First month on the road: Cost analysis

August 26th marked 31 days on the road. I’ve been keeping track of expenses, so I thought I’d just put them here for later review.

Fuel: $168.21  ($5.42/day)

Food: $384.34  ($12.40/day)

Lodging: $596.05  ($19.22/day)

Miscellaneous: $143.23  ($4.62/day)

Overall: $1291.83  ($41.67/day)

The miscellaneous category includes everything from park admission fees to a spare SD card I bought to download maps for my GPS and replacement parts for the bike.

I did not add the $230 I paid for two weeks of Spanish school ahead of time, although this probably should be factored in as well.

After this luxury of staying in a house for a couple of weeks, I’m hoping to reduce my lodging expenses as I’ll either be camping or staying in hostels for most of the rest of Central America. I don’t think I can reduce my fuel expenses much more, and while I could probably reduce my food expenses a bit more, I really enjoy eating, so I’m unwilling to cut much off of food. I will need tires in the next couple of weeks, and worse yet, the cost of the sailboat to South America is going to kill my daily average. Oh well. I’m still living cheaper than I could if I were just sitting on a couch at home, and I’m experiencing a whole lot more.

In and Around Antigua

August 29, 2015

My first day off from Spanish School. I’m feeling guilty for not practicing more. The problem with going to Spanish school where there are so many people who speak english is that it’s too easy to speak english. And my brain is overflowing with new grammar and vocabulary. As my instructor says, “Practica, practica, practica. Mas y mas y mas.”

I started this morning by walking to the Mercado. I’m staying on the east side of Antigua, and the market is on the west side, so the walk is about 15 blocks across and maybe four blocks north.

I love these old places. Look closely, and you’ll see that the door opens to an open courtyard inside. Maybe wasn’t always that way…

 

There are a lot of churches in Antigua. Most of them are very old. Not all of them have been restored. Here are a couple that I walked past this morning. Look past the front doors/gates, and you’ll see that there isn’t much besides rubble inside.

I wonder if the pigeon thinks that looks like a birdhouse in his left hand.

On Thursday there were huge protests held all over Guatemala. Without getting into a lot of politics, the people here are quite upset with the current president, and are demanding that he step down. He refuses to do so. Massive protests and marches took place on Thursday, and a huge Twitter campaign took off all over the country. No matter where you go, you see this hashtag on cars, buildings, t-shirts, television, everywhere:

“I Have No President”

 

As I was saying, I walked to the mercado this morning:

I walk by this store every day. This dog has his favorite spot, where he just fits, and can watch everything that goes on.

The market here is big, with a lot of fruit and vegetable vendors, and just about anything else you can imagine.

Lots of people ride the chicken buses from outside Antigua to get to the market. These buses are pretty fascinating to look at, and scary to see in the rear view mirror while riding. It may be a giant BlueBird school bus, but the guy driving it thinks it’s a subcompact and will squeeze between anything at speed.

 

After the market, I jumped on the bike and rode a few miles out of Antigua to a small town called San Miguel Duenas. Just before Duenas is the Valhalla Experimental Station, a macadamia tree farm started 39 years ago by Lawrence “Lorenzo” Gottschamer, a retired Redwood City, California firefighter. I came here mainly because I had heard about their macadamia pancakes, which are incredible:

Walkway into Valhalla

 

Dining table at Valhalla. Perfect temperatures, outdoor dining amongst nature. No wonder the name stuck.

 

Macadamia nut pancakes, with macadamia nut butter and blueberries, all home grown. Wow, these were good.

What I wasn’t expecting was to have Lorenzo just walk up unexpectedly and sit down with me to chat. I was absolutely blown away by this man. He came here nearly 40 years ago with the vision of growing macadamia trees. He didn’t want to use the grafted trees that are common to Hawaii; he wanted to use natural trees that could naturally adapt to their environment. And he didn’t do this as a commercial for-profit venture. He wanted to show the locals that they could replace the trees they had cut down for firewood with a tree that would produce a usable product for them in four years, and continue to do so for a hundred years, while also helping the environment.

Lorenzo has 300 trees on his 5 acres, and each tree produces about 300 pounds of macadamia nuts annually. That’s 90,000 pounds of nuts each year. With those, he makes butter, cream, soap, lotions, and more, and of course raw nuts. He also has a nursery where they raise trees that they provide free to local communities. So far this year they have donated about 800 trees, and they have another 800 waiting to be donated now. They’re just waiting for some rain so that the trees have a healthy start. Thus far, Valhalla has donated over 200,000 trees to indigenous communities around the area.

Lorenzo, the owner of Valhalla Experimental Station. What an incredibly genuine, nice, great guy.

