LOS AMIGOS – ANTIGUA
After the debacle of El Mirador I’m on the night bus arriving into Guatemala City around 5.30am where I would get on another bus for the 1 hour drive to Antigua.
A man jabs me in the shoulder to signal we have arrived in Guatemala City. I’d slept the whole way.
Alas there is no connecting bus and I make the taxi ride across GC to catch a chicken bus to Antigua.
I’ve heard a lot about Antigua. Friends who’ve been rave about it massively. Los Tres Empanadas bigged it up and pictures on instagram portray a bright coloured and well preserved colonial city surrounded by the now ubiquitous range of volcanoes.
I’m here to commence studying again. The last two weeks have been a bit of a non event regarding my learning. I’ve been surrounded by English speakers or in the midst of a personal malnutrition nightmare where my brain stopped functioning even in my mother tongue let alone Español.
As soon as I hop off the chicken bus I’m met by a porky, well tanned almost American looking guy. This man is Juan. He basically greets me by asking if I want to study Spanish cheaply. Yes I do!
We chat in Spanish during the ten minute walk to his house. He corrects me instantly when I make a mistake. I like this, this is what I need to make improvements. He’s a funny guy and we chat football and before I know it I’ve signed up to his school for two weeks having knocked him down from QU2400 for two weeks to QU2100. No repeat of my poor negotiations in Pana.
He’s also got me in the hostel right opposite his house. Los Amigos. It has a massive kitchen, its clean and has everything I need to cook up a storm for desayuno, almuerzo and cena. Then comes the clincher. The view off the terrace.
To the left is Fuego and to the right is Acatenango.
This is Volcán de Agua.
The accommodation also comes with a very sweet little girl called Diana who is probably the best three year old footballer I’ve even seen. Up on the terrace she’s drop kicking her “poletta” over my head and into the makeshift goal. We’ve been here before! She’s great fun and a cool kid, she’s destined for a bright future with such high confidence.
SPANISH SCHOOL – WEEKS 3 & 4
I’m back on his studying malarkey hard core for the next two weeks and what better place to learn than off the terrace of Los Amigos with the back drop of Volcán Agua, Acatenango and the highly active Fuego.
I like Wendy because she jumps on me as soon as I make an error which as it turns out is quite a lot. This is very different than the tuition I received Xela. In fact it’s the complete opposite. I’m not 99% of the time right. I’m down to about 60% but I feel like I’m learning a lot more and much quicker.
The pattern of the lessons generally consist of Wendy and I chatting casually about what I got up to the previous day or where I’ve travelled. She seems intrigued by my travelling stories and conversation generally flows quite nicely.
One day in conversation Wendy starts to talk about her cats and I ask to see a photo of them. I walk round to her side of the table and take a look. I ask what their names are. Ones ginger and called Candy. Wendy is stumbling for the name in English of the second cat but I think she is saying Button. So to confirm this I pull up my t-shirt to reveal the button on my shorts. Issue is I’ve just returned from the baño and I’m flying low. I’ve basically just flashed my tutor! Not the best start to our tutor professor relationship.
We proceed as if nothing has happened.
When Juan sold me these classes he talked of lessons split into conversation, grammatical exercises and walking excursions around the city. I liked the idea of leaving the class room for an hour or so. This I felt would freshen things up and give me a boost in the 5th hour lull. The problem is Wendy is a little on the large side and walking up the stairs to the terrace causes a near cardiac arrest.
Never the less on the fifth day Wendy very kindly offers to take me to the “macardo”. I’ve been going every day for the last seven days, I love it there. It’s huge and sells absolutely everything. I’ve stocked up on chia seeds, cacao, cereals, fruit and veg and everything I need for a week of cooking healthily in the hostel. I get the feeling I’m being slightly mugged off though, the prices whilst cheap compared to back home sometimes surprise me. Wendy confirms that I’ve been paying over the odds for a lot of stuff and bartering is acceptable practice in the market.
