Where Are Your Papers? Redux at the Honduran Border!

With Guatemala City fading in my rearview mirrors, I meandered slowly and surely through the outskirts. It was then when I swallowed hard. Gulped. Then gasped. And my mind spun wildly. I was screwed. Should I turn back? Battle my way back to the BMW dealer? It was surely closed. And it was Saturday and not opened again until Monday.

They still had my papers — the important papers.

With the border a little over 3 hours away, I pondered my options. I would likely be turned away at the border. Because without the Guatemalan temporary vehicle import document there would be no way for the customs agent to clear my bike. And without my bike cleared through customs, the Honduran customs office would not issue me a like permit for taking my motorcycle into Honduras.

Could I talk my way out of this predicament?

Otherwise, I would turn around and try to make my way through the maze of Guatemala City back to the BMW dealer. Even then, the likelihood of finding someone who had access to the service writers’ office was nada. I’d be stuck in Guatemala City for two nights. My mind was still spinning. These papers have caused me more anxiety and fear than anyone should have to go through. I was more worried about getting out of Guatemala and into Honduras than getting kidnapped in Mexico or robbed in Guatemala. After all, these ARE my important papers.

I decided to go for the border.

I’d been without my bike for a couple days. And with a new chain, rear tire and front and rear sprockets plus new plugs and a few other bonuses thrown in, my bike was running excellent. So as I passed hundreds of cardboard signs stapled to buildings, road signs and trees touting Everyready batteries, I ran through a number of scenarios in my head.

I could tell them I lost the papers. Then again, I could blame it on the dealer. There had been some heavy rains so the papers could have been destroyed and rendered unreadable. Hey, this is Guatemala and I could say they were stolen. Like Kasparov contemplating Big Blue’s next move, I calculated the potential responses. But this was just guessing.

Another idea I conceived was to just appear at the Guatemalan Customs office and act as if I just arrived from Honduras and pay my 41 Quetzales for a new permit. Then just spend the night at the border and go back through in the morning canceling it. Problem was the vehicle is noted in my passport. Then I remembered that the customs office scribbled information into my passport when they stamped me “in”. Though the document in question was completed on a 30 year old typewriter, I did see a computer in the adjacent office where I paid my 41 Quetzales. Maybe my motorcycle documentation was plugged into the computer.

Sure. As if there was a computer network linking this far remote border crossing into Honduras. I imagined that data was stored locally and updated monthly, if that. I crossed into Guatemala just over a week ago and it was doubtful that any record of my coming into this country would be on any computer — and doubtfully on one at perhaps the least crossed border in Guatemala.

The odds were against me. I was screwed. But I pressed on.

Just before the border my gas light popped on. At the gas station the attendants and all the customers surrounded me and my motorcycle. I had to handle the typical barrage of questions. How much did it cost? Where am I from? Where am I going? How big is it? Who makes it? I always have fun in these situations. I take advantage of practicing my Spanish while attempting to learn a few more words. Not a bad thing. But at this gas station I was bummed to find they had no premium gasoline. However, I was running on reserve out and at just before 4pm, I needed to get to the border before closing time at 5. Then I needed to get to Ruinas de Copan, just 10km from the border and secure a room before sundown.

Boy was I playing the odds.

Everything went smooth at Guatemalan immigration. After my passport was stamped and cleared, I asked “Is that all?” “Todo?” The agent said sure.

So, when I approached the customs office I thought I was speaking with Honduran customs officials. The gentlemen with the narrow boyish face, clear eyes and windbreaker looked more like a rejected soccer player than a customs official. He was more interested in my GPS unit than he was in doing his job.

“Where are your papers?” he asked handing my passport, title and registration back to me.

I realized this was the Guatemalan customs office. And I was hardly done with my Guatemalan border business.

“They’re destroyed,” I explained in my best Spanish. “The motorcycle dealer destroyed them,” I explained, reasoning that if I told him they forgot to give them back it was an open door for him to tell me to go back to the city and get the papers.

“Without the papers I can’t check you out of the country and the Honduras what let you in with your bike.” As he spit out the words in broken English I pulled on my ears hoping what went in was different than what I thought I heard.

“But the papers are gone,” I explained with a slight whimper in my voice.

“I know you told me this, but I can’t do anything.”

Time for fast thinking. I remembered the scribbling in my passport. “At the border of Mexico customs told me they wrote the number in my passport.” I was reaching.

“What number?” he asked as I was waving my passport in front of him. “There are no numbers for the document, I need the original paperwork.”

Shoving my passport in his face, I pointed to the Guatemalan stamp. His eyes squinted and he finally took the passport back, glanced at it and placed it back on the counter. “That’s your VIN number,” he sadly rejected my pleas.

“No. No,” I pleaded again. “This other number.. The border official told me this number is important” I was lying now. He grabbed the passport and stared blankly at the numbers.

“They don’t make sense to me,” he explained. I encouraged him to try and frustrated with my tenacity pulled a computer keyboard closer to him.

“I don’t think these numbers have anything to do with your motorcycle,” he tried to manage my expectations as he punched numbers into the computer. “You would have to be very lucky if there’s a record of your motorcycle here”

Playing the odds.

He asked me for my registration and license plate number. He kept pounding at the keys. I tried to decipher what he was punching in making sure that nothing was spelled wrong. He then started hitting the enter key. With eyes glazed over, he was intensely concentrating. More key punching. More enter key hitting.

Then he looked up at me. “I don’t know how,'” he said in Spanish.

“Do I have good luck,” I asked back.

