The Slog

Ciudad Cortés, Costa Rica

I have really been dreading this part of the trip. After seeing Marianna off from Guatemala City, I was left 12 days to get from there to Panama City by Christmas Eve. That’s 12 days for 4 countries (bypassing El Salvador entirely), and roughly 1,350 miles. And of course 4 countries means 4 border crossings.

Crossing borders in Central America with a vehicle is a special kind of Kafkaesque hell. Entering a country, there are generally 4 things you need to accomplish:

  1. Get your vehicle fumigated (more accurately: pay someone sitting at a desk a few bucks to give you a piece of paper saying they fumigated your vehicle)
  2. Go through immigration and get a stamp in your passport, allowing you in the country
  3. Go to customs and get a Temporary Vehicle Import Permit (TVIP) allowing your motorcycle in the country
  4. Purchase obligatory liability insurance for the motorcycle

And exiting the previous country, generally just 2:

  1. Go through migration and get an exit stamp
  2. Get the TVIP cancelled, allowing the motorcycle to leave the country

This all sounds simple enough, but it’s a good day if I can pull off any given border crossing in under 3 hours.

The first sign you are approaching the border is the semi trucks backed up for miles along the highway. At this point you drive up the opposite lane, ducking behind a truck anytime there’s oncoming traffic. You will know you have reached the border when you are aggressively hounded by “helpers,” very unofficial guides who will walk you through and “expedite” the border process in exchange for generous tips and often a fair shot at scamming you.

It’s hard to illustrate the chaos of these border areas. The first task is figuring out which building immigration is located in. Don’t expect it to be obvious, and don’t expect any useful signage. After hopefully finding the right building, get in hopefully the right line, hopefully not just after a busload of people have also gotten in line. See other people in line have a form, ask around where to get the form, get the form, fill it out, finally get to the front of the line, get your stamp.

Exit the building, begin figuring out which building customs (aduana) is in. Get in line for the TVIP. Hopefully you don’t arrive just after the only person who issues TVIPs goes on a 90 minute lunch break. You will need several copies of several documents. Some you diligently have ready, like of your passport and vehicle title. But then they need copies of the passport stamp you just got and the form you just received, so it’s off to wander around the border area to find a shack with a copy machine where they will sell you copies. After obtaining copies, go back, stand in line again, have them fill out your TVIP. Before they issue it to you, you need to pay for it, but of course not in the same place. You need to go find the “bank,” really another unmarked shack with some guy sitting in it who will take your cash (plus commission) and issue you a receipt with a very special stamp on it. Go back, stand in line again, present your receipt, you have your TVIP!

Get your motorcycle inspected, go figure out where they sell insurance (also not marked, also need copies, also on lunch break), etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., all the while it’s 90 degrees and humid and you’re wearing a motorcycle suit.

I hired a helper entering Nicaragua because on top of all this, the border area was under construction and therefore even more insane than usual. At one point I was instructed to go stand in an empty dirt lot and “wait for the fat guy in a blue shirt to notice me” at which point he would come over and sign a form I had. (He did.)

Point being, border crossings suck.

And so the thought of 4 of them in close succession, divided only by long days riding between crappy hotel rooms in uninteresting places, and riding past a whole lot of really neat places that I’d love to spend time but I have none, well, all of it left me in a foul mood.

I’m now past 3 of the 4 borders. Honduras had some fun riding through the mountains on uncannily nice roads.

This picture is actually in Nicaragua, whatever

Nicaragua had the most hellish borders. But, I was able to carve out a few days to chill in Granada, a beautiful town on Lake Nicaragua (the second-largest lake in all of Latin America, after Lake Titicaca, and known locally as Cocibolca). Besides the big lake, it’s also got several volcanos nearby (Central America is littered with them), one of which contains one of five permanent lava lakes in the world.

A lake of lava

Super neat! Another nearby volcano had a really nice regular-type lake called Lago de Apollo, and I spent a day there doing not much.

A lake of water

Also stocked up on some Flor de Caña 12 to replace my depleted mezcal stash.

I entered Costa Rica yesterday, caught a nice sunset in Puntarenas last night, jetted down to Ciudad Cortés today, and will cross the final border into Panama tomorrow morning. A few more days to Panama City and the slog will finally be over.

A sunset in Puntarenas

On to good things!

Two Countries and Change

Comayagua, Honduras

I’ve got to back up a bit from the last post a bit to fill things in. I wanted to post about that struggle of that day while it was still fresh in my mind. I think it’s safe to say that that morning was the most miserable state I’ve been in so far on this trip, but it wouldn’t be a proper adventure without some good, honest struggle. Anyways, backing up.