VOLCÁN DE ACATENANGO TREKKING
I’m due to trek up Volcán de Acatenango the following day. Wendy tells me it’s freezing at the top and I need hat, gloves and a warm coat. I have none of these. She describes a section within the market that I’ve never been to before. It’s called “paca” and is essentially a second hand jumble sale where everything is piled high and priced between QU1, QU3 and QU5. That’s 10p, 30p and 50p.
When we arrive Wendy rifles through the mound of second hand merchandise. She sifts to the bottom of a huge pile and fishes out some gloves. She’s a professional at this. Within 30 minutes she has everything I need minus a coat. I then stumble across a thick jacket in the QU5 pile. In total my collection of two pairs of gloves, fleece hat, two scarfs, fleece jogging bottoms and parker jacket have set me back QU25. The best negotiating was a pair of gloves down from QU25 to QU5, cheeky weasels!
Whilst wondering around I spot a small baby in a cardboard box. Whilst this looks pretty horrific, in the context that the mum is sat right next to her baby selling radishes and the kid is super smiley and with its mum at work, it didn’t feel like anything alarming. This is just the best they can do. It’s practical and it works. I just hope the cardboard box doesn’t get thrown out with the rubbish.
I really like the market and i like walking around practicing my Spanish. Sometimes I hold good conversations with the venders about the price of their plums, other times I’m looked at like I’m an alien speaking an absurd foreign language. Generally when I clock them trying a fast one on me we smile and I get a local price rather than a tourist price.
With all my purchases in the market I am now ready to take on my next volcano. The Acatenango trek whilst not savagely hard is notorious for its hostile conditions at the top. It’s meant to be extremely cold and very windy at the exposed summit. However, everyone says the same thing, the views from the summit are sensational, with an incredible sun rise and a high chance of seeing Fuego erupt right up close. Since I’ve been studying on the terrace I’ve lost count of the times this volcano has erupted. The best was five times before 10am. So I’m backing my chances of seeing some live lava.
I’ve been getting up at 6am and running most mornings and there’s barely been a cloud in the sky. I’m blessed with this view every morning.
We set off at 9am in the mini van bus. It’s about a 1 hour drive to the foot of the volcano. However on route there is a street parade and there are several marching bands playing. This causes a massive traffic jam so we get out the bus and go and check it out. “Eye Of The Tiger” is being played with maximum energy. “Rocky” springs to mind.
Our group is 25 strong. Or not so strong as it turns out. We stop at every station and wait for a group of Israeli girls to catch up and eat a tub of Nutella each. I’m not too bothered, the less time I have to spend at the top of the volcano in the freezing cold the better.
As we ascend I start to hear thunder and the clouds are rolling in. It’s getting misty and residue is falling off the trees which line the route. It’s damp and visually I can’t see much other than my own feet. We are in the middle of a fat cloud.
One of the guides/ helpers is Jose. He’s the only one who speaks ok English. He works as a kind of translator for the chief guide. Whilst walking up I start conversation with Jose in Spanish. He responds that he wants to practice his English so I speak in Spanish and Jose in English. We have a very interesting half hour chat with the reciprocal arrangement working well.
Jose has recently been deported from Florida, USA, where he had been working for eight years illegally on a construction site on $7 per hour. Whilst his family are still there he has had to return to Guatemala and any chance of returning is financially impossible. The risk of crossing “La Frontera”, the Mexican boarder, is deemed too great as well. He has not heard from his uncle who set off eight months ago trying to get into the US. He fears he’s dead.
It’s a horrific position to be in. 5m of the 13m population in Guatemala are unemployed. There is limited work available for Jose and many others like him. Many are willing to risk their lives to get into the US and obtain a regular income regardless of the risk posed by walking across the Mexican boarder and the fact they are heavily exploited by US owned companies if they do make it. Typically Latin American immigrants obtain exploited positions as cleaners or wash dishes in restaurants. Having been to Texas and California it’s pretty clear there is a large Latino population. How many of these are employed illegally I do not know.
Financially, walking into the US is not straight forward either. Guides otherwise known as “Cayotes” are needed to manoeuvre through harsh desert conditions, large sums of money are needed to pay various people off on both sides of the boarder and there is a requirement to have enough cash to keep ticking over whilst looking for work.
