Crossing the Darien Gap

Sooner or later the road runs out, and for North and Central America that happens in Panama at the start of the Darien Gap http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dari%C3%A9n_Gap.  This 200km stretch of jungle is all but impenetrable, with jungle, swamp, mountains, with everything from malaria infested mosquitos to paramilitary rebels and drug runners preventing most people from even entering it.  Not a fun place.  Although a few hard adventures have have made it through by floating their Land Rover over swamps on rafts made from dug out canoes or carrying their motorbikes through the jungle and hand winching them up and down mountain sides, for all intents and purposes it’s pretty much impossible.  The first all-land crossing in a vehicle took place over 1985 – 86 and took more than 700 days to cover 125 miles.  The vast majority of overland travellers are a bit more sensible and ship their vehicles either by sea or by air.

After being trapped in Central America by heavy rains, flooding, landslides, 1 robbery, 2 national states of emergency and mechanical problems, we were were ready for a change and were very excited for the next leg of the trip.  The quick and easy approach would be to take a plane and load our bikes as cargo, but sitting around airport hangars and shipping agents did not sound particularly exciting, so we looked around for other options and settled on a German registered, Dutch built sailboat launched in 1903.  The Stahlratte http://www.stahlratte.org/ has been transporting backpackers, and more importantly, motorcycle travellers across the Darien Gap for years.  With a crew of 3, it can hold up to 22 passengers and up to 19 motorcycles if the need arises,  and after a bit of research we booked our passage.

Der Stahlratte

Once we actually made it to the dock (see our previous entry, Escape from Central America Part II) it was quite a team effort to get the bikes on deck, first we covered them with WD40 to protect against the sea salt, then some of us stayed  on the pier and prepared the bikes to be winched aboard, while the others received the bikes and arranged them on deck.  Before too long we were all aboard and Captain Ludwig set out to sea, and after a short while we anchored amid a small group of islands inhabited by the Kuna.

These bikes have to get to that boat

Sandra's bike being loaded onto the Stahlratte

... and Jordan's Dakar

We settled into our comfortable double bed berth and got organized before a lavish lunch (the first of many) and a quick swim in the crystal clear waters of the San Blas Islands.  We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring some of the Kuna Islands and that evening we went ashore again, and had a great diner complete with Kuna entertainment.  Riding back to the Stahlratte in the dark, we were amazed by the trail of blue/purple phosphorescences trailing the small zodiac.  Back on board the festivities continued well into the early hours.

A Kuna home on an inhabited San Blas island

The next morning we were joined by a couple of non-motorcycling travellers and set sail again for some even more remote islands, finally stoping among a small group of small, uninhabited tropical islands with nothing but white sand and palm trees.  We spent the day swimming to and exploring the various islands, snorkelling, jumping off the boat, and enjoying cold beverages in the comfort of a hammock.  It was pretty much perfect.  That evening it actually got even better, as we hoped abroad the zodiac once again and headed to a desert island for a beach party bbq and bonfire.  It really felt like we were part of Team Zisou (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Life_Aquatic_with_Steve_Zissou).  It was a perfect evening, even though I left my flip-flops on the beach which were later washed away by the incoming tide…

view from the crow's nest of Der Stahlratte

zodiac boat to the island BBQ

Later that night tucked away in my berth I was awoken by a very loud metallic grinding noise, now I’m no expert on nautical matters, but I was pretty sure that was not the kind of sound you want to hear in the middle of the night on a 108 year old ship.  I got up to investigate and went out on deck to find the crew busy battening down the hatches in the pouring rain, apparently we’d been overtaken by a furious storm.  The sound I heard was the 2nd anchor being dropped to better secure the ship during the storm.  With everything under Captain Lugwig’s control I made my way back to bed, and when I awoke the storm was gone.  We spent the next day anchored amidst the islands and repeated the previous day’s heavy schedule of swimming, snorkelling, eating, drinking and relaxing, all of which were very nice.

enjoying the sun!

