This motorcycle ride included Mexico, Belize and Guatemala from 1/30/00 to 2/13/00. Dale Thornton and I, Frank Tabor, were invited to join five other dual sport riders from Omaha to trek through Mexico and visit the Mayan ruins.
The Sunday morning ride south from Harlingen, TX to Brownsville on the US-Mexico border on US 77 greeted us with breath vapor and ‘Bridges May Be Icy’ signs. We thought that we had left the ice and cold in Nebraska, but the weather channel showed the same temperature from Omaha to Matamoras, MX. We packed T-shirts and swimming trunks, not electric vests.
The Magnificent Seven we were: Dale, Steve, Jeff and I rode KLR 650s with a variety of McGiveresque modifications including CB radios, Global positioning systems, cleverly incorporated tool kits, spare parts, etc. Lead dogs George and Mark rode DR 650s, and Jim rode the Mercedes of the bunch, a beautiful BMW GS 1000. After entering Mexico we waved at official looking guys at the Aduana’s office and kept riding for a couple of blocks before realizing that this was way too easy. Did we forget to do something after crossing the border? Feeling uneasy about going further we made a circle turn back to the official looking building and after the first of many maddening experiences with bureaucracy, were ready with personal papers, vehicle stickers and $47.00 poorer.
None of us spoke Spanish and found that smiles, gestures and self-deprecating attempts to speak the language would almost always bring a smile to a local’s face and a sincere attempt to be helpful. The second task was to find an ATM that worked. Some machines would accept one card, but not the other person’s, and then it would be just the opposite at the next attempt. In general, I had less trouble in the small villages than in the border towns.
Our route south, Mexico 101 was probably a bad road, but for our dual sports, anything paved is a great road. We encountered four military roadblocks on the first day manned by fully uniformed and very young Mexican soldiers, many of which were mostly interested in our motorcycles. To these young men these rather humble looking bikes were the stuff of dreams compared to the small well used two strokes that puttered everywhere in this impoverished country. They were efficient and polite doing their job looking for guns and drugs. We were never searched and rarely had to do more than open a saddlebag or tour trunk, certainly less trouble than entering Canada, but far too often. We learned early to take our helmets off and look the guard in the eye and be light spirited, although Jeff thought that I went too far when I joked that a round package on Jeff’s bike was a bomb.
Our first day ended in Tampico, MX at the San Antonio Hotel, which seems to be a long-term work in progress. The Cedars restaurant and bakery around the corner served up a good meal, which raised all our spirits with the help of a few cervesas frio.
Day 2 on Highway 180 gave our first glimpse of the Gulf of Mexico at Gutierrez Zamora where the road runs along the coastline and the air begins to warm up the body. We visited a 500 year old cathedral and found an RV park behind a grand old hotel just outside of Vera Cruz. Jeff and George found the park in the suburb of Boca Del Rio using GPS and instinct. Unfortunately, the water system had to be worked on that evening and it was dry shower time. Across the street from our campsite was an excellent restaurant specializing in fresh fish. Camping on the beach of the Gulf waters under palm trees in the shadow of a majestic old hotel was memorable.
Day 3 continued on highway 180. The toll roads were surprisingly expensive, but the Mexican toll roads are paralleled by a routa libra or free road, that allowed you to bypass the tollbooths and visit the adjacent communities. The new bridges in Mexico are stunningly beautiful works of art. We crossed a couple of suspension bridges with cables suspended only in the middle with the roadways hanging on either side of the towering cable spires. We began stopping more often in the towns and villages along the way and enjoyed local foods and cold domestic beers. After a late supper near Cardenas, we found the first ‘camping’ sign of the trip. We found that ‘campo del’ did not mean a campground, but probably a sporting field.
This campsite must have been a huge bustling RV park in an earlier time, but was completely vacant now. The magnificent seven had paradise to themselves. Our private campground had thatched roof shower rooms; a quiet lake, a 50 foot tall observation tower and a palm tree lined camping area. George bought a fresh pineapple for breakfast. This is living!
Day 4, the sun is out again, hallelujah! It’s not far to the modern bustling city of Villa Hermosa. There was more traffic congestion in this metropolitan city and we had gotten used to simply barging through the remote villages where stop signs and the occasional traffic light are regarded more as suggestions than the law. In the larger towns, the signals are observed as in the states. Mark ran into the rear of another rider going down hard on his knee. An accident possibly resulting from the hurried pace we had adopted in the rural areas.
