Monday, August 22, 2011

Volcán Santa María

Jill´s teacher in Xela is also a tour guide and we decided to go with him to climb Santa Maria volcano. We left at 4am to try to catch sunrise at the top. Although we didn´t make it all the way to the top, we did have a nice view.

The hike is pretty strenuous, taking us almost 3 hours of constant incline to get to the top.  We were the only people there and the view was definitely worth it.  You can see Xela on one side, surrounded by mountains.  You can even catch a small glimpse of Lake Atitlán.

On the other side is a wonderful view of Santiaguito, a volcano that was made during the 1902 eruption of Santa María.  It has been in constant eruption since 1922 and is considered among the 10 most dangerous volcanos in the world.  Usually, the volcano erupts at least every hour, every day.  We sat and watched, hoping for an eruption, but we were not so lucky, only catching the constant plume of ash.

The morning´s weather was perfect for us as normally the view of the volcano is covered with clouds.  On the way down we passed a couple groups of indigenous women in their hot clothes and dress shoes.  Apparantly, some evangelical churches demand that their worshippers go on a 3 day fast and then climb to the top of the volcano to worship.  These women were most likely participating in the fast.

(doesn´t look so tall from down here)

The hike downhill was much less strenous and we stopped in the small town at the base of the mountain to celebrate the hike. 

One beer led to another and when we finally left the tienda we decided to get one more right by the bus stop.  We entered into a shady cantina, the only place selling beer near the bus stop.  Mike immediately hit it off with a man who had obviously had a few too many, as evident by the wet spot he had in the front crotch section of his jeans.  He was also named Mike.  He wasn´t making much sense, plus he was trying to speak English, so Mike just started repeating the noises he was making.  The drunk guys loved it, with lots of hysterical laughter.  Strangely, Mike and Mike got along quite well.  Probably wisely, Heber (our guide) suggested that we needed to get on the bus.

the Lago

On our first weekend in Xela, we decided to go to Lake Atitlan, about 2 hours away. The drive was highway most of the distance, but once we turned off the highway we hit a couple of small towns and the road was pretty eaten up with a large elevation drop and lots of switchbacks. At one point, you go around yet another bland mountainous curve and suddenly catch a view of the beautiful lake.

(evidence of the eutrophication of Lago de Atitlan in the foreground. Recent years have brought about a lot of cleaning efforts, which have been very helpful, but you still have to wonder what´s being dumped into the water and if the cycle will repeat. Vamos a ver)

(lots of people carry wood and other things this way)

(de facto local trash dump)

The lake is a big tourist draw and has small towns surrounding it. A lot of people either go to Panachel, the largest town, or San Pedro, an ex-pat and traveler haven. We had arranged another stay through couchsurfing and were supposed to call when we got to San Juan. When we called, we learned that Petra, our host, was on the lake with some boat trouble. So we ate in the very small town. When we came outside, a very excited older gentleman wanted to know everything about the bike, including if we would sell it to him. This drew a good portion of the town to come watch.

(in San Juan, where there was also a political rally)

After talking to Petra again, we agreed to meet up in San Pedro, where we found a bar with cheap rum to wait. After a couple of rounds, Petra showed up and we went to her wonderful house just outside of San Pedro.

Petra and her husband had moved to the area 7 years ago after meeting in Seattle and traveling by motorcycle from there. Jack is currently in the states working on a chicken farm. They also lead tours into Petén. Petra is from Czechoslovakia and Jack is from Zimbabwe. They have a 3 year old daughter, who we got to meet the next morning. Emilie was a little shy at first, but soon took a strong liking to Jill (she never quite started to like Mike. Probably the beard). Jill specifically won her heart when they played on the trampoline in the front yard, Emilie´s favorite spot. She was such a cute, energetic, extremely smart little girl, already with a three language repetoire.

(playing on the trampoline)

(view from Petra´s porch)

(Mike making sure we were in good with the guard)

On our first day in town, we went to San Pedro and rented a kayak to play on the water. We paddled over to San Marcos, which has a 10m high platform you can jump off. As soon as we paddled up to shore, a teenage boy began insistently demanding that we pay to tie the kayak to shore and that we pay to jump off the platform.  After refusing to pay, Mike took a couple jumps while Jill manned the kayak offshore to avoid the annoying kid.

After a couple hours on the lake and then exploring San Pedro, we went back to Petra´s, where she cooked an awesome avocado-basil pasta and salad dinner.

