good write up. It was OK-ish but not what we wanted so it wasn't a perfect day after all. We felt a little cheated as the hotel owner previously told us we would be able to have the barbecue on Christmas day.

Still, we did have a good day and we were definitely enjoying our time away from travelling.

The next day we finally got around to getting 'Chenda to see a doctor as she'd been suffering a stomach bug of some sort ever since we left Chile back in November. She had christened it Fuji in honour of the former Peruvian president who absconded from office while we were in Peru. The doctors couldn't figure out what it was but gave her some antibiotics to take for the next week with an instruction that she avoids dairy products.

After that bit of fun we explored the next beach along from Coco, Playa Hermosa. It was nice but we preferred "our" beach.

 

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When we left our little Christmas hide-away we were quite looking forward to getting on the road again. We were also really looking forward to see Nicaragua, a country we had been very curious about since the early 80's when the CIA was busy supporting a rebel army, the Contras, against the Sandinista government by, amongst other things, selling drugs in the USA and using the proceeds to fund the war. Many people have commented that fact is stranger than fiction.

First we had to leave Costa Rica and with what seemed like most of Central America returning home after spending Christmas there the queues were horrendous. We had to wait nearly 2 hours to get through immigration but at least I was able to clear the bike through customs in the meantime. It was all straightforward for us but as usual the nationals of Central American countries had more paperwork to worry about. How immigration could think only 2 immigration officers would be enough is beyond me. The fact that they weren't exactly speeding through the processes did not help. The patience of people queuing, especially those in the sun, while huge lorries carefully crawled past with millimetres to spare was amazing. I suppose they all realised the best thing to do was keep quiet and not annoy anyone.

Nicaragua

On the Nicaraguan side of the border immigration and the national bank were contained in an airy modern building while customs and police were in older buildings to the rear. A couple of boys offered to help steer us through the processes and we readily accepted. The younger one stayed by the bike together with some mates and the older one took us from office to office collecting the correct papers and stamps in the correct order. We got through in about 1 hour and I paid the older boy US$5 and gave the younger one my left over Costa Rican money, approximately US$1. They saved us a lot of time although I don't think it was really necessary for someone to mind the bike.

I should have checked my papers a bit more carefully though as the customs document specified the total number of passengers the bike could carry was one person and of course we were two. This was pointed out to us by a policeman a few minutes down the road. We had a good chat about it and bikes in general - he rode an old BMW R80RT - and he sent us on our way concerned that other policemen may not be quite so understanding. Luckily we weren't stopped again in Nicaragua.

Almost immediately after we left the border we were welcomed to the country by the beautiful sight of a lake with a couple of volcano islands a few kilometres offshore. Absolutely stunning and totally unexpected! The road was perfect, better than in Costa Rica or Panama, and the standard of driving was far ahead of most countries, including some European ones. All very calm and courteous. We also noticed a sudden increase in the popularity of cowboy hats.

 

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We headed for Granada that night and found ourselves a nice cheap hotel with parking. Granada was a pleasant, and with the exception of the market area, quiet city by Lake Nicaragua. It's quite a tourist attraction too with many foreigners around. For the first time since Machu Pichu in Peru we noticed American tourists in quite large numbers. We settled in at a sort of Mexican restaurant where one of the waitresses was from England, one of the few British people we'd met so far on our journey.

When we returned to the hotel we got talking with a couple of Germans, Willey and Phillip who lived in El Salvador and were on holiday with their wives. We spent a good few hours talking about travelling and where to go in Central America in particular. We were told that while El Salvador was nice, it would be more interesting for us to spend time in Honduras and see Copan, an ancient Mayan site which has few equals in the world. We were also told there was a short dirt road from there to the Guatemalan border and beyond the road was probably now good tarmac as it had been under construction about one year previously.

The following day we went down to the lakeshore and spent a lazy day in a formal park, which was suffering a bit from lack of maintenance. The whole lakeshore in this spot could do with help to be honest. There is a fair amount of litter and the city's sewage flows into the lake not too far away.

That didn't stop many local kids swimming there and although it was a weekday there were a few families relaxing there. A favourite sport for some was to see if they could knock some of the small mangoes off the trees for a free snack. Ice cream sellers rode through the park on specially modified bicycles ringing their bells whenever they came close to a potential customer.

