Thursday, October 25, 2012

Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama

I'm coming to the end of my time in Central America. I had rather carelessly thought of it as a bridge to South America, which in hindsight was a silly notion. I suppose being brought up in a time when all these countries were lumped together under the banner of Banana Republics, Contras and other various Dictator led terror, I had little understanding of just how gorgeous, friendly and interesting these lands of Mayan Temples and volcanoes have turned out to be. It did not start to well being ripped off at the Guatemalan border, but since then I have really enjoyed it and alas missed out on a huge amount of it from lack of time.

Semuc Champey
I had been promised great delights at Semuc Champey, and although I was there on a cloudy day,  the lime stone pools formed at the base of steep ravines were delightful to see. The authorities had laid on some good local trails, one of which had to had you climbing up  an incredibly steep route  to the viewing platform hundreds of yards above the gently cascading water

  The original plan had been to head further north to Tikal, the most renowned Mayan  remains in Guatemala, but time paranoia and a wrong turning ended up taking me to the Honduras border to the equally well-known and regarded remains of Copan Ruinas.
 The roads were stunning and what you see here was typical of day-long rides
 Copan Ruinas  had one marveling at the ingenuity of historic civilisations. In fact it was built towards the end of the Mayan empire (About 1200 years ago), in a desperate attempt to appease the gods who they believed were punishing them for 10 years of drought. Alas it did not work and the civilisation crumbled with the failing harvests. It is now understood that over the hundreds of years that the Mayans thrived, the whole area, from southern Mexico to Honduras had been heavily deforested for building and crop growing. A poignant example of how deforestation stops the rain from falling, and the consequences there of.

Copan Ruinas
Copan Ruinas
 The next day was a mighty long 12 hour drive, 320 miles, and I almost crossed Honduras in it. A beautiful country, not rich by the look of things but very scenic and worthy of more than my one day. That said I did see 2 accidents soon after they happened. The first was up in central hills where a man lay beside the road, covered in blood with police and medics around him. I did not see his face as I was waved past, but feared the worst for the poor chap. The next one had 2 cars very smashed up with a lot of teary people about the place. The ambulances had just overtaken me. I have dreaded having to use my first aid kit and let alone my very slight first aid knowledge, but these were the closest I have come so far.

It is not really surprising as there is a tendency to overtake on the brow of a hill and on corners.  More than once being a slim bike has been a blessing.

On to Nicaragua and...
This is a surreptitious photograph of the policeman who hauled me over for a perfectly normal road manoeuvre. I did feel somewhat victimised  because every other vehicle was all over the shop. The ensuing conversation had me denying any Spanish, which is almost true, his insistence that I surrender my license, and his final acceptance of $20…. cash.

 I spent a couple of nights in Leon, which I had been excited about, it was written up as a university town and heaped in history. Maybe I was in the wrong frame of mind, but I'm afraid I found it a rather drab place apart from a very good art museum and a massive cathedral, the largest in Central America.
 There was a carnival of sorts going on, and what I initially thought was some insurrection, turned out to be these fellows and launching dozens and dozens of these rockets.
 This man is a former guerrilla  from the days of the Contra. He showed me round the  Museum all about the revolution and did so in a very local dialect. Funnily enough I ended up understanding more as we went along, and here he is pictured on the roof with the cathedral in the background. I am sure he said his mental scars would never heal.

A town I thought just fantastic was Granada. It was beautifully kept, and strictly denied any modern buildings, and just a few more than one storey high. In fact it reminded me of Lang Prabang in Laos, which had been a favourite town on this now has an equal. We had a 1/4ly work meeting there so I upgraded to a starred hotel which made for almost forgotten comforts...air con, room service, breakfast included...the joy.

When I was about 5 miles out, on my way into Granada, I was overtaken by Mark on his Suzuki. We pulled over and chatted...then went for a beer. He semi lives there and was a good friend to me over the next 4 days. 
A view form the Hotel room in Granada

One of the casualties of the bumpier roads was my loss of the kick start pedal...vital when the battery is flat. With Mark's contacts he found a small engineering firm who made a perfect replacement. $30 all told, probably 1/2 the cost of getting one sent out from the UK
One perfectly working kickstart
Batty did another great 2 day marathon across Costa Rica which was almost like a poorer US state, but with much of the trappings. Beautiful all the same, and frustrating to have missed it.

