Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bordering on the ridiculous!!!

Leaving Panajachel was easy we had grown tired of the place and were desperate to get moving after such a long time off the bike, we had plotted our route to avoid the road that runs along the edge of the lake as everyone warned us of robberies and hold ups that still occurred in this area. True to form I missed the turnoff  and before we knew it we were on the wrong road, which was the road we shouldn't have been on, which was also the road where all the robberies had taken place.....Dont say anything just keep riding, the views from around the edge of the lake were spectacular but I wasn't stopping for sightseeing this photo was taken on the move.


The run round the lake eventually took us back to the main road and relative safety, we had avoided being held up or robbed and the most hazardous part of the ride was crossing the shit poor attempt to repair a washed out bridge.

"There doesn't appear to be a road on the other side" (Shut up and ride you wuss!)

A bit further down the road we came across the pick up truck that held the record for the most people crammed on board, we didn't have time to count the heads as we passed but on closer inspection I think there's around twenty!

What happens if the bloke in the middle wants to get off at the next stop??

The usual market day traffic in rural Guatemala.

We arrived at the border with El Salvador around one o'clock and were suprised by the lack of traffic, we needed to use the services of money changers to get rid of our unspent Guatemalan Quetzals and convert them into US dollars which have been adopted by El Salvador. We ended up aquiring the services of Raul one of the local tramitadores or helpers, for a few dollars they will run around and hopefully save you some time in what always turns out to be a bloody administrative nightmare, they know where to go and what to do as often the buildings are not readily identifiable and of course there's the language problem!

Here we are with Raul in front peddling like stink through 'no mans land'

Getting out of Guatemala was fairly straightforward and with only a slight delay in getting the VIN numbers checked at the El Salvador side we were through in a couple of hours. As always it was  hot and humid and whilst Joe and I took care of the paperwork Sue and Lynn tried to ignore the persistant beggars that frequent the borders in the hope of picking up loose change.

Border chaos and the usual standing around.

Before we left Raul he offered to ring a colleague at the Honduran border and arrange for him to meet us in a couple of days time, this would hopefully save us some time at what was supposed to be the most time consuming crossing in Central America.
The first thing that you notice on entering El Salvador is the general improvement in living standards, instead of straw huts at the side of the road most buildings are constructed of more substantial material, wood, concrete block, tin and there is the occasional street lighting. We found accommodation that evening at a swanky golf resort on the Pacific coast (now if only I could get hold of a set of clubs!)

El salvador coastline.

BOB tucked in for the night and 'Zuki' still wearing a dress.

Pacific sunset.

"Crabs Sir"

As I pointed out on the last blog entry,  we were rushing to get through El Salvador and into Honduras before the Day of the Dead which was in 3 days time, this was just in case everybody at the border had a dose of can't be arsed after the night before. Politically Honduras is in turmoil at the moment and whilst people we had spoken to had not given us cause for concern, there were reports that if the situation wasn't resolved shortly then neighbouring countries would consider closing their borders and as such the best plan of attack for us was to get through in as short a time as possible.

Here's another reason not to hang around in Honduras or El Salvador for that matter, I'm sure nobody wants to take pot shots at tourists on motorcycles we just don't want to get hit by the odd ricochet!

 If we could get through the El Salvador-Honduras border in under four hours there would be a chance that we could drive across Honduras and out the other side in one day (as long as we could reduce the number of times we got stopped by the Military or Police)

The gap between the barriers was just too narrow for the panniers.

The next day involved a run along the pacific coast road which was supposed to rival highway 1 in California. The road itself is probably a better ride but the ocean scenery is obscured by the jungle and only occasionally  would you get a glimpse of the coast, also, unlike California there is no provision made for people to stop and take photos. The closest town of any size to the Honduran border was San Miguel which is about 50 miles from the border town of El Amatillo so we chickened out of finding somewhere closer and cheaper and booked in to the Comfort Inn. The good thing about hotel chains is there is always hot water, internet access and breakfast, Oh yes, and a guy with a pump action shotgun to watch over BOB.

Bike security.....a 3 quid tip and it's cheaper than a bike lock and a lot more impressive!

We needed to get to the border before the tour buses so we got up at 5:15 and were out of town at just gone 6:00, On the way to the border we met Phil from the US who was heading as far a Nicaragua, he had managed to get this far with only photocopies of his important documents and it hadn't cost him a penny (this was about to change).

