Guatemala welcomes us with a downpour. We haven’t seen real rain yet, just a few sprinkles here and there, so we’re unprepared. My duffel isn't waterproof and neither is my tank bag which shelters my camera and phone. Everything is soaked, including the drivers. We call it a day early and search the town for a cheap room with secure parking to dry out.
We spread our stuff as best as possible, but we’re not working with much room. It’s got three beds and not much more. All the riding gear is strung out on a rope just outside the room under an awning, inches away from the continuing deluge. Expensive phones are laid out to dry but give nonsensical warnings. Our paper map is reverting back to pulp. We've mastered desert heat, mountain curves, enormous cities, and international border crossings. Rain is just another challenge to conquer. We’ll get better. We have to.
We’re in the room about an hour before the first guest arrives; it’s a plantain sized cockroach. The roaches hide in wall cracks which are large enough to be seen, but small enough to provide protection from the boots we swing at them. There’s an odd noise coming from under a bed. “I feel like we've just stepped into a diverse ecosystem”, remarks Rick. We can hear things scurrying about after we kill the lights. I feel something crawling on my back; my caveman reaction flings a cockroach across the room. It’s so big that I can hear it bounce off the wall and then bounce again off a beer bottle. Every few minutes one of us has a similar spasm.
It’s Rick who gets assaulted by something special in the deep of the night. He hears it coming. Thump. Thump. Thump. The frog hops onto him. After a couple of rebuffs Rick is at the breaking point. It's on the wall, above his bed. Rick uses his iPad to fling the frog across the room. The flight ends with a rewarding thud. I’m sure even Steve Jobs never imagined that his technology would be used for frog defense. Day finally breaks and we’re ready to put on our still soaked helmets and gear and move on.
A short day of pothole dodging brings us to the island city of Flores. Here I am in front riding point, behind some tuk-tuks crossing the long causeway which ends in a banked corner into the city. It seems like the tuk-tuk in front of me is power sliding Fast and Furious style through the corner. “That’s cool”, I say to myself, “seems odd though, why would he OH NO IT'S NOT ON PURPOSE!”
I coast to a stop past the corner and look back. There are two familiar motorcycles laying down and my friends are standing next to them. Rick is flabbergasted. “That can’t be water, there’s no way that is water!” He walks up the wet pavement and almost slips and falls. It’s not water. “You guys are the fourth motorcycles to go down here!” a local exclaims. The transportation police are just arriving to direct traffic around the spill as we pull the bikes out of the road.
The next morning we go to the Mayan site of Tikal. The amazing atmosphere of this place includes a family of howler monkeys screaming at us from the canopy. Who doesn't like monkeys?
We take off towards a well recommended series of turquoise-hued pools called Semuc Champey in a national park south of Tikal. It’s hot, the hottest riding we've done, and the straight due south road allows throttles to be opened up all the way. There’s a temperature point, however, when riding fast doesn't provide cooling relief, it just turns into a blast furnace. We’re at that point.
We’re making awesome time but the afternoon is waning. With only 50 miles or so to go we stop for a quick bite of fried chicken.
That’s when things begin going awry. Sean asks directions to the next town, which has proven to be more effective method than asking about highway designations. A couple of transportation police say yes, yes, it’s that way. We go twenty miles before realizing that no, no, it’s not this way. I give them a dirty look though my sunglasses and helmet as we drive past again in the late afternoon.
The road we’re actually looking for does have a highway number and is the same color on our map as before, but apparently not all Guatemalan numbered highways are similar. The pavement gives way to gravel, which gives way to large cobbles. This road morphs into something more like a mountain logging path than a highway. It may not have pavement or even regular traffic, but it does offer amazing views and ample opportunity to retest our off-roading skills which have atrophied since the Baja.
We’re way up there when we drive up to six guys that have a rope strung across the road.
“20 Quetzals”, they demand
“Because we’re working on the road!”
There is one shovel sitting off to the side, which clearly is not in use. It is an attempt to coerce us into paying a toll on a public road. We can't see any machetes, but we assume they've got them in the bushes along with who knows what else.
