Thursday, January 28, 2010

Guatemala : Quetzaltenango to Antigua...

It was a great surprise to run into Torben, a KLR rider that I had met back in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.  He was staying at the hostel that I had checked into and wandered up while I was hacking away on my laptop.  I was so excited to see him because when I saw him last he was posted up in San Cris waiting for his bike to get fixed.  We went out to dinner with he and his girlfriend and discussed how all the moto guys we'd been running into seemed to be congregating on Antigua for New Year's Eve.  I decided I would go there as well.

The next day we didn't get out of town until 2:30 in the afternoon.  I was stressing a bit because we were all going to be showing up in Antigua near dark on New Year's Eve with no place lined up to stay.  Rumor had it that Antigua was already packed with tourists, both foreign and Guatemalan alike.  We blasted up the highway out of Quetzaltenango or Xela as it is called for short.  We headed along the Pan American highway climbing higher and higher into the mountains.  The pavement was brand new and hadn't even been striped in many places.  The views were incredible but we were racing against the sun, again, and so photography wasn't really an option.  The KTM was running wonderfully up in the cool thin air.  And the fresh pavement was a welcome treat after the punishing ride from Coban the day before.  Volcanoes silhouetted in the distance and clouds gathering in the nooks and crannies created by the extreme elevation differences between valley floor and ridgetop.  The pavement twisted and wrapped and dropped and climbed.  It was an utterly fantastic ribbon of asphalt.  Children lined the road waving to us.  I was in total awe.  I thought that they were just super happy to see us riding by, but when I saw a handful of candy get tossed out of a passing car, I realized they were waving to the holiday passers by, who would throw them holiday treats.

The descent from the ridge down to Antigua was precipitous and quick.  We rolled in right at sunset and were treated to cobblestone and colonial color.  It only took a bit of picking around until I decided to check email and see how Ben and Charles had managed coming down from Semuc Champey.  Turns out Ben had just sent me an email and he had a great little hostel lined up with parking for all the bikes in the courtyard.

We showered and exchanged stories from our trip down from El Remate.  I met Charles, Ben's riding partner that was racing through Mexico while Ben and I relaxed at the lake outside Tikal.  Charles was riding a KTM 640 Adventure.  Finally, I wasn't the only KTM'er in the crowd.  But everybody else was riding trusty KLR's which seem to be the bike of choice for the ride down.

We headed out into the chaos to start our New Year's celebrations.  First things first.  Street food.  Ben and I had become big fans of finding the cheapest and best eats in each town we visited.  So far it seemed that the best option was always street food.

Torben met up with us again and tried his best to show us the way...

You can see how excited he is that we were paying real close attention to his directions.  But when we got back out on the street things had changed.  Dinner had let out and the partying began.

We bumbled about in the streets, beers in hand, full bellies from tasty tacos with melted cheese smeared on the thick Guatemalan style tortillas.  Oh chicken, beef, chicken and beef.  Super full but always room for the Rooster.  Gallo, or Rooster, was the beer of Guatemala.  And that night, there was nary a moment that I didn't have one in hand.

We ended up right in the right spot for the midnight bells ringing in 2010!

Antigua is a beautiful colonial city.  The next day the streets were empty but still full of the refuse created by thousands of people celebrating.  Scraps of tissue and exploded fireworks tumbled along the cobblestone.  But by the time we were finished eating breakfast the city workers were coming along sweeping the cobblestones clean, by hand.

A quick tour of the streets in the beautiful sunlight of January 1, 2010...

Then it was off to Pacaya Volcano for an afternoon of hiking an active volcano in search of live lava.  I wasn't sure how my hip would hold up to the hike but the lure of lava was sufficient to make me give it a go.

Ben has a great write up at that I'm stealing and posting here...

