Day 34 – Granada, Nicaragua

I was expecting a certain amount of aggravation and time wasted in border crossings, particularly in Honduras and Nicaragua.  But the ordeal getting the bikes into Honduras was beyond anything I could have possibly anticipated.  It was unbelievably ridiculous.  We left our hotel in Rio Dulce early so that we could visit nearby Casa San Felipe before making for the Guatemala/Honduras border at Corinto.  We arrived at the large brand new aduana complex at Corinto at noon after painlessly getting our Guatemala exit stamps.  It was a different border environment than the Mexico/Guatemala border entirely.  There were no beggars, transmitators (helpers), or currency exchangers.  There was a large empty sterile parking lot, freshly mowed lawn, and several immaculate buildings, most of which appeared to still be waiting for occupation.

We were directed to park our bikes in front of the vehicle inspection office.  Next I presented our passports and vehicle titles to the agent at the aduana window.  He went outside to match the VIN number on the documents and our bikes.  I was actually thinking that maybe this would be easy.  I was expecting a certain amount of corruption.  I had read acounts on the internet where people had paid anywhere from $20-$30 without getting receipts or any answers to as to what they were actually paying for.  The whole process was supposed to take perhaps 2 hours.  The posts I read on the internet also said that the customs officials would happily take whatever you had in your wallet.  So we had prepared ahead of time and only had about $20 each in our dummy wallets, plus a total of about Q200 between us.

The first sign of trouble came when the customs agent asked us for 1000 Lempira, which is about US$50, before the process could even get started.  I asked if this was all I would have to pay to get the temporary vehicle import permits for both motorcycles.  He said that that was only the fee here in Corinto, and that I would have to follow a random truck driver who happened to be there at the same time as us to Puerto Cortes where I would have to pay another US$77 to get the actual permits.  I couldn’t imagine why I couldn’t get the permits right there at the customs office.  Why would I have to pay L1000 here at the border, getting no documents in return, and then have to drive 65 km to Puerto Cortes, following a randam truck driver, to get the actual documents?  I thought surely this was some sort of scam.  I would follow this truck driver down some dark alley where his buddies would jack us and then everybody involved would share the spoils.  I insisted that all we had was $42 and Q200 and that I wanted the permits in Corinto, not Puerto Cortes.

The customs agent made some phone calls.  He said he was trying to get authorization to let us cross for less than L1000.  He told us to wait to see if we could get clearance.  I figured he was trying to get those higher in the bribery pyramid scheme to let us “only” pay what we had in our wallets.  We had been told by another gringo (with Guatemala plates on his car) that in the past he had paid $20 and been given all the required documents right there in Corinto.  Another driver said he had previously paid a $10 fee plus an $11 bribe to get through.  I still coudn’t figure out what the L1000 was for, other than the right to cross the border.  It didn’t help that no one working in the customs office spoke a word of english.  They would only speak Spanish, and they spoke it fast.  Still, I understood well enough what they wanted: L1000 Lempira now and US$77 more in Puerto Cortes.  And who knew if that was the end.

We waited about 2 hours before the customs agent finally came and told us that there was nothing short of L1000 that would get us across.  I said we didn’t have it.  I told him we were students without much dinero, hoping he’d take pity on us.  He came back about an hour later.  He told us that at 6:00 PM, the border closes and the police quit manning the gate.  He said that the road block prevents cars, but not motorcycles from getting across at night.  He told us to wait until 6:30, and then ride our motos across the border under the cover of darkness.  It was then that I realized for the first time that maybe he was actually trying to help us.  Could it be that there was actually nothing in it for him?  He had certainly turned down our “offer” of $42 and L200.  Wouldn´t a corrupt official at some point pocket the money and let us through?

After having already waited over 3 hours and makiung zero progress, we decided to go for it.  We would wait another 3 hours until 6:30, and then make a run for the border.  I asked our sympathetic border agent if we would have “problemas con las policias”.  He told us that $10 would be enough to avoid problems. “Corrupción” was his exact explanation.  Our plan, then, was to illegally enter Honduras with our motorcycles and hope that we wouldn´t get shot trying to sneak across at night and that we could bribe our way out of any difficulties. 

It occurred to me that maybe this was all a scam.  What if the border agent and the police were in cahoots and they´d have a check point a few kilometers inside Honduras where they would impound our motorcycles unless we paid huge bribes?  Maybe we´d never see the bikes again.  Still, I thought we´d be in the same position even if we paid the L1000 because we wouldn´t get any official papers after paying that either.