“You are very, very lucky,” he said as he proceeded to go through the motions and clear me out of Guatemala and the sweat dried from my brow. It was 10 minutes before the border closed and i still needed to get import documentation from Honduras.

With a Gaugin book sitting on the top of his computer monitor, the Honduran customs agent had 10 or more years on his Guatemalan counterpart. He also had about 50 more pounds, too. Peering through thick glasses as he shuffled papers from the center drawer of his wooden desk. He then got up and left the office. Great, I figured that was it he closed. But 10 minutes later he came back with a notebook and scribbling. Seems he couldn’t find the VIN number on my motorcycle. He had left the office to examine my back, jot down any information he could find, then returned to the office and started threading papers in triplicate through a 30 year old manual Underwood typewriter.

Honduran Border OfficialA fan of Gaugin, he was studying his work in both the book and on the internet. He was more interested in me, my trip and my background than he was at answering my questions about his life. But soon he asked me for $35 and handed me my paperwork, passport and other documents, pounded a few rubber stamps on a slew of documents, handed me my passport and finally released me from the office.

My bike was parked within 10 feet of the border gate, a iron tube painted in yellow and black stripes. An elderly man with a Yankee baseball cap and only a few teeth was responsible for hoisting it up and pulling it down. He flashed his wrinkled hand in front of my face and showed me a few words scribbled in ink on his palm. “Tip”. Was the word he kept pointing at and trying to pronounce. I knew he was looking for a handout. “Oh. You mean trip?” I pretended not to understand and explained that I was in Guatemala and going to Honduras on a big “Trip”. He pointed to another word, this one in Spanish: “propina”, clearly the word for tip. But unfortunately I handed my last money to Honduran Customs. Not that there was a reason to offer him a tip. After all this was his job. But I reached into my Camelback pack and pulled out a tiny ceramic cup with a neck ribbon attached. The tourist office in Zacatecas, Mexico had given it to me as a gift. I’d been carrying it for a few weeks and finally found the perfect place to lose it. I put the cup and ribbon over his head and said “para mi amigo.” For my friend. He held it up, mocked drinking from it and laughed. Just as he was about to pull the gate up and let me through, my Honduran fan of Gaugin came running out of his office. Seems he forgot to stamp my vehicle information in my passport. Good thing I was detained by the man looking for a tip.

With a passport stamped with new info and the sun slowly setting, I rode through the border and into Ruinas de Copan.

Honduras at last.

Where Are Your Papers?

My driver picked me up at 7:30 from my Antigua hotel. Before he put the van into gear he handed me my envelope containing my important vehicle documents — the same documents that the BMW dealer insisted they have prior to working on my bike. And with a solid plan to pick up my bike and make for the Honduras border my cheerful early Saturday morning spirit dipped into a heart sinking feel of anxiety and depression. Suddenly the coffee started burning in my stomach. Or was it anxiety from my fear that my bike would still be sitting their with bad sprocket and chain and my nemesis, the rear tire still hanging from the bike of my bike? Getting out of Mexico was bad enough. Now perhaps I wouldn’t be able to leave Guatemala — yet.

We took off for Guatemala City. Lack of traffic on Saturday morning meant we were at Bavaria Motors, the BMW dealer in Guatemala City, in just over 30 minutes. All the way I kept asking my driver about the documents. Apparently Gustavo tried to drop them off and all I could get out of the fast-paced Spanish he yapped is that nobody was there to take the documents. When I asked him if Gustavo called the dealer, he said yes. And the string of words that he spit out after that fell on ears deaf to the vocabulary he was using.

By the time I arrived at the dealer, I already resigned to the fact my bike hadn’t been touched, and I’d spend an undesirable night in Guatemala City.

When I arrived I handed the envelope packed with the important papers, including the Guatemalan Temporary Vehicle Import documentation to my cute Guatemalan service writer. She hastily grabbed the documents and then led me to their upstairs lounge, offering me a cold Pepsi complete with a napkin neatly wrapped around the glass and told me that my bike would be ready at 10:30 AM. I breathed heavily and let out a sign of immense relief. All that anxiety for nothing. I guess they didn’t really need those papers. Huh?

Sometime after 11am I heard the gentle clicks of her high heels as she climbed the stairs and like a Guatemalan goddess appeared at my feet as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and moved from my prone position on the lounge sofa. With a handful of papers clenched in her delicate hand asked me to go to the “caja” — the cashier. I grabbed the papers and reviewed the documents. It was all in Spanish, of course. And the service and parts description were void of words in my limited Spanish vocabulary. But one word appeared twice and caught my eye: transmission. Surrounded by other words I didn’t understand I questioned this item.

You see in my earlier conversation over the phone with Jose, the service manager, I asked him to check out a nagging problem I’ve had with my bike since I bought it last April. Many times when starting up the bike and putting it into first gear from neutral, with clutch pulled I feel the gears move into place, but they immediately pop out. Sometimes to my chagrin when in a hurry and letting go of the clutch leaves me sitting there like a dummy. Sometimes it takes three of four good kicks of the gear shifter to get Doc into first gear. On very few occasions at low speeds it has popped out of gear. My last two or three service stops I neglected to report this problem. But here in Guatemala City, Jose and their staff were familiar with this problem but indicated it would take an extra two days to inspect and repair. I just couldn’t afford the time and they agreed to call the dealer in Costa Rica and let them know I’d be coming through and would like to address the problem when I arrive in San Jose later in the month.