We were able to get a taxi to a clinica de emergencia in just minutes after the accident, where Mark promptly received first-rate care. The radiologist trained in the US and spoke English. He was also a fellow cyclist. He visited with the rest of us while we sat at a sidewalk café across the street from the clinic and briefed us on Marks injury. He suggested that Mark not continue the ride to Tikal, but rather convalesce in town till the group came back through on the way home. Jeff looked up from our sidewalk café and saw a cyber café sign next door and emailed our news to friends and family. George decided to stay with Mark and they would attempt to rent a car and meet us in Tikal, the site of the Mayan ruins in Guatemala.
Mark’s bike was not damaged, except for the mirror, nor had any of the bikes experienced any breakdowns yet. Most of us used 90wt gear oil on the chains daily. The DRs seem a little smoother and had good power but lacked the fuel range of the KLRs and may be a little noisier than the water-cooled KLRs. The Beemer just hummed along. The remaining five continued after Marks accident and hoteled in Escarcega, where we learned that the nicest looking restaurant in the village is not necessarily the safest. The Restaurant was the Titanic and some of us went down with it.
We would make Belize the fifth day, but took time to visit some of the Yucatan Peninsula’s Mayan ruins at Xpujil then on to the Belizean border near Chetumal. Crossing the border was no big deal, and it helps to impress the border predators that you know what’s going on, even when you don’t have a clue. We bought a 7-day insurance policy for $15.00, but no official in any country ever asked to see insurance papers. Belize is an English speaking country and the Belizean currency is pegged at two for one to the American dollar so you don’t even need to convert US dollars.
Dale and I got lost in Belize City while trying to find a better deal on a hotel downtown. We found ourselves getting trapped in a one-way maze and stopped to collect our thoughts when Jeff and Steve came riding up, also lost. We spotted a fellow motorcyclist stopping at a store across the street and asked him for directions, His name is Louis Alto and his wife is a Brazilian Consulate official in Belize. He had his friend, Wellington Chee, the owner of the store call around for safe hotels and got us reserved for the last rooms at the Biltmore Hotel. He then led the four of us to it. Everyone we met on this journey has gone out of their way to be helpful and kind. The most dangerous part of the trip, however were the roads in Belize. They were in great condition, but didn’t have any paint stripes or reflectors in the middle or on the edges making night riding pretty risky.
Day 6, we rode to the Guatemalan border at Ciudad Melchor de Mentos. It was raining again and the roads from here to El Remate were mud and gravel. Tikal is only about 20 miles past El Remate so we stayed at Don David’s Place, a gringo run hotel and restaurant on the shore of Lake Flores. Our rooms were clean, humble, and cheap and I could have stayed there a month. Don told us that the only phone in the village was taken out a couple of year’s ago because someone in the village did not pay their long-distance bill. His hotel got hooked up to electricity just the previous December. If you plan to eat at Don David’s you have to order by noon because the cook has to slaughter whatever you order for that evening's meal. We learned why the chicken crossed the road.
We got up the next morning at 4:30 am to catch the bus to Tikal and pick up the bag lunch that we ordered from Don.
The bus ride to Tikal was full even at 4:30 am and we chatted with several groups of students touring Central America on the cheap. We wanted to know if they had experienced the fear and harassment that the American news shows talk about. We couldn’t find one person that feared for their safety or was inconvenienced in any way. Most people laughed and some German youths told us that the USA is on their state department’s list of travel danger advisories.
Tikal is one of the great historic sites on our continent and it is humbling to imagine primitive people carving a sophisticated culture in this jungle. We learned that Howler and spider monkeys live one country away from our own border.
At the end of our day, Jim and I walked the wrong way in search of our bus back to El Remate and found George and Mark having supper. We were sure that they could not get across Belize in a rented car, but here they were. They would stay that night at the hotel in the Tikal compound, and we returned to Don David’s. Cold beer, fresh chicken, noisy Toucans, quiet Geckos, balmy weather, wonderful people and spectacular riding; life doesn’t get much better. I regretted that my wife, Sandi wasn’t here to share in this peaceful place. I will be back!
Day 8, Jim, Steve and Jeff left for Villa Hermosa to reconnect with George and Mark in the hope that Mark’s knee was healed enough for him to continue the ride back to Texas. Dale and I headed south for Guatemala City to ride up the west coast of Mexico. The roads from Tikal to Guatemala City were wonderful with banked curves and constant radius turns. You could actually set your lean with your elbow resting on your tank bag and never have to make an adjustment. Our highway engineers could learn something from this supposed third world nation!
At Rio Hocho, Dale and I caught up with a dozen Yamaha riders going home from a holiday in Tikal. They suggested we follow them on some great mountain roads that would miss the heavy traffic going to Guatemala City and get a chance to do a little sport riding with them.
