Antigua, Guatemala · November 8
The atmosphere changed abruptly once I crossed from Mexico to Guatemala. The weather changed, from sun to cloud. The temperature changed, from warm to cool. The mood – the metabolism – had changed, subtly but distinctly, to the darker, to the more desperate. I could smell it. I could taste it. I could feel it.
I tooled along CA (Central America) 2 in Guatemala towards the nation’s premier city, Antigua Guatemala, and felt drops of rain on my bare arms. Great storm clouds of gun-metal gray and chalkboard black assembled on the horizon, and seemed certain to ensure a thorough drenching.
It did pour, and I was obliged to bundle up in my riding jacket. Yet I rode, too, thru sporadic sun showers. The contrast of brilliant sun and bruised clouds and heavy rain seemed to underscore the multidimensional dichotomy of the country I had entered -- its tragic poverty and majestically prehistoric beauty and its simmering threat of violence and crime.
The standard of living in Guatemala was distinctly lower than Mexico. Small buildings of thatch and brick and corrugated sheet metal lined the road. People in shabby clothes, many barefoot, walked and rode bicycles and were ferried about in the back of pick-ups, a dozen or more in a single vehicle. Some lugged freshly chopped firewood and coconuts on their backs, or in small wooden carts. Unhelmeted men piloted noisy two-stroke motorcycles with reckless abandon.
These people were poor. The majority did not have vehicles. I passed dozens of subsistence farming communities and saw cows and pigs and donkeys and chickens and roosters and dogs trotting about, and carcasses of some of the same, on the road, victims of traffic.
In one tiny town called El Carmen, I stopped at a roadside stand for a papaya juice. The girl made it in an old electric blender. She had a little boy of about 3 named Jose. He eyed me dispassionately, and stirred not in the least when I blew up a balloon and offered it to him.
The girl and her sister wanted to know where I was from and where I was going and how old I was and whether I had a wife and children. They arched their eyebrows and giggled when I told them I did not. Do you ever see Americans here? I asked them. Nunca. Never.
At Escuintla, I took a left on CA 14 and rode north towards Antigua. The road leapt upwards, to an elevation of some 5000 feet. I rode in the shadow of towering volcanoes, their cones misted in cloud. These were sights straight out of the dinosaur books of which as a child I was so fond. It was easy to indulge fantasies of having entered William Rice Burroughs’ The Land that Time Forgot.
Antigua itself, pop. 30,000, is nestled among three volcanoes. One of them, Volcan Fuego, simmers with latent violence … not unlike the city itself, as I would discover. Over the next several days, I would watch entranced as its cone issued a thin plume of smoke. Fascinating.
Like many Latin American cities, Antigua’s downtown is a grid of narrow, one-way streets. I took care with my knobby tires on the rain-slick and broken cobblestone and, after some trial and error, found a cheep hotel. I’d arrived not long after 5 p.m. Already, it was getting dark. If not for the parrot at my Tapachula hotel, I might have found myself once riding after sunset.
I would have the penthouse suite. My room was on the top, third floor. It could be reached only up a narrow set of cement stairs in poor condition. Pet parrots squawked as I lugged my bags up. A girl with two gold teeth told me I was handsome, and leered at me provocatively.
The place, though, turned out to have inadequate parking for La Cabra. This I determined only after paying the bill. The courtyard I in which I’d understood I could park the bike would, in fact, at night accommodate the owner’s van. I was instructed to pull the motorbike into a recessed courtyard so small that getting it out would be a major ordeal. It wouldn’t work.
You can park your bike on the street, I was told. It should be safe. If it’s safe, I replied, then why don’t you park your van out there?
I arranged with a brighter, more pleasant establishment, Hotel El Viajero around the corner (its rooms full for the nite), to park the bike in its courtyard. The next morning, I would move myself.
I occupied the penthouse floor with three low-income young men. The trio shared a tiny two-bedroom room. They lived in Antigua. One was named Ricardo. He was an irrepressible native Costa Rican in his late 30s and had lived in the United States – in the Bay Area, in fact – for eight years. His English was good. His cheekbones were as black and hard and polished as eight balls, the skin on his face lined as delicately as linen, and he spoke with a jaunty lilt.
