Copyright (c) 1997 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.
Chapter 37 - Feb. 24 to Mar. 26 Chetumal, QR Mex to San Cristobal de la Casas, Chis Mex 23,518X KM (15,581 MI) cumulative
Our last morning in Chetumal happened to be Mexico's national flag day. Upon wandering downtown to find a place to exchange pesos for Belizian dollars we caught the tail end of their flag day parade. It was a bit boring as it consisted of one band followed by several dozen color guards. Children from the differend schools and organizations around the state of Quintana Roow marched in groups of 8, 2 up front holding a banner, 4 in one row with one holding the flag, and 2 more behind. They marched to the commands yelled out by one member and were watched over by the a school instructor. Only the variety of their uniforms broke up the monontony of one color guard after another. They filed down to the square at the end of the street where the governor and some military dude gave long, boring speaches about the symbolic representation of the flag. We left. This did answer our question as to why all those kids in Izamal were marching around the square all day.
Getting into Belize was actually quite easy. We rode the short 6 miles to the border in a pretty good tailwind, stopped in to have our passport stamped, whipping out our bike "Certificates of Registration" when asked to produce the papers, and rode another 9 miles to Corozol and camped. No reason to go any further. Right off we noticed some major differences. First, signs are in English which was a welcome sight. Much to our surprise, distances are measured in miles, weights in lbs, gas in gallons. The road was well paved and there was very little of that trash that seems to be a standard feature of every Mexican town and road. Along the road was a good 20 ft mowed swath that clearly looked like a large tractor did the job. Vegetation along Mexican roads are cleared by hand and rarely is there much more than a few feet mowed. Also, there are huge fields of sugar cane crops reminding us of fields in the U.S. southeast. In Mexico's Yucatan the fields seem to be small, family plots which makes them not nearly as noticable. Finally, things just seemed to be in better condition. For example, in Mexico there are some extremely nice houses that are very well cared for. Each is usually surrounded by a block wall. Inside the wall is spotless, but outside is completely ignored. Dirt, trash, weeds collect. In Belize the area both inside and outside the walls are carefully tended. Buildings, roads, parks, street lights, just everything seems to be better maintained. In fact upon our arrival there were several men working hard at painting and reparing the central square in Corozol. In Mexico we always got the feeling that great projects were designed and implemented but often left to deteriorate. Maintainance is done only to the point of making things work adequately. Tourist areas are the exception as it is recognized that tourists demand things be maintained. We can only attribute the difference to the attitudes instilled way back when by the English and Spanish in the two regions. English tend to be more meticulous and fastidious, Spanish more laissez faire. Of course, the biggest difference was the prices. Belize is as expensive as the U.S. and even more so for food in the stores. It was time to tighten our belts and go back to cooking and camping for a while.
Fabruary is the height of the sugar cane harvest in northern Belize. Huge fields filled with the tall reedy stalks topped with long whispy light green leaves stretched for miles along the road. I was reminded of western Ohio with it's flat green fields of corn neatly divided by bordering trees. Dozens of trucks laden with harvested canes passed us each day. Smells of syrupy, sweet sugar fermenting in the hot sun mixed with diesel fumes engulfed us with each passing load making me feel nauseous in just a few hours. I began to look forward to getting away from sugar cane country.
There are so few roads in Belize that the main roads are simply named Northern, Western, Southern, and Hummingbird highways and addresses are given as mile numbers along these roads, very similar to Alaska addresses. Entering at Chetumal put us at the very top of the Northern Highway. We continued south through flat terrain that changed slowly from sugar cane fields, to dense jungle, to pine dotted sand. We tried to keep daily distances short as the midday heat and humidity was so extreme. Even still we'd end each day's ride dripping with sweat. After just a few days our cloths would dry as stiff as cardboard from all the imbedded salt. Our one consolation, the nights would cool down to a reasonable temperature allowing us a sound night sleep even in our tent.
We got a lot of very mixed messages about the people of Belize. Some tell us that in the small town folks are just fine, others tell us not to believe a word anyone says, they'll all lie and just as soon shoot you for your belongings. We get harassed by men asking for money followed by people waving and cheering as we pass. The children say "hi" and ask all sorts of questions, but don't ask for money like the Mexican kids. In the town of Crooked Tree a woman gave me a hat when I asked about finding one to buy, no fee, but she was originally from Trinidad so maybe that doesn't count. All we can say is folks were very nice and treated us well for the 5 days we visited Belize.
As we approached Belmopan we found heaven. There's a small restaurant and cabins called JBs Watering Hole, in the middle of nowhere Belize as he likes to be called. It's run by an exUS military man who had been stationed in Belize 10 years ago. Somehow he got it into his head that this would be a good place to set up a business. So he packed up his wife and two sons, moved here, and built a restaurant and various other businesses. But, not just your ordinary Belizian restaurant. Nooooo, this is about as close to an American style restaurant we've seen for 2 months. Housed in a huge, thatched roofed open air palapa style building, its posts and roof beams are covered with homemade signs from various US and British military regiments, given to the owners in appreciation for the nice digs they provide. Dinners are your basic meat and potatoes, steak or chicken with baked, mashed, or french fried potatoes, dinner salad. Breakfasts are eggs, hashbrowns, toast, and bacon. And, oh what a wonderful chef salad. A full dinner plate piled high with lettuce, onions, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, and ham. My favorite of all was the bottomless glasses of ice tea complete with loads of crystal clear cold ice. I couldn't get enough. Prices were good for Belize considering what you get, which is high compared to the rest of Central America.
JB, AKA Bill and his wife were also the spitting image of perfect midwestern hospitality, the kind we hadn't seen for some time. Their cabins were full so they let us pitch our tent in their yard, provided a cold shower complete with soft fluffy terry towels and just couldn't seem to do enough for us. I think they truly felt bad that they had no place for a couple of tired bikers. But, the facilities they did provide were given with such kindness and with no thought for compensation. After a good shower and meal and this friendly atmosphere a day that had been so rough turned out to be just grand. We just had to wait for the Thursday night Kareoke to end before we could get any sleep.
