Saturday, February 28, 2015

Crossing from Mexico into Guatemala

Just a heads up: This blog entry is long and tedious... even I feel that way. But I've included every detail of our border crossing from Mexico to Guatemala via El Ceibo for those who are following our blog who are planning to do a similar trip. So my apologies - feel free to skip to the end of this blog and avoid all of the border crossing tedium. Bottom line:

Guatemala, here we come!

Tenosique was by far the sketchiest town we have visited in Mexico, but the people were very nice. Tenosique also yielded by far, the most sketchy hotels. We found one with ample secure bike parking, but thank goodness Ewen and I checked out the room before taking it: we quickly walked out and while I handed over the key, I contemplated how to politely tell the inn-keeper “We’re not taking the room because the last guests poop is still in the toilet.”

We eventually rode by Hotel Rome (which was in Ewen’s little book) and noticed a bike already sitting in the lobby. The owner of the bike, David from New Hampshire, walked out to greet us, and Rome himself made room for our bikes in the lobby. We chatted and decided to all ride over the border together the next morning.

Bike parking in the lobby of Hotel Rome

We set off the next morning after our last Pemex fill-up and made it to the border in under an hour.

Last Pemex fill-up

Look Mom, this is what a baby would look like on my motorbike

We entered the Mexican customs house to turn in our Mexican tourist visa. We were all a bit surprised that he requested the receipt for the visa. Especially Ewen and I. I fortunately, am a pack-rat and seldom throw away receipts… but I did have to search through my paperwork folder for it. Ewen, on the other hand was not so lucky and was made to pay the 306 pesos again. Kind of questionable as no one had told us we needed to hang on to that document. And really, why should you have to? If you have the tourist visa, you’ve obviously paid the fee, right? But, what are you going to do? Argue with the guy whose buddies have some heavy firepower on hand?


Banjercito was open (the guy in customs told me that they were closed Sundays - but fortunately for us they are only closed on Mondays). After the nice Banjercito guy photographed all of our VINs, he stamped out our import documents as proof that we should receive the funds back in our bank account that we had paid upon importing our bikes.

Our bike import papers and the Banjercito guy struggling to see Ewen's VIN on his KLR

We then crossed to the Guatemala side and it became a bit of a hot mess. Literally.

We went into the Aduana and began the paperwork process. We needed to show the originals of our licenses, passports and titles and provide copies.


Because the Transalp is from ’89, Vermont will not issue a new title for it, so all I have is my registration. I kept my fingers crossed that he would accept it without issue.

He did. Whew.

What he didn’t like was that on Roel’s title, his name is listed as R. Bremmers. He was a nice guy and had the patience of a saint, but he was adamant that “R” is a letter and is not a name, and hence Roel’s title couldn’t be accepted by Guatemalan officials. After some pleading on our behalf, he decided to accept another document: Roel’s International Proof of Ownership papers. Double whew.

We had to hike about 200 meters up the road to the shop (in Guatamala!) that makes copies. Not a long distance, but when you’re wearing full bike gear in the heat of the Guatemalan mid-day sun, it was a trek. So I was extra pleased when one of the Guatemalan immigration officials insisted on giving me a ride up the hill on the back of his 250 :D Loving Guatemala already!!

After we turned over all of these papers, we were instructed to head next door to Migracion to have our passports and the copy of our passports stamped. Done.

We returned to the Aduana, handed over the stamped passport copies and signed documents saying we had to pay 160 Quetzales (about 320 pesos, or $23) which was about 120 quetzals more than we had anticipated. Whoa. We had been given 90 days on our visas, but we’d heard that others who had recently crossed had only been charged 40 Quetzals - perhaps they had been given fewer days. I asked if there was a less expensive option, but there was none. 160 Quetzals, 90 days. Oh well.

We then had to take this paperwork to the “bank” next door to pay the Quetzales.

Once paid, we had to take the receipt back to the Aduana, where he gave us documents listing our passport and VINs which we also had to sign. Always pays to have a look at things before you sign them: my passport number looked strange and I realized as I was signing the first document that it was missing a digit. The aduana agent didn’t believe me at first and was quite put off that I would think that he could make a mistake. Then he apologized and reprinted everything for me to sign. He then gave me the import documents for my bike and told me I could put the sticker on my bike or on the paperwork, but that I should put it on the paperworks as you need to return this when you depart the country.

