As we continue our journey through four time zones and seven countries, we cross the border (frontera) from Mexico into Guatemala, near El Carmen. We're surrounded by chaos. At least a dozen pushing and shoving street hustlers encircle us, yelling simultaneously in Spanglish that they're the best ones to change our dollars to quetzels and help us get through inmigración, customs (aduana), and importación of the bikes.
Amid the confusion, my co-conspirators Alfonse "Fonzie" Palaima and Jeff Fredette, and I, complete countless forms in Spanish and pay various "fees" to enter this small country for a day. Border crossing with motorcycles varies in each country and the Central American immigration authorities don't deem it necessary to clarify mandatory processes. First, each person has to check in and get his passport stamped. Then, each bike must be checked in, with more paperwork, of course. They require several copies of every form, which must be photocopied somewhere in the border village. We find a shop that makes copies, but as luck would have it, it's closed for siesta. Another shop is open, but the copy machine is broken. Finally we find one that works, and for the price of about a dollar a page, we're on our way. A couple hours pass when finally the border guardians spray our bikes with some unknown chemicals, to "disinfect" them from some dreadful disease or such. We clear the hurdles and officially enter Central America.
Time weighs on our minds as we follow a crawling conga line of smoking diesel trucks on Highway 2, in a torrential downpour. We still don't know if we'll make it to our goal, the Panama Canal, within our fifteen-day timeline, but we've heard that Guatemala's Lake Atitlan is spectacular, and we all vote to detour off Highway 2 onto Ruta 11 to visit. The mountain roads take longer than expected, and we roll into town just before reception closes at Hotel Toliman, in San Lucas Toliman. Our lodging features the charm of large comfy rooms and a restaurant overlooking the lake - highly recommended.
Come morning, we dine on tasty fare at the adjoining restaurante while taking in the magnificent views of azure Atitlan, then ride around the village and head north on local Ruta 1. It's a tight scenic mountain road with switchbacks that eventually intercepts the main Highway 1 to Guatemala City. Along the way we explore some fascinating mining tunnels right beside the road and then cruise through the quaint town of Patzicia. Based on the looks we get, it's obvious they don't see many tourists on motorcycles.
Our next stop is Iximché, a pre-Columbian archaeological site, which was the capital of the Kaqchikel Maya kingdom from 1470 until 1524. The site's center consists of four large and two small plazas, each of which contains at least two temples. After a tour, we have a great lunch at Kape Paulinos and head for Guatemala City. We hit this huge city at rush hour when traffic is horrific! To make things worse, Highway 9 north of town is under construction. We finally reach Highway 10 to Chiquimula and find the funky Hotel Pasado Perla de Oriente with a guarded courtyard that provides a modicum of security. In the morning, Fonzie finds he has a flat rear tire with a nail in it. When that's fixed, we have breakfast and head for the Honduras border at El Florido.
Producing a flurry of documents, copies, and fees, we again clear aduana and then head for the huge Mayan ruins at Copan. This World Heritage Site is one of the highlights of the trip and a must-see. Copan's sprawling ruins cover about 40 acres, including an acropolis with five plazas. The first dated monument at Copan is 465 AD, and on May 26, 800 AD, the last hieroglyph was recorded. The Maya are said to have occupied the valley starting around 1300-900 BC and they lived there until the time of the Spanish conquest.
Several hours later, we move on. The roads are pleasantly hilly and winding and we zoom through many rural areas dotted by small villages. Sometimes local farmers burn brush in the fields, which fills the air with acrid smoke that can be seen for miles. Occasionally there's fire blowing across the road, which gets a little intimidating when you have to ride through it!
Most of the roads here are just a series of interconnected potholes. The locals fill them with dirt for maintenance, but that kicks up clouds of blinding dust from passing vehicles. While overtaking a truck, I get grit in my eyes, hit a huge crater bending both wheel rims, and almost get thrown off the bike. I manage to regain control and we stop to check the damage. The rims are bent back so much that I can see the inner tubes, but the tires don't appear to be cut and the tubes still hold air. Lacking a way to fix them, I continue on cautiously, thumping up and down with every turn of the wheels.