Guat City Bmw

So when I spotted the word transmission, I wondered if they addressed the problem. And if so, were they charging me for it? Seems to me this clearly would be covered under the BMW warranty. She couldn’t answer my questions. So we went back to cat and mouse on the phone. But even this failed. Within a few minutes a young man appears, dressed in blue overalls complete with BMW logo and Bavaria Motors embroidered, he’s in his mid 20’s with dark skin, an easy demeanor and disarming smile. It’s Marco Antonio Barikas, one of the motorcycle service technicians. Using an effective combination of Spanish, hand sign language and pointing to a new BMW boxer cruiser bike parked outside the service bay, he tries to explain the list of parts and service completed on my bike. Some things just don’t translate. So he leads me across the street and down another side street, up a steep ramp, past an armed guard and into another service bay, complete with motorcycle lifts, the BMW computer, more technicians and two assistants cleaning my bike.

He pulls a bag of used parts from the workbench. It’s my old chain and sprockets. He points to the sprockets. These are the items listed as “transmission” on my work order invoice. We go through each other item. When he gets to the mirror I realize that they replaced the entire mirror when all I asked was to have the old pulled from the handle bar where it was sheered during my casual fall at the lake and waterfall in Mexico. I forgot to bring the mirror to the dealer when I dropped the bike off a couple days before. But I explained to Jose over the phone that I did have the mirror and I’d bring it when I picked up the bike. The cost of the mirror added up to more than $40 US. This seemed to be a big problem and more phone calls were made, trips across the street until they finally pulled off the new mirror, replaced it with mine and re-issued the invoice. Phew!

It took three of the beautiful service writers to review maps of Guatemala City looking for the best way to get me on the road toward Zacapa and Puerto Barrios. As they scribbled over my map and waved their arms in the direction of one of the soccer stadiums, argued amongst each other on the turns, I realized that this wasn’t going to be easy. And with the dealer shutting its doors and the clock ticking painfully close to 1pm, the plan of an early start to Honduras faded as work orders were reviewed, the bike was washed and the cashier dealt with my credit card payment. I asked how much a taxi would cost to guide me out of the city. The girls liked this idea and were quick to the phone. For about $8 I’d be out of the city. If that saved me an hour in running around, I’d gladly pay.

Soon I was reloaded and hopped on my freshly cleaned bike and following the taxi, headed toward the road to Honduras. After about 20 minutes and no less than 12 turns, of which I’d surely missed a few, the taxi pulled over, I handed him the cash and sped my way out of Guatemala City.

Where Are The Motorcycles? BMW Guatemala City

Guatemala City BikerWith more than 10,000 miles since I replaced my sprocket and chain, my mind drifted back several months ago when in August I was on the top of the world in Prudhoe Bay (Deadhorse) Alaska and then had that awful experience at the Anchorage BMW dealer. More than 10,000 miles and 3 months ago. Since then my eyes and my bike have seen plenty. And while my mind is clear and my energy and enthusiasm for this journey have hardly faded, my poor F650GS Dakar, Doc, is in serious need of attention.

With its chain stretched beyond capacity, my right side mirror snapped off and since the last rain my BMW top-box started leaking and on the back of my bike is that damn spare tire I’ve been carrying since leaving San Diego nearly 2 months and 4,000 miles ago. Doc is due for some serious service and attention. Everybody raved about the Guatemala City BMW dealer. As Gustavo scribbled directions on the back of a warn envelope my anxiety increased. Getting lost in Guatemala City wasn’t something I looked forward to. I could easily waste several hours trying to find the place. To make matters worse, the BMW dealer had two downtown locations.

So in booking my Tikal plans with his Space Travel & Tours Agency in Antigua, Gustavo offered a tourist taxi that I could follow to Guatemala City. There I could drop off the bike and return in the taxi to the more scenic and tranquil city of Antigua. A brilliant idea. There was nothing drawing me to Guatemala City and the notion of spending a night there was only brought on by the fact I needed to get my bike serviced. Gustavo also offered a taxi to take me back when the bike was repaired. All at a price much lower than if I were to find and negotiate taxi rides myself. So I stripped Doc of all of its luggage, Jesse bags and all and followed my driver to Guatemala City. Just so you don’t think I was wimping out and taking the easy route to Guatemala City, my driver, a resident of the busy city, soon had me following him in circles. And when he pulled into a gas station I knew he was lost. I’m sure I would have done much worse.

I had called Jose Delbusto the service manager at BMW in Guatemala earlier in the day. He told me that he had replied to my e-mail inquiry, but I never received it. When I arrived at the dealer in Guatemala City Delbusto was nowhere to be found. Neither were any motorcycles. The showroom had spanking new BMW cars (with prices in US dollars). When I peered into the service bays I didn’t see a single motorcycle. The charming Guatemalan lady with long silky black hair, big round eyes and wearing a classy uniform that accentuated her delightful curves handed me the telephone. For the next five minutes it was cat and mouse with the girl, the phone and my improving but still limited Spanish. Seems Jose was at another facility. He insisted I explain to him what I needed done. I insisted that he be there so I could physically go over the bike and play show and tell with all the things I wanted to address. This never happened. Instead I told him what to do, then I handed the phone to my Guatemalan girl and he explained to her so she could complete the work order.

“Where are all the motorcycles?” I asked Delbusto, concerned that my bike was going to be subcontracted to a “taller mecanico” somewhere in the barrios of Guatemala City.

“I sold them all!” he laughs, doing nothing for my confidence in this place.

“Where are all the bikes getting serviced?” I asked explaining this was more important.

“I sell 70 motorcycles a year; but more than 300 cars. We have more car customers,” he explained in good but somewhat broken english.

