Tuesday, March 3, 2015

When Was the Last Time Your Toll Booth Operator Had a Machete, Sledge Hammer and Hoe?

Up early and ready to get on the way before it got hot, we finally found the detour around the gully/road that we had missed turning onto in the direction of Sayaxche. By 9:30, we were both sweating, but reassured ourselves that we would be in Semuc Champey by noon and in the cool, clear, soothing waters shortly thereafter.

HAH. (Are you seeing a pattern, here?)

We crossed to Sayaxche on a rather interesting ferry, along with three cattle trucks. Roel and I crossed our fingers that non the of the cows we were sandwiched between would have the “urge” while we were parked next to their rears.

At every intersection and before and after every town, we asked for directions. Fortunately, being a white girl on a motorcycle already garners me a lot of attention, so I don’t have to do too much to figure out which direction we need to go in. I try to ask women as often as possible, because the men usually take a moment to realize that the strange being in front of them actually speaks.

Corn drying along the side of the road

We followed Route 5 nearly perfectly (a u-turn here and there doesn’t count as being “lost”) and once we made the turn that we thought would lead us to the home stretch for Semuc Champey, we both began to get a littler nervous.

Like many other riders, we had watched the video posted on YouTube by the couple that was robbed while riding two-up in Guatemala. We had been warned about that very road a few days prior by David. And our copy of the “Lying Planet” warned about rapes and robberies along one of the paths at Tikal (not to mention several other places in Guatemala).

We were obviously heading into a less populated area. Visions of that video popped into my head and judging by Roel's sudden silence, he was feeling slightly uneasy, as well.

And then around a corner in the middle of nowhere, came a familiar looking bike.

Yea, Roel just happened to be shooting when Ewen came around the corner... pretty crazy.


We all stopped and he stepped of his bike, notably sweatier than either of us (which is saying a lot). First he said that he’s just had one of the most incredible riding days of his trip. And then he looked at our bikes, sized us up and offered several warnings about the road ahead:

1: We were about to encounter 70 kilometers of pretty technical dirt track that they called a road. (On Roel’s map, all of Route 5 is paved. Hmmmm.)
2. Be extremely cautious anywhere where the road appeared to be wet - Ewen had almost just skidded off a cliff. (I saw his skid mark 20 kilometers later - no joke - he got very lucky that day.)
3. We were about to encounter some of the most traditional indigenous peoples we had yet to encounter and they were all lovely, except for:
4. The 5 dudes who were “working” on the road and had strung up a rope to stop traffic. They would insist upon 100 Quetzal (USD ~15 or about what you would pay for a cheap hotel room here). Ewen, with the help of a local truck driver (who negotiated on both of their behalves), had gotten through for 5Q.

We warned him about a speed trap ahead, gave him a granola bar (he had yet to have breakfast, oh Ewen) and continued on our way.

There were several houses built into the side of the mountain, seemingly "in the middle of nowhere"

What happened to that church?

It was indeed a challenging ride for me, but only because we haven't been on that rocky of a road in a while. The typical pot-hole dirt road eventually became a bolder garden, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? After a while I stopped breathing like I was in the midst of labor, and settled into the bumps, my rear tire skidding out and a few too-close-for-comfort encounters with long views down. It was GREAT!

It always amazes me when I'm riding with all my might and Roel is using his throttle lock and snapping away on the camera! Of course, he put the camera away during the roughest section of road, but this was leading up to it, hence the blurry-ness of the image. To my right, the cliff drops down 100 meters

The indigenous mountain folks we passed were friendly for the most part, especially the children. Some of the women were a little shy, but anyone I needed to ask for directions was happy to send us the right way. I eventually only asked for town names because it became clear they did not speak Spanish and my Spanish was only confusing to them.

Cuties excited to see some bikes

When we came to the rope across the road, we were the only people there. Roel was ahead of me and began the bargaining. I stopped about 10 feet back and continued the bargaining once they got tired of hearing him say “sólo 10.” We turned off the bikes. It was a long 10 minutes, and I began to get a little antsy when it became clear that they were annoyed with Roel’s “sólo 10” and my explaining to them that we crossed the border in El Ceibo where there was no bank and hence had very little money. They have likely never been to El Ceibo or any of the sizable towns in between, so what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. I was a little concerned that if they got annoyed enough, they would decide to try to hurt Roel with the sledge hammer or hoe or machete they were holding. (A 13 year old had the machete, though - probably a bad move on their part.) Then, 3 Guatemalan guys on bikes rode up from the opposite direction, and without much of a squabble, and NO exchange of money, they were allowed to pass. (We tried to go for it while the rope was down, but the guys crowded around the bikes and maneuvered their "tools" so we stayed put.) But, this reinvigorated my determination not to pay such a ridiculous "tourist tax"... I turned on the female whine and eventually, they settled for the 10 Quetzal and un “regalito” - an old flashlight we’d brought along specifically for situations where we might need a regalito (gift). 

We've had a couple of people ask the following questions, and since I'm guessing you might have them, too, I'll go ahead and post the questions/answers right here:
Q: Why did we even bother to go this way after Ewen told us about the roadblock?
A: Turning around would have meant a 150k 'detour' and having to back-track again after Semuc Champey AND missing what Ewen had said was one of the most incredible roads of his journey. 
Q: Why didn't we just pay the 200Q?
A: 200Q (the equivalent of 30 USD) isn't that much to pay, and certainly not when your well-being is at stake... which, is why we both had 100Q ready to hand over if it got to that. There was a moment I was worried it would get dicey, but then the guys started to look at the bikes and began asking for "regalitos" (presents).
And, yes, it's a matter of principle.
It's also trying to avoid reinforcing this idea that tourists = handouts. If we give them 100Q each, what's to stop them from asking for 200Q from the next motorcyclist? And then cameras? And then motorbikes?
Ultimately, anywhere we go, we strive to leave it in as good, if not better condition than we found it. For us, discouraging extortion is part of that.
We also haven't been carrying very much money and our little "detour" to the Mexican border cost us a lot more than we had planned to spend between Flores and Semuc... so really, we didn't have that much left and if we had given them the 200Q, it would have potentially meant not being able to pay for everything at Semuc.

Shot from the GoPro 2 I'm wearing, whose buttons are sticky, hence this being a photo rather than video.

With that out of the way, the rest of the ride was actually enjoyable, although extremely hot. We made it to the stunning pools of Semuc Champey by 4:30pm, took a swim in the river to cool off and set up camp.

Taking a breather and taking in the view

Our first sighting of Semuc Champey. At this point, my clothes were soaked with sweat and I contemplated running into the pools, KLiM suit and all

As we got closer to Semuc, the road got a LOT steeper and changed to a finer dirt... one that would a nightmare to ride once wet.

Usually, this kind of bridge would freak me out - more-so because of the clattering of the unsecured boards and the few missing ones, than anything - but we were mere meters from Semuc and I was not stopping for anything!

Camping in the jungle, behind the house of the couple who had turned their property into a camping area and restaurant to cater to tourists... interesting experience and beautiful views.

The next morning, we hiked to the overlook of Semuc Champey and basked in the clear pools that are fed by mountain streams.

Getting a workout on the way up to the Semuc Champey overlook

So the river actually flows underneath the pools of Semuc Champey - the pools themselves were fed by water flowing down from the mountains on either side of the river.

1 comment:

  1. That is absolutely gorgeous! Perilous to get there, but gorgeous!