We waited until everything shut down.  Then we suited up and made a run for it.  It was a short lived dash for freedom.  The intelligence we had received from the border agent was wrong: the border crossing was manned.  And not just by a couple of police officers, but by 8 or 10.  Also, the road was blocked from one side to the other – it would have been hard to get around in the ditch with the bikes even if it had not been manned.  We stopped the bikes and I asked if we could pass.  They said the border was closed until 6:00 AM the next day.  I asked if there was any possible way to pass tonight.  Could I pay the fee right there and then?  “No es possible”.  I explained that we needed to get to Puerto Cortes to obtain permission to bring the motorcycles into Honduras.  Would we be allowed to cross in the morning without permission?  I was told that we needed to get a “custodian” in Corinto first.  I asked what the purpose of a custodian was, but the language barrier proved too great, and I didn´t understand.
 
Thwarted after waiting at the crossing for over six hours, we left our bikes parked up against the chain across the road and went to buy some food from a stand half in Guatemala and half in Honduras.  Would we ever make it all the way into Honduras?  As we were discussing our options, a friendly traveler from Honduras who spoke fluent english overheard our predicament.  He had a conversation with some of the policemen who were on break on our behalf.

Apparently it is required by law to pay a custodian L500 for an escort to the immigration office in Puerto Cortes.  It seems that the custodian can be just about any Honduran.  Because there are two of us, we have to pay L1000, even though we only require one custodian for both of us.  So the L1000 fee to follow a random truck driver to Cortes hadn´t been a scam after all – it was official government policy!  He would have vouched for us at the border that we were actually going to report in at the immigration office in Cortes.

We couldn´t get back into Guatemala because we had stopped for our exit stamps.  We were caught in no man´s land.  The only thing to do was to
sleep back at the customs office.  We rode back to the where we had been sitting all day and pitched our tents right next to the customs office.  At 6:00 AM when it opened, we would be the first ones served.  I´m not one for camping to be the first in a line up.  Not even for the opening of Lord of the Rings would I do something like that.  Who would have thought I would camp at the Honduras customs office for the priviledge of paying L1000 first thing in the morning so that a custodian could escort us to where the real process would take place in Cortes?

Little did I know that the hassle was just beginning.  It took an hour to get underway for Cortes in the morning.  We had to get forms stamped (for another $6) and a number of forms filled out.  We didn´t see any of them – they went into an envelope that would travel with our custodian.  It turned out that our Custodian was a friendly mute guy who we think works for the vehicle inspection office.  We think this because when the uniformed officer went for siesta the previous afternoon (and didn´t return), the mute guy was waving trucks through, and occaisionally looking in the back.

I thought he´d get into a car and we would follow him.  But then I realized that he would ride as a passenger on the back of my motorbike.  With no helmet.  He must have lept at the chance to blow off a morning of work to escort us to Cortes on the back of a KLR650, a novelty of a bike for Central America.  I still think the whole process is a bit unbelievable.  We were paying L1000 for a muchacho to ride on the back of my motorcycle to Cortes.

We got to Puerto Cortes just before 8:00 AM.  We were greeted by a friendly gentleman who spoke good english.  He said he liked to help the english speaking travellers with the immigration procedures.  At first I thought he was a “helper” looking for a tip.  But in hindsight I think he actually worked for the government and was just being friendly.  He told us to be patient.  He thought it would take at least 5 hours.  We had already waited a day, what was another 5 hours?  The process had to wait a bit to get going though.  By 8:30 there was still no one in the office that we needed, even though it was supposed to open at 8:00.  By noon, they were still not done.  And nothing would happen until 1:00 PM, because everybody left for lunch and the office completely shut down.

We would end up sitting outside the office in Cortes until almost 3:00 PM.  They took off our license plates and made copies.  They copied our passports and our vehicle titles.  On two occaisions, separated by several hours, I was asked to go the bank down the street to pay various fees (which actually amounted to $77 in the end).  We had to sign one form.  Finally, they gave us our temporary vehicle import permits.  It had taken the better part of two days to get them.  They gave us receipts for every fee that we had paid. 

It was then that I realized that the problem was not that the border officials were corrupt: it was that they were not.  I would gladly have paid $20 with no explanation as to what I was paying for to get through in an hour or two.  Instead we had to deal with a horrendous bureacracy that would have worked much more efficiently had it been corrupt.