I spent about a half hour just talking with Lorenzo over breakfast. At 76 years old, he’s clearly not about to slow down, and he’s an absolute pleasure to spend time with. Within minutes of sitting down with me, he was giving me names and phone numbers of people in the area that I should talk to about places to go and things to see. He offered to let me stay there as long as I wanted. Then he introduced me to Bo, who I kind of got the impression was not only a volunteer or worker, but a bit of a right-hand man when it comes to the macadamia farm. Bo gave me a tour of the farm, and showed me the entire process from gathering the nuts to the final product.

Macadamia nuts on the tree. They aren’t ready to be harvested until they naturally fall to the ground.

 

Drying the gathered nuts after the green outer skin has been stripped off. The hard shell you see is under that skin. When dry, you can hear and feel the nut rattle inside. A local guy designed and built all of Valhalla’s processing equipment, and it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. Simple, straightforward, built of rebar and used truck tires. Anything they need, this local guy dreams up and builds, mostly from scrap. They call him “McGyver”, and he has signed some of his works “McGiver”.

 

Bo. Very soft-spoken, unassuming guy with an encyclopedic knowledge of macadamias.

This is Bo’s ninth trip to Guatemala, and his last. Meaning he’s not going back to the U.S. He has now moved to Guatemala permanently. You wouldn’t know it by just walking around with him at the farm, but Bo is an orthopedic surgeon by profession. He’s been coming to Guatemala for years with a team of medical staff to volunteer, performing surgeries to correct club foot and other deformities on local children. Turns out Macadamia farming is just a side hobby.

I am continually surprised and left speechless by the people I meet and their generosity.

Restroom at Valhalla. Or as Bo put it, “the most photographed restroom in Guatemala”.

 

After breakfast, I rode around the Duenas area a bit, then headed back through Ciudad Vieja to Antigua and my “home”.  As I pulled up, I was greeted by Don Marco, as I am every day when I roll my bike out of the La Union School to park it on the street for the day.

Don Marco is another of those incredibly nice, genuine people that I keep running into in Guatemala. He speaks little or no english, but he is an absolute pleasure to spend a few minutes chatting with each morning. I hope my Spanish improves enough over the next 10 days or so that I can spend more time talking with Marco, and learning more about him. This morning he was telling me about the three volcanoes that surround Antigua — Volcan de Agua, Volcan de Fuego and Vocan Pacaya, and suggested that I go hike Volcan Pacaya, but not the other two due to thievery problems in those areas. Not sure if I’ll make it there this weekend or next, but it’s on my list.

 

Welcoming crew. “Welcome home…didya bring us anything??”

 

 

 

Semuc Champey to Antigua

August 24, 2015

I have entered a part of the world where 125 miles in a day approaches the limit, at least in the places I go, which was my intention from the beginning.

I slept very well after the long day of caving, swimming, and tubing in Semuc Champey, although rolling onto my right side would wake me quickly from the soreness of the bruises. Still, well worth it for an incredible day.

I packed up early as I knew it would be a long ride to Antigua. Although I was done packing by 6:45am, I chose to have an early breakfast and allow the two colectivos (in this case, two pickup trucks) to pick up all of the backpackers that were departing Utopia that morning. Knowing that I had to climb the same rocky one-lane hills that these trucks were now headed down made it an easy decision to sit and wait. No reason to meet them half way up if it wasn’t necessary.

By 7:30 the trucks were loaded and gone, and I was ready to get on the road. There is only one way out of Utopia back to Lanquin, but after that my GPS routed me north rather than south. As usual (as I said, I’m a slow learner) I followed the GPS instead of stopping to confirm. After about 15 miles, I began to realize that instead of taking me towards Coban, Garmin was taking me back the way I had come, back another 50 miles north on the nasty, rocky, pot-hole filled dirt road toward Lago de Izabal. And as usual, the GPS said I was only three and a half hours from Antigua (which I knew couldn’t be correct, because the backpackers got on a bus in Lanquin that took eight hours to reach Antigua). So I settled in for the ride, figuring that once I got back to the lake and turned southwest, I’d hit a good highway and it would be smooth sailing all the way to Antigua.

Wrong. Again. After 50 miles I finally hit the intersection at the lake, and turned southwest onto new unexplored road. Within a couple of miles it turned to that nice new concrete again, and I rode that for about six miles before it again turned back to even worse single lane dirt with even bigger potholes. At one point, I rode through a pothole (much too small and kind of a word) that was literally the size and shape of a backyard swimming pool, although fortunately it was dry, and there was no deep end; the whole thing was about three to four feet deep and about thirty feet long, with a nice slope at each end to “wade in”.

The road continued like this for another 50 miles, until I came to an intersection with an actual highway. Until now, I was lucky to average 15 mph. From there it was truly a nice two lane paved highway out of the mountains into Guatemala City and, after some traffic in the capitol, another nice ride into Antigua. Another eight and a half hours of riding and glad to be done.

