KR sitting in Customs compound yard with NV and two of her helpers standing by waiting to help.
We’ve crossed a few borders in our day, but never with an entourage of half a dozen adoring helpers:) Welcome to border crossing Guatemalan style. As we rode toward the border, dozens of men and boys ran in front waving their hands and urging us to stop. Since we knew the drill, I picked the oldest guy I could find who happened to be in a bright red shirt (note to self, bright colors do work in advertising). Cesar would be our Head Border Administrative Officer. His entourage included a boy to run in front of the bike clearing the traffic, a money exchanger (“You don’t have anymore dollars to sell? How about Euros?”) and two other groupies who kept an eye on us while Cesar did his work.
All in all, it took about 2 hours and 40+ US dollars to get through both Mexican and Guatemalan immigration and customs. That’s just the cost of Cesar’s crew, of course, as Guatemala charged us somewhere around $250 to bring the bike in. While certainly confusing and at times tense, this is the way all border crossing should be handled:)
Our original target for the day was Antiqua, about 140 miles due east, but since we didn’t get started until 11AM and the border chewed up two hours, we found ourselves riding into Guatemala with no clue of what to expect. Moreover, the map showed a road that was as squiggly as any we’d seen, so I assumed it would be all mountainous travel.
I was right in spades. The northern loop to Antiqua (and any city in the east, including the capital, Ciudad Guatemala) immediately took us into mountains that were very different from those of Mexico just of a few days ago, but hard to explain why. They were a unique shade of vivid green, feeling like a rain forest as there was mist in the air. We wound slowly into the mountain forest, feeling like we’d been there before, yet not quite knowing why. One thing was for sure, it’s beautiful.
As we bumped along through a dozen tiny tiny villages, it became clear that Guatemala had not only mastered the art of Tope Speed Control, but taken the art to a whole new level – multiple sets of topes for a village of two stores. While this gave us a chance to see the locals up close and slow, it definitely slowed our pace. We found ourselves winding ever further up the mountains in the late afternoon.
We crossed 9000 feet and it’s f__king cold. Isn’t Central America supposed to be tropical, I’m thinking? Fog and mountain mist make it feel even colder. While cold, all things were going along fine until rounding one corner Now Voyager dies with no notice. Unlike the previous dozen or so episodes, NV doesn’t start back up. Hmm. We’re a couple of miles outside of San Marcos, the first sizable town along our route, so we move into Plan B – somehow get NC to San Marcos and find a hotel.
Not quite so fast, there, son. First, while NV finally starts again, he quickly stalls a half dozen times as we coast down the mountain to San Marcos. Second, there aren’t any hotels in San Marcos as its another one of those gritty, commercial, drab Latin American towns that we’ve been through often. In the helmet intercom KR is making it clear that she has no interest in staying here! Great. Have you ever tried to drive fully loaded bike, over really bad cobblestones, in Latin American traffic, and with a bike that’s stalling every couple of blocks? And, oh by the way, you’re lost. This is not fun. The tension meter rises as quickly as the mountains.
So, we push on to a town whose name I still can’t pronounce –Quezaltenango – which is about 20 more miles east through the mountains. Surprisingly we make it with no further bike problems, except yet again we enter a sizeable town with no hotel reservations and no map. In high-traffic time on streets that are so narrow that there’s not room for a car and a bike side by side.
All during this time, our Internet Guide and Travel Assistant in the Sky – Sam Hershfield – kicks in with lists of hotels, navigation help, and general counsel. He emails me directions (god bless ATT and Blackberry) in real time and I put them into the Garmin, which then attempts to guide us to said hotels. Except as wonderful as Garmin’s maps are, they still can’t tell you which streets are one way, etc. We weave around the center of Quez… for a good 45 minutes until we give up motoring. We’re lost in this small town of intertwining cobble stone streets. KR dismounts and walks around a corner in the direction of the hotel. I’m stuck guarding NV and wondering what I’d do if KR gets lost. Ten minutes later KR rounds the corner with a big smile on her face. She’s not only found the hotel, but it’s great (in KR’s lingo, that would be charming). Fifteen minutes later we’re checked in our room at the Modelo Hotel and NV is parked in a garage down the street.
Since its 5:30ish I have no time to waste to perform brain surgery on Now Voyager’s fuel system. No surgeon wants to perform an operation in the darkJ No time to change into clean whites or for that pre-operation scrub, I rush into the operating theater, also serving as the car parking lot for our hotel. I pull the tools out and (this is the truth, I swear it) in less than 10 minutes I’ve installed a new fuel pump controller! Voila! Drinks and dinner here we come!
Sam can’t believe I’ve done this, so he’s still emailing me mechanics all over Guatemala to help fix NV… Sam, Sam, I’ve got this one, really! (Time will tell, of course). Before I can even get to the bar, Sam’s found the Hotel’s most popular cocktail via its online menu. This Internet Travel Assistant thing has promise: )))
Next day (New Year’s Eve) we’re planning on making Antiqua, but we don’t have a hotel. All seemed booked, but we finally find one that sounds good – terrific really—and it’s got a room. All right! But, why does this gorgeous hotel have a room on New Year’s Eve? Hmm. Note to self—always look closely at address. The Casa Miravalle Hotel is at best Antigua Adjacent as Culver City is Beverly Hills Adjacent too. Our hotel is in a small (tiny) town is the mountains above Antiqua – somewhere between 5-25 miles away. Anyway, off we go.