It’s worth noting that the three of us are physically large, dressed in thick padded riding gear, helmeted, with dark sunglasses, sitting on top of loud loaded motorcycles which the vast majority of Guatemalans couldn’t ride because their feet wouldn’t touch the ground. It’s also worth noting that 20 Quetzals is about 2 ½ dollars.
They continue jabbering their demands at us as Sean repeatedly yells, "you're not working!". The tense stalemate is broken when another motorcycle rides up, its local rider says something to them, and the rope man drops the blockade. About this time the gang realizes that their credibility is crumbling and they’re dealing with unwilling victims. We fire up the motorcycles, revving them aggressively and ride towards the rope. The older, maybe wiser, rope man concedes defeat and drops it for us to cross. All I think as we continue up the loose rocky path is “Now just don’t drop the bike here...”
I ride up to where Sean has dropped his bike a few miles further. It’s in front of an entire village watching a soccer game. He plays it off like he is just stopping to watch the match.
We continue up the path as evening approaches. At a break we discuss stopping and waiting out the night, which is feasible because we’re carrying all the essentials for camping. We’re in agreement, though, to push on as it seems the road is getting better and camping in bandit country with no food isn't very appealing. Finally we reach a town which, on the map at least, is just outside the national park. We know we’re close, though none of our maps are detailed enough to show us exactly how close and everybody we ask gives different answers. We’re close though. Always close. It should be just up and around this mountain so we push on. We reach the pass with just enough twilight to see the storm clouds piled up in our destination valley. Onward! Now it’s downhill, into the rain, with headlights bouncing at each bump in the road. Up ahead I see beautiful asphalt at an intersection. We’re coming in from one side, straight through is the asphalt, and to the left is further downhill into the lightning. Left we go. As we turn I notice the truck turning in behind us is an ambulance, so at least we've got that going for us.
I don’t need an altimeter to track our descent into the valley; the rain just gets more intense the lower we go. The road switches back, again, and again, and though my single shoddy headlight doesn’t illuminate much to the sides of the road, I can still tell that one side is mountain and the other side is just air. The brief lightning bursts of illumination give glimpses of the whole valley and confirm that there is definitely nothing but down to my right.
In this situation, puddles, of all things, are my biggest worry. Fallen rocks in the road can be driven around, the occasional oncoming blinding truck can be pulled over for and allowed past, but puddles can’t be avoided. It’s not the little splash of water which is the concern. There is a point where you’re so soaked that you can’t get any wetter and I've been at that point for quite awhile. No, for every puddle I tense up waiting to fall into a submerged crater instead of just harmlessly splashing through. It’s impossible to tell whether the puddle is an innocent shallow pothole, or a disastrous sinkhole.
Finally we arrive at the hostel. We’re just in time for a communal meal with fifty people in the big dining area. Our ability to make an entrance is becoming perfected.
We go up to see the pools we've heard so much about, but a bout of stubbornness makes us refuse the nine kilometer uphill ride in a truck for 20 Quetzals because, dammit, we were told it would only be 15. So we hoof it up the mountain in our Sanuks and flip-flops. We jump and swim in the pools for a little bit, which are oddly inhabited by little biting minnows. The pools are beautiful, for photos go here. We've only got a hour before the last truck going back to town departs. We make sure to get on that truck. I practice my español by haggling with the local children over chocolate wafers they’re selling. The little girl I'm was dealing with drives a hard bargain and won't budge at all no matter what fraction I offer. 3 for 5? No, 2 for 5. How about 6 for 10? No, 4 for 10. 3 for 7 1/2? No. Meanwhile Sean and Rick have the little boys doing pull ups and hanging like monkeys from the bars inside the truck.
We leave a few days later on a hot bright muggy day. The jungle has tried to claim our gear; our helmets are still damp and my leather gloves already have mold growing on them. The view of the valley is incredible. I’m riding point again and the whole time I’m skeptical that this is the road that we came in on. We stop at the intersection where the beautiful asphalt is. “It’s probably a good thing we came in at night, otherwise it would have been pretty scary driving down that road”, one of us remarks.
