Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Guatemala - a country with angels... named Cathy.

Consistency. An unknown concept at the Guatemalan border. Through other ADV rider posts over the past few months, I've read a great deal about traveling through borders in Mexico and Central America. No one country is the same, whether it is leaving one or entering the next. The constant, is what must occur at each border crossing, but how this occurs on any given day is the question.

First, you must go through immigration and check yourself into a country. Then, at customs, you have to import your vehicle, showing and proving that it is in fact your vehicle with proper VIN number that you are importing.

I traveled from Mexico to Guatemala last Sunday. This border crossing was not on my radar of 'difficult' borders, I just figured that I'd have to jump through the usual hoops and hopefully everything would be smooth. I had read that a great day to hit any border is on Sunday as locals, workers, truckers and tourists generally don't move much on a domingo. I managed to hit the border at about 9am and it was great, no line-ups, no people, and a chill environment. I checked out of Mexico and into Guatemala through immigration with associated fees and passport stamps in roughly 15 minutes total. 

Next, was customs. I rolled up to another building and walked in, again, no line-ups. I should have been in and out in another 15min but this was not the case. Back to consistency. There was a young guy at the customs window who looked at my paperwork, didn't know exactly what to do with it, and then he proceeded to call his supervisor on his cell phone. It was then decided, in this phone call, that I had to prove through a lawyer, that MY motorcycle was in fact mine. My British Columbia paperwork stating my registration and owners certificate was not sufficient enough, on that given Sunday, with that given Customs Official. My new mission was to head into this dusty, Guatemalan border town and to source out a lawyer, on a Sunday, to get a document drafted up for customs. Perfect.

Guatemala – a country of angels,... named Cathy. A woman who was now in line behind me asked in perfect English if she could help me. Her name was Cathy. Out of no where, this lovely angel named Cathy arrived. Her and her cousin were shopping in Mexico and heading home to Guatemala City. She mentioned that her paperwork was being processed and had some extra time. Cathy and I then hit the dusty streets together. With directions to a lawyer from the Customs Official, we headed one way and banged on locked up doors.  No luck.  We then asked a vendor where to go and we proceeded in another direction banging on locked doors. Low and behold, while knocking on a door, a guy comes walking down the street in shorts and a jersey. He is a young lawyer who was on his way to the local stadium to watch a soccer match, on his day off. He agrees to create this document for me, opens his office and starts at it after agreeing on a price that Cathy manages to lower substantially. By this time, I realize that the amount of pesos that I had changed into quetzals (Mex – Guat) wasn't sufficient enough to pay off my recently found lawyer. Again, Cathy and I hit the streets, this time looking for money.

My angel Cathy - and me, the sweaty, dust covered biker

Cathy and her cousin heading south back to Guatemala City from their shopping trip in Mexico

The entire process ended up taking about 2 hours and Cathy was gracious to stick with me for a good component of it. Cathy went above and beyond the call of any average human being and this is what sets people like Cathy apart from the rest. She has a special place in my heart, if only there were more Cathys in the world.

With my new documents in hand, more fees, stamps, sticker on my bike, copies of copies, signatures, different windows, I was then finally on my way into Guatemala... with the usual 'palm-slap-fist-pumps' from my buddy the Customs Official (who was in fact a nice guy), the guard, and the Guatemalan gate-opener-guard... all new found buddies after 2 hours of getting to know them.

I had eaten a packed lunch consisting of a banana, some cookies and nuts at the border and after my lengthy experience I just wanted to ride. I wasn't exactly sure where I was going so I headed into the mountains up to a town called Quetzaltenango. Locals called it Xela (shell-a) for short.  It was an amazing ride and a really beautiful city. I was happy to be at an elevation (2335m) where I wasn't sweating constantly and where I was into some different territory from the beaches and ocean of Mexico I was used to.

En route through the mountain to Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala

Rojo wasn't 'enjoying Guatemala' like I was... the elevation was rough on him and his carb.