We sat on a plastic chairs. Would I like a hit? He pulled out a marijuana pipe. No, but thanks. Ricardo smoked, and turned the conversation to crime. He had been robbed. His passport had been stolen. The Costa Rican embassy had done little to help him. That was three years ago, and he had been stuck here since, or so he claimed, earning a pittance by serving as janitor at the hotel.
It’s bad, man, he said, shaking his head. It’s getting badder. This guy, he was robbed. That guy, he was robbed. Bad.
The crime, Ricardo told me, was worst in Guatemala City, the 2 million-pop. capital. Just that day, Ricardo told me conspiratorially, as if he was confiding a secret, three government officials had been assassinated in broad daylight in Guatemala City. He had heard it on the news. And now the crime and violence was migrating here, to Antigua, he said.
Was he sensationalizing? He did not seem to be above it.
But sure enough, the gruesome assassination news was lasciviously splashed across the front pages of the next day’s newspapers. Guatemala had been mired in a civil war during the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. Many of the rebel warriors now had as a vocation thievery and robbery and murder and drugs. My Lonely Planet guide carried the following warning:
“Armed thieves roam the highlands; it’s best to avoid stopping in desolate places. Don’t wander around any city late at night.”
These were more than Chicken Little warnings, as it turned out. I met a Brit in a camera store and spoke with him briefly. He was shopping for a new camera, having been robbed a day earlier in the highlands by machete-wielding bandits.
At 2 a.m. outside the hostel at which I would spend four nites, Posada Ruiz 2, a young American woman was robbed and kicked in the head. She was a guest at the hostel. Second-hand stories of robbery abounded, some embellished, no doubt, but others certainly not.
* * *
I wandered around Antigua late at night. The city rises and retires early, owing to a 5:30 a.m. sunrise and 5:30 p.m. sunset. By 10 p.m., the city seemed to have buttoned up. The streets were dark and empty. The few streetlights that did exist gave off a jaundiced yellow glow. I walked blocks without encountering another individual. There was none of the neon or animation you’d expect in the nation’s leading tourist enclave.
The atmosphere of my travels had abruptly changed. In Mexico, I had grown accustomed to nocturnal festivity. In Oaxaca and Zacatecas and Tapachula, for instance, central plazas were busy until well after midnite. People laughed and sang and kissed, and vendors plied their wares. I felt safe amid the revelry.
In Antigua, I saw none of that. In the daytime, the city was bright and quaint, with its crumbling colonial architecture and narrow streets and abundance of pedestrians, both local and tourist. At night, it was ominously quiet.
I found a restaurant called La Chimenea – The Chimney, the name referring to the region’s volcanoes. It was 10:14 p.m. There was one other patron in the establishment. He was a friend of the bartender. I ordered a Gallo with limon and took stock of the day’s events, unsettled as they were.
The day had been dark and stormy and wet. It had taken me more than two hours to cross the border into Guatemala. I’d been ripped off by a border crossing cheat – a small sum, but it pained my pride nonetheless.
Highway traffic had been busy and treacherous, and negotiating it at speed had left me on razor’s edge. Finding a suitable hotel had been more problematic than usual.
I’d been warned sternly of crime, and, worst of all, I’d learned in an email that my friend Vlad of S.F., motorcycling thru Colombia, had been in an accident. I sat at La Chimenea and meditatively nursed my beer. I peered across the bar in a mirror at my own reflection. I was pensive. It was dim. Candles burned. Silence roared.
The bartender approached me and handed me a notebook. In it was carefully handwritten the names of 312 albums, most of them American and British and familiar to me. The Rolling Stones. Rush and Warren Zevon. Led Zeppelin and the Eagles. Would I like to choose an album to play on the CD system?
For weeks, I had heard little other than Mexico’s riotous music. Like country or rap, I can abide it only in limited doses. It quickly becomes tiresome. Some hard driving, hardcore American rock ‘n roll would be … so perfect.