They were businessmen, lawyers, the Yamaha Importer, and the Nolan Helmet importer and they could ride! We had a ball hanging with them and took a beer break with them before riding on to Esquintla, Guatemala. This stretch was the best motorcycle riding so far.
Day 9, we have been riding the Pan American highway since Escuintla and crossed back into Mexico near Huixtla. We thought we were following the signs to the border crossing and were a little surprised that there wasn’t more traffic on this terrific new four-lane road. We rode onto the bridge and were stopped by a 12-foot high fence with no gate. It seems that the Mexicans hadn’t gotten around to building their side of the border crossing and we couldn’t read the signs. We had to backtrack about two miles to the ‘old’ border crossing which looked more familiar with smoke, litter, congestion, and controlled chaos. We learned that a 12 year old and $5.00 can get you through a border crossing faster than an international lawyer.
Dale and I made good time the rest of the day and pushed on to Tonala in the Chiappas region. The hotel had a pool and we enjoyed making our ritualistic strong coffee and capping off the day with a swim. After we returned to Omaha, friends told us of the uprising and bloodshed that had occurred with the Indian population in Chiappas. There were military stops every 20 miles, which made for slow travel, but we never encountered any harassment. Every stop was manned by military in full dress which had to make their job hot and uncomfortable, but all the soldiers seemed disciplined and restrained which is a great improvement over 20 years ago when a guy with a gun wore a black arm band and may or may not have been a Federali.
Day 10, still riding the Pan American Highway, we made little time because of the military stops and the switchback road clinging to the Pacific coast line. We were pretty tired after only 225 miles and pulled into Puerto Angel on the sea. We found paradise again. Our hotel had open sky hallways with red and pink bougainvillea hanging from the balconies and walls.
Across the cobblestone street was a protected bay where we budget jetsetters dined liked royalty for pennies and basked in the sun with our feet in the ocean. We chatted with Jack from Calgary, BC and Damien from Ireland. We met them at 6:00 in the afternoon sitting in their beach chairs sipping Pina Coladas and talked till dark about how they found this place and how they got here. They said that they had been in the same chairs since 10:00 am trying to decide what they were going to do that day. The roads had been pretty rough today and the mounting bolts on Dales muffler fell out. Fortunately we had just pulled onto the road to Puerto Angel before it fell off completely and were able to buy bolts at a ferrateria. We learned to never ask a question that required more than a nod or pointing since we dared not get engaged in a lengthy discourse. FYI, tornillo is a bolt, good luck with the size part.
Day 11 began with mild breezes and a clear sky. We packed our bikes extra carefully because the road back to the Pan Am was potholed and rocky. Climbing the hill out of the idyllic bay of Puerto Angel, I could see a trail of dust coming at us; it was another cyclist on a BMW GS 1000 with the Paris-Dakar kit. We rode right up to each other as if it was in the script of life. His riding suit was well worn and his riding gear wore the dust of far away places. Jeff Singer was his name, and he was riding back to the States to meet up with his fiancé. Jeff said that friends in Costa Rica recommended that he stop for a break at Puerto Angel and that he would try to catch up with us on the Pan Am.
These were the waning days of our trip and though the weather was perfect, we began riding a little harder to get closer to home with each days ride. Even so, within the hour I could see a third motorcycle closing in from the rear and soon we were riding as a group of long time friends. All three of us had 300 mile plus fuel range and stopped more often for refreshment and to admire the spectacular Pacific coastline than to refuel. The Pemex stations throughout Mexico are new and spacious, but the shelves are bare in the more remote areas. It’s a peculiar feeling to pull up to the gas pump, fill up, pull a cold beer out of the cooler and relax next to a couple of policia also having a beer.
Mexico highway 200, or the Pan Am, is a great motorcycle road with hundreds of tight turns and spiraling curves while running along the coast. We reached Acapulco about 5:00 pm and had no desire to spend the night here. We three had discussed our mutual aversion for dense population and were more excited when riding the path less traveled. That route was far cheaper and we were less likely to meet the predators that feast on the tourists and were more likely to meet the everyday man.
The road into Acapulco looked like some one had shut the power off to a giant bumper-car ride. Cars, busses, semi-trucks and taxis were pointed in an illogical array with no sense to the arrangement. Jeff, Dale and I looked at each other and were off like a pack of crazed dogs. We flew past traffic cops trying to sort out the same mess he dealt with each day of his working life. We scurried between busses and passed on the right and the left and often in front of cars jammed tight. The drivers even tried to back up to give us more room. No four wheeled vehicle could even move not alone give chase, so we rode as if we were the only ones with authority. North of the city, the highway runs along the ocean again, but the traffic was still too congested for our comfort and we found a non-tourist hotel in Coyuga de Benitez.
