Saturday, July 16, 2011

What do you do after that?!

We headed out of San Pedro, back toward Antigua. After the volcano hike, I ate two of the previously pictured steak dinners, drank two liters of Gallo beer, and promptly passed out at 7PM. Graceful. That little excess cost us nearly all of our local currency, so we were on a strict, $8.00 budget for lunch. This is what we came up with, on the side of Panamerican Highway 1:
Just kidding, there's no meat on that thing!!

The food was ok, but the view was FAB! 
You caught me, I'm actually writing this on a hot, rainy day in Nicaragua, while drinking Flor de Cana, a great local rum here in Granada. But the food there was great.

P.S. Hot and rainy is god's cruelest trick on humanity. It's at least 90 degrees and 90% humidity right now.

ANYWAY, We had a crazy drag race with a number of tractor trailers through some of the most curvy, road-work laden territory in Central America, and arrived safely back in Antigua, despite the best efforts of every local woman, tractor-trailer and dog.
Exhibit A:
Queens of the road.

Exhibit B:
Thanks for the input, but I was already terrified when I saw the rocks in the middle of the road.
We got back to Antigua, I changed the oil on the bike, Jill bought a complete map of Central America, and we said goodbye to our friends there, including Thomas, the most well traveled Kiwi on the planet.
Our bike in the living room, where it lived while we were back home.  Thomas, who has lived everywhere you've ever thought about going.
We spent a quiet night in Antigua, and split for the El Salvador border at first light. Or 11AM. Somewhere around there. Here's where I will have to refer you to Youtube, as I found a "creative" route to the Panamerican Highway.

It was a crazy couple of hours, but we hit the highway and made tracks for El Salvador, the smallest and most populated country in Central America. The border was a mess, and I don't think Jill has had as much unwanted attention since she spent a night out at the Hawk in Lawrence. According to legend, 40% of El Salvador's GDP is generated by expats in the US, and judging by the seemingly relaxed lifestyle we saw in every town, I would believe it. We've not seen such a highly prostrate population since Belize, and it's still a bit creepy to see everyone lying around on the ground at 2PM on a Tuesday. Try to look like you're doing something, creepy dudes!

Once through the border we got as far as La Liberdad, and then anything started to look good. We made it most of the way through town, found a low-level place to stay, and the only food in the area was a roadside trucker haven. As I learned in Japan and Mexico, if you want to find the good food, find the place the big trucks stop. We had a wonderful dinner of chicken, rice and beans, and I would have taken a picture, but doing so makes you look like a real weirdo. We stopped at an auto hotel next door, and it looked something like this:
We are homeless in any practical sense.
Here's what we looked like in the Auto-Hotel:
Still crazy, after all these years. I love you Jill.  

At the crack of 10AM we were off,  bound for the border of Honduras. We got there, and it was the worst border-crossing scene of the trip. Scammers everywhere, crazy little shacks, stray dogs and a strange, foul odor. Jill ignored the "officials," distributed a few WWF class elbow drops, and we were in the clear...except for the final checkpoint dude with the big shotgun. He turned us straight around, back to scammerville to do things the right way. When Jill turns in a border "helper" to the Federal Police, this is what it looks like:
Do you want to cross the gringa in the aviators?! I don't!
 We got ripped off for about $60, and made our way through the 80 miles of Honduras with a deep, abiding hatred for every man, woman, child and dog in the country.  Strange how things work out; we had planned to spend two blissful months in Honduras, and ended up spending two frantic hours blasting through the southern territories. Why did we have to get out of Honduras the same day? Well, the customs officials were not to pleased with our attempt to drive through the border and skip their authority, so they granted us a 12 hour visa to Honduras. If we spent the night there, we would be facing a $150 fine for overstaying our visa when we left the next day. Insert incredibly explicit language here. Cut to high speed 80mph drive-through.

We busted through Honduras like it was on fire, and hit the Nicaraguan border in a sunset downpour. Silliness ensued, but we managed to get through by 8PM. If you're planning on crossing two international borders on a motorcycles in one day, it's important to remember that each border is two separate struggles: one to get out of the country you're in, and another to get into the next. Going into Honduras we were taken for around $60, and on the way out, money changers took us for another $35. This would not have been important, had we not needed another $2 to get into Nicaragua legally.

Jill watched the bike, and I sorted out all of the border nonsense. Everything was good, until we tried to get bike insurance for Nicaragua. It was $12, and we had $10.50. Why did we only have $10.50? That sounds stupid. Well, we got taken for $30 on the exchange rate on the Honduran side of the border, confirming our eternal hatred for Honduras. Anyway, a guy showed up and gave our pitiful souls the $1.50 we needed to get out, and we got out.

We got out into a torrential downpour, and rode 90 miles in it, in pitch darkness, to the first sign of civilization in Nicaragua. In that lovely jaunt we ran through a huge road washout, and got a colossal steel rod through our rear tire. Luckily we didn't notice the puncture until the next day, after a lovely night of drinks and dancing in the hotel restaurant.
Here's the stupid flat.
Stupid flat.
I then fixed it, because that's how I roll.

