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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Over the Mountains and Through the Jungle, to Belize we go!

After we survived Oaxaca and its curse, we decided we needed some good quality beach time in order to fully recover.  Patagoniaorbust (yep, we are still together) had headed to the Pacific surf town of Puerto Escondido the day before, so after our car alarm was installed and found to be in perfectly loud working condition, we said goodbye to Oaxaca and headed west.  There are two roads from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido, both of which as we stared astounded at Google Maps, appeared to be tortuously windy.  Taking the advice of our local hostel owner, we elected to take the slightly longer, potentially less windy, better paved road through Puerto Angel.  We thought we had encountered dangerous curves in the States on Highway 1 in California and then again in Mexico on coastal Highway 200 out of Puerto Vallarta, little did we know, those paled in comparison to Highway 175.  After about the 30th complete steering wheel revolutions, and 2000 feet of elevation gain we were at the top of the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range.

Sierra Madre del Sur

Growing up in Montana and living in Alaska, I know mountains.  Not these mountains, these were Mexican mountains and the only similarities were their height and beauty.  Mexican mountains have towns and farms perched at the summit, at a respectable ± 7000 feet.  Corn crops planted vertically down the side, are intermingled with boldly colored flowers, set amidst lushly green jungle with a few pine trees scattered here and there.  Neat houses made of wood (a rarity in a concrete dominated Mexico) seemed to hang over the edge of the mountain, supported by a few wooden beams, laundry flapping in the stiff breeze.

Great view for laundry day!

We drove through a beautiful little town, San Juan del Pacifico, and wished we could linger there for a few days hiking, mountain biking, and getting our mountain fix.  But the beach beckoned and we continued.

We rejoined Joe and Kylee at Zicolete Beach in Puerto Escondido and settled in for a few days of pure laziness aka heaven aka white sand, turquoise ocean, cold corona, and snorkeling.  The only real work we did involved walking to Playa Manzanilla every morning to plop our butts down under some umbrellas and melding our collective culinary skills together to whip up delicious red snapper tacos, pineapple salsa, and fried plantains.  It was tough work.  

When we tired of the beach, heat, and humidity we packed up and hit the road for our longest driving day in Mexico, 407 miles to San Cristobal de las Casas, and back into the cool mountain air.  Way too many toll fees and too much gas later, we made it.  Arriving at Rancho San Nicolas on the outskirts of town that evening, it was cold!

Crammed in Suzie with Joe and Kylee cause it was too cold to eat outside

I am afraid to report that I have absolutely lost my Alaskan indifference to cool temperature.  No longer is 65 degrees a warm day.  In fact, I believe it only dipped down into the mid 40’s that night in San Cristobal, an average spring or fall day in Seward where I would normally be in a t-shirt making my way up Mt. Alice.  Instead I was in Mexico, in the camper huddled under the down blanket as close to Ken as possible, debating whether it was worth the effort to   light the heater.  Luckily we survived the frigid temperatures and set off the next day to explore San Cristobal.  Here the indigenous tribes have a much bigger presence and women dressed in brightly colored traditional blouses, black woolen skirts,  and two tightly plaited braids crowded the streets.  We visited the Mayan Medicine Museum, a fascinating (at least to me) display of the traditional methods and medicines used by the Mayan healers.  We then found one of my favorite places thus far.  A wine bar with cheap delicious Mexican, Argentinian, and Chilean wine that also served popcorn and tapas.

Anaka’s version of heaven

I actually could’ve stayed there for at least a week, but I don’t think everyone else had quite the same enthusiasm.

