Finally. Guatemala. After nearly a year on the road we were getting closer to Mexico. After a rather uneventful border crossing, lunch at Wendy’s and a big tar highway we were en route to Antigua, a beautiful colonial town, right out of antiquity and filled with ruins and more tourists than you can wave a stick at. But getting there was easier said than done (remember I had busted my rear shock and my clutch just before the border, and was now heading to civilisation to get it fixed). Before long, we realised that we had arrived in Guatemala City on Independence Day, their biggest holiday of the year, and one celebrated by locals off all ages, creeds and states of intoxication. People were walking, running, and hobbling through every street, including all major highways, drunk off their faces and arranged into pelotons, each followed by empty buses acting as ‘support’ vehicles. As is customary with Latin America, the above was accompanied by industrial quantities of fireworks and flaming torches, all set to the ever-present, ear-splittingly loud party music. Now don’t get me wrong, this is my kind of place, and I am an avid appreciator of Latino party-culture, madness, and mayhem, but having an entire country’s population waddle through the streets in a surprisingly accurate display of Brownian motion during rush hour, while riding with a broken shock and weak clutch, doesn’t do much to help the infamously atrocious Guatemala City traffic. On a normal day of the week 2km can take 1hr 30min in rush hour, and we had to go all the way through the city to get to Antigua.
Luckily the trip was great entertainment, it kept us awake and energised and helped us to bide our time whilst we got to our destination, once again, true to form, in the pitch dark. In Antigua we found a lovely place recommended by friends in the more authentic, local (read: cheaper) part of town. Shortly after arriving we decided to sample some local cuisine, this came in the form of a Caesar’s Pizza and a rum nightcap, I slept like the dead.
The next day we were reunited once again with the lesser spotted Martin, who had made his way up to Guatemala after a frolic through luxury in Costa Rica with friends. He was now firmly back on the bike, back in the dirt, back on the road, and once again, severely poverty stricken. With the festivities in full swing we were able to get our fill of spectacular street food and local booze, gently enabling us to sleep happy and drunk for yet another night. Eating and drinking is what we do best, and combined with riding a motorcycle, this makes roughly 60% of our trip. If you were wondering what the other 40% was, it is entirely composed of waiting, more specifically, me waiting for Megan. In Antigua we were lucky enough to meet Tolga Basol from Ride Must Go On, who will soon be heading back down into South America and then over to Africa on a Husquervana 701.
But it wasn’t all holiday, eventually I had to take a break from being inebriated, and make a plan to get my bike back to working order. Touratech’s absolutely spectacular customer service had made it possible to get my rear shock replaced with a top-of the range custom built monster, which was delivered to BMW in Guatemala City and installed free of charge within 3 days of sending them an email. This is the sort of customer service which will win me over for life, knowing that any problems with their product can be sorted out in no time, even when on the road in far-off places. A huge round of applause for Touratech and lots of very well deserved praise indeed.
But before I get ahead of myself, There was the ordeal of actually getting to BMW. Megan is not always partial to lane splitting, especially at speed in bad traffic, and to my fault, I am not partial to waiting and taking my time, even after all the practice. This often results in interesting situations, and this was definitely one of these times. Whilst I was leading the way (the GPS is on my bike, because I am a man and don’t ask for directions), I lost Megan. The usual plan of action for turnoffs is to wait for her at the said turnoff until she sees me, after which we ride off happily together into the sunset. The only problem this time, was that Megan was so extremely flustered and overcome by Guatemalan traffic-madness, that she completely missed both me and the turnoff, even after staring directly at me whilst I was frantically waving at her.
Having already taken the offramp, it was now impossible for me to turn around and head back onto the highway through one-way traffic, usually a one-way street means absolutely nothing to me, but in this instance logic prevailed and I chose life. This is not, after all, Bolivia. Meg had officially been separated from the herd.
I decided the best thing to do was to live my life and continue on to BMW and wait for her there, she knew where she had to go. Little did I know her cell phone had no local SIM, and she had become lost on the other side of Guatemala City (the wrong side). Having to rely on her rudimentary Spanish to get wifi from the phone of a petrol attendant, so that she could load the correct one out of two BMW dealers in the city. She stopped at a station on the industrial road, nearest to a Mc Donalds for safetly in numbers, and proceeded to load her directions. In the meanwhile, I booked my bike in, spoke to the mechanics, oggled the fancy new bikes, and drank a coffee, or three. Like the man who buys his wife a new ironing board for Christmas, you can probably tell, this was not going to end well for me. And true to form, it didn’t.
