Prolapses at the border

13 September – Day 53

Antigua, Guatemala to Juayua, El Salvador
Distance: 238kms (time on bike: about 6.5-7 hours including 3 hours at the border)

El Salvador did not make a good first impression on me.

It started in the last little stretch of Guatemala really… The queue to the border, several kilometeres long and three and sometimes four trucks wide (even though it was a two lane road)  didn’t help… although we were able to weave our way through to the front.. just. This ‘weaving’ including a section where I walked ahead of the bike and acted as a traffic cop, stopping bikes going off road in the other direction so Adrian could get through, and another section where there was literally less than a hair’s width between us and two  semi-trailers, one of which was moving. To get through the last little bit, Adrian had to turn the handlebars and get the mirrors just past the back edge of one of the semis before straightening up again to inch slowly, carefully forward and out of the ‘Lauren and Adrian motorbike sandwich’.

Having made it to the front, we were immediately surrounded (literally) by a group of men saying that they would ‘help us’ with the ‘very difficult’ paperwork to exit the bike from Guatemala. ‘No fee, no worry. I just help you. No problem. You want to change your currency. I help you too. This way, this way.’ Adrian did his best to say no, but there was one very persistent guy who just wouldn’t take no for an answer, and followed Adrian around as he got the paperwork, got documents photocopied (at every border crossing there are a myriad of documents you have to get copied including with an official stamp and without an official stamp– and there are special photocopy shops just for that purpose), stamped, photocopied again, had the bike inspected and finally got the Guatemalan temporary import permit cancelled. I don’t know how much the ‘helper’ actually helped… but we got the stamps etc we needed and then proceeded across the border into El Salvador.

El Salvador did not make a good first impression on me. I had about a two hour wait ‘guarding’ the bike while Adrian went back and forth doing bike import stuff (which was a saga in and of itself – at first, they would only give him a temporary 24 hour transit permit to cross the country but not actually stay here and it took quite a while and lots of negotiation to get the import permit needed. Although my Spanish is better, I can’t do it as the bike is in Adrian’s name).

I think the bad impression was mainly due to constantly seeing emaciated female dogs with terrible, raw angry prolapses. I’d never seen a dog (or any other animal, for that matter) with a prolapse. I’ve now seen several – and it ain’t pretty. It was awful. The dogs were clearly starving. And their insides were hanging out, just dangling outside. I actually felt ill. At one point, a very poor man who was selling (or trying to sell) padlocks, miniature walking sticks, big knives and nail clippers to people in parked cars and those queuing at the immigration building went over to one of the big rubbish bins scrounging for food scraps, which he emptied out onto the asphalt for the dogs to eat. It was such a kind, thoughtful gesture from someone who very clearly had very little himself, I almost started crying.

Welcome to El Salvador.

A little later, while I was still waiting, guarding the bike with my fiercest ‘don’t-mess-with-me-I’m-tougher-than-I-look’ stance (ah yeah: not really), some very friendly Guatemalan ladies stopped to talk with me while they were waiting to get across the border. So that was nice. And while I was talking with them, Adrian returned with the right import papers (we think… the proof will be in our ability to successfully, smoothly exit the country in a few days!!!) so we got going. We took part of the ‘Route of Flowers’ and it was incredibly pretty… bright flowers lining the side of the road, with coffee plantations (and sometimes macadamia or orange trees) lining the fertile volcanic-ash-soiled mountains tucked just behind the flowers.

Our destination was a little town called Juayua and I’m pretty sure that we were two of only four gringos in the entire place.  We found a hotel with a lovely view over the several (I think five or maybe seven?) volcanoes in the area, settled in, ate dinner and then drank beer on the terrace looking out at the mountains. It was lovely.

– And I started to like El Salvador more.

Antigua – go there

Brightly coloured houses in Antigua

Antigua streetscape with one of the volcanoes in the background.

8-12 September – Days 48-52

Antigua, Guatemala
Distance: 0kms

Antigua smells like fresh cut grass and summer rain – and, when you walk past one of the many cafes in town, coffee. It looks like old towns in Europe, with a distinctly Spanish colonial feel, and is surrounded by volcanoes. Apparently, at night in the dry season (ie – not now!!!), you can see the red hot rivers of lava running down the side of the one currently active volcano. For us, we were able to glimpse the volcanoes first thing in the morning, before the clouds seemed to whisk them away.. sometimes as early as 8am; some days as late as noon.