Now In Panama, on the Isle of Boca...doing very little for a day or 2...

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Trying Spanish...Volcanos, and lovely locals

San Pedro La Laguna was just about perfect as far as I was  concerned for the very necessary 2 weeks Spanish lessons. I still mangle the language horribly with very little vocabulary and grammar, but can manage a few simple sentences about topics I choose. Vincenta was very tolerant and kept the enjoyable lessons going at a gentle pace. Hopefully more of the language will soak in over the coming months.
A morning's ride by the lake
This shows the stove, and one of the enormous creamy delicious avocados that grow on the tree outside.
A typical hearty lunch. The soup was made of a local leaf, but it just did not translate...until tasted, then it was delicious.
The view from my room across the San Pedro La Laguna
Lessons were one on one in small garden like sheds, right by the lake. Rather heavenly and probably difficult to beat for location let alone value. $120 for 5 days of lessons (4hrs per day) and 7 days full board accommodation with a local family. Probably a month or 2 is what it would take me to have a conversational chance, but there were a few who I met who went from zero to every day newspaper reading and talking  level in just 3-4weeks. Young, fast and absorbent minds, mixed with hard work and necessity for dream jobs seem to be important ingredients. Casa Rosario was my school and seemed to be one of the best there along with a couple of others.
Christian, a fellow student, who I enjoyed a few beers with along with others, who alas I did not snap.
Living with Gloria and Felix was comfortable and enjoyable. The dinner table conversation was a bit of a struggle, but not the delicious and varied fayre Gloria produced. Hardly anything from a packet, nothing frozen and all bought in the market daily or produce from their family farm/patch of land on the lake banks. 
Much of the Guatemalan community life has the gentle backdrop sound of the ladies making tacos in the morning. It is a the 'pat pat pat' of the 4 inch circular unleavened staples being flipped from hand to hand. They are cooked on wood-burning stoves and the job is only done when 10-20 tacos are made per family member. At least an hours work every day. I think that 'pat pat pat' will stay with me for ever as a delightful harmonic sound of continuity and custom in a heavenly place.

My homework had competition from some office issues on various fronts that took quite a lot of time. If truth be told any excuse not to learn irregular future tense verbs was a blessing and my engagement in work issues has always pleased and fascinated my mind more than most other subjects.

A walk up 'Indian Nose' on Sunday with Samual, who had garaged Batty for the 2 weeks. In fact we got a bus up most of it, at his insistence, but the view was breathtaking
Can you see the Indian nose above the town...he is lying down facing the sky
The parcel arrived with the new gearing for Batty and in fact the new sprocket was 16 tooth, 1 less than what I wanted, but as it happened still not enough to get Batty up the super steep hill sides, without running beside her and in the end getting the help of a couple of local policemen, who pushed us up over the brow. I am not sure of their motive. Probably good old fashioned friendly service, but there was talk of bandits robbing tourists in the area, so probably this service had a touch of extra potency.

I planned to exit Guatemala fast via the historic and beautiful single storey town of Antiqua and then on to Honduras, mindful of a booking on the good ship Stahlratte from Panama to Columbia at the end of October.

A great day out from Antigua was the climbing of Volcano Pacaya, with a group of other travelers.
This is Volcano Fuego puffing a can just make out. This is the Volcano that erupted a few weeks back that made the news.
A surreal landscape near the summit
A Lava cave left from the last eruption a couple of years ago.
The obligatory marsh mallow roasting over the small vents to the magma below
We were all set up for these action shots running down the lava dust/ was like a mixture of skiing and walking on the moon....I imagine
Meike, along with Jasmyn below, were fellow Volcanoers, and we hooked up for a drink later in the evening, where Batty was working her charm.