We had decided to head into the Nation's capital town, Belmopan, to see whether we could arrange a trip out to Tikal, Guatemala via local bus or tourist transport rather than having to ride to Flores and stay the night. Back in 1960 the old capital, Belize City, was hit with a massive hurricane that leveled buildings, destroyed records, and took a large toll of life. So the government decided to pack up and move inland about 50 miles. Belmopan was created out of the jungle. A new city with new hurricane proof buildings high above flood waters and a population that has ever so slowly grown to a whopping 6,000. Since it is so new Belmopan offers practically nothing of interest to the visitor and has zero character. Its buildings are constructed of that plain cement block that discolors in weather and looks absolutely awful after just a few years. They didn't bother with a stucco color coat. The central market looks more like an accident of the usual ramshackle quazi huts jammed full of stuff for sale. It just sort of happened in a convenient location, not planned. There are only a few buildings that look nice, the banks, something called the Belize house, the brand new hotel, the British embassy. What is really strange, they've laid out the town with huge, neatly manicuured grassy parks and walkways in between the generously spaced ugly concrete buildings. We couldn't help feeling like we were walking through a college campus in southern California. San Diego State University has similar ugly buildings and big grassy areas. We were not impressed and made plans to depart as quickly as possible.
Getting to Tikal from Belize using public transport proved to be nearly impossible. It was possible to get on a tour group, but they left from the more interesting town of San Ignacio some 23 miles further west at 7 AM. There was no way we could get a bus to get there in time and these cost $75 US per person, ka-ching. To take the public bus would require changing to a Guatemalan bus at Mencos de Melchor at the border. We only got a vague "they'll help you there" in response to our queries. "Can we get there and back in one day?" we'd ask. "probably not" was the usual reply. Maybe we could leave everything in the hotel in Belize, take the bus to Tikal, spend the night in Flores, and then take the bus back. This would require paying for an extra hotel room, the bus down to Punta Gorda, and more meals at those high Belizian prices. Riding to Flores was not an option as we'd heard from several different sources that this road was being patrolled by highway bandits. Dressed in militery fatigues they'd wait in the bushes at one of the major pot holes, M16 rifles in hand, and ambush any passenger vehicle having foreign plates who happened to slow down. Would they do the same to bikers. We didn't want to find out. The best option, and one we'd already heard would work, was to take the local 2nd class bus from the border to Flores with bikes, bags and everything, stay in Flores for a few days, arrange a van trip to Tikal and back, and then take a bus south to La Ruidosa which would get us out of the remote Peten jungles where bandit activity has been most common.
So up at dawn to attempt to get to the border in time to catch a late bus and to try to avoid the midday heat, we headed to the western most extreme of Belize. At long last we started to leave the flat, swampy lowlands of the Yucatan behind. Climbing over a few rolling hills we found ourselves riding along a pretty river with overhanging jungle. Women, men, and children bathed, washed cloths and dishes, or just played in the cool waters. It was the usual hot, humid weather making for sopping wet clothes before even 10 AM. The wind gave a bit of a cooling breeze, but not enough.
Our first indication that the Guatemalan border was approaching was the required pile of roadside trash about 1 mile on the Belizian side of the border. Yup, we were leaving the clean and neat behind and returning to litter strewn Central America. But we really did not find Belize all that enjoyable. Belize is a country you go to to dive on the reefs, bird watch in the santuaries, maybe do some hiking, or if you're really into piles of crumbled rock look at their Mayan ruins. The country itself has little personality. Its towns are not at all colonial and don't have that interesting central market or plaza that you find in Mexico. The people are from a variety of cultures, Maya, Caribean, English, American, Menonite, Chinese. So there is no predominant identifying culture. There's no native crafts, no unique costume, and just a strange English dialect that seems oh so familiar but totally unintelligble. Belize offers a nice break from the disordered but lovable style of Spanish Central America, a chance to buy American grocery products, and a rest from just "getting by" in Spanish. But it's expensive, the heat opressive, the scenery not great, and the culture just not that interesting. We looked forward to Guatemala.
Being able to speak the language does make a difference in one's experience with a country. In Mexico we'd gotten to the point where we could sort of have converstions. We could find what we needed, get where we wanted, find places to stay, and occasionally find out a bit more about the culture. But that's about it. In Belize in just a short time we learned that they've recently instituted a 15% VAT tax that the businesses are furious about, they started making their small coins out of light weight aluminum because people were melting the other coins down to make bullets, and nearly 85% of the women checking into the hospital to have babies are HIV positive making Belize no. 1 for Aids in the Americas. These things we just can't learn in Mexico due to our limited Spanish knowledge. We'll have to keep working on it.
Working our way through the plethora of money changers who tagged at our heels like undisciplined hounds, paying our last high Belizian price of $7.50 B each just to get out, and another $2 US to get into Guatemala, we were finally in Melchor. But, now to get to Flores. Here's where that interesting habit the Mormon church has of sending out missionaries to all corners of the earth once again came in handy. Anywhere in the world we go we will occasionally come across those high school and college boys and girls clad in their uniform; white shirt, gray pants and tie for boys, white shirt and skirt for girls, wearing their obligatory name tags saying "I'm from the church of Jesus Christ of Later day Saints." We've found them in Korea, Europe, Mexico, and now in Guatemala. They stand out like bright beacons in a world of chaos and they're always great to see. They've usually been in the town for a while, are often anxious to speak with English speaking people from back home, and have a wealth of helpful information. In this case we met one thin, very blond and sunburned looking boy and his dark haird companion. The blond was anxious to find out about bike touring. I could tell from that wistful look in his eyes he wants to give it a try someday. We told them a little of our travels and they gave us bus information. Seemed like a fair trade. And we were off once again. My hat's off to the Mormons. Even if you aren't a church member it sure is nice running into them in strange places.