El Arco

The fountain in the middle of Parque Central

 

San Agustin

 

La Merced

Antigua is another beautiful, old colonial city that has attracted a lot of tourists. Many come here to study Spanish as it is considerably less expensive than Mexico. While Guatemala City has a fair amount of crime and danger, Antigua, which sits just outside of Guatemala City, is kind of the nice, genteel suburb. Because of this, the price of housing and the cost of living in Antigua has skyrocketed, and local workers find themselves living outside of Antigua, in places like Jocotenango. So, in essence, the system is no different than many parts of the U.S.

Volcan de Agua in the background, the top shrouded by clouds.

 

As I arrived into town, the school band was parading through the town square, with a procession.

 

According to one article I read, Antigua has the largest Semana Santa (Easter week) celebration in the Americas, drawing up to 200,000 people each year to watch the festivities. As I walked around town, I stumbled on this empty lot filled with fiberglass figures on hand-pulled carts.

 

These are used once a year in one of the parades. The rest of the year they are stored here.

 

I am here to learn as much Spanish as possible in ten days of classes. I go to school each day from 8am to noon, and study in the afternoon. It’s not easy (even though my teacher keeps telling me “es pan comido” — It’s a piece of cake), but I’ve set myself up to study and learn. I am staying right at the school; the family that owns the building where the school is housed also has four small homes on the land behind the school. I’ve rented a one bedroom house for two weeks, so my daily commute from my front door to my desk is about twenty paces.

My 330 sq ft home for two weeks. Very comfortable.

 

Everything you need. No need for bigger. Bedroom and bath to the right.

Antigua is full of Spanish schools, and it’s odd to see so many Americans, Canadians, and more speaking Spanish instead of just being the english-only tourists. It’s also clear that the town is used to this, as I’ve noticed that the locals tend to speak slower than in other places I’ve been; an obvious appreciation of the needs of the students.

 

What a great concept. Since Antigua is a UNESCO Heritage Site, there is little signage throughout the city to disrupt the views. However, these little tile gems are all over the place. Each time you see a curb painted white, there is one of these in the sidewalk, indicating parking for motorcycles only.

 

You see a lot of different brands and styles of motorcycles here. This is a MadAss 125. Very creative.

I have the weekends off, so I hope to do a bit of sight-seeing this weekend. Until then, the blog will necessarily slow down for a while.

Hasta entonces.

 

Semuc Champey and the KanBa Caves

August 23, 2015

Having arrived fairly late the night before to the Utopia Eco-Lodge, I basically had dinner (vegetarian lasagna, garlic bread, and a home-made brownie — not bad) and went to bed. However, I was told by several guests and staff that I should consider the tour the next day of Semuc Champey and the KanBa caves. Both of these places were on my list to visit, and since I really only had a day to spend there, it made sense to sign up for the tour and see it all rather than waste time wandering around on my own trying to figure it all out.

The tour was 185 Quetzales, or about $24. At 10am, about 15 of us piled into the back of a Toyota pickup and headed the mile and a half down to Las Marias, where the caves are located.

I can’t say enough about this part of the tour. This was absolutely incredible. Unfortunately I didn’t take my camera into the caves, but now I wish I had.

The basic cave concept is this: these caves have water running through them, and are on different levels (thus, waterfalls as well). In some places it’s ankle deep; in others you can’t touch and you have to swim. There are no lights in the caves. As you enter, the guide hands you a wax dinner candle. So you are depending on a candle to light your way as you swim through the darkness. And obviously you have to keep the candle dry while you’re swimming. Oh, and there are ropes strung though the caves to help guide you. So the other hand is busy also. Did I mention you have to swim in the dark, while holding a candle in one hand and rope line in the other?

There are also places where you have to climb up or down, or swim under a rock ledge into the next cave. And there’s a waterfall that you have to climb up using a knotted rope. As the water is crashing down on you. In relative darkness. At this point, your candle is not going to survive and you have to relight it at the top.

The entire cave tour takes about an hour to an hour and a half, but is well worth it. Even with all the other cool stuff, this was definitely the highlight of the tour.

I grabbed this photo from the web of others in the KanBa caves with their dinner candles.

After the caves, we went for a quick swim in the river just below the pools. The Cahabon River runs underground for nearly a thousand feet, and the pools at Semuc Champey sit on top of the river.

 

In this photo, the pools are above us, draining over the edge, and the river is exiting the cave on the far left side.

Ancient Mayan Happy Face carving

 

After our swim, we hiked up to the Mirador to look down at the pools of Semuc Champey. This hike is some serious UP for about 45 minutes. It’s a lot of stairs, steps, and ledges. Eventually you arrive at the Mirador platform, and the view is magnificent.

 

Then we hiked down to the pools, and went for another swim. There are five pools, and we swam in each. The limestone is extremely slippery in and around the pools. This is mostly not a good thing, but it did make for some good slides between pools.

In the fourth pool from the top is an interesting feature. Up against the limestone face of the pool above is a small opening about eight to ten inches high. If you hold your breath and duck under, you can come up inside the limestone, in a space just tall enough to keep your face above water. It runs along the face of the ledge for quite a ways, and because the water is so clear, the sunlight reflected inside this “cave” tube makes it really bright. At the other end, you hold your breath, duck down and swim out. This is one of those things you’d probably never find or experience without a guide.