Jordan taking a jump

The octopus we were hoping to catch for dinner

An after dinner game. We were TRICKED and completely wet.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner on the Stahlratte were incredible, complete with fresh baked German bread, fresh fruit & seafood.  And the only work required by the travellers was to toke turns with kitchen duty.  In all we spent 4 nights and 5 relaxing days on the boat.

We hit the open sea between Panama and Colombia a couple of days later and were thankfully met with calm seas and gorgeous weather, at this time of year it is not uncommon to have rough weather making the passage somewhat unpleasant,  but not for us.  We stopped early in the afternoon and we went swimming perfectly clear water that was 1100 meters deep, the water was warm and a really intense shade of azure, simply amazing.  Later that afternoon we were buzzed several times by some drug enforcement agency’s recognizance plane with a huge disc-shaped radar array on the rear fuselage.  Later we passed a fully loaded container ship in the middle of the night, it took ages for us to over take it, but it was very cool, lit up it looked like a spaceship or something hanging in the darkness.  Sandra and I slept on deck that night in a hammock, we had clear skies and saw shooting stars, it really could not get any better.

clear blue water 1100m deep

proof Jordan climbed to the crow's nest

We reached Colombia at around 5am on the 5th day, everyone was up on deck to catch the first glimpses of South America and Cartagena.  We had a few hours to kill while we waited for the customs paperwork to be completed, so we had one final huge breakfast before packing up and preparing the bikes for unloading.  I went ashore with a couple of my fellow passengers to get some money and pick up a few items at the store, it was not until we were walking around Cartagena that I realized that we had not gone through customs and were in the country illegally…  Luckily nothing bad happened and we were back onboard the Stahlratte before anyone noticed.

Our first glimpse of South America

Once we got the call from the mainland that the paperwork was in progress, we started unloading the bikes.  We used the winch from the boat to lower the bikes one at a time into the small zodiac, then the rider would straddle the bike, resting their feet on the gunwales as he or she was motored to shore, where a few helpers would lift the bikes on to a small dock.  It took quite a while to unload all 14 bikes in this manner, but it was really fun and we got more than a few strange looks as we “rode our motos” across the harbour.

Jordan 'ridiing' his bike across the harbour

At this stage, since neither the rider, nor the bike had passed though customs, both were in the country illegally, and we were advised to not stop for anything and proceed directly to the port authority to begin the import and immigration processes.  This pretty straight forward for most of the riders, with the exception of Sandra, since her bike was not running.  After dropping my bike off aft the customs lookup, I ran back to the dock and caught a ride back to the Stahlratte, where I helped Sandra and the crew unload her bike.  We then pushed her bike though the streets of Cartagena to the Customs building, trying to avoid making eye contact with at least a dozen police officers as we passed a police station along the way…

Then the waiting began, and we kept waiting until late in the evening, when finally all the paperwork for the people and the bikes was completed at around 9pm.  We hopped on our bikes and headed into town to find a our hotel.  Well everyone except Sandra, her bike was still broken and we left it in the Customs lockup for safe keeping.  Since it was too late to buy the legally required insurance, we were extra careful not to draw attention to ourselves, however that is easier said than done when you’re riding in a group of foreign registered travel bikes.  We really stuck out as the the average motorbike in Latin America is about 125cc and really really small.

The next morning, Sandra and I took apart my bike apart and removed the Dakar’s fully functional intake manifold.  We then caught a cab to the Customs office at the Cartagena Port Authority, where we disassembled her bike in the parking lot under the watchful eye of the machine gun toting security guards, and got it running again with the my part.  It was good to have it running on it’s own power again, as we were sick and tired of pushing it around and lifting it in to the back of various pick up trucks in the tropical heat.

The final step to importing our bikes was to have it ensured for travel in Colombia.  Like most of our traveling friends, we only needed one month and the insurance companies prefer to sell policies in 3-month packages.  However, in an effort to save all possible funds for more travel (instead of more, un-needed insurance), one of us was able to negotiate a 30-day policy.  Once we were aware, we all followed suit.  After a great debate with that same insurance company as to whether they had 30-day policies (which included showing our friend’s receipt as proof that they did it already) we were able to buy the last 30-day policies ever sold in Colombia – or so we were led to believe.

