Escape from Central America – Part I

It is interesting to look back at the decisions one makes to see the chain reaction of cause & effect.

We had just spent 2 weeks in the authentic Guatemalan city of Xela enjoying coffee shops, language school and ‘city living’.  So, we decided to change our original plan of visiting the colonial town of Antigua for the volcano-ringed lake, Lago de Atitlan in hopes of hiking, and paddling for a few days.

The ride to Lago Atitlan was rainy, but short and easy.  We had chosen a route that would take us to village of San Pedro on the west side of the lake, but we missed the unmarked turn off.  We stopped the bikes to consult our map when 2 bikers on Triumphs rode past and pulled of the highway 50m ahead of us.  We rode up to them and found Roger – a Kiwi travelling on his own from Guatemala to Argentina with the Triumph sales manager.  They were on a short trip together to put some kilometres on Roger’s new bike.  They confirmed for us that we did miss the turn off, but that we were approaching another turn off to Panajachel another town located on the opposite side of the lake from San Pedro.  Because it was now pouring, they felt it would be better for us to approach the lake from this 2nd turn-off.  We decided to take their advice.

Map of Lago de Atitlan

Arriving in Panajachel was initially exciting and we enjoyed the views of one of the most beautiful lakes in the world from 1,000 meters above the lake.  But disappointment set in once we reached the town itself.  In our opinion, it is not much more than a tourist trap / neo-hippie hangout with expensive food – but we cannot argue about the location!  And, we were only there for night so we made the best of it.  Somehow we happened upon Circus Bar, which served decent Italian and live music.  We are not sure who that band was, exactly, but they were fan-tas-tic!  The quality might be low (iPod movie), but here is a sample:

On our way home, we stopped by the police office to ask about a route around the lake to San Pedro we decided to take the following day, as we had heard that there had been some trouble there in the past.  With map in hand, we described our route and asked if it would be safe.  The Police officer assured us that it was perfectly safe and gave us the all clear for our weekend plans – leave Pana and enjoy San Pedro for a few days.

Sunny day at Lago de Atitlan

Once we hit the road, we were so glad we did!  The ride was roller-coaster like up and down and around the volcanoes as we circumnavigated the lake to the south.  The best part was that the sun was shining and the rain had stopped.  A perfect Sunday ride.  We passed through numerous villages along the way, with the last being Santiago.

Shortly after, our paved road turned gravel and then we were really having fun!  We took turns riding past one another taking film and photos of some nice off-road riding that you will never see.  5 minutes later the road turned really bad but one of us was still having a great time off road riding…the other was a little stressed, but doing just fine (I’ll leave to you to figure who’s who).  Jordan had to stop to when he lost traction trying to get over an especially large rut, so I stopped behind him.  He just managed to cross the rut when, I saw two masked men hop out of the bush wielding machetes and pistols (one possibly real and one made of wood).  All I could say to Jordan through my mic was “Robbers.  Robbers are coming.”

The fellow with the ‘wooden gun’ and machete approached me. I kept saying to my bandito ‘una momento’ as I moved my bike to an area where it would be stable. I could tell he was worried I would drive off but he gave me the space to park before going through my tank bag and taking my purse, my glasses and few other things then using his machete with precision to cut the straps holding my duffle bag to my bike.  I protested about my glasses and the bag, which contained everything I needed for a year.

Unlike gentlemanly highwayman of days gone by, Jordan’s bandito did not allow him to dismount, he simply ran up to him and pushed him and his bike over (since Jord was pushed over he did not officially fall…and is insisting that he is still at zero falls this trip).  Jordan’s bandito emptied the pockets of his jacket and took his iPod Touch and bank and credit cards, but Jord grabbed them back and told him he could keep the cash and the camera, but not those items.  Surprisingly, bandito #1 obliged.

Jordan had sensed they were nervous.  I recall seeing them constantly looking over their shoulders.  So at Jordan’s advice, we started honking our horns.  The two banditos started backing away quickly.  And, though we DO NOT recommend it (it just seemed right in our particular situation), Jordan ran after them while I stayed on the horn.  In the chase, the banditos dropped my glasses, a sweater of mine, and one of their machetes, which we picked up and kept with us.  We comforted in the fact that he would have to use some of his new-found money to buy a new machete, if he wanted to continue working the fields.