Picture in your mind the perfect image of a Central American bus ride. Would you have a ricketty, beat up bus with bodies filling the seats, aisles, hanging off the sides, pigs, chickens and babies squeeling all the way, luggage piled far too high straped to the top, a devil-may-care bus driver negotioting a narrow, bumpy dirt road etched into the side of a mountin cliff. That's almost what our bus was like, and this was even one of the better buses. It was a Blue Bird school bus with normal, hard school seats. Crammed into each seat were a minimum of 3 adults or 2 adults and up to 5 small children. The aisle was full. Our driver was accompanied by a very efficient conductor who managed to find more space for passengers when I would have thought there was no more room and a "baggage handler" who stayed on the roof loading and unloading the baggage and bikes as needed. The driver was clearly the top dog as he didn't get his hands dirty when the flat tire needed changing. We sat on this bus over a rough, bumpy dirt road for over 4 hours as more and more people squeezed the aisles. I couldn't help but wonder if there was such a thing as "full". The only thing missing from this trip were the pigs and chickens and mountainside cliffs. A trip like this really makes you appreciate capacity limits on US busses. Although I did have to wonder, what would a Greyhound bus driver do when that tire goes flat. Probably call for a tow truck. We have come up with an idea for a new Disney ride. Call it the Central American bus ride. Certainly an E ticket ride.
We arrived safely at Flores just before dark and managed to find a real nice hotel for about $10 US less than we were paying in Belize and that also arranged for the bus to Tikal the next day. The hotel manager was a short, thin, very light skinned Guatemalan with curly black hair and he couldn't seem to help us enough. Anything we wanted he could help us find even if it meant going to a competitor. He was a big, big help.
There were 2 possibilities for getting to Tikal, get up for the 4AM bus in time to watch sunrise from Temple 4 or wait until 9AM. After our bus adventure of the previous day, we chose the 9AM option. Tikal is located about 60 KM by road up in the hills to the northeast of Flores. Tikal is one, if not the, most important city of the Mayan period. Although recent archeological excavations have found evidence that warriors from the city of Caracol in Belize conquered Tikal in around 500 AD. So, of course, Belize now claims to have the supreme Mayan City.
Anyway, Tikal was the only city that was inhabited throughout the Mayan period. First indications of habitation occur at around 200 BC and the last date found on a stelle is 869 AD. It went through ups, and downs like most civilzations and at the 500 AD time period people were leaving Tikal to go to Dos Pilas and Corocol. In the 700s and 800s they returned to Tikal and under the leadership of an emperor named Al Cacau (chocolate) built most of the buildings currently seen. The site covers some 35 hectares, has over 3000 buildings and was inhabited by about 90,000 people.
The temples are magnificant, especially those around the gran plaza. The main differences we noticed compared to Uxmal and Chichen were the large "roof combs" found on top of the temples and the thin rooms, about 1 to 2 meters wide. There was little carving and many of the buildings are still under dirt. But, it sure is an amazing site. Just the shear size is enough to make you wonder what in the world could have happened to the population. We heard one person say that every third prrson has an opinion as to what happened. One theory is that a freak earthquake broke the limestone base that kept the water sinks from draining. No water, no city. The other idea was that the rulers got into drugs and the populace revolted. Everybody fought everybody else causing the end of the city.
Tikal takes a full day to explore. To get to all the different "complexes", as they call groups of buildings, you wind up walking a good 10 Km and climbing up at least 3 pyramids and 6 other tall buildings. Stair cases here weren't as narrow and steep as Uxmal and Chichen, but the depth of each stair was about 2X normal, knee high for me. Paths around the site lead up and down the manmade hills, under tall Ceiba and palm trees being slowly killed by strangler vines that curled up the trunks and hung off every branch. Way up in the branches howler monkeys nibbled on nuts, throwing the shells on our heads, and some furry looking ocelot like animal dug into the tree trunks looking for insects. We felt like a civilized version of Indiana Jones as we tromped along the well laid paths. After 5 hours of hiking and climbing my legs were weak and tired and we were hot and thirsty once again. To truly see every small corner of Tikal would require more than one day.
At 8PM on Sunday night March 3 we climbed aboard a midclass bus headed for Guatemala City. We had intended to get off at the town of Los Amates, but somehow the bus driver forgot to stop. Before we knew it, we were entering the outskirts of Guatemala city many, many miles away from our intended stop. Oh well, we'll just start at a different location. Fortunately this bus had assigned seats, that's what you get for baying 20 Quetsales more. So we didn't have to endure the jammed type of bus we took from Melchor to Flores. However, the seats were no luxery, first class recliners. They were hard, stiff, and not quite deep enough for gringo long legs. My glutious maximus was mighty sore by the time we finally got off. For the first 4 hours the bus bounced and gyrated over one of the worst dirt roads we'd ever been on. At times we were tossed from side to side, looking like one of those dash mounted spring dolls. But at Puptin the road smoothed out and life got much better. Amazingly, there were people riding bikes and walking along the road at all hours of the night. The driver skillfully avoided hitting anyone.
Tired and stiff, we pulled our dust coated bikes and bags from the rear of the bus and headed off in search of a hotel in central Guatemala City. Once settled and showered, we headed off to see what there was to see. Not much. Even though Guatemala City is the capital it really doesn't have that much of interest for the tourist. There's the cathedral which is not so much ornate as it is stately in appearance on the inside. I thought the ceiling would fit right in at the White house. There was the government building here you can view nice murals depicting the history of the Mayas and the Spanish conquest, beautiful wood and brass hand rails, painted ceilings, and interesting carvings on the building's exterior. There was a big display talking about the newly instituted peace treaty.