That same day, the package from Ekke arrived at the hostel.  Sandra’s replacement throttle body was in Cartagena only 5 days after being sent from Canada.  We did yet another disassembly job in the courtyard of our hostel and crossed our fingers, hoping that it would be the last.  The bike started up and ran perfectly, thanks Ekke, you’re a life saver!

Crossing the Darien Gap was really one of the highlights of the trip thus far.   The Stahlratte and her crew were simply awesome and we’d highly recommend it.  We met a lot of really great travellers from all over the world, both with and without motorbikes (although there were a lot of really cool bikes on board…) and we will remember that part of the trip for the rest of our lives.

Hoisted sails for the open sea

Etched in our memories

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Escape from Central America Part II – In the Back of a Pick Up

Although Guatemala was plagued with landslides and extreme flooding along the coastal route to El Salvador, we were able to make our way continuing on CA-1.  It wasn’t long before we were descending to the border of El Salvador and since all but 2 crossings were closed due to flooding, we were met by line of trucks more than 5km long!  But, because we are on bikes, we simply weaved in and out of them to the front of the line.  This is where Jordan learned (the hard way) that his panniers are wider than his handlebars, he actually got stuck between 2 semi trucks and had to force his way back.  Clearly, the trucks had been there for a long time – many of the drivers  had hammocks rigged up between the front and back wheels and were napping under their trailers.

El Salvador Border

We had been warned against ‘helpers’- muchachos who insist you need their help (for a fee) to manuever through the red tape at the border.  You don’t need the “helpers”, and we never used them in Central America, but what you do need is  a lot of time and the right attitude.  Due to the terrible weather and road conditions, there were hardly any travellers on the road, which meant we were not assaulted by a wave of aggressive “helpers” jockeying for our business, as we drove up to the line separating Guatemala and El Salvador, only two fellows pointed us toward a building on the Guatemala side for our exit papers.  Of course, it was the wrong building, and these guys were just some more of those “helpers” that we did not need and did not hire.  Leaving Guatemala was easy enough, and the helpful border staff even managed to get the exit signature we needed just before that one and only official took her lunch break.  I’m sure it saved us over an hour of waiting.

Entering El Salvador was also extremely easy & efficient.. no helpers pounced on us, the official spoke perfect English and even though one is only allowed 48 hours in El Salvador before having to pay an entry fee, he granted us 60 days at no cost because “there might be problems leaving due to the flooding” (!!).  We even used a money changer for the first of many times in Central America and came out unscathed (we were prepared and knew what the exchange rate was).

It was raining relentlessly and a state of emergency had been called so we simply made tracks.  Driving through San Salvador (which we were warned against) made me sad to have to pass through the country so quickly.  Everyone waved at us, honked, and even hung out their car windows with shiny new iPhones to film us (where were we, again?)  But, like I said, we have a boat to catch.  We were out of the city as it approached 5pm and starting to get dark, we needed to  find a place to stay.  This proved more difficult than you’d imagine.  Then it really started to pour, probably the heaviest rain either of us had ever seen, so we pulled into a town, but guess what?  The town did not have a hotel.  A security guard directed us to the Gold Star Auto Hotel.

We are not fans of these no-tell motels.  It’s not because they are rented out by the hour, or because they have ‘special’ TV channels but because of their location.  They are usually out of the way, located on the side of the highway – away from people, towns or good local food.  But, since it was now officially dark, and we were completely soaked to the bone it fit the bill perfectly.  And you get your own private garage (secure parking for the bikes is a must)!

secret entry from parking garage

Rain, rain, rain – all night and all morning.  So, after putting our wet clothes back on, we zipped through the rest of El Salvador and made it to the Honduran border before noon and just as the rain was letting up.  This is where we bumped into Len, another rider from Canada (http://earthwindandtires.ca/)   He is on his own and had tried the coastal route before we met him leaving El Salvador so we went through the 3 hour border crossing to Honduras together.  Here’s a photo of his bike at one of the closed Guat-El Salvador borders we were advised against.

