Overland Diary

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Guatemala started off on day one as an adventure… or rather day two. Unfortunately, day one resulted in us turning back to Mexico since the bank at the El Ceibo border crossing is closed on Mondays and we didn't feel like donating our $400 import deposit to the Mexican government (though we did appreciate all the beauty that Mexico so kindly presented to us). On the second day, $400 richer and with a new stamp in our passport, we celebrated with a 352km, 14:40hr drive through the Guatemalan highlands. Though this marked one of our longest days thus far and the first time driving at night, it was a day filled with colorfully wrapped cultural bits mixed in a muddy stew of off-roading adventure that we had been longing for since we left California.

 

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After crossing the boarder, we drove through village after village, instantly noting the main difference that distinguished Guatemala from its neighbor Mexico - all the houses were finished! No more rebar sticking out of the rooftops and half-built abandoned complexes. And though Oaxaca and Chiapas had given us a taste of Mexico's indigenous culture, as soon as we crossed into our second country, indigenous life was served to us as a full on buffet: women in traditional garb, babies strapped to the backs of their mothers in colorful sacks, men hulling loaded bags supported by straps hanging from their heads… the list goes on. As we dove on, our eyes glued to the surroundings, we found that the people who intrigued us so much where equally intrigued with the three wheeled tank that rolled through their village disrupting the daily norm just for a moment. 

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It wasn't long before we hit our first water crossing - the Sayaxche river ferry. For a cost of around $3, this floating platform took Patty, two wheeled motorcycles (yes, we must distinguish the difference), cars, and even large diesel trucks across the river using two outboard motors. It was here, after talking to the captain, that we gained some insight on the next part of our day - the dirt road that would lead us to the archeological site known as El Ceibal. 

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Once on land, we turned left off the pavement and ventured into the jungle. Our last sign of life was a small wooden "house" with dirt floors and laundry hanging out to dry. The three children washing clothes in the roadside stream pointed the way for us as their older sister stood and watched while playing music from her smart phone (even the farmer carrying his daily goods on a horse and cart will be seen guiding the reigns with one hand while the other is held to his head as he chats away on his cell). It wasn't long before we wished we had one of those machetes that seemed to be hanging from every mans waist. We had hit a section of deep mud and our left case was wedged into a position which required some digging, pulling, hacking, and pushing before we could continue. Eventually, after making it to the ruins, we can say that this site was one of our favorites. Though it was lacking in the impressively massive structures that you see in places like Palenque, it made up for it in the drive, isolation, and wildlife. We spend 60 nervous minutes walking around the park surrounded by what seemed to be an angry pack of howler monkeys and got a good sense of what ruins must look like before the countless hours of restoration and clearance. 

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The last part of the day continued on into the night. We were making our way to Lanquin via "hwy" 5 with 40km to go and an hour of sunlight left excited with the newly paved road, when our excitement quickly turned to anxiety as the pavement changed into steep, rocky switchbacks. Normally, this would be another highlight of the day (we totally prefer dirt over pavement)… but it wasn't day and we had been told by so many travelers and locals that the last thing you want to do is drive at night. After lowering our tire pressure, we spent the next 2.5 hours winding our way through the mountains passing the occasional loaded truck, pedestrian with his machete, and moonlit soccer games. About half way up we stopped for a coke and chips in a small village and listened to the sounds of a performance in the church 100 meters away while we watched a group of children slowly crowd around Patty intrigued by the foreign machinery that so widely differed from their chain driven motos. Our nerves relaxed over time and we continued up the mountain happy to finally use our Cyclops LED front lights, but sad to know that we were missing a beautiful ride from the glimpses of canyon we could see in the beam of our lights. 