The cobblestone streets made for bumpy riding – but it didn’t matter, as we didn’t ride that much. It was too easy to walk everywhere. To a café – a different one each day… truth be told… several different ones each day. To the markets, the churches, the arches. Past the rows of brightly painted houses. To my Spanish school.

I’ve really had a few lovely days off the bike!!

I had heard that Antigua is one of those places that sucks you in.. you go for a week, stay for a month; go for a month and stay for half a year. Having been there, I can understand why. It was just so easy, comfortable, safe, convenient, interesting, fun and unexpected.. I too could have stayed for longer and really settled into a routine of four hours of private Spanish classes daily, with the rest of the time spent walking/exploring/yogaing/catching up with friends/coffeeing etc.

Catching up with new friends – this was one of the highlights of Antigua for me. Earlier in the trip, a couple of fellow Aussie motorbike travellers who are doing a route similar to ours but from south to north told us about the famous Julio and Luisa in Antigua, put us in touch, and really stressed that we had to catch up with them. Readers of advrider.com (a motorbike blog) might already be familiar with Julio and Luisa, as they’ve travelled the Americas extensively by bike, and Julio blogs on the ADV forum (Guaterider).

The Aussies were right – it was so great catching up with some locals, and Julio and Luisa were incredibly hospitable including having us over for a home cooked meal (my first in over six weeks – so, so good!!), helping Adrian with route planning, showing us some of the slightly less obvious places to eat/go in Antigua and more. It was so great connecting up with some other travellers – albeit travellers currently ‘at home’… so much so that it’s motivated Adrian to be more active on the ADV and HUB forums so see if he can find some other bikers to meet up with. I’m sure this new focus is because he really enjoyed Julio and Luisa’s company and wants more of that… rather than less of what he had pre-Antigua… surely?!! Hmm…

It was also great being in the one place – a fabulous little BnB – for long enough that it was worth putting my motorbike boots away in the cupboard rather than leaving them strewn, along with my small collection of clothing, all over the room. The thing with travelling light is that every time we stop, I literally need to go through everything I have with me to find the one thing I need!

Antigua was fantastic – a great place to spend what will (fingers crossed) be our longest time off the bike until Buenos Aires in December. I definitely recommend it to anyone travelling in the area or wanting to do an intensive Spanish course. There are apparently 65 different Spanish schools in the city – and I’m pretty sure all of the classes are one-on-one. It’s affordable, and the city is lovely.

Julio and Luisa cooking up a storm

Julio and Luisa cooking up a storm

Main arch in Antigua at twilight

The main arch in Antigua – our BnB was pretty close to this

Packets of human pheromones for sale

Just randomly – it made me laugh to see that cafes in Antigua do what clubs in Australia do: sell ‘wipe on’ “real” human pheromones to women for a few dollars so that they can make themselves irresistible to men.
 I thought that, in general, that was already the case?!! 😉

Streetscape in Antigua - brightly coloured houses

Streetscape in Antigua

 

 

 

 

 

A river crossing and a (partially cleared) landslide across the road

Adrian on his BMW GSA r1200 about to cross a river

Adrian about to cross a river on the BMW after we got to the bridge… and found it had washed away.

7 September – Day 47

Panajachel, Guatemala to Antigua, Guatemala
Distance: 80kms (time on bike: 3 hours, including a landslide and a river crossing)

Today was a day for the adventure bike riders: windy roads, a landslide across a fair chunk of the road, a protest blocking the main road out of one of the towns we needed to go through and a river crossing – because the bridge was washed away in a tropical cyclone two years ago and hasn’t been replaced!!

Yup, just another day on tour in Central America, where even a short stretch of 80kms can take you hours!!

The day kicked off with breakfast with one of Adrian’s ‘brothers’ – a guy from Germany riding a BMW who’d spent the past five months riding from New York and is heading south to Ushuaia like us. We’d past him in the road yesterday on our way to our boat trip as he was just arriving into town. He’s the first ‘brother’ we’ve seen for a while, so Adrian was pretty excited – and I was looking forward to hearing about his experiences, too.

So after that relaxed start (because we’d thought it was going to be a fast, easy day on the bike – ha ha), we started the lovely ascent up over the mountains surrounding Lake Atitlan, with gentle sweeping turns to keep Adrian happy and a lovely view over the lake and volcanoes for me. It was stunning. The clouds seemed to be coming in early and fast, so we were happy that we hadn’t dawdled any longer before getting going.