Len's first attempt to El Salvador. Bridge out

Yes, this is an official gov't building - Entering Honduras

The three of us shared accommodations and travelled together through Honduras & Nicaragua – still riding as fast as we could to get away from the rain and on to that boat to Colombia!   There were so many landslides and road works in our path but since we were on bikes we could weasel around the traffic, bob between all of trucks and even took to driving on sidewalks… whatever kept us moving.

Len safe from the pouring rain - Honduras

Leaving Honduras - grey skies

1 hour later – blue sky at the very cool looking Nicaragua border

It was a fun to travel with another rider for a while.  When we parked our three bikes in the lobby of a small hotel in Nicaragua, it looked like a very crowded BMW showroom, but only after Jordan took off his panniers – he could not fit through the door – his panniers make his bike pretty wide (see the comment about being stuck between two trucks…).

Len riding into the hotel

Sandra negotiating a landslide

The worst border, by far, was Costa Rica, which surprised us.  It’s practically the 51st state so we assumed it would be logical & easy.  It started with a crowd of 20 “helpers” literally running toward us as we approached the border, but we just blew past them.  The rest went like this:

1.  Pay for fumigation, its the first unmarked booth on your right as you approach.  You will probably pass it, then have to go back.  They will tell you to go to the Aduana (customs) once you are done.

2.  When you get to the Aduana, they will tell you to go back 500m to buy mandatory insurance, first.

3.  The insurance office will tell you to go back again 500m to the unmarked Migracion office in the restaurant across from the Aduana- so you can have your passport stamped.  Once stamped and copies have been made you can then come back 500m to get your insurance.

4.  After migration, copies and insurance… go back once more, 500m to the Aduana, where your vehicle will receive the permit for entry.

Fumigating the bikes - Costa Rica

All told, it took 3.5 hours.  Luckily, there were a few diversions, including an entire zoo that was also crossing the border.  It was amazing to be so close to tigers, we even got to pet them until one of them took a sudden dislike to Jordan and let him know in a big way.

Tigers at the Costa Rican border

Relief!  We were in Costa Rica – only this and Panama left!  Despite the roads, the weather and natural disaster, we were going to make our boat!

If the rain, and the landslides, and the detours were not enough of an obstacle, my bike developed some serious issues not long after entering Costa Rica.  My bike would not run smoothly at low RPMs and would eventually cough and grind to a stop.  We thought it was bad gas but the issues kept getting worse despite fuel additives and running the tank dry for fresh gas.  It got to the point where it became more or less unridable, especially in traffic.  The only fix was to constantly be on the throttle – even when stopped.  We hobbled our way into San Isidorio but not before one last major landslide.  The road was closed to road works, but after some discussion with a helpful police officer they let us though providing we used the police motorcycle escort.  There was just enough room to travel in single file, on what road was left, past the truck towing the car that succumbed to the landslide.  (no one was hurt)

Road collapse near San Jose, Costa Rica

Newspaper photo of the same landslide

We sensed we were slowing Len down.. we travel pretty slowly in general, but my bike problems were really impacting our time.  We let him know we would understand if he moved on, but he offered to ride with us for another day or two.

Finally, about 40km from the Costa Rica – Panama border my bike just stopped.

We took it apart on the side of the road and found that the issue was my throttle body manifold… it had a huge tear in it.  The air-to-fuel ratio was too high and the bike would not run unless on full throttle or at all, at this point.  A pick up truck happened to pass and we asked if he would take us to the border.  We lifted my bike into the back of his truck (there was no ramp), and on we went.

Ride to the Panama border

FIX #1: At the border, still on the Costa Rican side, Jordan took the bike apart and wrapped loads of duct tape around the manifold to close the hole.  It worked!  For 15 kms.  At least we crossed the border.  It looked like the tape had lost grip from the heat and the new seal was breached.  We turned in to the first roadside hotel we found.  Len kept on, riding to David, our planned stop for the night – I don’t think he could take our slow pace anymore, and who could blame him.