(Petra, Emilie and Jill)

The next day we took a boat over to San Marcos and walked to the neighboring indigenous town, Tzununá. We stopped for ice cream outside of town at Las Lomas de Tzununá ( a super swanky hotel - you can tell when you can flush toilet paper down the toilet) and were warned by the waitress not to continue walking to the next town as planned because people were being robbed on that stretch on a regular basis, especially on the weekends, and it was Sunday. So, we caught a boat back instead and brought falafels home for lunch.

(soccer game in Tzununá - note, the tuk tuk is both on the road and in-bounds)

We had parked the bike close to Petra´s house at a health center where she parks her car. We discovered during the first day that our sunglasses had been stolen out of a small front pocket. No big loss because they were cheap and easy to replace. When we were leaving we discovered that someone had tried to steal the mirror unsuccessfully, but went through an awful lot of effort to remove the weather cover and loosen one of the mounting bolts, and had tried to remove the gas cover, also unsuccessfully, because it was locked.

Overall, we really enjoyed hanging out with Petra and Emilie and thought the lake was beautiful, but we thought San Pedro wasn´t as cool as its rep.

On the way out of town back to the highway, we had very low visability due to fog and rain and arrived back to Xela very wet and cold.

Xela, aka Quetzaltenango

The day we arrived, we were supposed to meet the owner of the school to go to our family. We got to the main plaza early so decided to go to a restaurant-bar on the plaza. The Guatemalan under 20 team happened to be playing their first game of the World Cup and it started right when we sat down. After a good meal we decided to have a couple more beers and watch the game. We noticed a crowd starting to gather in the plaza but didn´t think much of it. Until a huge parade passed through right in front of us. The bike was trapped in the middle of the crowd, so we had no choice but to enjoy the parade and be late for our meeting. The parade consisted of a princess on a car and then lots of marching bands playing all kinds of random tunes.

Jill had researched language schools in Guatemala and decided on El Quetzal in Xela because it was cheap and had good reviews. (If anyone is planning on going there, do not worry about pre-registering because they will have room for you, and you can save the registration costs.) We stayed with a host family that has been hosting for over 14 years. Our host mom Estel was great, as was the rest of the family, whom we seemed to meet more and more of every day we were there. We got 3 meals a day with our mom, always good and almost always with beans and fried plantains. No matter how often we eat them, we still are yet to get sick of beans (and fried plaintains). The school was as advertised and was everything a spanish school should be. Classes were from 8am - 1pm with 1 on 1 instruction. Jill really liked her teacher Heber, and felt that she learned a lot in 2 weeks. Classes increased her understanding significantly and she was able to learn verb tenses so she is making more sense to other people too. Mike´s Spanish was already pretty good and he hoped a week of class would help with his conversational Spanish. It helped bring some rules back into his head, but he´s convinced that practicing at cantinas may help to improve his vocabulary even more than any school possibly can.

(Jill with her teacher Heber at school)

After class, there were free activities like lectures about popular expressions and the civil war. On Thursdays there was a cooking class all the students and teachers regularly attended and was a good way for us to get to know each other outside of class. The school also offers an opportunity to visit a neighboring community every week. In Salcajá, we saw one of the oldest churches in C. America, a textile loom, and got to sample some caldo de fruta ("fruit soup"), basically moonshine in fruit form.

We also went to Zunil, with a 99.9% indigenous population. Their market was throughout the town and had the largest carrots I have ever seen. They also had a saint of vices that we visited. No picture attached because you have to pay 10 quetzals to take a picture of him. He smokes and drinks and has an American flag on his back usually.

Spanish class consumed a majority of our time, but we did do some exploring of the city. Xela is rather large - Xelaites are proud that it is the 2nd largest city in Guatemala, larger than Antigua and don´t forget it. It is rather cold because it is at a pretty high elevation and it has only two seasons, cool and dry ("verano") and cooler and rainy ("invierno").   Initially we were confused how we were in Xela in winter even though we visited in August, but then the rains helped us figure it out.  The city is rather concrety - even parks have very little green space. There is an ex-pat and language school presence, but not overwhelmingly so. For all its lack of charm, it was still somehow a bit charming.

We even met a couple from Jill´s hometown area (which is surprising because her hometown is very small) who are running a cafe called Aeropagus. We stopped in one afternoon and really enjoyed their cinnamon rolls. The rest of our time was largely spent at the internet (although you wouldn´t know it from our lack of blogs), doing homework and running random errands to get us ready to travel again.