In 1960 rebels started an uprising that started in the south and eventually overtook the entire country. Of course, the rebels embraced communist ideals which always appeal to the poor peasants. The war continued, tearing the country apart and ravaging its economy, for 36 years. On September 12, 1996 a peace treaty was finally negociated and we saw in the news the rebels were just now starting to turn in their weapons. One person we met who had traveled in Guatemala for 3 months 10 years ago said it was a most unusual war. The government recognized that tourism was a major source of income. So they did much to protect the tourist. Kinda strange, having a war and major tourism going on at the same time. Now, however, with the cutback in the military and less concern from the military crimes against tourists is on the uprise. Mostly pickpocketing and purse snatching, but occasionally there are rapes and murders. We actually got a copy of the US consulate's latest report and there were such things as a report of 2 murders of tourists in 1996 along one of the beaches of the Lake Atitlan. Does that mean one shouldn't travel in Guatemala? It's similar to the occurance of hikers getting attacked by bears in Denali National Park, or people falling to their death from one of the pyramids. It happens, but not every day. Most of the violence happens when people resist the robbery. So if they hold you up, let them have whatever they want. You'll probably come away unharmed if you do.
Other places we found to explore were the various markets and a museum about the incredible Guatemalan weaving. Local markets are perhaps the most fun and colorful places to visit. Stalls are set up in makeshift stalls under corregated metal roofs. Each stall is stuffed full of goods for sale, everything from vegetables, clothes, shoe repair, to cooked meals, ceramics, ropes, costume jewelry, and electronics. Tiny dark aisles pass between the stalls leaving not much room for passage and lots of pickpocketing opportunity. Clearly if one is to visit a market, leave the valubles in the hotel. Women dressed in the colorful traditional dress of huipils and wrap around skirt shop or tend the stalls. The colors and detail of their clothing is some of the best I've ever seen. Vendors shout prices and products, yell "pase adelante" meaning "come inside", or dicker enthusastically with customers. Shoppers wander looking for the best bargains. Smells from cooking food, fresh and rotting vegetables, body sweat, and an occasional hint of urine assault the nose. We didn't buy, just looked and got looked at. Several of the vendors found us just as interesting as we found them.
The museum, located on the campus of the Universidad Fransico, contained historical description of the weaving produced by the Mayans both before and after Spanish conquest. In prehispanic times they used natural fibers like cotton and hennequin to make cloths. Dyes were found from various plants, insects, and snails. Men usually wore some sort of loin cloth, skirt, and cape with various adornments added to the shoulders, head, ears, and feet depending upon their social status. Women usually wore the huipil, a shirt made from 3 rectangular pieces of woven cloth, a wrap around skirt, and again earings, headdresses, and adornments indicating their social station. When the Spanish arrived they brought new materials, silk, velvet, wool, and different styles, pants, long capes, shirts with sleeves. Today, many women still wear the traditional costume, of course made with modern manmade fibers in every color imaginable. Men usually wear normal western clothing. But, in a few places the men will wear the raditional, posthispanic, clothes.
Dyes used in the fabrics were made from locally available sources. Consequently each region developed its own special set of colors, using locally available colors the most and imported colors secondarily. In addition, women use a variety of methods to tie their hair. Two braids on the sides entwined with ribbons, One braid down the back, hair wrapped in a ribbon then wrapped around the head with pom-poms at the sides, the varieties of styles goes on. So if you are knowledgable in the colors and hairstyles you should be able to identify which region a woman in traditional dress hales from.
Guatemala City is a city of armed guards. Everywhere you turn there are private security guards carrying billy clubs, pistols, sawed-off shot guns, and machine guns. They guard the banks, fast food restaurants like McDonalds and Wendy's, large shopping malls, hotels, even stores that sell not much more than inexpensive plastic trinkets. Although we later heard the junk shops that have guards are probably involved with Drug money laundering which would make some sense. The private security guard business is booming. Out in the affluent suberbs, houses are surrounded with 8 ft tall cement block walls topped with broken glass and razor wire. Big steel gates close off the driveway. It's living in a fortress. Imagine having to live in such a cage. I'd begin to wonder if I was trying to keep people out or just locking myself in. No thanks, not for me.
At night the shops close, the normal population goes home, and the hookers take to the streets. Dressed in mini skirts that almost, but not quite show their rear cheeks and tops that yield views of ample cleavage, they sit or stand on corners and in doorways waiting for some "John" to pull up and invite them in. One hooker looking a good 6 months pregnant, dressed in miniskirt and T-shirt stood on one corner looking rather forlorn. I had to wonder just what kind of income a pregnant hooker can draw. Probaby not much. It' a living with little respect and a lot of peril from both violence and AIDS. But I suppose it puts food in the belly, clothes on the back, and a roof over the head.
By far the hardest thing to see were the number of street kids. At night we'd pass by some very, very young looking parents trying to make as best a bed as possible for their small babies. Usually just cardboard on the ground and a light blanket for cover. Their parents would stay up, taking turns watching over their tiny care. They weren't starving, but their clothes were well worn. These are kids who don't get toys for Christmas, may not get 3 meals a day, have never heard of Nintendo, and who have virtually no possibilty of getting out of this life. One wishes we could help. But, there's far too many of them and too few of us.
After just a couple days we'd seen all we wanted of Guatemala City. There just isn't that much of old colonial charm in the city. Earthquakes keep knocking down everything of any age. So we headed east, back toward Puerto Barrios, and down, down, down. Guatemala City is at about 5000 ft, our destination about 1000 ft. So for about 55 out of 75 km we went down, down, down. Traffic on the road is a good 80% trucks and busses, the rest private vehicles. We noticed that the drivers are certainly experts at avoiding obstacles. However, they don't seem nearly as courteous as the drivers of Mexico, they'll pass even if cars are coming in the other direction and honk at us to move over. Fortunatly the road, for the most part, was well paved and even had a wide, but bumpy shoulder. So we had not even one "close call". The surrounding mountains were covered in pine trees with dry brown underbrush. It looks much like the mountains of Southern Calif. The climate is also similar to San Diego in summer, hot and dry. Why is it I keep expecting rain forest covered mountains?