I realized I was getting nowhere so I bit my tongue and went with my gut and the fact that virtually everyone who had experience with this dealer had nothing but great things to say. An email I received earlier this week week from my riding companion through Central Mexico, Jeremiah, touted the dealer after he had basic service and his radiator replaced under warranty.

Just as I was getting ready to leave the woman asked me for my title and registration. Unfortunately, in unpacking all my gear prior to making the jaunt to Guatemala City from Antigua, I pullled all my gear from the bike, including all 10 copies of my registraiton, title and my temporary vehicle import permit issued by the Guatemalen customs at the Mexican border.

“We will not work on bike until we have,” she flashed beautiful teeth and a charming smile — I just didn’t like what was coming out of her mouth.

“Okay. I will fax to you later today,” I agreed considering it was pushing 5pm and the dealer closed at 6pm. There was no way I could produce the documents prior to closing. And tomorrow I had plans and could not get back to Guatemala City. She just shook her head and informed me that it had to be the original documents. I could do nothing bus say “O.K.”

Great. How was I going to pull this off?

I left the bike and rode back to Antigua as my driver exhibited the classic Guatemalan machismo aggression it’s drivers’ are so well known for throughout Central America. As we sped around buses, tested the G-force limit of his van and dodged delivery boys on three wheeled bikes throughout the city, he made a quick ellphone call to Gustavo at Space Travel in Antigua. In Spanish he explained to me that Gustavo would take my documents to the BMW dealer first thing in the morning.

I handed the important vehicle documents to my driver when he dropped me off at the hotel.

Tikal. The Grandest of Mayan Cities.

Tikal Jungle

Our guide led us through small dirt paths through the overgrown jungle. As we trekked toward, rustling sounds and deep throated roars stopped us in our tracks. Craning my neck to the thick canopy of the rainforest a group of 4 or 5 howler monkeys swung from branch to branch. The foliage did a good job hiding their round faces from the lens of my camera. Fascinated our group stood and stared until our necks grew weary and the anxiety of seeing the great pyramids, temples, tombs and hundreds of other structures that comprise perhaps the grandest of all Mayan ruins refocused our attention.

Tikal Tomb FaceJoining me on my tour of Tikal is a family from Coshocton, Ohio who after many years sponsoring a Guatemalan child decided to make the trek to this country to visit the child and her remote village. While many people eager to help those less fortunate get “sucked” into supporting a “foster child” through television ads or direct mail, perhaps many wonder if the money ever gets to the child and his or her family. For Jan Myers, her parents Judy and Dave Milligan and her son 12-year old son Maxx and 7-year old daughter Maggie, I was warmed by their generosity and inspired by their courage and adventure to drag young children to a country considered to be the most dangerous in Central America. Hiking for several miles through the jungle was an arduous task for the grandparents. As the monkeys swung above and the Toucan’s and other birds screeched, Judy casually reflected on her recent visit to her doctor.

“Do I need any shots, immunizations?” she asked her Coshocton-based family physician.

“No. You don’t need anything,” her doctor confidently comforted her. “You’re not going to be in the jungle or anything.”

She turned and looked at me, “It’s not like I’m going to be in the jungle.” I grinned as we stomped through trails thick with vegetation and with vines hanging from the tall trees begging us all to take a Tarzan-like swing and a let out a yell. Nope. Not like you’re going to be in the jungle!

Tikal Jungle2

Fact is, Tikal is deep in the jungle of the Parque Nacional Tikal, Tikal Temple1a protected zone of some 200 square miles which itself is on the edge of the larger Maya Biosphere Reserve. Unfortunately, the winds and rains of hurricane Wilma swept away my chance to see and compare Tikal with the Mayan cities of Palenque or Tchen Iza. Consider to the be the grandaddy of all Mayan ruins, it dates back to 900 BC and fell to ruin by 900 AD, perhaps triggered by an immense draught. It was rediscovered in 1848 by a government expedition and then later in the 19th century a Swiss scientist visited the temples and removed beautifully carved wooden lintels form the tops of Temples 1 and 4. Story has it that he hired Mayans to carry the massive carvings to Belize City where they were loaded on a ship bound for Europe. Somewhere during the journey the scientist was stricken with malaria and died. Mayans believe this was the spirits of rulers taking their revenge.

For nearly 100 years the site could only be visited by horseback and the ruins remained buried in the jungle under earth and choked by massive roots until 1951 when the Guatemalan army build an airstrip. The massive project to restore the ruins began in 1956 with teams from the University of Pennsylvania and Guatemala’s Institute of Anthropology. It wasn’t until 1984 that most of the work we see today was unearthed and partially restored, though Temple 5 was restored in 2003. And until the mid 1990’s visiting Tikal was 2 day journey by bus over painfully bad roads. Today it’s an 8 hour drive over decent roads or 50-minute flight from Guatemala City.

Tikal Temple 2A

The Mayan world spread from central Mexico to Honduras where today dozens of cities, many barely restored, are scattered throughout Mesamerica. Many of these cities battled for power over their outlying geographies. Wars between Mayan cities were common and Tikal’s victories generated hundreds of years of prosperity when giant temples were built and rebuilt and its population grew to somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 residents. Every 52 years the Mayans built temples on top of temples creating the massive dominating structures we see today. Coinciding with the merging of the Mayan and Astronomical calendars, during solstices and equinoxes shadows cast by the temples of the Grand Complex in Tikal create mind-bending visuals as they rise and fall in mirror like fashion on the opposing temple.