We returned to the city centre for a late lunch and then worked our way back to the hotel. Later that evening another couple arrived by bike. Going by their gear I guessed they were probably European. Wrong!

Steve and Mardi were Australian. They had a BMW R100GS which they'd bought in the USA once they found out how expensive it would be to freight their own bike from Australia. They intended to ride to southern Chile which was Steve's dream.

 

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They'd spent some time in the USA before slowly heading down through Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. We spent the evening together chatting about the our experiences, likes and dislikes, life back home, must sees and places to avoid. Later Willie and Phillip joined us and Steve and Mardi were able to confirm the tarmac road on the Guatemalan side of the border with Honduras near Copan was indeed tarmac and the dirt stretch on the Honduran side was only about 10kms. They also told us the road to Tikal in Guatemala was very good. Very useful information!

The next day we all swapped addresses and got on our way. Its really good fun meeting other people travelling with their own vehicles in countries where travellers rarely have their own vehicle. If nothing else, I would no longer feel I was doing anything too difficult or unusual while sharing an atmosphere of adventure and a small connection with the world we had come from. I generally come away from such encounters feeling reassured.

Managua, the capital, was only a couple of hours ride away. The write up it got was that it wasn't such an interesting place so we decided to spend a few hours there sight seeing before moving on to Leon, a few hours further up the road. Leon and Granada are by far the oldest cities in Nicaragua and have been great rivals, which led to Managua, a small town in between the two, being designated the capital.

The centre of Managua was completely destroyed in an earthquake in the early 70's and much of what has been rebuilt has, as you would expect, been very modern. The new cathedral is a very strange concrete building far from the centre while the old cathedral has been left as a monument to the earthquake with the main government buildings constructed around a square in front of it. Nice, but as there is no other form of activity close by the area is a bit empty giving it a slightly soulless feel. We went up to the highest point of the city to see a monument to Sandino, a 30m high steel structure in the shape of a silhouette of Sandino. At one time its shape would have been illuminated at night but the monument has been left to rot since the Sandinistas lost power in a general election some years ago to a party on the right.

We felt we'd seen most of what Managua had to see so pressed on to Leon. We took a scenic route by the lake, which in places was quite rough. I felt a bit like I was back in Kenya again! When we reached the Pan Am the road became perfect once more and led us all the way to Leon by early afternoon.

Leon had a slightly sleepy feel to it, which was similar to that of Granada. Both cities had a very old feel to them with the edge taken off by the occasional very modern cafe or shop. The lack of over the top advertising defacing buildings must have contributed to this feel.

 

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We had originally thought about spending New Year in Leon as it is supposed to be a University city and may therefore be lively. It was interesting but we didn't really warm to it. Our verdict, as with many places was that it was fine for a day or two but more than that and it would get boring. We did enjoy the afternoon and evening we spent there though. This was mostly around the central square and magnificent old Cathedral. The urban myth around it was that the plans for cathedrals in Leon and Lima were mixed. I don't believe it but I wouldn't be surprised if it were true. Like many large public buildings in Nicaragua, it is in great need of repair. The tropical climate isn't kind to anything.

It isn't far to the border with Honduras from Leon but due to much of the road still being repaired following the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch it did take us a while. Mostly it was ok but there were a few sections of quite soft earth which bulldozers had not compressed yet. None more than

200m but two up on a fully laden street bike it is really hard work. On at least one occasion I was seriously worried I might drop it but it didn't happen. The first hour out of Leon to Chinandega however is easy and we had plenty of time to admire one particularly attractive volcano as we cruised along. I had been worried that not all the bridges were intact but locals assured me all was fine and, sure enough, it was. Any bridge destroyed by the hurricane had at least a temporary steel replacement provide courtesy of the Japanese government.

Honduras

On reaching the border at Somotillo there was a small queue to a small free-standing police office. I was approached by a boy who offered to help me through the formalities on the Nicaraguan side of the border and introduced me to another boy who would do the same for me on the Honduran side. I agreed they should help and the by now familiar run around ensued. One hour later we were through having paid the equivalent of US$5. The Honduran side was a more involved process, which I found totally confusing. It involved paying various sums to police and customs which were above board and one to a clerk which wasn't. Throughout I didn't have to think - just do what the boy told me but it was turning to the most expensive border crossing in Central America. I think I must have paid nearly US$50 by the time it was all over. Cowboy hats appeared even more common than they were in Nicaragua.