"No Phil, you don't need the original documents, in fact if you've got some coloured crayons you can do without your passport"!!

When we arrived at El Amatillo, Raul's 'cousin' Ronnie was waiting for us and even with Phil in tow we were through the El Salvador side in under one hour. This looked all too easy, and true to form the Honduran bureaucratic monster was about to bite back.

The Gates of Hell

The first indication we got that things were not going well was when we parked the bikes next to some offices and there was a portable generator running outside....Apparently power cuts are a regular occurrence and just another hindrance to the process of getting through the border, so take a deep breath, hand your documents to Ronnie and relax. Three and a half hours later.............I cannot bring myself to recall the full details of why it all took so long, I break out in a cold sweat at the thought of us sitting there next to a droning fucking generator, sweating buckets, forced to eat greasy chicken while these inept morons lord about in their air conditioned office. I'm convinced that the Border Officials, the Police, the Customs and the helpers are all in league with each other and contrive to extort as much money as possible out of decent folks like us. 
BASTARDS!! (big letters in bold just to show how much I hate these people).

"Is there somewhere I could buy a cheap RPG please".

If these were dogs someone would throw a bucket of water over them!

Now here's a thing, why do people smile for the camera even when they're really pissed off?

The most annoying part of the whole thing was Phil, who had tagged along and used Ronnie was out of the place 45 minutes before us, however, his lack of original documents cost him the best part of 100 dollars. Once through the border we picked up the pace on probably the best road in Central America, as the Pan American highway runs through the South of the country it avoids the highlands and the twisting mountain roads that normally double the riding time. At this time we knew we could get over the border into Nicaragua, it was just a question of how far, the horror stories of corrupt Honduran Police ripping off travelers meant I was constantly aware of checkpoints and always ready to slip into my Stupid tourist, very very sorry mode! We were stopped a few times after the border but only to check documents and the procedure was always the same for me (Don't try this at home please)
10 point plan for checkpoints: (Police or Traffic Cops)
1) Take off the helmet or lift visor
2) Remove sunglasses to show sincere eye contact
3) Smile
4) Shake hands
5) Offer greeting in feeble attempt at Spanish
6) Smile again
7) Fumble with reams of paperwork from every country but the one you're travelling through
8) Apologise badly in Spanish
9) Mention Ronaldo, David Beckham, Chelsea or some other soccer related trivia
10) Be very grateful for their time, bowing humbly as you fire up the bike and ride off into the sunset

10 point plan for checkpoints: (Military)
This is exactly the same as above but after step 2, look suitably impressed at the soldiers uniform/weapons!
You can at this point offer to take their photograph as a souvenir but this involves the risk of being shot (play this one by ear)

We arrived at the Hon/Nic border just in time to catch Phil checking out the bike at Customs so we jumped the queue and got all three bikes done at the same time. It's amazing the 200 miles across country the administration process is so different, the girl behind the counter did all the paperwork and came out and checked the bikes all within 30 minutes. After picking up the obligatory third party insurance we were into Nicaragua in just over an hour.

Now there's something to smile about.

Our main destination in Nicaragua was Granada on the shores of Lake Nicaragua but that was another days ride and the priority of today was to find somewhere to sleep before nightfall. As we have travelled South the days have got progressively shorter, in Alaska it never got dark and now in Central America the sun sets completely around 6pm. We pulled in at the first decent looking hotel only to find they were preparing the place for a Halloween party, it turned out the whole town was converging on the restaurant that evening but  by this time it was dark so we dug out the ear plugs and settled in for the night. Chinandega is one of those 'one horse' towns dotted along the main highway that appears to serve no function other than providing services for passing traffic, there  was only one resaurant in town and by now it was covered in plastic pumpkins and cobwebs and resembled a film set from a cheap horror movie. As luck would have it the guy running the restaurant provided a slap up meal in our room and invited us to join the party later if we were up for it........we were'nt!
Even with earplugs I was awoken around 4:30am by the most horrendous effort at karaoke you could imagine, by this time they had a portable microphone outside and speakers that were capable of being heard on the next continent. These people are not musical, not in the slightest! their attempts to follow a bouncing ball on top of lyrics on a screen was about as melodic as someone having their teeth pulled without anaesthetic. The young ones would scream into the microphone and the old folks would try and croon to some Latin American ballad and miss every note except bum ones. In the morning we hurridly packed up and headed out of Dodge but not before we were accosted by a turkey with attitude. As we were loading the bikes there were some female turkeys in the parking area and this male bird got all protective, at one time it had Sue cornered in a corridor and made attempts to bully Joe and I by puffing out his chest, ruffling his feathers and making stupid noises. I of course had had more than enough of stupid noises for one night so when it got within range I clattered it round the head with my riding glove! the turkey is a smart bird, it knows when to quit and the time to quit is when it's about to get the ugly appendage that looks like yer Grandad's scrotum knocked off it's neck!!