Belize is a curious place. It is Caribbean first and Central American second. Entering the country, the first indication of this is that everything is in English, Belize’s official language. It is widely spoken, but perhaps not quite as widely as Belizean Creole, which is pretty fun. Spanish is not far behind. The English is because Belize was a British colony, not gaining full independence until 1981. Of course, it is not just language that makes it Caribbean, but the broader Creole culture in general, blended with the Hispanic Mestizos and the indigenous Maya. (And the Garifuna who have a pretty fascinating history. And, uh, a decent amount of Plautdietsch-speaking Mennonites). This makes for quite the fascinating mixing pot, and of course really good food.

I was pretty short on time in Belize, which is about to become a theme. I wasn’t able to check out any of the cayes which are one of the biggest tourist draws. I cut through the country from the Yucatan to Guatemala, stopping the first night (Thanksgiving, incidentally) in Orange Walk, a small city built around processing sugar cane, and then for a couple nights in San Ignacio. There I spent a day inner-tubing through some nearby caves, which was pretty neat. The caves were surrounded my some grade-A primordial jungle.

The mouth of a cave in Belize Belizean jungle

From there, it was a not-too-painful border crossing into Guatemala, to El Remate, a small town not too far from the Mayan ruins of Tikal. Which was pretty neat.

The biggest temple at Tikal Tikal temples popping up above the jungle

The day after Tikal I made my way south to Langquín, a small town in the central mountains of Guatemala that serves as a gateway to Semuc Champey. I was a bit perplexed why Google Maps was telling me that the 273 kilometer ride would take nearly 7 hours, and thought there was surely some mistake with only 50 km left and Google still indicating 3 hours to go. Which is when the pavement ended, and how. The road quickly turned to extremely rocky dirt, winding very steeply through the mountains. One lane, often with a sheer drop on one side, and with the occasional oncoming truck or bus for added spice.

It was an awful tricky road and I am still a bit surprised with myself for picking my way through it successfully. I definitely put some training to good use from an off-road riding camp I did up in Oregon this summer. “Eyes up, light on the controls” was the refrain, which I would chant to myself anytime I encountered a particularly tricky section. I guess it worked.

That road eventually comes down a mountain and returns to pavement, just before the turn-off to Langquín. The road down the valley to Langquín quickly reverts to dirt, which even at the time made me think “I hope it doesn’t rain before I leave.”

The road to Langquín

The next day, the trip to Semuc Champey was an eventful one. After a long ride in the back of a pickup truck down even worse roads, the first stop was a water cave tour. The guide asked us if we had brought headlamps, which of course we had not, so we were each issued a candle with which to navigate the cave. Like, an ordinary candlestick candle. Keeping the candle lit became a fun challenge as wading through the cave became swimming through the cave became climbing up waterfalls in the cave. Now would be a great time to show you pictures, but this is also when I found out that iPhones are not quite as waterproof as advertised. Anyways, it’s one of the wilder tours I’ve ever been on. Highly recommended.

After the water cave tour it was on to Semuc Champey itself, a series of turquoise pools along a limestone bridge suspended above the Cahabón river. It was pretty spectacular, both from a vantage point above as well as swimming through each of the pools below.

Semuc Champey One of the pools of Semuc Champey

The loss of a working phone was a bummer, but a pretty solid day, all-in-all. You already know how the next day went.

Make it to Guatemala City I did. I had a bit of time to wash my very smelly clothes, procure a new phone, and generally pull myself together before Marianna arrived the next day. Make it to Guatemala City she did, too, and seeing her was really very great. She packed a suitcase full of motorcycle gear (and spare parts and fresh undies for me) and the next day we got on the bike and took off for Antigua Guatemala. As the name perhaps suggests, it was the previous capital of Guatemala, pre-independence, and thus has a charming colonial old town, with an imposing volcano nearby.

Apparently one of the only pictures I took in Antigua

From there we went to Lake Atitlán, not far to the west. Atitlán is a stupid pretty, a big, pristine lake beside 4 volcanos. It’s surrounded by a number of little villages, many reachable only by boat, with the main hub being Panajachel, which is where we stayed.

The view of Lake Atitlán from our BnB

We spent a day hopping around a bunch of villages on the lake. First San Pedro, the second biggest town on the lake, backpacker haven, and a fun place to walk around.

A small plaza in San Pedro

Then San Juan, just over a hill from San Pedro, where an enterprising tuk-tuk driver constructed a tour for us. First stop, a textile collective, where women do the entire process, starting with picking cotton, then spinning yarn with it, then dying it, then weaving it into all manner of clothes and blankets and everything else that you make with cloth. It was pretty neat to see. Then on to a honey production place with six different species of “Mayan bees,” each producing a different honey, one of which will cure what ails you. Then to a chocolate production place, where again the whole process is done by hand, then up to a nice mirador overlooking the lake.

Marianna and I at the mirador

And finally, to a coffee production place, which was really cool. It’s harvest season, so as we were there, people were trudging in with sacks of fresh-picked coffee from their family farms.