Consequently Jose looks dejected when he speaks about his predicament. He admits there is limited chance he will be reunited with his family because he does not have the money required to make the horrifically dangerous trek into America. And nor does he have a job which will allow him the pleasure of saving up enough cash to take the risky walk.
I think about this problem a lot in the proceeding hours and it’s a pretty viscous circle. There just isn’t an economy buoyant enough in Guatemala and other Latino American countries to provide stability for its growing populations. (Catholicism, education and birth control are topics for another time.) Millions of people are left no choice but to risk death to get to the ‘Promised Land’ of exploitation. How the US companies get away with the level of exploitation is quite unbelievable but appears a lesser of two evils.
The risk of a Trump victory in the pending US elections worries Guatemalans further. There are limited jobs in the country as it is. If millions of Guatemalans are deported back to Guatemala, this only increases the number of unemployed and reduces earnings thus plunging the country into further poverty.
This is an economic injustice which I had no expectation I would be mullling over whilst climbing up a giant misty volcano.
He shakes me off quickly and I don’t see him until I eventually turn up at base camp half an hour after the sloping Nutella girls.
Once my tent is erected we settle down for dinner round the camp fire. Dinner tonight is a Pot Noodle! Not again! Not to worry though, I’ve loaded up on ham and cheese sandwiches. The major benefit from trekking with Israelis is they give you their ham sandwiches and if you beg enough a small spoon of Nutella.
We sit around keeping warm and listening to stories from our Guatemalan Guide, Erwin. He sings local songs and has a great voice. He gets a round of applause from everyone.
The clouds appear to be clearing and we can see the bright stars above us. This bodes well for visibility of Fuego erupting during the night and a clear sky in the morning for a sensational sunrise.
I go to bed at about 9pm knowing we are to start trekking the final 2 hours to the summit at 3.30am.
I struggle to get off to sleep as the tent is built for Guatemalan dwarfs. However, at midnight I am woken by the noise of what sounds like the world coming to a ferocious end! Fuego is erupting! I jump out of the tent as fast as I can with no shoes on in a bid to see the magic unfold. Sadly, there is nothing to see, we are sat in a cloud forest!
I go back to bed and spend the next 30 minutes listening to the amazing sound of lava exploding out of the Fuego and the shifting of volcanic rock and debris down the side of the volcano! Whilst it’s a bit gutting to not see Fuego erupt whilst so close it’s amazing to hear such an incredible piece of nature unfold within two kilometres. The noise is deafening!
It also makes me think that our visual senses are so overloaded that having the opportunity to hear something unfold rather than see it was an incredible experience.
Without the power of sight and with only my ears my imagination created a spectacular vision of what was beneath all that could. That imagination is probably far more spectacular than reality! What is for certain is that sound of an erupting volcano and thirty minutes of earth moving matter will live with me forever.
My alarm is set for 3.30am. I dose in and out of sleep. I’m not sure I really slept for those three and a half hours. So when the alarms goes off I’m actually quite happy to hear that the trek to the summit has been put back to 5.30am due to inclement conditions. Primarily the wind. It’s blowing a gale outside and we aren’t even at the summit.
I set my alarm for 5:15am and am crushed when it goes off, I was in a deep sleep, for how long I’m not sure. The weather doesn’t sound or look much better.
There’s a glimpse of a misty sunrise from base camp, it’s an alternative sunrise. The colours are numbed but in parts the light from the early morning sun is intensified as all around us clouds loom large.
It’s still pretty windy. A lot of the 25 man group stay behind. About 10 of us attempt to make the summit. I’m sceptical of this jaunt because for me the walk does not yield any better views, if anything it gets worse. The wind has picked up and the climb to the top starts to feel pretty dangerous. One American girl who is 5ft at a push and weighs about 6 stone wet is almost blown off the side of the volcano. It’s so windy I feel like I could fly off the mountain pretty easily as well. After about an hour of battling the gale force winds and the slippery volcanic ash terrain I call it quits and shelter behind a giant rock. The relief from the wind is beautiful. The silence is absolute peace.
As the rest of the group at various stages also make the decision to cease walking and they return to my little shelter. We share a well deserved Snicker.