In the afternoon we decide on a tour up the Volcano Pacaya. there are 37 volcano’s in Guatemala buy only 3 of them are active. Pacaya is active. Before we could even step out of the van, dozens of kids come running up to us. Buy schtick! Buy schtick! They cost only Q5 ($0.75) but we’ll do without.
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We’re not quite sure what  to expect but it turns out to be quite a good trek up the scree slope. The initial views of the valley are outstanding.
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With strong winds and rain working in we ascend into the clouds and eventually arrive at the lava. INCREDIBLE! The heat is so strong. Liquid hot magma is flowing under our feet and spewing out from the ground right in front of us. It’s also quite eerie and I wonder if the ground is going to give way or if my shoes are going to melt. I couldn’t get any closer than he photo below because the heat was so strong.
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This is what the ground looks like under my feet.
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Up on a precarious rock pile there was a woman taking pictures. All of a sudden the rock pile began to crumble and she went tumbling down the rock towards the lava. She fell inches from the Lava! Fortunately, Justin was only a few feet away. Without hesitation he grabbed her sweatshirt and yanked her away – effectively saving her life.
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It was a scary reminder that this wasn’t a USA style tour. Never in the States could you walk right up next to the lava. No guardrails, no signs, no paths – just go wherever you want. It’s amazing freedom but people can get hurt, or worse, die. It reminds me of an article I listened to on This American Life about college binge drinking. Say for example, if a student dies one year then everyone at the school realizes that it’s real and could happen to them. But unfortunately, that death has no effect on the next year’s incoming freshmen and they don’t take any caution in their actions. Everyone at the volcano that afternoon was sure to be more cautious. But all is forgotten the next morning when a whole new bunch of tourists make their way up the volcano…
Anyways, we headed down the mountain in the dark. We’re all freezing cold in the wind and rain and can’t understand why our tour guide is taking us on a different, longer, and more difficult path down the slope. Finally we make it to the combi van and head back to the city. But what trip would be complete without one of the girls getting sick and throwing up out the window 3 times! We get back to Antigua and pass out, exhausted.
Early the next morning we set off for the El Salvador border. Working our way out of town we roll the wrong way down a one way street. The police aren’t happy but I tell them we’re going to Argentina and they just tell us not to do it again. Yes, sir. I’ve learned my lesson…

Goodbye Guatemala!
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Here are my shots from the same day on Pacaya...

This is our guide... Panteras unite!

Pretty excited to be this close to lava flowing fresh from the source.  Charles and I sweating here even 10 feet away from the flow.

The line of tourists trekking across the lava field.  The gray stuff is old.  The black stuff is from the last major eruption a couple of years ago.

*See Melinda Subido's account of her hot lava tumble here...*

And a token photo of me and Melinda, the girl I pulled from certain death...  or too close for anyone's comfort.  See Ben's write up above.  I was standing about where the guy behind us is and Melinda tumbled down some rocks and landed right next to the live lava behind the guy.  With a lucky and quick reaction I managed to yank her to safety and onto her feet.  The strength under adrenaline thing is for real.  It was an instant reaction.  One of two in that situation... have a heart attack or do something.  I managed to grab hold of her sweatshirt and rip her up to her feet.  I pulled so hard I ripped her sweatshirt a little.  She was still pretty shook up at this point.  But on the suggestion of another member of our group, we took time to pose in front of her close call.

The next day, more KLR riders pulled into our little hostel.  Enter Mark and Jon... Firefighters from Idaho.  And soon my next posse.  But first I needed to get some new rubber on my bike.  I'd been hauling this tire on the back of my bike since Arizona and of course just rode the harshest roads to date on the bald one.  The guys convinced me that I'd gotten the life out of my Dunlop Rally Raid.  What do you think?

Around 8500 miles.  Not too bad.  I think I could have pushed it a few more, but we had the perfect workspace to make the swap.

Off for El Salvador with Ben and Charles...  Stay tuned for the next post.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Guatemala : El Remate to Lanquín to Quetzaltenango...

I managed to get in a ride around the lake and checked out touristy Flores for a couple of minutes, before continuing my journey south through the backcountry towards Cobán.  I had chosen and out of the way backcountry route through the mountains to a little town of Lanquín.  Lanquín is on the map because of its tremendous caves and the waterfall cave complex known as Semuc Champey.