Roll on Thanksgiving you ugly old git!

Leaving Chinandega we stopped for breakfast at a service station and got chatting to the locals, on a bike you are automatically more approachable and people will attempt to communicate with you even if it's clear to them you cannot understand them. I have now become attuned to the usual questions and can structure a half decent response, this time Jay spoke perfect English and offered some useful advice about Nicaragua.
We arrived in Managua en route to Granada just as the rain stopped by the time we rode through town the sun was out and all that was left of the rainstorm was the rainwater.

Granada was something of a disappointment, it was supposed to be the Nicaraguan equivalent of Antigua in Guatemala but turned out to be dirty and run down. The beggars were more aggressive and instead of holding out their hands for whatever they could get they would shout at you GIMME A DOLLAR! GIMME A DOLLAR!
Lake Nicaragua is a muddy brown colour along its shoreline with Granada and whilst a trip to one of the islands would have given us a better picture of this inland sea we decided to head to the Pacific coast in readiness for the crossing into Costa Rica. On a good note the Police that we met in Nicaragua were civil and polite and not at all like the reports we had heard from other travelers.

Off street parking at the Hotel Colonial

More Pictures of Granada, Nicaragua

From Granada we headed South West to the Pacific again for some clean air and some warm waters, San Juan del Sur is a secluded resort which caters to backpackers and people like us. The bay is shallow and protected and there is always a flotilla of small boats tied up at anchor taking advantage of a number of good seafood restaurants that line the beach.

San Juan Del Sur beach.

See Sue try and stop the waves.

We had booked to stay at the Aventura Lodge, which was advertised as a jungle retreat, the reality was that it was surrounded by trees just off the road opposite the local cemetery!

Graves decorated for the Day of the Dead.

Jungle retreat My Arse!

The lodge was actually very nice, the rooms were tastefully decorated and there was a plunge pool which took the overflow from the tropical storms. The lodge was managed by a young couple, Dan from the UK and Kate from Oz and best of all it had parrots! bloody parrots! the novelty of a Spanish speaking parrot lasts about thirty seconds then I'm looking for my riding gloves!

This bird spoke better Spanish than we did.

Beautiful plumage

There was also a scarlet macaw which did nothing but squawk, unfortunately it belonged to Mike the owner and lived in a cage on his balcony so was always out of reach (sadly no birds were injured in the making of this blog)

Come on in the water's freezing.

We hung around for a couple of days and then made a run for the border with Costa Rica, at some point during the next day the bike and us will have covered 20,000 miles since arriving in Alaska. It's time to revise the trip mileage!

Here's a clever way of making a tyre last forever, when the tread wears down simply glue a strip of rubber round the tyre and 'hey presto' a racing slick!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Antigua - A Guatemalan Gem.

First a quick apology, some of the links to the photos on the last blog entry (This is the road to Hell) were broken, they're now fixed....

Antigua is one of those cities where you feel at ease within a couple of hours, the pace of life, the climate and the overall ambiance is conducive to doing sod all and enjoying it. Once the administrative and military seat of Spanish Guatemala, a colony that covered much of modern day Central America and some of Mexico during the 16th century. Over the next 200 years a number of earthquakes destroyed or damaged large parts of the city to the point where the Spanish got fed up and ordered the relocation of the city to it's present location 20 miles down the road. The city was stripped of everything including fixtures and fittings and left deserted except for a small population of squatters who remained in the ruins. Over the next 300 or so years it has been restored to it's present condition although very little of the original city remains today.

The Santa Catalina Arch looking towards Volcan de Agua.

Volcanoes Fuego and Acatenango.

