From Costa Rica and beyond

Sunday, October 9, 2011


I met Lenny, a Canadian from Halifax, as he rode his BMW G1200 into San Ignacio, Belize.  We drove into Guatemala together.  I was fortunate to be with him.  I went into customs with insufficient funds to pay for the importation, the disinfection, etc.  Stupid of me, but lesson learned.  In the border town, we stopped for a tasty taco treat and I sniffed out an ATM.  Although the ATM knew my name and claimed to be on the same network, it did not want to give me money.  Lenny backed me up.

The drive inland was lovely.  The rolling hilly landscape was green and the people friendly.  Children waved and many adults did too.  Within a couple hours we were entering Tikal Park, home to world famous Mayan ruins.  Heading north, we passed a couple on a BMW heading south.  Mark and Maggie!  They entered western Guatemala from Mexico.  There were road signs to see along the road too.  Back home, we are used to the diamond shaped signs with profiles of deer or moose.  At Tikal, the signs warn of jaguars, certain snakes, and other exotic critters.  We saw only the signs.

The jungle was thick and the heat and humidity considerable.  Lenny and I drove our bikes under our palm-leaf covered palapas and set up camp.  We wasted no time and rejected the offers for sunrise tours of the ruins and headed right into the compound.  After passing a big group of Japanese tourists, we reached the Gran Plaza, which is flanked by two temples facing each other and other structures on the other sides.  The skies were grey and getting darker.  Soon a few drops turned to a downpour.  I was armed with my umbrella.  Lenny was a good sport and suffered through the deluge.  Beyond the Gran Plaza was a temple still unexcavated, beyond that more temples.  We circled around, wading through instant ponds, and headed back toward the entrance.  The rain stopped though and just in time for us to view a truly imposing pyramid, with neatly hewn steps and precipitous sides.  All these temples were burial sites.  This last temple more than any other communicated absolute, unquestioned power.

After a somewhat restless night, Lenny and I headed for nearby Santa Elena.  I tried a couple more ATMs to no avail.  I decided to try the airport and finally got lucky there.  What a relief!  Lenny and I chose a route that would let us bypass Guatemala City.  This took us through more rural, rolling landscapes, much of it apparently deforested.  We passed a couple sizable plantations of young palm trees that looked to be an attempt at rectifying that situation.  At Sayaxche, our ride was interrupted by a river over 7 meters over its usual level.  I don't know if there was a bridge submerged there somewhere, but we took a ferry across to the bustling town and got a lunch of chicken, black bean puree and rice - delicious.

South of Sayaxche, a line of verdant mountains arose.  These mountains were almost more like a collection of giant mounds with rounded tops piled right next to each other.  There were many small Mayan communities here.  Men were hiking along the road, schlepping firewood bundles on their backs, uniformed children were heading home from school, and all were spreading corn on the side of the road where it could dry out in the sun.  As we headed into the hills, the mood of the people changed.  We were no longer greeted by smiles and waves.  Mostly there was indifference, but a couple kids threw things at us as we passed.

We pushed on and reached Rabinal before sunset.  This town, named for a local Mayan tribe, was very friendly.  It was also inexpensive.  My hotel room cost about $4.  We strolled downtown, visited the marketplace in front of the large, simple, but elegant white church and filled up on a regional variation on the taco.

The next day, I headed into town again and came across a small religious procession of men and women in traditional dress, some carrying platforms with Jesus figurines.  The visited little shrines in each corner of the plaza and then climbed the stairs to the church where they knelt again toward each shrine and then joined the priests and entered the sanctuary enveloped in the smoke of burning frankincense.

Lenny and I were on different schedules.  I left town first, planning to follow route 5.  Well, route 5 turns to dirt in Rabinal and heads steeply into the mountains that were still awash with mud from all the rain.  It was exciting to drive up this steep, rocky road, but when I reached a serious patch of mud and figured I had another 40 miles of this, which may or may not prove passable, I turned around.  Lenny rode up later and made it through...I am a little jealous.

Now I am in Antigua.  Getting here took me through the capital, Guatemala City, home to some 3.5 million people.  Antigua is only about 15 miles out of GC.  The roads go up and then there is a very long descent into Antigua.  This city was once the Spanish capital of everything from southern Mexico to Panama, before repeated earthquakes finally convinced Spain to move the capital to GC in the late 1700s.  Antigua is filled with the ruins caused by those earthquakes.  This gives the city of about 60,000 a unique feel, but not a melancholy one.  This city buzzes with life with its vibrant markets and multitude of restaurants and hotels catering to the tourists who come here from near and far.

I am staying at Posada Refugio, where I have the only room on the 4th floor roof.  Out my door is a grand view of Mount Agua, the nearest of three volcanoes visible from Antigua.  In clear weather, Mount Fuego (fire) is visible.  This active volcano earns its name.

I have again met up with Mark and Maggie and others here, which has made for great fun.  However, my most memorable moment, indeed the most memorable lunch of my whole trip, was yesterday.  I went to Tienda La Canche.  Entering from the street, it appears to be nothing more than a tiny store offering soda, sweets and a few pastries.  Ask to eat, though, and you are invited in past the counter to a back room with three connected tables and lots of religious iconography.  I ordered a pepian de pollo - a sort of chicken stew, that reminded me a lot of a Hungarian goulasch.  The food was memorable, but soon I had company.

A group of women entered.  There were probably about a dozen of them spanning three generations.  Two boys were with them.  I was at a corner of the table and they filled in all around me.  On my left sat a cute girl of perhaps 16 years.  She asked me right away where I was from.  Then she asked me to take her home with me.  I played along and said 'manana' (tomorrow).  Her mother chimed in with 'Hoy!' - today!  The girl was bold enough to fold her arm in mine as she told her family about her plans with me.  We all laughed a lot.  I asked one of the boys at the far end of the table to take a picture of us.  By this time, they were all saying that this girl was my Reina or queen.  We posed for a first pic and for the next, the grandmother hauled out a silver Mayan crown for the Reina (apparently they had attended some sort of ceremony).  For this pic, this bold young woman, put her arm around me and even tried to tickle me.  I was astonished how comfortable she was doing something like that.  I never expected something like that in a place I would have thought so socially conservative.

It was with some sorrow that I finally excused myself.  A man who was there told me I should pay for everyone's meal (I am the rich westerner, after all).  I replied that I would like to, but cannot and would certainly never pay for his - more laughter.  As I paid for my meal at the counter, though, I saw a chocolate cake and had a piece cut for my queen.  Everyone laughed again, clapped, and the girl said "Thank you" in English.

1 comment:

  1. Yah buddy! Great having dinner with you today. I will check in the blog or facebook to check where you are at. You can also check our SPOT at It is fun reading your blog and funny how we all know the same people but rarely all at the same time. Maybe a South America meet is the call. This guy Lenne is an awesome cat. glad you got to meet him.
    Talk to you soon. Ride safe. See you down the road.