Ewen and David had their bikes fumigated before we did and were charged 25 Quetzales, 5 more than anticipated. We asked the Aduana agent how much it should be and he told us 20. After they fumigated our bikes he asked us for 25 quetzals, too, and when we said “Oh, but we thought it was only 20” without further discussion he said “that’s ok.” Ohhhhhh tourist taxes.

But with that, we were on our way into Guatemala.

Immediate impressions: there are animals EVERYWHERE. Not just dogs anymore. Pigs were roaming around the official buildings at the border, pigs and chickens wandered around soccer fields, mostly staying clear of the players and ball, and horses and cows were all alongside the road… and in some places, in the road.

Equal opportunity playing field, here is Guatemala. Everyone is welcome, including the pigs and chickens

It was a Sunday, and everyone, particularly the girls seemed to be dressed to the nines. Though their houses were mostly a mishmash of different building materials, their skirts and tops were clean, pressed and very cute. I think the guys particularly enjoyed riding through the towns, and I can’t blame them: Guatemalan women are lovely.

On our way to Flores, we were following David’s GPS which is set to shortest route. Eventually, this took us to a dirt road that was lovely despite some incredible potholes. We went through villages that likely seldom saw tourists and people were extremely friendly and curious.

At one point, the road turned into series of massive road-width puddles with cows drinking from the far end. Roel went through first and then the other guys followed. I came through at the end and failed to keep my speed fast enough, coming to a stop after hitting a rock the wrong way and rearing up on a hidden mound in the puddle. Fail. But, I did not drop the Transalp, so I suppose I won a little there (but really just got extremely lucky that when I put my feet down, there was something beneath them . Determined to get to the other side, I throttled out and went through the next puddle without an issue.

And suddenly, this is what became of the road.

Feet down. Cow puddle crossing FAIL!

David riding out of the cow puddle

We arrived at a lovely cheap hotel in Flores, crammed the bikes into the lobby and celebrated our arrival.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Ropes and stones won't break my bones, but pleading eyes do hurt me.

San Cristobal de las Casas is an interesting, diverse and fantastic city to explore. If it weren’t for the chilly weather we encountered there, we probably would have been tempted to stay for longer. But, we were excited to check out Palenque and move on to Guatemala.

So, we spent a day wandering through the colorful markets… watching the peaceful protests of indigenous artisans… and running around to get warm. Roel, Ewan, an Aussie gal from the hostel and I met up for dinner with Lifes2Short’s, Mark and Lori from Canada (riding two up on a Triumph 1200) and had a great time catching up about our travels in Mexico.

The hostel we stayed at was awesome - not only was there ample secure motorbike parking in the courtyard but if you arrived on a motorcycle, your first nights stay was free :) (And as a side note, I forgot our most important travel equipment there, our French coffee press, and the employees at Rossco Hostel worked with me to send it along to Palenque with another hostel guest who was traveling there just after us.)

Playful kids in truck beds make traffic jams so much more fun. Never-mind traffic safety.

The ride to Palenque was almost as interesting as Palenque itself. No, perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but in 200 kilometers:

-We counted 422 topes (some small, some large, some super-sized)
-We rode through small villages where the bikes and us got a lot of attention, and in many cases, smiles, waves, whistles and laughs from women, children and men wearing very traditional, handmade clothing.
-We had two small boys pick up large rocks when they saw us coming.
-A young girl (11 or 12 years old) ran out in front of my bike an pulled up a string across the road (her companion, still on the other side, was holding tight to her own end). A ploy used to get a few pesos out of passers by.

The topes we expected (especially the ones in the corners, thanks to Seb & Kim .
The mixed reactions from villagers we had been told about (which made the smiles and waves especially rewarding).
The kids palming rocks was also not surprising. We had heard about kids throwing rocks at foreign vehicles so we were mentally prepared for this. Upon seeing the two reach down for the rocks Roel came to a sliding stop right in front of them and with Ewen stopping right next to him, they gave them the kind of look that persuaded them not to throw the rocks, and I passed by unscathed, as did they once they finished the stare down.