I kept meeting others and overhearing conversations about a couple of delights that to miss would be a crime. So plans changed and decided to spend a few more days here.
As great fortune would have it, the post that I had put on about being ripped off at the border was picked up by Richard Chang who lives in Guatemala City and loves bike adventures and meeting new folk. He made the trip to see me in Antigua and we had a great day chatting about his fine country, bikes and travel.
My tyres were getting a bit worn low, and with Richard's 100% help,  Batty and I went into the city to sort this out. Now with new Pirelli tyres, Batty has unknown confidence on the very abundant and exciting roads of Guatemala.
The hand of friendship did not end at Richard's, for he arranged a number of his pals to show me around the city on the Saturday, and I think Rodrigo, Javier and Dagoberto have to be up there with the best of them at showing off Guatemala City. All the sights, and a delicious breakfast of revoleto, a pig offal stew at the central market.
Rodrigo and Javier in front of the Eiffel tower...a gift from France.

In  perverse way, these slums cascading down the valley in central Guatemala city, caught my imagination more than some of the cities other sites. They were so alive and the hopeful made really quite good houses out of very little.
Our Railway Museum guide, Javier and Dagoberto
Richard and his wife Suzanne, invited me to join them on a ride on Sunday. There is a meeting place on the outskirts of the city that many bikers gather. The community is a alive with variety of background and size of machines, but jelled by the love of bikes and the comradeship that they evoke.  My gratitude to Richard and Susan for their kindness and very good company is profound and I look forward to future crossing of roads.
Suzanne and Richard
From the road they took me along on the way north from Guatemala City
As it happened the ride took me well on the way to Lanquin, the first of my quests and from where I write, before exploring Semuc Champey, the 'most beautiful place in Guatemala, if not the world' I had heard said.....until next time

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mexico part 2, Tequila, Morelia, Acapulco, nudists and being ripped off like a good 'un

A new Mexico, from desert to lush tropics....rising up to 10,000ft from the coast
This morning I had my 1st Spanish lesson, 4 hours in the strict but friendly company of Vicenta. I am quite convinced that she is a far better teacher than I a student. In fact I'm writing this having taken a break from my home work which takes the form of over 200 words and phrases that I am encouraged to commit to memory and pronounce by tomorrow….fat chance. It is nearly 30 years since I was troubling a schoolroom and I'm afraid my end of course results may be a little wanting.

The good thing is that I am living with a friendly Spanish speaking family in the middle of this beautiful town called San Pedro La Laguna. I will furnish the blog with more photographs next time round, as it has been a bit cloudy since I arrived yesterday.

My last post had Batty and I arriving on the mainland of Mexico. What a change from the desert and high temperatures of Baja California. Immediately it was lush green and prone to a daily deluge of rain. This seemed to be a fairly predictable occurrence in the afternoon, so a little planning or acceptance of the fact was all that could be done.
An unintended wild camp, a bit off the road. Alas the local hotels were full so it was forced, but always fun and very freeing. However it did not drop below 30 degrees, so not the most comfortable sleep.
A couple of things have happened that have really made me question my competence. Firstly I left my passport on the ferry. It had been the exchange for the cabin door key, and of course when I came to leave, in all the rush and excitement of arriving in Mazatlan, I just left the key with the cleaner who came to my cabin just as I was vacating. The boring thing was that I only discovered it 180 miles down the road, which at Batty speed is 6 hours.
I am afraid that non of my shots of these guys diving 100ft of the famous cliffs in Acapulco worked at night. It was a spectacle that had always captured my imagination. Of course I would not do it, but the water that they dive into is a lot deeper than what I had been lead to believe, so I was not as knocked out by it as perhaps I had supposed.
A view from the harbor fort in Acapulco

The next thing that happened was that I got done over like a good'un at the Talisman, Guatemalan border. Basically I fell for one of the oldest tricks in the book and handed over US$160 to my “fixer" who was helping me through the rather vague import procedure. He asked for this money to buy the permit to drive in Central America. Although I questioned him vigorously, he persuaded me that it was essential to drive any further. Off he toddled to get the form, whilst I was kept occupied by his conniving pal for half an hour. When he got back he had all the paperwork and rushed me through the final gate saying he was about to close. Of course at this stage I was none the wiser, and thanked him profusely giving him a generous tip on top of his US$20 pre-agreed fee. Again it was at the end of the day, after 5 hours of steep mountain roads that I thought I better put all the paper work in the right folders etc. To my horror my more thorough look at the receipt showed that it was 160 Quetzales, about US$20. Of course I was livid, with myself as much as anything, and planned to head back the next day to confront the rascal. After a night's sleep I realise that there was very little proof and the chances of him being there for the next month was highly unlikely, as it amounted to several weeks pay. Why is it that some of the most lovely countries in the world, are so let down by the treatment dished out at Borders. I know it is up to the individual to look out for themselves, but in saying so, it has to be in the interests of the country at large to try and safeguard visitors from robbery, particularly at an easily policeable spot.