To end the day, we grabbed tubes and floated the river back from Semuc Champey to Utopia. There are several small rapids along the way, with rocks in the river, that you have to negotiate. This would have all been good, except we got a late start, and the water was lower than usual and moving slower. Which meant we didn’t make it before dark.

Floating the river back to the lodge. People jump off of that bridge into the river. Some people. Not all people. Some people are smarter than that.

I got a kick out of the local kids and their marketing methods. They stand around at the point where you launch your tubes, with small coolers trying to sell you beer. Once you start floating down the river, they jump in tubes and float along with you, with an almost constant “Hey Mister, you wanna beer? My name is Juan. You wanna beer, you ask for Juan.” Takes a bit of the “tranquilo” out of the floating, but it was amusing.

Juan in the tube on the left with his red cooler selling beer as we float home. His main competitor on the right with the blue cooler. Can’t remember his name. Obviously didn’t have the marketing savvy of Juan.

 

At one point we had to portage around some particularly rough rapids, which required us to walk through a cornfield. I just thought this looked funny, walking through a cornfield with tubes, but no river in sight.

 

Yes, the water really is that color, and extremely clear. And yes, my legs really are that white.

 

Hmmm…beginning to get dark. How much further??

 

Okay, it’s really dark. Where’s that dinner candle from the cave? Look close, there’s someone there in a tube. You can only see them because of the camera flash. And yes, we rode the rapids over the rocks like this. And yes, I have the bruises to prove it.

Overall, it was an awesome day. Although I might skip the tube float home next time in order to get back before dark and get a shower before dinner. Might be the best $24 I’ve ever spent.

I also met some really cool people. Among them, Ben and Trishna from England:

Ben is one of those motivational people. Not the kind that preach it, but the kind that live it, and inspire others through his enthusiasm. He’s a teacher that had this idea to use dance to promote the freedoms that we have, and he’s dancing around the world. That’s right. No, he’s not going to different places and dancing. He is literally dancing his way across the globe. As he put it, it’s about the same pace as walking, so why not? He’s got a really cool site devoted to his goal. Just when you think you’ve seen it all… Go Ben!

As I’ve mentioned previously, I tend to avoid the touristy places and try to go where there are less foreigners. But sometimes you gotta go there. There was definitely more English being spoken at Utopia than I’ve heard in the past month, but it was okay. For a couple of days.

Now it’s back to Spanish. And time to work on it.

Flores to Lanquin

August 22, 2015

Looking at the map, there were basically two roads from where I was to where I was going…one was CA-5 and the other was CA-13. According to Google Maps, it was a toss-up: about 250km and just over 5 hours either way. CA-5 had one long straight section that looked pretty boring, so I chose CA-13. And that was the beginning of my lesson in route selection.

I stopped at the ATM on the way out of town. My XT250 doesn’t completely blend in with all the 125s, but it doesn’t exactly stand out either.

Parking at the bank…

I knew the road would be relatively straight and at low elevation (warm) for the longest part of the day. I had a few nice climbs and good views in the first 50 miles.

I passed a guy on a bicycle headed the opposite direction as I rode into a small town, and he waved, so I turned around and chased him down.

Kris is from Germany. He started in Ushuaia, at the southern tip of South America, last September on a one year ride. He’s headed to Cancun and will fly home from there. He said next year he’s going to get his motorcycle license and do the next trip on a motorbike!

About thirty minutes after meeting Kris, I stopped for fuel and as I was preparing to leave, Marvin rode up on a KLR650. He started in New Mexico in January and has made it this far south. He asked me where I was headed and I told him Semuc Champey.

“Which way are you going?” he asked.

“I’m going to take this highway”, I replied.

“This highway doesn’t go to Champey.”

“My GPS says it does.”

“No. It’s a dirt road. You can make it, but it’s rough.”

Hmmm. Well, that’s interesting. Not what I thought I was going to do today. Oh well.

I took off, and shortly the road turned to fresh concrete.

I rode along on this nice, new concrete road for miles along the side of Lago de Izabal, a huge lake in southeastern Guatemala. In the back of my head, I had two conflicting thoughts:

  1. This concrete is really new. It can’t go on forever.
  2. Maybe Marvin was wrong about which road I was on.

And just like that, everything changed. The nice, new shiny road went from the above, to this:

And that’s the way it stayed, for the next 60 miles. I was doing good to average 30kmh, but then again, the road was marked 20. My GPS meanwhile said I would arrive in two hours. An hour later it said I would arrive in two hours. An hour later, it said I would arrive in two hours. And that’s the problem with trusting a GPS, especially in a remote place like Central America. My GPS thinks this is a highway, and that I should be moving along at 60mph. So after an hour, when I’ve only gone 18 miles, it adjusts my arrival time but it still thinks I should be doing 60mph.

