Lost In the Fog
For some reason I guess I'm not destined to sleep much in Mexico. The little hotel was great but a dang mosquito got in the room and I couldn't get it for anything. It landed in my ear canal randomly throughout the night, and some very late hotel arrivals came in, banging on the steel gate at some point in the night. I got even by opening my door in my underwear and staring at them.
I was up and on the road by 8:30 after triple checking my passport, Mexican paperwork and all the other foofooraw necessary for the border. Comitán was a nice town and I would have stayed another day but I wanted to break the mental barrier of getting into another country. Guatemala lay an hour and a half away on MX 190, with Ciudad Cuauhtémoc the last Mexican town on the way. The weather was beautiful and the air a bit chilly. Far on the horizon I could see monster cloud formations that I hoped would magically vanish during the day.
Ciudad Cuauhtémoc. Move along, nothing to see here...
Ciudad Cuauhtémoc is also where you check out of Mexico and the process was fairly simple and straightforward. Except that the computer system was down in the Immigration Office. For about 30 minutes I stood outside, after checking the bike out from the Aduana Office and getting my deposit credited back. A lonely dog spotted me and came over with the biggest smile on her face, then laid down by my feet and waited with me until the system came back on. Without the extra delay of 30 minutes, checking out would have been about 15 minutes total.
From the Aduana office it's a few kilometers to the border, signaled by a sudden conglomeration of roadside shops and general insanity on the Mexican side.
I pulled up to the border at La Mesilla, and saw a set of red cones with no one there, so I bypassed them and parked nearby. A money changer came up and we did business, swapping pesos for quetzals. I'd forgotten to get rid of a pocket full of coins in Mexico and he didn't want them, so I'll still jingle when I walk in Guatemala.
A few minutes later he returned and to my surprise gave me additional money. Apparently I had given him a bit more than I thought and he'd seen the mistake. What an honest man.
The moneychanger pointed out that the red cones were where the fumigation process was, so I rolled the bike backwards into the cone area and the bike was sprayed while I chatted with a guy observing. The price wasn't posted, but I'd read somewhere it was 11 quetzals and I handed the attendant two of my new pre-owned 10 q bills, but when he pushed me the papers to sign he gave me back 19 q. So for me it was 1 q for the fee. Weird.
Next was the Inmigracion office, where I stood for a while at the empty counter. Eventually a grumpy man appeared from a side room wiping food off his face and taking my passport without looking at me. In a bit he returned a form for me to fill out and then pointed me to the Aduana next door.
I rode the bike 20 feet over and parked, a crowd of people staring at the bike. Right off the bat, the Guatemalan people looked very different than the faces of Mexico, the women in traditional garb wearing muted earth-tone colors such as maroon, dull green and mustard. Quite a different palette than bright Mexico, but just as beautiful.
At the Aduana window I presented my paperwork, handing several pieces including my still folded title in it's official envelope. Apparently this offended the clerk who tossed it back to me and changed his attitude. It was not intentional on my part, but just part of juggling papers, jacket, helmet, tank bag and wallet. I carefully opened it and passed it through the bars to Mr. Offended. After a while, he was finalizing my papers and about to hand it all back, pointing to the bank office with its black suited, 12 gauge pump wielding guard at the door, when the computer system went down. He shrugged, took my paperwork and went back into another area to watch a soccer game on tv.
While I waited for about 20 minutes, an SUV pulled up with a gringo and his guide/friend from Mexico. He had driven from Washington though Mexico alone, meeting his friend and then heading for Antigua. We had a long conversation while waiting for the system to come back up, and about an hour later the process started again.
Finally my paperwork came through the window, I was allowed into the tiny, air-conditioned bank by the guard and paid my 160 quetzals, back into the heat, receipt back to the window, Mr. Not-So-Offended-Anymore going out to slap a sticker on the bike and wish me well, then a final inspection by the gate guard and I waved goodbye to the guys and rolled into a different world.
There is no mistaking that you and Toto aren't in Mexico anymore. The people are different, the colors are different, the trucks and monster buses are different. La Mesilla was a bit of chaos. Shops lined the streets, thick with people and traffic. Toyota pickups with the rear bed loaded with standing room only crowds of people, so many that the rear end is so low that the front wheels seem they'd lift off the ground were everywhere. Add a couple hundred three wheel tuk-tuks driving crazily and welcome to Guatemala.