We’d been told about the rope ploy and had even encountered it once on the way from Oaxaca to Zipolite, but there was an adult on one side and a kid on the other… and he dropped the rope almost as soon as he had picked it up. While I have to give the girl credit for being brave enough to run out in front of a big moving motorcycle, there was no way I was going to stop and give her money. 1. What kind of message is that sending? Encouraging her to put herself in danger running in front of moving vehicles that may or may not see her (it is apparently really common for kids to pull this in front of RVs - probably because they have to actually stop at topes and hence are ‘easy targets’). I would be reinforcing the notion that begging yields easier money than working at something productive (and more safe)? and 2. If you’re in a car and this happens, you roll down your window, hand over a few pesos and continue on your way. On a motorcycle, once you stop and start looking for pocket change, you’re totally vulnerable. What if she has an older brother in the bushes with a machete who wants more than a few pesos (btw EVERYONE along the road seemed to be carrying a machete; obviously for the usual purpose of hacking away at bushes, but still). Unlikely, yes. But I didn’t need to stop and find out if my imagination was getting too far away from me.

I slowed and shook my head several times, giving her a chance to drop her rope and save it for the next vehicle to pass by. (Of course, I wouldn’t wish this upon anyone because it broke my heart, but these people have so very little and even if this one piece of rope she has is being used in a negative way, I still felt bad about potentially ruining it.) Anyway, my head shakes only seemed to encourage her to come closer, boldly gesturing for pesos in her palm as she moved. So I revved my engine a few times. Still, she was determined. I swerved away from her and throttled out. Fuc&ing rope, be damned.

It was sad. It made me sad. And shook me up. She’s a young girl and this is what she has been taught is an acceptable way to make money.

Rereading what I've just written about the rocks and rope makes me feel like a bully. They're just kids. Ugh. Although 99.9% of the people we've met have been fair and extremely kind and generous, the sense of "other" and the old "tourist tax" does wear down on you after a while... I guess that's the only thing easing my conscience right now.

Regardless, it was a beautiful ride, and those two incidents didn’t detract from the overall beauty of the experience. Everyday in Mexico, we have encountered some form of what our “Developed World” upbringings deems poverty, and in many instances, it is heartbreaking, but it is part of this beautiful country. I want to give all of my wallet to most of these young kids, but it won’t solve the overall problem, which is one that is going to likely worsen in some areas, the further south we go. The thing I try to focus on is the fact that while many of these children have ‘nothing’ they have one of the most important things: a smile. We often see barefoot, under-dressed children running and screaming gleefully… playing with each other, as children should be, rather than playing with smartphones. Those are the moments I try to hold on to - though these kids have little, they do still have what matters.
The other side note about riding through small villages, that I imagine will continue as we go further south: people are still really surprised to see a girl riding a big bike, so people who may have only stared as Roel went by, once they realize I’m a girl, will return my smile, and sometimes even my wave. It’s a GOOD GOOD feeling.

Anyway, after surviving the 422 topes, we arrived in Palenque. And wow, what a site. So different from Teotihuacan and Monte Alban in that it is completely in the forrest and surrounded by green. There is even an un-excavated pyramid right when you arrive at the site, and I’m sure there are many more around, still hidden under feet of moss and tree roots. The site itself was incredible, but the museum was excellent. The artifacts that have been moved there have been placed in as “in situ” (in it's original place) of a manner as possible… particularly the impressive tomb of Pakal, the most notable ruler of Palenque.

There were lots of interesting architectural elements of Palenque, but after visiting the museum, some of them made more sense… Like the fact that there are many “holes” in the walls, like windows, in the form of a “T” - well, apparently, it was common for Palenqueans to carve a “T” in between their front teeth, as it resembles the Maya sign “Ik” for wind. Naturally, the windows that were carved out of the wall for ventilation would be in the form of a T to encourage the wind to pass through and cool the halls of the palace.