The machete

I put my bag back on the bike, jimmy-rigged my strapping system to get us out, and helped Jordan pick his bike up.  We were still shaken and anxious to get out of there… and I couldn’t think let alone concentrate properly on the rough road.  I dropped my bike immediately.  We picked it up and continued to ride on.  Less than 500m later, we saw a police truck (they patrol this section of the rode, we’ve since found out).  We told them our story and they accompanied us back to a safe, paved area near San Pedro but not before I dropped my bike a second time – this time my pannier landed on my leg and my helmet landed on my right mirror.  Disappointed in myself and with a few more knocks on my poor bike, I shook my head and said to myself – ‘enough’.  It helped me focus and we made our way out without additional incident.  The only cars we saw on this stretch of road were the 2 police trucks.

Jordan's bike

Our escort vehicle afterwards

We made it to San Pedro and found the gorgeous Sak’Cari hotel (recommended by a fellow traveller a few days earlier & highly recommended by the two of us), checked in and enjoyed a stiff shot of local liquor offered up by the owners, put ice on my now-swollen leg and waited for the police in order to give a statement.

The grounds at hotel Sak'Cari

We thought hard about whether we should add this story to our blog.  We feel extreme poverty makes people do things they would never do otherwise.  And, Guatemala ranks 3rd by the UN for poverty levels.  We never felt personally threatened and we could tell these two banditos were plantation workers capitalizing on an opportunity – they were not displaced military or professional thugs.  Further, 2 riders we’ve met since road that same road a week before us without incident. But, as bad as we felt afterward, most of our disappointment & anger was with the police in Pana.  We felt we did the right thing and requested advice from the authorities before making a decision.  We felt that the Pana police were lazy, at worst or completely uninformed, at best… we later found out that the police offer a free escort through that section of road for all tourists, but they never mentioned it you us.  I made the decision to register our travel with the Canadian government at that point and I expressed my concern with the local police to our very helpful embassy official for Guatemala.  She acknowledged the situation and recorded it – for posterity if nothing else.  In each country, we will now be assigned an embassy official who would know where we are and provide advice, if needed.

Our original plan was to stay only one day and leave for Guatemala City.  But since we had such a rough day and the bike drops caused damage to our panniers (Jord had one which was no longer water proof and mine was pushed in a way interfering with the opening of my gas tank), we decided to stay a second day while we had a local guy hammer the panniers out.  It rained hard all day so we also spent it in our room with books and ice and pillows (for my leg).

With our panniers back late in the day, our plan was to leave in the morning.  It continued to rain hard all day, then all night, and in the morning, it was still raining hard.  As we packed up the bikes, Matt (very helpful hotel manager) mentioned he thought the road was closed.  Nothing could be confirmed however, because there was no power, whatsoever, in San Pedro or the town next to it.  We hopped on our bikes with the intention of checking it out, if not riding past it.

Water pooled in the streets of San Pedro, then in the large potholes on the road out.  At one point, a river was raging across the road from our left and down the mountain side to our right.

over flowing river

A nice man recommended a bridged route close by.  We made it past the flooded road and were making our way along the mountain road.  Plenty of oncoming cars flashed their lights at us and indicated we should not continue.  A tuk tuk driver finally said there was no way we could get through.  Safety first… we turned around and rode the 10km back to San Pedro.  A while later, the power came back and we checked our email.  There was a message from the Canadian embassy, advising us of the Red Alert in our area.. that Tropical Depression E12 was responsible for 50mm rain each day for the next few days and for many landslides – 2 or 3 which were blocking our way the main highway, CA-1.  We were advised to stay put – trapped in San Pedro.

There are worse places to be trapped (we truly loved San Pedro!), but our time budget was running out!  In just 12 days we had to make our way through all of Central America and on to the pre-paid boat to Colombia, as there are no roads between South and Central Americas.  There was nothing we could do.  The next day provided no relief either.  Grrrr!

