March 2008

thru Guatemala & El Salvador

General Overview


At the end of February we ventured inland for a few weeks for a 1,300 mile trip thru El Salvador and Guatemala. We packed up our motorcycle, which we carry on our flybridge, and drove from Barillas, El Salvador, thru San Salvador, up to the Rio Dulce (on the Caribbean side of Guatemala) to the ruins of Tikal, down to the 15th Century old town of Antigua, on to Lake Attitlan and back to the boat in Barillas. This update is really more of a journal about our adventure, which was rich with excitement, and admittedly long winded- but fun!

Although it was a Friday, and boaters are theoretically not supposed to start a voyage on a Friday, we broke the rules. In reality the “myth” wouldn’t apply in this case because we were embarking on a motorcycle voyage thru Guatemala and El Salvador, not an ocean going voyage? We packed our gear and stuffed everything we could possibly need for a two week trip into 2 small daypacks. You have to understand that our motorcycle is an Enduro style, more of an “off road” type bike …… not much in the way of a back seat, no racks, panniers, or luggage cases. Not exactly what you would call a “touring bike!”

We “launched” our motorcycle (“moto”) off the top of the flybridge and into our dinghy then arrived at the Marina office for our appointment with Carlos, the on site customs officer, at 10 am sharp. It seems that they’ve never had anyone bring a moto into El Salvador on a cruising boat and customs (Aduana) wasn’t quite sure what to do with us. After a several hour delay, we had a temporary permit to pass thru the locked gates, leave the marina grounds, drive inland to the customs office in San Salvador, and get our official permit which would allow us to travel in El Salvador on our moto.

We arrived in San Salvador around 3 pm, took the turnoff we were told to and were lost within the first five minutes. In El Salvador, and in Guatemala, street signs are not one of their strong points! If you’re lucky, and do find a sign, there is generally only one of them, the roads then go every-which-way, with no additional signage. We’d been told that navigation might be “tricky.” I have a better word for it, but I shouldn’t put it in print!

We had also been told that very few people in Central America speak any English, which we immediately found to be true. After wandering aimlessly for a while, we stopped to ask for directions, which was the first of what would soon become a trend for us. We used our best Spanish, but learned quickly, that although we may have practiced how to ask for directions, our big weakness came in trying to understand what their answers were.

Our questions were met with a rapid succession of Spanish words they fired at us. We were delighted when we could pick out a few that sounded familiar. Directions also tended to start with hand gestures pointing left or right, followed by an arm being thrown over their heads to indicate “just keep going,” You don’t suppose they were really saying “up yours” do you??

We finally found the Aduana’s office, completed the necessary paperwork and several hours later were on our way. By this time it was rush hour and getting dark. We inched our way thru the outrageous traffic in the worst areas of downtown San Salvador that you could imagine! Watts was now beginning to look tame. Often times our little moto was surrounded by noisy buses with black exhaust filling the air, horns honking, and hundreds of people all over the streets - scary looking ones too! We have no photos of this as I didn’t want to even make eye contact with anyone; much less draw any more attention to ourselves than two crackers driving thru the bad area of San Salvador on a motorcycle packed to the hilt would already draw! We were still lost and definitely on the wrong side of tracks.

By the time it felt safe to pull over and look at our map again, we were on the outskirts of town and it was almost completely dark. Knowing that we would not be traveling at night, (which all the guides tell you it’s not safe to do,) and the fact that the Ken’s daypack was fastened to our front fender, which covers up the headlight, we were playing beat the clock to find a place to stay in a safe neighborhood for the night.

It was now dark and we were not finding any hotels along the way, when we pulled into a rather upscale mall where we stopped to get a bite, regroup, and decide where to go next. Perhaps it was our skin tone, the bewildered look on our faces, or the fact that we had maps (with very little detail on them) spread out across the tables at the food court, that a woman offered to help.

She was a teacher in San Salvador and spoke very good English. She was also 9 months pregnant, ready to give birth at any moment, and was there with her husband and little girl. They decided they should lead us to a safe place to stay (5 miles away) and even took the time to go into the hotel with us to make sure we got checked in ok. This was a “budget trip” for us, so at $59.00 it was the most expensive hotel we stayed in during our entire trip, but at that point we were willing to pay what ever it took to get a room. They were our guardian angels that night and they wouldn’t even accept any money. They simply said that they knew if they came to our country and needed help, someone would do the same for them - so in essence, “pay it forward.”

