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.

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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!

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