The road into the country from La Mesilla is narrow, twisty and full of traffic, not to mention potholes, but it leads into an absolutely stunning set of mountains, with very steep and narrow canyons coated with dense vegetation all the way up into misty clouds. As with Mexico, it's really difficult to find any place to stop for a picture. The views are seen in brief moments between brush and traffic. Stopping anywhere on the road to take a photo is dangerous with the constant trucks, buses and cars on the narrow shoulder-less roads. It's frustrating as hell to see such scenery and not be able to capture it. But trust me, it's great.
I was captured by the different dress of the indigenous people, the landscape, the roaring muddy rivers of red or brown and the deep, steep mountains with waterfalls. All this seen in brief glimpses since the road required major concentration for curves, vehicles and serious potholes. A couple of local men had told me the road was very rough and it would take a while to reach either Huehuetenango or Panajachel. They were correct.
By the time I did reach the turnoff for Huehue, my initial destination, the day still felt early and it seemed a bit foolish to not head on for Panajachel. I was getting tired from the intense ride, dodging oncoming cars and buses who weave back and forth across the road to avoid potholes and water. The drivers in Guatemala lack the courtesy of Mexico, driving aggressively, refusing to budge or make room when passing, trying to block you from lane splitting and more. It's a different game than in Mexico.
I grabbed a piece of grilled chicken from a vendor at the turn for Huehue, and then headed on for Panajachel, about an hour and a half away according to my myriad apps. My Garmin refused to cooperate, showing no towns or information in Guatemala whatsoever even though I'd paid for Central and South American maps. Defaulting to phone apps were the solution and a good one. Garmin, you suck. Even Charlie would agree.
The roads continued to stress and amaze, but became so bad in areas it would have been better to just be on dirt. Seriously. The bad part is that cars, trucks and semi's are all swerving into the oncoming lane to avoid potholes and multiple times I came close to a hit. At one bridge crossing they were doing repairs, which consisted of cutting out bad concrete with a saw and simply leaving an open 24" x 24" hole to the river below. It was insane dodging them, as they were all over the bridge and would easily swallow a front wheel.
A day of this!
After a while the fatigue set in. Elevations went up to 10,000 feet and temps down to 50º. I'd been lucky and able to skirt showers most of the day, but the cloud cover got thicker and thicker, eventually to the point where visibility was almost zero, yet the pothole and truck dodging continued.
About an hour away from Panajachel and Lago Atitlan, the dense fog suddenly became torrential rain. I didn't have time to really button up or put on my rain pants as there were no safe places to stop and in 5 minutes everything was soaked. My previously waterproof jacket leaked and my sleeves were full of water which pooled around my elbows and I felt the cold of water on my back and stomach. So much for an expensive motorcycle jacket. I've never had one that didn't eventually leak.
I finally found a gas station to pull in where I could check my phone and see where I was. Guatemala has no road signs and you never quite know where you are. The rain was coming down so hard I just couldn't make myself head back into it, despite already being soaked. After about 30 minutes it slacked a bit and I continued on. Roaring waterfalls of red water and mud spewed off the hillsides and onto the road in places, the ditches overflowing across the roads and as I entered towns, riding through foot deep water rushing down the steep streets.
In the town of Solola the fog was so thick at moments I couldn't even see street signs. I didn't know how I'd find the hotels in Panajachel if it got worse. Seriously. Continuing on the road down the mountain for Panajachel and Lago de Atitlan, the clouds lifted some as did the rain. I got a brief glimpse of the lake which was buried in fog.
Soaked as a wet rat when I rolled into Panajachel, I finally found an inviting place to stay. Dripping wet, I entered the office and paid my quetzals, unsure what the rate translated to in USD, but all I wanted was to get warm and dry. The girl running the place made me an awesome mug of hot coffee and brought it to the room which got me warmed up and feeling cozy pronto.
Looking forward to getting a view of Lake Atitlan and the volcanoes in the morning!