The tomb of Pakal which has been removed from the pyramid in order to preserve it. I really appreciate how they did their best to mimic what his tomb in the pyramid that looked like with what they constructed in the museum... right down to etching the carvings from the walls of the tomb into the plexiglass around the coffin in the museum.

Anyway, spending the day wandering around Palenque and then taking a refreshing dip at our campsite was a wonderful way to spend our last day in Mexico.

Guatemala tomorrow!!!

For those of you wondering what my new best friend, the dump-truck, looks like... ;)

Friday, February 20, 2015

A Change of scenery and A Change of Mind.

I’ve just received the most lovely and encouraging message from a fellow traveler/adventurer/rider named Kevin, who attended our presentation at Adventure Designs with his Dad. I’m sure he’s reading this, and perhaps his Dad is, as well. Anyway, let’s just say that his message is exactly why we are traveling like this and why I am keeping up with this blog and ride report. It made my day and gave me the motivation to get you all caught up to date on where we are, what we’re doing and what we're planning

While we were in Oaxaca, we spent a lot of time plotting our next moves and looking at route options. We’d been keen to catch up with friends on the Yucatan Peninsula, but since those friends were no longer there, we took a hard look at that area and what we wanted to get out it of. We’d also heard from all of those friends who had moved on, how exorbitantly expensive the Yucatan is and that there were only a few nice spots left that weren’t miserably touristy. So we made the decision to skip it and head into Guatemala about a week earlier than anticipated. After looking at the maps, Roel spotted a small crossing that would make sense for where we would be in Mexico and where we wanted to go in Guatemala, although it is not commonly used by overlanders.

So, with such a ‘sudden’ change of plans, we had a bit of planning and preparation to do, but it was also time for a change of scenery.

Ruben rode out of Oaxaca with us and gave us directions for Route 175 towards Pochutla and the Pacific Coast.

The road wound up and up with some pretty incredible curves and views, but we had to keep one eye out for potholes at all times. Once we got up into the clouds, the road improved, but naturally the views were gone. But WOW was it good to breathe clean forest air in again.

Extra grateful for my Rigid Industries lights in this moment: I always ride with them on, day or night, but when Roel realized that my headlight had burned out in the middle of the cloud forest, it was a HUGE comfort to know the Rigids were burning brightly... especially when a bus decided he needed to take a corner through the very middle of the road but then changed his mind when he saw me coming. Whew!

The villages were few and far between and eventually we found ourselves coming down on the Pacific side of the Sierras and the vegetation changed from pine trees to tropical plants and fruit trees. There were bananas for sale anywhere there was a building (or shack or table) alongside the road.

With the sun setting, Roel quickly spotted a good spot to camp for the evening. In the jungle, it gets dark, FAST. We had the tent up in no time, eager to escape the hungry mosquitos, so we laid awake listening to the sounds of the jungle for a while.

Apparently it's been too long since we've seen coconuts - Roel forgot that this isn't a smart place to park, but he got lucky this time and the Twin escaped unscathed

In the morning, we made it to Puerto Angel and found a nearby beach to camp. It was a beautiful spot to acclimate to the change in temperature and do a little Spanish verb review.

Study time.

Menu perusal has never been so easy

Goodnight bikes.

We left late the following morning and as such, only made it half-way between Puerto Angel and San Cristobal de las Casas, but as they say… everything happens for a reason.

We camped in a farmers field and were using the beautiful morning light yesterday to take some photos of the bikes, etc., when we realized that the farmer had come to move his cows. Oops :) Per usual, just a super pleasant guy who was happy to hold the gate open for us so we could get back on the highway.

We had been warned by several riders, Ruben included, that there was a portion of the road between Puerto Angel and San Cristobal that was particularly windy. Well, it was good that we had stopped just before that area (unbeknownst to us) the night before to rest … because we needed EVERYTHING we had to stay upright in the wind gusts that are rumored to knock over 1-2 trucks per day on a “windy” day.

Seeing me struggle to stay upright against the wind, a dump truck carrying a full load of gravel (and hence, not being pushed around by the wind) came up alongside me and instead of passing, slowed down to match my speed. I feel like this is the equivalent of those YouTube videos where Dolphins save dogs from drowning, or lions nurse baby antelopes to health… Just so sweet.