When I left Flores, the GPS said I should arrive in about three and a half hours. Three and a half hours later, it said I should arrive in about two and a half hours. Eventually, it turned out to be about 8 hours. Lesson learned, but probably not well enough, yet.

I rode through a couple of small villages, and then into the larger town of Cahabon. It was Saturday and the local market was in full swing, taking up all of the main street of town. I rode around for a few minutes and couldn’t find a way through town. Backtracking, I found the local Policia, and asked how to get through town. He gave me a detour around the market and I was back on the dirt road and heading west. The scenery continued to impress as I climbed.

Notice the hillside where it’s been clear-cut and then planted in corn. I passed many hills like this. It’s amazing that someone can climb that hillside, much less till and plant corn on it. But this is the way it’s done throughout Guatemala and Mexico.

Eventually I pulled into Lanquin, and then south down a very steep, rocky path to Utopia Lodge, my home for two nights. I was quite glad to be on the little bike and not on something like the Tenere or a BMW 1200GS.

 

The main lodge at Utopia

 

Cabana for the night. You can just see the river through the trees on the right.

Of course I was the only guest that drove in with my own vehicle. It’s a hostel, and the place was packed with backpackers from the U.S., Canada, Italy, France, Britain, Germany, and other places I’m sure I missed. They all rode the bus for more than eight hours, either from Guatemala City or from Flores to get there. And I was about to find out why.

Tikal — er, no — Uaxactun

August 21, 2015

I was planning to go to Tikal today — large Mayan ruins north of Flores. However, having seen Teotihuacan in Mexico and reading all about Tikal, as exciting as they sounded, I had another plan.

About 12 miles north of Tikal via a dirt road behind a guarded gate, is another set of ruins called Uaxactun (pronounced “Wash-Ock-Tun”; sounds a lot like Washington). These ruins are much harder to access, and much less visited. But I wanted to give it a shot. As far as tourist attractions go, I tend to aim for the ones that others don’t visit. I’m not a fan of crowds. And today I got what I wanted, and more.

I rode to Tikal first, which is about 35 miles north of Flores. At the entrance to the park, you pay an entrance fee and receive a ticket. The road is another six or seven miles long to where the actual parking for the Tikal ruins is located. Two guards at the entrance told me that the speed limit for the rest of the road was 40 kmh or 25mph, because “there are pumas and jaguars and other wildlife here.” I wasn’t sure if that meant I should slow down in case one runs out in the road, so I don’t hit it, or if it meant the wildlife is hungry, and I should slow down to give it a chance to catch dinner.

As I headed toward Tikal, the road signs made me feel like I was part of some child’s twisted “See-N-Say” game:

The turkey goes “gobble, gobble”.

The snake goes “hisssss”.

The deer goes, well, deer don’t really have a sound. They snort when they want to alert the rest of the deer to trouble. I guess that counts.

The — what is that? An aardvark? What sound does an aardvark make?

What the heck is THAT?!? A cat’s head on an orangutan’s body?? If that’s a puma, I don’t want anything to do with THAT. And the only reason I’d want to know what sound it makes is so I can run the other way if I hear it.

I got to the parking area for Tikal, and decided I would ask about going to Uaxactun. I found the administration building hidden behind some buildings that looked like housing for the workers.

“Hola. Puedo montar mi moto a Uaxactun?” (Hello. Can I ride my motorcycle to Uaxactun?).

Short pause. Then the guy hands me a form to fill out. It’s a permit to allow me to ride to Uaxactun. Woo Hoo! I’m in. It asks very little: name, nationality, license plate number. Probably to match the body with the bike after the puma attack.

I fill the form out and he hands it to me. That’s it. No fee. No hassle. I go back to my bike, and ride up to the guard at the gate. I show him my permit and he opens the gate. I am now on my own private 12 mile ride through the jungle. And it’s awesome.

No traffic, no buses, no tourists. Not a soul. Except an aardvark. That’s it.

Forty five minutes later I pop out into an open clearing. This used to be an airstrip, back in the 50s when the archaeologists were exploring this site. Now it’s a tiny rural village. The locals look at me like I am a very rare site, and I think they are right. I ask one where the ruins are, and he points up a rough track up the hill. I climb for a quarter mile or so, and then, I’m there.

And I am literally the only one there. No workers. No locals. No tourists. Nada. I am alone with my own private Mayan ruins, and I have ridden right up to within 100 feet of them. This is nothing short of amazing.

I’ve seen these enough different times now to understand what I’m looking at. This is a Mayan ball court. I’ve seen the same arrangement at three different sites now.

 

I spent several hours walking around two different large sites at Uaxactun, and in that time I saw no one. And I loved it. It was incredibly peaceful. Perhaps because of the difficulty getting here, it hasn’t been developed like Tikal or Teotihaucan or Palenque.

