Days 93-100 – Loma Bonita, Oaxaca, México to Cobán, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala – 15,213 km
It was Christmas Eve day and we were passing through a large storm system that was expanding across the states of Tabasco, Chiapas, and Veracruz. It rained heavily all throughout the day and, also, Carretera 180 was rutted and potholed so it was very slow going. When we finally left the highway and pulled into the flooded streets of Heróica Cárdenas, it was dark and raining and we were plenty exhausted. It had only been 290 km from where we started the day in Loma Bonita, after fighting the roadblock at Valle Nacional the day before, but we eager to treat ourselves to a nicer-than-average hotel and room service on Christmas Eve.
The next day I found a convenience store open during my morning run so I stopped to buy a variety of chocolates. When I returned to the hotel room, I interrupted Jess’s call with her sister to send her to the bathroom while I stuffed the chocolates into one of my (clean) riding socks.
‘Ok, you can come out now,’ I said.
‘Oh, love, you got me a stocking!’ she said.
We got a late start that morning but me managed to cover the 200 km to Palenque through the drizzling rain. It was a good enough place to spend the afternoon of Christmas day and it put us within easy striking distance of the border so that we were able to finally cross into Guatemala the next day. It was another gray, wet day as we moved through the process of exiting Mexico and then entering Guatemala.
At the border we came to a checkpoint where we showed our passports to a federal police officer. Then we pulled passed and parked our bikes at the customs office. Here we locked our helmets to the bike and retrieved our folder of documents and photocopies from our panniers. Then we went into the customs office where we cancelled the temporary vehicle importation permits and received a notification that Banjercito, which is the armed forces bank of Mexico, would reimburse the several hundred dollar deposit that we had placed as a security on each bike when we entered Mexico six weeks before. Then we went to immigration and they verified that customs had ‘liberated’ our passports of the vehicle restriction and then they stamped our passports that we were free to leave.
We went back to our bikes, retrieved our helmets, and then rode the short distance to another checkpoint where the federal police confirmed that our passports were ‘liberated’ and that we were stamped out from Mexico. Then we pulled into the customs office at Guatemala where we presented our documents to obtain a new vehicle importation permit and from there it was on to immigration.
After completing our ingress into Guatemala, there was only an hour or so of daylight left. We covered the 30 km under an intermittent drizzle to arrive in El Naranjo where we had been told there were the only hotels for about 70 km. El Naranjo sits at a break in northbound Route 13 where a river cuts the highway. So it naturally becomes a waypoint for those traveling to the villages in the far northwest of the country or making a visit to Parque Nacional Laguna del Tigre. Here there were several hotels along the principal road but they were all very dirty so we chose one and slept that night in our sleeping bag liners rather than under the bed sheets.
The next morning we rode east across northern Guatemala under a persistent drizzle. We stopped for lunch at Flores, which is a small island in the middle of a narrow appendage of Lago Peten Itza, and here there was a break in the rain and clouds and we enjoyed a beautiful, sunny sky. Flores is near the spectacular Mayan ruins of Tikal so it is a popular stopping-off point for tourists. After Flores we continued east, bypassing Tikal because I had seen it twice before and because Jess could not be less interested. By the end of the day we had covered 250 km and we reached Melchor de Mencos – again under a gray sky – on the border with Belize.
The next morning we left Guatemala, crossed the border into Belize, took out a vehicle permit and local insurance, and set off towards the Caribbean coast. By the evening we had traversed the 125 km width of the small country under gray, drizzling skies and we arrived arrive in Belize City by evening.
The next day there were three falls.
The first fall of the day was Jess’s and it happened in a patch of mud a few minutes down the Coastal Highway. We had left Belize City that morning under a drizzle and after going 50 km west we detoured south onto the Coastal Highway in the direction of Dangriga. After Jess’s fall we decided that slick mud and our balding road tires were not a good match so we doubled back to the Western Highway and continued in the direction of Belmopan.
The day’s plan had been to visit Dangriga, which would have been at the end of the 70 km Coastal Highway passed several lagoons and a forest reserve, and then to take Hummingbird Highway back to near Belmopan in the center of the small country to where we would take a cave tubing tour. But now the unsuccessful detour had spoiled our timing to make Dangriga and be back in time for the tour. Also, the gray skies and persistent drizzle had soured our appetite for the tubing.
‘Somehow the thought of getting wet in an inner tube is more appealing on a sunny day even though we’re already wet from the rain,’ Jess said over lunch in Belmopan.