My new friend, The Dump-truck.

Opting not to go over a bridge and instead to ride behind it and out of the wind, we encountered a familiar KLR. We’d met the rider, Ewen (no, not THAT Ewan) in Oaxaca. We continued riding together and battling the wind for the remainder of the day. Turns out, Ewan is also heading to Guatemala and was keen to do the border crossing we were thinking of crossing, with us. Safety in numbers. We like that.

Roel and Ewen taking advantage of the last wind-free moments behind the bridge to chat about riding together.

Note to self: Google "wind farms" and wherever there is one around the world, write an "X" through that part of the map. I'd rather be riding in Boston right now.

So we continued on to San Cristobal de las Casas together and arrived last night after enjoying a gorgeous winding climb up into the Sierras of Chiapas which showed us a 10 degree Celsius/50 deg Fahrenheit temperature drop, even more wind, and nasty cold misty rain.

Sunset over Chiapas.

Nothing a Sopa Azteca couldn’t take care of though.

The sun has finally come out this morning, so Roel is tugging at my typing hand to leave the computer and go explore… that’s what we’re here for, after all :)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

At Home for a Week... In Oaxaca :D

The Transalp and Africa Twin admiring Santo Domingo
Oaxaca has become a familiar city now. Every time we have mentioned Mexico for the past two years, anyone who knows mainland Mexico has said: OAXACA - GO THERE!!! And since we knew we’d be going there, and had a mutual riding friend who lives there, I was able to give Moto Machines an address where they could send a very nice care package

Anyway, I digress.

So we did go to Oaxaca. And once we got past the traffic (Oaxaca is known for it’s protests these days, which generally cause traffic to come to a near stand-still) and the smog, and found a lovely cheap hotel with secure parking 3 blocks from the Zocalo, we understood why everyone is so keen on Oaxaca. The city is a beautiful blend of old and old-with-new-interspersed, cosmopolitan Mexicans and Indigenous Mexicans and celebrations that reflected this took place every night. The Market on the Zocalo is a great place to grab cheap food from a sit-down stall and an even better place to people watch as many of the wedding celebrations wind up there.

These performers twirled and twirled to the music once the new couple emerged from the church. You can see the bride in the background: she's wearing a typical white dress and veil that most of us are accustomed to seeing.

This wedding party poured out of the church across the street from the hotel we were staying at, and it was impossible not to get caught up in and carried along with infectious energy of the band and wedding attendants. The bride can be seen in the bottom right corner of the photo, standing between the woman in the short red dress and the woman in the long white dress: she is wearing a long red skirt.

The moto-cops detailed the wedding and re-routed traffic as the party made it's way down the street to the Zocalo, dancing and singing as the two bands they'd hired battled back and forth...

The party continued for a while at the Zocalo...

After spending the weekend amongst all of the action downtown, we headed outside of the city to meet Ruben and Aurora, a couple we’d been e-introduced to by our Canadian Fairy Godparents, Carol and Hans (yes, the ones who put us up when we Roel couldn’t get back into the US, surprised us with a visit in Australia and suggested we head to Alaska). Ruben, Aurora and their children have ridden all over Central America and through much of the US and Canada. They are a wonderfully warm couple and gave us an equally warm welcome in their lovely home. We chatted late into the night about moto travels and became fast friends.

The next morning, we tallied up a bike maintenance list a mile long. We rarely are in a position to pull apart the bikes and if necessary, walk away to clear our heads when we hit a wall. Here, at Ruben and Aurora’s, we could do just that. So we were eager to get to work: both bikes needed an oil change and the Africa Twin needed to have it’s valve clearance adjusted.

We had to divide and conquer our to-do list, and since I had some blogging to catch up on, Roel kindly changed the Transalps oil & filter for me Using up the last of our filters from HiFloFiltro

And after a home-visit from Ruben’s mechanic, Luis, it was determined that the slider bolt on the AT’s rear brake needed to be replaced as there was too much free-play. We didn’t even bother riding to the Honda Shop to see if they could order the part: 1. They probably wouldn’t even be able to find it in their system. 2. The part of the brake that the slider bolt fits into has likely worn, too. So the best option was to follow Luis to a nearby Soldadura (welder) who could add material to the current bolt and then machine it down to size. This took a bit of time, but the end result was an excellent fit. For 200 pesos ($14.30). It was a relief to get all of this done.