In the North Acropolis just north of Tikal’s Great Plaza, several stelae with circular alters at their bases were used for human sacrifices where it was common to pull the heart out of those sacrificed. Twin Pyramids in Complex’s Q and R (one still buried under the jungle and other only partially restored) are thought to be the youngest of all the structures at Tikal, built by Chitam, Tikal’s last known ruler perhaps to mark the passing of a katum (twenty 360-day years).

Tikal Temple2To go into depth of each of the plazas, acropolises and temples that I visited in Tikal is well beyond the scope of this entry. But suffice to say the sheer expanse of Tikal is amazing, if not daunting. Sitting nearly 200 feet above the jungle at the top of Temple 4, Tikal’s tallest structure I gaze over the jungle canopy where the roof combs of many of Tikal’s great temples push up through the jungle canopy as proud reminder of a great civilization that dominated these lands a thousand years or more before the religious Spanish cast their colonial net over these lands.


Photos: (1) from the top of Temple 4 view of Temples 1, 2 and others puncture the thick canopy of the jungle; (2) looking into the Tomb of Jaguar, the Mayan leader that built Temple 1 for himself and Temple 2 for his wife; (3) hiking thorugh thick jungle to the great ruins of Tikal; (4) Temple 1 in Tikal’s grand plaza; (5) the rear of Temple2; (6) front of Temple 2 in The Grand Plaza.

Modern Antigua. Colonial Heritage.

If I were to accept the US State Department’s briefings on the countries I’m traveling to, I’d likely stay home.

[…] Avoid close contact with children, including taking photographs, especially in rural areas. Such contact can be viewed with deep alarm and may provoke panic and violence. Rumors of foreigners stealing children to sell surface periodically and can provoke a violent response towards strangers. Foreign tourists have been attacked by mobs and one has been killed […]

But when it comes to Guatemala guidebooks from those geared to budget travel to others that cater to five-star travel the universal them is danger. That is, Guatemala is perhaps the most dangerous country in Central America. A small handwritten sign at the Hotel de Santiago on the north side of the Lago de Atilan warns guests to be careful, not walk villages alone and never walk the streets at night. The hotel management strongly suggests not carrying cameras or other gear indicative of wealth. It notes there have been armed robberies in the area.

Antigua ArchIn Antigua I’m told that guided hikes up the volcanoes are imperative and that these excursions include an armed guard. But for this motorcycle traveler I feel extremely safe. Smiles are returned when I walk through the poorest villages. Men who’d be profiled as dangerous and unfriendly are happy to engage in conversation and answer my sometimes silly questions in what I’m sure is terribly broken Spanish. But again, they understand me.

AntiguaFear is a detriment. With it travelers close themselves to experiencing any locale. Afraid to look others in the eye, afraid to eat food from anyplace that doesn’t accept a credit card, afraid to engage in communication, fear is a buzz kill. An Australian ridicules Sacha for carrying his laptop around town. He could be ripped off. And while there may be some truth in the warning, it’s important to be prudent and act with a degree of vigilance, it cannot be the foundation of a journey.

Antigua is an enchanting town. Nestled in a sweeping highland valley between two volcanoes, the third capital of Guatemala, Antigua was settled in 1541 after a massive mudslide from Volcán Agua, destroyed the previous capital (now called Ciudad Vieja) a few kilometers from here. The city reached its peak in the mid 1700’s where its population swelled to more than 50,000 and a construction boom prompted by competing religious orders that settled here resulted in a rich collection of colonial buildings including schools, monasteries, hospitals and residences. But in 1773 a series of earthquakes damaged Antigua so much that the capital was moved one more time to its present location 50 kilometers south in Guatemala City.

Antigua Gov Building

Thanks to its identification as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, Antigua has retained its rich architecture and colonial heritage. While many marvelous buildings lie seemingly in Antigua Fountaindecrepit ruin, others have been immaculately restored. The hub of the once grand city sat around the Parque Central which is framed by Catedral San Jose a massive church decadently build with a massive dome, 18 chapels and an alter inlaid with mother of pearl, ivory and silver and the Palace of the Captains General with its block long run of arches supporting this large constructor which was once home to colonial rulers and now seres as the seat of Antigua’s modern government.

Walking the cobbled streets and through the Parque Central, drinking cappuccino’s and dining at the fine cafés it’s easy to forget this is Guatemala, even Central America. Cheap language schools, fine restaurants and minimal traffic draw travelers from around the world and locals eager to escape the smog, congestion and dirt of the current capital flock here. Yet in the hills indigenous Mayan people still grow coffee, weave colorful fabrics and live a simple lifestyle so far removed from what I see here in Antigua. I must return here, spend more time and learn more Spanish. Tomorrow I’ll head to perhaps the center of the Mayan world and the largest complex of Mayan ruins in all of Mesoamerica, Tikal.


Photos: (1) Perhaps Antigua’s signature, the 17th century Arco de Santa Catalina was built as a passageway between the monastery and adjoining school. (2) Catedral San Francisco on the main Plaza de Armas in Antigua, Guatemala; (3) Palacia de los Capitanes Generales; (4) Fountain gracing Plaza de Armas.

Atilan to Antigua: Worlds Apart.

I started to climb the road out of Pana toward Solola eager to gaze over the lake from the hilltop town and experience the road I missed when riding in the dark a couple nights back. But when I pulled into a lookout Sacha blasted up behind me and ripped off his helmet yelling, “there’s another faster road out of here.” He was pissed I had pulled out of the gas station impatient waiting for him fidgeting with his things and headphones.

