November 27, 2006

Panajachel, Guatemala

We departed Puerto Escondido on November 22nd and continued south. We got an early start and logged pretty good miles in cool weather and not much traffic. Making time in Mexico is all relative. Seems like on every road or highway we have been on there are endless small one horse towns that require you to slow down. The real problem is "topes" or speed bumps. In each town there are at least two and sometimes as many as 8. Sometimes they are marked and sometimes not, so you really have to pay attention or you get launched. Seems just when you get an open stretch of road there are more topes and another small town to slow you down. So logging miles certainly can take some time. After 365 miles and 7 and a half hours of travel, we landed in a small town called Mapastepec. We were warned not to get off the main highway all the way to the border, but to find a place to stay we didn´t have a choice, be it dangerous or not. We found a nice hotel for under $12 and a secure spot for the bikes. Turns out this town was not dangerous at all, but amazingly friendly. Everywhere we went people were polite, interested in our trip, and friendly. We were even invited to speak at one of the teachers English classes, as they were needing help with pronunciation. It wasn´t possible, as we were departing early in the morning. The most notable thing about this days ride was the area around Tehuantepec. We were warned that it could be quite windy through this area. And it was. It's a small area of land where storms and wind get funneled across the land mass from the Caribbean side. We did battle with the wind for about three hours. The first hour we were on curvy coastal roads getting hammered by gusts from every direction. I was glad that we have heavy bikes. The following two hours we had strong winds from one direction which is a little easier to deal with. Well, until you pass a truck, which eliminates the wind and nearly sucks you into the other lane, before being blasted by the wind again after the truck passes. Crossing one bridge, Doug and I were both convinced that we would be forced into the guardrail or have to lay the bikes down. And numerous other times it felt like the bike would just slip out from underneath me. Sorta wild to see Doug riding in front of me slanted so far sideways, countering the wind. I thought he would fall over.

Early the next day we rode the last 100 km to the border. Crossing into Guatemala is quite an experience in itself. There are no signs or indications of what you are supposed to do or what stamps and permits you need. Fortunately we had done a bit of research. A few miles from the border, official looking people start to flag you down or jump in front of you to get you to stop. These are people just looking to help guide you across the border for money. To do this they try to make themselves look official with fake badges and tourist IDs. We kept riding, and by the time we got to Mexican Customs, there were about 50 people swarming us, trying to get our business. We´d have none of it. We got our passports stamped to leave Mexico, and drove across the Talisman bridge into Guatamala. Once there, we had to get a stamp to enter Guatemala and pay $2 for the service. Then you drive a bit further and have to get your tires washed/disinfected. What for we never did find out. That also cost a few dollars. Then you have to get a vehicle permit/sticker that took us about 2 hours to acquire. You must have copies of everything and pay a fee and stand in line several times to apply, pay the fee, get copies, etc. Meanwhile, fending off locals that think they can help for a fee. In the end, we payed about $12 each to cross the border, which is the required amount.

Finally we were in another country, and it was nowhere more apparent than on the road. The highway was in really bad shape, full of potholes and and a fair bit of construction. And the traffic was out of control. Driving in Guatemala set a new standard for FULL ON driving conditions. Apparently there are no road and driving laws here, anything goes. Buses and semis will pass on a two lane road at will. Doesn't seem to matter if there is oncoming traffic or not. And the idea is to go as fast as you can. This place makes Mexico driving look safe and sane. We mastered several new skills. Passing into oncoming traffic and creating a third lane on the center line. Also passing on the right, which I did to narrowly avoid rear ending a semi while simultaneously being rear ended by another semi. Fortunately our bikes are pretty quick and fairly narrow to allow such practices. After a few hours of these conditions we turned off on a small country road that took us up into the mountains and our destination of Lake Atitlan.

This road was splendid, and I think the best one we have been one. It climbed to 7000 feet and offered us spectacular views of the lake, which is something like the size of Lake Tahoe... big! Eventually the road curved down to the town of Panajachel. This is the town where Doug's girlfriend Denise has been for five weeks, enrolled in a Spanish speaking school.

Panajachel is a bit touristy, but in a different sort of way. The local Mayan culture is fairly well preserved here, and situated right on the lake provides for a really beautiful spot. The town itself is filled with artisans selling their wares along cobble stone streets. Meanwhile, trucks, chicken buses, and tuk tuk taxis race around at high speeds. You certainly learn to keep an eye on traffic.