The walk, actually run, back down the volcano to base camp was really fun and made the strenuous trek up well worth it. The volcanic ash and debris is so thick at the top you can easily run and jump down, a bit like an off-piste skier traversing between tightly lined trees.
At base camp we had a quick breakfast and packed up our tents and started the walk, run, back to the mini van. This was fun too and took about 2 hours. The weather also cleared up nicely just in time for us to start the journey home.
On arriving back to Los Amigos, the skies had almost cleared and from the terrace Fuego erupted a few times as if to rub salt in the wounds. I’m tempted to do the trek again at some point because I feel a little bit unfortunate with the timing of my summit. A few days before and it would have been unreal. Alas, you win some, you lose some.
I’ve enjoyed staying at Los Amigos the last two weeks, the terrace has turned into a mini training camp, Spanish has been going well, I’m now across all tenses, regular and irregular, and I’ve met some cool and interesting people. I’ve also met some rather complex characters.
Craig, a retired US citizen, particularly stands out. It will be impossible for me to cause offence to Craig here because he has never owned a mobile phone let alone a smart phone and does not know how to use the internet. Imagine that world! It’s not too long ago that was mine but I can’t imagine it now.
Anyway, Craig’s story unravels each day that goes by but in summary he has recently retired, from what he never really divulged, and he is living off his pension. He’s decided to leave America behind for good and set up in Guatemala. I like this mentality. However, it’s pretty clear from the start that Craig likes a drink and speaks no Spanish and is quite out of his depth even in a city where most people speak a good degree of English.
He doesn’t appear to eat. I am going to the market to stock up on food for the week. I offer to take him and show him about. He seems pretty keen so off we go. He cracks me up as he compares every product he sees to the price in the US. His shopping list is bread, peanut butter and “jelly” with several bottles of the cheapest rum he can find.
He has a habit of going to bed at random hours then waking up 20 minutes later to return to the group saying he needs some “liquor” to “just knock me out”. I’d put him down as in his early 60s. I think he might have been in the military at some point, he refers to being a veteran. I’m not sure what they taught him in he army because he is reliant on everyone in the hostel. Me in particularly.
On returning from trekking Acatenango I’m met by a flustered Craig at the front door thrusting a map in my face asking how he gets to an address 40 minutes out of town. I’ve not slept and am really tired from the walk. I bite my tongue and explain I don’t know where it is. He follows me up stairs and continues with this. Patiently I explain he needs to go to the bus stand and ask them what bus he needs. 2 hours later he is still in the hostel procrastinating. I sleep for a few hours. I’m not quite sure how Craig is going to survive here on his own.
One day in the middle of Spanish class he interrupts Wendy to shake my hand and to say goodbye. He’s off to Livingston. His reason is they speak English there. And off he goes.
A part of me is tempted to make the long journey to the east coast to check he is ok.
The next little adventure is a three day motorbike trip with Jonaton The Colombian. The plan is to drive from Antigua to Lago Atitlán and then down to the Pacific Coast and to drive south along the coast before heading back up to Antigua.
The motorbike shop, CA Tours, rents us two bikes, a 200cc Suzuki Tornado which I take and some other 200cc bike which comes at a premium of $5 more per day. We take them for a spin round the small park outside the shop. I return mine down the wrong way of a one way street but it seems to run smoothly. It’s the biggest bike I’ve ridden and is a step up from the 100cc Discovery I’d explored the Hill Country of Sri Lanka with previously. I was looking forward to feeling the increased power of this cross bike.
Luis, one of the owners, kindly plots us a route highlighting every road in detail and pointing out all the potential dangers, tight bends, pot holes, dirt tracks where you might slide about a bit. He also describes a 2km stretch of road behind Volcán de San Pedro that is highly dangers. It’s dangerous because it’s riddled with “banditos”. Luis tells us we need to go to the police station in San Pedro before setting off down that stretch of road to check whether it is safe or whether there is a police presence down there. They might even offer to escort us if they have the man power. I note this all down on two sides of A4 paper and fold it up and put it in my pocket. Jonaton has plotted the route on google maps. Between us we shouldn’t go too far wrong.