There were no directional signs on the road (seems to be a reoccurring theme in Guatemala—the only signs for a city/town are once you’ve actually arrived… not very helpful for navigation) and Adrian’s GPS was making up roads that clearly didn’t exist, so we (read: Adrian) were using Zen navigation based on a rough understanding of where we though Antigua might be. And all was going well until, all of a sudden, the road was blocked with stones and we were forced onto a dirt track running sort of alongside where the road was.

We didn’t have to wonder why for long: after about 200m, we could see that a bridge over a small river had washed away (some time ago – the trees growing out of the rough, broken edge of the asphalt were already knee high). Our options were: turn around, go back through Panajachel and look for a road out going to Antigua the other way around; or ride across the river. It hadn’t rained at all yesterday and wasn’t raining at that particular moment, which meant the water levels were relatively low.. just over my ankles. The issue was more that the riverbed was very rocky – and although it wasn’t deep, we couldn’t see the bottom. Which made for interesting ‘cross-my-fingers-hope-not-to-drop-the-bike-in-the-water’ kind of riding for Adrian!! And me? I just walked across.

Back on the bike, we continued on our merry way. The road got progressively worse… I guess there’s no need to maintain a road when, due to the missing bridge, it’s essentially impassable anyway.

In the next town, we were redirected by the police into a small backstreet going in the opposite direction to where wanted to go. Again, detours here aren’t signposted – so you’re directed off the main road and then essentially left to your own devices to navigate, on rough cobblestone and multiple one-way streets, your way around whatever the mysterious blockage is that caused you to be directed off the road in the first place. We picked a car to follow, hoping that we’d get lucky and the car would lead us out of the town. Eventually – after one wrong turn that nearly saw us end up in the middle of the protest that caused the detour in the first place – we came to another fork in the road with a police man directing traffic. I jumped off the bike to ask him which way to Antigua – and we were off again! And then it started raining, and then the roads flash flooded, and then the sun was shining and our wet weather gear dried in the sun and the wind, and then we made it to Antigua!!!

It wasn’t quite the nice and easy 80kms I’d imagined – which I guess really captures the essence of this trip. Every day is an adventure, and the only thing that’s worth expecting is the unexpected.

Adrian on his BMW half way across the river

Half way across the river…

A partially cleared landslide across the road

A partially cleared landslide across the road

 

 

An earthquake measuring 6.6…

View across Lake Atitlan with two boats

The very impressive Lake Atitlan in Guatemala

6 September – Day 46

Panajachel, Guatemala (Lake Atitlan)
Distance: 0kms

We were woken up this morning by sunlight streaming in through the windows of our room. Such a contrast to yesterday afternoon, when we walked in the middle of the road to avoid the ankle deep rivers of water running down either edge of each street. After a disappointing breakfast in the hotel (which was included with our room – again, a total rip off!!), we walked down to Lake Atitlan. Wow! It reminded me a little bit of the Bay of Islands in NZ… lovely clear water surrounded by (now dormant) volcanoes. It was beautiful! So beautiful, that we decided to go on a boat tour to some of the villages dotted around the lake. Although they are accessible by road, the roads are windy and in very poor condition – so it was much easier for us to just take a boat across.

Firstly though – we moved hotels and ended up being closer to the centre for just over one third of the price. Sure, it wasn’t quite as ‘polished’ – but it was clean and quiet and more than adequate.

We could not have had better weather for a day on the water… it didn’t rain at all! Today was the first day in a while that we’ve not at least had an afternoon shower. We went to San Marcos, San Pedro and Santiago Atitlan – the first is a hippie gringo yoga/drumming/chanting town; the last is one of the biggest cities in the area with a population of 60,000.

Later that night, while sitting on the terrace at a pub, we experienced an earthquake measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale. So it was pretty big!! Although it was apparently 70km underground, which is why the buildings etc are still standing. In quick succession – ie over about two seconds – I thought:

  • I am having some sort of delayed ‘land legs’ experience after rocking on a boat for several hours today.
  • Adrian is jiggling his legs and therefore rocking the table because he is bored and/or impatient, wanting our drinks to arrive.
  • Oh wow, it’s an earthquake. I can see the walls of the building swaying.