The beautiful city of of the first universities in the Americas, and had the feeling of Oxford about it
For some reason I did not seem to take many photos of the town of Tequila...but I enjoyed it. This is the Agave plant that Tequila is made from.

Huge pineapple like fruits are harvested and then left to steam in these great chambers for 2 days, before the juices are distilled.
However there are some situations which one does not anticipate, or a natural tendency to trust, just trips one up. I guess it means greater vigilance and stubbornness in these more poverty stricken countries.
One tries to create as many routines in an ever varying circumstance, to help against forgetfulness etc. For instance I always put the same things in the same pockets, I have a bike packing procedure and a mental check list when leaving a hotel.
A days snorkeling and being toured about in a local guide's boat was an opportunity to try my camera out underwater (it has a 10m limit, so alas not for scuba) success, but fun to try
We were joined in the sea by this chap after octopus, that you can see straped to his waist. he gets about £5 per kilo, about 2 octopuses. We did a bit of fishing of our own and caught a tuna each.
Julian and Violin, my companions on the boat tour, and our lunch of the fish we caught.
Anyway these are just a couple of black moments in what has been a most enjoyable and fulfilling Mexican time. I very much look forward to returning there at some point, as I know the surface has only just been scratched. It hasn't been a particular place for meeting new people, but those I have have been delightful, helpful and entertaining.

I spent a couple of relaxed days in the village of Zipolate. I was somewhat taken aback when this guy walked pasted bollock naked. Enquiry informed me that this was a nudist beach. There seemed to be many more guys showing all than lasses, but a friend of the owner's daughter, where I was staying, more than made up for this inequality. I was not tempted by the idea of scaring the horses, nor did I risk a snap of the said friend.
You only have to mention going to Mexico, and in particular in America, to get an incredible amount of advice about the inevitable dangers that one will encounter. None more so than on the risks of the road. I did not find them to be any worse than anywhere else in particular, and in fact the toll roads which I occasionally took were world-class. The other roads may have had a few more potholed than we're used to in the West, but certainly at the speeds Batty and I go along at, we were not caught out. That said they do have the incredibly effective speed reducing trick which is to have huge speed bumps at every junction and particularly in towns and villages. Known as “Topes", they are not always marked and early on a few times Batty gave me one hell of a buck, that had me airborne and hanging on for dear life. One quickly learns respect and copy the practice of the locals who just very slowly creap over them.

Yesterday was a challenging riding day. By the time I had left Quetzaltengo, where I had stayed and was able to return my Carnet (the sort of international vehicle passport needed in many of the countries I've been to, but not the Americans) by courier to the RAC, it had started raining. Not a problem I thought as it was only about 60 miles to San Pedro. Minute by minute we climbed many thousands of feet up the side of what is a huge volcanic crater (I am assured it is benign, unlike the one blowing its top 100 miles away) on steep twisting roads. It was a lot of 1st and 2nd gear work, but the horror was coming down the stunning road into the crater to the lake and San Pedro where the roads were incredibly steep and twisting. I know for a fact that I won't be able to get out of here. Much to the amusement of others, the only way Batty could make it up the final hill into the town was by offloading all my luggage boxes etc (about 50 kg) into a passing rickshaw.
Gloria, my landlady in San Pedro La Laguna, preparing dinner. A happy family that are most welcoming and home for 2 weeks.
Urgent messages to Henry in England for a smaller front sprocket have been dispatched, and I'm hoping by the time it comes to leaving I will be more appropriately geared for the many mountains to come in South America…and to escape the classroom, armed hopefully with a bit more lingo.

A few Months back I was in touch with Andrew Charnley, who was planning a similar trip to mine and on a diesel Royal Enfield. In fact his plans changed and is taking a Scooter. He is writing a good blog and has interviewed me about the trip, the planning, some technicalities and practicalities. Here it is:

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Baja California, Wet feet, Best diving, Loreto, La Paz, Visa run.