As we go through the route, Jose, the joint owner, is tampering with the bikes, fine tuning them for our expedition.
After all the administration and detailed discussions about the route we set off at about 11am. The next two hours are spent trying to find our way out of Antigua. We go the wrong way twice. Jonaton’s contact lens pops out on our second attempt to depart so we return to the hostel to get a replacement.
Our third attempt is even more disastrous, I lose Jonatan. I take a right turn in what I think is the right direction for Jocatenango. As I look round to check my Colombian companion is with me I see him drive past the turning. I spin round and drive to the bottom of the road. I can’t see him and it’s impossible to tell which direction he has gone.
I park my bike and wait in the middle reservation hoping I might see him or he might see me. I wait 20 minutes. I’ve not got a working phone so I make the decision to drive back to the hostel and use their wifi so I can call him. As I’m driving back to Los Amigos, I see him up in front. I start on the horn to get his attention. It doesn’t work, he doesn’t appear to have seen me tailing him so I drive up beside him still with the horn going hard, eventually he turns his head to see me. This is not the best start but we continue out of town and we are finally on our way.
We are driving towards Fuego and Acatenango, both are visible right in front of us and Agua to our left. It’s an insanely picturesque start to the journey.
We stop in a small town for some lunch about an hour later. We sit down at a little road side stall where the vender is selling tradition tostadas. I love these vegetarian treats. For 3 or 4 QU you get a nice pile of beetroot, avocado, friolis, onions, cabbage and always the hottest salsa picante they’ve got going.
There’s a guy sat next to me drinking a thick white liquid. I ask him what it is. It’s “arroz con leche”. He lets me try a bit of his. It’s got a strange texture but I like the taste so I order one to wash down my tostada. Jonaton has a big chicken sandwich.
The gentlemen next to us gets up and leaves. It appears he’s paid for our lunch. As we are looking at each other in amazement he vanished. I want to run after him and thank him for his generosity but he’s diserpeared! It’s an incredibly nice gesture and it reinstalls my faith in humanity.
We continue with our drive. We are heading for San Pedro at Lago Atitlán. The drive is beautiful, the roads are quiet and generally in good condition. As we draw closer to the Lake we stop almost every 10 meters to take pictures, I really love this place, it’s right up there with the most beautiful place I’ve had the pleasure of visiting.
As we descend the mountain range towards the town of San Pedro we stop in Pana for some food. We go back to the bakery from our last visit and I nail the best cinnamon swirl bun I think I’ve ever had.
The decent to San Pedro is beautiful, the views all the way down are knock out. It’s a tricky descent because the roads are terrible and majorly windy. That coupled with the killer views makes the descent pretty dangerous. Do I check out the views and risk ending up in a pot hole or worse off the side of the mountain, or do I concentrate on the job in hand of getting down safely?
As we get closer to San Pedro the road is blocked and the police are stopping us pass. There’s been an accident and the road will take an hour to clear. We’ve been driving for about seven hours or so, we are hungry and my derriere is killing so we turn back and head for hippie central, San Marcos.
We are met by three giant boulders in the middle of the road. These have fallen from way up high off the mountain causing certain death to anyone unfortunate to be travelling past at the same time. If they rolled further across the road and off the side then the village below would have been squashed.
We return to Hostel Del Lago because the food is top draw and the breakfast is included within the dorm price. Plus they sell brownies which remind me of home. Gooey with crispy edges.
It’s a full moon and the lake takes on a very special aura. No picture available so you are just going to have imagine the vast lake lit up under the moonlight.
We get up at 5.30am to head back into the mountains to see sunrise but I can’t start my bike. I think I’ve flooded the engine having left the choke out. Eventually it starts up but the moment has gone, the sun is high in the sky. Never the less we cruise up the mountain and check out the views we missed on the way down due to the clouds.
Back up and over the mountains towards San Pedro, we need to visit the police station to check whether the the small stretch of road behind San Pedro was safe to travel. Sadly, after the police officer at the station calls his patrol units he informs us there aren’t any police on patrol and there is no one available right now to take us. Maybe in a couple of hours there would be. We decide to cruise all the way back round the lake and make tracks rather than wait for a Police escort which might never happen.