The reconstructed Central Park fountain.

The best time to see the City is early, six'o clock early. The streets are mostly deserted and devoid of tourists, the locals go about the process of getting through the day earning or begging a living. The presence of souvenir sellers and beggars  is one of the accepted annoyances in Central America and they can normally be fended off with a polite "No Gracias".

The city has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site and is one of the world's best conserved Colonial cities. It has to be one of my favourite places and probably the best city I have visited on this trip. The pictures speak for themselves and I make no apologies for the number posted on the blog, I've probably got ten times as many saved to disk.


We had originally planned to spend some time here learning Spanish so Sue and I signed up for a five day immersion course in the hope of equipping ourselves verbally for the rest of the trip!. The bad news is after five days we didn't really achieve a great deal, our Spanish grammar has only improved slightly and we realise that although our vocabulary is quite extensive we're stumped when it comes to stringing sentences together. On a positive note I can now explain how a housewife bakes a cake and Sue can tell you how a boy dresses as a clown for his birthday (not a lot of use unless you want to tell a Border Guard he has a big red nose and a curly wig!)

This is Sue and Anna Marie our Spanish tutor, (I avoid getting photographed with Hobbits if at all possible)

At some point in the week Joe developed a dodgy hip, it may have been as a result of picking the bike up after the 'off' at El Remate or just a run of the mill muscle twinge that comes with falling apart as one gets older!. Either way it was bad enough for Joe to consider throwing in the towel and returning to Colorado, logistically it would be easier to get to Panama and ship the bike back from there than to arrange everything locally in Guatemala. The first thing was to get it looked at professionally, a visit to the local hospital and an injection improved his comfort level but we would have to see if a period of rest would get him back on the road.

Here's volcano Fuego trying to prove it's still active, every day it kicks out a plume of ash but hasn't seriously erupted in decades (more of a heavy smoker than a potential natural disaster)

Native Kaqchikel musicians (I'm looking forward to the Peruvian pan pipes already)

During our stay we decided to take a trip up Volcan Pacaya on the other side of Guatemala City but Joe stayed behind in Antigua to rest the hip. The hike up the volcano finishes at the lava flows and takes approximately 90 minutes to scale the 2,400 feet up (bastard) volcanic ash!. The first 30 minutes involved hiking through the jungle and by the time we'd reached the tree line the heat and effort involved in the climb had seen off one couple in the party and a couple of others had succumbed to paying for the horse 'taxis' that follow you up the mountain like bloody vultures in the hope they'll get to haul your sorry arse of the mountain.

All smiles....So far so good.

The view from halfway.

Sue and Lynn lagging behind. (the vultures are hovering just out of shot)

Not smiling any more are we?......

Climbing on volcanic ash is worse than sand, as well as being tough on the legs it is also incredibly abrasive and every so often we had to stop and empty our shoes to prevent our feet ending up as bloody stumps!

The tour brochure said it was an easy walk.

Just about the time that Lynn took this photo Sue decided she had had enough and was quite prepared to forgo the experience of standing next to molten lava for the sake of  keeping two healthy lungs. I was having none of it and convinced her to let me pull her the rest of the way on the end of a discarded stick left by a previous party. Mistake number 127....., I consider myself educated enough to not resort to swearing often in an effort to be descriptive, but there are exceptions, and this was one of them. By the time we had reached the top I was completely and utterly ...........well rather than use the word I'll use an example. If you saw someone jump out of a plane without a parachute you'd say HE'S  F*^%$D! well that was me, well and truly. The effort involved in dragging my 15 stone (honest, I've lost a shed load of weight on this trip!!!) was enough, but to have a carcase on the end of a stick as well, left me with just enough energy to laugh at some half wit who thought he could toast marshmallows on the end of a stick.

Me being a rough tough firefighter (retired) could stand the heat (I've just got no hair left on my arms!)

We had kept in touch with Oisin and Helmar who we met in Mexico and knew that they were in the area from  reading their blog and emails, we missed an arranged meeting at one of the local bars but the next night as we were having dinner in a restaurant they walked in. We chatted about our journeys since we split up and I agreed to take a run into Guatemala City with Helmar the next day as we both needed new tyres. The easy part of the next day was getting to the outskirts of the city, we had agreed the night before to pay a taxi driver to take us into the centre to find the BMW dealer rather than waste hours driving around or getting lost. What we forgot was that BMW dealers over here close on Mondays so we had to spend the next hour looking for somewhere that sold the right size tyres. Eventually we stumbled on OgriMotos and Carlos the owner looked after us like we were family.