At the moment I am waiting in line at the immigration office in La Paz, 800 miles from the US border. I had not got a permit/visa to cross into the main land from Baja, which is not a problem in Northern Baja California, but apparently I have been an illegal alien for the last few days. The perfectly polite official started saying I would have to return to the nearest visa place, which would have been a bit of a 2 day bore, but then said he could give me a 30 day visa here and that would be enough for my plans, so fingers crossed.
Such has been my state of mind since entering Mexico, that the potential slog back up the peninsular to get the visa, presented no great anxiety.

I left you last in San Filipe in 100+ degrees. From there the road south along the coast was very good for the first 70 miles, then it turned to gravel and sand for the last 50. It was also heavily corrugated in places, a very uncomfortable surface. It is tough on the bike and tiring to ride over. I got about half way when I stopped for a break only to notice that there was a crack on the frame that cradled the engine. It was in the same place that it had bust before in India nearly a year ago. It had not completely gone, so I roped it all together and rode at a slower pace, praying it would hold till I hit the tarmac.
This was a brave hitchhiker...he needed a 10 mile lift that took us 30 mins...

The road..a better stretch

Beautiful hot desert all around
The break
It was about 5 pm at that stage and I happened across Coco's Corner. Coco is a great character who came to this remote and pretty hostile patch of land 20 years ago and just stayed. He had just had one leg amputated at the knee as a result of poor circulation. He built a shelter and made a living selling drinks to occasional passers by. 10 years ago the other leg had to go, which held him back not a moment, carrying on evolving this patch of land into a harbour of eccentricity. Defunct TVs painted yellow and put up on poles, loo seats on pans arranged a round a meeting table, tin cans arranged along strings for 100s of yards to name just a few 'sculptures'. It was topped by a staggeringly large collection of ladies' knickers and bras that he had pinned up all over the ceiling. Apparently it has become a custom that these were volunteered and thought an honour to be asked to contribute to the collection. He had his charm for sure.
The bra and knicker trophy ceiling


The night's shelter

  He insisted that I should not risk driving the next 2 hours as the road got rougher before the tarmac, and it was pretty late. He pointed at a bed frame that was under the original shelter. He threw some blankets over the springs, showed me the old caravan that is now the bucket and scoop wash room, and then bid me good night, saying he goes to sleep at night fall and wakes at dawn. I cooked a quick supper and retired. There was a big wind, thunder and lightening all night which had me awake half of it, but the biggest fright was when one of his blooming cats jumped on me just when sleep had finally come. Poor thing probably had just as much a fright as I lashed out in wild and blind defense.

An early start had me at some welders a couple hours later and they saw the frame right and strengthened in an hour or so.
Back to full strength, with an extra plate to strengthen that seemingly vulnerable part
  I pottered about the pacific coast for a couple of days, but it had become overcast, with torrential falls of rain much to my surprise. One of my planned stops had been at San Ignacio, a central peninsular town in a valley of palm trees. There had been a flash flood, and the road was blocked into the centre of town along with the one south that I planned to take the next day. Along with other stranded travellers a local motel enjoyed a bonza evenings trade.
 It did not seem to have rained over night so I went down to the river and saw a few 4x4s crossing ok. So I though I could. A minute later Batty and I were stalled in the middle of the river with water nearly up to the tops of the wheels. It was a silly idea and I should have paid more attention to the route to take, but more importantly I had not anticipated the water been thrown up in such amounts that it filled the too low engine air intake. Luckily there were a couple of chaps wading across and they helped me push her back to the dry. It was good to have entertained the long queues of impatient drivers for a moment. The road to the centre of the town was passable luckily and I spent the day drying out and adjusting the air filter cover so that I could go through 2 feet of water with ease.

Shot by a wet footed photographer
Loreto has turned out to be a bit of a star town for me. Mainly because I had 2 amazing days diving there. It started well as I bumped into the 5 Italian girls that I had met at the flood motel, they are all a bit younger than me and on a 2 week driving holiday in Baja. We had a quick catch up, but they left the next day with promises to meet up further south.
 Dolphin Diving was a little down the road from my guesthouse and by chance I went down there at 8am the next day to see if there were any chance of a dive. Luckily for me Raphael was just loading the boat to take John out, and they hung on 10 minutes so I could join them.