Atilan View

“I wanted to see the lake from up here,” I explained. He started speaking with the armed policemen stationed up her over amazing expansive views of the lake and its three volcanoes. He interrupted their comments as the better road would be the one he’d chosen. Though after he stormed away without waiting for me to do any more talking, the cops replied to my “loco” comment with a simply “bastante”. Simply meaning the guy is nuts. I learned later that the road was a rough one with many parts washed out from the rains. Instead, I took the road through Solala and headed south to Antigua, a mere two hours away.

Roadside Cafe Mud

Along the road women dressed in colorful woven fabrics carried bundles of wood, small limbs about 4 or 5 inces in diameter in need bundles. Fuel for cooking meals for their family. Small children with dirty brown faces somewhat curious yet seemingly confused watch me cruise by. I left my left hand and offer a wave. Sometimes it’s returned, otherwise their heads turn as if on a swivel as I continue.

Along the way I again witnessed the remains of the destruction hurricane Stan lashed on Guatemala. A roadside café all but buried in mud. A new bridge here. And piles of mud and dirt on the side of the road. Then at one site of a mudslide I saw a gathering of 50 or more traditional indigenous Maya peoples gathered around a yellow dump truck. The truck was filled with clear cellphone bags containing basic living stables such as food and the like. I stopped to learn more. The government sent the relief here but nobody seemed to know when another would arrive. I’m sure that earlier in the month another truck made a stop, but I couldn’t get a clear answer. A man bearing a clipboard shouted names and the bags were claimed one by one. Pointing to something in one man’s bag I asked “Que es?” (what’s that). He simply replied “Mush”. I said that’s the same as in english. it was a bag of oatmeal.

Guat Aid Truck

Women surrounding the truck were dressed in those same colorful woven fabrics I saw crusing this road. Even more, nearly all sported an entourage of little people: children, almost always with one wrapped in a blanket and slung over their back with little eyes peaking out. Some completely wrapped. I wondered if they were carryingn offspring or bundles of wood, coffeee or fruit. One woman barely 5 feet tall with dark wrinkled skin and deep black eyes and through her parched lips her smile reveealed receding gums, gold teeth and a hungry mouth let me peak inside her blanket. Sure enough a 3 month old girl with her eyes gentle closed, tiny nose, mouth and ears and a bush of black hair. Sleeping sound.

Guat Aid Bag Review

Guat Aid Scene2One of the woman told me she had seven children. All girls. An hour later I found myself in the beautiful town of Antigua with its streets littered with tourists and shops packed with high-end gifts, plentiful food and people driving high-end cars. I thought to myself that just an hour from here it’s a different world. People waiting for handouts from the government not knowing when the next would arrive. Their homes destroyed by mudslides. Yet here in Antigua locals tout tours up volcanoes and Spanish classes, while tourists whip out Quetzales by the hundreds to take in expensive meals and fancy coffee. The dichotomy of the two locales tears me up as I wait for Sacha to find his way to Antigua.Guat Aid Scene1


Photos: (1) View of Lago de Atilan, Guatemala from outside Solola; (2) Roadside cafe buried after Hurricane Stan mudslide; (3) Guatemala government sponsored aid truck filled with plastic bags of food and essentials for those people left homeless after hurricane damage; (4) One family reviewing the contents of their bag of aid supplies; (5 & 6) Mayan mothers with their most precious cargo slung in colorful garb wait for their names to be called to retrieve a bag of stuff.

Lago de Atilan, Guatemala.

Atilan Sunset

I’d read about it in the guidebooks. Nearly everyone who’d been to Guatemala raved about it yet arriving in the dark last night I had no idea until I woke the next morning and gazed over this beautiful lake flanked by three ominous volcanoes. For two nights I stayed in Panajachel where I saw more tourists than perhaps anywhere else on my journey. Though Oaxaca comes close. A beautiful volcanic lake sitting about 7,000 feet above seal level Panajachel has long been on the travelers circuit since the 60’s. Its early years perhaps tainted or praised for its easy access to drugs, today Pana, as it’s referred to by travelers and locals alike, is a shopping mecca for Guatemalan handicrafts. Restaurants are first class and accommodations run from the cheapest to the most expensive in Guatemala. But it’s the cheap living that attracts most travelers. The main drag that starts or ends on the lake is littered with handicraft shops, cafes and restaurants. Mayan girls and older woman taunt tourists in restaurants with weavings, necklaces and other handicrafts while young boys 9-14 years old tote shine boxes looking to polish the boots and shoes of travelers for a mere 3 Quetzales (about 40 cents).

Moto Taxi Pana Bus Guat

Walking down this busy street I heard a familiar voice, “Allan!?” It’s Dave Welton of the infamous Dave and Deb duo I met and rode with from Creel to Zacatecas. I hadn’t seen them in nearly two weeks and here they are in Panajachel. The two of them are taking the world on BMW F650GS’s. After selling their home and all of their possessions, they mounted their bikes and headed south. They are not sure how far they’ll go or where they go next. But both are alive with an adventurous spirit and braving the villages and cities of Mexico. While our time together amounted to merely a few days, it feels like running into old friends after only a few weeks of wandering the villages of lands unknown.