I rode the twelve miles back down the dirt road through the rain forest, savoring the solitude. As I emerged at the gate to get out, I met the hordes of tourists getting off the buses for Tikal, blissfully unaware that Uaxactun even exists.

I was glad for my private tour. What a gift.

 

Central America!

August 20, 2015

The problem with GPS trackers is that they don’t work if you don’t turn them on. So it was today that I arrived in Flores, Guatemala before realizing that I had apparently never turned the tracker on before leaving Tenosique, Tabasco, Mexico. Oh well. I’m still here, just no longer there. Sorry for the gap in my track. Rest assured it will happen again.

The ride to the border at El Ceibo was quick and uneventful. The road is freshly paved and smooth, and the hills and scenery reminded me of Hawaii. Beautiful green, large mounded hills, some stripped of trees but covered in green, others still covered in trees.

The aduana (customs) and immigration on the Mexican side is a fairly new set of buildings. The Guatemalan side is actually a portable building and a trailer. But the people on both sides were very friendly and helpful and the process went smoothly, taking a total of about an hour and a half to check myself and my bike out of Mexico and in Guatemala. The CA-4 vehicle permit I was issued is good for 90 days and covers Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Seeing as how I need to be in Panama by the first week of October, this should do fine.

And the El Ceibo, Guatemala aduana office now has a shiny new “2RideTheGlobe” sticker on their souvenir wall.

It was a fairly short day. I rode about 140 miles total, only 90 of which were in Guatemala. I pulled into Flores, which is actually a small island in Lake Peten-Itza, early afternoon and began looking for my hotel. It took me two and a half laps of the island before I found it. My GPS kept telling me to turn the wrong way down a one-way street, which, upon further inspection, turned out to not really be a street at all. At least not any more.

Calle 15 de Septiembre is a little low, apparently. Can’t get there from here.

 

In keeping with my budget, this hotel is no-frills. And no soap, and no towel, and no tv, and no air conditioning, and a lot of other nos. Which got me to thinking about things that we come to expect when we check into a hotel in the U.S. Even a budget hotel. Like:

A ceiling fan, or maybe just a cover plate over the electrical box where the ceiling fan used to be.

 

A limited amount of mold.

 

Some basic consistency with how HOT and COLD work.

 

A toilet seat. And toilet paper. And a sink that hasn’t been patched with a huge chunk of bondo.

 

A thermostat, if AC is included. Most hotels I’ve stayed at lately, like the one above, just have a breaker box.

 

A lack of bare electrical wires in the shower. Yes, this is real, and where I am staying now. The showerheads heat the water. If they are connected. And grounded. And the electrical tape holds. If not, well, you’ll definitely be warm.

 

Oh we are so spoiled. And so demanding. Life here is simple. Don’t worry about all that stuff. You don’t really need it.

I had a great tuna sandwich at a place down the street called Cool Beans.

Now THAT’s a tuna sandwich.

I wasn’t planning to eat there. I was actually headed to a place further down the street, but as I passed Cool Beans, I happened to notice that all of their signage was in english. So I figured what the heck. The owner spoke decent english, but I don’t think his wife did. But it was a good marketing hook. This place is close to Tikal, so there are a lot of people from Europe and the States here to see the ruins. The watermelon licuado (smoothie) was pretty good too.

I’m in tourist central here, so the prices aren’t that cheap. But I’m still within budget. I thought about camping at Tikal tomorrow night, but the humidity here is pretty severe, and it rains in the afternoon. So I’ll probably just stay here again tomorrow night before heading towards Semuc Champey.

 

Topes: Diabolical Aggravation, or Brilliant Marketing Tool?

In celebration of passing through my 12th (and final) Mexican state, I’ve decided to dedicate a post to Topes. If you spend any time in Mexico, you can’t avoid them. I feel like I’ve seen, crossed, and experienced enough of them to write a thesis paper, but this will do for now:

In the vehicle durability testing world, there is a device used to punish chassis and suspension components. It’s often referred to as a “rolling road” or “cam drum”. Essentially, it is a large roller with a speed bump on it, and the vehicle’s wheel(s) are placed on the roller such that the speed bump comes around and contacts the tire each revolution, causing a disturbance to the vehicle.

Topes (pronounced Toe-Pays) are the real world cam drum. The amount of stress imparted throughout a vehicle each time it hits a Mexican tope is significant. As I mentioned earlier, topes are not uniform: some are round and smooth, some are low and semi-circular and hardly noticeable. Others are sharp; not much less than a standard curb. And some are simply fake. They paint the lines on the street to fool you into thinking there is a tope there, but there isn’t.

In most places where there are topes, there are also businesses. Some are brick-and-mortar buildings — well, maybe not so much mortar. More cinder block, or just sticks and corrugated tin. It may be a restaurant, an automotive repair business, or a store of some sort. Then there are the free-standing “mobile” businesses: the guy selling fruit; the woman selling hand-made necklaces or dolls. Topes are the perfect marketing tool: they force you to slow down, so people can put stuff in your face.

