Soaking in Guatemala

San Pedro from Indian Nose

San Pedro from Indian Nose

After over a month of playing house in San Pedro, it was time for us to hit the road again, but not before getting together for one last celebration.  We hiked up the infamous Indian Nose with a couple we met who are headed to Uruguay in their Honda Element Ecamper, and had a bon voyage dinner or two with Patagonia or Bust, Overland the World, and the Long Way South.

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Indian Nose

Indian Nose

As we prepared for this trip, we read and followed numerous blogs, never realizing how important our own blog would become for meeting other travelers along the way.  It was incredible to connect with other overlanders and we hope to see them again on the road.

Admiring rigs

Admiring rigs

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Leaving San Pedro, we had two weeks to kill until we needed to be in La Ceiba, Honduras to catch a boat to the Bay Islands for some diving.  We pointed Suzie north towards Fuentes Georginas Hot Springs near Quetzaltenago.  We love hot springs.  So far we’ve traveled through five countries and managed to soak in every country except Belize.  We plan on continuing this trend as we head south.  Fuentes Georginas currently holds the prestigious title of Ken and Anaka’s most favorite hot springs (a title that changes with startling frequency).  Skirting Queltzaltenago on CA-1 we went up and over one of the highest points on the PanAmerican, at 10,334 feet, and drove into prime Guatemalan agricultural country.  Ken, having been born and raised in Amish country Pennsylvania, thought he knew what agriculture land looked like. IMG_1605 Neither of us were prepared for the near vertical fields carved out of the mountains by hand, irrigation pipe laboriously carried and connected, and the tiny concrete, mud and wood huts of the workers’ homes nestled between the fields.  To my horror a majority of the crops were onions, my nose wrinkled in disgust at the pervading scent in the air (I hate onions).  Luckily, the acrid scent of onions was soon mixed with the sulfury smell of hot springs.  As the road narrowed, we climbed steadily up the mountain through the fields of onions, radishes, and cabbages, and into the clouds.  We slowed to a crawl, sure that to our left was a bus-plunging cliff and afraid that around every corner a death defying Toyota pickup filled with farm workers would be hurtling towards us.  Regardless of the dangers surrounding us, we pulled up to the gigantic metal gates marking the entrance of Fuentes Georginas unscathed.

Fuentes Georginas

Fuentes Georginas

We parked Suzie and threw our suits on, ready for some soaking.  There are three different areas with pools in Fuentes as well as a few cabins available for the night.  The first area consists of three pools and a restaurant.  The first pool abuts the rocks where the scalding hot water cascades down, and was much too hot to soak in for any extended period of time.  IMG_1607We were content with the second pool and soaked for an hour or so waiting for everyone to leave so we could navigate Suzie into a prime parking spot for the night.  After a delicious dinner, we climbed back in or cold, clammy suits and set our sights on the pool we had passed as we entered Fuentes.  Tucked into the cliffs with a lone street lamp, a sliver of moon, and a few scattered stars to light the way, it appeared to be a steaming witches cauldron.  It wasn’t.  It was pure heaven.

Heaven in the daylight

Heaven in the daylight

The next morning we awoke to a deserted parking lot and went for a soak in the third pool.  Again, we had it to ourselves.  Sitting in the steam in the jungle, we looked at each other in disbelief.  We are really in Guatemala sitting in a spectacular hot springs in the middle of the jungle at 7,900 ft with a view of the tallest mountain in Central America (Volcan Tajumulco, 13, 926 ft).  True contentment.   IMG_1613

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Moving Day

We arrived in San Pedro on December 19th, a mere two days before the end of the world (aka the end of the 13th baktun of the Mayan calendar) and only five days before Christmas.

Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan

We rolled out of bed the next morning with one simple goal in mind, to find a house with secure parking large enough for two trucks.  Our plan was to rent a home in San Pedro for the next month with our faithful travel companies, Patagoniaorbust, and settle down for some serious language lessons and truck maintenance.  After five hours of trudging the streets, the task seemed more daunting.

