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22nd November 2012

Tough Miles Blog 18: Guatemala

Pete here:
Day 169, the 7th October had us up at the crack of dawn knowing we had our second of many Central American border crossings in store. Due to his lack of Spanish at the time, Mad Dog Dave was keen to stick with us for the crossing. After all the horror stories we had read online about crossing Central American borders with a motorcycle, it was nice for us knowing we were going in 3 strong to what had been described by some as utter carnage. We knew we would eventually shake the old boy off when he settled in Guatemala for a week or so of language school so happily obliged.

Approaching the border post at La Mesilla, I was all set to be fighting off the ‘fixers’ so many people had warned us about and I was rehearsing our story in my basic Spanish over and over in my helmet hoping it would be sufficient to clear customs. We’d previously been warned that the ‘fixers’ are talented scam artists that mange to have you over in one way or another should you accept their assistance. Between the stories of those guys and the heavy bribes we had been told to expect to be charged by the customs officials, the entire situation was quite a menacing thought. Add 35 degree heat into the mixer whilst dressed in full riding gear and you start to wonder why the hell you’re bothering dealing with all this shit and you’re not spending all this free time you have out of the office getting off your nut in Ibiza.

The reality of this crossing, at least for us, was very different to the horror stories we’d read from other riders online. The young guys we did come across seemed quite happy to walk away when I insisted we didn’t need any assistance and the border officials seemed as straight as an arrow. Exiting Mexico was over with in less than 20 mins and we found ourselves about to enter Guatemala where we had the opportunity to change up the remainder of our Mexican Pesos at a competitive rate. The first step whilst entering Guatemala is to have the bikes sprayed down with some sort of disinfectant solution in order to prevent the spread of disease. Very effective I’m sure. If only they knew how bad Mad Dog’s boots smelt by this stage they may have made him leave them at the border as well. Once sprayed down and we had acquired the necessary customs documents we were on our merry way. All in all, the entry process cost us just short of $20 U.S.D a piece and less than 40 minutes. No complaints there.

Whilst on the Mexican side, we bumped into two riders from Holland, Marj and Chris or, for the purpose of this blog, Team BMW. They were on two beefy 1000cc Beamers both built in 1992. Chris would later adopt the name of ‘Big Dog’ for no other reason than he hit a rather big stray dog. It felt good to be riding in a crew, the sunshine was out and we were all headed in the direction of Lago Atitlan. It didn’t take long for the weather to turn and before we knew it we were searching for a small town next to the lake in the pitch black whilst in the depths of a tropical downpour and riding on a loose gravel country back lane. We’d lost Mad Dog on route as he sensibly decided to skip having a bite to eat to avoid the downpour so we were now down to four and the GPS had it’s head firmly planted somewhere up it’s own arse. When we finally did arrive, the only hotel we could find was on the lake side itself meaning we had to cart all the luggage down what must have been 250 moss-covered steps. A few cheeky beers that evening and waking to a view of the lake’s volcano made everything seem all fine and dandy again until I remembered we had to cart the luggage up those moss-covered steps again before donning the soaking wet riding gear. I’m not moaning, merely supplying an honest account.

We rode on the following morning to the town of Antigua. A nice little colonial spot ideal to kick back and take some Spanish lessons. Unfortunately the Tough Miles mission wasn’t giving way for that. We were here for a purpose and that was to visit the active Volcano Payaca. When I realised the jokes of this not being a riding an experience where in fact not jokes at all and I had to physically climb the damn thing I started to think twice.

It turned out to be a unique day trip to an errie volcanic environment and thankfully the pace of the 3 miserable Israeli girls at the back meant that it wasn’t me and Brookbanks holding up the athletic group kitted out with Lycra and walking boots. Although the lava we had been promised at the top wasn’t actually present, we did manage to bake some Marshmallows on the hot rocks at the top. Big Dog couldn’t contain his excitement and was wondering off in all sorts of directions.

The Cuba Libres we sunk that evening didn’t stop another early rise the following morning and all four of us headed north to a place called Semuc Chapmey, famous for its limestone pools and caving experience. We’d sourced some local maps from a bookshop in Antigua but they threw us well off course and instead of heading northbound on the relatively decent highways of Guatemala, we found ourselves on a muddy off-road trail.