(obligitory chicken bus shot)

Mike took the second week off from school to do some motorcycle maintenance.  I visited a shop that I heard about on Horizons Unlimited to see about getting some parts and work done.  Alex the mechanic was very helpful on the whole, and we basically split the work, allowing me to get even more familiar with the TA.  It was time to check the bearings, check the valve clearance, sync the carbs, change the plugs, clean the air filter (a new one is waiting for me in El Salvador), service the radiator, and change the oil.

We took things apart during the morning hours on Tuesday, draining the radiator, and then fully cleaning the carbs which was absolutely necessary - the pilot jets were both almost completely clogged with sediment.  (Getting the carbs back on the TA was a task in and of itself.)  The wheel bearings all seemed to be in good shape, so we greased them back up and let ´em roll.  The plugs had burned decently, showing a slightly lean condition which is not surprising given the condition of the pilot jets and the original factory jetting.  Luckily I was splitting the work with Alex, or we would only have received 2 new plugs, instead of the needed 4.  I guess that shows that it pays to do it yourself.  But it makes it a whole lot easier to have access to good tools.

It was a decent experience working with Alex at the shop.  The downsides were the following:
  • we did not check valve clearance.  Alex, another mechanic, and myself just listened to the motor when I arrived and didn´t hear any valve noise.  Based on that, he didn´t want to do any adjustments.  There has not been any power loss or changes in performance, so he didn´t want to fix something that´s not broken.  I suppose I could´ve demanded it done, but left it at that.
  • we did not fully flush the radiator.  All that was done was drain, rinse, and fill.  The rinse did not show any rust or deposits coming out, so all in all the radiator is in good shape.  But it still would´ve been better to fully clean before refilling.
  • we did not sync the carbs.  They did not have a Twin Max, or carb sticks, or apparently any other way to measure vacuum difference between the carbs.  Thankfully, I dropped in another shop that I found out about on Horizons Unlimited and was able to borrow his Twin Max.  All it took was a part to be turned down for the vacuum access on the front cylinder.  He charged me Q75, which was greatly marked up, but he did all the running around town for it, so still not too bad of a deal at US$9.
The best part about working there is that they charged me for a major service for a 500-1000cc bike - Q250.  That´s around $32.  Both Alex and I worked on the bike for all of Tuesday, and then I took up a part of their service bay on Wednesday morning to button everything back up.  I will gladly pay $32 to use their ratchets and lift instead of hacking at all of this maintenance with my on-board tools.

The final task was to change the oil, but I took off and did that at a small shop near our place.  That´s easier to do with my small set of tools, and I already had a couple liters of oil from the last service.  I borrowed an oil pan, got it drained and filled back up, and even got a washer from those guys.  I asked if I could chip in anything for that, and they said no.  But I gave them Q5 for their space.  It´s at least enough for a Coke later.

Roberto, at the shop where I was able to use the Twin Max, knew of a good metal worker who was willing to take a look at our side racks, which were in need of some basic repairs and reinforcement.  It turns out his connection was perfect - Carlos Wilberth González at Taller San Carlos (Diag 11   7-63, Zona 1 in Xela, tel: 7765-3557 y 4117-6834).  He was smart, creative, able to address the issue correctly, and does excellent work!  He re-fabbed our saddle bag racks for Q300.  Not bad given that new racks cost much more than that, often US$200.  Basically he started from scratch, using our old GIVI soft bag supports as a guide, but then extending the new racks lower and giving them more support.  The finished product looks fantastic and is holding up well so far (even through our "road testing").

Job on the Horizon

As some of you may know, Jill was in the Peace Corps in Suriname, S. America from 2004-2006. Recently, there was a Peace Corps Response position that came up for a Business-NGO Development Advisor, which matches pretty well to her background. After a Skype interview and some negotiations concerning logistics, she has accepted the position. She is due to start on December 1st, giving us enough time to enjoy Central America and still arrive in Suriname by motorcycle on time. She still needs to get through a couple of bureaucratic steps with the Peace Corps, but it shouldn´t be too difficult. She is very excited for the opportunity to live in Suriname and in the jungle again.