This got me to wondering: which came first, the tope or the business? I had originally assumed that people congregated where the topes were. But the farther I ride through Mexico, I’m inclined to believe that in many cases the people place the topes where they want. I base this on the varying designs and construction methods. For example:

If you own a brick-and-mortar business and can afford it, put an asphalt or cement tope in front of your business. Yellow paint optional, but better to slow people down in time to notice your business.

If you can’t afford the asphalt or cement, paint the stripes across the road to fool people into thinking it’s a tope.

If you can’t afford that much paint, just paint a sign that says “Tope” and stick it on the side of the road. People will slow down, and you can still do business with them.

If you can’t afford the sign, just pile some mud across the road so it looks like a tope. Sure it wears down fast, but there’s plenty more where that came from.

And if you’re out of asphalt, cement, paint, and mud, just grab a couple of orange cones and place them in the centerline of the street, a tope’s width apart. People will still think there’s a tope there.

I’ve seen all of these methods used by sellers in Mexico.

And I’ve learned that if you see a guy standing on the center line of the road holding a bunch of stuff to sell, hit the brakes. There’s a speed bump coming.

I suppose this is what happens when you don’t slow down for the topes. And yes, there is a tope right there.

Palenque

August 19, 2015

The Mayan ruins at Palenque are very impressive. I arrived early in the morning, just after they opened, and before the tour buses arrived. Once again, as I parked, I was approached by several people wanting to “watch” my bike for a fee. Once I put the cover on the bike, they lost all interest.

Here’s another tip: by arriving right at opening time, not only do you beat the crowds and the tour buses, but all of the vendors are still busy setting up, so they don’t have time to constantly approach you and try to sell you trinkets.

 

The Temple of the Inscriptions

The building above is known as the Temple of the Inscriptions due to the second longest known Mayan inscription being inside the building atop the pyramid. Reading the history of this place gives a real “Indiana Jones” feel to it: This temple was built as a funerary temple for K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, who ruled from 615 to 683BC (he was 12 when his mother resigned as Queen and he took over as King). Although the temple was studied for over 200 years, it wasn’t until 1952 when Alberto Ruz Lhuillier, a Mexican archaeologist, removed a stone slab from the floor of the temple and revealed a stairway filled with rubble. Two years later, when the rubble was cleared, it was discovered that it led to Pakal’s tomb.

Temple of Doom? Pathway to the tomb…

The Palace

Lloyd came with me to Palenque. It’s his kind of place.

This is another temple that hasn’t been excavated yet. You can see how much work it is to dig out and reconstruct this stuff. They say only about five percent of the ruins at Palenque have been excavated at this point.

 

Gratuitous selfie, again.

 

I wonder what language the serious inhabitants speak.

I didn’t see any howler monkeys while at the archaeological site, but I heard them.

On the way from Palenque to Tenosique, I crossed this bridge. All of the bridges in Mexico, no matter how small, have names.

I wonder if the guy who named this bridge was poking fun at the civil engineers or the construction crew that built the road. The bridge kind of sags in the middle. The name of the bridge: The Hammock Bridge.

On into Tenosique for my last night in Mexico.

 

I know you’re jealous….

 

As usual, I’m just a few days too late for the big Cheese Festival in town. Looks like a good one.

 

By the way, as a side note, I spent some time last night interpreting the note that was handed to me at the road block demonstration yesterday on the way from San Cristobal de las Casas to Palenque. It seems that the protesters are upset about the elections that were held in June, and feel that a corrupt government exists in their area now and are calling for changes. I can understand that. I’d start by taking away the fireworks from the guy at the church in San Cristobal. There’d be a lot fewer angry people if they could just get some sleep.

On The Way to Palenque, and My New Favorite Place in Mexico

August 18, 2015

The bombs started again at 7:30 this morning, so I figured I might as well get packed and get moving.

New headlight bulb, checked spokes and other things for looseness, air pressures, adjustments. All good.

After a little bike maintenance, I walk over to the kitchen to get some breakfast, then finish packing up. As I roll the bike towards the gate from the hostel into the street, I suddenly hear english. After three days, suddenly there were people here that spoke english, and they were speaking to me. Two guys from the states. Two ladies from Cork, Ireland on a two week vacation. As I put on my jacket and helmet, I ask them where they are headed.

“Well, Palenque we hope. We were supposed to go on a tour today but can’t go to Palenque today. The town is shut down. There’s a big strike. Nothing is going in or out.”

“Of Palenque?” I ask.

“No, Here.”

“Hmm. Well, I’m on a bike. I’ll see about that.”

I roll out into the street. It is eerily quiet outside the hostal gates. No cars move. All intersections are blocked by taxis and colectivo vans. I spend the next hour going the wrong way down one way streets, over curbs, down sidewalks, and squeezing between parked taxis. They’re aren’t trying to stop me. They have no beef with me. I’m just a casualty. But they aren’t going to move for me either. Can’t set that precedent.