San Pedro "street"

San Pedro “street”

Despite asking every travel agent, hotel, hostel, posada, and guesthouse we could find, we still did not even have the slimmest lead.  Everyone shook their head, “no, no su posible causa de 21 de Diciembre, Navidad, Año Nuevo, San Pedro se llena de turistas.  As we wandered around aimlessly hoping to stumble upon a magnificent mansion, a scruffy Mayan clad in filthy jeans, a once white t-shirt, and sandals came running towards us babbling about a house on the hill that was for rent.  Out of desperation, Ken and the Mayan hopped in Suzie and headed up the hill to check out this house, leaving us wondering if we would ever see him again.  An hour later he was back, limbs and truck intact.

View from our casa over San Pedro and Lake Atitlan

View from our casa over San Pedro and Lake Atitlan

The house was perfect and brand new; unfortunately he did not remember the Mayan’s name nor how to contact him.  Through a serious of random and strange events, that we have come to accept as an everyday part of overlanding, we were able to track down our Mayan, Clementine, who hooked us up with the owner of the home, Byron, and by the next day we were ready to move in.

New casa

New casa

Driving through the tight, vertical streets of San Pedro to our new home, I was seriously questioning the ability of our truck and camper to fit through the gate into the secure yard in front of the house.  Confident as always, Ken had no doubts.  An hour and half later, Suzie was stuck.

Stuck

Stuck

It turns out a 6 ½ foot wide camper, does not fit very well through a 6 ½ foot wide gate, especially when said gate is abutted by concrete pillars and off a typical narrow, steep Guatemalan road with no maneuvering room.  Over the next hour and half, despite numerous though miniscule attempts to turn and squeeze her through, she was still stuck.

Stuck, stuck

Stuck, stuck

Byron had called for Guatemalan reinforcements, and was planning on demolishing the existing gate in order to get the truck in.  The prospect of possibly inebriated (it was 12/21, a grande fiesta in San Pedro) Guatemalan’s swinging sledgehammers around Suzie was not acceptable. With some muscle power, a bit of rocking, and the sound of screeching metal, ‘POP’ she was in.  A quick assessment of the damage revealed torn tin on the back right corner of the camper and a broken roof clip.

Oops

Oops

The rest of our afternoon was spent unloading the truck while being serenaded by the sound of sledgehammers against concrete and tin.

Out with the old...

Out with the old…

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We were amazed and gratified that not only was Byron destroying part of his new home to accommodate a few gringoes with too big of a truck, his friends were gladly abandoning whatever festivities that they had planned for the rest of the day and quickly rebuilt a wider gate to accommodate us.

...in with the new

…in with the new

Over the next few days we took full advantage of our new home and large kitchen, whipping up a Christmas feast and taking in the Christmas and New Year fireworks from our roof.

Christmas feast

Christmas feast

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The aftermath of Christmas dinner….maybe waiting for Santa?

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The 65.5%

Although we are two months post-election and one year post the Occupy Wall Street movement, I’m assuming that a majority of those that read our blog are familiar with the percentages sweeping the United States these past few years: the 1% versus the 99%, the 47% versus the 53%.  While in Guatemala, we have been introduced to a different percentage, the 65.5% versus the 34.5%.   Again, I shall assume that most of our readers have never driven in Guatemala, for those that have, you might have an idea of what I am referring to.  According to nationmasters.com (a very reputable source, I know), only 34.5% of Guatemala’s roads are paved, leaving an astounding 65.5% of unpaved roads and making Guatemala 98th out of the random 172 countries listed, superseded by such world powers as Azerbaijan and the Republic of Macedonia.  In the three days after we left Lanquin, we drove approximately 150 miles of the 65.5% of unpaved roads.  One hundred and fifty miles doesn’t sound like much.  Let me assure you, it is at 10 mph.  One hundred and fifty miles of the most stunning, remote scenery that we have seen since Alaska.  One hundred and fifty miles driving over the highest non-volcanic mountain range in Central America, the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes.  One hundred and fifty miles of truck rattling, bone shaking, dirt roads.

