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Photo by Michael Jordan, enjoying a meal at sunset, Zangskar Valley, India

I haven't been everywhere...
but it's on my list!


Photo by Michael Jordan
enjoying a meal at sunset,
Zangskar Valley, India



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Old 21 Feb 2015
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Vancouver Island To Guatamala/Belize and Back (ish)

Hi Everyone,

Not much of a writer but I thought I would put a few words together on our recent trip to Guatamala and part way back to Vancouver between Nov 2014 and early February 2015. We were fortunate to get some really helpful information before we departed so I thought I would share our experiences in the hope it is of some value to others.

My daughter and I planned a trip to Central America where we would fly my CRF250L to Panama City and then ride it to Southern Mexico where I would continue on the longer sections home, alone. At the last moment we bailed when our shipper told us about likely corruption problems at Panama City Airport. We needed plan B.

We purchased a 33 year old XJ650J Maxim on Vancouver Island a couple of weeks before we left on our trip. We changed the oil and filter and fought local dealers to get 29mm shims and eventually set up the correct valve clearances.

The plan was a bit vague and all we knew for sure was that I would pick up my daughter in Phoenix and we would ride down to Central America together.

We chose to head down the Pacific Coast quickly to give us more time in Central America. Didn't happen. It was impossible to go anywhere quickly in Mexico. Simply too many interesting things to see and do. We crawled down the Coast. We took toll roads to Tepic and then on to 'libre' roads for the rest of the trip down. We took so long that it was obvious we were not going all the way to Panama. We were enjoying travelling slowly, particularly along the spectacular Michoacán and Guerrero coastline and eating great food and practicing our spanish.

We eventually headed into Guatamala from Tapachula and headed through Quetzaltenango, Lake Atitlan, Antigua, Tikal and out into the West side of Belize before heading North and back into Mexico. From here, we crossed to the Caribean Coast before heading to the highland plains of Central Mexico, around Mexico City to Guadalajara and then back through Hermisillo to Phoenix.

Here are some specific comments:

Itinerary

We have never enjoyed the idea of knowing where we are going. Ultimately we preferred the idea of a circular trip rather than being forced to ride back from a particular place. We averaged about 250km per day for the trip (9 weeks). The West Coast of Mexico is a spectacular ride, matched only by the roads of Oaxaca State (and a few others!!). We struggled a little in Guatamala as tourist destinations tend to be on a well defined circuit that is difficult to avoid, partly due to safety issues, more on this later. We could not be 'anonymous' tourists like we sought in Mexico.


The People

From the moment we crossed into Mexico to the moment we left, we were treated with warmth, kindness and respect. We hoped that we were seen to be trying to do the same for the people we met. Travelling as a 'family' does make a difference. People were interested in us, firstly as we were on a bike and secondly as we were family travelling together. Everyone, we dealt with was honest. No scams, no sense that we were just a meal ticket. Nothing has changed.


The Bike

We changed the oil and filter a couple of times and worried sometimes that there should be more to do. Smooth, sufficient torque (2 up with a few pounds of gear), lots of power for those long hauls up mountains, comfortable and 100% reliable. We could not ask for anything else...... especially for $1500 Canadian. We were down on power at 11,000 feet but there were no ill effects.

A feature of the trip was that we didn’t worry about the bike. We left if anywhere we needed to. Even with soft panniers on it. Each night we tried to get it into the hostel or hotel, often to great amusement to ourselves and others. Its amazing where you can get a maxim with a couple of planks of wood or a few strong bystanders!


Riding Conditions

We encountered so many different riding conditions. A first for me was hitting a 200km long oil slick between Tepic and Puerto Vallharta. The drip strip turned into an oil slick. Riding through Tabasco and Campeche was stressful due to pot-holes that could easily swallow a bike, never to be seen again. We didn't rush this section! We were given plenty of room by almost everyone. Drivers were courteous and patient, somewhat at odds with everything you might read about drivers in Mexico, Guatamala and Belize. This is with the exception of Guadalajara and Hermisillo who drive more like Vancouverites. Enough said.


Legalities of Riding in Guatamala

There was a law passed in 2009 outlawing pillion passengers on motorcycles and a requirement for all motorcyclists to wear yellow vests with licence plate numbers emblazoned on the back of the vest and helmet. This well intended but misguided legislation has caused all sorts of tension and problems for riders all over the country but it seems rules have relaxed a little since then. We found ourselves surrounded by more and more yellow vests as we approached Guatamala city and we became a little concerned. We later spoke to INGUAT the tourist police who told us that tourists on their own foreign registered bikes are exempt from the rule.


Dealing with officialdom

We were not stopped by police anywhere on the trip. We were completely ignored. We were occasionally stopped at Military check points and asked a few questions about where we were going or where we had been. Our bags were scanned once near the US border whilst going North. Mostly the entertained the military as they were amused by the age of our bike. Borders were straightforward, friendly encounters with no hint of any corruption. The Guatamalan/Mexican border was chaotic and probably intimidating if you are not used to crossing borders. After the initial attempts to tell you it is not safe to cross without 'help' or the urgent need to change money etc we all settled down to some great conversations with everyone. We spent almost 3 hours at the border when we could have done it in one. We learned a lot listening to peoples stories......... there wasn't much for them to do at that time of the day as very few were crossing at the same time. We just relaxed and enjoyed all the crossing.


Safety

I must be honest. I had concerns taking my daughter through known trouble spots. I was particularly concerned about the possibility of violent crime which is more prevalent in Guatamala. In Mexico, I felt there was a remote chance of a carjacking........ but who are we kidding here? Our bike was 33 years old! There was no-where we felt unsafe (except one night in Tucson walking around looking for a restaurant). We camped up and down the coast with no problems. The key for us was to ask the right people the right questions. Armed with some local knowledge, I felt comfortable as we travelled.

Guatamala has its fair share of violent crime. Most of it is not targeted at tourists but it does happen. Put a bunch of wealthy tourists in a minibus (this is how most travel in Guatamala) or in a guided tour up a volcano and guess what can and does happen. By bike we felt comfortable but only if we stayed on the main roads and populated areas. This was likely a restriction we felt we had, in travelling as a family. Either of us travelling alone and things may have been different. As a consequence we felt somewhat restricted to the ‘tourist circuit’ which for me was a little frustrating.


Gasolineras

Two up with luggage the XJ averaged about 150km before going onto reserve. Consequently, we learned to recognise a Pemex station sign from about 5 km away. We also spent an enormous amount of time at gas stations. There were several places where our 1.75 auxillary fuel tank was needed. One day we almost ran out and were saved in a tiny village who sold gas in coke bottles. So though plentiful, it is possible to run out of gas. Gas in Mexico was double the cost of gas in Arizona.


Navigation

We had found a Garmin 2455 on sale for $100 and used it extensively on the trip. I am not really a fan of GPS on the road but I think I have changed my mind. We would google a hotel address in a City then put its address in the GPS and then head into any city confidently. Open Source maps are quite good in Guatamala and Belize. We carried back up paper maps – not used much when riding but were excellent for trip planning at night. The GPS was designed for a car so wasn’t waterproof -which was a problem.


We enjoyed our travels immensely and like most things in life, it was the little things that made our trip. We did very little planning (though we did a great deal for Plan A) for the trip. We took a risk on the bike but as always it works out. We are now planning to bring the bike back from Phoenix in 5 weeks and will prepare it for a trip to South America in early 2016.

Have fun on your travels out there!

Best Regards

Mick
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Old 30 Mar 2015
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suggestions on things to see/do, routes that were amazing or nice camp spots from manzanillo south?
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