 John has many years diving experience and having retired after a career in environmental journalist, both in Thailand and his native Oregon, now spends a month in Baja each summer, fishing and diving, often with Raphael. His particular quest nowadays is to find different Nudibaranchs, colour full marine snail that are a fascination to him. The good thing about these sorts of missions are what else you see along the way, sea lions, turtles, whales, monster lobster and every fish in the aquarium, just magic.
Pelicans everywhere
Our lunch spot, Daniel (driver), Raphael, and John
These chaps came along for the dive...and showing us what they could do underwater that we could not...I wish I had had a underwater camera to capture their grace and agility.
 The next day the plan was to go to an island, Santa Cantalena, that neither Raphael or John had been to. The reason no one had been there was that it was 4 hours away in the middle of the Sea of Cortez, so we had to leave at 5.30 in the morning. John had a hunch about it for Nudibaranchs. I was just delighted to have been around for the trip. It turned into a fabulous day and a standout on the whole journey. Alas only 1 Nudibaranch was found, but we all had such an exciting time in a beautiful deserted place, that few had been to. For me it was like diving for the first time out of the class room, and when we went into a submerged cave and the wave action suddenly changed picking John up and whisking him out of sight, it certainly had the pulse racing. Then he floated back down to us, upside down, motionless and no bubbles I was fearing the worst. Then he winked and smiled....the brute.
John discussing Nudibaranchs with Rafael at 6am

Sun rising as we set out for Santa Cantalena
This is a huge whale spotting area, but mainly in the winter months...we were lucky and had this companion for a camera was never on when she/he this the best I got
The Island coast line
Hardly anyone ever comes here, and this was thought to be a very fine example of this type of Cactus.
John and I had had supper together the night before and I enjoyed his company a great deal. Because it is very topical, I asked him what his thoughts were on the US presidential elections. I was not expecting it but fascinated to hear him talk about the impossibility of voting for Obama again with Guantánamo Bay still open, the 'execution' of Bin Laden without trial, and the drones controlled by pilots in the US vaporising people in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Loreto mission at sunset.
Loreto Centre
On the road to Santa Juarez. I should have seen many more of the abundant cave paintings on Baja, and these are probably the poorest examples.
The mission at Santa Juarez, the first mission in Baja, and a pilgrimage is made every year here from all over Mexico.

It doesn't look it, but behind Batty is a very steep hill, which I had to run along beside her whilst slipping the clutch to get up...first time since the Himalayas

Ended up staying about 4 happy nights at the Hotel Yeneka, La Paz. The owner, Manuel, is a great artist and the hotel is one huge artwork
Dinner at last with my Italian girl friends in La Paz
This is a handshake with Yuri, who helped me a great deal with my visa issues...a fellow biker, who had just come back from a 16000 mile run to Alaska and back. He owns a travel agency called Viaje Perla in La Paz...although he did everything he could to not sell me a plane ticket. A very fine man
Each room in Yeneka...was themed. This one was fun.
Damien, from Brussels, was staying at the hotel and we had a great couple of nights out...very good company

In the end I had to go back to Tijuana on the US border to get the took 5 minutes at the airport....

It seemed like a good idea to get Batty serviced a bit whilst there, and Yuri gave me the name of Gabriell, a Hungarian bike mechanic. Gabriell is a very generous man and went to great lengths to see me right...along with his sister Maria who lives in Miami....we had an open Skype line to improve communications. Also the with Scuzme ('Excuse me' his chat up line that became his nickname) his pal who ran us around the town getting parts and stopping at off licenses to get more beer to keep the heat of the day at bay. I lost count but I think it was about 12 pints in about 4 hours.
Gabriell just before setting off for the ferry to the mainland port of Mazatlan. After oil changes, new fork seals, breakpads, wheel bearings etc.

I met Rob on the ferry. He had ridden across to Japan from York and then to Alaska and now on his way south like me. He left a bit after me last year. His blog is . He wild camps every night and is on a budget of less than £10 a day.....makes me feel very soft core. Good and interesting company. Funnily enough he had been told to look out for me by diver John, who he had bumped into at Loreto.