Luckily the crossing into Nicaragua was wonderfully corrupt.  I had two kids helping me.  Here is an example of how it worked: they told me to pay the man behind the glass $26 ($13 per moto).  I took $11 (which was all I had left in my dummy wallet at that point) and handed it to the man.  The kids nodded.  The official pocketed the money.  No receipts or explanations as to what the fee was for were given.  Our passports passed to the next official.  They jumped a stack of 50 passports from two tour buses.  They were stamped.  Forms were were filled out.  The whole process, from start to finish took less than an hour.  I´m not sure what I paid for.  I had $20 in my dummy wallet when we started and Ted had $30.  Plus we had some Cordobas.  They took it all.  I don´t know how much the kids profited from us.  I don´t care.  The process was like a dream come true compared to entering Honduras.

We blew through Honduras and Nicaragua in a couple of days.  We spent last night in a cheap hotel in Granada, with the motorcycles parked right inside of course.  For supper we went to the most expensive restaurant we could find – a fancy hotel with an outdoor dining room overlooking central park.  The food was awesome.  I had two pina coladas and a glass of 12 year old Flor de Cana.  The total bill came to about $20.  I love Honduras and Nicaragua for the fact that if you have $20 in your wallet, you are rich.

There are some new pictures at www.kodakgallery.com.  Use tysonbrust@yahoo.com and password klr650.

Day 31 – Rio Dulce, Guatemala

On Saturday morning we met up with a fellow KLR650 rider from Guatemala city, Enrique (Kike) Latona.  Kike had spotted Tom and his KLR at a gas station a few days before in Guatemala city and gone up to talk to him.  Tom then passed his email address onto me, and Kike and I made arrangements via email to meet in Antigua for breakfast.  He met us in central park, which turns into an impromptu motorcycle convention on the weekends.  There were some sweet bikes there, filling the entire street in front of the park.  There was even a BMW GS. 

By the time we had finished breakfast, Kike had agreed to come riding with us.  We stopped in Guatemala city long enough for him to pack his things and for us to admire pictures of his previous adventures.  He´s had his KLR in places I would not have thought possible.  He has travelled by motorcycle throughout Central America.  One of his trips was in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, when the road system was almost completely destroyed in much of Central America.  There are pictures of him riding the bike along narrow ledges where most of the road had been washed away.  If the bike had tipped over, it would have dropped into a river.  As Ted and I watched Kike suit up with complete body armour, I said to Ted “I have a feeling we´re in for an adventure”.

Our destination was Semuc Champey, an area Kike recommended we visit to the north of the capital.  The ride out of Guatemala city was chaotic.  If it weren´t for Kike, Ted and I would probably still be in Guatemala city trying to find our way out.  There was a lot of traffic, and Kike was fearlessly filtering his way through, sometimes finding a space just big enough for a motorcycle on the double yellow line against oncoming traffic.  While trying to keep up, I tried to get around a line of cars on the inside.  I misjudged the width of my pelis and hit the back of an old honda civic.  At first I wasn´t sure what had happened.  The impact dropped my left peli onto the road, munched the right tail light of the honda, and spun my bike towards the ditch.  I rode off the road over an embankment but managed to maintain control of the bike.  The driver was a friendly young guy who stopped a short distance away.  I went over and examined the damage and asked him how much he wanted.  He said Q250.  This seemed pretty cheap to me for a tail light – around $30.  But I didn´t know if it was reasonable or not, so I waited for Kike to come back and find me before paying anything.  Kike gave the driver his cell phone number and agreed to pay the driver for the repairs after the fact.  The driver was happy with this arrangement and drove off.  Kike guessed it would cost around Q150 in the end.

The crash had broken one of the welds on the left hand side of my luggage rack.  After zip-tying it together, we stopped at a shop on the way out of the city for a weld job.  20 Quetzals and 20 minutes later, it was as good as new.  We continued on our trip to Champey.  Once we left the main road and turned towards Coban, the ride turned fantastic.  The road was freshly paved and wide.  Best of all, there weren´t many trucks or buses.  The road had great views as it wound its way the mountains towards Coban.