I try to remember to trust music. It unfailing energizes the spirit. It surprises me like a favorite meal at a favorite restaurant. It can’t really be that good … can it? You order the dish, and it’s even better than you remembered. I chose #227, The Doors’ Greatest Hits.
The music closed around my heart like a handshake from an old friend. It was as beautifully dark and wild and rich and forbidden and loud as recent events. From across the years, the eons, and manifold worlds, Jim Morrison sang.
Well I just got into town about an hour ago
Took a look around, see which way the wind blow
The music spoke to me, as intimately as if it was whispered in my ear. Words of wisdom. Lyrics of life. Melodies raw yet textured, familiar and true, as deep and vast and untamed as the sea.
Riders on the storm
There’s a killer on the road
His brain is squirming like a toad
Take a long holiday
Let your children play
If you give this man a ride
Sweet memory will die
Killer on the road, yeah
I marinated myself in the music, and got to thinking.
That morning, I’d entered Guatemala via the northerly border crossing with Mexico. Instantly, dozens of men and teenagers rushed at me. They are called tramitadores. They try to earn a wage by assisting inexperienced tourists, such as myself, thru the perplexing paperwork and processes required to get body and bike legally across a national boundary.
I’d read mixed reviews on hiring these guys. I figured I would try to execute the crossing myself. I kept a pace of 15 mph or so as I approached the border, and most of the men running after me – several dozen of them, yelling noisily and flailing histrionically – gave up the chase.
One fellow, though, pursued me with the zeal of a burned cornerback in the Super Bowl. He charged after me, head down, arms and legs pumping like pistons, yelling for me to stop with such urgency you’d have thought I was in mortal danger. Finally, I did.
His name was Arturo. He spoke good English. He was short – 5 foot 3 inches at the most – and his blue button-down shirt was stained with perspiration. His face was chubby and scarred by acne. Could I trust him? I looked him in the eye. I couldn’t really tell.
I scanned the surroundings – a Third World scene of crazy signs and blaring horns and strange odors and mass confusion. A crowd quickly assembled around me and my bike.
Men with money to change. Boys with shoe-shine equipment and beseeching brown eyes. Men and boys – no females – fingering my bike and possessions; boys pointing at their eyes and then my bike, indicating they would watch it while I visited the requisite government offices. Lo miro, lo miro, they said. I decided I would give Arturo a chance.
It proved to be a minor mistake. Park down there, he said, pointing to a small, lower-level parking lot in front of a hotel and store and photocopy place. The immigration office was on the other side of the street. I was surrounded by several dozen men, each vying for my attention. Park there, park there, they insisted, pointing to the lower level.
No, I told them. I will park in front of the immigration office. No, they warned – police! It is not allowed! No estacionamiento! No parking! Bullshit. Among all the hundreds of people, I’d noticed not a single police officer. Other vehicles were parked about the immigration office. I removed my GPS unit and tank bag and locked my helmet to the bike and waded into the sea of people, little Arturo at my side, as attentive as a puppy.
Give me your passport, Arturo said. Yeah right, buddy.
Arturo helped me pay a few dollars for a passport stamp indicating I’d left Mexico. Next, he said, I would need a Guatemalan permit for the bike. I knew that to be true. He led me to a small office that appeared official. It had bars in the window and an official-looking emblem on the wall. I filled out a form and handed over $12 US or so in Guatemalan currency, and got a suspicious-looking piece of paper in return.
Now I would need another permit, Arturo said. He led me to another office that was obviously not associated with the Guatemalan government. I would need to pay $250 US for this permit, he said. A man in a white polo shirt sat at a desk, reading a newspaper. He seemed perfectly uninterested.
Arturo was trying to scam me. I knew a fee was required. I also knew it wasn’t any more than $30 or so. I chewed him out. I stabbed my finger at his chest. Me crea estupido? I told him, as much scoldingly as mockingly. You think I’m stupid?
You are trying to cheat me, punk. Here, I said, handing him the smallest of Mexican bills, as a matter of insult. He looked at me sheepishly, head down. Get lost. He did, tail between legs.