FIX #2 – into the night: we put an old credit card on the outside of the hole to provide some structure and wrapped it up tightly with ‘rescue tape’.  It looked solid!  In the morning we rode just 50kms before it all went to hell again just outside a large farm.  When we looked at it, it seemed that the rescue tape succumbed to heat as well.

FIX #3 – roadside: we applied more rescue tape, but added a ‘heat shield’ (tinfoil from our kitchen supplies).  I was not confident that I would make Panama City (still 500km away) on the fix, and since we were conveniently outside a farm house, we arranged another pick up truck with the help of the farm owner.  After a very confusing conversation, we understood we were going to the town of David where a trucking company would take the bike to Panama City.

The repair we thought would work

It was now October 21.  We had to be in Panama City in 2 days and my bike was not running.  The trucking company said they would take my bike on a semi truck to Panama for $100.  But, it would be overnight.  Having no other options, we trusted them with my bike and our two bags of everything we needed for a year.  We then hopped on Jordan’s bike and made our way towards Panama City two up – ending the day in Santiago, Panama.  Long day!

We were up early, anxious to get my bike and into Panama.  We rode over the Panama Canal but couldn’t stop to admire it … we still had to find the trucking company in an urban wasteland full of construction without an address (apparently, they don’t exist in this area of Panama City).  We were close, but couldn’t do it without help, so we hired a taxi to lead us there.

The owner of the company greeted us with a couple of ice cold cokes and we spent about an hour visiting with him and his friends before retrieving the bike.  We found the bike exactly as we left it, strapped down inside an empty semi trailer.  Instead of lifting the bike out by hand (that’s how we got it in… heavy!) they slid a wood palate under it and Jordan sat on the bike while they lifted it out and lowered it with a forklift, now that’s more like it.  The bike started up on the first try and it seemed like our last repair would last forever.  Unfortunately in this case forever lasted about 15 minutes and the bike came to a rest in the parking lot of the Panamanian equivalent of Canadian Tire, which was actually kind of convenient as we needed to buy more supplies to repair the bike.  We did a bit of shopping and then got to work on stripping down the bike for the next roadside bodge job,  sadly it was not to be, as the manifold had self-destructed and was beyond repair.

Luckily there was internet connectivity in that parking lot!  A couple of quick emails to our friends Miles (who we knew from Calgary: http://smilesandmiles.com) and Daan (who we knew only from email:  http://www.farawayfromflakkee.nl/?lang=en) who were waiting for us in Panama City had them arriving to our rescue on Miles’ super cool Ural sidecar rig.  We stopped every pick up truck in that parking lot and eventually found someone who would take the bike to  Panama Passage, a well known hostel catering to overland travellers.  As it turned out, it was also the spot where a number of other motorcycle travellers were meeting up to catch the boat from Panama to Colombia.  It was fun to exchange stories with other motorcycle travellers.  Since the start of our trip, we had only met 2 other riders, Bas and D from The Netherlands, and that was back in Mexico.  We exchanged stories about routes, adventures and life on the road until late into the night with our new found friends.

Panama Passage

The guys spent the next day trying engineer a fix for my bike (FIX #4?), calls the day before to the local BMW shop confirmed that a replacement part would take about 3 weeks, we had about 24 hours.  The guys settled on making a collar for the manifold our of JB Weld liquid metal.  It looked very sturdy, however since no one was sure how it would stand up to the vibrations of my 650cc thumper, we kept it as a last resource… we were worried about the engine sucking in bits of metal so, I started making arrangements for another pick up to take me and my bike to the boat.  This was not finalized until 6pm the night before we left.

Around the same time Jordan received an email from our good friend and fellow motorcycle traveller, Ekke (http://ekke-audrey.ca/) in Calgary.  He and Audrey have a number of bikes back home, and one of them just happened to be a 2001 BMW F650GS, a perfect match to my bike, and he kindly offered to take the part off his bike and have it shipped to Colombia, where with a little luck it would be waiting for us when we arrived in Cartagena.  Now that’s a good friend!