Adrian hadn’t noticed it – or rather, he’d noticed it, but though that the ground was rumbling because a car was going past, until I said the ‘e’ word. We were on the ground floor terrace of a two story place; people started running from upstairs out on to the street. People in the market stalls across the road also ran outside – including the locals. I started thinking which was the quickest way to higher ground, just in case there was a tsunami (we were maybe 100m from the water). And then the ground stopped shaking and everything went back to normal. The diners from upstairs returned inside, the shopkeepers went back into their stalls, our drinks arrived.

Tomorrow we’re going to Antigua where we’ll be for a week! Yes, a whole week. I’ve enrolled in Spanish school for four hours a day; Adrian’s thinking about what he wants to do. I can’t wait!

View of the volcanoes across Lake Atitlan

View of the volcanoes across Lake Atitlan

From Mexico to Guatemala – border crossings with a motorbike

BMW r1200 GSA in on a busy market street just inside Guatemala

The bike just across the Mexico-Guatemalan border.

5 September – Day 45

Comitan, Mexico to Panajachel, Guatemala (Lake Atitlan)
Distance: 305 kms

Border crossing day!! We left Comitan by about 9am and made it to the border by 11am. Armed with blogs from other motorbike travellers who’d crossed at this border, we started by trying to check out of Mexico… only to be told that there was a $30 fee to exit. Notwithstanding that the signs in the customs office clearly said (in both English and Spanish!) that the fee only applied to those tourists who arrived in Mexico by air – ie clearly not us – there was no budging the official. If we wanted to leave the country, we had to pay the fee.

Here in Central America and I think probably also South America, there’s a bit of a circuitous process to get into the country: first you go to the customs office and get some preliminary paperwork. Then you have to take that paperwork to the bank (usually located very close by) to pay an entrance fee / tourist visa fee and get a receipt. Then you have to return back to customs with the receipt, hand it over and then – and only then – do you get stamped into the country. When there are queues in both places, it can take a bit of time.

Anyway, we paid the fee – and figured out that it was the same fee we’d paid when we first arrived in Mexico, so theoretically we shouldn’t have had to pay it again. However because we had to hand over our initial receipt to get our entry visa, we didn’t have a receipt to give to the customs guy at the other end. Good to know for next time…!!

Once we left Mexico, it was a pretty straightforward process getting into Guatemala: first we had to get the bike fumigated, then change our pesos for quetzals with one of the many guys standing just over the border waving wads of cash around, then pay for the fumigation, then get our own passports stamped, then start to get the bike officially imported and registered, then go to the bank to pay the import and registration fee, then back to the vehicle import office to finalise the paperwork and get our rego sticker. And then, finally, we were off!

The whole process about two hours.

And then we were on our way in Guatemala. Straight away we noticed that there were fewer speedbumps – and more armed soldiers. Banks, for example, keep their doors locked at all times and there is an armed guard or soldier standing on the inside, peering through a thin clear panel on an otherwise frosted glass door. If he thinks you look ok, he unlocks the door. Inside the bank, there are a couple of other heavily armed guards (I’m talking semi automatics/AK47s/other assault rifles) standing at various points. This was the scenario in two of the banks I went to, looking for an ATM. Ironically, ATMs are outside the bank – and not at all guarded or secured!

Our first day of riding in Guatemala was possibly the hardest day of riding so far. Blinding, driving rain.. so much so that often the streets were flowing. Pot holed roads – and often the potholes were hidden by the volume of water flowing over the road. Thick fog, reducing the visibility to less than 20m – it was a total white out. And it was soooo cold – particularly after we got back above 3000m. And to all of this, add crazy traffic with cars overtaking trucks on blind corners, other trucks using the whole road to make some of the bends, speed bumps that weren’t marked at all, cobblestones and all the usual challenges of driving in Central America.

So we were pretty happy to make it to a hotel Adrian had found the day before… only to quickly become less happy when we discovered the price has gone up from $22 a night to $70 a night in two years!!! Such a rip off. Under normal circumstances, we would have just kept looking… but it was still raining hard, we were really cold and had just spent the past several hours riding in atrocious conditions and neither one of us could really face getting back on the bike and riding slowly around town checking out other hotels in order to save $20.

So – here we are. We’ve been for a walk (and couldn’t see much due to the fog and rain), we’ve had dinner and have got a day off the bike here tomorrow so I’m really hoping for some sunshine!!!