It’s a good decision until we get separated. It’s Sunday and every town we come to has a market on and the town centres are on lock down. It makes navigating our way around the towns really hard. We come to a standstill a lot. When the Sunday markets aren’t an issue there’s serious road works preventing us taking the road Jonaton has pin pointed on google maps. I ask a guy outside a small football stadium for the direction to The Pacific and he points me in the vague direction of behind some toilets. It’s a really narrow dusty foot path, there are people walking towards me and I’m getting eyes of annoyance from many. I’m in the way. As I manoeuvre myself I park up in the corner of the stadium and watch a little bit of the game, just a few minutes. I’m taking in the back drop of the stadium more than anything. The pitch runs alongside the lake, it’s an incredible spot for playing football.
I then remember my Hells Angel motoring buddy Jonaton. This guy likes to talk. Asking for simple directions takes about 20 minutes as he slips into conversation about numerous other things. As a pair we are both pretty terrible with directions. Even with google maps we get lost. Quite often one of us will ask a stranger and then completely forget the directions given.
I walk round the block looking for my wing man. I can’t see him anywhere so I make the decision to crack on. I’ve got my notes and know exactly where I need to head to. We both know El Paradon is the final destination of the day. So off I go back round the lake. This drive was possibly the most enjoyable stretch of road from the whole trip. It’s a winding dusty route, it’s proper off road, dirt bike riding and the scenery is phenomenal. I stop when I get the chance to take it in. This place blows my mind every single second. It’s of New Zealand proportions. It’s a shame I didn’t get to share it with Jonaton but I know he’s doing the very same stretch of road so will enjoy it just as much as me.
Up to now the weather has been kind to us but the sky is taking on a darker and darker appearance every passing moment. Spit hits my visor. Little by little it gets wetter and wetter and before long I am soaked through. There is very little point of putting my rain jacket on now. I slow the pace down and ensure I don’t take any bends too aggressively.
Before I make the decision to stop my wheels come to a gradual stop, there is no output. I can’t start her up again. Has the battery run flat? Is there water damage? I’m not too sure. I know nothing about bikes having only passed my CBT at the second attempt.
I take shelter underneath the corrugated iron roof of a near by tienda. The rain belts down. I weigh up what I am going to do with a broken down bike and no way of contacting anyone to let them know where I am. I’ve got the phone number of the bike shop so consider asking the shop keeper to call them on my behalf to let them know I’ve broken down. I’m miles away from Antigua at this point, it feels a little bit drastic to go down that route just yet. I decide to wait for it to stop raining and will try to start the bike again.
As I wait for the rain to stop I clock some cream cakes in the corner of shop. I’ve got no cash on me so that little treat is out the question.
I pull out the notes from my pocket to check the route to El Paradon. They are drenched and the blue ink has run into each other. I can’t make out much at all. Making El Paradon might be trickier than I originally thought. I’m not sure how far away I am.
As the rain subsides and after about 30 minutes of waiting I try the bike again. It starts up first time! Lucky! On I go.
After about an hour riding a bike cruises up next to me, it’s Jonatan. We are reunited.
We speed to Sipicate where we have to get a little ferry down the river to El Paradon. I’m not quite sure how we are going to get our bikes on this tiny little narrow boat. The bikes are so heavy. Just putting the foot rest on is a strain. Between us and the boat man we manage to drag them onto the boat and then spend 15 minutes crawling down the mangrove on a boat in near darkness.
We arrive in El Paradon and are met straight away by a man asking us if we want “pollo y papas”, chicken and chips, which I decline as I’m on a “strict” vegan diet. He then asks us if we have anywhere to stay which we don’t so he takes us to his house. The house has a huge porch with a hammock in it. He says he’ll put a mattress outside under the porch for us. I don’t fancy getting eaten alive by mozzies again. We explain this to him so he shows us inside his house, past four or five kids of varying ages watching TV, to a bedroom which looks like it is occupied. There’s girls clothes everywhere. He says we can have it. We negotiate QU70 for the night. He agrees on consultation with his wife.