When we got to Coban, Kike gave us the choice of staying there for the night, or pressing on to Champey knowing that we´d have to ride the last hour or so in the dark.  In addition, the last 40 km were on what Kike called a “dirty” road.  Of course we decided to press on.  Before long it started to rain, and the road became extremely slippery.  I could feel the back end of the bike sliding out on corners, and a couple of times I went way wide on curves that should not have posed a problem.  I was beginning to wonder whether I had overfilled my rear tire.  But later Ted told me had been sliding around too, and he had thought it was because the tread was too worn on his back tire.  Even Kike had noticed how slippery it was.  Maybe it had something to do with the way they had paved the road.

But soon the poor traction became a secondary concern.  We rode right into the clouds as night was falling.  Soon we couldn´t see a thing.  The road was a twisty mountain road to boot.  You certainly didn´t want to go over the edge.  Kike asked directions a few times to make sure we didn´t miss the turn off, which would be easy in the foggy blackness.  When we finally got on the dirt road, conditions actually improved because we went on a long descent and were soon underneath the clouds.  It was still a narrow rocky mountain road at night, but at least we could see.  The road switchbacked its way down to a town called Lanquin.  From there it was only about 10 more km to Champey.  We found a hostel nestled in the forest next to the river.  It was a backpacker hot spot, and over the course of the next couple of days we met a lot of other young Americans and Canadians there (surprisingly more Canadians than Americans).

To unwind from the stress of the ride, we went for a night swim in the river before joining the other backpackers for a beer before bed.  In the morning, we went to the pools at Champey.  We began by hiking up the side of a mountain.  It was well worth the effort because we were treated with a fantastic view of the bluish green pools way down in the valley below.  The pools are fed by mountain springs.  The river flows underground beneath the pools.  Every year a few people disappear.  We hiked down to the pools and spent the morning swimming in the refreshing sparkling water, surrounded by waterfalls and virgin forest.  It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever gone for a swim, and a highlight of the trip.  We have Kike to thank, because we would never have found it if it weren´t for him.  Kike left us then, despite our attempts to get him to come along with us for a few more days.  He had work to do back in the Capital.  It was too bad he couldn´t join us for longer, but it was great to ride with him whilst we could.  Already Champey was a highlight, but there was more to come.

Before he left, Kike recommended that we visit the caves at Champey.  There was a tour that afternoon at 3:00 PM, leaving from our hostel.  After siesta we set out with a group of backpackers and a middle-aged couple for what would turn into an adventure in its own right.  After a short hike to the cave entrance, we would spend the next two hours swimming and climbing and crawling our way into the depths of the earth.  I´m sure we would not have been allowed to go into these caves if they happened to be in Canada or the US for liability reasons.  It was downright dangerous.  There were opportunities every few metres for someone to sue.  At one point I climbed a rope up a waterfall.  In other places you had to swim holding your candle above your head for long stretches at a time.  There were slippery ladders to climb, narrow ledges with only a rope to hold onto to prevent a fall into the abyss.  Warnings were shouted in Spanish by our guide (i.e. “keep to the left to avoid the razor sharp rocks underwater, make sure you hold the rope over this next section, the rocks are especially slippery here”).  Luckily one of the women in the group acted as a translator.  I´m not sure what we would have done if it weren´t for her.  The scariest part came when you had to position yourself at the top of a narrow hole with water pouring into it and let yourself drop into the pool below.  I had no idea how far it was.  Instructions were being given in Spanish.  The woman translating was telling me to put my right hand on this rock and my right knee belo
w, and to keep my head upright.  Then I let go.  It actually wasn´t as far as I thought it was going to be, but it was an adrenaline rush all the same.  I was impressed that the middle aged woman made it all the way through.

By the time we looped our way back to the entrance, we were all freezing cold from spending so much time swimming in the cold water of the caves.  We emerged into a thunderstorm and actually warmed up.  To finish the tour, we formed a chain of tubes and floated back down the river to the hotel, with thunder and lightning crashing and flashing all around us.  We ate supper and drank beer on the covered patio of the hostel, and shared adventure stories with the backpackers.  One girl from Denver had been travelling through South America for the past 8 months, mostly on her own.  She told us to hurry up and get to Columbia.  There was a guy who was a chemical engineer from Edmonton, who had popped up to Guatemala while on a tour of Costa Rica.  Another guy was from Germany, also on a side trip from Costa Rica.

At the end of the night, a couple of us had a glass or two of 23 year old Zacapa Rum, which has been ranked the number one rum in the world.  At Q35, a glass of Zacapa was more than a night´s accomodation at the hostel, but by Canadian standards it was still practically free.  I´m not sure if it´s the best in the world, but it´s the best I´ve ever tasted.  It was a fitting way to end one of the best days of the trip so far.  And we didn´t even start up our motorcycles.

