Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The real Guatemala

Having seen Guatemala's major tourism attraction, Tikal, and travelled its main roads to Castillo San Felipe, we now wanted to go off the beaten track and see the real Guatemala. You could argue that the real Guatemala is Guatemala city as that is where most of the Guatemalan people live. What we mean with real Guatemala is the Mayans that live in the mountains. We also wanted to see small towns and local people, rather than tourists and thus looked for the areas less travelled. We had no idea what we were getting in for…

We went west from the Castillo San Felipe described in the previous post, north of Lago Izabal. The road was described to us as a good quality hard packed gravel road. It was… the first bit anyway :-) Up to about halfway along the lake it's actually concrete, in quite good condition too. Shortly after turning into the road we found a big line of huge cane trucks blocking the road. Their drivers helped us past until we got to the cause, one of the trucks had lost one of its trailers, which had veered to the other side of the road and capsized… imagine riding there when that happens...

We had GPS coordinates for a campsite along Lake Izabal, which proved rather inaccurate. Thinking we had found it we took a road that went to the lake, but not to the campground. Soon we found ourselves surrounded by poor families living in huts and minding a couple of goats, cows and pigs. We were looked at in amazement, jaws open, people stopped in their tracks and just gazed at us. It almost made me shy… I know we look somewhat weird but I got the impression we seemed to be more than just somewhat weird to them :-)

Asking around we eventually found the campground called Finca El Paraiso, which proved to be anything but paradise. More a tacky beach club.

There are 4 resorts along the lake, all at the same turn-off. Take the quietest one. When we were here that meant the most eastern one which is signposted as on the photo. We have plotted the actual coordinates of both the turnoff and the campground as the road to the campground is not listed on the otherwise quite good and accurate openstreetmap. We will publish them once the Guatemala part of our trip is complete.

There are plenty of fuel stops along the way but be aware that your fuel consumption will be higher as for most of the dirt part you won't need 4th or 5th gear… plenty of sections are 1st and 2nd gear only.

The 'driveway' to the family home
The first part of the road is hard packed gravel, white and seriously dusty when dry. The second part is rocky and quite rough. There are a couple of tricky sections which are slimy mud and steep and winding. Be also aware that the white gravel has quite a few sharp rocks sticking out of it which are potential tyre shredders. The last bit climbs into the mountains, is winding and at times not much more than a cobblestone goat track. Expect deep potholes, ruts, washed away sections and very narrow sections with two-way traffic.

So why did we take it? Well, because of the scenery! Not so much nature, which isn't bad either, but the people, the villages and the almost unbelievable culture shock. What we saw was seriously jaw-dropping. Images I would have expected to find in remote sections of Africa. Villages made up from a collection of huts in the middle of the jungle. Huts made from trees and palm leaves, no windows, no electricity. The huts are connected via a series of small tracks cut through the vegetation, no roads, no streets and no vehicles. My first culture shock moment was when I saw a young boy playing with an old tyre and a stick… an image I had until then only seen on TV from, again, Africa. 

When we stopped to take a couple of photos and have something to drink, the village stopped as well. People looked at us, clearly not knowing what to think of us.
One man approached us and started a conversation, Jeanette tried in her best Spanish to answer his questions but it became clear quickly that he didn't speak ordinary spanish. It was probably one of the many Mayan languages. Slowly but surely more people stopped to have a look at those strange people riding huge motorcycles. We probably were the talk of the town that day.

The chassis is somewhat bent, the front wheels on a
unhealthy angle and it tracked a bit strange too
The farther west we went, the more remote it became. I just can't help but coming back to Africa again and again. Even some of the landscapes reminded us of Ethiopia. Women carrying huge loads on their heads. Men collecting wood with enormous machetes. The people here are considerably shorter than we are, we must look like white giants to them… dusty white giants.

Cane is the main produce here and the old trucks carrying huge loads of them drop quite a bit on the road too. The cane is turned into pulp under their wheels. The result is a brown sticky layer and a very strong molasses smell. Parts of the road are being worked on, we think, and is therefore a single lane with two way traffic… we had to get off several times and wait for oncoming trucks to pass.

As we were in Guatemala during the holy week of Easter, we also stopped many times for processions. Religion is a big part of life here, as can be seen in the photos we made. The processions are colourful but at the same time very serious and sober. The kids in front of the procession were immediately distracted when they saw us and gathered round the motorcycles. The camera scared them away at first but when Jeanette showed them the screen on the back they all wanted to see it! They were touching the motorcycles, the panniers and learned that engines can be hot… one of them was smitten by Mike's Mexico sticker and tried to peel it off! That little guy now knows how to swear in Australian… :-) Mike filmed one of the processions and seeing the footage back was so sobering impressive that we embedded it in this post.

Wednesday is market day and that turns towns like Teleman into a huge chaos. People come from the mountains around Teleman in overloaded buses to the village. The market is held alongside the road, which therefore narrows to a track. The resulting traffic chaos is something I had never seen before. Being there was one of those moments that I had to pinch myself. Was this real? I had seen these surreal market chaos images on TV but being actually there is quite something else. Look at the helmet cam movie Mike made while we were struggling through this madness. Note that like everybody else we had to use both sides of the road, otherwise we would have still been there today :-)

Somewhere along the road we also suddenly found a fully dressed up Roman Legion… We must have looked as surprised at them as they looked at us :-) We have no idea why they were dressed up as Romans, I'm sure it had something to do with Easter but we have no idea why. I actually wonder if they knew themselves? Maybe it's something their ancestors had done as a joke and is still being done today?

This is apparently an acceptable way to transport people… in Guatemala that is. Count the number of hands to see how many people are in there...
Higher up in the mountains the road gets narrower and narrower until it's nothing more than a goat track. A steep goat track. A pig track perhaps as we saw quite a lot of them too. There are still buses on the road. Buses in this part of the world can be anything from small collectivos to buses that are at least 40 years old or even old cattle trucks crammed full with people. Have a look at how many hands are visible They have one thing in common, they are all overloaded… The collectivos and the 19 seater buses are the ones to look out for. Their drivers are mad and don't care about anyone. 
Hardly the kind of use Triumph had in mind when they designed their new Bonneville...

The dirt part ends just before Tactic and took us almost a full day. It was hard going and potentially very dangerous. The road is in places very bad, not least of all because of drivers like the truck pictured here. He had the wheels bouncing the whole way and at times as high as 1 metre from the ground! Imagine the rocks he dug up and spewed out the back! 

It was the hardest but also the best road we had taken in Guatemala! A top day. The scenery, the villages and the people we saw were amazing. I do want to add a word of caution though as this road is serious hard work and I would not tackle it on a touring bike or a cruiser. We had ground clearance issues and we were glad we had the Distanzias fitted in the mud and rock-crawl sections. We had some rain and there had been rain before, when it rains seriously here it becomes quickly impassable.

From Tactic, which has a supermarket, we rode south and camped near the Biotopo the Quetzal. The campground we had listed was closed, the other option didn't allow our bikes to be parked near the tent and we thus left. A little bit further we found Hotel Posada which allowed us to camp and park our bikes next to the tent. Problem there was that it wasn't quite level… about 45 degrees! We rode down and camped on a virtual level spot behind one of the cabins. 

It took me two days to write about this little part of our trip. There were so many impressions and images going through the little grey cells that had never been through them before that it took some time before they started to make sense :-) A great trip and a great day!