I paid the boy US$5. He was nowhere near as pleased as his Nicaraguan business partner but I thought it best to be fair. He did do more for his money though. A moneychanger had found us in the meantime and we changed a small amount at a slightly worse rate than we would have got in Nicaragua. I definitely got a sense that the honest calm feeling of Nicaragua did not exist in Honduras. It was back to friendly wheeling and dealing.

 

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The next big town was Choluteca where the devastation caused by Mitch was very evident. The ring road was closed due to a bridge on it being destroyed and the sight of this damage was amazing. A 3km wide dried up riverbed with not more than 1km of bridge left standing in the middle greeted us as we tried to make our way along it. The river normally is very low and just passes under the remains of the bridge. Clearly Hurricane Mitch caused it to extend a huge distance beyond its banks wiping out anything in its path without substantial foundations like the embankments supporting the road not to mention any soil and vegetation. We had to turn back and travel through the town using one of the temporary bridges provided by the Japanese. That was the last such bridge I recall and from there it was plain sailing all the way to the capital, Tegucigalpa.

As we travelled east to the capital the road increased in altitude and the temperature cooled nicely. We were leaving the tropical heat behind for what would turn out to be until we reached the Top End of Australia. In Tegucigalpa we met a courier who helped us to find the hotel we were looking for. He stuck with us in case we didn't like it as a friend of his also had a hotel. We did like it but he was a good fun person so I decided we should go out for a drink and get to know each other a bit. He delivered medical supplies to various pharmacies for a living was about 40, married with a couple of kids. He didn't leave too far from the centre and like most Latin Americans, was fanatical about football. I decided not to mention the soccer war...

By the time I got back 'Chenda was starving so after a bit of a walkabout we decided on a pizza place where we had the biggest pizza we've ever had.

Lovely, and 'Chenda enjoyed putting all the extra cheese on it she could.

Well, for the time she was eating it any way. Shortly afterwards she remembered what the doctor in Costa Rica had said about avoiding dairy products. Fuji had returned!

New Year was approaching fast and we decided we'd rather spend it in Copan than Tegucigalpa so instead of seeing any of the city we set off early the next morning for our first Mayan ruin. Although we'd overdosed on ruins in Peru by then we'd had enough of a break to be looking forward to seeing some more. Also, these weren't Inca ruins.

We had a lovely ride with only 2 police stops on good mountain roads towards San Pedro Sula but as we approached San Pedro we could see storms ahead. I hoped they would stay ahead but we were moving towards the storm faster than it was moving away from us. San Pedro is Honduras's Caribbean port. We bypassed it and followed the road west to Copan under a black sky just missing the showers on the way. Although we were back in a lowland jungle area it was cool and we were wearing all our waterproofs. Steve and Mardi had warned us about the Caribbean weather at this time of the year.

 

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We settled in to a hostel in Copan and made friends with a couple of cyclists from the USA. Suddenly we were in a place that was really set up to cater for tourists again although we also saw lots of agricultural workers in the town centre after work wearing their cowboy hats and carrying their machetes.

That night we a good meal at one of the local restaurants and had a good time exploring the town. It was New Years Eve and there was a lot of activity in the main square with local kids and a few tourists letting off fireworks in their hands. The little rockets would often fly across the square narrowly missing people - including us! After an hour or so we decided it was time to move on and we met our cyclist friends on the way to a bar we hadn't previously discovered. It was jointly run by and American and Honduran and although aimed at tourists there were a few locals there too. It was 11:30PM and the atmosphere was really good. The street outside became the place for fireworks. Inside there was beer, dancing - all the usual party ingredients. We had a great time and didn't leave till the early hours after some very interesting drunken conversations with lots of people.

Copan Ruinas was the perfect place to spend New Years Day. It was quite formally set out with perfectly cut grass around the main ruins. Many of them were large statues with a kind of hieroglyphic writing on them telling the story of whatever particular king the statue was in honour of. Much has not been translated but we understand the stories tell of how good the king is in battle and how rich and clever he is. In other words, they served as a warning as much as anything else. Whenever a new king took over he would erect as many new statues to himself as he could and destroy some of those of previous kings.