Our hotel had an open courtyard with rooms on two levels. The Senora gave us her room for three on the second level. The family that ran the hotel lived in the front rooms and we had occasion to walk through their home to get to the courtyard. They allowed us to park our motos in their personal garage so that we didn’t have to unpack all our gear. After our meal, we relaxed in the city park, which was alive with families walking arm in arm and children playing basketball. We spoke at length with a 13 year old girl who’s English was exacting. We were astonished to hear that she was teaching herself English from books! Her dream was to visit Chicago because that was where Michael Jordan played basketball. We were humble before this young lady who had so little and was working so hard to realize her dream. America should be the prize for people of passion and desire such as this.
Day 12, another beautiful day and the road followed the coast yielding panoramic vistas of the white sandy coastline. The military roadblocks were practically non-existent now and we could make good time, limited only by the hundreds of sharp curves winding around the cliffs and hills overlooking the ocean’s turquoise bays and inlets. We rode through coconut and banana plantations, sugar cane and cotton farms, and corn and wheat fields. In Mexico, the remote villages use speed bumps called topaz at both ends of the community. Hit at the right speed, a motorcyclist can bunny hop over them? Our dual-sports, with long-travel suspensions could fly across these ‘silent policemen’ without skipping a beat, and there weren’t many police cars that could pursue us anyway. Our day’s journey took us over 500 miles of coastal riding.
At Tecoman, we parted company with Jeff continuing along the coast on his way to California. Dale and I rode to Colima. What a delightful surprise Colima was. We could very well have been in Barcelona. There were hundreds of people strolling the many parks and bubbling fountains everywhere gave the feeling that this was a prosperous and peaceful home to its residence. Dale and I stayed at a 5 star hotel for about $60 and ate at one of the many sidewalk cafes. Across the street, in the park, was an elaborate Gazebo where concerts were held often, as everywhere we looked, musicians were waiting there turn to play or audition.
We left this beautiful European looking city on the 13th day and rode leisurely to Guadalajara driving past volcanoes and a salt flat. Guadalajara is a city of 4-5 million people and is a mile high. The climate is very comfortable and sunny. We camped at the Hacienda RV Park in Ciudad Granja, a suburb of Guadalajara. The pool was brisk and the village around the RV Park was a typical farming village.
We left the park early and rode through the Barrancas, the mountain range round Guadalajara, and had lunch at the crossroads outside of Zacatecas. The mountain riding had become second nature by this time and the KLRs have gobs of torque so we could pass almost anything on the road. The Mexican drivers, often navigating heavily burdened semi-trucks and overloaded busses are exceptionally good drivers in spite of their equipment. They are also extremely resourceful as it isn’t rare to see two drivers overhauling a differential of their bus while the passengers sit in the bus or stand along the roadside.
An interesting courtesy among Central American drivers is their use of turn signals to tell following traffic that it is ok to pass or not. Unlike many US drivers, the Central Americans are not territorial and we didn’t see any road rage. Actually, the car doing a pass is granted the right-of-way whether he is in passing zone or not. They don’t crucify a fellow driver for making a mistake or a dumb decision.
We continued on to Saltillo, then on the Monterrey. It was about 9:00 pm so we decided to take the toll road northeast to Reynosa on the border and see if we could catch up with the other five members of the magnificent seven. Surprisingly, we caught up to them at the same motel we stayed at 2 weeks earlier. Mark was not able to ride out of Villa Hermosa and George’s wife, Karen, flew down and rode Mark’s motorcycle back with the group. Mark ultimately made a full recovery and is doing fine.
Several days after our return to Omaha, I mailed some photos to our new friend, Jeff Springer. We had toyed with the idea of joining up again when Dale and I completed our ride to South America. He flattered us by admitting that if he had met riders like us earlier, he too would have been on his was to Ushuaia.
I recieved a letter from Durango, Co and was anxious to get some of his photos. Instead, a grim letter from Jeff's father announced that Jeff had been killed in a head-on accident near Mazatlan. He rode through the night after we parted and may have fallen asleep with a full tank of gas in his PD tank. This was a sad day. He was loved by many friends and family as we were to find out in emails later. Dale and I felt responsible to keep his memory alive as he was a kind and gentle man. In the two days we knew him, Jeff had become a best friend.
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