‘I know it,’ I said. ‘As we’re riding along and it was gray and raining, I keep thinking how it’s like being back in Liberia and it just makes me want to ride through it and get somewhere else.’
That’s what we decided to do – if the weather wasn’t going to oblige us then we would go somewhere where it would be more cooperative. After lunch we continued west to San Ignacio. This is one of the most popular cities among tourists to Belize, an easy enough place to find a hotel room, and a short hop back to the Guatemala border the next day.
In San Ignacio the second fall of the day happened and this time it was mine. Jess was riding ahead and we were scouting the narrow streets for a suitable hotel, when a car door opened right in front of me. I saw it and I had just enough time to hit the brakes and swerve the bike to avoid the driver as he exited the vehicle while talking on a mobile phone. But the sharp turning of the handlebar against the forward momentum caused the wheel to lock and the motorcycle went over. The man continued to talk on his phone as he watched me get to my feet.
‘What are you looking at? Come and help me!’ I said angrily and probably shouting because my voice sounded dull through my helmet and earphones.
He offered one hand to help right the bike while with the other he kept the phone to his ear. It was enough to get the bike up and onto its kickstand. After a few moments when I was seated on the bike again and ready to ride off, I looked back over to him. He had stepped onto the sidewalk still with his phone to his ear. I made a sharp gesture to him with my hand to match the words that ran through my head. He signaled to me to wait a moment. Even angrier, I made another, sharper gesture and then I wasted no more time and rode off to catch up with Jessica.
We rode through San Ignacio but we couldn’t settle ourselves on any particular hotel and I was still angry and need to ride off the anger. So we rode out of town in the direction of the border and shortly we found a reasonably priced lodge where we rented a cabin surrounded on three sides by dense forest.
Here at the lodge outside of San Ignacio is where happened the third fall of the day and again it was mine. Beside the cabin was a flat grassy area, which would have been perfect for parking the bikes and not having to carry the luggage far. But between the cabin and the parking area was a steep, muddy slope, which I was foolish enough to tackle and especially with my bike fully loaded.
Whenever there is a difficult stretch that Jess is uncomfortable to do, I ride my bike through it and then come back for hers. I always do it in this order so that, if the attempt proves to be a disaster, it is me and my Penelope who will get the worst of it.
I rounded out of the parking area, which itself was uncomfortably muddy and, as soon as I started down the slope towards the cabin, the narrow treads of both front and rear tires filled with mud and the motorcycle collapsed under me. The fall was so complete and downhill facing that it took two staff members from the lodge to help Jess and me to right the bike, which continued to slide down the mud slick even as we tried to lift it. Finally it was upright but it was still facing downhill and only by clenching the brake levers could I keep it in place.
‘Let’s unload the bike here and then it will be easier to turn it around,’ Jess said.
The unloaded bike was incomparably easier to manage and, after a few close calls and throwing a lot of mud, I had my bike back up the slope and in the parking area beside Jess’s. We left the bikes in the parking area and carried our luggage to the cabin.
It did not rain overnight but the next morning the sky was still gray. We had caught Belize and northern Guatemala at a bad moment and probably we hadn’t given either a fair shake but we were happy when we crossed back into Guatemala and began riding southward into the highlands. That afternoon we reached Sayaxché where there is no bridge over the Rio de la Pasión. Here we took a barge over the river and Jess went down on the steep dirt path before boarding the river barge. I had boarded my bike onto the barge and she was already back on her feet beside her collapsed bike by the time I had dismounted and looked back, expecting her to pull up behind me. I started to run back to her but then I reduced to a walk when I saw that someone among the drivers waiting to board behind her had helped her to right the bike.
‘You rushed yourself because you were nervous with so many of them waiting behind you, right?’ I said later that evening over dinner.
She nodded guiltily.
‘Take your time and don’t let anyone rush you,’ I said and then I laughed. ‘And I have to stop rushing to help you when you fall because I always forget to take a picture!’
There was no rain that night but, unfortunately, there was still one more day of it before we reached Cobán where we stopped for New Years Eve. That evening the skies filled with the noise of small firecrackers. We added our own very modest explosions fired from the terrace beside our hotel room and we drank wine to celebrate. After a difficult first half of 2013 in Liberia, the second half had been something quite amazing. This appreciation of how far we had come in a year and the clear skies that brought an end to the rain the next day were as good as any introduction to the New Year that we could have hoped for.