December 22, 2011 – December 30, 2011
Our paperwork was organized and we were ready to cross the border. I wasn’t sure what to expect because entering Mexico had been so easy but entering the motorcycle was a bit more complicated. We were given some documents and a receipt when we had crossed into Mexico, the documents were to allow the motorcycle to gain entry and the receipt was for a $400 deposit that we would get back once we left the country. I felt as though we were well prepared and I hoped that it wouldn’t be a long complicated process.
The first stage of exit was to present our passports to the customs officer. After being cleared, I had to walk to the customs office. A long line of people stood outside under the hot sun waiting for their turn. It was difficult being fully geared, I was sweating a puddle. Once I was finally able to present all of the papers, I was told that I would have to go to a store a few blocks away to get photocopies of a few things. What? Luckily, a kind stranger was listening near by and told me that him and his family needed to do the same and offered to drive me. I would never had made it walking that far in the hot heat. With everything ready, I returned and had to wait in the long line up again. I was happy to finally be told that I had everything needed.
We then rode up to another booth a few hundred meters away so that we could purchase motorcycle insurance, it cost us $12 US for the day. We were warned that Belize cops loved to issue tickets to drivers without insurance. Slightly further up the road, there was another booth we had to stop at were we were told that any vehicles crossing the border needed to be sprayed with bug spray to prevent exposing different bugs into Belize. The guy told us that since we were on a motorcycle, we wouldn’t be sprayed but we would still have to pay $6 US for it. None of it made any sense to us, so we told him that we wouldn’t be paying for something we didn’t need and we rode away. Another couple hundred meters up the road was the immigration office for Belize. I entered into the building and presented them with all the paperwork and paid $30 entrance fee into Belize. We were then to ride to a booth and get cleared to cross by a customs officer. Along with our ID, he told us we needed all the receipts but we were missing the one for bug spray and he asked us why we didn’t have it. We explained to him that we were told we didn’t need the spray and we thought it was odd that the man insisted we pay anyways, so we refused because we sincerely thought he was trying to scam us. The customs officer reacted as though we insulted him and he became really rude to us. I still don’t think that it was wrong of us to assume that we were being scammed. Without choice, we turned around, paid for the receipt, went back to the customs officer and were finally allowed to enter Belize.
Just over a kilometer away from the border, a cop pulled us over to ask for proof of insurance. We were beginning to understand why people complain about traveling through Belize. The area we rode through seemed a bit boring but the people seemed really sweet, everybody waved as we rode past. We probably should have spent at least one night there, but we wanted to get to Petén, Guatemala as soon as possible. Christmas was around the corner and we were invited to share the holidays with a family we found on couchsurfing.org. We would also be sharing the holidays with Jonathan from San Cristóbal. He too had been welcomed to stay with the same family, in Petén.
We continued riding until we finally reached the border out of Belize and into Guatemala. Once again, I had all the paper work ready and Rocky waited outside with the bike as I went in. We then rode up to the Guatemalan immigration office, our passports got stamped and I paid $22 but when I presented all the paperwork I was told that Rocky needed to be present since that motorcycle was under his name. With all the paperwork ready, we were to go down a street to a store that sold photocopies. It was really frustrating that a customs office didn’t provide themselves with photocopies. We always kept the original documents, they needed the photocopy. Why didn’t they at least sell me the photocopies in the customs office?
It was getting late and we were finally into Guatemala. We traveled on a paved road for a while but it suddenly became a dirt road. Every few meters was a large pot hole. I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable. I was tired and we hadn’t eaten in many hours. It was dark out, there were no street lights and we were surrounded by trees and thick bushes on either side. We continued on this creepy road until we eventually reached Petén. I remember feeling a sense of relief once we approached the city, almost as if the bright lights and traffic kept me safe. I was also excited to see a Pizza Hut. I felt comforted, by the familiarity and also the thought of eating something of substance.
After stuffing our faces with a large pizza, we got back on the road again and finally reached our destination. The family we were visiting lived on the outskirts of the city down a few dirt roads. There was a tall wall built of cinder blocks around the perimeter. We honked the horn a few times and I felt bad for arriving so late as we waited for someone to answer the door. Memo approached the gate and greeted us to come inside. The property was very large. We were asked immediately about our travels and lectured for riding in the dark. Apparently, the dirt road we had ridden on is known for its high crime rate and shady police officers that rob people. We were warned not to ride at night ever again.
The house was built on a beautiful piece of land, it had to have been at least 1/2 acre. A narrow stream ran through the middle of the property, I was told that it was full of eels and native fish that can live for 3 months without water. There was many flowers, hundreds of native jungle plants and trees throughout the property. The house was under construction but walls and ceilings had been built. To the left of the property was an area with walls and greenery that somewhat secluded that space for some hammocks. That is where Jonathan was sleeping. Beside there, was an outdoor sink and cement water tank. They are called Pila, it is common to see these. With the water shortage in these countries, it is important to have a cement tank filled with water. Just as we passed the kitchen, there was an outdoor sitting area and behind it was the children’s bedrooms, along with ours. There was also a shared bathroom and shower, and further down was the parents quarters.