I’m going to make this very short. The day didn’t work out quite as planned. It took us a good hour to find our way out of Quez… (You laugh now, but you try it sometime), we fell over in the process necessitating a neighborhood help squad to get us upright and going again; we made a wrong turn and got real close to the Belize border which added another hour to our drive time; went through Antiqua and into Ciudad Guatemala looking for said Antiqua Adjacent resort only to realize we’d passed it miles back. Finally, we pay a cab driver 14 bucks to lead us to the road, upon which mountain goats would find it hard to climb, only to arrive at a beautiful boutique luxury hotel in the mountains with a spectacular view. “Reservation? We don’t have no reservation for you Mr. Rutherford…: )”
We’re now about 15oo miles from Puerto Vallarta and 3000 miles from LA. We’ve been in the saddle for nine days and we’ve had the following events happen to us…
- Now Voyager has stalled at least two dozen times, but keeps limping along.
- Of the eight nights, we’ve had really special places to stay in seven of them and had a great time each night.
- Wal-Mart is a good predictor of upscale business hotel locations.
- Lost our Mexico map (which could be a problem on the way home).
- Fried most of the left arm of my m/c jacket necessitating a repair job that will go down in Duct Tape Hall of Fame.
- Have gotten lost entering EVERY city we’ve stayed in.
- Experienced temperatures ranging from a high of 94 to a low of 60. You can feel the difference on a bike.
- Have developed a real craving for OXXO coffee, rivaling my affection for Starbucks. OXXO is Mexico’s Seven Eleven…
Our trip plan has changed pretty radically since starting off. We now realize there’s no way we can see anymore of Central America as it took way longer to get down here than originally guessed. We’ll spend a couple of days in Antiqua (“the cutest, most colonial town in all of Guatemala!” my Road Bunny exclaims. I don’t need Google Translate to know this means shopping: ) and then make a U-turn and start heading back. Sam is working on a new route back as I sleep.
The Guatemalan Customs yard. Every vehicle you see here — and 95% or small pickup trucks — are from the US and are being sold at the Mexican/Guatemalan border. A constant flow of bigger trucks towing/carring what look to be clapped-out pickups arrive from the states.
This is history in the making. KR is typing her first ever Blackberry message to one of the local PV real estate rental agents. December 30th 2013.
Buses are ever-present, generous polluters, and painted and customized to the T. This one zooms by as KR grabs the pic. While the skies are crystal clear, pollution is so thick that one is constantly breathing in diesel and gas fumes.
Just one of several volcanoes in the mountains of Guatemala. This is a rare view in that just a small portion of the peak is covered in clouds.
I think this captures the feel of a bike breaking down high up in the rain forests with no one or thing in sight. I’m taking a picture of the GPS coordinates with the Blackberry so that I can send to Sam just in case we can’t get NV started again. Luckily, we did.
The surgeon is in. Holding NV’s old fuel pump brain. LIke all surgeons, operating gloves are essential. The operating room could use a bit more cleanliness.
One of the many pleasant surprises of this trip was Quezaltenango. Very charming, lively and cosmopolitan little town. This is the Center Square. We found out later that this is also the coldest place in Guatemala, making the five heavy blankets back in the room a necessity, not an option.
KR says that I always find the good bars/restaurants and this was a great place we found down an alley off the square. Pizza was fabulous because of the cheese.
This may not look like it, but this is a demonstration of restraint on my behalf. I’m the one holding the single bottle of beer, the person out of the picture is giving me a toast with an entire bottle of wine. You see, someone CAN change.
The Hotel Modelo, a great, charming, buried in the heart of the city hotel. A real pleasure and doubly appreciated after the day we had.
New Year’s Eve in Quezaltenango and the place is deserted. Just hours before, you’d have a hard time walking down this street, let alone driving down it.
Happy and ready for a new day. KR in front of the Modelo
Less than ten minutes later and I’ve dumped it over trying to make a U-turn on top of a very steep drop. Quick as you can say “Crazy Gringo”..
The neighborhood emergency squad springs to action. The man in the foreground was waving us on and apologized for not helping to push, as he noted he only had one arm. And he was about 90. 99% of the response from locals to our various travails have been similarly helpful. The guy pushing NV is a taxi driver the One-Armed Man called. :)))
Somewhere in the countryside
We met a Guatemalan couple on the road riding their GS. They offered to lead us to Antiqua. They felt sorry for us as the look they gave us said, “You got lost and almost went to the Belize border? Geez, these folks need some help” It was much appreciated, but the day wasn’t over just yet. Here they lead us into Antiqua.
We arrive at the mountain-goats-have-a-hard-time-getting-up there Resort — the Casa Maravalle.
Casa Maravalle on News Years Eve. The “celebration” started a couple of hours later. I’ve been to more fun New Year’s parties at Denny’s: )