Guatemala

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We crossed into Guatemala via the 190 from San Cristobal Mexico. We were a little apprehensive about whether it would be difficult or not, we wondered if there would be “helpers” hassling us to use their service, how long would it take, did we have all of the right documentation, etc.. etc. However our worry was in vein because at the end of the day it went pretty smoothly. We had to stop in Ciudad Cuauhtémoc a few kilometres from the boarder on the Mexican side to cancel our Mexican import permit for the bike and get our passports stamped which only took about 20 minutes. Between Ciudad Cuauhtémoc and the border are rolling tropical green covered hills but with the stench of burning rubbish in the air. We soon saw the cause, there is a huge area where rubbish is being dumped over the side of one of the hills and multiple fires were burning in it. I guess that road doesn’t see much tourist traffic. The boarder post in Guatemala was smaller than expected and not busy at all. We rode up to it and stopped behind some cones in the middle of the road. We got off the bike and it was fumigated then we moved it over to the immigration office and went inside. No queues or anything we were in and out within a couple of minutes. After receiving the stamps all that was left was to import the bike. A few metres away from the immigration office is the SAT office which looks after that. The lady there was watching Lord of  the Rings on TV, she asked for the usual documents including the cancelled permit from Mexico which she used to copy of the values into her system which was good because it meant I didn’t have to explain anything in Spanish. She made a few photocopies and around half an hour later we were ready for the road with import permit in hand, we put the boot down and made to the city of Huehuetenango just as darkness set in.

Our aim was Lake Atitlan and Huehuetenango was just an overnight stop. We stayed in a small hotel on the edge of town, there didn’t seem to be many tourists around at all. Another thing that wasn’t around was WiFi, for the first time on the trip while staying in a city I could turn on my phone and not pick up any networks at all it was great, I felt envious that the people still live without WiFi everywhere. We had dinner at a small simple family run restaurant where the children stared at us over the counter and if we looked over at them the hid and giggled. I hadn’t come across this reaction before in Mexico and it obviously gave the impression that not too many tourists visit this area.

On our way out of Huehuetenango the next day heading for Lake Atitlan we were dumbstruck by how good the road was compared to what we had traveled on the day before. It was brand new, freshly tarmacked and very curvy with hardly any other traffic on it. I think it was called the 7W. After some time the road did deteriorated and we began passing through medium sized towns. Most of them don’t have any sort of bypass system so the main road goes straight through the centre of town. This makes for hairy driving and a lot of traffic, at one point we came across a traffic jam caused by two 18 wheelers which met going in opposite directions and had millimetres between them it took about twenty minutes for them to inch past each other with the help of several men wearing high viz jackets, armed with whistles and waving their arms around. It seemed like total chaos but somehow the Guatemalans are able to understand what is going on. Either that or they were just ignoring the guys, hard to tell.

We made it to Panajachel at Lake Atitlan where we saw a volcano for the first time in our lives. It had the distinct uniform triangular shape and rose high above the surrounding hills. Central America is dotted with them, I knew this at the time but when we turned a corner and saw one for the first time I was still startled. It’s funny how quickly you get used to them, at the moment we’re in El Salvador, it’s only two weeks later and I’ve already begun not paying attention to them anymore. Panajachel is small and tourist trodden, it was nice to see but we were ready to move on by the next day.

We decided to try to find the back road to Antigua from Panajachel, it looked doable on google maps and OSM but after an hour of being misled by the GPS we gave up. It turned out our maps software had a road on it which was actually a rock filled river with water flowing in it. Eventually we arrived in Antigua and ended up spending about 12 days there. We enrolled in Spanish lessons which lasted 4 hours a day of on one tuition, it worked out something like 100 dollars for 20 hours of one on one per person which is great value. We stayed in a student house run by the school which we shared with four or five other students and two local girls who ran the house and cooked the meals. All in all the Spanish lessons were useful, I never expected to come out fluent after one week of learning but now I can certainly better understand what people are saying to me. I was mainly learning phrases, numbers, basic verbs, and how to conjugate them but every now and then my teacher and I would drop the learning and talk about Central American culture, customs, and history instead which was equally as useful as learning some Spanish. Another plus was that next door to the school was a restaurant called Toko Baru run by Eduardo from Holland which made great curries, it was nice to have cheap high quality food for a change and not a salsa massacre on a plate. Nine times out of ten when you order local food it’s smothered in red salsa sauce, even if it’s a ham and cheese omelet for breakfast with a fruit side on the same plate unless you specifically ask them not to they will dump salsa sauce over the lot of it.