The ride was beautiful.  Perfect pavement.  The clouds that filled the sky when I left El Remate had all but burned off.  An elation that had been missing from my last couple days chilling at the lake flooded me.  Seeing the landscape ripping along watching the terrain change again was inspiring.

I saw some of the effects of slash and burn agriculture at its ugliest and prettiest.

At one point while I was zipping along towards Sayaxché I was shocked as I crested the rise and the pavement instantly changed to gravel and a river separated me from the town I'd been watching on the horizon.  I saw the ferry chugging accross.  It cost me a toll of 25¢ to cross.  Check out how they power this thing.

I pushed through the bustling little town and made my way back into the countryside.  Eventually I came to the fork in the road.  To the left, Raxruja and beyond into the mountains and the building purple clouds or to the rights, sticking to the perfect pavement for Cobán.  Option "left" was the more direct route, a shortcut, if you will.  If I succeeded in managing this route it would afford an arrival in idyllic wilderness.  If I took option "right" I would most likely spend the night in the city of Cobán.  I opted for the potholed muddy dirt road, wishing I'd mounted the spare tire.  My quickly balding Dunlop scraped and peeled away in the mud but I was thrilled with the adventure of my decision.

The road lead directly to the mountains and a tight canyon gave me access to its depth.  The rain started as I climbed up into the clouds.

It was an incredible day.  I shot lots of video and tried to stop often for pictures but I needed to keep moving.  The rain was building in intensity as I dropped into the Lanquín valley.  My tire was sliding down the hill making it impossible to control my speed.  All I could do was roll with it and try to steer the skid as best I could.  When I finally arrived at El Retiro lodge just before dark, I was spent.  The thatched huts and warm food replenished me and I slept soundly in my 10 bed dorm room.

When I awoke, I'd decided to make a marathon dash through the Guatemalan mountain background.  A beautiful rainbow stretched accross the valley as I packed my bike for the adventure.

I took this as an omen and rallied into coffee country towards Cobán on a wet paved road that seemed to skirt the heavens.  The views were incredible.  The sun struggled to break free of its confines casting shadows along the mountaintops.

When I made the turn towards Huehuetenango, I was biting off a huge journey through the mountains and valleys of the high country.  The mountains got bigger and steeper.  I came across a mountain slide that created an interesting detour.

But once I got passed the mountainslide, the roads got good again as I headed for Uspantán.  I ended up getting some bad gas somewhere down there and needed to keep the bike pinned for the remainder of the ride.  I didn't get many pics after these but managed to make it all the way to Xela.

  I rode about nine hours that day.  Here is the write up from my journal...

Today was epic.  And I mean epic.  I left El Retiro against all suggestions that I go to Semuc Champey.  I had to pass.  The tour looked great.  Hiking in caves with a rushing river by candlelight, and huge pools and lagoons on top of a limestone bridge with a rushing river underneath.  Next time, I guess.

So I left after a healthy breakfast of a Marlboro Red and pushed out of El Retiro.  There was a huge rainbow over the hills that I chose to take as an omen that my decision to push on was a good one.  The skies cleared and the sun came out.  I rallied up the bumpy road out of Lanquín slipping and sliding on the wet cobblestone with my terribly balding Dunlop rear tire.  My bike was scratching for traction constantly, so I was totally relieved when I got to the pavement.  The road climbed precipitously up out of the valley.  Soon I could see the whole valley below.  I rode along winding up and up.  The pavement was good but it was wet and slippery.  Everything was super green and wet from yesterday’s rain.  As I got closer to Cobán, the hillsides became filled with coffee plants.  And soon there were fincas, or coffee plantations with beautiful homes built with German flair.  I read in Lonely Planet that this area was full of Germans before World War Two and that the Germans held  a monopoly on the coffee plantations of the area.  But after WWII, the Americans drove them out because they had supported the Nazis during the war.  The landscape was incredible.  Bright yellow flowers dotted the overflowing green vegetation along the road and clouds stuck to the mountains looking like cotton candy strewn about.  Little villages were perched on the ridges and tucked in the valleys everywhere.