I found I had to endure perhaps a bit more hassle than Brian. First he was in front, so people were usually too surprised to react before he passed. But, being a woman adds an extra twist. I get cat calls, whistles, smooching sounds, and even one person yelling "bye bye my love". In Guatemala City while still dressed in riding clothes, lycra tights, some guy passed behind me and gave me a rear end pat. Well, as long as it stays harmless, it's OK. I just wave and smile as I continue down the road.
At the bottom of this long run we came to the little town of Guastatoya. It's a pretty town, with a clean neat square, pleasant hotel, and well kept buildings. Here we met Fernando and his friend Oscar. Fernando, a skinny guy in his 20s with short dark hair, small features, and two front teath decorated with silver rather than the usual gold foil. Oscar is older, probably late 40s, more rotund, and has a bushy moustach. Fernando is a biker and actually races. He proudly showed us his racing photo. Oscar plays in a marimba band and, of course, we were invited to have a listen to a tape. He's quite good. He treated us to sodas and I gave a bad attempt of trying to dance with Oscar. Oscar told us that he's lost most of his family in the war, wife and children. As he said, "Hay muchas personas malas en Guatemala", There are a lot of bad people in Guatemala. But they are trying to change things, commit a robbery or get caught with drugs you get 30 years, commit murder you get executed. However, I'm sure unless corruption is eliminated, that only certain peole will get punished. The others go free. For us, so far at least, we've met only the good people of Guatemala. Let's hope it stays that way.
We road as far as Rio Hondo and then made a right turn to climb one wicked hill to the town with the funny name, Chiquimula (chikeemoola). >From which we made two bus excursions. The first was up and over a 3000 ft pass to the town of Esquipulas. Heading out in a minivan having at least 20 paying passengers, a conductor and driver, we bounced and zigg-azged along the paved but very potholed road. Coming in the opposite direction we started seeing cars and busses decorated with fuzzy streamers with colors of green, rose, yellow, and purple. Some had so many streamers draped in front of the windshield we wondered how the driver could see. We also wondered why. We caught sight of our, and many other people's, objective as we descended from the pass. The huge blistering white basilica gleamed in the sun and dwarfed the surrounding town both in stature and brilliance. It was Sunday and the town was packed, not with gringos but with Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and Hondurans. Esquipulas is a major center for religious pilgramages in this region. And everyone who makes the pilgrimage decorates their car when leaving.
It is rumored that pilgramages may have taken place way back in Mayan time. But the trickle turned into a flood in 1737 when the Archbishop of Guatemala visited the 1595 Christ image carved from black wood. It is said he came away cured of some long time ailment and, of course, that now means everyone goes there looking for some miracle. We happened to be in time to catch the end of one of what I am sure are several Sunday church masses. Entering the smoke and people filled church we quickly realized there was no way so much light could be eminating from the small bulbs in the overhead crystal chandelears. Our feet seemed to mush on the floor. It was wax, melted and resolidified wax. Scatttered all over the floor within the crowd at the feet of the worshipers were thousands of burning candles. Unlike Europe where candles are carefully placed in little holders on tables in front of various alters, here they are placed anywhere. People stood, sat, and knelt in the solidified remains of years of burned offerings. Outside vendors displayed tall or short candles, some wrapped in ribbons, others with embedded pictures of Christ, and only a few in glass containers. I wondered if the church gets a cut.
In the little park in front of the church the crowd looked like a Guatemalan version of Disneyland. Photographers offered instant picts of you and your family in front of the church, for a small fee. A long single file line snaked aound the park to the side of the church where people waited for a good hour or so to get a miniscule glimpse of the Christ figure before being shoved aside by the next looker. Men, women, and children sported tan straw hats with shiney green garland, more of those fuzzy streamers, and little pieces of junk, plastic baskets and other household items. Sort of like those Mickey Mouse ears. Religious trinkets naturally are the items for sale in all the stalls of the market.
The town seemed to be preparing for a festival. Throughout the village on the streets people were busily creating sawdust paintings. You take sawdust, dye lots of it different colors. Then lay it out in patterns several inches thick in the steert. They start with a rectangular frame and background and then, using cardboard templates, add the rest of the design. The paintings can be anywhere from 5 ft wide and 8 ft long to at least 20 to 30 ft long. Some had added features, fruit, plants, silver beads for accents. All had religious themes. They don't last long as they require continual watering, just a bare sprinkle, to keep the sawdust from blowing away in the wind. We really enjoyed Esquipulas as it was one of the few times we got to see a nongringo tourist place in Central America.
Our next trip, once again in one of those ricketty and packed old school busses, was to Honduras and the Ruins of Copan. Getting there and back was an adventure in high finance. We had to pay for busses both on the Guatemala and Honduras sides, pay to leave Guatemala, to enter Honduras, and to enter the ruins. The ruins cost well over twice what our Lonely Planet Book stated and even the small museum that used to be included was now an extra fee. And the ruins, well after Uxmal, Chichen, and Tikal we were quite disappointed. They are small, there are no fabulous pyramids. The main points of interest are the stella which have beautiful carvigns depicting various rulers of Copan, like 18 rabbit, and the hieroglyphic staircase that supposedly tells the histories of the 16 ruling families. Unfortunately much of the staircase is badly worn and the archeologists of 1893 who reassembled it, put it together out of order. So it can't be entirely deciphered. That was about it. Yet these ruins were far more expensive than any we'd seen so far. If the price had been reasonable we wouldn't have minded the 6 hour round trip over bumpy roads and the small size. As it was, we felt as though we were really being ripped-off.