Xela kids enjoying a juggler performing for vehicles at a traffic light

Narrow streets of Xela, Guatemala

Streets of Xela, Guatemala

Xela's Parque Centro Americano where I spent a great deal of time on my day-off

Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala

Xela, Guatemala

Local woman - Xela, Guatemala

Xela was a busy city with loads of people constantly on the go.

Typical street in Xela

Pasaje Enriquez, Quetzaltenango

Pasaje Enriquez, Quetzaltenango (Xela)

I am now in Antigua, Guatemala's premier city – a Unesco World Heritage Site.  I spent 2 nights in Xela unwinding in the mountains and then had a fantastic day working my way to Antigua.  I traveled through the Highlands to Lago Atitlan.  The roads were twisty-fun on a motorcycle that maxed out in elevation at just over 3000m - the highest point on the Inter-American Highway.  My poor motorcycle was hating life up at that elevation - Rojo was whining like a little kid and hesitating at every shift.  

Truck full of pigs - with one more strapped down up top above the cab.

Lago Atitlan and the town of Panajachel

Lago Atitlan and Volcan Toliman (3158m)

Poser-shot high above Lago Atitlan en route to Antigua, Guatemala

I stopped for a coffee and lunch in the town of Panajachel on Lake Atitlan and then pushed on to Antigua.  Looking at the vertical profile above, I managed to cover just over 170km of riding from Quetzaltenango (Xela) to Antigua, with a huge vertical change throughout the day.  I maxed out at just over 3000m and then finished in Antigua at roughly 1500m.  It was an incredible day of riding.  

Antigua Guatemala by night
One of my original thoughts was to brush up on a bit of Spanish and study in Antigua, but I've decided to pass on that for now... after all, I know how to clearly say 'cerveza' and 'bano'... what more does a guy need?!  And, I am also keen to get back to some surf, my board has been off the water for a few days and we are both itching to catch a few waves.   

Tomorrow, another border crossing.

This time, I'm checking out of Guatemala and into El Salvador.  

Lets hope El Salvador has Cathys.  

Catedral de Santiago, Antigua Guatemala

Parque Central, Antigua Guatemala

Arco de Santa Catalina, Antigua Guatemala

Friday, March 25, 2011

The first 5000

I'm all in.  Sign me up.  Coach, put me in the game.  Deal me in.  Lets do this.  

Both the United States and the Baja were simply a warm up.  They were definitely an integral component of my trip and I needed them to get here.  I needed all of it to get here.  I am now over 5000 kms into my estimated 20,000 km journey and I feel like I'm now just settling in.  Maybe 'settling in' isn't the phrase as that sounds too comfortable and cozy.  Life on the road in Mexico is far from cozy.  1/4 could be looked at as a fairly empty glass, but this trip has already been full and this will undoubtedly continue.  

This glass is 1/4 full. 

Views from my cockpit where I'm spending a great deal of time
Scenes from the road

I have now landed in Puerto Escondido, Mexico.  The draw here, as for many, are the waves.  This IS Mexico's Pipeline.  Huge, hollow waves rip down the main beach of Zicatela on a constant basis.  I've heard they are so big at times that they fully block out the horizon.  Am I planning to surf Mexico's Pipeline?  Absolutely not.  This wave separates the men from the boys.  In Puerto Escondido, I am a boy.  Zicatela is the main break and they say La Punta (the Point) is the beginner spot at the far end of Playa Zicatela.  Looks like I won't be getting in the kiddy-pool here either... as it too is enormous at the moment.  Instead, I'll update my blog, watch some crazy surf, post some pictures of waves I didn't surf, and then I'll drink beers... like a man. 

Sayulita, just north of Puerto Vallarta.

Longboard gringa at Sayulita
Local Sayulita chico showing the tourists how to rip
Surfers come in all shapes and sizes

Streets of Sayulita, Mexico

Lets rewind a week.  Last Thursday I traveled by ferry from La Paz, Baja to Mazatlan, mainland Mexico.  This was a 17hr crossing that left at 7pm and arrived the next day at high noon.  The ferry was mainly a cargo boat bringing trucks, truckers and their goods over to the mainland.  It was surprising that the ferry sailed on time and by the time we docked in Mazatlan the next day, I was getting 'buena suerte' and 'buen viaje's (good luck and good trip) in addition to hugs and typical mexico 'fist-pumps' from my new found trucker buddies (one was hauling a semi-load FULL of potatoes!)

