Sunday, 5 December 2010

Adventure isn't always fun.

From here to here
It appears that Autumn has suddenly turned to Winter back home and the last thing you'd want to read about is how someone is sunning himself in Mexico (which begs the question why did you log onto my blog in the first place?). Anyway I thought I'd cheer you up by telling you that things don't always go as planned and it's not ALL visiting exciting places and having a great time.

It took us two days and over 400 miles to travel from Oaxaca to San Cristobel de Las Casas (more on that place later). Stopping in a nondescript but pleasant enough town half way we briefly met a Canadian on a KLR and a Brit. on a bicycle. Amazingly the Brit. had started from Alaska about two weeks before me – although he had of course, taken a more direct route. Covering around 100 miles a day he was now beginning to feel the strain in the heat and, to be honest, was having a bit of a rough time of it. I felt a little sorry for him – I think he was getting lonely but, as he and the Canadian, were both heading straight into Guatamala (and we weren't) we set off the next day on our own again.

It was already warm when we set off at 9 a.m. And by 11 it must have been at least 25C. All was going well until I tried to navigate through a place called Tuxtla Gutierra. With a population of over half a million it was a fair sized place and I had hoped to link up with the bypass road and not have to go into the city centre. I'm carrying two maps of Mexico and one map has a ring road marked going north around Tuxtla, whilst the other has it going south. Obviously I didn't find either of them and ended up in the middle of the city in a huge traffic jam at 2 pm. It was boiling hot. Stuck in the traffic with the fumes adding to the heat it wasn't long before Tracy and I started to feel uncomfortably hot. The sweat started trickling down places you don't even want to contemplate and I began cursing black motorbike gear. The bike began overheating a little, and I had to concentrate on watching the traffic and looking for directions to San Cristobel. It wasn't fun. In short it took over an hour to get through Tuxtla.

Forty five minutes later we were heading into San Cristobel. We crossed a mountain range and the sun and heat disappeared and within a mile or two it had started to rain. By the time we got into San Cristobel it was teeming down. Huge, tropical droplets of rain. The cobbled streets had turned into streams and I had to navigate through them whilst trying to locate the centre of town. Two or three times I had to ride down a street with so much rain flowing against me I wasn't certain how deep the water was and what lay underneath. A little nerve racking to say the least. You can imagine how happy Tracy was by this point. Six hours on the bike, boiling hot a 2 p.m. Soaking wet at 3.

We found a place to stay, parked the bike in the courtyard and proceeded to hang all our wet stuff up around the room. Then we went out in the evening drizzle to have a quick look at the place and the following day gave it our full attention. We liked what we saw. San Cristobel was a very attractive colonial town with three interconnected plazas that lit up at night. The surrounding streets were single story and very colourful. On top of that, as vegetarians we were spoilt for choice with places to eat. We visited the main Cathedral, market and a very interesting Mayan Medicine Museum where we watched a 12 minute DVD on child birth Mayan style! This included passing a large axe and then a large live hen over the womans stomach in order to ease labour.

San C. Cathedral

I wanted to go to the Coffee Museum, Tracy wanted to go to the Amber museum. We went to the Amber museum. Did you know real Amber doesn't float? I do now.

The following day we were going 150 miles to Palenque (Mayan ruins) It was supposed to be an easy little run. Unfortunately it was raining. It had started raining before we had even woken up and it rained all day. We set off at 9 a.m. and by midday we were totally soaked. It had obviously been raining for a long time, we were dodging fallen trees, riding through small streams as they crossed the road and slaloming around small landslides. It was all very exciting until we came across a very flooded river that had almost covered the road. It was then that I first thought we might not actually make it to Palenque. 

Wet but happy (ish)

And then it happened. 20 miles short of Palenque (and 5 hours into our day) the whole road had been washed away. This had only happened an hour or two before we got there and there was absolutely no way around it. Dejected and disappointed we turned around. My map had no alternative route around to Palenque and it looked like we were going to have to return to San Cristobel. We wouldn't be able to get to Palenque and therefore wouldn't be able to go on to Tikal in Guatamala. This was a disaster. I was cursing and moaning into my helmet as I rode back the way we had come.

No way through

The Stig has a look

But then, 20 miles down the road there was a folk in the road. The route leading off to the right looked like it might be heading in the right direction for a Palenque detour. I stopped the bike and asked a taxi driver. He told me, through Spanish and some excellent sign language, that this road was fully open and, although full of pot holes, we could take it to the main road which would eventually take us to Palenque. I asked him how long it would take and made the mistake of suggesting three hours. He agreed. I knew I shouldn't have done this. Travellers tales are full of examples where well meaning locals have agreed with what the tourist has said in order to please them. I should have just asked how long, but it was already 2:30 p.m. and I was keen to make sure we didn't get stuck out after dark so I asked if we could do it in three hours.

