Guatemala, a Love Story

Giving the Redwoods a run for their money near Tikal

Giving the Redwoods a run for their money near Tikal

Sorta. Like all love, it's had its ups and downs. By far though this has been my favorite country that we've visited on our journey southward.

Leaving out of Maggie's Lower Dover Field Station yesterday, from the heart of the Belizean jungle, Hans and Franz carried us at 4500 thumps per hour toward the Guatemalan border. Though I didn't voice it to TJ, I was nervous. Since leaving the States there had been full convoys of trucks stacked over their cabs with stuff, hauling cars that were filled to the headliners with stuff, ALL headed to Guatemala. The drivers deliver their payloads to seemingly desperate merchants (who must pay handsomely), drive back to the US and make the trip all over again.  I've tried to keep an open mind while on this trip, but I'll admit that this information led me to make two prejudgements: 

1. There is a great demand for vehicles and goods from the United States, and 

2. Hans and Franz may fit into that category, due to the fact that they are vehicles carrying goods from the United States 

At the border checkpoint, I anxiously scanned the multitude of faces smiling at our group. They all seemed happy to see us...but I knew they wanted Hans for parts. We had to leave our German companions briefly while we did the border document runaround and when we returned, I was relieved to see them still in one piece. As the customs agents waved and yelled, "Bien viaje!" we sped away. Phew! Glad we made it out of there! 

The roads and countryside were beautiful. Sweeping turns on flawless pavement lead us around little hills and fields. The sun was shining. The temps...perfect. It was a good day. As we motored on, I started to think that my initial assessment of this country may have been flawed. The sparks of my love for Guatemala had been found.

But my guard was still up. Our objective was to reach the Mayan ruins at Tikal via a secretive 4x4 road, only listed on select maps. It was only about twenty miles long but I anticipated that we'd be in for a long, hard, adventurous day. Our route soon lead us to where we'd depart the main road. Stopping briefly to lower our tire pressure and switch off the ABS brakes, we headed off the asphalt for the first time this whole trip. 

What began as gravel turned to dirt, which gave way to mud and jungle single track. As we dug our way deeper and deeper into the jungle, the more exotic it became. It was hard to appreciate however, because all my attention was being directed at staying on two wheels. The sections of easy dirt were being disturbed by deep muddy boggs at an alarming rate. Loaded as they were, Hans and Franz struggled to stay upright (and we were giving it our all to keep them that way). TJ spilled once. I spilled once and got stuck. We contemplated sixteen more miles of this and made the decision to abort. Shortly after rejoining the highway, it started raining. Not too hard, but enough to make me put on my rain gear and steam it out for the remaining miles to Tikal. All I could think was that this was adding insult to injury.  

While I was going over the logistics in my head of somehow putting both TJ and me on a bus to Costa Rica and strapping Hans and Franz to the top, I heard the words I'd been dreading over the intercom. "FRANZ IS DEAD! FRANZ IS DEAD!!" 

I was in the lead at the time and pulled back around to rejoin my comrades. TJ and Franz were on the side of the road and seemed to be alright. Franz however wasn't responding to his starter. The engine would turn and turn, but wouldn't engage. We looked around. We were in the middle of nowhere and the rain was still coming down. What a great time for our first breakdown?

Combustion engines require three components to work: fire, fuel and air. With these things in mind, we thought we'd check Franz's fuel system first. We pulled one of the fuel lines and engaged the starter. Nothing. Problem located. We immediately broke into our panniers and prepped for roadside surgery.

"Scalpel!" Said TJ.

I echoed in reply.

"Clamp!"

I repeated the word back to him.

"OEM fuel pump!" 

With everything buttoned back up, Franz was good as new. TJ and I had debated on purchasing that part initially and had gone ahead and bought it, citing peace of mind. With out party back on the road, my mind was indeed at peace.

What followd was a soggy and eerie night at the grandaddy of all Mayan ruins: Tikal. We arrived with only two hours before the park would close for the night and had only an hour of remaining daylight. Though we did get soaked with rain, we were able to see the main temples before darkness fell. Images that I'd seen in history books came to life in the twilight. I had never been so excited to feel damp and disgusting.  

I've waited all my life to see this

I've waited all my life to see this

Now I don't know what you may have heard or read about jungles but I'll tell you first hand that they are TERRIFYING at night. I did not know this beforehand and got the full experience camping inside the park. There are so many odd and threatening sounds that emerge from the foliage. You can't see what's making the noise. You don't know what it is. All you do know is that it's close and definitely knows you're there. Then the undergrowth moves and you pee yourself a little. If you don't belive me, look up the noise a howler monkey makes, put that YouTube video on repeat and try to sleep with it cranked on your nightstand all night. I can only describe it as a cross between a bellowing pride of lions and a pack of Satan's snarling dogs from hell. Needless to say, I didn't get a good night's rest at Tikal National Park.

Our German companions at the campsite

Our German companions at the campsite

On our way to Rio Dulce today, it was Hans' turn to misbehave. As the day went on, his rear brakes became spongier and spongier until they were absolutely non existent. Two breakdowns in two days. Thanks Guatemala. Even though your people are nice, your scenary is great and you've got some of the best historical monoliths on the planet, you're really testing this whole "me loving you" thing. Pulling over, we quickly found the culprit: a small hole in Hans' rear brake line. We didn't have any extra brake lines in the boxes, so we got back on the road. 

Nearing Rio Dulce, I saw a hand painted sign on a tree that read "Taller Mechanico por Moto - 400 mts"  I pulled up to a house with two four wheelers, a beat up late 80's Honda sport bike and a myriad of other motorcycle pieces strewn about on the front porch/driveway. The front door was wide open and inside the house was dark and quiet. 

Everything told me that this was a bad idea, but honestly every other motorcycle mechanic we'd seen thus far was about on par. I had just hoped that we wouldn't have to resort to testing one of them out. I called out and a girl came out of the doorstep. When I asked her if I was in the right place, she confirmed that I was, retreated into the house and returned with her whole family. A middle aged man with gold capped teeth approached me and announced that he was a motorcycle mechanic.

Time to fix Hans

Time to fix Hans

My mind had a very narrow view at this point. It basically told me that this was a waste of time. This guy wasn't going to be able to help me. He probably didn't even have the part. This whole situation is sketchy. We should leave.

Swapping out the brake line with Terrance

Swapping out the brake line with Terrance

Oh how wrong I was! As we identified the problem, the man directed the girl to go to a nearby shed and called out tools to a small boy who had now appeared in the front yard/workshop. By the time we had gotten my faulty line off the bike, the girl had returned with three different used brake hoses of various sizes. We selected the closest one and in no time Hans was mended. The whole process took about 30 minutes and cost the equivalent of about $30 USD. I was amazed at how well it all worked out! Also, the mechanic's name was Terrance and his whole family was friendly, helpful and welcoming. Damn my stereotypes.

The marina at Tortugal 

The marina at Tortugal 

Our day terminated in Rio Dulce, a busy little town on a lake. We left Hans and Franz with local caretakers and took a water taxi to our accommodation for the evening at Hotel La Tortugal. It will come as no surprise that the area here is amazingly beautiful and the people are so very friendly. This is why I'm doing this trip. It's adventure. It's discovery. It's the people you meet and the places you go. We drove thirty-five hundred miles to get here and I love this place.