March 11 was one very sad day for us. Since our time was getting short we had decided to take a bus back to Guatemala City and then onto Antigua. From there we'd start riding back to Mexico to be out of Guatemala by the end of March. It was while we were changing busses in Guatemala City that our long time buddy and mascot, Nermil, disappeared. He was swiped right out of my handle bar bag while we were loading our stuff on the bus. One minute he was there, the next gone, only his little sombrero left. For nearly two years now he'd been our constant companion and a good source of entertainment on those long nights in the tent. I'd put him on Brians pillow, or in his face and Brian would toss him across the tent. One nght Brian acted like Nermil was pulling my leg. When I looked, Brian said "Look what the cat dragged in." We'd tease each other with him and blame him for all those critter visits to our tent. He had a slly expression you could interpret as a dozen diffrent emotions: guilt, fear, mischieviousness, happiness. But, no more. Unfortunately he was an old version of the Nermil cartoon character that I don't think they make anymore, so I doubt he can be replaced. We'll miss him.
We find the bus stations bring out the most annoying men. They come out of nowhere and attach themselves to you. You literally have to forcibly push them away to get rid of them. They claim to work for the government, show you this badge, and keep saying you pay nothing. Maybe so, but the hotel owners end up paying a finders fee. So, the hotel, once they see these guys, may claim they're full, or tack on an extra charge. Or these guys may "help" you to the bus. You get the imression they're the bus driver or conductor who do the same thing. But,as we quickly discovered, you get way, way overcharged when one of these guys shows up. We're learning to not like Guatemalan bus stations at all. This problem does not happen in Mexico or Belize, at least not in the countryside.
Antigua is touristy to the extreme. Every third person walking down the road is a gringo. It's a small, colonial style town, of about 20,000 permenant inhabitants, and is quite affluent. It's in a valley ringed with pine tree covered mountains and the one big volcano, vulcan Agua, having a perfect Fuji like cone towers above it. Streets are coblestone and buildings of tidy European style are packed with high priced handicrafts shops, expensive hotels, and Spanish language schools. However, there is an outdoors handicrafts market beside one of the churches enclosed in makeshift tin, wood, and tarp covered stalls where Guatemalan goods can be had with some bargaining. The central square is neat and well cared for with several old colonial fountains that still operate and many of the restored buildings surrounding it. The main chruch, unfortunatly, was badly damage and is only partially restored, the back being roofless.
Back in the 1600, 1700s, before Central America started dividing into separate countries Antigua was the Spanish seat of government for all of Central America. After a large earthquake in 1773 destroyed much of the town, the government decided to move over the mountains to the currnt location of Guatemala City thinking, quite erroneously, they would avoid further earthquake destruction. Antigua then slipped into obscurity as a combination of looting, neglect, and further earthquakes continuued to dismantle the old colonial buildings and chruches. But, Antigua was saved when the tourist industry discovered it. Now it
One of the main reasons for coming to Antigua, apart from the incredible smoking volcanoe cones surrounding the valley, is to learn Spanish. For some reason dozens of emmersion style language schools have popped up, each competing for the gringo money. Most offer 4 hour classes for anywhere from 1 day to several weeks or months plus room and board with a local family. We saw costs ranging from $100 per week and up. We hear the quality of the lessons varies widely from school and even teacher to teacher. Quality of accomodations also varies widely. I can only say we met one gringo who had been taking classes for 7 weeks and my self studied Spanish seemed better than his. But, he seemed to be more into having a good time than seriously learning Spanish. We decided to forego lessons as 1 or 2 sessions wouldn't be much use and we didn't want to stay longer. Besides I seem to be doing fairly well on my own.
We spent three days in Antigua not really doing a whole lot, visiting their few museums, going into Guatemala city to find dolls in regional dress, and taking a morning ride out into the country. The ride was really interesting. Beyond Antigua is a world of coffee and tobacco farms with small towns dotting the landscape. We took a small dirt road that at this time had only travelers on foot, bike, or a few hardy souls pulling the heavy looking wooden hand carts loaded with goods for markets. Many, many women dress in the traditional falda (skirt), huipil (blouse), and hafa (belt). The faldas are usually woven in a dark blue with interspersed colors. But the huipil and hafa are woven or embroidered in the most spectacular range of colors. These clothes, that look to me too be so time consuming to create are their everyday wear. They use them to work in the fields, wash clothes, run errands, go to market. They seem quite durable as washing usually consists of scrubbing with a brush in cold water. Oh yes, and the laundry facilities in each town are quite remarkable. In the central square and on many corners are these nice concrete fountains and pools. The concrete is formed into these scrubbing surfaces resembling an antique washboard. Women from all over town gather at the local washing fountain to scrub down their clothes and gossip. Every chore I see being performed by both men and women in Guatemala makes me realize all the more how lucky, or should I say spoiled, we are in the U.S.
Our most favorite activity was to wander down to the square each evenng, find a good bench, and watch the nightly activity of the costume clad women selling their wares. It'd take only about a 1/2 hour before they'd decide we weren't buying and leave us alone. Many women bring their younger children and we had a good time with one cute little girl. She had shoulder length jet black hair tied up in a Pebbles Flinstone poney tail, wore the typical Mayan dress that she energically got dirty at every opportunity, and a sparkeling, toothless grin. Her mom and probably aunt would stake out their favorite spot on the sidewalk, working on their weaving while trying to sell. Meanwhile, this litle girl who had not one single toy, would find some way to enterntain herself all day long. One minute she's collecting what little litter she could find, ripping boxes into pieces, and making a nice little pile, the next she's tossing around some strange goard that fell from one of the trees, then she gathers litle twigs together and ties them into groups with some string she found. Or mom will load her down with some of the lighter wares and mom and daughter would find gringos to harrass. At one point we became the subject of a peek-a-boo game. Peeking at us, upside down from behind a bench, or behind a tree, our backs, a bush, she had hours of enterntainment as we laughed at her antics. It was so amazing how this little girl, with absolutely nothing, could find so much to do. Try that on an American kid and see how long it takes before you get that proverbial "Mom, I'm bored."