Eventually, I made it thru. Guatemalan Immigration stamped my passport. When I approached Customs, I was told I would need a permit for the bike. I already have one, I told the man, presenting the piece of paper procured for $12 US with Arturo’s assistance. The man tossed it back at me and laughed.
Comfortably ensconced at La Chimenea, I could chuckle, if a bit ruefully, over the episode. For my first serious border crossing, I’d been ripped off only slightly. Next time, I would know better. The Doors played on.
People are strange
When you’re a stranger
Faces look ugly
When you’re alone
Women seem wicked
When you’re unwanted
Streets are uneven
When you’re alone
When you’re strange
Faces come out of the rain
When you’re strange
When you’re strange
When you’re strange
My mind turned to the disturbing email I’d received from my friends Joe and Vlad of S.F., motorcycling thru Colombia. Vlad had suffered an accident. His bike was banged up, and so was his left leg. He could barely walk, and certainly could not ride. Joe, however, had an obligation in Lima, Peru, and could not afford much more time in Colombia. Could I motor south and help Vlad?
Sure, you bet. I was, um, heading that way, after all. I would have to skip the several days of Spanish instruction that I had planned for Antigua. But that would be all right. Vlad is a native Mexican and, naturally, fluent in Spanish. He could tutor me.
In a subsequent email, Vlad explained the accident. He’d been motoring thru a corner. A car was attempting to pass a slow-moving truck in the oncoming direction. Vlad and his KLR got clipped and took a nasty tumble. He was nursing his wounds and counting his blessings. It could have been much worse.
Expect the unexpected. Expect the worst. Vlad is a careful rider. Even so, his accident was virtually unavoidable, excepting, of course, the recklessness of the offending motorist.
How true it was. Tiene verdad. That day in Guatemala, motorcycling proved to be a competitive sport.
Traffic in Mexico I’d found to be relatively civilized, though certainly more spirited than in the U.S., and not without its share of hazards. Once I entered Guatemala, though, the change in driving practices was immediately evident. It was faster and more reckless and more aggressive – practically competitive. It reflected, I thought, a certain desperation rooted in the poverty so pervasive here.
The two-lane CA 2, on the 90 miles from the Mexican border to Escuintla, throbbed with vehicles. I saw far fewer late model versions than in Mexico; most were older and dilapidated and proceeded at vastly different speeds, owing to the vehicle’s horsepower and the cojones of its driver.
Semis with sagging suspensions, dump trucks full of passengers, and old school buses, colorfully painted and repurposed for public transportation, dominated the road. They moved slowly, and the buses stopped frequently, sometimes in the middle of the road. Traffic ebbed and surged. The principal objective – pass, pass, and pass again.
I found myself playing along. I weaved thru traffic at speed in towns and on the highway. I ripped over solid yellow center lines at 50 and 60 and 70 mph, between semis and buses and cars, and occasionally along the shoulder. You practically had to, in order to avoid the hideously nauseating black exhaust from so many vehicles here. Tires sprayed bike and me and with dirty road water from the day’s rains.
I would flip my helmet visor to its full shut position, hold my breath, squint my eyes, and tear ass thru the poisonous fumes. Visor down, though, meant that my vision was compromised by the tire spray and sporadic rain. I wiped the wetness away with my left thumb and bore down.
Calculate distance between vehicle in front and vehicle oncoming. Assess speed of each and width of road. Scan for obstacles – potholes, roosters, garbage, rocks. Check mirror, snap head to the left to check for passing vehicle behind, peg right wrist to maximum throttle. Hear the SuperTrapp roar. Swerve right, in front of oncoming vehicle. Slow and repeat.
This is an amphetamine-laced flavor of driving one does not see in the U.S. I saw no police. The solid yellow center line seemed for decoration only. It was, I suppose, dangerous. It was also exhilarating – almost addictively so. By the time I reached Escuintla, my nervous system was electric. I felt very much alive.
Keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel
Keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel
The future’s uncertain and the end is always near
The Doors played on. When the album ended, I thanked the La Chimenea bartender for the immensely palliative music, and walked alone thru the dark streets of Antigua to my hotel.