The temples together with the pyramids they are built on and spaces they enclose are all very impressive. Particularly interesting is a hieroglyphic staircase although a large tarpaulin canopy obscures much of its grandeur over it to protect it from the elements. I was most struck by some of the less restored pyramids, which were practically consumed by the jungle. It makes you appreciate what a good restoration is taking place.

The town of Copan has a lot of steep cobbled streets and I knew the road beyond it to Guatemala was dirt. As it had been wet I was really unsure if we'd be able to make it but as it was such a short distance to the border we wanted to give it a go. We decided to do so if it wasn't raining and although the sky continued to threaten rain it never did. The following morning, therefore, we were off early and rode very very carefully not allowing any speed to get up on any of the downhill sections. On two of them 'Chenda had to get off and walk. As usual none of this would have been hard on a trail bike but on a fully laden street bike we were really pushing its limits.

After about 15kms, which took almost an hour, we arrived at the border.

 

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Guatemala

Strangely it was all very calm and ordered on both sides with no need for anyone to help us. We just did what all the officials told us to do and within an hour and a half we had cleared through all the formalities. We were told we were the first foreign vehicle to enter Guatemala at that border crossing in 2001. At the Guatemalan side of the border we met our cyclist friends who arrived just after us. They covered the dirt road to the border in slightly less time than we did. In Guatemala, however, the road is new tarmac so we had the advantage...

The first large town in Guatemala was Chiquimula. We couldn't find an ATM so it was time to change travellers cheques. This process took us about 2 hours and a visit to two banks. Guatemalan banks were clearly not up to speed with the modern world. Although the first 'Chenda entered had a big sign saying we change travellers cheques, she was told they couldn't do it after 20 minutes queuing. At the second she had to queue about 15 minutes to have a senior member of staff agree to the transaction and then queue another half an hour to have a clerk hand over the money. I waited outside noting all the high security with a couple of private armed guards carrying shotguns at the door and a couple more guarding an armoured van. That was obviously what the bank felt it had to invest in rather than systems to help them deal with customers quickly.

We weren't too sure where to spend the night but decided to head to Tikal, another famous Mayan ruin, and see what we could find. A few hours down the road the sky was black again and soon after the rain started. We were held up for a while at an accident blocking the road. A huge lorry had driven off it and was being hauled back in to the road to be taken away. Although the road looked perfect, walking on it revealed how slippery it was. The rain got heavier and looked like it was going to settle in for a few days. We were after all approaching the Caribbean. We decided that we were getting wet and we didn't fancy another wet ride the next day so it would be best to press on to Tikal.

The intensity of the rain increased over the next few hours and it started to get dark but fortunately for us the quality of the road had been improving. By that point the road was lovely tarmac with white lines either side, broken white line in the middle and lots of cats eyes. We were able to make reasonable time despite almost horizontal rain for a while. The only slightly dangerous bits were riding through unlit villages with people walking around. I kept the high beam on. It may have blinded pedestrians but at least I could see where they were. We made it to Tikal at about 8:30pm and checked ourselves into a hotel. Nice, but at US$45 a bit expensive for us. Oh well, it would only be for 2 nights.

It was overcast and cool the next day but at least it wasn't raining. We decided getting up early was not on and didn't get to the ruins until about 10:00am. They were fantastic. Not at all like Copan which is more about the detailed artwork. Tikal is about monstrous pyramids with temples on top, which poke up above the canopy of the surrounding jungle. The jungle itself is so thick that you could easily walk straight past a pyramid and not notice it. When you get up on top of the taller ones the view is very special. Nothing but jungle as far as the eye can see with the occasional white temple and top of pyramid sticking up above the trees. In the jungle you can hear the wildlife, mostly birds singing but sometimes the call of a monkey. We were told the best time for hearing wildlife around the site is at dawn but there was no way we were going to get up that early.

 

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Tikal took us a day to explore and if the weather was warmer and drier we may have been tempted to stay another day. As it was we decided to get back to the west of the country where we would get better weather. We were also really eager to see Antigua, the old capital, which we'd heard lots of good things about.

So, another long but, this time, mostly dry journey later we found ourselves at Guatemala City at dusk and in the rush hour. Not a pleasant place to be and we had 100kms to go. The next hour was one of the scariest rides ever with a busy unlit and unmarked dual carriageway winding its way around mountains. I was really glad to take the slip road for Antigua where the road quality improved dramatically and traffic was much reduced. Just as well as the road descends at an incredibly steep angle for the last 20 minutes into Antigua.