We’re headed to a town named Quetzaltenago, but the local name for it is Xela, to meet up with one of Rick’s friends from a previous Central American adventure. The shortest route appears to be along a mountain range away from the larger cities. I’m told that the buses to Xela don’t take that road, but my informant doesn’t know why. We soon find out.
It’s like the mountain is just refusing to allow the road anymore. Giant sections of road have just been pushed away. In some sections the mountain spills over the road, in other sections it pushes the road up and away from underneath. We go past a landslide where one side of the mountain relocated farther downhill taking the road with it. There is a lone excavator working, but I’m unsure of whether it’s trying to clear the road, or just mining the rock exposed by the slide. The scenery is amazing, the road mostly deserted, and the switchbacks are so steep that I've got to move my head to physically look higher to see through the turn. I gun it every time I come out of a curve, and begin to think that I might be able to do a wheelie. This is fun motorcycle riding.
Eventually we make it to Xela where we have a trek lines up. Our bikes need a little TLC, so before the trek we find a motorcycle shop that can take them while we go and walk around for a week. Each of the bikes needs a little love; one of my luggage racks has busted a weld, we’re down a couple mirrors, a windshield has been shattered, and all our tires need to be replaced among other needs. The little battle wounds from each bike drop are starting to accumulate. The bikes may not look the same when we get to Ushuaia, but I’m confident they’ll make it.
We meet up with Rick’s old friend Ben who is a guide for Quetzal Trekkers. QT is non-profit group which guides trips through rural Guatemala and Nicaragua. The group supports a school with the profit and all the guides are unpaid volunteers who sign up for at least three months. Very cool organization- www.quetzaltrekkers.com. We take the 6 day Nebaj to Todos Santos trek in the northern Guatemalan highlands. We stay in communities in whatever building they can provide. The villages are to isolated that they speak a local indigenous language. One of the night we sleep in a schoolhouse which teaches Spanish and has posters and projects on the walls. We can understand this Spanish, so that must be our level is: 1st grade. One night before supper we're invited to take a temazcal, which is a traditional Mayan bath. We split into pairs and enter what appears to a wood fired pizza hearths. Inside it’s tight with the glowing coals of a fire in one corner and a pot of near boiling water on top. Then we bring in a pail of cool water, mix it one ladleful at a time with the hot water, and pour it over ourselves. Very hot and very refreshing. The next morning we get up at 3 AM to start the day’s hike in the coolness of the morning. It must have been a lesson learned because 95 switchbacks later I’m exhausted and sun still hasn't risen.
I can’t help but think how great this would be on a motorcycle as we walk up another steep incline. In the rain. For fun. I miss my motorcycle.
The trekking area is northwest of Xela, and we take local transportation to get there. Local transportation begins with an old yellow US school bus, except that isn’t yellow anymore. Latin America is where the old yellow school buses from the US go to finish one life and begin another one as a “chicken bus”. They get tricked out with roof racks, grab bars, and given a brand new colorful paint job. As a dose of religious passion the buses are adorned with sayings such as “Dios es Amor” and "El es mi guia".
The term “chicken bus” comes from the fact that these buses carry everything, from people to chickens. Not much is refused and crushing amounts of people are crammed into these things. On the way back I’m in a seat with three other grown men, there’s four in the seat across the aisle, and two standing in the aisle itself between the seats. This is not a situation where you can be shy about rubbing thighs with the person next to you. Sean is in the seat behind me with his knees wedged into the metal backside of my seat. We hit a bump and I can hear his knees get further jammed in. “I miss my motorcycle” he says.
We pick the bikes up from the shop when we return to Xela. The guys at the shop made all the necessary fixes and washed them to boot. They’re a beautiful sight. We head out from Xela towards El Salvador. Guatemala has been tough on both the bikes and the riders. As a parting shot we get a flat tire right before.
We cross into El Salvador on May 20th.