As we leave the house in search of food, one of his daughters rushes out the house crying. I think she’s just found out she does not have a bed for the night and two random men will be sleeping in it instead.
We find a nice little place for dinner called Soul Food and I devour a delicioso shrimp tikka massala.
On the walk back to the house we get rained on again. I’m so tired I don’t even dry my hair. I go to bed wet and covered in black sand from walking barefoot to dinner along the sandy paths that make up the little seaside town.
But I sleep like a baby until Jonatan kicks me in his sleep or he makes some strange sleep talking noise.
The next morning over breakfast at Sandra’s we make the decision to crack on down the coast to Monterrico and enjoy the beach scene there. The road out of town takes us along a sandy dirt track adjacent to the beach. I come up with the idea that maybe we could drive along the beach the whole way to Monterrico. So we drive off the dirt road and up on to the beach. It looks like the tide is on its way out so we should be safe for an hour or so driving along the beach before maybe we have to come inland and resume on conventional roads.
After about 10 minutes of bombing down the beach we are met by a farmer and his heard of cattle. He tells us we’ll need to come off the beach in 3 minutes or so because there is no way past the headland.
We continue to drive until Jonatan’s bike decides to pack in this time. We cannot get it started again. It sounds like the battery has completely gone. It’s lifeless and being in sand there is no way we can do a running push start on it. This might have had something to do with the problem.
Up ahead there looks like there is a posh looking set of holiday apartments. Maybe they will be able to help us. All we need is a firmer surface than sand to push start the bike on.
The first place we get to has a watch tower, a bit like something you’d expect to see at an army barracks. A man walks down to greet us on the beach carrying an almighty shot gun.
No different from the ones I’ve seen security guards carrying outside stationary shops, pizza parlours and banks. It’s still disconcerting though. It’s a big weapon, we are stranded on a beach in the middle of know where and we cannot easily get off the landlords private property.
He calls his boss and we have the same discussion but with a bigger fella who is carrying a different type of gun.
These two don’t seem to have much of a sense of humour between them. They are quite emotionless and although I can’t understand everything they are saying I’m not picking up the best vibes off either of them. I guess when you are carrying weapons you don’t need to have a sense of humour.
Eventually they agree to let us drag the bike to the top of the beach and use a dirt track that runs alongside the private residence and without us needing to pay a “fine” for the pleasure. Jonatan gets his bike starting again and we set off back down the beach looking for an exit off it back onto the normal less dangerous dirt track.
We make it to Monterrico and it’s like Blackpool beach, it’s desolate, there is not a sausage in town, just rows of empty bars and restaurants. A bit of a sad sight really.
That said I consumed an insanely good BBQ’d fish for lunch. It was about 3pm and it’s starting to look like we won’t get the bikes back for 5pm so we make the call to the shop to say we might be an hour late returning the bikes. There’s no problem with this. We can leave the keys at the adjoining hostel.
So off we go choosing to take the most direct and unscenic route along what is the Guatemalan motorway.
All is good, it’s not too hectic in comparison to motorways or dual carriage ways back home so I’m pretty happy belting along at 80kmph. Until it starts to rain. The clouds are dark and this shows no signs of letting up for a while. Having stopped to put our rain coats on we carry on heading for Antigua.
I’m following Jonatan at this point when my bike starts coming to halt just like the previous day. This time I’m sat outside a power station on a motorway looking for shelter. Jonatan is long gone, with all the traffic and the rain it would be very hard for him to see I wasn’t behind him or following. I just hope that the bike starts again after leaving it for thirty minutes or so like yesterday when this happened.
I wait patiently under a tree keeping as dry as possible. It’s pretty torrential. I try and start the bike. It doesn’t start. Maybe I need to wait a bit longer before I try again.
A guy then walks out of the power station and heads towards me. I’m hoping this one doesn’t have a gun.
He doesn’t and he wants to help. He pulls out some tissues from his pocket and starts cleaning off some valve thing he’s pulled apart. The rubber starts crumbling in his hands. Not a good sign! My heart sinks. He then explains that it’s got water in it and it needs to dry out before it can make a connection again.
