Problematic Latin Directions and Landslides

After staying a bit longer than I should have in Antigua, I made my way to Lago Atitlan.  The lake is one of the biggest and the deepest lakes in Central America.  It’s located in an enormous volcanic caldera and surrounded by high escarpments and three volcanoes to the south.  Mayan towns and villages are located around the lake and the basin is home to coffee plantations and a wide variety of other types of farms.  Guide books describe it as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world.  Because of my standard shortage of time, I was only able to drive along a bit of the shoreline and stop for lunch.  I enjoyed my visit (other than the thick as mosquitoes local vendors), but hated the feeling of not being able to even scratch the surface of the place.  I’d definitely like to return to the place one day.

If you do plan a trip to the Lago Atitlan area, especially if you will be doing the driving yourself, keep in mind that certain areas around the lake regularly experience high levels of armed robbery.  I’d suggest reading this thread on ADV.

After my lunch break, which included saying no to about three dozen vendors, I made my way to the colonial town of Xela.  The main reason I went there was to look for a new front tire.  Xela, being one of the larger upcoming towns on my route, offered about the only real possibility of success during the next few weeks.  The town was a nice place, located in the mountains at 7,654 feet.  Popular reasons for visiting center around studying spanish and hiking the local volcanoes.  However, restaurants are apparently not of much interest to locals, as a decent one was nearly impossible to find.  In town I tracked down a Yamaha dealer.  The salesman thought that their warehouse might have what I was looking for.  He called the next morning and no dice.  I asked at a couple other shops and found nothing.  I did manage to get my oil changed, which was needed, but my front tire, with about 7,000 miles on it was not giving me a lot of reassurance on dirt.

Funny enough, the salesman at the Yamaha dealer managed to track me down on Facebook a day later asking if I was still in town.  About 10 minutes after I left the shop, they managed to find my tire.  So, if you ever find yourself in Latin America, hoping to buy something other than rice, beans or beer, budget a couple days for the process.  If you are successful sooner than that, you can be pleasantly surprised and do something productive with the unanticipated free time, like sit in a hammock and drink beer.

I really like Guatemala.  The country is beautiful and fantastically diverse in its landscape.  The people I encountered were extremely friendly and the cost of living was surprisingly low.  However, one thing about the country that is incredibly frustrating is Guatemala’s complete and utter lack of road signs.  Towns usually don’t even have a sign identifying themselves.  So, travel in Guatemala is regularly interrupted by the need to ask locals where you are and what road you are on.  To make things even more fun, highways generally disappear when merging into towns.  Of course, there is usually no indication where the exit is located.  Given that most town roads are one way streets, one gets to play a fun mystery maze game of trying to find the correct exit route on the other side of town.  Depending on the size of the town, this game is one of instinct, deduction and interpreting the directions provided by locals.  In one town that had unfortunately few locals out and about, plus a big construction project running down the main street, I managed to make three laps before finding my way back onto the highway.

From Xela, I wanted to take the scenic country route to the town of Coban.  I spoke to another motorcycle traveler who had taken the route a couple months earlier and spoke highly of it.  I left Xela, traveling deeper and deeper into the mountainous Guatemalan countryside, really enjoying the ride, the climate and the fantastic scenery.  Given the lack of road signs and the poor quality of my GPS map, I stopped often to confirm with locals that I was on the correct road.  “Yep, keep going straight ahead to Coban,” I was repeatedly told.  The towns got smaller, the terrain more mountainous and the road became increasingly sinuous.   It was a great ride.  At one point, the pavement ceased and I was on a muddy, rutted mountain road.  I asked for direction again, and the locals confirmed I was on the right road and to continue on my way.  I was having a good time and excited to be only about 30 miles from my destination.  I continued along the very rough dirt track, through several small indigenous villages, sharing the road with pedestrians, chickens and donkeys.  Then, within about 20 miles of Coban, I saw a sign.  “No Hay Pasao” it said.  A little while later, I saw the sign again, followed by a large dirt berm.  Beyond this, I saw the remains of the largest landslide I have ever seen.