It was nice to meet everyone in the morning, Memo was an American and he was married to Angelica, a Guatemalan Maya. They had 4 beautiful children together, Wilson, Reina, Perali and William. It was also really nice to see Jonathan again. We were given a proper tour under the sunlight and Memo gave us a little history of himself, his family and introduced us to Buenas Cosas. Buenas Cosas is a cooperative of Guatemalan women, an association of family, friends and neighbors who serve their community and nature. Their focus is eco-tourism and voluntourism with an emphasis on conversational Spanish & Q’eqchi’. They are a non profit organization, and every cent that enters Buenas Cosas goes directly to communities, programs and projects that cultivate ‘Good Things’, or as they say in Spanish, Buenas Cosas. We offered to help and volunteer but it was Christmas holidays and they were taking a break from providing for the community and concentrating on hosting their foreign visitors.
It was December 23 and we rode a few minutes through the city to go visit Flores, the capital of Petén. Floris is an island located on Lake Petén Itza, connected to the mainland by a short causeway. Just as we were getting near, I noticed Jonathan drinking his breakfast at a patio. Rocky pulled over and I sat with Jonathan and enjoyed a cold beer as well. We were going to do some exploring and invited him to come along. Rocky rode and met us across the bridge as Jonathan and I walked. Being the coffee snob he is, Jonathan led us to Cool Beans, a great restaurant/coffee shop that offered free WiFi. We would spend a lot of time at Cool Beans over the next few days.
The following morning was Christmas eve and I was invited to a Guatemalan tradition. Every Christmas eve, tamales are prepared and eaten. Corn was ground, chunks of chicken were marinated and plantain leaves were washed. First, I was to place a plantain leaf flat in front of me and put a spoonful of each, corn and chicken on the center of the leaf. I was then taught to wrap the leaf into a pouch and tie it together with string. A fire pit was lit and a large cauldron had a few rocks lining the bottom of it with some water. The tamales were placed inside and steamed all day long. It was a unique experience to be invited by Angelica’s family, native Maya people, to help prepare for a feast that has been around since as early as the Pre-Classic period.
Once I was done helping, Rocky and I headed to a craft store and bought a few gifts for the kids. Small booths lined the streets of Petén and they were all selling fireworks. When we returned to the house we were told that another Guatemalan tradition was to light firecrackers at midnight to celebrate Christmas. Rocky, Jonathan and I took the kids to go buy some fireworks and after returning with bags full, the celebrations begun. Tamales were eaten and everybody sat around the fire pit and drank some beers. It was amazing how many firecrackers we could hear in the distance, but we all waited patiently until midnight to light ours. After a few walks trough the neighbourhood with beers in our hand, we visited some of the locals who were related to Angelica and her family. As midnight approached we all met back at the house and the fireworks began. Never in my life have I ever experienced or imagined experiencing such a display. The entire sky filled with explosions, the noise was intense. For at least an entire hour I could safely bet that all of Guatemala was lighting up fireworks. The energy during that long moment was incredible. It was a fantastic experience.
We woke up early Christmas morning and exchanged a few small gifts. Memo and his family were kind enough to give us some authentic Guatemalan hot sauce. It tasted delicious with our breakfast tamales. Jonathan had packed and was prepared to leave that morning, I wondered if we would see him again. Rocky and I rode into the city in search of a post office. We had arranged for a replacement credit card to be sent but we were having no luck receiving it. We kept checking for it every day but we expected the postal service to be no better than Mexico’s had been.
We returned to the house with some groceries and planned to make dinner for the family. We prepared Penne Pasta with meat sauce. It was interesting to watch the children’s reaction as they ate a food they’ve never tried. Memo giggled and said not to tell the kids that they were eating Penne, apparently the word means Penis in Spanish. We all giggled with him.
The next morning, Rocky and I planned on visiting Tikal, one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centers of the pre-Colombian Maya civilization. We rode for almost an hour and suddenly lost the clutch. We had to turn around and head back for some help. We stopped at a couple of places but it is difficult to find somebody who wasn’t intimidated by such a large piece of machinery. The KTM 990 is definitely not a common bike to work on in the area. Just as we began losing hope, a guy from a local mechanic shop helped us. He said that the clutch lever piston was off and he adjusted it back in.
