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!!!

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Last day in Mexico

Lauren at Tenam Puente (ancient Mayan ruins)

Mayan ruins – Tenam Puente (just outside of Comitan)

4 September – Day 44

Comitan, Mexico
Distance: 0kms

We spent the morning at some incredible Mayan ruins just outside the city. They were equally expansive as the ones we visited a few days ago – as well as being more authentic and not at all touristy… we were the only ones there! If you want to see Mayan ruins in southern Mexican, these are the ones to visit. We’d only really expected to spend maybe half an hour here, but ended up wandering around for well over an hour. Meanwhile, the bike was being closely watched by a security guard – so Adrian was happy!

From there, we went to the El Chiflon waterfall. Adrian had really been looking forward to this… and if we were here at another time of year – ie not on the middle of the monsoon!!! – then I’m sure it would have been absolutely spectacular. As it was, I was still pretty impressed… a massive waterfall cascading down to another waterfall, to another one – with beautiful pools in between each waterfall. However because of the monsoon, the water was decidedly muddy brown, and the pools too flooded and too fast flowing to even consider swimming.

We got back to the hotel later than expected so decided to just stay another day here rather than push across the border to Guatemala in the afternoon. We weren’t sure how long the border crossing could take, and didn’t really feel like riding through the afternoon storm. It’s been raining pretty heavily every afternoon. So… one more night in Mexico…and tomorrow morning it’s off to Guatemala!!!

Best. Sushi. Ever.

Close up of some delicious fruit sushi

Fruit sushi – yum!!

3 September – Day 43

San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico to Comitan, Mexico
Distance: 100 kms

In the local supermarket in the old town in San Cristobal, the toothpaste is kept in a locked cabinet. There are other, more expensive things that are not locked away – but toothpaste is obviously a highly sought after, often shop lifted item. I had to ask the cashier to get it for me!

We spent a bit of time yesterday and today wandering around a market that is a few blocks from the main square. It mainly had Mayan handcrafts including woven tablecloths / table runners, embroidered shirts, leather goods, pottery etc… it was nice just browsing – and some of the woven linens were just incredible. So incredible, that we had to buy a couple of things!! Which is actually a bigger deal than you might think… we’ve got no space for any additional items on the bike, so any purchase has to be sent home before we move to the next town. And even finding the post office can be a task in and of itself!

We wandered into a DHL first – and high tailed it out of there as soon as we’d recovered from the shock of sending one table cloth and three table runners from Mexico to Australia. Wow – so expensive!

Instead, we armed ourselves with directions to the local post office… and managed to find it… only to discover that Mexican post offices do not sell boxes, postage bags or any of the things required to actually mail a parcel – other than stamps. Luckily, the guy there was very helpful and found and old box for us which he cut down to size. He also wrote Adrian a little shopping list of things required to actually package the parcel including a roll of sticky tape and some packing paper and sent him off to the paper store around the corner. Although the package was only 2kgs, the postage cost twice as much as the items themselves… I suspect that’ll be our first and last shop for quite a while.

We contemplated spending an extra night in San Cristobal – and then agreed that actually it’d be nice to see another town in the state of Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico and definitely my favourite. As we left town, it started to rain – and it rained pretty much the whole way to Comitan. Our weather gear held up though – so although it was tough riding (pot holes, mud, rain drops on visor, helmet fogging up) – we were dry, and it was only 100km.

Only 100kms… and the relatively short ride ended with the best sushi I’ve had… ever! There was a Mexican-Japanese fusion restaurant a few doors down from our hotel and it was fantastic. So good, that we ended up eating there for both a late lunch, and dinner. The highlight for me was the fruit sushi. It sounds strange, I know… but it was delicious! Really fresh (as in so fresh that I saw the chef making it from scratch),with banana, papaya and philly cheese rolled on the inside and thinly sliced  strawberry and mango on the outside. So, so good. If you’re in Comitan, Mexico, go to this restaurant: http://www.facebook.com/restaurante.la.casita.

Sky high…

One of the pedestrian streets in the old town, San Cristobal

San Cristobal by night

2 September – Day 42

San Cristobal de las Casas
Distance: 0kms

If you’ve met Adrian, you know he’s on the tallish side. If you’ve been to southern Mexico, you know that the people are closer to ‘short’ end of the spectrum… I’d guess that over 50% of the men here in don’t reach my shoulder. The women are even shorter; it’s not unusual for me to walk past a woman who comes up to my elbow.