Today we woke up early with plans of going to Rio Dulce for lunch, and then heading for the ruins at Tikal by supper time.  Insert laugh track here.  We rode for 10 hours straight today, and didn´t even put 300 kms on the odometer.  We were on rough dirt tracks for most of the day.  The ride was great.  In the morning we followed the dirt road along a fast flowing river.  There was almost no traffic.  Just us and a few machete wielding farmers.  In our attempt to find the main road running east to Rio Dulce, we had to head southeast on roads not on our map.  Several times we took the wrong turn and had to ask for directions.  In one village, which was well off the beaten track near a 30km dead end, we were immediately surrounded by dozens of kids as soon as we stopped.  They followed me as I asked one of the farmers for directions.  When I turned around, I could barely see the bikes because the kids had them completely surrounded.  Still more kids were following my every step.  It was a surreal experience.  I wonder if our arrival was the most exciting thing the kids had seen in that village for a long time.  There was no electricity and hence no colour TV or internet.  There would be no reason for outsiders to go to that village unless they were lost, because it was not on a through road.  Had they ever seen gringos before?

Some of the roads we were on were barely roads at all.  There was one section that was a steep downslope covered with loose coconut sized rocks.  It was a scree slope.  I saw Ted´s bike go down in front of me.  He had tried to avoid a boulder and couldn´t keep it from going over.  I almost dropped my bike several times just trying to get it stopped and on its side stand.  It took a couple of tries to get Ted´s bike back up, because it was hard to get firm footing in the loose rocks.  Sweat was raining off me.  I looked at the slope I had to descend and I wondered how the hell I was going to do it.  Somehow I did it.  About 5 km down the road I realized that I had lost my gel seat at some point since Ted´s bike went over.  So I rode back by myself looking for my precious.  I had been intending to stop at the bottom of the scree slope and walk back, because I didn´t want to go through it again.  However, I didn´t recognize the dangerous section coming from the other direction until I was right in it.  Then there was no stopping.  I had to power my way up through it.  If I had eased up on the throttle, the bike would have gone over for sure.  When I finally got to a switchback where I could around, I was thinking I had made a really stupid move.  Now I would have to go down that treacherous part again, and Ted was 5 km up the road waiting for me.  I was on my own if the bike went over.  Luckily I made it to the bottom without mishap, although I had built up a lot of speed by the time I got there because there´s only so much braking you can do without the bike sliding.  I never did find my gel seat, which must have fallen off in one of the many pools of water we had had to plow through, but it was a nice feeling to make it down that hill.

We didn´t hit pavement until just a few minutes outside of Rio Dulce, where we arrived at just as it was getting dark.  (We´re staying in a hotel in Rio Dulce with actual toilet seats, a shower curtain, and hot water for Q152.  This works out to about $20, which actually seems expensive to us now.  But I think it´s well worth it.)  The last 20 km of smooth asphalt today was our reward for all the dust and constant concentration we had gone through up to that point.  Don´t get me wrong – it had been a great day of riding, but I was happy to see tarmac.  The road was a green tunnel with great twisties and no traffic.  A perfect way to end the day´s ride. 

Today, with great reluctance, we have decided to abandon our plans to go to north to Tikal and back south through Belize.  We realized that we´re behind schedule.  We would have loved to see the Mayan ruins at Tikal and to snorkel the world famous reef in Belize, but if it means missing out on Machu Picchu, it would not be worth it.  So we are going to check out the castle/fort at Rio Dulce in the morning, and then cross into Honduras.

Guatemala has grown on me, and I don´t really want to leave.  I could easily spend another month here.  It is a lush green country filled with friendly people and natural wonders.  I´m already getting used to riding here – constantly honking my horn in friendly greeting just like the locals.  Lake Atitlan and Antigua and the abundance of volcanoes in the area were well worth visiting.  But Semuc Champey stands out as the highlight of the whole trip thus far.  A fantastic ride to get in and out, beautiful spring fed pools, and exciting caves.  Wow.

PS
Ted has uploaded some pictures from his camera to the Guatemala folder at www.kodakgallery.com (id tysonbrust@yahoo.com, password klr650).  I have also put a few new pictures in the Guatemala SLR folder.