Main Street of San Cristobal. Nothing moving this morning except a few motorcycles.

Colectivos block the streets in protest. They didn’t mind me riding down the sidewalk to get around them. I wasn’t their problem.

At the edge of town where the highway enters into town is the largest roadblock. I try to squeeze between two vans but I’m too wide. As I look for another way around the driver of one of the vans tells me to go through where I just tried.
“No puedo. Estoy mas grande” I say. I can’t, I’m too big.
“Puedes” he says. You can.
I wedge myself in. He waves me forward. Hey, it’s your van, amigo. A little less paint but I’m through.

Ya gotta do what ya gotta do. The van got the worst of it.

The highway out of town looks clear. I sail along for 9 km. Then as I cross a bridge, a guy on a motorcycle coming the other way waves at me. He is telling me to turn around. I look ahead and the intersecrion is blocked with hundreds of people, some with large banners. The guy on the bike tells me not to go there.

So….I go there.
Time to put on my happy face. Flip up the front of my helmet and smile big.
As I roll slowly towards the crowd, two guys run out from the side and block my path. Suddenly I’m surrounded by about 30 guys with large sticks.
“Buenos dias” I say with a smile.
No response. No smiles. These guys are not happy.
“Puedo voy alli?” I ask, pointing to the hill on the opposite side of the intersection. Can I go there?
“Cincuento” comes the response.
I weigh my options, which are few. I can take off across the grass and hope for the best, but there are a few hundred angry guys with sticks between me and there.
On the other hand, these guys are the first wave of many. Who’s to say that once I pay these guys fifty pesos the next guys in line won’t ask for the same?
“Yo voy alli por cincuenta pesos?” I ask, pointing again.
“Si”
I dig out the change from my pocket. I have 45 pesos. I’m not about to pull out my wallet here, even though there isn’t much in it. I hand the 45 pesos to the guy with the bucket with the slot cut in the top. He doesn’t count it. Another guy hands me a piece of paper that explains their cause and will act as my pass through the crowd. They move on to a car that has pulled up next to me.

The paper works and I get through with no hassle. As I continue up the highway towards Palenque, I see more cars headed in the opposite direction, which I take as a good sign that perhaps the road is clear ahead.

I’m riding the “Ruta Maya”, or Mayan Route. Though I’m pretty sure it wasn’t this well paved back then.

Not far out of Ocosingo, I hit a “toll” road block. This is perhaps my fourth since entering Mexico. These are people standing on the side of the road with a rope stretched across the road. The rope has a red flag on it. When a car (or motorcycle) approaches, they pull the rope tight. In theory at least, people stop, and they ask for a payment to let them through. I’ve rarely seen this work. A few days ago I came to one of these that was steel cable instead of rope. That was a bit scary. But so far they’ve always just let the rope down and let me through. Again, I’m just the hapless turista. They’re not really looking for me.

This one is four young kids, and for the first time, they hold the rope tight and won’t let me through. One of the kids wants 10 pesos. I shake my head. He repeats his demand. I repeatedly shake my head. I push on the rope with my front wheel and the kids are pulled forward slightly but resist. Eventually one of the other kids tells them to give up and they let the rope down. And I’m off like a herd of turtles on my little 250 towards Agua Azul.

Agua Azul is beautiful. Fantastic. The most beautiful place I’ve been in Mexico so far. No doubt about it.

Kids approach as I park, offering to watch my bike for 10 pesos. They gather around. But as soon as the bike cover goes on they walk away. It’s almost a confirmation that no one will bother it if it’s covered. I like that.

The water is a blue color that is hard to describe and the photos don’t really show it well. I felt like I could just sit and soak here for days. Peaceful, soothing, refreshing. Oh, and did I mention you can swim here? See all the people? Ha. Yeah, thank you to all the striking taxi and colectivo drivers in San Cristobal that prevented the tour buses from getting here. Next time I plan to come here I will definitely do my best to arrange another strike that day.

I spend some time eating lunch and chatting with the restaurant owner at Agua Azul (in Spanish, no less. I’m enjoying it now that I can struggle through more than two words, even if it is still very rough and they don’t understand me any more than I understand them most of the time). He says that the strike is bad for his business, but that there are no problems in Palenque and I should be fine the rest of the way.

My next stop is Misol-Ha. The name sounds Chinese to me, but it’s a large (100+ foot) waterfall into a pool below. I walk to the falls, look at it, and think, “Huh, this is a slightly larger Hamilton Pool” in Dripping Springs, Texas. Reminds me very much of it.

Misol-Ha Waterfall

There are a number of European tourists here, again. It’s an easy day trip from the Palenque ruins, where I’m headed tomorrow.

So tonight I’m enjoying a very nice, clean, if spartan, air conditioned room with great wifi for $21. And it came with a special pillow:

Looking forward to a good night’s sleep, hopefully with no firework bombs.