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.


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.


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.

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.

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.


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??”




Volcan de Pacaya

September 6, 2015

My last weekend in Antigua. It’s been raining every afternoon, but the mornings have been gorgeous, with temperatures in the 60s and low 70s. On Saturday I walked to the mercado again and bought some fruit: two limes, an onion, two avocados, and six rambutans. Grand total: Fifty two cents.

I think I mentioned rambutans before, but if not, they look like big, hairy strawberries:


BUT…they are not hairy strawberries. Not even close. You don’t just bite down on one of these. First you have to slice it open and peel the rind off of the fruit inside.

Sliced open with the white fruit inside showing.

NOW you can pop the white fruit out and pop it in your mouth.

Looks kind of like a giant white grape.

BUT be careful, because there’s a pit inside the fruit. Its all worth it, though. A rambutan tastes and feels (the texture of the fruit itself) a lot like a green table grape, although it’s much larger and thicker than that.

After a little bike maintenance Saturday afternoon, dinner was a great Sopa (soup) place. Because it was election weekend (the Presidential elections were Sunday), alcohol was not allowed to be sold after noon on Saturday. But, as with many things in Guatemala, rules are made to be broken, and the waitress delivered the Brahva beer with a napkin wrapped around the mug to “disguise” it. The Italian meatball soup was fantastic. Probably will have to go back there before leaving Antigua.

Sunday morning came early, as the tour bus left at 6am, with the driver, our guide and three of us aboard. This time of year it’s important to take the early morning tour rather than the afternoon tour, since it rains every afternoon.

It took about an hour and a half to get to the beginning of the trail to Volcan de Pacaya. Along the way, we were stopped by a blockade that was making sure that nobody in a van or bus was transporting masses of people to vote. Apparently this is a no-no. Wouldn’t want to make it easier for all of the poor people without transportation to actually vote. But enough politics for now…more of that later.

The trek up the volcano is fairly short and not too steep for the most part. The entire loop is a little over four miles, with only a slight elevation gain from around 6,000 feet to around 7,500 feet.

Volcan de Pacaya. You can clearly see where the cone collapsed during the 2010 eruption and lava poured down this side.


Yes, that is steam coming from the volcano. Pacaya is still active, with the most recent eruption in 2014.


There are small vents along the trail where you can roast marshmallows. Couldn’t pass that up.


Panoramic view of Pacaya. This is actually the third vent or cone for this volcano; it has erupted in different places over the years. This one is actually named MacKenney, for one of the geologists who has been studying the volcano for a long time.


Another multicultural group photo. L-R: Our Guatemalteco tour guide David, me, Judith from Switzerland and Katrina from New Zealand. Why am I always the old guy??


Being the “old guy” has its’ advantages. No one expects the old guy to be first up the mountain. Everyone cuts the old guy a little extra slack. They all think the old guy might have trouble doing this stuff. I’m still too competitive to give in that easy, and typically I’m eager to prove them wrong. At Semuc Champey, I was the first to jump off the rope swing into the river, after everyone else declined. Was that smart? Of course not, but occasionally you have to prove that just because you’re the old guy doesn’t mean you can’t do things. Maybe the wrong tactic when climbing a steep trail at 7,000 feet. On the way up the volcano, our other tour guide Manuel asked me a couple of times how I was doing. “Como estas?” “Bien” (wheeze, gasp). A little later: “Como estas?” “No hay problema. Es pan comido.” (No problem. It’s a piece of cake.) (Gasp, wheeze.) I was glad this was a short hike with a long downhill. I’ve definitely had more exercise on this trip than I’ve had in the last couple of years.


Unfortunately this photo didn’t turn out well. Behind the big tree in the center, you could see all the way to the Pacific Ocean, about 20-25 miles away.

Volcano day for me was also Election Day for Guatemaltecos. In Guatemala, if no one presidential candidate receives 50% or more of the vote, then the two candidates with the most votes move to a run-off election in late October. With twelve candidates on Sunday’s ballot, it was clear that there would be a run-off. It appears that the October election will be between Jimmy Morales, a comedian (yes, that’s right) with no prior political experience and who has the highest vote count at 24%, and either Manuel Baldizon or former first lady Sandra Torres, who as of now, with 97% of the votes counted, are within 1,000 votes of each other.

My current plan is to leave Wednesday for El Salvador. Unless I suddenly change my mind and stay for more Spanish lessons. Or head for Lake Atitlan. Or, who knows.



Final Thoughts on Antigua

September 10, 2015

Before leaving Guatemala, I wanted to add a few historic tidbits about Antigua that I found interesting. 