The next day we caught a collective (an old VW van to Ken’s delight) and headed to the Tzotzil village of San Juan Chamula, well known for its peculiar religious rituals.  As we hopped off the collective that cost each of us $1.68 each way, we were dismayed to see rows of tour buses belching out zip-off panted, fanny-pack belted, wide-brimmed hat wearing tourists.   We belined for the white stone church that sits at the head of San Juan Chamula’s zocalo, hoping to beat the crowds.  As we payed the 20 peso entrance fee, wafts of fragrant smoke and chanting floated out the door.  We entered into the barely illuminated interior, the floor carpeted with pine needles and flickering candles.  Statues of obscure saints lined the sides, candles on tables and candles on the floor (dangerously close to the dry pine needles) seemed to provide the lighting for the entire church.  Small groups of worshippers were huddled around their chosen saint, some kneeling in silence, some chanting, a few crying.  Combined it was a powerful scene.  Unfortunately, there were also groups of tourists, us included, far outnumbering those who had come to worship.  Any sense of spirituality was quickly replaced by the feeling that we were intruders peering into these peoples’ most private place.  We were merely curious bystanders here to watch the show.  It was a defining moment for the rest of our travels, and a concept I’ve struggled with in my previous travels.  What is the fine line that prevents tourism from becoming an invasive and disrespectful practice that might ultimately have a negative effect on the people and their culture?  As we continue on our journey we do not want to merely be the observers, making a spectacle out of someone’s every day life and practices.  Instead, we will strive to respectfully partake in their culture and way of life, not staring or comparing.  Some may call it responsible tourism, we think its basic human respect.

High rise church in San Cristobal

 

From San Cristobal we crawled at a painfully slow pace over a record number of topes (227 by our count) to Palenque, stopping for a refreshing dip in Agua Azul before arriving at Mayabell Campground.  As evidenced by the amount of tourists at Agua Azul and the next day at Palenque, we were back on the gringo trail!   That evening as we settled into camp we all eagerly listened for the first howl of the howler monkey.  Far off in the distance I heard a combination groan/burp/fart/howl, that almost sounded like a constipated donkey bray.  As these cries echoed all around us, we realized this was the infamous howler monkey.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get any sound bytes, but were entertained by a group of monkeys in camp the next day.

Baby howler monkey!

Palenque far exceeded our expectations.  We deftly evaded the persistent tour guides and the hordes of European tourists and along with our fellow intrepid explorers patagoniaorbust, we managed to discover and conquer every niche and cranny we could find.  Even imagining that we had found passageways that no one else had encountered and braving hordes of bats flying in our faces.  Actually, only Joe braved the lone bat, although it is debatable if it was a bat or a giant butterfly.

Obligatory ancient bathroom pic

From Palenque we headed to Campeche in a quest to find contacts (to replace the ones stolen in Oaxaca) and the makings for a traditional American Thanksgiving feast.  Campeche proved to be a quiet little city with a beautiful historic center.  That night instead of howler monkey cries, we were serenaded by an orchestra giving a free concert in front of the brightly lit cathedral right outside our hotel rom.  The next day we headed towards the Riviera Maya south of Playa del Carmen sans contacts and with the makings for a yummy albeit nontraditional Thanksgiving feast.  We pulled into the Xpu-Ha Campground set a little back from the perfectly white sand beach and found ourselves surrounded once again by Canadians.  Throughout Mexico, at every single campground, there has been at least one Canadian snowbird, and a glaring absence of Americans.  We admit were a bit apprehensive about the ‘safety situation’ in Mexico prior to the beginning of our journey.  That negative perception has been shattered.  Despite the incident in Oaxaca, Mexico has far exceed our expectations.  It is a beautiful, geographically varied country filled with friendly, welcoming people, delicious food, gorgeous beaches, towering mountains, and cultured cities.  Never once have we felt threatened or unsafe.  With a little common sense and travel know how, anyone can experience the amazingness that is Mexico, but I digress.  That evening surrounded by Canadians we enjoyed our version of Thanksgiving; pan fried chicken with gravy, instant mashed potatoes, green beens, corn, and a few bottles of wine.

Thanksgiving feast

The boys even put a Mexican twist on it, wrapping everything up in tortillas.  We enjoyed two days and nights at Xpu-Ha picking the brains of those Canadians, who between them probably had over 50 years experience RV’ing in Mexico and Central America and welcomed us young Americans in with wide open arms.