Once clearing the mud stage we managed to re-join what felt like the main highway again. We’d been told to expect a rough road for the 30km or so leading into Semuc Champey itself and the exposure we had earlier in the day was sufficient to make Team BMW think twice about taking it on. We parted ways after stopping for fuel in Coban by which stage it was already late afternoon and the daily downpours were well on their way. We had no more than two hours before sunset and thick black clouds were rolling in. We both questioned if we’d made the right call but there was no turning back now. The trail started off relatively well, loose rocks and gravel but within minutes both of us were struggling for grip. I was cursing the tyre choice swearing at myself in my helmet for choosing such a hard compound of rubber but we later came to realise it had nothing to do with the Mefo Exploeres and was in fact the responsibility of the wet limestone rocks we were riding over. The bikes were literally all over the place. It was like riding on ice. Despite crossing remote parts of Siberia, Mongolia and clearing the BAM road, we’d found ourselves riding one of the most challenging trails to date. The hill climbs were so steep it was literally a case of getting up on the pegs, keeping the throttle pinned open and picking the best route. I was leading on this trail and a good 20 or so minutes into it, Brookbanks disappeared from behind me. You inevitably fear the worst when you no longer see your mate behind you. I had to turn back but the trail was so steep and so slippery there was no way I’d be able to stop where I was never mind even consider turning around. I pushed on until a flatter patch where I could stand the bike up right and sprinted back down the hill. Running on this surface in a pair of motocross boots proved even more challenging than riding on the damn thing and I managed to fall flat on my arse twice before turning a corner and seeing Brookbanks struggling to pick up his bike. He’d managed to plant his bike awkwardly in a ditch where his wheels were higher than his bars making it a tricky one to pull out. Despite both of us slipping all over the place we managed to eventually get the bike upright to asses any damage. Thankfully it was a slow speed off which caused no obvious damage.

That evening we had a drink with the boys from the hostel partly in celebration that we had made it into Semuc without any damage to us and the bikes but mainly in an attempt to forget our concerns of having to ride the same bastard trail out again. These boys were not shy of a rum and coke.

The morning after that heavy session began nicely with a gentle trek through the humid jungle to a view-point to see the stunning limestone pools we would later be swimming around in. I’m by no means a writer so I’m not going to attempt to describe the beauty of this place with words but we genuinely did feel like we’d stumbled across paradise.

I’ve done my fair share of backpacking before this trip and seen some shoddy operations running tours without any health and safety concerns but what took place that afternoon in Semuc Champey is something that is likely to stick with me for quite some time. When I knew we were about to walk into a cave I was looking forward to donning my helmet, head torch and whistle. I didn’t realise I’d be doggy paddling in the pitch black trying my hardest to keep my right arm out the water to keep my candle, my only light source alight. There was no sign of the helmets and certainly no sign of any battery operated light instruments. The lunatic guide took us into the depths of a cave, had us climbing up ropes, sliding down naturally formed limestone flumes and jumping off huge rocks in an attempt to, ‘get the adrenalin pumping’. You quite frankly have no way of finding your way out if you don’t keep up with the group and not a hope in hell of being able to abort the mission if the fear gets too much for you. There was only one way in and one way out and it was your responsibility to keep up with the guy in front of you. It was awesome! One of the most exciting tours we’ve done on this trip to date.

Despite the fact that Jon and I have more interest in Latin Americas rum than its archaeological ruins, it’s important to occasionally step back from this round the world bar crawl and appreciate the foundations of the countries we are visiting. The ruins of Tikal in northern Guatemala are described as Central Americas finest and as they were conveniently located on the main highway out of Guatemala we decided to head on up there to see what all the fuss was about.

We managed to clear that nasty limestone trail with nothing worse than a slow speed drop of my bike before finding ourselves on a very long, very straight, very humid road up to Tikal. We stopped for a bite to eat in the town of Sayaxche where we managed to locate a street vendor selling plates of fries. When you stop in remote areas dressed like you are ready for a mission to mars riding a bike that looks like it’s been pulled from a Mad Max set, it’s inevitable that you attract the attention of the locals. By the time we’d finished eating and were packed up for departure we had a full crowd waiting to wave us off. As I looked in my mirror I noticed Brookbanks drop his bike as he tried to turn on a steep hill. I felt his pain as the street vendors rushed over to help him pick it up. When the locals are riding past 4 up on a 125cc all in shorts and t-shirts and your bike is on the floor, it’s moments like that you feel like a couple of over-equipped gringos that have no idea what you are doing. Still, it’s the nature of the beast and further south we later came to realise why we bother donning all this protective gear every time we board the bikes. More on that later.

Still drifting south bound. Next stop, Honduras.

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