Antigua was the third capitol of Guatemala. The previous capitol was just south of Antigua in Ciudad Viejo. When a huge mudslide buried the city in the mid 1700s the capitol was moved to Antigua, which was then called Santiago de los Caballeros. 

Several large earthquakes struck Antigua between 1753 and 1773, and the last one did major damage to Antigua and the capitol was moved to Guatemala City, which continues to be the capitol of Guatemala today. Some time after Guatemala City was established as the new capitol, Santiago de los Caballeros began to be called the “Old Guatemala” or Antigua Guatemala. 

When the King of Spain proclaimed that the capitol would move to a new Guatemala City, he also insisted in 1776 that all of the residents of Antigua relocate. Many of these people had spent their entire lives in Antigua and refused to move. Some of them hid in the valley and river areas outside of Antigua when the troops came to force everyone to move. The Spaniards employed an embargo against food into Antigua in an attempt to force people to move. Those hiding in the country were left with nothing to eat except the native plants, After a while, the plant diet began to turn their skin green. The people became known as “Green Belly”, a term which is still used in Antigua today.

After the embargo failed to remove many people from Antigua, the Spaniards tried another tactic. Since there are more than thirty churches and monasteries in Antigua, the Spaniards began removing many of the images and other religious items from inside the churches and moved them to Guatemala City (where they remain today). But the people continued to go to the churches and worshipped outside, where there were many large stone statues on the facades that were too large to be moved. When the Spaniards realized this, they cut off the hands and heads of the statues. This is what I saw when I photographed these churches. I mistakenly assumed that this was the result of earthquake damage, but these statues have been headless and handless since the mid 1770s due to Spanish rule, not due to natural disasters.

Adding Another Country: El Salvador

September 10, 2015

After completing my two weeks of Spanish school, and feeling fully fluent in garbled two-word sentences, it was time to head south again. My instructor for the past two weeks, Alvaro Morales, is another example of the people I keep meeting on this trip. Alvaro is nearly my age. He has four children, three of which have a genetic problem which has left them in a condition similar to MS. They require wheelchairs and constant assistance. The youngest son helps Alvaro and his wife care for the older two sons and daughter. Alvaro also is in need of gall bladder surgery, which because of Guatemala’s health care system, has been met with multiple delays, and there is no insurance to cover any of this, nor are there schools in Guatemala for children with special needs. Yet Alvaro showed up every day at school with an incredibly positive attitude, never complained about his situation while explaining it to me, and never seemed to be sad or down or in any way upset about the cards he has been dealt. He often would end the discussion simply by saying “es la vida” (that’s life).

My teacher at La Union Spanish School, and an all-around great guy, Alvaro Morales.

Loading the bike and saying goodbye to my new friends at La Union Spanish School, I joined up with Judith, who I had met while hiking the Pacaya Volcano. Judith is from Switzerland, and is riding a Suzuki DR-Z 400 (which she shipped from Switzerland to Anchorage) solo from Alaska to South America. It turns out we are on a similar path through Central America so we decided to ride together for part of the way at least. This makes the border crossings much easier and more secure, as one person can watch the bikes while the other goes inside to do the paperwork.

Out of Antigua, we headed to Escuintla, then turned southeast toward the border of El Salvador. I was not prepared for what awaited there….several miles of parked 18-wheelers, many of which had the drivers sleeping in a hammock under the trailer. This was the line for the border crossing. Fortunately we were on motorcycles, and didn’t have to wait in that line. Another bike with El Salvador plates and two guys on it passed us, and the passenger motioned for us to follow them. Like Mister Toad’s Wild Ride, we spent a good twenty minutes threading between oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the road, sometimes moving all the way to the opposite shoulder or off the opposite side of the road to pass traffic. Eventually we arrived at the border, and we immediately were approached by another guy on a small dirt bike who offered to help guide us through the border crossing logistics — for a price, of course. The fee seemed reasonable to avoid the added time involved in tracking down each of the proper windows and in the correct order.

After breezing through the Guatemalan side fairly quickly, we headed to the El Salvador side, which took considerably longer. At one point I asked our helper where he had lived in the United States, since it was apparent he must have spent time there based on the quality of his english.

“California”, he replied.

“Where?” I asked.


“I lived in Corona”, I mentioned.

He said that he worked in the orange groves in Riverside. I mentioned that at one time I had owned a small grove in Riverside. It turns out he worked for the guy that managed my grove, and probably even worked in my grove at one point. Unfortunately the real estate debacle of 2007-2008 caught up with him, and he lost his house and ended up returning to El Salvador, although he said he had a lot of good memories of California.

It took a bit over two hours to get through the border process, but I felt fortunate even at that considering that I heard the truck drivers were expected to wait at least five hours at the border.

Not the most welcoming sight, but it got better further into the country.