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In Lanquin, we ended up at El Buen Retiro hostel since Zephyr Lodge (which is so widely popular by the reviews we had read) was full that night. Our hostel was a beautiful place to stay: cheap private cabanas ($20), tropical landscaping, river front bar with cheep prices, pay per hour sauna, and daily all-you-can-eat barbecues. The next day we enjoyed our day off the road with the Semuc Champey tour that included a candlelight cave exploration, river tubing, and a tour through Semuc Champey - a jungle covered canyon with turquoise pools resting on top of an underground raging river ($20pp). Though all of these activities can easily be done without the help of a tour guide, it was nice to get to know the other travelers staying at the hostel. The only downfall for our tour was it was highly overbooked. The experience would have been more enjoyable with a group of 10 instead of 40.

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The next day, we headed towards Lake Atitlan. We felt particularly lucky since we would be passing by Chichicastenango on a Thursday which meant we would get to see the famous market that only happens on Sundays and Thursdays. But by the time we reached Chichicastenango, the sun was setting and the market was closing. We took a few pictures of the market venders loading the famous Guatemalan busses and decided to stop for the night at the Chalet House - where the owner was extremely helpful and informative and the internet speed was top notch.

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Lured by tales of kayaking through sunken houses, sunrise volcano hikes, and cheap tandem paragliding, the next afternoon we made our way to the west side of Lake Atitlan to the town of San Pedro. The drive down the switchbacks into the volcanic lake was frightening beautiful - frightening not for the busses making their way up without any intention of sharing the road, but for the knowledge that tomorrow, we might not make it back out. Over the course of this trip, we realized that Patty did not like steep grades and some major carburetion work was needed if we wanted to continue through the Andes in South America. We decided to push our worries aside (until tomorrow) and enjoy the view ahead.

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We made it down in time to find a hotel, book our sunrise hike, enjoy a tasty meal, and pack our day bags before heading to bed early in hopes of getting some sleep before having to wake up at 2:30am for the hike ($25pp). Five hours later, we were loaded into a small tuktuk with our two tour guides and made our way to the start of the trail. We spent the next 4 hours hiking up 1500 meters to the top of the San Pedro volcano seeing nothing but the occasional glimpse of sleeping cites surrounding the lake and the whatever foliage that happened to fall in the beam of our headlamps. After sharing the sunrise with the couple who lucked upon one the few small camp spots at the top, we trekked our way down, this time enjoying the view of the coffee, banana, and avocado plantations that we had hiked through earlier and pitying the large groups making their way up in the morning heat. All in all, the 7 hours of exercise was well needed after countless hours of sitting in the sidecar.

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That same day, we headed out of Lake Atitlan towards the coast. This was not an easy task. About half way up, it became clear that there was no way out of those steep swickbacks without lessening the load. So we waited for a car to pass us by and kindly asked to take some of our belongings up to the top: a couple backpacks and the sidecar passenger, Katie. A few pounds lighter (just a few), Gianmarco guided Patty at full throttle up the pass, not slowing for turns, construction, or other vehicles in fear that if he lost momentum, he might not be able to get it back. They made it to the top with only a faint smell of burnt clutch.  It must be mentioned that when looking at a map, there is a less steep road from San Pedro that heads South East, towards San Lucas, but we were warned by some locals that the road has massive, car swallowing pothole and many stories of bandits. One motorcycle traveler was able to catch his robbers on his GoPro head cam

Our last stop in Guatemala was a relaxing one. One spent lounging in pools, playing in the ocean, strolling along the sandy beach, and drinking numerous liquados in one of the best hostels to date - Johnny's Place in Monterrico. We found that most of the other guests where local Guatemalans who were enjoying their weekend the same way we were. Monterrico is famous for its neighboring El Hawaii mangrove park, but we decided to skip the expensive mangrove boat tour and pay the $15 fee to take the ferry up the river to La Avellana which was on our way to the El Salvador boarder. Knowing that we had an early morning visit with the boarder officials and feeling the effects of our early hike, we tried to call an early night. But it was Saturday, and it turns out that Johnny's Place turns into a full on night club during the weekends and we were lucky enough to have the room right next to the dance floor. Lets just say that our last night in Guatemala was a long on.

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