* * *
The next morning, Saturday, November 9, dawned bright and sunny. The clouds had lifted, and so had my mood. I shaved and brushed my teeth in the shared bath of my hotel, and readied myself for the day.
I encountered one of Ricardo’s roommates. He was a hostile-looking young man with dark skin and an afro and tattoos on his forearms and shoulders a predatory glint in his eyes. The nite before, he had seemed to regard me with contempt. This morning, though, he greeted me warmly – “yo bro.”
I figured Ricardo had told him I was on a motorcycle, and had ridden from California. That piece of information always confers a certain respect. Otherwise, I was just another of the hundreds and hundreds of whiny, self-indulgent European and American tourists who crowd Antigua any day of the year, willfully spending what here amounts to obscene sums of cash.
Ricardo was busy with his janitorial duties, mopping the floors. I stepped out in search of coffee. One of the three volcanoes, Volcan Agua, towered over the southeastern horizon. I felt awed by its presence.
The coffee shop shared its space with a tourist office. I spotted a globe on the girl’s desk, and asked if I could see it. Wow, I thought. I was a third of the way to Tierra del Fuego, my destination at Argentina’s southern tip.
The day unfolded with pleasant surprises. Along Alameda de Santa Lucia, Antigua’s main drag, I spotted a silver BMW 1150 GS – a rare sight in these parts -- and strolled over to admire it. It was parked in front of a hardware store, and a large, 30-something man with a proprietary bearing stood on the store’s steps. Es suyo? I asked him, pointing to the bike. Si, he replied proudly. It is mine. Too was the hardware store.
I told him I was on a motorcycle, and that I had a new tire that I wanted to put on. Could he recommend a place to help me? He whipped out a cell phone and placed a call. Yes, two blocks down the street, on the left, you will find a clothing boutique. Behind it is a tire repair shop. Ask for Fito.
Dubiously, I strolled down Alameda de Santa Lucia. I poked my head in several storefronts. Conoce Fito? No. Conoce Fito, hombre de llantas? No. I asked a woman behind the desk at an Internet café if she knew Fito. Si, es mi esposa. He is my husband.
Fito’s tiny shop was, improbably but indeed, in the rear of a women’s clothing boutique. He had a tire-changing machine. A diploma from El Vulcacentro Centroamericano, conferred in September 1999, hung proudly on his wall.
Yes, he could help me, so long as we started right away. He had an obligation that afternoon, and Sunday was reserved for church and family. Otherwise, it would have to wait until Monday.
I had 45 minutes. I raced back to my hotel, gathered up my possessions, changed into my black riding pants to spare my denim Levis the grease stains inevitable from motorcycle maintenance, and relodged myself at the pleasant Hotel El Viajero.
I hired Ricardo for about 50 cents US to help me with my luggage, and to prop La Cabra on its centerstand. I whipped out my tools and removed the rear tire, and hired a taxicab – a golf cart-like vehicle – to bounce and jostle me over six blocks of rough cobblestone street to Fito’s shop. I made it in the nick of time.
Within the hour, Fito had my new Pirelli MT 60 on the rim. Fito was a damn nice guy, and knew what he was doing. He and his wife ran the clothing boutique and Internet café and his little tire shop. He had a Honda CB 450 – a large bike here – parked in the living room that adjoined his tire shop. The job cost me about $8 US. I thanked him with a $2 tip.
Back at Hotel El Viajero, in its small and leafy courtyard, the proprietress tolerated with good humor the disorder I left in the process of tire-changing. I took the opportunity to clean the motorbike’s chain with some of the gasoline I carry in a jerrican. It was filthy.
I cleaned myself up and set out to explore Antigua. It is truly a gem of a city, though it yields its charms grudgingly. Over the course of the day, I would discover dozens of splendid Spanish-Colonial architectural delights and handsome restaurants, most lit in the early evening by candle, and well-stocked stores.
I wandered down to the bus station and marveled at what seems to a source of inordinate Guatemalan pride – the crazy-colored buses that ferry people about the country. They are quite a sight, each rendered as vividly as a Peter Max painting and reflecting the colorful fabrics and potteries of the indigenous Mayan Indians, of which Guatemala has the greatest concentration in the world.