British bikers will recognise this character from BIKE magazine.

Me, Carlos and Helmar

BOB getting a new front tyre.

This is how locals avoid getting a speeding ticket from plate recognition cameras, just stick something over the last couple of digits.

Whilst we were there we got talking to Frank a local businessman and BMW rider and his son Jesse. They gave us an insight into the local biker scene and very kindly took us out to lunch whilst the bikes were being worked on. When we got back we said our goodbyes and Frank and Jesse escorted us to the outskirts and the road back to Antigua, (I know they are reading this so thanks fellas for a great time!)

Jesse, Helmar and Frank

The best steak house in Guatemala!

The next stop after Antigua was Lake Atitlan, renowned as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, however, due to bad waste management a cyano bacteria covers up to 75% of the lakes surface and the original deep blue colour has now been replaced by a brown scum.

Very picturesque, until you get close up.....

looks like you could walk on the stuff!

We were originally booked in to the Hotel Kaqchikel but after a couple of nights got fed up with the noise and moved to a posh hotel overlooking the lake, it must have been really posh because the guy in reception asked if I wanted the porn channel disabled. I said "no thanks just plain porn is fine for me".......OK, OK, I know it's an old joke and not politically correct but I laugh every time I hear it.

You know it's a posh hotel when guests arrive by helicopter.

I made the mistake of paying the equivalent of about 5 pence for this photo, next thing I knew there was a mob of kids all wanting to be models.

On the way from Antigua to Panajachel we passed this guy on the opposite carriageway, he was loaded down like you wouldn't believe. We waved but couldn't stop, however, when we arrived in Panajachel he was parked up chatting to the locals.

Just got room for the kitchen sink.

Igor has been on the road around the world for 3 years, he is supported by local contributions and occasional funding by his wife back in Czechoslovakia. He has promised her he will be home for Christmas this year so wasn't hanging around and after a beer and a chat was on his way South.

Note to self....Get more stickers.

Joe was still convalescing so Sue, Lynn and I took a boat ride across the lake to Santiago de Atitlan. All the villages around the lake are mostly inhabitied by the native Indian population and although all are considered Maya there are twenty two different languages and the lake people were accustomed to dealing with people they couldn't talk to long before tourists showed up.

The life vests are an optional extra.

Local fishing boats.

Life in Santiago de Atitlan appears to be centred around the main square and open air market. The locals wear traditional dress, the women tend to favour lilac or purple cloth (the colour and type of cloth tell things about the individual such as marital status, ethnic origin and social standing) the men on the other hand tend to like the stetson style hat and brightly coloured knee length shorts (kind of a gay cowboy look).

Every day's market day.

The Tuc Tuc (local taxi and three wheeled death trap)

Main Street, Santiago.

More Photos from Santiago de Atitlan

The dreaded chicken bus.

John Wayne would not have approved!

Bloody tourists!

Local weaving.

Local art

And woodwork.

Spot the Norwegian Blue.

"Hammock Sir"

Always carry chickens under your arm, not on your head.

The locals have a noticeable dislike of being photographed and will usually turn away or shield their faces.

Life is tough here and it shows on the faces of the old, years of toil and oppressive heat turn young coffee coloured complexions into skin that resembles finely carved mahogany or tooled leatherwork.

This is probably why they call a room on a boat a 'birth'

After a few days in Panajachel Joe felt fit enough to ride and we needed to make time getting across the border and into El Savador. We didn't want to get caught near the border on the Day of the Dead which is a big occasion in Central America, people celebrate big time and remember loved ones no longer with them. It could also be a time when people that have to work are struck with CBA (Can't be Arsed) fever. The planning involved in crossing borders is usually more precise than the get up, pack up, ride for the morning and look for somewhere to stay the night. The best time to get to the border is early and if possible before the tour buses get there so you need to stop the night before near the border if possible and also have a destination close to border on the other side to avoid a long drive if the border crossing is time consuming.

As it turned out when we got to the border there was only us and this kid with no paperwork.

Next on DUE SOUTH.......Three countries in one day