Saturday, December 1, 2012

Guatemala hates me.....

In Antingua we said goodbye to some of the rider's that we had been travelling with. Chris was heading to El Salvador and Allison into Hondouras. Justin and myself still had a couple of weeks to kill before our boat left Panama on December 13th, so we decided to stay in the cheap countries (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua) as long as possible and then make a made dash for Panama a few days before we set sail.

Two Canadians, Corey and Kurt, were also looking to kill a little time in Guatemala, so we all decided to head north up to Semuc Chempey and Tikal. Semuc Chempey is a National Park with incredible cave systems and underground rivers and Tikal is a very famous Mayan Ruin.

We left Antigua around noon and started heading north. Working off a GPS map given to us by fellow rider and Alaskan Native, Chris, we headed for highway 5. The road very quickly deteriorated into a potholed mess. However, after about 40 miles, the road smoothed out and turned into a broad two laned highway. Unfortunately, the two lane highway only lasted for about 10 miles and then turned into a very broad two lane gravel road. Apparently Highway 5 was still under construction.

The gravel was excellent! Now we were really adventure riding. I dug out my goggles and we started riding dirty. I practiced my counterbalancing on a seriously overloaded bike and managed to get plenty of roost. At one point I pushed it a little too hard in a corner and almost ate it. Luckily I captured it on my gopro.

After a while, the road terminated in a small village. On the other side of the village, the road denigrated into a single lane dirt track that lead up into the hills. It was beautiful! Solid dirt with plenty of climbing and steep turns! The road climbed a huge ridge and then descended into a valley on the other side.

In the valley we finally got back on pavement and tried to make up for lost time. We realized that we weren’t going to make it to Seumuc Chempey and decided to stop in Copan for the night. A few minutes later I noticed this family riding nearby:

I love this! It's so Guatemala. Kid up front with no helmet. Dad driving hell bent for leather. Mom riding side saddle on back holding the groceries. It's priceless!

As the day lagged on, we began to think that we might not even make it to Copan. We stopped at a few hotels along the road and checked out prices. After pricing out one hotel, I was pulled away only to have a German Shepherd decide to jump out of the gate and bite my leg! Luckily his teeth didn’t break my riding pants.

We eventually did make it Copan, just after dark, and found a hotel for 100 Q. As I was pulling of my panniers, I realized that my luggage rack was broken again! Apparently all of the off-roading abuse that I had subjected it to during the day had proved too much for my poor rack. This is the second time that the rack has broken. Everyone was telling me that the sub frame would break on my bike; so far it’s only been the rack. Luckily, as we were coming into town, I had noticed a muffler shop nearby.

The next morning I woke up early and visited the Muffler shop. I explained to the welder what had happened and what I wanted to do; then we got down to business. I used a file and sandpaper to clean the metal up, then the welder, Enrique, fired up his Lincoln arc welder, and ran a bead around the break.

After seeing the quality of his weld, I had him weld gussets on to the rack for good measure.

Then, just for kicks, I had him weld gussets onto the other, un-broken side of the rack. We cleaned everything up with a half broken angle grinder, zapped it all with a little black spray paint, then reattached everything and dosed all of the bolts with Blue Locktite. Then I had Enrique sign my gas tank.

In order to further secure my panniers, I borrowed a ratchet strap from one of the Canadians, and lashed them down even tighter. Hopefully, the reinforced rack and the lack of vibration will help prevent a further break.

One hour and seven dollars later, I was good to go! We busted out for Semuc Champey and the Zephyr Lodge.

After a little more dirt riding, we arrived at the Zephyr Lodge. Zephyr Lodge is an incredible tropical style hostel perched on a high shoulder of land overlooking a beautiful river valley with high mist covered cliffs.