The long and the short of mixing these two extremes – so far at least – has been:

  • lots of shocked/surprised laughter from people just completely in awe when Adrian walks past them
  • women asking to have their photos taken standing next to Adrian while they squeal with disbelief and jump up and down on the spot, trying to make themselves taller
  • men guessing – amongst themselves – how tall he is and then one of them asking us what his actual height is (one guy guessed 205cm… close, but still slightly under!!)

My favourite though, is when Adrian is standing directly behind someone – eg in a queue – and the person in front of him turns around for some reason, looks smack bang into Adrian’s belly, gasps in disbelief, involuntarily opens both eyes incredibly wide and loses control of their jaw muscles so that their mouth drops open, slowly looks up and up and up until they make eye contact with him, laughs out loud, grabs a hold of their friend’s arm to see if the friend has seen what they’ve seen, laughs some more, looks down to check Adrian’s not somehow randomly standing on something, shakes their head in disbelief, smiles again as if to say ‘Wow. Just WOW’, and then finally, looks away, still laughing. And – it’s something that is happening more and more the further south we travel. We are – well, Adrian is – literally turning every head in some of the streets we traverse. It’s pretty entertaining. I’ve adopted the role of co-conspirator, so that when I see someone off to the side do a double take, I turn to them and give them a wink or a nod, as if to say ‘I know – can you believe it?!!’.

Anyway – San Cristobal is great, we’re loving having a bit of a break here. We spent quite a while today exploring the old town.. including eating and drinking in a few different places. I found a yoga class – the first time I’ve been instructed in Spanish…  and that was pretty much it!

Three tequila shots…. on the house!

Church in the old town square in San Cristobal de las Casas

The Church in the main plaza in the old town at San Cristobal de las Casas

1 September – Day 41

Oaxaca, Mexico to San Cristobal de Las Casas, Mexico
Distance: 641kms

By Adrian

When I first looked into a basic itinerary for our trip through the Americas my primary thought was to ensure that the distance travelled each day was achievable both in terms of the roads to be travelled (condition & twistiness) and Lauren’s relative inexperience with long distances on the bike. A long distance in this case is not the Iron Butt (1000 miles in 24 hours) type but comparative to the distance I’ve ridden on several occasions with and as preferred by my dad (circa 350kms). Lauren has more than proved her ability to accommodate our relatively long rides and on more than one occasion cracked the whip to keep us going a little longer to the next town. I had planned this section – ie the trip from Oaxaca to San Cristobal – over 3 days however we acknowledged our preference for more time off the bike at our destinations by covering this distances over a single day.

The road from San Cristobal to the mountains was fairly flat and straight and we made good time. Leading up over the mountains, the fresh tarmac allowed me to have some fun and keep a little more momentum than usual through the corners. Of course then came a little rain, and the road turned to old tarmac and then to dirt through some roadworks and we were back to the slow going slog typical that has been typical of Mexico. From 1,500m we dropped back down close to sea level and once again hit the hot and humid coastal weather.

After we jumped on the toll road we started making good time to our destination. We passed through apparently the world’s largest wind farm which is quite an awesome site in terms of the staggering number of windmills however they are quite a controversial topic amongst the local indigenous population. While the location takes advantage of the high winds that pass through the area during monsoon season and the outcome is relatively environmentally friendly power generation, the locals have been unfairly compensated in terms of the rental paid for the use of their land (in the region of $100US per hectare per year) and the subsequent harm that the low frequency vibration causes to local fish and animal stocks.

Pushing on, we left the coast and once again climbed back into the mountains where the road traverses its way around every bend and contour, however there is now a toll road that uses a series of tunnels and bridges to whisk those who prefer it to their destination in about a third of the time… Lauren’s preference was obvious and I crumbled… however to be fair I did revel in tackling the high-speed corners of the toll road on a for once smooth surface.