Pana River Damage Yet despite the constant sales push of the local people, Pana is a place one could hang for a while. Dave and Deb plan to stay for a week taking Spanish classes. Nearby, other villages such as San Pedro, Santiago Atilan and Santa Catarina on Lago de Atilan are accessible by road but to truly experience the villages of Lago de Atilan is to take water taxis or charter a boat. at about 12 miles long and 6 miles across the shores are punctuated by steep hills and three volcanoes. Depending on the position of the sun, the lakes water changes from deep blues to steely grey and green. Unfortunately, Hurricane Stan in early October unleashed its wrath on Pana and many of the 14 villages sitting on the shores and in the hills above the lake. A small river running west of town couldn’t handle the massive rains and its shores collapsed taking with it dozens of homes, businesses and the only bridge carrying pedestrian and vehicular traffic to the outskirts of the town. Even worse, a small village of Panabaj made international news as a huge mudslide took out hundreds of houses and killing nearly 2,000 people.

Pana Mudslide

Panava GraveIn my trip to the site of the mudslide I was sickened by the site of lime spread on the ground. While I know the bodies of many buried deep in the mud were never excavated, I’m just not sure of the effect of the lime. I could see just the roofs of buildings and timber strewn everywhere. Crosses and small monuments covered by the remains of corrugated tin roofs dotted the landscape of a large clearing where many homes were buried. One man I met was chopping would and tending fire around a small enclave walled by the corrugated tin. A woven blanket and a few items of dirt clogged clothes were piled in the corner. He explained to me that he lost his home, his wife and two of his children. One boy with him appeared to be a surviving son. I couldn’t must the Spanish to ask him how he survived. My heart sank deep and I handed him the loose Quetzale coins that were clanking in my pocket as I wondered through the wasteland of destruction and death.

Panava Kids1Panava Girl

I learned that rather than rebuild the community under the mudslide, the local people and government have agreed to dedicate the area as sacred ground. As I walked back toward the lake I couldn’t help but notice the elevated spirit of the children kicking balls, riding their bikes and laughing and giggling. Older people climbing down from the mountain with sacks on their back carrying fruit from coffee plants bring their harvest to homes still standing to have their take weighed and converted to cash. A large sack of coffee sitting about 4 feet high and four feet in circumference fetches $20 or $30 depending on the weight. My guess it would take days to fill one of these sacks.

Panava School

I made my way back to the boat glancing over my shoulder at the gouge in the mountain above me wondering if those people buried ever saw what was coming.


Photos: (1) The captivating evening over still waters at Lago de Atilan, Guatemala; (2 &3) The colorful moto-taxis and classic Guatemalan buses set the mood for journeying through Guatemala; (4) Panajachel river damage from Hurricane Stan in October 2005; (5) The fatal path of the mudslide that buried Panabaj, Guatemala on the shores of Lake Atilan taking 1,400 or more lives with it; (6) To be decreed sacred ground, remnants of homes lost form the frame for the buried alive; (7 & 8) innocence and smiles, these kids play ball and goof around on the dried mud that took neighbors, family members and friends, note the sacks of coffee the girl in photo 8 is leaning on; (9) school drowned in mud. note the basket ball court, only about 4 feet from ground to hoop; roof-line almost dragging on the mud.


Going For The Border

Some days things can go all wrong. Not that I’d throw the last couple days into the “bad day” bucket, but I might’ve preferred a different outcome. The plan was simple enough. Get an early start, ride with our new Chiapas friends (Hernon, Pancho, Roger and Chata) to Comitán where we’d have breakfast then make a break for Ciudad Cuauhtémoc at the border of Guatemala and Mexico. Just shy of the border our friends would take us for a swim in a beautiful lake and show under the force of a beautiful waterfall. Not a bad plan for our last day in Mexico.

The ride to Comitán took us through small villages and around large sweeping turns. The six of us road nicely spaced out with Roger leading the pack on his big 1150RT. Chata rides a 1300cc Vulcan and its cruiser style makes for a “tranquilo” ride so he spent most of the day taking the rear position. Pancho with perhaps the sportiest and fastest bike in the bunch was riding on a rear tire in dire need of changing, so he took it easy.

Arriving at the lake we were greeted by a Sunday crowd including a gleeful and happy mariachi band. The tiny dirt road to the parking lot took us through a shallow water crossing and to a slight perch above the lake. Picnic tables and locals eating freshly cooked fish and drinking beer lined the east side of the lake. The tiny parking lot was crammed with a few cars. To make it to a safe parking place we had to thread a needle between a red pickup and a picnic table with hungry locals. Everyone slowly and safely passed through the needle — except me– I’m not sure how it happened. Perhaps I was going just a bit too slow. But I lost my balance and the bike dropped to my left and into the red pickup. The good news is that only part of my bike hit the front passenger tire. The bad news is the part that took the impact was my left side mirror. And after hearing the horror stories of the insanely aggressive Guatemalan drivers, I was stricken with a slight tinge of fear. But with locals helping me right my bike and a cerveza in hand, the mishap quickly faded.

That is, until the next one.

Hernan WaterfallTo get to the falls we took a small boat across the lake and then hiked a few hundred yards to the waterfall. But to get to the ultimate seating spot where the water falls past a cave and oover rocks smoothed over the years making for a great seating spot, we had to wade through chest deep water just above the lower falls. I forgot to take my shirt off before leaving the bikes. And I guess I was still reeling from and feeling a bit sheepish about my stupid bike dump, I wasn’t as thorough as I should have been when disrobing my motorcycle suit and preparing for my swim. So with my shirt on and my camera in a small ziploc baggy I eagerly jumped into the water. Quickly I realized the fast moving water sported a current more likely to pull me over the lower falls. I went from daintily walking across the water to throwing my arms into action to keep the water from sending me over the edge. It looked more painful and scary then the actual experience. But Sacha and the gang from Cristobal feared I didn’t know how to swim as they watched my panicked moves to get across the 50 foot span.