When I passed through Cobán, I was really glad that I hadn’t opted to stay there last night.  Even the El Retiro was so far out of the way it was still super beautiful set alongside the river with steep hills of green rising on all sides.  Cows grazed lazily on the hillside this morning and a rainbow reached from valley to valley over them.  Cobán was quite the contrast to this idyllic setting.  The streets were narrow and crowded and the entire atmosphere was dirty.  I picked around and asked directions a lot and eventually made my way to the highway that runs to Guatemala City.

The pavement was again perfect and I was zipping along.  I thought that I maybe had gone too far so I pulled over and asked directions for the turnoff for the road to Huehuetanango.  I had in fact gone too far.  So I whipped around and with my new directions promptly found the road and made my way onto another rough gravel road.  It was muddy as well, which made it feel all the more adventurous.  Though not as bad as the road from Raxruja yesterday, it was pretty rough.  I picked my way along for about a half an hour when I came to a huge mountainslide.  The whole mountain had given way and had washed the road clear away.  I saw the signs saying that there wasn’t a pass but I pushed on thinking that maybe the signs were old.

Of course moments later I realized how stupid of an idea that was when I came to a giant moraine of gravel and boulders.  I tried turning around and ended up getting super stuck.  It took about  ten minutes of extreme struggle to free Gigante and get turned around.  I made it to the detour and wound my way down the switchbacks trying not to lose control on the steep slippery makeshift road.  I came to where the new road crossed over the slide.  It was amazing.  I would guess that it was a half mile wide and it looked like the leftovers of a melted glacier.  One that melted insanely quick and immediate leaving a coursing river behind.  There was no river but there were huge ravines where the water had escaped and eroded through the giant slide.  I wondered what lay buried beneath and how long ago this had occured.  After I crossed the giant slide, I continued along towards Uspatán marveling at the incredible mountain scenery.  After about 25 miles of grueling dirt and giant puddles and huge potholes, I came to a bridge.  It was made with steel grating and had giant iron girders supporting its span.  On the other side of the bridge the road was suddenly paved.

I cruised along the pavement.  It was good and only occasionally did the hillside wash down covering a lane reducing it to one.  The road wound through the valley and quickly climbed the other side.  Soon I was driving through a little town that started with a “c”.  I pulled into a little gas station to ask about the direction I was heading and bought some gas.  The pumps were old and I wondered if the “super” grade gas I was buying was really “super” or just more expensive standard gasoline.

A few more clicks down the road and I saw the couple of KLR’s I’d seen passing me coming out of Lanquín last night.  I pulled over and chatted with the guys, two Canadians from Winipeg and their girlfriends who were joining them for a couple of weeks.  We chatted and smoked a cig.  I declined their invite to join them for a beer and some lunch and pushed on, thinking of Xela and wondering if I might be able to make it there after all.

About five minutes out of town I started questioning whether I should have just stayed and ridden with them to Chichicastenango istead of pushing all the way to Xela.  But I was on my way so I kept going.  My rear brake suddenly wasn’t working as I descended a really steep hill.  I rode on for another few miles and until I found a good spot to pull over and see what was going on.  When I got off the bike and checked the brake lever and line, everything seemed to be working fine.  But there was oil on my rear wheel.  I looked over the brake line again figuring that there must be a leak somewhere and that the oil must be hydraulic brake fluid.  But on further inspection, I realized that the brake was fine but the oil was coming from somewhere else.  I took my backpack off the spare tire and sure enough, my quart of expensive fully sythetic racing oil had been punctured by the hook of one of my extra bungee cords and had leaked out a good third of a quart of oil into the tire and was splashing out all over the seat and running down onto the muffler.   I poured the rest of the oil into the oil tank, tried to clean things up a bit and resituated the bike.  I thought maybe this was a sign that I shouldn’t be pushing to Xela.  I took a minute to eat some tortillas and nutella and decided to push on anyway.