Antigua is a lovely low-rise city set out on a grid pattern with cobbled streets. We settled into a nice cheap hotel run by a lovely character called Daniel who had a collection of 2 ancient American cars. We noticed some of the guests had come in very nice cars from both Mexico and the USA.

Antigua was the first capital of Guatemala when it was a Spanish colony but following a devastating earthquake the capital was moved to Guatemala City.

This explains the lack of modern development in the city as well as why most buildings are single storey. Since tourism has arrived the city, which is really the size of a medium size town, has been restored beautifully. It's not just a city for tourists but it comes close. An English barman at our favourite breakfast place described it as a little Europe, which is about right although few European towns are set at the foot of a stunning volcano over which the sun rises. Yes, we most definitely liked Antigua! We spent a couple of nights there and could easily have spent more but as ever we were conscious of time. Incidentally, Cafe 2000 serves the best coffee and cheesecake anywhere.

Stories of how beautiful Lake Atitlan is lured us away from Antigua. We took a windy backroad route through the mountains to Panacachel on the shore of the lake and stayed in a hotel connected to the one we stayed in Antigua.

Panacachel was very much a small tourist town. The streets were full of restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops. There were also a large number of Indian women in colourful traditional clothing making a living selling souvenirs. Surprisingly for a lake side tourist town the lake shore was not the centre of activity although there were plenty of restaurants there. Most of the activity seemed to be further up the road between the lake and the traditional town centre.

Our favourite restaurant was a long established one on the lakeshore, which seemed to be run by an American who loved playing mellow rock songs for his customers. He wasn't bad but for me he was upstaged by a very tasty dish of stuffed peppers.

 

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The first night we were there though we found a place with the biggest TV screen we could find to see a football match between Guatemala and Costa Rica. Guatemala scored early but that seemed to wake the Costa Ricans up and they dominated the game to an embarrassing degree after that eventually winning 2-1. It wasn't a great night to be in Guatemala - a lot of hopes had been destroyed and Guatemala was not now going to play in the World Cup. To be honest, most teams in something like the Vauxhall Conference League would have stood a good chance of beating the Guatemalan national team that night.

The lake was a dark green and surrounded by volcanos. I found Lake Titicaca more stunning with its clear blue waters and brilliant sunshine but Lake Atitlan certainly was picturesque. We took a boat trip to an Indian village on the opposite shore. It was a Sunday and when we approached the village we were greeted by the sight and sound of a mass Christening. People had gathered in the local basketball court on the lakeshore to watch about 10 people standing in the lake. I guess baptisms were being done in lots of 5.

The crowd spread up the hill and almost all of the people there were Indians in their traditional dress, the men too unlike in Panacachel. About 50m beyond the area where baptism was taking place were about 30 women and their children washing clothes in the lake. The village was quite large and not that touristy. There were a number of stalls selling food and shops selling souvenirs. We went round a small art gallery displaying local works and moved on to see the church before returning to the jetty to have a snack from one of the many stalls and catch the next ferry back. I think I am more at home at the touristy places.

The next day it was time for us to move on to Mexico. It was a bright sunny morning and we climbed the steep road out of the valley to link up with the Pan Am stopping to take the compulsory scenic photos on the way. It was a long ride, mostly on good road but also on about 10kms of soft dirt road where the main road was being replaced. We couldn't go anywhere near as fast as the cars could and found us holding up a lot of traffic in places. One or two drivers went for some close overtakes but no one did anything too mad.

What stopped me was a construction lorry coming the other way spraying water over the road to keep the dust down. I was worried the loose but dry surface would become mud but fortunately it didn't. The driver of the lorry couldn't understand why I had stopped and was gesticulating like crazy. I reckon all drivers should have a go riding a heavy streetbike up a muddy track at some point so they can see how difficult it is.

We eventually made it to the border at La Mesilla at 1:30pm. La Mesilla is a dump but we had an easy crossing. On the Mexican side of the border the road immediately improved and people obviously seemed a little better off than in Guatemala. Customs and Immigration were no problem although this border post could only give us a 30-day tourist card and I'd have preferred longer in case we needed it. In the end it was no problem. Another country - another adventure.

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