As we were being shown to our room, we glanced across the courtyard and spotted a little hotel bar, which we quickly determined would be our first stop, once we dropped our packs in our rooms. Five minutes later we were rehashing our day, sipping down cool brews, and practicing our best Spanish with the bartender - “Dos cervesas por favor.”

The next morning we found our selves struggling to figure out the routine for ordering breakfast. Trying to order meals or understand the menus was a challenge. First we would look for words that resembled something we knew, for example “huevos or tacos.” The nicer restaurants generally have their menus in English as well as Spanish; however, we were on a budget and didn’t frequent the high class joints often! Eventually we’ve learned to glance nonchalantly around the room, see if someone was eating something that looked good, and simply say “tambien por favor” or “I’ll have what she’s having!” This particular morning we settled for toast and coffee.

Once we crossed the border from El Salvador into Guatemala, we could almost immediately see some changes in the scenery. The many cows we saw in El Salvador seemed to be skinny and grazing in some pretty dry and pitiful places; however, in Guatemala we seemed to see “happy cows” grazing in lush plentiful fields. Looking closely I even think they were smiling?

After a long day of driving, it was getting late when we pulled into Rio Dulce, in northeast Guatemala. We looked like a couple of drowned rats as it had begun to rain that afternoon and we, and our packs, were soaked to the bone. Driving thru Rio Dulce was not unlike many of the towns we toured. Lots of people, noise, buses, dogs, trash, run down buildings, open air markets, and vendors tucked into little nooks and crannies selling their wares.

What Rio Dulce has that makes it more charming than some, is a large river and lake where small, sometimes rather rustic, marinas, restaurants, and hotels dot the waterfront. Many boats cruise this area each year, especially during hurricane season when hundreds more take refuge in the Rio Dulce, 20 miles up river from the Caribbean Sea. It is also an area that many international backpackers travel to, and a multitude of different languages filled the air.

Pulling off the highway and into a dirt area behind large iron gates, we found the first little restaurant/bar where we overheard the owner chatting with a guest - in English? Jurria, the owner, was from Holland and he and some of the more colorful locals soon began telling us stories about the area, “It is a kick back, mellow place to live, but you need to lock things up and be smart about where you go” they said. When they said an average of one dinghy, and/or dinghy motor is stolen every night, we asked them if the police monitored the area. Their answer surprised us when they said “we’re sure that often times it is the police who steal them?!” They also told us that last week 29 police were taken hostage in Livingston (where we were going the next day) by a group that wanted to negotiate for more jurisdiction and representation.

With our moto securely locked to a tree outside the café, we took a little boat to a hotel/restaurant/marina a few miles up the river where we checked into a great little bungalow on the water for the night. A panga stopped by the dock the next morning and picked us up for a tour 20 miles down river, to the town of Livingston, on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala. It was an absolutely spectacular ride down the river. Lush jungle, steep walls, small homesteads nestled in the boonies along the riverfront where no roads exist, with people using Dug Out canoes to get around.

Once arriving in Livingston, rather than going straight to the touristy area of town, as usual, we ended up in an alleyway on the outskirts of town. Ken is such a nonconformist and never does much the traditional way you know! We saw a Garafuna man (Pollo) and started up a conversation with him. He said he was surprised to see us walking in that area, much less stopping to talk to him, a black man.

Pollo took us to what he called “the roots, or the black area of town” to see how the people really lived, stopping along the way to introduce us to people and showing us a small orphanage with children romping about. When we saw the kids in the orphanage, Ken asked Pollo about giving them a donation. Pollo replied “not now, not now.” Since he was a musician we eventually ended up at a night club where he played traditional Garafuna music. We bought one of his CD’s, which is when he then said, “how much do you want to donate to the orphanage?” We gave him some money “for the kids” – are we gullible or what??

That night found us in a $12 hotel room that left a lot to be desired. We were up early and on our way north to Tikal in northeast Guatemala to see the Mayan ruins. On the way we met another couple touring on a motorcycle, only in a little different style than we were. Claud & Reiko were on a BMW touring bike, equipped with nice cushy seats, and hard waterproof lockable luggage racks in which to carry their things! Ooo, sweet! We enjoyed a fun evening together and then toured Tikal with them the following day before parting ways.