After Xpu-Ha, we based ourselves in Bacalar on the shores of the picturesque lake before crossing the border into Belize.

Lake Bacalar

More difficult days were spent lazing in the sun, paddleboarding, and cooling off in the freshwater lake.  We also managed to squeeze in a pickup soccer game and some impromptu Spanish/English lessons with the park groundskeeper.  Overall, Mexico was incredible.  We drove approximately 4,730 miles from Tijuana to Chetumal crossing deserts, beaches, oceans, mountains and cities and eating our weight in tacos, and we would do it again in a heartbeat.  Mexico we miss you already!  Check out our Facebook page for more photos.

On the Road Again

His body perfectly positioned in front of the door, with unblinking bright blue eyes he followed my every move.  ‘I know exactly what you are up to, and you will not get away with it,’ those unescapable eyes seemed to say to me.  And so I lured him outside, with promises of frisbees and chuck-its, quickly closed the door and hurried away to Suzie Skamper and Ken with tears stinging my eyes, miles of road in front of us and one very disappointed and pissed off Rio behind us.  I have outed myself, I am one of those people who are hopelessly enamored with their dog, giving them human attributes, thoughts and feelings (I swear Rio’s ‘human’ voice sounds exactly like Stewie’s on The Family Guy).  Leaving him that day in Spokane was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do so far on this trip.  Luckily, that brutal morning has led to almost two weeks of bliss.  Seeing old friends, reconnecting with the Pacific Ocean, and remembering the routine that is Suzie Skampering has reminded us every second of every day why we are doing this trip.

Columbia River Gorge

We left Spokane and clocked an easy day heading to Sammamish, WA to reunite with Kelda, a friend from my Missoula, MT days .  We toured her and her husband’s new home, and drank PBR in the hot tub.  Just like the good old days minus the hot tub, husband, and new home.  From Sammamish onward to Seattle and two wonderful days hanging out with my brother Seth, his wife, and our friends Nick and Shannon.  We continued on the couch surfing theme and after a day in picturesque Astoria (we unfortunately did not spot any Goonies shaped rocks) we headed to Portland and spent an evening with our newly married friend’s Kathryn and Adam.  Thank you to everyone for the wonderful hospitality, its always good to reconnect and especially fulfilling to begin our journey southward again with such amazing people.

Astoria, Oregon

As great as it was to visit everyone, we were headed towards one of the highlights of our North American portion of the trip, for me at least.  The Tillamook Cheese Factory.  For anyone who knows me well, they know I can subsist very easily on a very few things as long as those things include wine, crackers, and cheese.  Any combination of the above will keep me going for days.

We came, we saw, we ate a lot of cheese.

So it was with the highest of expectations that we pulled into the enormous complex that was The Tillamook Cheese Factory.  The hordes of RV’s, whining children, and pale legged tourists should have clued us into the tourist sinkhole that is The Tillamook Cheese Factory, but I will never speak ill of cheese. We whizzed through the self guided tour, Ken marveling at the complicated machinery and I at the drudgery involved in operating the cheese making machinery, until we found ourselves at the sample line.  After sating our appetites on trays upon trays of squeaky cheese curds, sharp cheddar, smoked, cheddar, and our favorite red pepper/jalapeno cheddar we were happy.  We could leave The Tillamook Cheese Factory knowing full well we had been taken for a tourist ride, but with some small measure of satisfaction that we had shown them….we had eaten our weight in cheese.  Unfortunately that night The Tillamook Cheese Factory struck again, Ken’s increasingly worsening lactose intolerance rendered Suzie practically uninhabitable and we decided that for the good of all his cheese intake would be limited from this day forth.

Numero uno beach sunset of the trip.