If we wanted to visit Palenque, Tikal and northern Guatamala we would have to take this road. It was a leap into the unknown but we agreed that this is what an adventure is all about so, with boots full of water, soaked to the skin and having not eaten all day we did what we were told (the taxi driver was very insistent that we should go this way) and turned off the main highway onto this small road.

It started quite well, in fact, the road seemed in better condition than the main one but I just had this nagging feeling that it could all so easily go wrong. We had three hours of daylight, no tent, no food and no chance of finding anywhere to stay on this road. Mile after mile I got more and more nervous that we were getting deep into something that could go pear shaped. It's amazing how easy it is to mess things up. Two poor decisions in a row can turn a good day into a disaster. I don't want to be melodramatic, I never felt that our lives were in danger ( well, perhaps mine was at the hands of Tracy) but we were were tired, hungry and wet. Under these circumstances it's easy to make a series of poorly judged decisions and end up in a real mess. I also remember reading in the guide book that tourists had been subjected to robberies on these roads, and as we were fairly close to the Guatemalan border people and drug smugglers used these roads at night. “For your own safety it's better to be off the roads by nightfall”.

The detour went on for mile after mile and the road actually began to deteriorated. For long stretches the tarmac was smooth and flat and then suddenly part of the road would be missing, or there would be a series of large potholes, or those dam topes (speed bumps) would appear out of nowhere. Twice I went over a topes and scratched the bash plate. The road was also quite busy as it was now taking all the Palenque traffic and it seemed like every collectivo in Palenque had heard that the main road was closed and they were all flying past me in the opposite direction intent on picking up as many passengers as possible. On one particularly tricky section I saw a 250cc bike coming towards me with two guys on it slam into a pothole. Both rider and passenger crashing to the floor in front of us. I stopped to check how they were and amazingly they seemed to just brush it off as an everyday occurrence. They both seemed fine.

About a mile further down the road I came to a particularly tricky section. A huge hole right across the road (and flooded) blocked my way. To enter it I would have to ride down a step muddy bank and into muddy water. The alternative would be to ride along the edge. A two foot wide stretch of tarmac ran along the edge of the hole. Tracy got off the bike and walked ahead of me clearing away some of the bamboo and foliage from the path. ( I know we should have taken a photo of this but honestly we just weren't in the mood for holiday snaps.) Gingerly I rode along the edge. The first few feet were easy, after all the tarmac WAS two feet wide. But as soon as I started contemplating what I was doing (BIG mistake) I began to panic. I was navigating a big heavy machine along a wet narrow path. The drop to both my left and right would cause major damage to the bike and, more importantly I realised, to me. I would fall more than 90 degrees into muddy water with the bike on top of me. This was not helping me keep the bike steady. I tried my best to forget what could go wrong and concentrate on what I was doing. I told myself that this was easy – all I was doing was riding the bike slowly in a straight line. I focused on the front wheel and slowly and steadily I made it across. (Did you ever doubt I would!)

Soon after that we came to the main road and sailed into Palenque at dusk. Our ordeal was over. Or was it. My aim was to make it to a place called El Panchan; a series of cheap cabanas only a few kilometres from the ruins. In pouring rain and fading light I found the gravel (well muddy really) turn off. Around the corner I had to stop and laugh. We were merely metres from our destination and a fast flowing stream had broken it's banks and was washing across our path. Hard to take but we just couldn't make it. We turned around and stopped at the first hotel we could find on the main road and booked in. It was only 6 p.m. but felt much later. Tracy had really suffered on the back on the bike and was very pleased to finally get some food (excellent Quesadillas) and a warm bed.

Happy at last.

This was the fast flowing rive that stopped us getting to our destination
This is what it looked like in the morning!

In the morning it wasn't raining and we moved to the much cheaper (and rustically nicer) cabanas at El Panchan. We booked in for two nights so we could have a rest day followed by a (hopefully sunny) day exploring Palenque.

We had been told that Palenque was amazing, and sure enough Palenque was amazing. Although it wasn't raining the clouds didn't make for good photos but in this case I think a picture does paint 1000 words....(Tracy said don't use that phrase “it's a Telly Savales song”)

I'd been looking forward to our crossing into Guatamala for some time. A new crossing has only just opened up that allows vehicles to cross, legally, from near Palenque to Flores (which is near Tikal). This meant we could get from one Mayan site to the other quite easily and would be one of the first to do so. (I think the crossing has been open for a year or two, but it's only in the last three months that Guatamala has had full custom services for the bike. Before this you would have to ride through to Belize to get the bike legally imported into Guatamala.) I've not read of many people who have been this way, so I wrote up a detailed report of our crossing and posted it on two adventure motorbike websites. Tracy and Dom – trailbrazing through central America! Here it is.

