It was the most people I’d had in my van since Santa Fe, NM, when my cousin Nancy took Cass, Sage, me and two bikes up into the mountains for an epic downhill. I picked up three fellow travellers in Hopkins, Belize to cross the border together into Guatemala and visit some car access only ruins that were recommended to me by Tristan and Yeshe, now a couple days ahead.
I connected with Cecilie, from Denmark, on travel buddies, and had been hot on her tail since Cancun, where she started. She met Maja, from Sweden, who was working her way south as well. Then we all met Thomas from France in Hopkins. Despite not knowing any of these three very well, I was primarily pumped for help paying for gas, and secondarily for some sidekicks to socialize with.
The Belize-Guate border was a relative breeze, and after a few photocopies, and a new sticker for the van, we were on our way to Yaxha ruins. From what I’d read and heard about Central American ruins, climbing on and exploring in the ruins was not permitted, and until this point, I hadn’t been excited to visit any. Maybe I’m spoiled from my visit to Angkor Wat. But the Washington homies advised that these were worth going to, and “better than Tikal.”
One bumpy dirt road and 8$pp later, we were tromping around the jungle, climb stone-stacked temples and avoiding the attacks of howler monkeys. The hike down to the lake is unnecessary, but otherwise it was a good time with some amazing vistas atop the temples. After sufficient selfies and scenery overdoses, we unanimously decided we were ready for lunch, so back into the van we went. Thomas was copilot with the two girls spooning in the back. I attest the rate at which they fell fast asleep to my smooth driving skills despite the speed bump riddled roads of Guatemala.
Approaching Santa Elena reminded me of America, with brightly coloured strip malls, KFC and Burger King. But when we crossed the bridge onto the small island of Flores, I was back in Guatemala. Flores is a tiny island, only 400m diameter, with narrow streets and narry any shade. At the top of a small hill in the center of the island is a cathedral and town square, but the remaining buildings are mostly catered to tourists: bicycle rental, hostels, b&bs, kayak rentals, tour guide offices, and restaurants. I immediately jumped on a waterfront parking spot overlooking the overfilled Lago Piten Itza, where I hoped I could spend the night. Even though we were hungry, we chose the slowest dining option available on the island. The mixto tacos I ordered were only worth the 20 min wait and 3 unsuccessful grill lightings because I bided my time eating pickled peppers and drinking a tall can of Guatemala Brava.
I let my friends keep their bags in the van while they played goldilocks at all of the hostels on the island. Hostel shopping is a necessary evil for all backpackers, where they travel from the top-rated, usually full, lonely planet-recommended hostel, down the list until they find accommodation that suites their needs. Having done this in Asia, albeit on motorbikes, I was thrilled to have my 3 star accoms in the back of my van.
We met up later on at the party hostel, where we were awarded free drink tickets to go upstairs and get a party started. This is where I met Paul and Hector. Paul would join me for almost a month of travels down the road. Needless to say, we all hit it off really well. After more drinks and jenga, we thought a couple Swedish pretty boys were going to swoop our gals, but they decided they’d had enough and went for their beauty sleep. We all went across the lake to a local festival where we ate, drank and danced the night away.
I took off on my own again the next morning but was sure that I would meet up with my new friends down the road, as everyone follows pretty much the same route. I had a tip to meet some mountain bikers near Guatemala city, from Chris Van Dine, But one had a broken arm and the other was busy, so I drove through the night and settled in Antigua. Its common knowledge that the poilce have a tourist compound in downtown Antigua where you can park safely overnight for free. When I got there the night guard gave me a hard time, saying this place isn’t cheap to operate and they need to buy lightbulbs and clean up garbage. I offered to help clean up in the morning if I could stay a few nights. He had to ask his boss. At 9PM this guy calls his boss and asks if I can stay, then asks me if i have a bathroom in my van. Obviously I answer no, but say I can use a restaurant when I need to. He then tells me I’m not permitted to stay because they don’t have facilities for tourists. So I parked two blocks away in front of two boutique hotels. All next day I struggled to find a better spot to park, even a cheap hostel where I could park, but there were none. It would have been 7$ for secure parking and another 7$ for a hostel bed, and it sounded like more hassel than it was worth for me with my disorganized van.
I talked to mtb tour guides but they were impossible to get directions to trail heads from. Finally I was in the plaza using free wifi when Yeshe and Tristan walk by with new Hawaiian shirts. I learned they have rented a house for a month and are going to look for jobs in Antigua. We have a couple beers at an Irish bar where I also learned that its not safe to hike, no less bike up a volcano alone. The locals will see my foreign plates at the bottom of the volcano and my van will be dismantled by the time I return. I was bummed because after talking to Chris and Cat, I thought I would have some sweet rides in Guatemala.
The boys then take me to a great pollo asado place, where a solid meal costs 3$. But after that I was ready to escape Antigua. I still don’t understand what the draw is. The town is surrounded by volcanoes, one of which is active. The streets are narrow and cobblestoned. The buildings are old and romantic. The plaza offers the only outdoor refuge from the sun with some shady trees. But without a beach, a river, access to water, or anywhere chill to park, I found it very hard to relax in Antigua. And there was always a flow of tourists on school or church trips to study Spanish or God knows what.
I took off headed south, to the coast and a small surf hostel I had heard about called El Paredon. I didn’t quite make it. Descending a volcano south of Antigua I slammed hard into a monster speed bump on the edge of the volcano lava-way. A few minutes later, I was hobbling the van to the next pinchazo, flat repair, I saw. The homie patched my tube and patched my tire for 8$. Before I left, with wide eyes and a bit hunched forward, he warned me about driving at night, because there were robbers. He puffed his cheeks out and performed a grabbing motion with his hands like a greedy chipmunk to be sure I understood him.
Driving down desolate dirt roads past blazing crop fires, I continued cautiously. I made it to the coast that night, but assumed El Paredon would be easy to find. It was not. I ended up sweet talking a guard into allowing me to park inside the gates of a resort/residential park. In the morning I drove off in search of wifi. I drove through the bustling port town of San Jose without finding a thing; it just isn’t catered to tourists. So I drove back up the highway to Esquintla. I settled down in a parking lot of a hotel with an open wifi connection. Within minutes, I was having a direct message convo over twitter with an old friend, Alex, from Calgary. I told her she should come down and travel with me. I hardly believed her when she said she would send me her flight details in a couple days.
I found better directions to El Paredon and 180’d back to the coast. I took the slow road through ten small towns with at least ten speed bumps in each one. But this forced me to stop and buy some fruit and tortillas, so it wasn’t all bad. The land south of Esquintla is dead flat and is all cultivated; bananas, straw, and the like are grown for miles. I finally hit the dirt road that goes NW for the better part of an hour and takes me to El Paredon.
Paying 25q/day for access to showers/pool/banos at the hostel, I camped in my van, right in front of the beach. There was another van from Cali full of French dudes doing the same thing. I stayed there for a few days, checking the spotty internet using the office computer at the hostel for Alex’s reply. One night I dreamt I had found my laptop under some stuff in my van. I awoke with my backdoor open and headlights glaring into my face. it was just a couple surfers arriving to check the sunrise surf. I did my best battling the brutal beach break, and only catching anything in the white water. It was nice to relax on the beach there for a few days though. When I got Alex’s reply telling me she was on her way here and would arrive in the city I decided it was time to go. My last night there we had a cook-out on the beach. Fighting sandflies, we sweated with our shirts off late into the evening, trying to cook food around a beach fire. Eventually we had something worth eating. I cleaned my dishes in the ocean, in the nude, and went to bed. I would pick Alex up at the airport, 3 hrs away, at 7am the next morning.