The next morning we headed to Newport.  Ken got his ocean and boat fix and we walked the docks and the historic downtown remarking at the similarities and differences between this port town and our hometown of Seward, AK.  As we were looking for the Newport Marine Science Center we stumbled upon something oh so much better, the Rogue Brewery.  I am going to have to amend my above statement and add really good craft brewed IPA to the list of things I cannot live without.  Although we have been doing our best to cook only in the camper and limit our eating out to attempt to stay within budget, we could not resist.  The Rogue Nation did not disappoint.  Not only did we nosh on some incredible beer cheese soup, a kobe beef brat and sauerkraut, we also sampled delicious beer.  We strolled back to the truck fat and happy, right past the Rogue ‘garage’ sale.  Here were cases of 22’s for a mere 20-30 bucks!  After much agonizing deliberation, we decided that Suzie simply did not have room for a case of 22’s despite the killer price.  Thirty miles down the road we were already kicking ourselves and chalking this up to one of the worst decisions we might make on the trip.

Suzie dwarfed yet again.

The next day lead to more spectacular coastal driving down Oregon’s Highway 101, into California and through the Redwoods.  Neither of us had ever been here and were completely speechless and awed by the silent, older than time, majestic behemoths that are these trees.  Wandering through them felt like wandering among wise old men and women who looked down on us, silently and sagely giving their approval.  That day was also truck maintenance day.  Time for an oil change and a transmission flush, something we had been holding off on even though we knew it needed to be done.  For at least two years Ken’s 2000 Ford Ranger has made horrible grinding noises everytime it has downshifted, grrrnnnkkkkkdddd (or something along those lines).  We’ve decided that ignorance is bliss and had not investigated.  During the oil change the mechanic tested all the fluids and presented Ken with a  white sheet of paper marred with different streaks of oily/greasy substances.  Ken took one look, said ‘is your finger dirty?’ and turned back to me in disbelief.  Another piece of mechanical/car engine knowledge has been added to my tiny repertoire.  Transmission fluid is supposed to be of a clear, red, thinnish consistency, our transmission fluid was thick, black, and dirty.  Good thing Oilcan Henry’s was having a $40 off sale on transmission fluid flushes!  Amazingly after that, the truck ran like a dream.  No more horrifying grinding noises on downshift, only smooth shifts and accelerations for Suzie from now on!

That evening we rolled into Clam Beach State Park in Humboldt County, CA looking forward to some nice beach camping.  We should have know from the parking lot bordered by twelve sandy campsites and the overabundance of tie dye in sight that we were not in for a peaceful night on the beach.  It turns out Clam Beach is somewhat well known among Humboldt Countians, travelers, and everyone in-between as a sweet place to score free camping, some “nugs”, and an overall good time.  A caveat, we are not adverse to any of the above, in fact we welcome the opportunity for any of them (except for the “nugs” Mom, I promise!).  We might have been the only suckers dumb enough to actually pay the $15 dollars to park next to a sandy spot with a picnic table and a fire pit and host a bevy of itinerant backpackers, road bikers and a creepy dude in a BMW all on 30forthirty’s dime!  We were able to enjoy a fire with a couple we met from Seattle who had a really amazing homemade wooden truck camper/topper, I unfortunately dropped the ball and didn’t snap a photo before dark.  The next morning we were rudely awoken at 07:40 by some good Samaritan who was walking through the parking lot announcing, ‘It’s 7:40, time to get the train rolling.’  Groggily we looked at each other wondering what the hell he meant, and tried to roll over for a few more zzz’s.  Did not happen and we ate some breakfast and were pulling out of the lot by 8:45, just as the park ranger was pulling in.  Now the almost empty campground made sense, despite the music playing till 3 am that morning,  everyone was way more savvy then we were in avoiding ‘the man.’

Highway 1 Northern California

We are now picking our way along the incredibly windy, narrow, cliffy drop off that is Highway 1.  We thought we had experienced some beautiful coastline living in Alaska, but this highway has blown it out of the water.  On to San Francisco and LA and a few more friends, and we should be across the border into Baja in under a week!  We are really looking forward to a few days of no driving, beach time, cheap gas (almost $5/gallon in California), free camping, and dollar tacos!