She is glad that Mike is willing to live in Suriname for the 6 month assignment. He will begin talks with an organization in Suriname soon to try to work out a job as a water and sanitation engineer in the village. We will be living in New Aurora, a larger Saramaccan village about 8 hours south of Paramaribo. Jill´s job description is to set up strong cooperatives with the women living in two communities and address their needs concerning the collective procurement of materials and services and collective marketing for their handicrafts. It should be a good challenge and a great opportunity to get hands on experience working with coops.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Entering Guatemala

We woke up early, broke down our extremely wet tent and slightly wet sleeping bags, and headed towards Ciudad Cuauhtemóc at the Mexico-Guatemala border.  Being that it was Sunday, there was some concern that the Banjército office would not be open.  That´s the place you have to go to cancel the temporary vehicle import permit.  That´s the step that Mike did not do the last time he was in Mexico on a motorcycle (thanks again to a new passport and a different motorcycle, no troubles with the TVIP).  But this time it was definitely going to happen, and luckily we were able to do it on Sunday.

Pulling into Ciudad Cuauhtemóc, the Banjército and aduana offices are to the left, directly past a large road sign spanning the highway and across the highway from an elevated plaza.  As of this post, the Banjército office is open with the following schedule:
  • 8am - 10pm    Mon - Fri
  • 8am - 5pm      Sat
  • 9am - 4pm      Sun
Checking out of Mexico was an absolute breeze!  The official behind the counter asked for my TVIP, went out to the bike with a camera, double checked the VIN about 4 times, took a picture of the VIN plate, and then went back inside to finish the paperwork.  I waited for less than 5 minutes while he double checked the VIN numbers on the documents another 4 times, and then signed and stamped the cancelation receipt.  Done and done.  The aduana office is the next building over (if you turn into the parking lot following the painted arrows, you will actually come to the aduana office first, but we all know that painted arrows don´t mean that much).  He took our passports, tourist cards, AND the printed receipt for payment of our entry.  Don´t lose any of those things if you can help it.  But with that, he stamped our passports and wished us well.  To Guatemala we go...

This is the view as soon as you cross the signed border into La Mesilla, Guatemala:

You gotta stop in those yellow hashed lines to get fumigated by the agropecuaria.  Thankfully, they let you get off the bike before they start spraying.  Also thankfully, it only cost 12 quetzales (Q12, exchange rate is about Q8 = US$1). 

(after her chem-bath)

We exchanged money with some money changers on the street to be able to pay for that and for the bike import.  The banks were closed, so there was no choice.  We only got Q7 to US$1, but we only changed over US$40, so didn´t lose too much in the process.  Why did we change over US currency in Guatemala, you might ask?  Because we were extremely successful in spending all of the pesos that we had (thanks, Shangri-La!), leaving us a random stash of $40 that was in Mike´s jacket since June.

After that, we went to the next building up, Migración.  The officer was extremely nice, curious about our trip, enjoyed pretending like he was riding a motorcycle, making motions, noises, and all, and gave us the full 90 day visa for the 4 Central American countries.  Free. That´s the best!

Next to the aduana to temporarily import the bike into Guatemala.  They required the following documents:
  • Canceled TVIP from Mexico (a good control for idiots like Mike)
  • Motorcycle registration (or title, or whatever document you choose to show ownership)
  • Driver´s license
  • Passport
The aduana filled out all of the papers for us, handed us a stack and told us to go pay at the bank next door, which was closed.  The fee is Q160 (US$20).  After a knock on the door, a guard opened it, took my papers, my money, and left me standing outside, again locking the door.  He returned a few minutes later with the receipt.  Back to the aduana to finish the paperwork and get the sticker.  We are good until the end of October!  Easy!  All of the Guatemalan entry process took about 30 minutes.

He let us know that when leaving Guatemala, if you cancel the permit that you cannot return with the bike for 90 days.  It is, however, possible to leave the country and tell them that you plan on traveling back through before the permit expires.  They will not cancel it when you leave, but rather it will just cancel automatically when it expires without penalty.  Unless you need to cancel your permit to start the 90 day interval so that you can return as desired, it seems to make sense to leave it open when exiting Guatemala just in case.

Once we were in Guatemala, things changed a bit.  La Mesilla had a different vibe to it.  Landscape was similar to Chiapas, the road followed a river flowing between mountains.

The two things that we noticed initially were that Guatemalans seemed to be into people-moving and selling gas out of jerry cans on the side of the road.  I´m not sure how either of those opportunities sustain themselves, as there is an excess of both, but somehow it works.  And where are all of those people going?

Also, we noticed that the cops seemed pretty nice. There were a lot of them traveling along this highway (is that good, or bad?). But they would always slow down, smile, wave, and honk at us. Cool that they were on our side.

We pulled into Xela fairly early in the afternoon, and had quite the welcoming parade. More on Xela and our couple of weeks in Guatemala soon...

