Leaving San Cristobal de las Casas early in the morning, in the freezing cold and draped in fog, I made it to the La Mesilla border crossing at the frontier of Guatemala. I hadn’t done much research on the border crossing before hand, so I lost some time missing the Aduana and Banjercito buildings for my exit from Mexico. After asking around at the border, I was sent back up the road a couple of KMs to the buildings, where I handled my motorcycle exit paperwork and got myself checked out of Mexico. The Guatemala border crossing was pretty straight forward, although La Mesilla is a small and hectic border town. To enter the country, you pay about $1US to get the bike fumigated, then are allowed to pass across the border and start taking care of your Guatemalan paperwork.
First things first — check myself into Guatemala. I have my passport checked and stamped within 5 minutes, but end up staying in the office for another 15 minutes arguing with the workers about a 20 peso “fee” I was charged. All of the other people coming through were paying a fee ranging from 20-60 pesos, but I knew from reading online that the border crossing into Guatemala was free. So, I kept asking the workers for a receipt for my 20 pesos, which they kept giving excuses for not having.
“I’m waiting for a receipt for the 20 pesos I paid you.”
“You need to go to the bank to get the receipt.”
“Ok, which bank? Where is it? Do I need something from you to get the receipt?”
“It’s the bank down the street.” (points indiscriminately down the road)
“Which bank? What’s the name? I need a receipt for paying the 20 pesos”
“We don’t give receipts for that. It’s too small of a fee.”
“Look… I got a receipt for paying the 8 peso fumigation fee. Here it is. That’s even smaller!”
After going around in circles a few times, the boss in the office eventually caved in and gave me the 20 pesos back. I was glad that I had already had my Passport stamped and stayed in the office to get my fee returned, as it was just going into the pockets of the border workers. I’m also glad that my Spanish has improved enough to have an argument with someone and be successful. Previously, I have to express my disappointment with non-verbal cues, and can’t get across the point I’m trying to make. It’s now much easier for me to argue with someone, and understand what they’re saying to me in a difficult situation.
The next step was to checkin my motorcycle. In the next building, an officer fills out your paperwork, checks the VIN on your bike, and issues the necessary permits for entry. I then went to a bank next door to pay the import fee. After putting a sticker on my windshield, I hopped back on the bike, looked at my maps and GPS, and made my way towards Lago de Atitlan.
A few hours into Guatemala, and I’m stuck in traffic. There are lane closings on the road, and it’s full of construction trucks, chicken buses spewing diesel exhaust fumes in my face, cars, and motorcycles. I finally make it past traffic and get back on my way, but while trying to avoid a particularly large vibrador (speed bump), my rear wheel slips off the road and down 6″ onto the dirt side of the road. My bike slides sideways trying to gain traction, and the rear wheel comes over the curb and back up on the road. But at this point, the rear wheel is pointing at an angle and has instant traction, which causes me to lose control the bike and get thrown into a low-speed high side crash, where I get launched off the front of the bike and hit the ground.
My first concern after crashing is the traffic behind me. I hop up off the pavement and get out of the way while checking my body for serious injuries. Not feeling anything too serious, I lift up the bike and push it off the road to check for damage. It looks like the rack for my panniers has bent, but it’s still usable after using a ratchet strap to secure the pannier. I take a break for 15 minutes, waiting for the adrenaline to leave my body and assure that I’m not too injured. My hand is sore, and I have a couple of scraps along my shin from my impact with the road. Luckily, my gear did its job again and I have no serious injuries at all. I’m continually grateful that I purchased the gear I’m using as it’s protected me from lots of minor drops and falls and a couple more serious accidents.
I continue on my way to Lago de Atitlan, riding through the small mountain villages around the lake. It’s foggy and chilly in the mountains, and I’m anxiously waiting for my first glimpse of one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Aldous Huxley said “Lake Como [a lake in Italy], it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.”
Before I glimpse the lake, I stumble upon a broken down adventure rider on the side of the road. I pull over and meet Jeremy, a Canadian guy riding through Central America on his 1979 Honda CX500. His blog is located at www.jgblog.ca.