Antigua was fun, but after a few days we were ready to leave. There are so many gringos it's just not the real Guatemala we came to see. Everyone you meet is from Europe or the US, the guys we met in that small town during our bike ride, the Germans who seemed to be working in stores and hotels, the British couple we met on the bus, the two British men, David and Ed, we met at our favorite restaurant. There are also a lot of gringo style facilities that you won't find anywhere else, like a private library with English books and newspapers including the Wall Street Journal or the email service provider we discovered. It was nice to have these facilities for a few days, but that was enough.
Getting out of Antigua was one heck of a climb, 1500 ft and more, to the town of Chimaltenango. Now we could have stopped for the night, but after riding a mere 17 km it felt a bit too whimppy. So we continued on another 32 km to the next town having a hotel, Tecpan. Well, we hadn't done a lot of riding in over a week, weren't accustomed to the 7,000 ft altitude, and wound up fighting a headwind and riding on a rough dirt shoulder for the afternoon. By the time we got to Tecpan we were both totally wiped out. Taking time off the bikes can be nice, but one sure looses that conditioning awfully fast.
The road continued in a northwesterly direction and continued to climb up onto a sharp ridge between two valleys. Views of the surrounding valleys and mountains showed the small checkerboard patterns of little farms, small stick like shacks sometimes having a nicer block or adobe building were everywhere. Each farm has an outdoor cement sink arrangement, usually pefabricated and shipped in. A hose and spigot provides water for outside bathing, clothes and dish washing, and drinking. Women and little girls dressed in their amazingly colorful huipils and faldas work in the yards and fields. But, in the area of Solola we started seeing men also dressed in the traditional costume. This is a colorful shirt, colorful knicker length baggy pants, and a wrap around skirt type blanket in brown and white check. Many also wore the traditional wide brimmed hat. Men of all ages, including some quite young, were wearing these costumes.
>From a roadside rest stand turned occasional market we got our first views of Lake Atitlan. This blue jewel set in the green Guatamalan mountains is surrounded by no less than 3 of those perfect cone shaped volcanos. We could see steam pouring forth from one of the lateral fissures on the side of one. The lake, a major destination for tourists, provides perhaps the best scenery Central America has to offer. Unfortunately to visit means having to deal with the usual throng of gringo tourists. We got around this, however, by riding only as far as Solola to spend the night and taking the bus the rest of the way.
The mountains going down to the lake stair step in two levels. At the top level is the Interamerican highway winding its way among the mountain peaks. At the next level, a very small flat in the side ot the mountain, is just enough room for Solola. The final level is the lake and its surrounding towns. Due to its position, Solola and its fortunate inhabitants have a million quetzal view. Farming and tourism down in Panajachel seem to be the town's major industry. Howver, there is also one small military base. Don't let it be said the Guatemalan army doesn't havea sense of humor. The guard gate is shaped like a pair of military boots covered in a camaflauge colored helmet. We were instructed to take a photo by the guards.
We happened to arrive on Monday market day, when all the natives from surrounding villages come to town, set up makeshift stalls, and peddle their wares. We love to wander through these markets as they are so vibrante and colorful, particularly in this region where the majority of women and many men are in costume. But watching them pack up shop at night is fascinating. Women work for an hour or so carefully folding and stacking the faldas and huipils. These are neatly wrapped in plastic and canvas, covered with a netting, and then carted off somewhere, we're not sure where, by the menfolk. Or perhaps big bags of these blue, red, or green and white striped water toting bottles are assembled and carried away. Bundles full of plastic ware, vegetables, miscellanious stuff are all carefully packed and carried. The bundles these men carry are enormous and they use only a single leather strap around their foreheads. The weight looks intolerable and we can see knees quiver as they walk away. Next the stall itself is dismantled and carted away. The stalls usually consist of pieces of wood tied together with string or may include some metal framing to make a roof. Saw horses and wood planks form the tables. All is dissembled, put on a cart, and taken away. The whole process takes hours, to be repeated on the next market day, Friday, or possibly tomorrow in the next town.
Taking the bus from Solola to Panajachel saved us a grueling 2000 ft climb up one knee destroying steep road. Yet we had the opportunity to spend a day by the lake in a town so filled with gringos it's nicknamed "gringotenango" by locals and visitors alike. It's strung out along a small flat bank along the blue Lake Atitlan waters. It's 9,000 inhabitants have built a town consisting of mostly hotels, resturants, and tourist gifty shops. The real market is miniscule compared to others we've seen and only a few stores seem to cater to the locals. I'll bet most people spring for the 1 quetzal bus ride to Solola for their much larger market.
There's not much to do in Panajachel except take a boat ride over to one of the other lakeside towns, so we did. The town, Santiago Atitlan, is the most highly visited town outside of Panajachel and, consequently, its residents are eager to partake of the tourist dollar. Shops selling the usual woven blankets, huipils, faldas, hair decorations, and some more unusual beadwork line the main road leading to the one point of interest, the main church. The church was unusual in that its walls were lined with wooden statues of the catholic saints. Each one was carefully dressed in a full length gown of pink, floral, oriental, or other colorful material. Some sported neckties, shawls, fancy embroidered cloaks. What's strange is the wood itself is already carved with clothing, but I guess that just wasn't colorful enough for the locals. One other aspect of interest in Santiago is the fact that Spanish is not their native language. A Mayan dialect is. Listening to two little girls ask us to take their photo, for a fee of course, we could distinctly tell Spanish is a second language. The timbre of their voice would drop at the end of each word when they said "una fota". Spanish tends to remain high in tone.
The road from Solola to Los Encuentras and on to San Cristobal Totonicapan climbs ever higher to reach the maximum altitude on the Interamerican highway, over 3600 meters, our highest pass ever in over 9 years bike touring. Starting at 2100 mts for the day gave us one long, difficult ride. Between having only ridden 2 previous days in mountainous country and still getting accustomed to the altitude caused us some difficulty near the top. We had to walk the last few kms. But the views were fantastic. From our high perch we could overlook hundreds of little farms with their neatly squared off plots covering virtually every hillside. It was quite a pastoral setting. People in the fields always stopped whatever they were doing to give us a long stare. Most just looked, some waved back when I waved, others whistled to get our attention, and some yelled "buenas tardes". However, there were a few who laughed and a few young boys asking, as always, for money. I suppose the folks laughing just think we look so strange, or maybe they think we're out of our minds for riding up such a tough hill. The boys seem to think every gringo is swimming in cash and will give it to anyone. Both are experiences we've had in other countries, yet that doesn't make it any easier to withstand. We just have to swallow hard and ignore them.
