Guatemala – Part 1

Up bright and early, I rode the fifteen miles to the Guatemalan border at La Mesilla. The final stop on the Mexican side was at customs and immigration to cancel the vehicle import permit (and get my $300 deposit back) and get an exit stamp on my passport. Both of these steps were very easy. What was surprising to me was that both of these processes were carried out in buildings around the corner from where I parked the bike and there were no checkpoints or any officials by the side of the road. Once I’d processed out, I could have just turned around and gone back into Mexico illegally and no one would have known. I’m not sure why anyone would do that, but it seems a very porous system. I’m just saying, is all.

The next surprise was that the Guatemalan border was a couple of miles away. I rode through a no mans land and arrived at a teeming open air market with a big Welcome To Guatemala sign. Again there was little on-street security presence and I’m not sure I would have been stopped if I had ridden through.

First up was I had to get the bike “fumigated’ This involved some guy with a canister backpack barely spraying some mystery liquid on the wheels, making as little effort as possible. Next I found the immigration office among the hawkers’ market stalls and got my passport stamped. After that the customs office was hidden among more stalls fifty meters down the road so off I went to get the bike paperwork done. The customs office was being renovated so I conducted my business in a racket of sawing, hammering and drilling.

It was very chaotic but relatively fast and all above-board. There wasn’t a hint of corruption at any point so the whole thing was relatively painless. All paperwork done, I was officially in Guatemala and Central America!

One America Down, Two To Go!
Hectic Border Scene

The first mile or so beyond the border was through an open market on both sides of the street. I wound along the narrow street and the milling crowds. The only thing I can compare it to is like when the cyclists in the Tour De France go through those narrow mountain villages and people surge all around them. Thankfully, after a few minutes of this, I made it out of the crowds and diesel fumes and onto the open road. I use the term open road loosely. Even though Mexico was just few miles back, the change in road condition and traffic behavior was immediate and substantial. The road was narrower, less well surfaced and with a lot more potholes. As for the drivers, well Mexico felt like Switzerland in comparison.

For the first fifty or so miles the road ran alongside a river in a deep ravine, with mountains towering over me on each side. The road was two lane and pockmarked with potholes, speed bumps, and occasional patches where the asphalt gave way to dirt sections. All this wasn’t bad in itself but the behavior of other road users was beyond belief.

Cars would regularly speed by me, overtaking into blind curves and crests, seemingly without any concern that there might be a vehicle approaching form the other side. As well as that the average speed on this two lane road was much higher than was advisable. I was running at a cautious fifty MPH at the best of times but cars and trucks shot past me like a it was a four lane motorway. At one point, when I was in the middle of overtaking a truck when some lunatic decided to overtake me and the truck at the same time. All this on a narrow, two lane road. Clearly, I needed to adjust to this new and wild traffic system.

Of the bad drivers, the worst were the “Chicken Bus” drivers. From reading internet accounts before arriving here I always though the Chicken Buses were lumbering, overloaded contraptions. Not so in my experience. The Guatemalan variety were old school buses repainted in gaudy color schemes and go fast stripes. I’ve moaned about their Mexican cousins before on this blog, but these guys were the fiercest I’d seen yet. They would overtake me at high speed, almost running me off the road in a cloud of diesel smoke only to stop a few hundred meters later to hustle off passengers and shove on new ones . At this point I would overtake them only to have them bearing down on me like a freight train a few kilometers later. It was interesting to watch how they slammed to a halt, hurried passengers off through the back door, and shoved new ones on through the side door, and then screech away like drag racers until the next stop. I couldn’t believe such large vehicles could be made to handle like a sports car, but quickly learnt to give them a wide berth whenever I saw them looming in my mirrors.

The Chicken Bus – My Sworn Enemy

I’d gotten and early start and had hoped to put in a good two hundred mile day. However, the need for constant on the road vigilance among the motorized mayhem was wearing me down, so after eighty miles I gave myself permission to stop and take the rest of the day off while I adjusted to this new reality.

Town Plaza Traffic
Market Later In The Evening

The next day I continued on, up and over the Western Highlands of Guatemala. Thankfully traffic was lighter up in the mountains, but the bike started acting up again. Several hundred miles back in Acapulco the idle speed dropped and I thought I had fixed it. But now I was going up close to ten thousand feet and the idle speed shot up to nearly three thousand revs. My Suzuki is fuel injected, which means altitude shouldn’t affect how the engine runs, but the engine started sounding much different at these heights. I didn’t notice any great degradation in performance, but the engine tone clearly sounded rougher as well as the idle problem I mentioned earlier. But the bike kept soldiering on so I concluded it was more of an annoyance that anything else and looked on this change in performance as a sort of a make-shift altimeter. The higher I go, the weirder the bike runs.

Up in The Highlands
Mountain Village

Besides, I had more important things to worry about, namely the continuing pandemonium on the roads. As I descended from the mountains into the heavily populated central valley, traffic got heavier and the craziness returned.

Lowlights of the day included children at roadside stalls running out in front of me in an effort to get me to stop and check out what they were selling. A short while later I was on a four lane road which had been narrowed down to two for road works. An oncoming car decided to overtake and even though my bike is lit up like a Christmas tree with daytime running lights and auxiliary LED lights. He just kept charging ahead in my lane. I moved over onto the narrow shoulder to avoid him but in doing so I clipped a marker barrel. I didn’t even see the barrel because I was focused on making a gap between me and the idiot blasting though a couple of feet to my left. Then I heard a loud bang, and saw the barrel rocking back and forth in my mirrors. Fortunately the side case just glanced it and at no time did I lose control. I stopped a little later to check everything and from the slight scuff marks on the side cases, it was just a very light graze. If I had pulled over further it could have been much more serious. This was the closest call in the five thousand miles I’ve done so far.

The strangest part of all this is that there were traffic police parked on the side or the road every few miles, much more so than in Mexico or the US, but doing not much of anything apparently. And all too often, I came across carnage from recent accidents. Not surprising really, but I’m just glad nothing bad happened to me or that I didn’t witness any accidents first hand.

Sad Sights Like This Are All Too Common

Now, after ranting for most of this post, I have to say Guatemala is a wonderful country and I’m happy to be here. I finally arrived in the lovely city of Antigua. Update on my time there and the rest of Guatemala is in the works.

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2 Responses to Guatemala – Part 1

  1. Cindy Monroe says:

    Conor, This all sounds very harrowing and dangerous. You are running rich at high altitude (which I’m sure you know). Your MAP/oxygen sensor should be compensating for this but obviously isn’t, so it’s likely gone bad. I had to replace mine once–if it’s not working, it will create awful idling problems, even at sea level. Ride safe. Cindy

    • Thanks for the tip Cindy. I’m back down at sea level now and the bike is running much more smoothly. However I’ll check out the sensor as part of the service the bike will get once I’m in Costa Rica. The bike has been put through a lot of abuse in the last few months so I’m going to check every nut and bolt

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