65.5%

65.5%

Leaving Lanquin, we followed the advice of the Swiss owner of the Zephyr Hostel and pointed north, the completely wrong direction, but towards the reported beautiful Laguna Lachua National Park.  IMG_1304Laguna Lachua is nestled close to the Mexican border, a crater lake formed by a meteor and surrounded by pristine jungle.  After a night of show and tell with the local family whose field we were camped in and an enjoyable hike to the lake, we were ready to hit the road. IMG_1288 Instead of backtracking to Coban to get to Lake Atitlan, we collectively decided to head due west towards Playa Grande and Barrillas, arriving in San Pedro de la Laguna through Huehuetenango.  Our host had consulted various amigos and assured us that it was a mere five hours to Barrillas and from there only seven hours to Huehue.  We were also told that the calle (road) was malo (bad) at times, but also bueno (good) at times.  Regardless, we were ready for an adventure.  As we crawled through Barrillas seven hours later, we felt defeated by the 65.5%.  The Guatemalan road had again given us a lesson in humility.  For seven hours we had taken a beating as we pounded over rough, narrow, dirt roads. IMG_1314 Evidently in Guatemala there is no gravel, only dirt held together with large, sharp rocks.  Occasionally, on very steep sections, two narrow concrete pads wide enough for the tires had been laid, but those would disappear at the top of the mountain.  IMG_1326But, despite the punishment of the road, we couldn’t wipe the huge grins off of our faces.  Even though we were in an area that according to our maps should be sparsely populated, we drove through small village after small village.  Defying gravity, they clung to the side of the steep mountains.  IMG_1345Logically, one would imagine that such villages would be better off placed in a valley or near the bottom of the mountain.  Each mountain plunged into the next with steep, narrow, uninhabitable valleys.  Along the road trudged tiny Mayan men and women dwarfed by the loads they carried on their backs.  In Guatemala, for the poor indigenous population, nothing is easy.  Corn crops are planted on vertical slopes, planted and tilled with simple hoes.  Corn is husked, by hand, from the cob and laid to dry in the sun.  It is then either ground by hand with mortar and pestle or if the village has one, a simple machine run with a motor.  Once the corn is ground into cornmeal, tortillas are made and baked over an open hearth.  Wood for the hearth is harvested from the vertical slopes of the mountains.  Painstakingly chopped down with machete, bundled up and carried on their back using a forehead strap.  It was not uncommon to see stooped old men and young children, carrying their weight or more in wood.  Exhausted yet ecstatic we settled in for the night in a rock quarry outside of Barrillas, feeling as if this is what overlanding is all about.

Huddled together for protection against banditos.

Huddled together for protection against banditos.

 

As we left Barrillas, Ken heard a new rattling noise coming from the back of the truck.  We pulled over in the first spot in the road wide enough to accommodate two trucks (unfortunately also the town dump), and checked the truck over.  A bolt holding the suspension airbag in place was gone.  If we had ignored the rattling and continued driving, the entire air bag would have been destroyed and we would have been stuck in the middle of no where Guatemala  for weeks waiting for a new one.

Guatamealan roadside maintenance

Guatamealan roadside maintenance

Luckily, Ken was able to use one of the bolts holding the camper to the truck bed and we were able to safely continue.  We kept climbing higher and higher into the mountains and the road did not improve until we topped out in a forest of pine trees and were beyond ecstatic to see smooth, unbroken concrete.  IMG_1356 2After an entire day in low range, cruising at 45 mph felt like light speed.   When we checked the Garmin, we saw that we were at well over 9,000 ft in elevation.  Surrounded by pine trees, we felt as if we were back in Alaska or Montana.  That is until three donkeys trotted by loaded down with wood led by a spry man in shin length white pants, a black vest, black cowboy hat, and sandals: yep, still in Guatemala.  IMG_1354Amazingly we continued to climb up windy, narrow, mountain roads, until we were driving through the Cuchumatanes high mountain desert at 11,200 ft.  A new record for Suzie and both of us!  But, when one goes up, one must go back down and down we plunged towards HueHue.

Sky-high graveyard

Sky-high graveyard

The hotel in HueHue no longer allowed camping in it’s parking lot, so we decided to push on towards San Pedro, only a 2 hours drive according to the waiter at the restaurant.  Lesson number 1,674 of overloading was learned, when asking a local for directions and driving times poll at least three different individuals and add at least 2 hours of driving time to whatever estimate they give you.  We made it to the access road to Lake Atitlan just as the sun was setting and navigated down the extremely steep road arriving in San Pedro four hours later.