Megan made it safely to the dealership after her solo adventure through the concrete wilderness. On arrival she proceeded to give me the most terrifying stare I have ever witnessed and the most intense silent treatment on offer. Even the guys who worked at BMW were scared, I could feel the anger from outside the building.
I was busy contemplating my current predicament whilst blankly staring at a poster on the wall, which proudly displayed a bunch of squeaky-clean BMW models with shiny-teeth, wearing pristine adventure gear and laughing and grinning at each other in front of the Alps. Fuckers. It was about this time I heard I voice behind me: ‘Matthew! How is your ride going?’. I countered with a blank, confused stare into the open, friendly face that greeted me. ‘You’re probably wondering who I am…’ The man behind the voice was Carlos, an amazing human, who had been in contact with us through Facebook, and was soon to become a close friend of ours, Carlos whipped us up, fetched our stuff from our hostel and welcomed us into his beautiful home, unknowingly also saving me from the wrath of Megan, and getting me a lighter sentence from Judge Dread herself.
Once again we had been shown the most amazingly warm hospitality by complete strangers. Carlos and his wife, Sigrid, welcomed us as family, and helped us sort out all of our bike woes. As any overlander will know, there is something indescribably special about staying in a welcoming family home for a while, its personal, its warm, its safe and its comforting. It means the world to someone on the road.
We had the most amazing time with Carlos in Guatemala City. We were even hosted on a ride to the coast, and through the waterways on a Panga, with breakfast in front of an active, smoking volcano, the ground occasionally giving a shake as the volcano growls.. To top this off, Carlos treated us to a weekend at his house on Rio Dulce with his friends, riding around in the boat, drinking all day, and lazing around in a jacuzzi. It was an absolute paradise. Thanks Carlos for showing us the most amazing, warm hospitality, we cant wait to see you in South Africa soon.
Eventually we had to leave Carlos and Sigrid, and head North to a little town called El Remate, where we would stay on the shores of lake Peten Itza, before visiting the famous Mayan ruins and pyramids of Tikal. On arriving in the wet, humid forest and parking the bikes under a corrugated iron roof behind the hostel, we walked barefoot through the trees, where we were enveloped by the smell of old, damp leaves on the muddy floor as the sun set over the lake. There is a special feeling that comes with cleaning yourself in a clear lake in the forest whilst the sun sets after a long day riding through a foreign country. With nothing else to worry about other than whats for dinner, and if you should go inside for a beer, or float around long enough to see the stars reflecting off the water.
The next day was our ‘Tikal’ day, our day to see the ruins, everyone says you should get up really early and then try to get into the park before 6 am. Fuck. That.
As you might have guessed, we are not the most diligent people when it comes to alarms and dragging ourselves out of bed while its still dark. We pride ourselves on being massively indecisive, packing the bikes and leaving whenever, it sort of seems to happen naturally, and embracing our lazy side on a regular basis in order to more thoroughly savor experiences and the world around us. To our credit we did actually try. We set the alarm, and when it went off, we noticed that not only was it still dark, but the rain was bucketing down on our little room. Not going to happen.
We woke up when we were ready, had a lazy breakfast, and then decided at 13:00, once the rain had stopped, it was a good time to head out.
Now I know what you’re thinking: ‘Idiots!’. Well you’re wrong. Ha. We got on the bikes and made our way into the park, and because all the buses leave the ruins at 14:00 latest, we had the entire park completely to ourselves in beautiful, cool weather with the smell of rain all around us. Laziness for the win.
Tikal is a magical place and an awe-inspiring experience. The sheer size and beautiful condition of the pyramids is absolutely astounding, and the walk through the jungle was both peaceful, quiet, and full of life and sound at the same time. Tikal has it all, grand ball-courts, huge ceremonial courtyards, beautiful forest and monumental pyramids from which you can stare out over the canopy at the other pyramid peaks in the distance. A real first-class experience.
On our way out of Guatemala, we stopped by another set of ruins, a lesser known, partially covered and non-touristy set pyramids known as Yaxha. These became our favorite ruins of the trip. There was absolutely no one at the site apart from us. It was the most peaceful, authentic set of ruins I have ever been to and is set right on the banks of a river. The staff are also extremely proud of the site and are determined that you have a good time, explaining things to you as you go, just for the love of it. Another great thing about Yaxha is the fact that it is one of the last sets of ruins you can actually properly interact with. With no boundaries or cordoned off areas, you are allowed to climb over the ruins, and climb to the top of the pyramids up the original steps themselves. On the top of the tallest pyramid you can see a beautiful view over the jungle, with a dark river cutting straight through it, one of my fondest memories of the trip.
And then came Belize…