I bought several Guatemala and Antigua stickers for the growing collection on my panniers. I made the time to take inventory of my luggage and ship back to S.F. via DHL (and a painful $116 bill) some 18 pounds of gear that I could live without.
Back went the Grundig shortwave radio and Whisperlite stove and a plate and spoon and fork and rim protectors and a few nuts and bolts and a white tank top (impossible to fully clean with laundry detergent and a scrub brush) and pairs of undies and socks and duplicate stickers and the air-foam Thermarest camping pad.
When you’re packing, you think, ah, it’s light and doesn’t take up much room. Make that rationalization a dozen times, and you’ve got a load of stuff that is not at all light and does take up a bunch of room.
I hadn’t camped since Creel, Mexico. I miss it, but the fact is that camping is not popular here. I haven’t passed a commercial campground in weeks, and I’m not inclined to wild camp and invite a robbery, not to mention forsake a civilized constitutional in the morning. Hotels are rarely much more than $10 US a nite … a KOA in the U.S. charges more for a patch of earth. I kept my tent and down sleeping bag, of course, for emergency, and for the camping opportunities I knew awaited in Chile and Argentina.
Pleasant people abounded throughout Antigua. At a place called Café Weiner, I played two games of chess with a young Guatemalan named Sergio, with a disposition so gentle that it seemed impossible that certain of his countrymen were given to violence.
The aura of menace I’d perceived the night before seemed to have evaporated, though it was still discernible, in the form of shotgun-toting guards outside banks and stores and a scattering of gauze pad wrappers and other medical supplies on the sidewalk, which I imagined to have been discarded in the course of tending to an assaulted tourist.
The Guatemalan demeanor struck me as notably more subdued than the Mexican. Guatemala does not bear its passions on the sleeve, as does Mexico. There was a pervasive joy here, however … a quiet, subterranean laughter, a latent risibility, a smile waiting to happen on practically every face.
I stopped in a bookstore, and found a sight rarely seen outside of the U.S. – nearly a full, worldwide selection of Lonely Planet travel guides. I bought a finely detailed map of Guatemala, which I’d been unable to find on the Internet prior to departure, and a book too interesting to pass up, despite its weight and volume and the fact that I had little time to read.
The book was called “Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science, from the Babylonians to the Maya,” by Dick Teresi. I like that kind of stuff. It would prove an instructive text several days later, when I visited the sprawling Mayan ruins at Copan, Honduras.
At twilight – around 5:30 p.m. – I returned to my hotel and showered up. I made my way to Café Weiner. The place catered to German tourists, with a menu heavy on weinerschnitzel and sausages. I chewed on peanuts and watched men play chess. And hour and a half passed, and just as I was about to leave, Jon Huber walked in.
Amigo! he exclaimed.
* * *
I’d last seen Jon in Oaxaca, Mexico, for one nite. We’d met in mid-October at the Horizons Unlimited gathering of adventure motorcyclists in Creel, Mexico, and had stayed in touch via email. The mid-50s Minnesotan was heading to Tierra del Fuego, too, on his BMW 650 Dakar. I’d sent him an email. I’m in town. Meet me tonite at Café Weiner.
It’s always a treat to consort with a fellow adventure rider. Motorcycling solo in foreign countries is never boring, and worthy in its right, but to be able to trade notes and share a laugh and swap information with a fellow two-wheeler is decidedly a highlight of the adventure.
We went out to dinner the next two nites. The first nite pizza, the second nite, fine steaks and a $30 bottle of red wine. We were treating ourselves. We were celebrating. We’d made it a decent ways south, with no major setbacks. What’s more, we’d taken a litmus test of our appetites for this brand of adventure.
No doubt about it. We were hungry for more. To talk and laugh and listen to a motorcycling peer was not unlike looking in a mirror. The realization snuck up from behind and slapped me upside the head.
Man, you are having the rip-roaring best-ever time of your life!
On a frigging motorcycle, geared up, locked and loaded, Central America, riding south!