We track down Denise, and it is great to see a familiar face for a change, and one that is fairly proficient at the language. We are able to stay with the family that she has been living with. And they have enclosed parking for the bikes. The family is a grandmother, daughter, and two kids. They run a small lodge, and we have our meals with them, which are fabulous.

We spend the day unwinding and catching up after putting in 220 long miles. The second and third day in Panajachel, we take a boat ride across the lake to several small villages. Santiago is the first, and it is smaller and quieter. The market here is in full swing, and absolutely local pandemonium, but extremely interesting. We do get to visit a locals house and see how the local women hand weave all the wonderfully intricate and colorful fabrics here. And we visit the local church, which is full of history for the area. Most notably, it was built in the 1500s! The other fascinating thing about this area is that each village has a particular color and pattern they use in their dress. For the men and the women. This is consistent throughout the country. No matter where you go, you wear the colors and patterns of your village and thus you are always recognized by this. Just around the lake there are 15 different ways of dress. Across the country there are over 3000. Keep in mind, the style is the same and always in the traditional way, it´s the colors and patterns that change. All of it is extremely colorful, intricate, and handmade.

By late afternoon we traveled to another part of the lake, to a smaller, even quieter village called San Pedro. Locals call this the hippie town. It seems there are a fair number of hippies that converge here. And indeed it seemed in one part of town to be true. We guessed that it would take less than two minutes and within 10 feet of where we were standing to get marijuana. We didn't track any down, but it sure seemed to be readily available. We spent the day exploring this small village, and found a nice hotel that cost $4 each. It was as nice as any place I have stayed in the States. We also walked a few miles to the next village San Juan. This is the cleanest village I have been in anywhere. The locals certainly take care of the place and pick up trash, a trait that is not so common in too many places in this part of the world. And the people here were exceptionally friendly as well.

The next day we hiked with Gustavo, a local friend of the family we are staying with. We went up the nearby volcano, which is called San Pedro Volcano. It is inactive, and the last time it blew was 600 years ago. But it towers over the town and appeared to be a pretty good little hike. The top is a little over 9000 feet, and the hike started at about 6000 feet. We were told it would take about 3 hours up and three hours back.

The entire hike is uphill for all 3000 feet. It passes through some amazing grooves of coffee and corn and crazy forested jungle. They do have Pumas and Ocelottes but we weren't lucky enough to see either. At that altitude, it sure didn't take much to get the heart rate up. I climbed the 3000 feet in about an hour and a half. The views from the top were unreal. Volcanoes dot the horizon in all directions, and the lake fills up everything in between. We spent several hours at the top before trekking back down.

We returned to Panajachel and spent the day further exploring this town. Today we will do some much needed laundry, get some groceries, and pack up the bikes for an early morning start. Denise is here for another week of school before heading to Costa Rica for a few days, and then she returns home to Washington. It was a treat to have her show us around and spend some time with her.

We did bump into another guy on a BMW that is traveling as well. He was on a 750cc and loaded down. He is from Washington, and 7 months ago sold everything he owned, and packed what was left on the bike and hit the road. He´s been all over the States and Mexico, and his goal is to head to South America and then ship his bike to Africa and end up in Europe. He plans to be on the road for 4 years. We were pretty baffled by the thought of that. We both like this adventure travel by motorcycle, BUT four years might wear a little thin.

Doug and I daily talk about and reevaluate our plan. Currently we don´t feel we can make it to South America and back with the amount of time we have... 3 months total. So we are considering our options. We can continue on as planned and make it all the way to Ushuaia and then ship the bikes back home. Or, we can go as far as we can in Panama and then turn around and go back home, exploring some new roads. It seems to come down to some trade-offs, as with most things in life. We can really ride and log some serious miles, just to say we did it, or we can experience things as we travel and not just ride through all these areas. We both lean towards and have been really experiencing interesting areas as we come across them. But we will continue to re-assess, and see what things look like as we get further into Central America. It has been a fabulous trip to date, and we will continue to keep it that way, whether we go far or not. It´s all about the experience for us and not the quantity of miles.

No current pictures at the moment, as uploads speeds here are way too slow. Will send some along with a future update.

Time to go back up the bike.