Jeremy has broken his clutch lever and is trying to repair it, but doesn’t have a bolt he can use. I dig through my spare parts and find a bolt to fix his clutch lever and reattach another broken part on his bike. Jeremy has been in Guatemala for a few weeks and is on his way to Antigua after spending some time in Lago de Atitlan. I decide to join him and we make our way to Antigua.
Riding secondary roads around the lake, Jeremy and I get a little turned around and I hear him honk behind me to pull over. I move to the side of the road and slow down, but my rear tire locks up and slides along some gravel, sending me down into a a low-side crash. Once again, I stand up and check myself for injuries. Sore from my previous accident in the day, this one just compounded the soreness and adds more to the other side of my body. Oscar, my bike, is even more beat up than before. My luggage rack has cracked in a couple of places and my pannier hangs down perilously close to the ground. I’ve also shattered my second tool-holder.
Jeremy and I spend an hour getting my luggage reattached and picking up tools from the ground. We’re still hoping to make it to Antigua, but it’s starting to get late and the light is fading. The last thing I want to do is ride at night in Guatemala, especially after having 2 crashes in my first day here. We are making good time on our way, but the sun dips behind the horizon and we’re riding in the dark. My headlight bracket has been tweaked and doesn’t allow my lighting to work very well, so I follow Jeremy closely. We get lost, turned around, and end up riding around Antigua for an hour before we finally make it into town and to a hostel that he knows about.
I’m sore, hungry, tired, and stressed after riding for the last 14 hours, 2 hours of that in the dark. It’s been a crazy first day in Guatemala: 2 crashes, a busted bike, sore body, and riding at night. How exciting! We settle down at the hostel and relax. I’m thankful that I’m ok and the damage to Oscar is minimal and can be easily repaired.
The next couple of days were spent relaxing and recuperating at the hostel and hanging out in Antigua, which I’ve had described to me as “Traveler’s Disneyland”. The town has been built up over the last 15 years around tourism. There are more travel companies, shops, restaurants, and coffee shops than I’ve seen in a long time. Not necessarily my preference when traveling, but there’s a great nightlife with loads of Spring Breakers on short trips, so the restaurants and bars are packed in the evenings.
Jeremy and I score some wonderful and safe free camping in the city, and jump all over the opportunity to camp out, work on our bikes, and stay somewhere for free. A couple of other Adventure motorcyclists are camping at the site, so we all tell stories and work on fixing our bikes. Nick, a British lad who has driven through Africa, Europe, and now the Americas, has his engine in pieces after bending a rod, and is doing a complete rebuild.
We setup shop at the campsite in an abandoned building, and spend spare time reading, exploring the markets and land around Antigua, and trying out some of the culinary options in Guatemala.
After a couple of weeks in Antigua, Jeremy and I agree to make our way to Panajachel, a town on Lago de Atitlan. It’s only a 2 hour ride to Atitlan, but Jeremy and I ran into some trouble with a couple police officers. They waved us over to the side of the highway, asked for our documentation and started asking for “recuerdos”, or souvenirs. I play my usual non-Spanish speaking dumb gringo routine, and feign ignorance at what they’re asking for. Jeremy tries to do the same, but decides it will be easiest to give them some gas and a couple of cigarettes so we don’t have any more hassles.
About 20 minutes after our run-in with the police, I feel a weird sensation on my bike while on a rough road. The bike seems to be bouncing up and down like a spring every time I hit a bump. I know I need to see what’s going on, but there’s no where on the road to pull off, so I have to wait a half mile until a dirt section opens up. I jump off the bike and see oil dripping from my new aftermarket rear suspension.
The main seal at the bottom of the shock has blown out, and all of the oil for dampening the suspension has dripped out onto my rear tire. I clean up the most I can, and decide that I can limp the bike the next 20km to Panajachel. Jeremy and I ride frustratingly slowly, but make our way to a cheap hotel in Panajachel.
Panajachel is beautiful, and I’m glad to be stuck there waiting to see how I can fix my rear suspension. It’s been easy for me to settle down someplace for a couple of weeks or a month, and I decide to do the same in Panajachel, as it meets the requirements I have for someplace to stay: cheap, beautiful, comfortable, with friendly people and places to explore.