Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Days 15, 16 , 17 and 18

New rear suspension - $275. New front brakes - $145. New fork seals - $195. Surviving the run from the Guatemalan Border to Quezaltenango - PRICELESS!!
The last three days have been some of the most frightening and hardest of the trip but also the most exhilerating and rewarding so far. Viva La Central Amercia!

What goes around comes around. We call Queen Charolotte City a city and the Guatemalans call the Pan American Highway a highway. Neither of which are even remotely accurate.

Day15 dawned bright and clear and we were underway by 6:30. It was an early start because we hoped to clear the border early and make it as far as the colonial city of Antigua. Big mistake!

We pulled into the border area and I was lucky. I´ve crossed into CA before and had some idea what to expect (some - but not all by any means) but the others had no idea. It´s absolute chaos and pandmonium. (sp?) As you get near the border the road side stands and buildings get thicker and close in. Then, when you´re actually within in sight of the border you´re descended upon by a screaming mass of people. Some are money changers shouting at you to exchange any Pesos into Quetzales and others are ´´handlers´´ offering to walk you through the process. For a feee of course. It´s all VERY foriegn to a North American and VERY intimidating, especially because Latin American´s have a very different concept of personal space than we do. It´s loud and crazy and chaotic - but all part of the journey. It´s also complicated by the fact that with three of us it takes lonnger. In this setting we always want to have two with the bikes to watch over the gear so only one can go through the process at a time.
Here´s what it entails....
1. Go to the Customs building, stand in line, get a stamp in your passport.
2. Go to a photocopy kiosk and make any necessary copies. (We all had some in advance but always seemed to be missing something)
3. Go to another building - with the bike - stand in line - pay a feee - have the bike sprayed with insecticide - get a stamped piece of paper. Latin Americans LOVE stamps and paper
4. Go to another building - stand in line - present licenses, passport, registration, and fumigation certificate and, after a VERY frustrating wait while the clerk SLOWLY fills in the paperwork, receive some documents back.
5. Take these documents to another building - stand in line - pay a fee to another clerk - receive a stamped piece of paper.
6. Take all this back to previous building - stand in line - clerk comes out to bike to check serial numbers etc.
I´ll NEVER complain about US or Canadian border crossings again!
This took approx 2 1/2 hours in 30 degree heat but we eventually completed everything for all of us, paid our handler and we were on our way......with one error.
We entered Guatemala slightly further north than we expected. All along we planned on taking the Pacific route, known as CA2 (the second PanAmerican Hwy?) because we read it´s a newer and better road. Because we were further North though, we though what the heck. On the map it looks closer to Antigua if we stay North - and on the map it was CA1 so how bad could it be? BAD! First, ít may be CA 1 but it´s not really part of the ´´highway´´ until it reaches Quezaltenango. Second, it´s the worst road I´ve ever been on. It was rough, narrow, and it climbed from just above sea level to approx 9,000 feet in only a few klm. The switchbacks are closer to U-Turns because you do 180 degrees in the space of a car length. It made the Devil´s Backbone in Mexico look like a cakewalk! We climbed through dry lowlands, thick jungle, rain forrest and cloud forrest and the temperature dropped to just above freezing. During the this part of the trip we had lots of close calls, I dropped my bike once, and we got lost in two different cities on the way through. Guatemalans apparently don´t believe in signage. We eventually arrived at Quez much later than expected and totally spent. Rather than try to find something we flagged down a cab and explained in very broken Spanish that we need him to take us to a good hotel downtown. We´d follow on the bikes and pay him when we got there - and he had a vested interest in not loosing us in traffic. It worked! He took us right downtown to a great old colonial hotel on the main square. We all had a good night sleep and wondered around that evening taking in the sights of Guatemala´s second largest city - and arguably it´s prettiest.
Distance - 298 VERY hard klm!

Day 16
Oops! Our plan was to ride for a short day to either Panajachel on Lake Atitlan or try to make it to Antigua, and then take a well deserved afternoon off. Both were within a few hour run. But.....getting out of a Guatemalan city is MUCH harder than one would believe. After a 1/2 hour of wrong turns we finally hit a great road and hit the throttle. But....when we arrived at a junction that didn´t match our map I stopped and asked a local - no mean feat given the language barrier - and determined we were´t where we thought we were or needed to be. We were actually 10 klm South of town. So....all of us being flexible we decided to change our plans and forgo Pana and Antigua and make a run to CA2 and on to Esquintla. There was frost on the side of the road when we began and we were all bundled up again, but as we lost elevation it climbed back into the thities and we had to peel off layers everytime we took a break. This was initially a great call though. The road was incredibly better and actually started to take on the appearence of a highway. After a few hours we pulled into Esquintla. Our goal was to stick to the original plan and take the afternoon off and we thought we´d just hole up in a nice business class hotel with a pool etc and play tourist. No again. To describe Esquintla as run down would be to do a diservice to run down cities everywhere. I´m sure that there are nicer area´s off the main drag but along the road we came in on it was terrible. The slums of calcutta don´t have anything on Esquintla. It was hot, loud, dirty, and filthy and squaller is a fair description. We stayed on the bikes and got the hell out of dodge. This changed things a lot. We decided to keep going and pressed on. The road from this point was great and we made good time, although it was a little spooky because there were few towns, no hotels and and everything had a frontier feel as we neared the El Salvadoran border. We eventually arrived at a small town right on the border, had dinner and a beer and crashed.

Distance - another 309 hard klm.

Day 17
We hit the border early and right away noticed a much more laid back attitude because the El Salvadorans aren´t in your face the way Guatemalans are. Plus, we were at a smaller crossing. Unfortunatley, this laid back attitude transposed itself to the border crossing process. Three different buildings, multiple trips to each, endless lines, lots of stamps and reciepts and heat, dust and humidity. It takes the patience of Jobe and a good handler. After 3 full hours though, we were on our way but we had one final hurdle to clear. As we pulled around a line of transport trucks to get out of the parking lot we had to go around an Ox-Cart and wait for a herd of goats to clear us a path.
From there it was smooth sailing along the coast. The road is much better in El Salvador and everything is more orderly. I love this county. The people are great and there´s a sense of vibrancy that´s missing in Guatemala. ES also has a middle class so you can share a hotel with other locals. In Guat anything off the gringo trail is grinding poverty so it´s a different vibe.
We´re now in the seaside resort town of La Libertad. A popular spot with El Salvadors because it´s only 25 klm from San Salvador. Today - day 18 - is a down day and we may take a run into the city just to look around.
Distance yesterday 157 klm - not too much due to a three hour border ordeal
Total distance so far 4,941 - our poor little Honda´s are now feeling every klm. Steve´s KLR on the other hand is eating this crap up. Bastard!
Via con Dios !

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