At 7am we headed off to the small Kuna town of Carti near the spectacular San Blas Islands, about 1 hour north of Panama City.  While everyone else rode an amazing winding road to the port,  I rode in a taxi pick up truck.  My bike was on the back and Jordan followed behind.  Occasionally, I’d put my helmet on in the truck (to the dismay of  my fellow passengers) and talk to Jordan on our headsets.  “do you think we’re going to be late?”.

Sandra not looking happy in another pick up truck

We eventually caught up with the other motorcyclists at the Kuna border/toll station and when all 14 bikes (including mine) were eventually lined up on the pier next to the Stahratte it was quite a beautiful site.

14 bikes awaiting boarding

We hoped that riding through Central America would be interesting, especially since not that many travellers make their way there – we felt lucky to be in the area.  Well, we did have fun and it was certainly interesting!  Despite the 15 day ordeal from being robbed to the race to meet the boat and the stress of mechanical breakdowns, and despite the rain and the landslides we look back fondly to that part of our trip.  Our only regret is that we didn’t have more time to slow down and enjoy it much more.

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.

Hello Central America!

When we are crossing all but the US borders on this trip, we have to temporarily import the motos and get ourselves across, too.  There is a lot of paperwork involved and we expected long line-ups so, we were prepared to wait for hours.  But it was quick!  We exited Mexico within 40 minutes, and entered Guatemala in about the same amount of time.  The process was super quick, easy and extremely professional despite what else you might have heard.

But what a different country Guatemala is from Mexico! The one constant was enormous market that ran from 1km on the Mexican side, across the border for another kilometre of stalls, stands and shacks of anything & everything.  But traffic turned from organized chaos to just chaotic.  Roads became narrower, trucks got bigger and, since sidewalks are practically non-existent in Guatemala, we were dodging potholes and people alike.  As we took in the new driving system of Guatemala, we rode with restrain from the border to the small town of Huehuetenengo (way-way-tenego) where we each enjoyed a fantastic roadside lunch of rice, potatoes, frijoles, grilled chorizo & tortilla with a pepsi for just $3.50 (total – both orders!)  – the first real food of the day.

roadside lunch in Huehuetenengo

With the Guatemalan highway system figured out (it’s like Mexico after 5 or 6 RedBulls), we proceeded to ride up and down and through the jungly mountains toward Xela (Shay-LA) which is also known as Quetzeltenengo (Ketz-AL-tenengo).  The trip was a little longer than expected as we had to wait a few times in areas that were being cleaned up from landslides – the first of many experiences with this phenomenon.  But we made good time, arriving in Xela around 2pm – just in time for the daily downpour.  The rain was so violent, it gushed down the streets creating white water and, since we couldn’t see the condition of the old cobbled roads we were riding on, we gingerly made our way to the central square, parked, and found a coffee shop.

Like the sign says - watch out for landslides

water pouring down the streets of Xela

We had already arranged a 2 week home stay with a Guatemalteco family, but had arrived a few days early so we walked up and down the central-area streets looking for a cheap hotel for a few nights.  And after dealing with Pesos for 5 weeks, we now needed to get used to the Quetzale – which (surprisingly, we thought) is worth more than the Peso… so, our hotel budget became just Q100.  As luck would have it, a fab hostel (Don Diego) with secure parking, a great kitchen, hot water and a bunch of spirited spanish students was on offer for just that amount!  We moved the bikes, dried off, grabbed our umbrellas and explored Xela for the next few hours.

One of the differences between Guatemala & Mexico we noticed right away was the level of security presence.  Homes were concrete boxes with bars covering opaque-glass windows or, they were behind huge concrete walls with electric and/or razor wire and/or shards of glass mortered into the top of the wall. Security guards with pump action shot guns and old pistols marked the entrances to stores and restaurants.  When there is no security guard, the store is usually gated and goods are behind the counter for staff pick for you. I’ve read that the number of private security guards outnumbers police officers in Guatemala and security has become a social phenomenon and, according to some, it is fashionable, if not necessary, to be seen with your personal guard in the big city.  The toughest cynics will say it is a self-fulfilling industry.   What is clear is that it is one of the biggest industries in Guatemala and its presence is ubiquitous.

