I’m sitting on my balcony with a glass of agua de jamaica (that’s hibiscus flower) and Spanish polka playing in the background while I watch the clouds climb up one side of the volcano and slowly float away. I’m in Lago de Atitlán, Guatemala!
After months of struggling in the job search to find the right job in the right place, Greg and I finally made it to the beautiful lakeside town of Panajachel. We were looking for a lifestyle change, somewhere that was new and challenging but gave us enough of the comforts we have grown accustomed to after a couple years back in the States. Greg settled on a job here in Pana consulting on a health program for an NGO and I am on contract with my employer from the States to manage their marketing for the next couple of months. I again get to be in the luxurious position of not having to work right away and instead I get to spend time learning Spanish properly and enjoy being a tourist in my new home.
I spent most of June selling all of our belongings (as Greg would say, “I pulled the rug out from under him”) and preparing everything for our next move. It’s amazing how many things we accumulated in just two years and it felt so liberating just getting rid of it all. Greg came to Guatemala for a week at the beginning of June and was able to take along two big suitcases of our most beloved items – our espresso maker, Nutribullet, and winter riding jackets. And at the end of the month, we packed up our motorcycles and set off for a 10 day journey through Louisiana, Texas, Mexico and Guatemala.
Part of the draw of Guatemala was the ability to ride our bikes to our next destination and to be surrounded by volcanic mountains that had fabulous, twisty roads that start the moment we leave our front gate. It was always our big complaint in New Orleans that for a fun motorcycle ride we had to travel hours outside of the city. Living in the Guatemala highlands is going to be a completely different experience.
The ride here was very hot – over 36 degrees for 9 out of the 10 days it took us to arrive. We did really well the first two days putting on more than 400 miles a day. But eventually the heat began to overcome us and it was just too hard to keep up that daily pace. We found ourselves retreating to air-conditioned cafés in the early afternoon for refuge from the heat.
Mexico is still one of my favourite places and I’m excited to go back and do some more exploring during future vacations. We had quite the adventure trying to visit a Mayan ruins site at El Sabinito in Tamaulipas. Greg had read about it online and thought it would be a nice stop in the morning on day 4. We took the turn off and followed what began as a easy dirt road through a village. After a couple water crossings of more mud and cow dung than water we started to climb through the forest and encountered some really tough rocky sections. I was able to stick with it for about 30 minutes but we got to a spot where Greg had a little fumble on some big rocks on the way up a hill and I just threw in the towel!
With a heavily loaded bike and worn road tires, I just wasn’t going to kill myself going to see this site! So Greg walked ahead a little to make sure we weren’t just a few meters away from the ruins before we decided to turn back. Later in the hotel we checked google maps but couldn’t even see the road on the satellite imagery. The signs led us along this forested road but then it was as if we just disappeared off the map!
A couple days later, we were able to see some fantastic ruins at El Tajin in Veracruz. We had a great tour guide which made seeing the ruins much more interesting for me. Somehow Greg can walk through these ruins – which really all look the pretty much the same, right? – and perfectly enjoy the experience without learning a thing about it! He’s a big history buff so he loves it all, but if I am coming to see it I want some good explanation! Chabo was a wonderful guide and I’m so glad we decided to stop and see the site.
The only snag in the trip was the teacher’s strike that was happening in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas in Mexico. We had planned to ride through San Cristobal de las Casas because I’ve never been there and then cross the border into Guatemala near the coast. Unfortunately the teacher’s strike included road blocks along all the major highway and border crossings so we had to ride into Tabasco and cross further to the northeast than we had planned. This was a bummer because we had already done this border crossing during our moto trip a couple years ago and because it meant another two days in the hot lowlands before reaching some cool relief in the mountains of southern Guatemala.
We’ve generally had positive experiences at border crossings – mostly because of Greg’s Spanish and the discipline of always maintaining a smile and a lot of patience. This crossing was no exception, although we had a couple hours’ delay because we forgot to bring a photocopy of our motorcycle titles with us. This involved some calls to Greg’s mom in California asking her to look through the four boxes of our belonging that we sent to her to search out the original titles, scan and email them back so we could print a copy for customs. The slow internet compounded the wait. Then the internet at the photocopy shop went out. The desktop PC didn’t have WiFi, so Greg had to hotspot his phone to his laptop, email the scans to himself, put them on a flashdrive, and then use the flashdrive with the desktop PC. It was a bit of a labor in the heat but can you remember what it was like before we had internet on our phones?
At that point we had hoped to make up some time as it was only 250km from the border to Pana. Google recommended the longer-but-faster route through the capitol but we chose the shorter-but-slower route because we assumed the difference was more twisties and, besides, Greg wanted to avoid riding through the capitol. It turns out the slower route was due to more than 30km of unpaved road covered with potholes like small bomb craters! We began crawling along at little more than 10 miles per hour and a little ways in Greg suggested that we might turn back but I absolutely refused. I wasn’t going back down the steep sections that I had just negotiated.
So we pressed on slowly, slowly and it only resulted in three falls. One of mine and two of Greg’s. But to be fair, my fall was really another one of Greg’s. He told me over the communicator that he was pulling off to take a photo. When just a moment later I heard him grunt and then crash over, I hit my brakes to rush over and forgot that we were still on thick gravel! Strange how riding on gravel feels so awkward for those first few miles and after a while you can forget it’s even there!
So it was Greg who came running to me instead of the reverse – came running very well actually on his newly healed broken leg and, by the way, in his brand new pair of riding boots (third and definitely last pair in a year). My Moxie Thumper has taken a lot worse licks than this so only the Motech pannier rack was affected. It had shifted in the fall and the latch that locks the pannier in place buckled. Greg started for his tools but I showed him it was still on plenty solid and it held without incident the rest of that day and the next all the way to Pana.
That night we stayed in the town of Sacapulas. After the arduous off-roading we had hoped to end the day in a nice, comfortable hotel. The gas station attendant said there were 2 hotels in the next town and several more in Sacapulas. So we pushed on. Unfortunately, the hotels in Sacapulas do not meet or definitions of either “nice” or “comfortable”. We remembered very vividly the suffering of our Great Bed Bug Disaster of Meridian, Mississippi during a moto trip the year before, so we applied a little travel trick. We unbundled the thick tarp that we use as a tent footprint or rain canopy depending on the situation and threw it over top of the mattress. That let us sleep soundly and securely without fear of critters.
We made it to Pana the next afternoon after stopping for an early lunch at a beautiful mirador (viewpoint) in the mountains. In Pana we met Edgar whose house we had rented for the month through AirBnB. It’s lovely two-story, two-bedroom with a balcony, garden, and fish pond and secure, gated parking for our motorbikes. We’re still figuring out if we’ll be here or somewhere else over the long term. Either way we’ll certainly have a spare bedroom so if you are planning to come through, definitely drop us a line!
In the meantime, we’ll continue to share our rides and experiences in our new home so you can get a taste of Guatemala from wherever you are.