Two years ago a large landslide destroyed the road.  I gathered that it was possible to walk across the debris field, but trying to get a large, top-heavy motorcycle across looked to be a fools errand.  When a greasy looking local suggested that he and his friends carry the bike across, for $100, I decided that I had enough.  I double checked with two local guys on motorcycles and no, I would not be able to get across.  Here I was, about 20 miles away from my destination and I was stuck.  I wondered out loud why no one bothered to mention the derrumbe (landslide).  For goodness sake, I had asked more than 12 people for directions.  One would assume that something like the road being impassable would have come up.  But, it didn’t…

One big lesson I have learned on this trip is that (no offense intended) folks in Central and South America generally don’t know how to read maps and are very bad at providing directions.  I think part of this has to do with the fact that many people in Latin America rarely travel outside of their home town.  Many people don’t have cars, so, in reality, they have absolutely no idea which way to go, or how long it will take to get to a nearby town, or what condition the route is in.  For some reason, they seem to fail to remember that last time they went to town X, they needed to catch a bus, exit the bus, ride on a donkey for a while, cross a river on a suspension bridge, switch buses again and then thread their way around a landslide to yet a third bus.  Plus, it’s a very regular occurrence for people to provide directions when they clearly have no idea what they are talking about.  So, the only successful strategy I have found is to ask about six people the same question, preferably women with children (because they will tell you they don’t know) and then average the results.

Thanks to my seriously incomplete directions and the landslide, I was stuck in Guatemalan farm country for the night.  I remembered passing a few hotels not too far back and started retracing my path down the very rough and muddy dirt road I had just come up, with thoughts of Banditos in my mind.  As the sun was setting, I happily pulled into a “good enough” (smelly) hotel, got a pizza delivered and passed out for the night.  The next day I was off on a circuitous 11 hour detour to Coban.  The ride took me back the way I came, to the Pan American highway, through the capital city where I was lost for about 30 minutes and finally north, through warmer and warmer weather, to another landslide.  I got to wait behind a police barricade for about an hour before I was finally allowed to be on my way.  Guatemala, I was quickly learning, with its heavy rain and very mountainous terrain has a lot of trouble with landslides.  It doesn’t help that the clean up crews are generally armed with nothing more than shovels and wheelbarrows.

I finally made it to Coban.  It was one of those towns that I really didn’t like.  The ridiculous hostel that I stayed in didn’t help matters either.  The place offered private rooms at a premium price as well as more properly priced dormitories.  No one was in the dormitory, so I took that.  After settling in, I was informed that while yes, the place had wifi, I couldn’t use it, since I did not book a private room.  “Can I pay for the wifi” I asked?  No, you are in the dormitory.  “But I can’t pay you extra to access wifi?”  No.  Its only for private rooms.  “Why didn’t you tell me that earlier?”  Bla bla bla, about cost of running the hostel.  This went on and on for about a half an hour.  There was no reasoning with the old nutcase woman who I quickly began to dislike.

I left promptly in the morning for the town of Flores, a jumping off point for Tikal.  The ride was nice, traveling through a very beautiful countryside.  As I got nearer to Flores, I was met with some of the hottest and most humid weather I have ever experienced.  This would be the norm for the next few days.  On the way to Flores, I got to experience yet another river crossing on a ferry.  I was very happy that this barge seemed to be much less homemade than the last one I had taken in Bolivia, which I was certain would sink at any given moment.

Flores is located on an island, in a lake, not too far from the ruins of Tikal.  It certainly is a touristy town, with hotels, restaurants and shops covering the island.  But, I really found it to be a fantastic place.  I enjoyed the hostel, even though it was overcrowded with people sleeping everywhere in hammocks (I wisely opted for the private room).  I ate some good meals with people that I had met both in town and previously, in other locations.  Best of all, the town had a couple of swimming piers on the lake.  The water was the most perfect temperature for swimming I had ever encountered.  A group of us spent several hours in the lake and on the piers.  After sunset, a thunderstorm rolled in, and for a while, I swam and watched the lightning off in the distance.  That night it rained like I have never before experienced.  Sorry to all the people sleeping in hammocks!

I left Flores on a bus the next morning at 4:30 a.m.  Our goal was to get to the Tikal ruins early in the morning to avoid the mid day heat.  I took a guided tour of the site, which was only ok.  After the tour, a group of us went off exploring on our own.   I found Tikal to be a very impressive place and it has really increased my interest in Mayan history.

I definitely recommend visiting Guatemala and the Tikal ruins.

After touring Tikal, I went back to Flores for one night.  I had a couple of great meals, then went swimming in the fantastic lake again.  Guatemala turned out to really be an interesting place.  From one end to another, the country is packed with great scenery, very diverse climates and friendly people.  I hated to leave and can’t wait to come back, but for now, I am off to Mexico.

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