I noticed three things right away in El Salvador. The first is that the official currency is the U.S. dollar, which makes things easy. The second is that gas is sold by the gallon (it was in Guatemala also, actually), so the gas prices in U.S. dollars per gallon look familiar, although cheaper than in the U.S.; a gallon of gas here is around $2.80. Diesel is $2.40. The third thing is that, finally and thankfully, the topes or speed bumps are gone. It was so nice to ride for miles and miles and not have to suddenly slow for a random speed bump in the highway.

No speed bumps, but these will slow you down. Notice the woman on the other side with the red flag acting as Crossing Guard for the cows.

The ride from the border down to El Tunco is worth the trip. About thirty miles before El Tunco, the road emerges onto the Pacific Coast and the views are incredible. Both the road and the views reminded me of the Pacific Coast Highway up around Big Sur in California, but without all of the traffic and RVs. Okay, there was one or two chicken buses, but literally only one or two, and they were actually headed in the opposite direction. There were also about four tunnels, which were a bit frightening, as you suddenly plunge into total darkness and it is very hard to determine where the center line of the road is. And if there happened to be a pothole in the tunnel, you would never see it until it was too late. Luckily, the road was in great shape and the twists and turns along with the ocean views made for one of the best rides of the trip so far.

“Reduce Speed: Surfers in the road”. First time I’ve seen the word “surfistas”, and on a proper highway sign no less.

El Tunco is a major surf location. The surfer-tourist part is a very small area, similar to Zipolite in Mexico, with only a couple of streets, but loaded with hostels, surf shops, and surfers. The crowd here seems to be international, but shares the same surfer style, and the day-to-day activities revolve around surfing during the day and partying at night. The beach itself is nothing great; in fact, it’s mostly just rocks, but it’s not the beach people come here for. It’s the surf.


Tomorrow will require a trip into San Salvador to visit the local Yamaha dealer to buy a couple of spares, and perhaps shop for tires. I’m hoping I can make it further before buying tires, but if I find the right set at the right price, I may just pick them up here. Then it’s back down the coast for another night in El Salvador to set up for two border crossings in one day.


A Day Makes a Big Difference in Beaches

September 11, 2015

After some light bike maintenance and a lot of sweating (the sun here is strong and it’s fairly humid as well, and the bikes were not in the shade), we headed out late toward San Salvador. I hadn’t planned to go through the largest city in El Salvador, but I was able to locate a spare air filter at a Yamaha dealer there, and it was only 50 kilometers or so out of the way. 

As usual, Garmin took me to the wrong location even with the actual street address entered. After about 30 minutes of running around in circles, we finally found the dealership — a beautiful gleaming store with a spotless service center behind a full glass wall where customers can watch their bikes being serviced. Ten minutes later we were back on the road out of San Salvador and headed south. For the first time I was on the PanAmerican Highway (CA-1), and glad I didn’t have to ride it the entire time, as it is just a highway, with plenty of traffic. 

The scenery was nothing spectacular, so I didn’t even bother to stop to take photos along the way. Although there was one moment in San Miguel when I wished I had the camera handy. After 6 weeks on the road and three countries, I had become used to seeing jugglers in the crosswalks in larger cities. Usually either a guy in a clown costume, or a couple of young guys with a large assortment of bowling pins. Until today I had not seen a guy on a unicycle juggling three large machetes in a crosswalk. Now I have. 

We arrived at our destination — La Tortuga Verde in El Cuco — just before dark. The last two miles were down a dirt road parallel to the beach, with hostel after hostel, many of them either closed for the season or with very few guests. 

The beach here is completely different from El Tunco. Not a rock to be found. Miles of  beautiful sandy beach, with virtually no one on it.

Hammocks hang from the palm trees and from the covered porches everywhere. While the hammocks are the cheapest alternative for overnighting at La Tortuga Verde, I’m strongly considering taking my tent a little further down the beach and staying in it…the lack of expense for a night or two will quickly help to balance out the nights I’ve gone over my budget on a room. Regardless, this place is muy tranquilo.I could definitely stay here a few days or more.

It would be nice if they actually had wifi though…

This is very misleading….No Skype, No YouTube, No Google, No Internet, No Nada. You can connect to their router, but that’s as far as you’re going. So shut off the computer and go sit on the beach.

The food is good, though a bit more expensive than I would like (of course). Six bucks for a fajita dinner, two dollars for a beer. That’s still budget level, so I’m okay for now. The three dollar lunch yesterday at the roadside comedor was more my style, and was tasty and filling. 

Tomorrow is looking to be a long day, with two border crossings in one day, and both likely to be extended ordeals. Then again, if that’s the sign of a “bad day”, then life could be a lot worse…