Our one day stop in Quetzaltenango, AKA Xela (shel-a) by the natives, turned into three days as Brian once again had a bad encounter with something he ate. This time we think it was something called "lomita" which is some kind of fried pork. Or it was just not getting enough rufage in his diet. In any event, suffering with a rather upset stomach, he decided riding over the next set of mountains would not be a good idea.
So we stayed two extra days and had the opportunity to watch one rather strange parade. The week before Easter is one big, big time for festivals in Latin America, known as Semana Santa (Saint's week). People in the parade were dressed in multicolored but mostly black, macabre KKK style hoods and cloaks. Or some had skeletons painted on black suits, frightening Halloween monstor masks, or silly buckets over imitation long blond wigs. They walked, shoes covered in tape to hide all identifying marks, rode motorcycles or bikes also covered in newspaper or plastic bags, or drove cars made up to look like fake police cars, mirrors, lights, windows all covered in paper. Many wore hand printed signs with political innuendos taped to their backs or fronts and most were busily getting drunk on the beer they were carrying. At the end were several small flatbed trucks decorated in rather gruesome displays of war or much nicer displays of the dove of peace. All bore political writings. This particular year the Guatemalan people had more to celebrate than normal, the end of their 36 year war, so many signs gave a hi-hip-horray for "la paz", peace. But there were also campaign signs for political parties, elections are coming up soon, and naturally the obligatory burning of the American flag. I wonder if there ever is a parade in Central America where the American flag doesn't enter in the picture. In any event, it was one strange parade. We learned that the hoods date back from the 80s when the notoriuos "death squads" roamed the countryside. Leftest student groups were having demonstrations throughout the country. If their identities were discovered the army would move in and kill almost all men and many women and children. So the demonstrators took to wearing hoods and cloks and covering every thing that could possibly identify them with tape and paper. For some reason the tradition still holds even though the death squads don't.
Riding from Xela to Huehuetenango and then on to the border was the best 2 days of riding we'd had in all of Guatemala and even Belize. For the first couple hours we climbed about 1000 ft. But then it was almost all downhill from there with only one 800 ft climb near Huehue and another short one near the Mexican border. We were so pleasantly surprised. We'd spent the 3 days in Xela preparing ourselves for more long, steep climbs that simply did not haappen. Scenery was spectacular as we started at the top of rugged pine covered mountain peaks and ended up riding down a deep canyon with shear walls on both sides. We were so reminded of the Wyoming Rockies. There isn't quite as much farming in these highlands which means much more of the pine forests are left untouched. Houses seem nicer, more block buildings rather than wood or adobe shacks, which lead us to believe this area must have more wealth than further south. Actually it turns out there are a lot of coffee growers in this area bringing in the extra wealth. Looking out across the green valleys and rugged peaks we could easily believe that we were just riding along some Rocky Mountain road. It's just that "buenos dias" we hear as we pass pedestrians that gives our true location away.
All went well on that glorious downhill ride until just before the border. Then we encountered that normal, horrible border mentality that seems to happen at nearly every border town we've passed through. People's comments became more agressive, children more obnioux, and Brian even had a chunk of mud thrown at him. La Mesilla was just a 3 km long town lined with run down shacks selling stuff. It was messy, caotic, and ugly. We wanted out.
Crossing into Mexico was such a pleasant surprise. Somehow the mass of humanity on the Guatemala side simply disappeared. Calm reigned. Drivers suddenly became more corteous and the road 100% better. It was such a relief. Unfortuntely descent hotel rooms were not to be had within any reasonable riding distance. We'd already ridden over 100 km for the day and we were bushed. So we arranged to take the bus from the border on to San Cristobal de la Casas. An so we climbed aboard the bus at about 5:30 PM expecting a ride of only about 3 hours at the most. As it turned out, some group of farmers decided to pick this very day to hold a demonstration. Which in Chiapas language means blocking all bus and truck traffic on the Interamerican highway for hours and hours. So we sat and sat on our bus waiting for the demonstrators to decide their victims had had enough. So much for our welcome back to Mexico.
Appendix A - Route
Mexico Rt 186 to Road to Belize
Belize Northern highway to Western Highway cutoff Western Highway to Melchor
Bus to Flores and Guatemala City Rt CA 9 to Rio Hondo Rt 1 to Chiquimula Bus to Guatemala City and Antigua Road from Antigua through Parramos to Chimaltenango CA 1 to Los Encuentras Rt 1 to Solola and back to Los Encuentras CA1 to La Mesilla
Appendix B - Campsites and hotels
Caribean Village Resort in Corozol ($), D-Victoria Hotel in Orange Walk ($), Camp at Bird's Eye View Lodge ($), JB's restaurant and cabins, El Rey Hotel ($), Hotel Casa Guastatoya in Guastatoya ($)
Hotel Yun Kax 2 nights ($), Spring Hotel in Guatemala City 2 nights ($), Hotel Casa Guastatoya ($), Hotel Casa Grande in Teculutlan ($), Hotel Chiquimulaja in Chiquimula 3 nights ($), Hotel Casa San Luis in Antigua 4 nights ($), Hotel Iximiche in Tecpan Guatemala ($), Hotel Ixichme in Tecpan 2 nights ($), Hotel el Pasiaje is Solola 2 nights ($), Hotel Reforma in San Cristobal Totonicpan 4 nights ($), Hotel Todos Santo Inn in Huehuetenango 2 nights ($)
($) indicates fee camping
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.