First he soldered more metal onto Roel's worn slider bolt and then he machined it down to size. Probably not the way most mechanics would recommend getting the job done, but sometimes, you need a little creativity and out-of-the-box thinking to get the job done.

And after some sweaty city riding, it was time to wash the suits. A lot of women have well-founded concerns about the practicality of the light gray/cream KLiM Altitude... Well, for visibility, I think it's great AND it does come clean: LOOK!!

But the real sense of relief came when our package from Moto Machines arrived. Relief at first and absolute excitement! The base of my original top-box, Walter, was cracking a bit more with every tope I crossed. (By the time we made it to Oaxaca, I was practically coming to a full stop (like a bus) before crossing a tope, in an effort to minimize the bouncing of Walter.) And goodness forbid I didn’t see a tope quickly enough to come to a stop, I caught myself looking in my mirrors to see if my belongings from my top box were scattered over the road behind me.

Yes, as you can see, my new Hepco & Becker Gobi top box is a bit smaller, so indeed I had to shuffle some things around (i.e., move some stuff to Roel’s bike - like my oil cans)… But, tis a small price to pay for a replacement top box that mounts and dis-mounts incredibly easily (with a twist of a key), and looks a heck-uva-lot better. The Gobi Trifecta is now complete.

What home decorating looks like when you live out of a box

Moto Machines also sent water taps and luggage loops for the Gobis. Because we wild camp and cook so much of our own food, being able to carry water for dish/hand washing in Roel’s Gobi’s has been extremely helpful. Now, our water-carrying capacity is 12 liters between the two of us. Yes, that’s too much weight to carry all of the time, but provided we stop at a fuel station just before camping, we can fill up everything and then one of us can wash clothes while the other sets up camp. This may not mean much to you, but given how smelly stuff gets after a long day of riding (especially Roel’s stuff ) I’m stoked.

But mostly, my bike looks beautiful. And I love the simplicity of the Gobi System.


Seriously, how GOOD does this bike look, now!!! (You can see here that we were trying to imitate the mounting system that a fellow ADV Rider had made for his RotoPax - it didn't quite work, so for now, Roel is carrying my oil cans as we contemplate another solution. Suggestions welcome.)

A really cool art school campus 10 minutes from Ruben & Aurora's that we NEVER would have found on our own

Ruben & Aurora... our riding family in Oaxaca. Love them!

On the way home from the art school, we stopped at the local bakery to pick up breakfast for the following morning. a.k.a. Roel's new Happy Place. When the baker told Roel "Everything you can eat here is FREE; everything you buy to take home is double-price" - it was GAME ON!!!

Roel is such a creeper - look at him eying the remains of Azure's treat!


Before leaving Oaxaca, Ruben and Aurora took us to some lovely local spots that we wouldn’t have found on our own. And we even managed to squeeze in a visit to Monte Alban, an incredible archaeological site with intact ruins and good explanations for the interesting buildings and cosmic methods the inhabitants of this ancient city used to tell the time and date. We are so grateful to Ruben and Aurora for opening their home to us and for becoming part of our motorcycle family.

Game game. Unlike game courts found at other pyramid sites, it is believed that human sacrifice was not part of the "game" here at Monte Alban. Instead, it is believed that playing this game was used to settle land disputes and such.

One of the 40ish reliefs found around Monte Alban, that they originally labelled "Conquest Slabs" as they were thought to depict fallen enemies. However, upon further investigation, they are believed to portray sacrifices and in some cases, may be representative of a plague or epidemic that wiped out some of the population at Monte Alban.

Checking out one of the many art installations housed in the converted Convent of San Pablo... Ruben brought us here knowing we'd be enthralled with how they've integrated new architectural elements into this building that dates back to 1529.

Roel's supervisor, Oreo, looks on as he worked on the bikes... made him feel quite at home, as he has a Border Collie at home in Holland.