I wanted nothing to do with Mazatlan (or any of the bigger cities for that matter) so once I hit pavement, I cracked the throttle on Rojo and burned through town continuing along Hwy 200 south as long as I could before dark.  

One of my favourite road signs
Another road sign that I smile at...

Topes, topes, topes... SO many topes!  (Always a good place to pass big trucks)

Topes come in all shapes and sizes... 'Ah-hem' <clearing throat>
Had an amazing wood fired pizza in Barra de Navidad
San Blas.  Sayulita.  Barra de Navidad.  Saladita (always confused with Sayulita - amazing longboard wave just north of Zihuatanejo).  Playa Ventura.  

And now Puerto Escondido. 

Hard to believe that the distance from Mazatlan to P.Escondido is almost the same distance I traveled from northern California to the tip of the Baja.  Mexico is a huge country that people take for granted, including me.  I figured I'd be at the Guatemala border by now and I still have a couple days ahead to get there.  I feel like I've been motoring with some long days on the bike and I'm sure I'll encounter the same thing on my route north back through Mexico.  This is a destination country that I could easily spend more time and touring through with greater detail.  I'm certain that a few surfer friends back home are asking why I didn't stop to surf at Playa La Ticla, or Rio Nexpa, more world class surf spots.  The reason?  I'd still be there and surfing is not my main priority.  Surfing is a way for me to get off my bike and to relax, get some activity and to mix it up.  The duration of my entire journey wouldn't be enough time to truly explore Mexico by moto.   

Getting prepped for my first 5000km oil-change and maintenance

Giving Rojo a bit of well deserved love

My digs at Saladita - a surf spot I was at in 2005 with BC friends
Playa La Saladita

La Saladita

A seaside comida break - this lovely woman served up a mean fish soup
Acapulco was another city I zipped right through
A wrong turn in Acapulco got me this picture 'Go Team Canada' Bus!

I rolled 20,000kms on Rojo just north of P.Escondido (the bike had about 14,000kms when leaving Canada)

La Punta, Puerto Escondido

This little guy was an amazing surfer

La Punta, Puerto Escondido

La Punta, Puerto Escondido

A few memorable moments on the road over the past week:

Coming around a left corner south of Puerto Vallarta with a bus fully in my lane.  The crazy thing if that isn't crazy enough, the bus wasn't even passing anyone.  I think the driver was enjoying the sights.  Had I been in a vehicle, I would have been in trouble.  On my bike, I swerved over, waved my fist, turned up my music and carried on.

Coming around another left corner to a surfboard flying in the air.  My heart skipped a few beats and once I realized the board was somehow attached to the car by its leash and not coming straight at me I started breathing again.  It was flailing behind the car smacking the road, the back of the car, it was all over the place.  Either the driver had the music cranked and didn't hear it, or it had just happened. 

Personal rules I stick with at all times while on roads in Mexico:

1.  Always assume the brake lights in the vehicle ahead of you do not work... even if they work.
2.  Always assume that YOUR brake lights do not work, even if they do work.
3.  Expect the unexpected (note:  buses and surfboards in your lane)
4.  Assume that around every corner, regardless of your speed, there will be something exciting.  That something could be anything from a dead lizard, a donkey grazing, a little kid walking on their own, big cows, flying surfboards, or guys with machetes cutting down road-side brush as examples. 
5.  Finally, when traveling on roads in Mexico - never assume.

Nothing like a hammock, a cold Modelo and some Golden Nuts after a long day

Next up = Guatemala.

Crossing my fingers for a smooth border crossing from MEX to Guatemala in the next couple of days.  First time on this trip that I'll be entering a country I have yet to visit and I'm excited about that.  My plan is to save the surf for El Salvador and to hit the Lake Attilan and the Antigua areas skipping Guat. surf this time around.  I might study a hint more spanish in Antigua for a couple of days, we'll see how my time looks.

Cheers, highfives and fist-pumps for now.