A few days after our hostel stay, we were introduced to our ‘family’.  Lilian, Sonny, and their two kiddies (who were great teachers!), Silus (9) and Mellie (5).  We couldn’t have asked for better!  We were located high up on a hill overlooking the city, within walking distance of our school and we were well fed.  Each day for 2 weeks we would walk down the steep hill to school, back up the steep hill for lunch, back down the steep hill and 2kms to the town centre to study / have coffee then back 2kms and up that steep hill again for supper.  We certainly got a lot of exercise in Xela.

We found our favourite hang out quickly;  El Cuartito is a great little pub / coffee shop filled with locals, students and lots of art.  They have great chocololate and the best coffee in the city.  But it was at &Cafe that I ran into Clayton… I was in the bathroom and could hear Jordan talking about our trip to someone.  This person had noticed my MEC bag (a sure sign you are Canadian) and struck up a conversation.  When I came out, Jordan introduced me – but I already knew Clayton for ALL MY LIFE!  Such a crazy world – my parents have been friends with his parents for almost 50 years.  He actually lives in the same city as we do and we’ve never run into him.. not even once.  So it is completely normal that we should be in the same coffee shop ½ a world away.

Xela at 5am

Xela street

Market at San Francisco

Mayan religious ceremony

A guy with LIVE chickens on his back

We really wanted to climb a volcano in the area & visit the famous natural hotsprings – Fuentes Georginas.  We arranged our volcano trip with Monte Verde tours… the plan was they were going to pick up up at our family home and drive us to the volcano, then guide us up the climb.  Though, when we paid for the trip, we were told that no one could pick us up, and we would have to walk to their office for 5am the following morning.  We shopped for our lunch and water, assembled our make-shift back packs (our dry bags with the shoulder straps from our large duffle bags – genius!) and made our way to the office.  Then proceed to wait 45 minutes before realizing no one was coming.  What a huge disappointment it was as this was something we were really looking forward to.  When you climb the now-inactive volcano Santa Maria you can see Santiaguito volcano brewing away below you.  Instead, we walked back home, up that steep hill and back in to bed.

Here are some cool photos of what we could have seen…

Fuentes Georginas was fantastic, however.  We rode up to the hotsprings which is a steep and curvy ride from the small town of Zunil through the agricultural centre of the country.  So, we passed numerous families of farmers picking, gathering and packing vegetables on the slopes of the hills.  Giant bags of corn and radishes lined the roadside but it was the road through the cilantro fields that Jordan enjoyed most (he really loves cilantro!).  At the top, in the mist, we found the most amazing hot springs.  There are 3 main pools that range from boiling hot (seriously – no one could stand it for more than a few seconds) to very warm to warm.  But the best was the (barely known) jungle trail down to two secluded pools under cliffs next to a cold stream.  No other people were there, and the water was hot enough to warrant a trip to the cold stream once in a while.  The water is not circulated, and it is not taken out of its natural system… the pools are built with overflows, so hot water comes in from its source, sits in a pool temporarily, before pouring out to where it would go, naturally.  Brilliant, really.  We’d love to show you our photos from the hotsprings, but we can’t.  You can read why in our next post.  For now, here is one of our friend, Daan – soaking in the uber hot springs – we are still not sure how he could stand it.

Daan enjoying the hot pool (him: "insanely hot!")

Hot and relaxed we enjoyed a completely foggy, dark ride back down the mountain and home to Xela.  Our final night with our family was at the Swiss restaurant, El Panorama – named for the vast view of Xela from one of the highest points in the city.  The restaurant is owned by our host ‘father’, Sonny and if you want great raclette, or saucy, warm food on a chilly, rainy night in Guatemala, El Panorama is the place for you.  So it was, with a bottle of wine and gifts for Silus & Mellie that we said our good-byes.  The morning will take us further into Guatemala and Central America.