The rain had been on and off for most of the ride and so the wet weather gear had been worn for most of the trip. Upon cresting the top of the mountain and onto the plateau it was soon obvious that the dark grey wall on the horizon was waiting for us. Suffice to say we copped a downpour and the road was quickly covered in 2 inches of water. At least the stream of water down my visor was easier to see through the usual spots – it was literally raining in sheets, not drops. The locals didn’t surprise with their actions though, some kept going at full speed dousing everything around them as they aqua-planed on by, some stopped in the middle of their lane and put their hazard lights on, others slowed to a crawl until two foreigners on a motorcycle overtook them and they did all they could to get back past. I do remember overtaking one car in the middle of all this and then seeing that car getting stuck behind me in the pile of sand that had been dumped and extended across the lane at least a foot deep. While visible when not raining and possibly avoidable it was completely invisible under this deluge. Needless to say, had I not fortuitously changed lanes at that moment, the outcome may have been a disaster.

As we passed through Tuxtla Gutierrez, the major city for the region (thankfully on a bypass that missed the chaotic traffic that would have been downtown… except for a short segment where the GPS and road signs didn’t agree with each other and then the road signs disappeared altogether..), the rain ceased and the road wound its way up from 800m to 2,000m with an associated cooling of the temperature. The fun began almost immediately as the massive change in altitude combined with a single lane in either direction meant that we were coming across slower vehicles thick and fast, with faster ones coming up behind us just as quickly. Two actual lanes effectively became five unofficial lanes as everyone jostled for position. You would think you were in the queue to overtake the semi-trailer in front and then find a car next to you facing off with the car coming down the hill pushing them and us off the road. Utter chaos really, I’m just glad the Beemer has a bit of go when needed.

Arriving in San Cristobal de Las Casas we once again commenced the search for a hotel that could accommodate both us and provide secure parking for the bike. While we usually try at least two or three, we wisely (luckily?) found one slightly off the town square but still right in the centre that ticked all the boxes. We made a bee-line for the plaza and walking streets to fill our famished bellies and found an excellent wine bar selling regional wines and tapas. After quizzing the owner about the motorcycle pictures gracing the back page of the menu, we managed a brief but entertaining Spanglish discussion of bikes that lead to a round of tequila shots on the house as we left after our meal. An excellent end to a long and tiring day!

Windmills in a windmill farm along the Panamerican highway

Wind power farm along the Panamerican Highway, Mexico

 

Possible unintentional grasshopper ingestion

View over sunken ruins at Monte Alban

Some of the ruins at Monte Alban

August 31 – Day 40 – Adrian’s birthday!!

Oaxaca, Mexico
Distance: 0kms

We had the day off for Adrian’s birthday today and spent it in what is really a lovely Mexican city. The further south we travel here in Mexico, the more we like it. The beaches are better, the cities more enjoyable and the people friendlier. There are also more street vendors.. so many, that it’s impossible to sit down anywhere without being approached, countless times. The main products for sale are belts or bracelets made from knotted embroidery thread, scarves, rugs, shirts, carvings or bookmarks. And it is constant. Mostly, if (or when) we say ‘no thanks’, the seller walks away. And then the next seller approaches us. And so on.

After spending some time in enjoying a coffee on the square and people watching, we headed out to Monte Alban – the ruins of one of the earliest cities of mesoamerica. The city was founded around 500 BC and abandoned sometime between 500-750 AD. So it’s pretty old! We had lovely weather and it was nice just walking around amongst the very expansive ruins… Monte Alban covers an area at least equal to the size 10 football fields – so there was lots of walking to be had!

For Adrian’s birthday dinner, I’d found a fair trade, organic, slow food (ie all local produce) Mexican restaurant with a social responsibility program and its own single village Mezcal distillery. It was to be Adrian’s first Mezcal in Mexico this trip… and the waitress instructed him to sip it slowly throughout the meal. The slow sipping really brings home the flavour of the drink, apparently… a flavour Adrian described as an “acquired taste”… kind of like the chilli wine from the Kingston markets, I’d imagine!!

My main meal involved a delicious sounding stuffed capsicum with a whole heap of different veggies and grains and a thick, dark sauce – minus the grasshoppers that this particular dish also usually came with.