I was addicted to CONRED – Guatemala’s emergency online communication system, and all the radar weather websites I could find as I watched the onslaught of storms to the region (E12, Erwin, and Hurricane Jova).  Many people had already died in Guatemala and the country was in an official State of Emergency.  Water levels in Lago Atitlan have been rising for the past couple of years, but this added rain flooded all the docks around the lake making it impossible to cross the lake by boat, 2 businesses in the town of San Pedro were destroyed by the flooding in one afternoon, along with numerous homes along the lake.

All of the yellow & green spots are landslides. Yellow bridges have structural damage. Red bridges are gone. We had to take the red road and travel east

Lago de Atitlan flooding

The 4th night saw lighter rain and we were hopeful, but got a no-go from the Embassy and locals – our road out had still not been cleared.  But this was it – we had to leave.  We heard that there would be a route from the east side of the lake, near Pana that provided three options… but how to get there?  We would have to ride through that 4km of dirt road back towards Pana – but we knew it would be impossible due to the landslides and mud that would now be knee-high mud.  Could we put our bikes in a boat?  No – the docks were under water.  Could we hire two 4×4 pick up trucks to ride through the mud and take us to the paved road near Santiago? Yes!

Can we load the bikes into the pick-ups?

A few hours and Q400 later, we were on our way.

The corn fields were flattened by the wind and the road was unbelievably bad, some of the locals had been working for the past few days to make it passable for 4x4s so they could deliver emergency supplies.  We would not have made it on our own, it was just too muddy, too rocky and too steep.

We were dropped off in Santiago and hopped on the bikes.  The weather had improved a bit and the ride was actually pleasant.  It felt nice to be moving.  Our two options to CA-1 was reduced to one when we heard that a river had overtaken one route.  So, up we went.  Quickly, we were in deep fog… riding around, over and through dozens of landslides – actually having to leave the paved road over mud and rocks.  Labour is cheaper than machinery in Guatemala so it is not unusual to see men & women & children hauling heavy loads of wood up a mountainside or harvesting large fields with their bare hands but today we actually saw families – some with little boys no older than 8 – clearing their own rural roads to create escape routes  with nothing more than a garden hoe.  There were a few other vehicles on the road so we weren’t alone, but it was slow.  It is surprising to turn a corner in blinding fog and be faced with a giant bolder.  We made our way, though – and amazingly, it didn’t rain once during this hard part

We made it CA-1 and enjoyed more freedom, feeling we had made it.  Again, we passed numerous landslides, but all had been cleaned up.  The Guate’s had obviously worked hard night and day to ensure safe and clear passage on the main route – we made a point to toot our horn and wave a ‘thank you’ to each of them as we rode past.

more landslides

We made it to Guatemala City with time to spare.  Since we had NOTHING to eat all day, we stopped for a bite and to seek advice on how to find host, Julio in a city of 4million.  We were helped out by a nice man with good information and found Julio’s place with just one U-turn (a record, I think!).

We enjoyed the great company of Julio and his family.  Remember Roger – the Kiwi we met roadside near Panajachel?  He also knew Julio and was staying at his place for a few days.  We were treated to a couple of great dinners and some very entertaining travel stories, and lots of laughs! (Did you know Kiwis call gravel roads ‘metal roads’?

Happy to be freed and hopeful for the rest of our trip through Central America, we stayed in “Guate” another day.  We found an incredibly upscale mall (strange after seeing all of the poverty) and bought an inexpensive camera to replace the one that was stollen.  Jordan also finally had his tires changed in the middle of the street for less than $7.50.  After 22,000km they were essentially bald, and to our our surprise the rear tire also had a big nail in it, which somehow did not puncture the inner tube.  Luckily he noticed that they had put the tires on backwards before riding away, so the guys had to mount the tires all over again…

At the tire shop in Guatemala City

Tomorrow, we will leave Guatemala and make our way to El Salvador – which has also just declared a State of Emergency.


4 thoughts on “Escape from Central America – Part I

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