Shortly after that my bike stared sputtering and died right after crossing a bridge.  I thought that maybe it was just hot and the fuel pump just got some air in it or something.  I let it cool down for a minute and fired it back up.  It was running really rough but I couldn’t figure out what it could be.  The fuel pump seemed to be working o.k.  But it was still occasionally sputtering.  I pushed on and it seemed to do o.k. as long as I kept it at a higher rpm.  I pushed on Sacapulas where I tried to find some internet to make sure that Sarah was still in Xela before I pushed all the way there.  I was making good time and it seemed that I might be able to make it after all.  I came up empty on the internet.  There were three internet cafes in the town but all of them were mysteriously closed.  So I asked a couple of different people how long it would take to get to Huehue and also to Xela from Huehue.  I got varying responses as is typical here.  I decided that I thought I could beat them and I gave it a shot.

The road from Sacapulas to Huehuetenango was incredible.  Good pavement and wider than before.  The road climbed up really high giving me incredible views in every direction.  The landscape changed again and began to look like the high altiplano in Peru minus the glaciated peaks soaring above the green mountainsides.  The patchwork of different crops filled the mountains and villages dotted the landscape here as well.  I wanted dearly to stop and take some photos but I knew I had to keep pushing if I was going to make it to Xela by dark.

I missed my turn for Huehue but caught myself and stopped for directions.  I got pointed in the right way and zoomed off not losing much time.  When I rolled into the city it was huge and dirty and crammed with traffic.  I had no idea how I was going to find my way to the highway.  Gigante was overheating and the fan was running constantly.  He was still wanting to die at low rpms and I was starting to think that the gas I’d gotten had some water or some other contaminant in it and that was what was causing the problems with the engine.  When I was neck deep in bumper to bumper traffic, I asked a kid next to me on a motorcycle how to get to the highway.  He smiled and started giving me directions while checking out Gigante.  He decided there was no hope for this gringo to ever make it through the crazy city and congestion.  He told me to follow him and he would take me to it.  I didn’t even get his name but I decided later while I was thinking about how he saved the day and at least an hour of getting lost, that I would name him “Angel”.

I zoomed out of town pointed down CA1 or the PanAmerican highway.  Gigante was really sputtering now.  When I passed by a big clean Shell gas station, I decided that I would go back and fill up with fresh gas and let him cool down a bit.  I did so and when I took off again it seemed as if it didn’t matter.  He was still running terribly.  The puffy clouds were turning from bright white to orange and I cringed as I thought of breaking down on the highway with night coming on.  I revved the bike higher and found that it didn’t seem to have any problems if I was running closer to 6K rpms, so I rallied as fast and hard as I could for a solid 50 minutes of incredible zooming landscape, rallying fast through the towns and jumping the speed bumps and passing cars and trucks and cattle and dogs.  Trying to keep Gigante revved high and running and trying to beat the setting sun to Xela.

I could see a giant conical Volcano in the distance and I knew that Xela was near to it.  Again I wanted so badly to stop and photograph the vista in the golden evening light but I knew that if I wanted to get there before the blackness of night I needed to push on.  I recorded a couple of images in my mind and continued on my racing pace.  I made all the right turns and found myself pulling into the huge city just as the sun ducked behind the mountains for good.  I decided after coming up dry with the first couple people I asked, to ask directions from another guy on a motorcycle behind me.  He had a really cute girl on the back and he was wearing a sweet leather jacket.  He seemed really proud to be on a moto.  I told him the street I was looking for and his face went blank.  Then he asked me where I was trying to get to and I told him Casa Argentina.  He beamed.  “Sigueme”  “Follow me” he said.  His girlfriend shot me a cute proud smile happy to be a part of this helpful occurrence.  We zipped and zoomed through tiny sidestreets that were all one-ways and dodged long lines of traffic.  About five minutes later we pulled up to the front of a big yellow building with big black letters emblazoned above the white steel doors that read, Casa Argentina Hostel.  I smiled and told him thank you.  But this time I shouted out and asked his name.  “Juan Pablo”  I told him “Muchisimo Gracias, Juan Pablo.”  He smiled a big smile and so did his girlfriend.

Twice.  Saved by Guatemalan motorcycle angels and here I was pulling my bike inside the hostel that I was staying at just as the streetlights came on.  Amazing.  Guardian Angels I tell ya.