Jenn writes on December 31, 2013:
What can I say about Guatemala? It’s stunning scenery welcomed us with open arms from the moment we crossed the border from Mexico. Steep, twisting mountain roads vaulted us up more than two kilometers in less than twenty minutes. One minute we were sweltering in the heat, and the next we were riding through the clouds on lush mountains with a bit of a chill. The summer gear we were wearing just wasn’t cutting it. For the first time in weeks we rode with long underwear on and warmer gloves.
We crossed the border at El Carmen on December 29th which proved to be a very confusing and drawn-out process. See this link for more info.
It was a lot of on and off the bike within a very short amount of distance, coupled with masses of ‘fixers’ who wanted to help (for tips) by directing you where to go, change money, or by watching our bikes to ward off locals with sticky fingers (or their own?). Needless to say we didn’t tip anyone despite their charming efforts.
The process of exiting Mexico (aside from back tracking the previous day 50 km to get our vehicle deposits back) was fairly painless, as was obtaining entrance into Guatemala. We were, however, forced to pay for the fumigation service (basically a guy with a sprayer who watered down our tires for the sum of 12 Queztales – about CAN$1.60 – each) despite Adam explaining that we had spent over an hour having the bikes cleaned the previous day, and showing the official the receipt. We also had to pay a vehicle import fee for each bike (Q160: about CAN$21) through a convoluted process that started at aduana (customs), followed by hitting a street money converter since we couldn’t change money at the bank where we had to pay the fee, then back to the bank, back to aduana, and then finally obtaining our stickers at a generic desk outside. As much as I complain about the border crossing into the US from Canada, I think the Guatemalan border could learn a thing or two from their example.
After 2 hours at the border, we finally headed off for the rest of Guatemala. Gas is more expensive here (about Q35 per gallon – yes, they use gallons here, but their speed limits are posted in kilometers…) so we had filled up on the Mexican side to avoid needing to fill up when we crossed the border. We passed through a built-up urban area and then were immediately thrust onto steep mountain roads, where the temperature dropped as we swiftly rode up into the mist and clouds. The surrounding forest was lush and green, interspersed with terrace farmland and small communities. The drivers here are much more subdued than the ones in Mexico and seem to drive more slowly which is a welcome change from the aggressive tailgaters in Mexico. Some of the speeds, however, were a little too slow for navigating the roads by motorcycle (too slow = fall over) and we found ourselves passing buses and trucks who spewed out black diesel exhaust into our helmets (think black faces).
We decided to make the day a short one after the border and introduction to Guatemalan roads, and headed for San Marcos. Adam had stopped here three years ago on his own journey and I was looking forward to checking out the hotel that he spoke so highly of. The city was confusing and built on a mountainside (think lots of steep hills, cobblestones, and uneven surfaces), and it took a little bit for us to find the hotel. As per our new mantra to not stop at the first place that we find however much we (i.e. me) want to, because we can probably find better value somewhere else.
The Hotel Villa Astur was a non-descript white building with new windows and the only indication of what it was was a painted sheet hanging outside with the hotel name on it. Before we headed off to investigate our other accommodation options we stopped for a quick bite to eat at the restaurant next door (incidentally where Adam also ate three years prior). The food was great (chicken tortillas and some sort of crunchy tortilla fried with beef, cheese, and salsa), and I watched as Adam delved deeper and deeper into nostalgia. In the end we took a room at the Villa Astur, which was under renovations, and lived up to every expectation that I had based on Adam’s descriptions of the place. It was family-owned and the room was comfortable and clean. They were also very accommodating to our needs and served us complimentary coffee with bread and jam and warm milk in the dining room, upon our arrival. They also allowed us to use the staff laundry to scrub our clothes clean and then use the dryer.
The shower was also abundant with hot water and was equipped with a luxury overhead dowser heads that almost brought me to tears. Since we were now up in the mountains, we found ourselves back in socks, pants, and hoodies for going out at night, and the bed was made up with thick, heavy blankets.
As much as I would have liked to have stayed there for a few days, we set off the next morning for Panajachel. The riding was not as technical, and the roads, although still twisty in some areas were not as steep and were mainly four-lane divided highway. This type of highway however still has its perils and we passed a tractor trailer that had flipped and was laying on its side blocking two lanes of highway. Scary. Much like the road down from Solola into Panajachel – narrow with tight switchbacks and steep grades winding down the mountain with Lago Atitlan on one side. The view coming into town was spectacular with the lake framed in the background by three volcanoes – Volcan Atitlan, Volcan Toliman, and Volcan San Pedro. The town is a veritable tourist mecca with a wide variety of peoples: a mix of your average tourist, hippies, locals, and indigenous peoples. There is a main market area where the Guatemalan people have set up stalls selling crafts including brightly coloured scarfs and tapestries, shoulder bags, handbags, coin purses, sundresses and other types of clothing, and all kinds of carvings, textiles, and such. It is one such occasion that I wish I were not on a bike and could help the community out by buying some of their beautiful things.
We have checked in at Hotel Don Carlos, which is located on the main strip but down a narrow alleyway (the narrowness not being a deterrent for tuk-tuks or motorcyclists to zoom down it). It’s a little pricey (Q225 or just over $30 CDN) but there’s secure parking and not a lot of foot traffic. On the plus side, it is cheap to eat here and we have managed to eat a few meals for around $5 for the both of us. However it’s rare to have a peaceful meal since there are always an abundance of people hawking their crafts and not even the shelter of a restaurant dis-sways them from entering to try for a sale. Although it is their livelihood, it gets to be quite tiresome very quickly. And hard to say “no gracias” to the kids who come around with crafts, or the shoeshine boys who, once they see we are wearing flip flops, will ask for food instead.
We had only planned on staying here for one night, but once we found out that the next day would be New Year’s Eve we thought that it might be a nice place to be for a celebration (smallish, with a big population of people on holidays) and so we stayed put rather than taking our chances and heading to Antigua, a bigger city, where we may not be able to find a room at all. The owner of the Don Carlos also did not inflate the rate of the room for New Year’s, which was a bonus.
Which brings me to today. We haven’t done a whole lot today: slept in, went for breakfast, went to Casa Cakchiquel (a musuem and cultural centre that houses a collection of historical photographs of Guatemala, and also a former hang out of Che Guevera), browsed the craft stalls, had lunch and an iced coffee, napped, and ate small bananas. Fire crackers have been going off all day, all around the city in celebration of the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014.
Some thoughts on the end of the year and then we can all get to the partying. I never thought that I would one day be celebrating New Year’s in Guatemala. Needless to say this year has brought about many changes for me. I finally finished my thesis (yay!), quit my job at Masterfile after 13 years, gave up my first solo apartment in the city after four years, and set out on a motorcycle to see the world. I have seen a lot of poverty since we left the USA and consider myself to be pretty lucky to be able to travel and have so many experiences, when so many people are unable to do so. I will never take for granted the things that I have, after seeing so many people with so little. In closing, I wish you all many great adventures in the future, whatever your adventure may be. May the path you take always lead to you discovery.