I decided to use our down time to service the rear shock absorber, it was shockingly easy to remove it from the bike which I did while the bike was parked in the living room of our student house. I had already stopped into Moto Tours Guatemala www.mototoursguatemala.com who are based just down the road from the school, they offer off road tours and help to any adventure bikers passing through as I found out. I met Jose and Rodrigo who were an immense help, between them they rang around their contacts and dealers asking if any could service a WP shock absorber. In the end the Husaberg dealer in Guatemala City Revolution Bikes said they could do it. Apparently it is the only place between Mexico and Columbia that has the special machine needed to service WP shocks so it was quite lucky that I decided to do it in Antigua. A couple of days later I went back to Moto Tours and I got a lift into Guatemala City with Jose to drop off the shock.

I learned from my Spanish teacher that Guatemala City can be quite dangerous, he had been robbed around three times last year at red lights by thieves on a motorbike. They pull up beside you and the passenger points a gun in the window. Not much you can do other than comply. He also told me that the city bus drivers have to pay a tax to the gangs who control the territory they drive through. Failure to pay or not pay enough has led to the deaths of 300 bus drivers over the past couple of years. So I was quite happy to be driving in a car with someone who knew the city.

Everything went smoothly with the shock service, it had an oil change and a nitrogen recharge. When I re-installed it on the bike it felt like new again. I think suspension is like eyesight you don’t notice it deteriorating over time until it’s really bad. Luckily I didn’t wait until it was really bad and serviced it out of precaution but I could still notice a huge difference afterwards.

Antigua was the original Spanish colonial capital city of Guatemala but it was devastated twice withing a hundred years by earthquakes so the decision was made to move the capital to Guatemala City, 40 minutes drive away. Antigua is filled with tourists, restaurants and souvenir shops. It has cobble stoned streets and is surrounded by volcanoes one of which is active. It’s called Fuego and plumes of ash pump out of it constantly. If you’re lucky you can even see lava shooting out at night. I don’t know what the Spanish were thinking when they decided to build their capital city here. In general it’s a very nice place to visit but does not represent the average Guatemalan city.

One day after Spanish lessons we visited a Mayan town about half an hour away from Antigua with our teachers. The local people there worshiped Maximon with voodoo style offering ceremonies in which they burned cigars and threw alcohol inside a church which looked a little bit like a Catholic church. On the church walls were plaques from people thanking Maximon for the new car or motorbike they received or for other good fortunes. It was interesting to witness and nice to see the real Guatemala after a week in Antigua.

There is a huge difference between Mexico and Guatemala, population density seems much higher in Guatemala and you don’t see as much wealth in the form of new cars or fancy houses like you do in Mexico. Not everyone has a mobile phone and an internet connection is pretty hard to find outside of tourist centres. Most startling for me was to see so many children playing outside, actual real playing. Like motorbike suspension and eyesight you don’t notice the lack of children in the streets playing until you witness it in original form again. Hide and seek, football, and randomly chasing each other around the streets are still top on the things to do list for Guatemalan children. No video games or apps to be seen for miles.

At the moment we’re in El Salvador, we came here straight after Antigua. It was only a two hour drive to the border but it took us four hours to do the border crossing. Anyway more about that in the next post…

3 thoughts on “Guatemala

  1. Love the story and the pics as it’s bring back such great memories. We just love Guatemala and Salvador. Nice to see you are having an awesome time with our family Mario, Fernanda and Fernandeta. Very special people that do nothing but give.

    You are having a great adventure!!

    • Hi Dan, thanks and yeah you couldn’t be more right about Mario, Fernanda and Fernandita they’re really genuine people too. We also met Juan and Mario Jr. Leaving here tomorrow and heading to the beach for a few days. Thanks for setting us up here.

      • No worries, we had a good feeling about you both, glad we could make the connection, great that you met the boys as well. Enjoy the beach, I sure am here in Brazil. : )

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