Brilliantly Hued

We had heard from a couple of friends that the Lagos de Montebello, on the border of Mexico and Guatemala, were gorgeous. After skimming a friend´s Lonely Planet and finding out just how brilliantly "hued" the were (I think "hued" was used like 83 times in the description), we were happy to spend our last day in Mexico there. The drive from Comitán was about an hour through typical Chiapas. As usual, several vehicles were as loaded as possible.

(hopefully no bridges coming up)

We arrived in the national park and paid our 25 pesos each to get in. We kept going straight and immediately found a small parking area and about 5 guys wanting to be our tour guide (if you were so inclined, you could tell the guards that you were just traveling towards Palenque and not pay anything here, but I wouldn´t recommend that.  It´s only 25 pesos. However, I do wish we would have actually traveled to Palenque along that road. Maybe on our way back north...).

Unfortunately, it was pretty cloudy all day. Fortunately we didn´t get rained on until after we were done exploring the lakes.  Unfortunately (again), at this point (about 2 weeks after visiting the lakes) we can´t remember the names of all the lakes for certain. But, we parked the bike in the small parking space and walked about 500 meters to the 1st lake, possibly called Agua Tinta. A guy followed us there and explained that there are 56 lakes in the area.

After paying the guide 10 pesos for his explanations we walked on to the second and third lakes, we´ll call them Encantada and Ensueao. The parking lot there was huge with lots of tour buses, vendors and guides of all ages.

Across the street, sat the 3rd lake, which was most brilliantly hued. The sign says no swimming because the water is used for human consumption.

These were the only lakes right there, so we walked back to the bike and ended up paying another guy another 10 pesos for kindly watching our bike for us (without our asking).  We drove about 1-2 km further up the road to a lake where there was supposed to be a visitor center.  There was not.  There were, however, a massive quantity of children hoping to be our guide.  The lake near this parking lot didn´t seem all that spectacular, so we went back out towards the entrance station and turned left on the road that takes the long way to Palenque, along the border of Mexico.  Along this route there are 5 other lakes that you have to pay an additional 15 pesos to visit. The road was a lot more relaxed, with fewer tour guides, tours, people, etc.  If you are pressed for time, we would recommend skipping the first road we took and turning immediately.  These lakes along this road are certainly more beautifully hued, as well.

The first was Lake Montebello. This is apparantly the best lake to swim in, although we didn´t find out because it was way too cold that day. We enjoyed our view while drinking some fine Chiapan coffee.

Next on the road was 5 lakes. One of our favorite hues so far:

Across the street was either one of the 5 lakes, or a seperately named lake, not sure, but yet a different brilliant hue:

Further down the road, we hit Lake Pojoj, where plenty of people were taking the opportunity to take a balsa raft ride.

There were 2 vantage points of Lake Tziscao. From this side, things were a little more deserted (maybe because of an apparent rise in tide?):

You have to drive through the town of Tziscao to arrive at the other vantage point, which is where we ended up camping.  Before that, though, we had to catch a glimpse of International Lake. We hired a (very) young man to show us our last lake of the day, International Lake, since he offered to do it for M$X 5. He proudly led us up a hill and at the top of the hill was International Lake and the border between Mexico and Guatemala.

He took us over to Guatemala and led us through the market, which strangely seemed pretty similar to Mexico, except mariachis were replaced with marimbas. And that concluded our wonderful tour of International Lake and Guatemala. (Note-you really don´t need a guide for any of these lakes for any reason.  If you really want a guide, look for a cute kid and go with them.)  There is absolutely no border control at this crossing and anyone pretty much comes and goes as they please. We are not quite sure where the road in Guatemala leads to, but we decided to take a more legal crossing.

(Guatemala market)

There were some cabins and camping at Lake Tziscao. The cabins cost 700 pesos and we wanted to camp anyway. Camping was still 200 pesos (!!!), after talking him down. He did have a point that there were lights and a bathroom. Plus, the spot was absolutely beautiful and we had the camping to ourselves. I´m sure we could have found cheaper or poached a spot close to a lake, but we were tired and happy to be somewhere.

Once we got our site set up, the sky unloaded, so we ran back over to the Guatemala border and had our first Gallo (the national beer of Guatemala). We were a little disappointed with the flavor and only give it an average on our drinkability scale. But, that´s not going to keep us from it.

With our first pass at the Guatemalan border crossing already under our belt, it was about time for the real deal.