It’s when I finally did reach the other side I realized I was still wearing my neck pouch containing my passport, immunization record and a couple credit cards. I pulled out the sopping wet documents and held them for all to see. As clouds moved across the sky revealing the hot beating sun, I grabbed for my sunglasses. Grasping air I panicked again. Gone. Seems that my water episode took with it another casualty.

Ever have one of those days?

It gets better.

Our new friends eager to spend as much time with us and at the lake and falls, time passes quickly. Next thing Roger is trying to convince me to ride back to Cristobal (a few hours) and spend another evening. Images of 4:30am and a few more days in Mexico doesn’t necessarily sound like a bad deal. But I’ve got to move on and decline the invitation. They assure us that the border is a scant 30 minute ride and just beyond the border is Huehuetenango, a perfect stop for a hotel just inside Guatemala. So we enjoy another beer, share more stories and take turns with cameras and video.

Chiapas Gang Waterfall

We reach the border just after 4pm. Normally not a big problem. But it’s Sunday. And the customs office responsible for officially checking our vehicles out of Mexico closed early today: at 4pm. We just missed it. Sacha is a bit hot under the collar and threatens to blow off the customs clearance and just head into Guatemala. He’s livid that they’re closed and wants nothing to do with Mexico any more. I explain the stupidity in his logic, but it doesn’t sink in. Arriving at the border we quickly made friends with one of the officials who ultimately guided us to the closed office. I suggest we convince him to take our documents in the morning to customs and we could move on. Not really confident this was a good idea, it was an attempt to bring Sacha down to earth and reason with him. All he wanted to do was get out of Mexico. All I wanted was a proper and clean exit so there’d be no future problems.

You see if we don’t check our vehicles out of the country, when we return again in the future the Mexican government will think these vehicles are still in their country and they could refuse us entry or charge us a fat chunk of change for duty. Sacha didn’t care. But after our friend the armed border official showed us the front page of a Guatemalan newspaper with a full page photo of two dead bodies lying in the middle of the road and another article showing other dead bodies from a head on collision involving several motorcycles and explained that traveling by night in Guatemala would be a risky proposition he was convinced to stay the night at the border and do a proper check in and out in the morning.

Once again a good plan.

But the steady incline out of Cuauhtemoc toward the border didn’t sit well with my loose and stretched chain. You would figure that after the first time it fell off, I would have stopped and tightened it. But the beating sun, steep incline on a narrow road and Sacha’s quick bolt several minutes ahead of me tainted my logic and after slipping the chain back on I headed up the road again. But my luck ran out. The second time the chain came off it got jammed tight around the smaller front sprocket. It was about a half an our later with my hands black from oil and grease and parts scattered on the side of the road when Sacha showed up. It took nearly an hour to safely unclog the chain and get it back on — tighter and more secure — so I thought.

But after paying our 20 pesos each for fumigation of the bikes, 41 Quetzales (Guatemalan currency about $5) for our motorcycles and another couple bucks for our immigration card, I looked at my chain. It still felt too loose. And I was a bid paranoid the thing would fall off again. Rather than risk it causing me havoc on the Pan American Highway amidst mad bus drivers, I decided to tighten it more. Sacha went livid, screaming that I should have taken his advice on the side of the road a couple hours earlier and tighten it even more. Rather than shutting up and letting me just do the deed, he was bent on living in the past and spitting out useless advice about what I should have done in the first place. Maybe he was right, but the tension wasn’t helping the situation.

I tightened the chain and moved on down the hurricane battered highway. Huge chunks of the road were ripped up and massive piles of mud and rock littered around every tight corner were evidence that the hillsides hanging over this road dumped debris at virtually every turn. Traffic backed up at several points where 200 feet of road had just dropped down the hillside. A new road under construction diverted traffic around missing chunk of tarmac. At another construction point one lane had dropped about 20 feet below the other. Hurricane Stan had ripped through Guatemala a scant month before. I’m sure if I had tried to cross the border here even two weeks ago things were rougher. The bulk of the destruction occurred closer to the Pacific coast at the western border crossing at Tapachula where I’m sure the damage to the road is worse.

As the sun disappeared behind the volcanic strewn mountains to the west, Sacha and I commiserated over our predicament. With the border guards warnings of night travel and the tainted reputation of Guatemala, we agreed to stop at the first hotel we’d spot. Problem was, it was soon pitch dark and the tiny towns had no signs of rooms or motels. At the turn toward Solala we continued toward our destination of Lake Atilan and the town of Panajachel. Within 30 minutes we were in the busy, bustling hillside city of Solala. Loud music pounding out of cars riding the crowded and narrow cobblestone streets. Food cards with dangling incandescent lights lined the central plaza as three-wheeled moto taxis honked their horns and maneuvered through the clogs of people walking the streets. The first hotel I spotted was perfect. Only $5 for both us. But it was sold out. Sacha did a reconnaissance of the area round the plaza. Two other hotels: sold out. I thought we were more than an hour from Panajachel. But my estimation was wrong. It was about 10km — but down a steep winding and twisting road. We had no choice and rode down it. Avoiding dogs, missing pieces of road and loose gravel and mud we ride into Pana, as it’s known among travelers, at about 7pm.

Safe. Sound. And thirsty.


Photos: (1) Hernon taking in a good chill at the waterfall just shy of the Guatemala border; (2) our forever friends from Chiapas and San Cristobal Pancho, Chata, Roger and Hernon. And if Sasha would download his photos I’d have some cool shots of my chain all messed up… and me working on it roadside!