The Road

It snakes in front of us, curving and winding, its brown contrasting vividly with the lush green around it.  IMG_1160We catch the glint of sunshine on metal high above us out of the corner of our eyes.  As we watch the glimmer barrels down towards us at a rapid pace becoming obscured by the billowing cloud of dust that envelopes it.  Glancing at each other we swallow nervously and prepare ourselves.   IMG_1155Ken grips the steering wheel with two hands, knuckles white, brow furrowed in concentration.  I quickly scan ahead of us looking for any minute widening in the road.  As we creep along at 10 mph with an inch of the tires hanging off a sheer drop off, the roar of the truck approaching us reaches our ears.  Around the corner at 40 mph, barrels a Nissan pick-up rattling, noisy, decrepit.  Crammed in the bed without an inch of room to spare 25 Guatemalans sway with the pounding of the tires against the rough road.  IMG_1351In unison, they turn to stare with incredulous eyes at the gringoes braving their Guatemalan road.  We were making our way from Poptun, Guatemala to Lanquin and the famed Semuc Champey pools.  Overlanding blogs abound with tales of the punishing road to Lanquin, purportedly the worst road in Central America.  Having done our research and read every scrap of information we could find online, we had decided to forgo the Poptun to Fray Bartolome cutoff and instead headed south towards Rio Dulce on (according to the thick red line on our map) a carretera principal.  After a 20 miles of smooth blacktop the road turned into a manageable gravel road then into a construction zone.  A game of dodge the construction equipment ensued.  The construction zone had no flaggers, no pilot cars, no neon flashing lights pointing hapless drivers in the correct direction.  Instead, we were left to fend for ourselves, dodging and weaving between excavators, steam-rollers, bulldozers, and molten stretches of fresh asphalt.   Suzie – 1, construction zone – 0, and we triumphed unscathed.  As we left Fray in our rear-view mirror, we scoffed at those who had gone before us.  This road was a piece of cake, there aren’t even any topes on it!  Little did we know that the Guatemalan road still had a lesson or two to teach us.  Soon our freshly paved, wide road disintegrated into a narrow, pot-hole ridden, dirt beast, winding up the steep side of the mountain between us and Lanquin.  Suzie’s transmission got a work-out climbing the 40 % grade, navigating around the tight switchbacks.  Although acclimated to mountains having lived in in Montana and Alaska, the lush, green Guatemala mountains made my jaw drop.  IMG_1171Coupled with the children frantically waving at us and screaming “gringo, gringo!” at the top of their lungs and despite the treacherous road, we were patting ourselves on the back for choosing this spectacular route. That is until we reached the small town of Sebol.  Weaving our way through the market we noticed an inordinate amount of trash and stumbling drunk men flies wide open, cowboy hats cocked to the side which diverted our attention from the very important sign stating the hours of passage through the upcoming construction zone.  It was 3:00 and we were confident that we were going to make it to Lanquin within the next 45 minutes, it was only 11 miles away.  Pulling up behind the orange cones in the middle of the road, we were amazed that this construction zone actually had someone directing traffic, but confident that our wait would not exceed 30 minutes.  The road had a different plans for us.  IMG_1179We would not be allowed through until 6 pm.  Deciding to make the best of the three hour wait we set up our table and chairs, cracked open a few Gallos and began playing a round of Hearts.  IMG_1193Soon a crowd of children, curious villagers, and drunk men congregated around us, gawking, touching, laughing.  The great gringo spectacle of Sebol lasted for four and a half hours. IMG_1190Finally, at 7:30 and in the pitch black with no pilot car, in the thick fog, we broke our number one rule of overlanding and drove at night.  Not only were we driving at night, we were on a one lane rough dirt road with potential unseen hazards all around us on the purported worst road in Guatemala.  Finally we arrived in Lanquin and headed straight for a few well-deserved cuba libres.  The next morning, after a sound night sleep, we put Suzie’s four-wheel drive capabilities to the test, and headed to Semuc Champey.  No more 40% grade here, we crawled up and down 45 degree slopes, bumping from one rock to another.  IMG_1209Luckily Ken had spent the previous week in San Ignacio re-mounting the camper to the truck frame and despite the crack in the truck bed, Suzie survived in one piece.  The pools of Semuc where breathtaking, and we spent a few hours jumping from pool to pool, sliding down the limestone chutes and stretched our legs climbing up the mirador (lookout).  IMG_1241As we headed back to Lanquin from Semuc, we were confident that we had showed those nasty Guatemalan roads who was boss.  Up next we head to the remote Parque Nacional Laguna Lachua in northern Guatemala.