Except that three quarters of my way through the meal, I noticed a significant number of stringy, decidedly grasshopper-antenna-like, threads on my plate. Antenna, attached to what looked – to me – like a part of the grasshopper anatomy. All of a sudden I was hit with the realisation that I’d just eaten a plate of marinaded grasshoppers. I passed the plate over to Adrian for an inspection. His unsympathetic (and, it must be said, highly amused) view was that they were just strings from some of the vegetables… but to the best of my knowledge, and just like in Australia, neither Mexican capsicum, nor kidney beans, nor rice, nor mushrooms are fibrous.

I guess the positive is that I’ve now ticked the ‘grasshopper’ box. Apparently, they’re a great source of protein…hmm..

My spanish is getting better the longer we’re here; I’m picking up a couple of new words or phrases each day. This includes helpful phrases such as “did you go through the road toll back there?”, “do you have your receipt?”, “ok then this toll is free.” , “does the room have hot water?” and – after today – “are there grasshoppers in this?!!!!”

Blood on cars, sweat in shoes, dog eat dog

One of the cathedrals in Oaxaca

One of the many churches in Oaxaca

30 August – Day 39

Puerto Escondido, Mexico to Oaxaca, Mexico
Distance: 322km

Today we climbed 2700m and then descended back down to about 1500m before stopping for the day. Suffice to say it was mountainous and a good few hours of up and down… up and down, and around the something like 15 landslides covering part or all of the road. It’s obviously rained here quite a bit recently – a significant amount of the mountain was actually covering the road! Trees and all.

Speaking of roads – Adrian has pointed out that in my post yesterday, when discussing the road chaos, I neglected to mention the fact that it wasn’t just the lovely three lanes of tunnels that turned into two lanes of dirt… it was also three lanes of traffic that had travelled overland to get to the same point. And one of the two lanes was effectively a parking zone, where cars/taxis/trucks etc stopped for reasons unknown to me but which appeared to include (a) to say hi to someone by the side of the road; (b) to pick up or drop off a passenger; (c) to have a sleep; (d) to buy something from a roadside vendor; (e) to have a break. So it was as if you were travelling north from Sydney’s CBD either through the tunnel or over the bridge, and just as you hit the Warringah Freeway, it disappears into a single useful lane, on a dirt road. In peak hour. On a Friday afternoon.

Anyway, back to today. The further we got from Puerto Escondido and the higher we climbed, the cooler it got… so the riding was actually more comfortable than it’s been for a while.. at least in terms of hydration and the lack of sweat running down my back and legs, pooling – and gently simmering – in my motorcycle boots. The windy road through the mountains took us through numerous small villages. We’d been warned, via other blogs, that this was a road on which dogs went after motorbikes, fanging for riders’ legs in fits of frothy, rabid excitement. And so they did. And because we have to ride so slowly through the villages due to the topes (which even cars, that haven’t been lowered, go over at an angle to avoid bottoming out), a couple of the dogs got mighty close. It didn’t help that I’d seen a dog eating a (dead) dog earlier in the day… so I knew they were serious when going for our legs.

Road with lots of cracks - not very motorbike friendly!

Part of today’s road – this was the ‘good’ section of road we travelled on.

When we weren’t watching for dogs, however, the view was just spectacular. A Mexican mountain experience I doubt many tourists experience – and one I recommend. In particular, the terraces of corn lined up along steep mountain slopes like soldiers on parade provided a comforting sense of visual order which is in complete contrast with some of the hodgepodge, ramshackle towns. And it was good motorbiking, too.

We found our hotel after another mercifully short period of Mexican city centre motorbike riding – and, after a walk around the old town to get our bearings, had possibly the worst dinner of the trip so far! If you travel to Oaxaca, I recommend avoiding the local specialty, Oaxaqueno mole… or at least make sure the place where you do decide to try it comes recommended; it’s possible we just had a bad experience. Based on our experience, however – which is all I’ve got to go on – it  looked like a sort of tarry slop, and didn’t taste much better. Kind of a combination of melted dark chocolate mixed with smoky BBQ sauce. Why we both thought it necessary to try the local specialty and ordered a serve each I don’t know… suffice to say that one of us (the somewhat larger one) needed to get a pizza chaser after we left the restaurant!!

We also stumbled across the start of the Rally Sierra Juarez – a road rally through Mexico. You know it’s serious when the driver and navigator have their blood types painted on the outside of their car…!

Rally car

A car getting ready for the rally which started in Oaxaca…. if you look closely, you’ll see blood types for both the driver and navigator on the back window!!!