The next morning we jumped into a diesel 4x4 and chugged up to Semuc Champey where we explored the cave system and swam in the famous pools. There are plenty of beautiful limestone caves in the area. The one in the national park is over 10km long. You are required to go with a local guide. Here's our guide:

Note the headlamp with about 10 candles stuck under the elastic. This is the Guatemalan idea of safety precautions. Essentially, the guide leads you into the cave and then you wade and swim upstream in an underground river, all by candle light! It’s extremely fun and more than a little dangerous! At several points we climbed up the limestone through waterfalls and then jumped down into 10 foot deep subterranean plunge pools. During the whole trip the guide left a bread crumb trail of lit candles.

Here's a picture of our little group:

After the cave we went and saw the pools. The local river actually plunges down underneath the ground while a cave resurgence forms crystal blue pools of aquamarine water on top of the subterranean flow. There are about 12 pools total before the river reemerges from under the ground. Here's me at the "mirador" overlooking the pools:

And here's where the river plunges underneath the pools:

We went down and swam in the pools and I took some video and photo underwater to test out just how tough my Olympus “Tough” camera was.

We planned on leaving the next day to head up to Tikal; however, when we awoke, Ed Zachtamundo and one of the Canadians had contracted the plague and we decided to stay at Zephyr Lodge one more day so that they could rest and heal up. The other Canadian and I went and checked out the church in the local village that dated back to 1540.

This morning we left Zephyr Lodge and headed for Tikal via Coban. It had rained all night and was still misty. The rough, rocky road that we had come in on was now slippery and muddy. The bikes were sliding around and we barely managed 10 mph getting back to the pavement.

We figured that everything would be hunky dorey as soon as we reached the tarmac. We were mistaken. For some reason the pavement was slick and greasy with the surface consistency of an ice rink. As I accelerated and braked, I noticed that my tires were sliding around and not getting any traction.

We slowly worked our way back towards Coban. As I was coming into a downhill inside turn, I braked and my wheels locked up and just slid! I realized that I was heading straight for a small concrete ditch and that I wasn’t going to be able slow down enough to make the turn, so I intentionally low sided the bike and began pavement surfing. Luckily, I had enough time to pull my left leg out from under the bike before I put it down. I managed to stand with my right foot on the engine and my left foot flat on the ground (it was so slick that it just slid on the pavement) and both hands on the bars as I slid into the corner. I ended up surfing it all the way down the road until it finally stopped.

As soon as I stopped, I jumped off the bike and did a frantic pat down to make sure I was okay. Then I sprinted away from the bike so I could snap some pictures for posterity. As I was finishing up my photo shoot, Justin and the Canadians came around the corner. I motioned them to keep going so they didn’t repeat my mistake and then picked my bike up.

Luckily, the damage was minimal. My ammo can had received the brunt of the crash and was a little dented in the corner with some small holes that the pavement grinding had caused. In reality, I think the pavement was more damaged than my ammo can as I left a long 30 foot gouge in the tarmac.

The left barkbuster/handguard took the rest of the impact and only had some light scuffs. The structural carbon fiber that my brother had used to make the hand guards actually ended up being tougher than my solid steel panniers, which says a lot!

We kept moving and about a mile later I was trying to slow down for a tope when I started skidding again and smacked right into the backside of a bus! Luckily it was a low speed impact and the bus didn’t even stop after I hit him; he just kept going like nothing had happened.

By this time I was getting a little angry. It was obvious that Guatemala didn’t like me. In the span of two and a half weeks I had been stranded in international waters, run over by a boat, watched my laptop commit suicide, accidently ingested about a pound of mary jane, off-roaded the bike until the luggage rack broke, gotten bit by a German Shepherd, road-surfed on greasy pavement, and ran into the back of a bus. It was time to get the hell out of Guatemala!

We made it to Coban and Ed Zachtamundo and I talked it out. We decided to skip Tikal and start heading south. We apologized to the Canadians and parted ways. A few hours later we were out of the rain and cruising for Honduras (or maybe El Salvador). We’ve stopped for the night in a little town called Chiquimula. Tomorrow we figure out if we want to go see the ruins in Copan, Honduras, or head straight for El Salvador.

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