Today I crossed from Palenque to Flores (near Tikal) on a fully paved road. This route is now totally up and running and will surely become the favourite route for bikes who want to get from Palenque to Tikal. Fully sealed road, 220 miles and the whole thing took us under 8 hours (left Palenque at 8, arrived at Flores 3:30)

Details below...

We left Palenque at 8 a.m. A few miles out of town we took a road to the right, signposted as La Liberdad. It's a short cut towards Tenosique. After 30 miles you turn right (signposted Tenosique) and in another 30 miles you enter Tenosique. There is a PEMEX just as you enter town. About 500 metres past the Pemex is a hotel on the left (Don Juan I think) which, from the outside looked OK. It took us just under 2 hours and about 60-70 miles to get to Tenosique. But then we got lost in town for 30 minutes. After the Hotel, at the traffic lights, turn right and then there is a roundabout. I went left (third exit) and went into town. I think I should have just gone straight ahead...

From Tenosique to the border (El Ceiba) was about 45 minutes and 40 miles. Good road, but no services and nothing at El Ceiba. The Mexican side of the border has FULL services for checking out of the country. A Bancajeto to cancel your temporary import card for the bike in an air conditioned room. Unfortunately I didn't check whether they are open on Mondays, a previous thread said they are shut on Mondays. I was there on a saturday. Perhaps the next person who goes by can check. It took us 15 minutes to check out of Mexico!
Immediately as we crossed the border a guy stopped me to get the passports stamped. He's in the first (and only) white and blue building on the left. Took 5 minutes, cost nothing. He then points across the road to a parked up lorry on stilts. That's where you get the bike stamped in. The two guys in the “building” were fantastic. Friendly and helpful and absolutely no whiff of bribery at all. They apologized as the electricity wasn't working and I had to jump into a tuk-tuk to go to a photocopy shop as you have to have a photocopy of the Guatemalan stamp that has just been put in the passport. (Other photocopies needed were, driving license, passport photo page and Bike title)

Once I'd done that he got me my temporary Guatamala bike import papers and a sticker to put on the bike. Cost – 40 Queztals ($6) (There was a little mix up as he was worried about my bike being able to leave Guatamala as my license plate said “Alaska” not “USA” but we sorted that out.) This side of the border took about an hour but 20 minutes of that was me getting the photocopy. When we left they insisted on taking our photo on the bike. THAT'S never happened to me before at a border crossing.

We then had the wheels ceremoniously sprayed with something that cost 20 Q ($3) and we were on our way. Under an hour and a half for the whole thing and actually quite a pleasant experience. The El Ceiba side of the border has nothing in the way of hotels. But on the Guatamala side I did see a hotel on the right 500 meters into the country. Looked OK if you were stuck for somewhere, there's nothing else for 150 miles.

It took 2 hours 45 minutes to get to Flores, about 150 miles on a really good road (except for the topes). Total mileage from Palenque to Flores – 220. 150 miles from the last PEMEX in Tenosique to the first gas station I saw in Guatamala which was 20 miles before Flores. So fill up in Tenosique.

Tracy looked after the bike whilst Dom did the paperwork

Final thoughts on Mexico. I was pleasantly surprised. It was cleaner, more developed, and the driving was saner that I had expected. The food was excellent and I would certainly go back.

Initial thoughts on Guatamala. Although crossing the border was not as drastically different as USA/Mexico, there are some subtle differences. Guatamala is obviously poorer. There are more pack animals (and just animals in general) on the road. Lots of pigs, chickens, horses and turkeys. (I guess it's Christmas!) In the villages, girls carry heavy stuff down the road and little boys play in dirt and mud with machetes. There are noticeably fewer private vehicles, more small motorbikes and collectivos. People seems friendly and are more inclined to wave at us than they were in Mexico.

We've stopped in Flores, a town located on a small island on a lake, an hour from Tikal. It seems that Internet access (especially wi-fi) is much more limited here than Mexico, so my blogs from now on may be short on photos (they take so long to load), but I'll still try to update weekly.

Off to Tikal tomorrow.

So,that was a long blog if you read the whole thing, well done. And if you're suffering in the winter freeze and hate my guts for being somewhere warm and sunny, perhaps this has cheered you up.

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