A delivery of coffee cherries

And then the whole process of sorting, hulling, fermenting and sun-drying the beans. Super cool.

Sorting coffee cherries Machines for hulling and sorting Coffee being dried in the sun

After our comprehensive San Juan tour, we stopped in at San Marcos, which somehow became a gringo hippie haven replete with yoga hostels, ads for full moon cacao ceremonies, etc. And then our last stop was Santa Cruz, a village really hugging the mountainside which was a solid hike to get to from the docks.

The village of Santa Cruz

The next day we rode back to Guatemala City so Marianna could fly home the day after. It was a really great time and I miss her a lot already.

After she left, it was time for me to start booking it south. More on that later though, as I’ve already unintentionally written another novella. Sorry about that.


Guatemala City, Guatemala

I laid in bed last night listening to the rain fall on the thatched roof of my bungalow in the hostel in Langquín. But more then hearing it on the roof, I heard it falling on the road from Langquín to the highway, that 10 kilometers of dirt road that is the only way out of this valley. I laid there for several hours, unable to sleep, thinking about that road. Thinking, “I’m fucked.”

And I was. When I pulled out that morning, already full of anxiety, I quickly confirmed that dirt plus water still equals mud. And I still had a 600 pound motorcycle with tires that are passable on gravel or dry dirt but useless in mud. And I needed to get to Guatemala City today.

On the outskirts of town is the first time the bike slid out from me, sending it onto some large rocks, perpendicular to the road, pointing away. Eventually three men walking down the road came to me and helped me stand it up and slowly push it back to the road pointing the right way.

Maybe a couple hundred meters further, the road started a steep ascent up the valley, here with no rocks in the road to provide a semblance of traction, just fresh, slimy, mucky mud. I laid the bike down almost immediately. A group of construction workers up at the top of the hill ran down to me. With the bike stood up and me on it, they basically pushed me to the top of the hill, one person on either side of me like training wheels, and one in back pushing, and acting as a mud flap as well. I wasn’t able to turn back or wave once I got to the top, for fear of laying the bike down again, so the best I could do was give them a friendly toot of the horn as I continued on.

It was maybe half a kilometer before I encountered the next mud pit on the approach to a very steep climb, and laid the bike down. A truck driver saw me in his rear view mirror and got out to start walking down the hill towards me. I took stock of the situation. My throttle hand comically swollen from a bee sting the previous day. My phone, broken, also from the previous day, depriving me of navigation. And me here, maybe a tenth of the way along this mud road to the highway which I need to get to, standing next to my motorcycle on its side for the third time today. I was fighting back tears, and this truck driver was walking down to me. I took a step back. This is when I found that immediately behind me there was no ground, as the bushes might suggest, but a ten foot drop into the jungle. I would have liked to see it – it was like a trapdoor, me there one moment by my motorcycle and then gone the next. The jungle vegetation caught me pretty gently.

I hope you’re laughing, because now as I replay this moment I can’t help but giggle every time. Just me, in the pits, figuratively, stumbling backwards and falling down a literal pit.

The truck driver began yelling and made his way down to me and put his arm around me and began guiding me back up to the road, the whole way saying “Despacio, hermano. Tranquil, tranquil!” – “Slowly, brother. Easy!” Once back, he insisted I sit by the road while he, and some other people who had now stopped, picked up the bike and moved it to the side of the road.

My good friend Christopher recently asked how I was doing, offering a good estimation of “not nirvana but consistent and hard highs and lows,” gleaned from his months riding his bicycle around France. He offered the advice P.O.R.: press on regardless.

And in this kind of situation, there’s really not much else you can do. I’m there, the motorcycle is there, there is a tiny town 1 kilometer behind me and a road to Guatemala City 9 kilometers ahead of me. By some providence, as I was standing there on the side of the road dumbfounded, a guy pulled up behind me on a similarly large motorcycle, also heading up to the highway. Randy from Arizona. He had taken a few spills already, too. We agreed to make our way to the highway together.

I bid my truck driver savior farewell, which felt entirely inadequate. There’s only so many times you can say “muchas, muchas gracias” to someone whose presence and grace probably just prevented you from losing your damn mind.

Randy and I picked our way up the side of the valley, both of us miraculously staying upright the rest of the way, despite a few butt-puckering slides in the mud. I’ve never been so happy to see pavement.

It was beautiful blacktop from there on out. I split ways with Randy in Cobán, and continued on to Guatemala City. This is not a place where you want to try to navigate sans GPS, especially in a stifling rush hour, but after stopping to ask for directions 5 times, I stumbled into my apartment for the night. Not too much worse for the wear, all told.

This is what brought me to Langquín:

Semuc Champey

And as for why I needed to make it to Guatemala City, I’ve got a hot date arriving tomorrow.