Tikal is the largest ancient ruined city of the Mayan civilization in the world. It was abandoned around the year 1000 and was overgrown by the dense jungle that surrounds it, until about 150 years ago when archeologists uncovered about 10 square miles of it. Over 80% of the ruins have yet to be uncovered some time in the future. It was a ceremonial center complete with a plaza, temples, sacrificial alters, etc. It was like a step back in time as we explored many of the buildings, and envisioned what it would have been like to live in those times. Howler monkey’s and exotic birds live in the trees around the ruins which added to the mystique of the place!

It was a 40 mile drive to the island town of Flores, where we found a great $20 hotel in the heart of the charming little city with pastel colored buildings and cobblestone streets. It was a safe and fun place to walk around, even in the evening. The hotel had nice hot showers and a TV with US channels! We were allowed to put our moto in the lobby for safekeeping at night, which is not uncommon in Guatemala. It felt good to kick back with a glass of vino, a pizza to go, turn on CNN to see what was happening in the world then fall asleep while watching a good old American movie – in English no less?

Driving in Latin American countries is quite different than we’re used to in the states. Buses, which literally have people hanging out their doors, are everywhere, and the drivers, who must double as Kamikaze pilots, drive like bats out of hell. It didn’t take long to realize that we better either get out of their way or start driving like they do. Captain Chaos joined in and began driving like a maniac!

Little settlements are scattered everywhere and rather than just posting “reduce speed” signs, they put in speed bumps, called Tope’s. We found ourselves air born more than once. There must be millions of the little buggers in this country!

Then there are the animals. Jeeze, they have the run of the road, especially in the out of the way places. Pigs, bulls, cows, dogs, goats, sheep, turkeys, donkeys, horses, chickens, you name it, they had control of the roadway.

Police, military and/or armed guards are everywhere, and they carry really big guns! Police and military checkpoints are plentiful but for some reason they never seemed too interested in us – guess they thought there wasn’t much room on our bike to transport drugs and contraband. Every bank, gas station, market, etc. has at least one guard and often two. It has apparently just become part of their culture.

Motorcycles are a common mode of transportation and we became accustomed to seeing a family of 4 on a small motorcycle or ladies sitting sidesaddle in their dresses on the back of a one. Taxis were usually 3 wheel golf cart type of vehicles, called Tuc Tuc’s. Trucks were used as buses in many of the poorer areas. They were equipped with a lumber rack and it was commonplace to see 15 - 20+ people standing or hanging off the back of the pickup truck going down the road at 50 mph, the back of the truck so low we thought we would see sparks begin to fly.

Still, by far, the most common method of getting around was simply walking or bicycling, especially throughout “Mayan country,” which spans hundreds of miles throughout Guatemala and is where we trekked for the next several days. The women and young girls carry everything imaginable on their heads, while the men carried loads – big loads – of wood and sugarcane on their backs for miles. All – and I mean all – the Mayan women wear multicolored skirts no matter what they are doing. hauling water, washing clothes in the rivers, selling their hand woven wares, etc.

After leaving Flores we took “the road less traveled” south to Coban, never really sure about quite where we were. At one point we rounded a corner, and with no signs anywhere, the road simply ended - at a river. After looking around we noticed a “ferry boat” loading cars on the other side. We waited our turn, crossed the river, then asked if we were on the right road to Coban. We got the “si, si, senor,” a motion of his hand this way and that, followed by “the gesture” and we were off.

Continuing on, we came across a small village that looked something like the wild little village Harrison Ford found himself in, in “Indiana Jones.” We were ready for a stretch and “butt rest” so we parked the bike and got off in the middle of the town. It might have been my imagination but it seemed that it suddenly quieted down and everyone around stopped to stare, wondering who we were and what we were doing there. My Indiana Jones wandered up to a lady who was barbequing a combination of things, a few of which looked familiar. It didn’t take long to befriend the people when we ordered lunch, sat down at their table and ate whatever they were cooking. I pulled out my camera and took some happy snaps, which seemed to be a novelty for them. Before you knew it they were vying to have their pictures taken so that they could view them on the digital playback.

Coban was a nice town and we found a clean, neat hostel with a nice restaurant and gift shop all under one roof. It was an early evening as we knew we had several hundred miles to cover the next day if we were going to get to A

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