Fixed, oh, snap!
Ok, I fixed the flat and we headed out for Granada. It was an easy drive, and during a gas stop a guy gave me a big picture of Che Guevara, which now adorns our top box. When we arrived in Granada, it looked something like this:
Kind of obvious.
We've been here for the last three or four days; and as soon as Jill feels better we're off again. See ya!

Kayaks, Vocanoes and the ADD Dog

San Pablo La Laguna
With the bike sorted out, we headed back west for Lake Atitlan. My friend Katy's photos of Guatemala, and Lake Atitlan in particular, had a huge influence on my desire to take this trip in the first place. She described hanging around the lake, climbing volcanoes and kayaking to neighboring villages - all while living on a few dollars a day.

We set out for San Pedro, in search of Hotel Peneleu, Katy's lodging of choice in San Pedro. The last part of the ride was really amazing, as was the most intense switch-back descent I've ever seen. As with most roads in Guatemala, we were sharing it with everything from livestock to semi trucks, so a quick blip of the horn let people know to expect us around the next blind, steep 180 degree turn. The above photo is a shot Jill took from the top of the mountain, and here's a shot of part of it on Google Earth:

It was scary steep
When we arrived the town was busy setting up for a festival, so most of the main streets were blocked. We stopped to try and figure out where we were in town, when a woman asked us, in English, if we needed help finding something. Jill said that we were looking for Hotel Peneleu, and she said, "Oh, ok. That man is the brother of Peneleu, he's going there now." He was the brother of Peneleu, and he led us to this view, on the third story of his brother's hotel.

We agreed to three nights at $4 a night, and went out for this amazing dinner:
$5 red wine marinated steak and hand cut fries
The next day we rented some kayaks:

We got the boats for five hours and had a great time paddling around the lake, but found out that three hours was plenty of time in a kayak... Paddling in still water is work, and the lake is huge!  Another meal at the steak restaurant and we headed back to our hotel to rest up for our six AM climb up San Pedro volcano.

When we booked the volcano tour, Maria told us to bring some water, and maybe a snack.
"Will we need raincoats?"
"No, no raincoats, just be here at six."

We arrived at six and met Francisco, our guide. He was 17 and didn't speak much English, but managed to explain that he goes to high school and climbs the volcano twice a week to make money. We figured that if he climbs it twice a week it can't be that hard, but we quickly found out that this was more of a reflection of his physical condition than the difficulty of the climb. We started in the middle of town, and spent the first hour of the hike on the road up to the volcano, which was probably a 5-700 foot increase in elevation.

Hmmm...winded at the base of the volcano, not good.
From there the trail is narrow and steep, alternating between log staircases and craggy rock and dirt inclines. About an hour and a half later you reach what Francisco described as the "halfway point," but according to the map posted there it was the one-third way point. And the point where it got difficult. We were both on the edge of passing out, but managed to get these pictures:

We rested for a few minutes, and started up again. After another 30 minutes of slogging along, we came around a corner and saw row after row of coffee plants. So, we could barely get up there, and local people were coming up, planting crops, harvesting them, and taking them down. The altitude at the lake is around 6,000 feet, so by this time we were at about 8,000. It was pretty amazing, but we were more amazed that we still had 1,000 plus feet to climb. On the last third of the climb the jungle was pretty dense, and the clouds started to roll in...

Jill is at the base of the tree in the center
 And then it started raining...
And after about 4 hours of climbing, we reached the top, home of the best views It's cloudy, here are the pictures we got at the top. 
Soaked, exhausted and "smiling"

Francisco: "I could do this every day!"
Rain and exhaustion are a wonderful combination when descending a 9,000 foot volcano. Muddy, slippery, and quad-busting. Francisco earned every bit of his pay and tip - he waited hours for us to slide our jiggly, weak-in-the-knees gringo bodies down every inch of that god-forsaken volcano, and had the grace to act like he didn't mind a bit. We had hoped to catch a taxi at the base of the trail, but, when you stop to think about it, why would there be an empty taxi sitting at the bottom of a trail in rural Guatemala. At least we had ADD dog, a young husky/lab mix rascal who had been traveling with us most of the way down. Random dogs are a dime a zillion in central america, but this lady found us around 8,000 feet, and stuck faithfully by our side ever since. We trudged down the road, in heavy rain, back to San Pedro. We tipped Francisco at the edge of town, gave him our sincere thanks and headed toward the steak place with our new guide, perro sin nombre (no name dog). As we neared the restaurant we were worried that she had formed some sort of deep attachment to us, as she went wherever we did, and never strayed more than 50 feet from our path. We had conversations about the fact we couldn't possibly keep a dog, we couldn't ship her home, etc... 

We go to the center of town, and a guy in a tattoo parlor shouted "ADD dog, what's up!?" We were relieved to find out that she was the town dog, and habitually found new friends to follow around. She kept following us until we got close to the restaurant, and then left down an alley as inconspicuously as she had appeared. I never thought I would be so sad to see a stray dog wander off.