Since it would be too late to visit Tikal, we decided to get the bike washed. It had been a while since she was cleaned. We entered a washing garage and it was cute to see the excitement in the employees eyes to be able to wash her. I was surprised by his enjoyment and the detail that he placed on making her look new. He spoiled her with what i would consider a high end spa experience. We then decided to ride to Flores for a bite to eat and use WiFi to check the status of the credit card that was supposed to have been sent. To our surprise, we bumped into Jonathan and hung out with him until we headed back to the house for our last night in Petén. Early the next morning, we packed all of our belongings and once again said goodbye to our new friends. We were very grateful for the memories they had left us with during our stay in Petén Guatemala but we were ready to continue our journey through the country.
Guatemala City was our next destination and our ride there was one I will never forget. Rocky wasn’t feeling well and the day was a difficult one to get through. Hours into the ride, we had to pull over so that Rocky could nap on a picnic table at a gas station. A few hours after that, we had to stop again for another long rest. The traffic in Guatemala was extremely stressful. The highways were only two lanes. Which means, when there are slow moving vehicles in either lane, which is usually the case, you inevitably get a line up of cars in both lanes, desperate to pass. We had to constantly move onto the shoulder as oncoming traffic including large transport trucks, were always in our lane coming at us head on.
I had contacted a family through couchsurfing.org for us to stay with them in Guatemala City. By the time we were near, it was already night. We could see the city lights in the distance but we were separated by a few mountains. Unfortunately, the highway through those mountains were under construction and the lack of street lights made it almost impossible to ride safely.
The roads were partially paved and the damage on them was barely visible in the dark. There were potholes along the way but more dangerously, there were large chunks of road missing. In Canada, any area of road too dangerous to travel on would have some sort of warning, a flashing sign or at least a few meters of pylons to warn us. In Guatemala, what we saw was, if there is a large hole in the road, a larger rock/boulder is place immediately before it as a warning. There were a few times that I thought we would die trying to avoid the dangers.
When we were finally near the house of the family we were about to visit, we had a difficult time locating the address. We stopped numerous times to ask for directions and every time that I showed anyone the address on Rocky’s iPhone, I was lectured to hide the phone to prevent being robbed. Theft seemed to be a large concern amongst the locals. When we eventually found Stevan’s home, the sense of relief I had felt is indescribable. Stevan’s father answered the door and explained that his son was at a local church for band practice, and he would be returning soon. By the time Stevan had shown up, we were shown to our room. Stevan’s family owned and rented the home next to theirs, and that is where we would be staying. It was late and we were exhausted, we immediately fell asleep the moment our bodies met the bed.
When we woke up the next morning, we were invited next door for breakfast. Tamales were served and they were prepared much differently than we had eaten just days before. They were made with potato, chicken, green olives and dates. A delicious combination. Stevan lived with his father Josue and his mother Zarai. He had a sister named Gioana and a brother Guillermo but we wouldn’t meet the two of them until later. Josue was a soft spoken polite man with kind eyes. Beautiful artwork was hung on the walls, I was impressed to find out that it was Zarai who had created it. Stevan was also an artist, he belonged to a band named Wud Link and played the guitar. I love that we continue to meet amazing people along our journey.
With concerns over the condition of the motorcycle, we located a KTM shop not far from the house and rode to get a new clutch lever piston and seal. We thought it was best to have the mechanic install it, servicing it ourselves wasn’t practical at this time. After spending the afternoon with the kind mechanic at KTM, the motorcycle was fixed and we returned to Stevan’s home. Stevan invited us to go walk around the mall with him his friend Jose. We gladly joined them. Guatemala City was huge and I thought it was a pretty city. The mall was much bigger than the one back in the city I grew up in but the population there was much bigger as well. It was nice to window shop and compare prices to what we would pay in Canada. I was surprised to see that although Canadians economy was better, everything there seemed more expensive. After a few hours of talking, walking and laughing together, the mall was about to close and we headed home.
We prepare for our departure in the morning by packing all of our belongings and sharing goodbyes. It was just a few days before New Years and we planned on spending the celebration at Lake Atitlán. We were back on the crazy roads of Guatemala.
We rode to meet Jonathan, who caught a tuk-tuk into town, and found him drinking his morning beer.
Paula snapped a shot of this guy down by the lake. I have no idea what he was drinking. Something tells me it’s not water.
Lake Peten Itza – located near the town of Petén in northern Guatemala.
Two Guatemalan dudes on the island of Flores
Lago Petén Itza
Jonathan, Perali & Paula
We spent the afternoon at Buenas Cosas making tamales with Memo’s mother-in-law, Margarita, and enjoyed the native Guatemalan treat for Christmas Eve dinner.
Another Furry Friend
Perale was quite a little character, and a natural in front of the camera.
Jonathan left for Tikal on this rainy Christmas morning. This is the last we though we’d see of Jonathan, but we ended up bumping into him again in the nearby island of Flores the following day.
We said goodbye to Stevan and his father, Josue before leaving Guatemala City and heading for Lake Atitlan.
Paula with Stevan, a tattoo artist, musician and our couchsurfing host in Guatemala City.