He then sifts around in the verge of the road and pulls out a plastic bag and tears a piece off and then wraps it round the value tightly. He then tries the ignition and off she goes! What a legend! Huge relief! I want to hug him but he gives me the typical Guatemalan high five into fist pump. Everyone does this here, even Wendy after school.
On I go down the motorway in the slightly reduced rain. I reckon I’m about 60kms away from Antigua so could make it back in an hour or so and tucking into a massive crepe at Luna de Meil.
Within about 10 minutes of setting off down the road there’s a man running towards me trying to jump start his bike. It’s Jonatan! I come to a stop at the side of the road and run back to check what’s going on. He’s broken down as well. There’s a Guatemalan guy and his pregnant wife helping.
It looks like his battery has well and truly gone and no amount of push starting can get her firing again. The guy tells us the road is dangerous at night and we can’t stay here, we need to get off the road. We will be robbed or worse.
I can’t believe how nice this man and his wife are. They’ve stopped at the side of the road to try and help us and they aren’t leaving until we get going again. It’s another great example of how good these people are.
We flag down a passing truck driver who gives us some rope and I spend the next hour or so driving down a busy mororway towing Jonatan and his bike behind me by a skinny line of synthetic material.
The rope snaps and we are left with a smaller amount from which to take the strain. We get going again but for how long I don’t know. The road is pitted with holes so I’m trying hard to avoid any major diverts or anything that could cause the tension in the rope to snap. In doing so I start to slide across the road and it’s all getting a bit silly now. I don’t feel comfortable doing this at all.
The motor bike shop have suggested we park up at a near by petrol station and they will come out and pick us up. Sadly that near by petrol station does not appear to be very near. So we have no choice but to continue on down the motorway like this.
Eventually we get to a Shell, we dive in and smash up a series of Cheetos, home made M&M trail mix I’ve invented in the last week or so, and basically feel overjoyed that this nightmare journey has come to an end.
I take great reassurance in the presence of what feels like the whole Guatemalan armed forces guarding four Coca Cola vans and an endless stream of police vehicles coming in and out of the forecourt. Again the sight of men wandering around with huge arsenal strapped to them doesn’t sit too comfortably with me but it’s the norm here and most likely the remainder of Latin America.
What amazes me is why Coca Cola need to so heavily protect their vans especially when their cargo is nothing more than 40,000 empty glass bottles, not even the magic recipe laden full version.
Well as the security guard of the garage tells us those vehicles are carrying about QU30,000 worth of resealable glass bottles. And that’s not taking into account the value of the truck. Ambushing a Coca Cola van has clearly been a lucrative piece of criminal activity in Guatemala for long enough, Coca Cola have had enough! There will be no more ambushes!
We are about 40km from Antigua so one of the guys from the shop comes out in his truck, spends about 2 hours trying to fix the problem. We sit and watch him. He clearly knows the bike inside out, he’s dismantled the whole thing twice over but he can’t find a solution. I sense this is frustrating him quite substantially.
I decline his suggestion that I ride my bike back to Antigua. If it rains and that thing cuts out on me again I don’t want to be stranded at the roadside in the rain. That’s happened too many times already this weekend. He drives my bike back and I follow him in his truck. Jonatan’s bike remains in the petrol station.
Eventually we make it home safely, although after the best creperie in town has closed which I’m gutted about because I’d been thinking about what crepe I was going to have all day.
Every cloud has a silver lining and in missing out on crepes we found a quality late night restaurant serving up mega burritos in the grounds of what would be classified as a pretty slick joint, certainly not fitting of burritos anyway. I’m ranking the whole day as a major food success story above anything else. Right from Sandra’s massive breakfast with the best platano I’ve had to the monster whole fish served up for lunch to this chance encounter with a vegetarian burrito. ¡Espectacula dia!
Sugarcane lined roads, coffee plantations, volcanoes, lakes and mountainous villages covered with little plots of farm land built into terrain that looks impossible to farm, it’s a beautiful ride and I’m glad to have had the chance to step off the beaten path a little and meet Guatemalans at their very best! Weapons and all!
Adios Guatemala, ahora para El Salvador!