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Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Brian & Deya met in Vancouver Canada. After a few years together we were married and made choices. One was not to have children the other was not to take life for granted. The rest is yet to come.

May 16, 2011

Borders, your first and last impression of a country.

Instead of heading straight to Guatemala from San Cristobal we returned West to Chiapa de Corzo to visit a BMW rider and the owner of one of the Canyon tour companies there.  It’s a nice town that has a significant history with a model of the Spanish King’s crown reproduced as a fountain in the centre of town around 1562 A.D.  It’s safe with plenty of tourists coming by, mostly Latino.

After staying with our host, Eduardo, for a couple of days and getting our process together for the entry into Central America we back tracked East along the 190 again, 3rd time, and headed for Comitan.  We figured we would get near the border then spend the day investigating the crossing before going in.  Instead we got there very early and decided to head straight for it.  It was hot by the time we hit the exit on the Mexican side of things and we were well cooked.

The Mexican Migracion and Aduana (Customs) were a piece of cake, Deya walked in and told them we were leaving, they stamped us out, we moved the bikes next door to the Aduana and after ten minutes the guy came out, peeled the stickers from the bikes and we were ready to go. 

We rode across a bridge and over a hill entering into Guatemala and the small but busy community of La Mesilla.  It’s an obvious entry and there is a gate, the first building you come to is the Migracion (Immigration), we stopped, we didn’t have Quetzales (currency) so had to get some from a money changer.  It’s always more expensive but it’s convenient.  We didn’t change much, a few pesos so it didn’t matter.  Deya went into the Migracion, it took about 40 minutes, the ‘system’ was down and the football (Soccer) game was on.  The agent asked if it was our first time in Guatemala, Deya said yes and he said it would be 20 Quetzales for the two of us.  Deya asked if she could get a receipt and he said no, they don’t make receipts. She paid thinking that it was dirt cheap anyways, about 4 Canadian dollars.  My job is always the same, watch the bikes while all the locals ooooh and ahhhh and say, “Beee M, Mucho Deniro! Do you have a dollar?”  I try to reply, “Not anymore but I’ll take yours if your offering” then they leave.
Money changer
 Then we moved next door to the Aduana, very professional, they had all the prices posted on the wall with a notice of when the prices had been adjusted, they inspected the bikes, no sprays or BS.  We didn’t have enough Quetzales to pay so Deya wandered into town to find a bank, it was a long and super hot hike, she returned haggard but had the cash.  I stayed with the bikes since me only speekee the Iglish.  Deya wears her gear, pro rally II (BMW), which you may know weighs in at about a thousand pounds wet, so you can imagine the walk up the hill she had.  Took another 40 minutes for the walk and 15 for the Aduana, they issued a receipt and the total was 160 Quetzales each.  We put the stickers on the bikes and left.  I talked to Deya afterwards about the charges, reminded her that there is no charge for entering ourselves into Guatemala.  She was pissed at getting ripped off even 20 Quetzales, in her defence though both of us were overheated and at the bottom of our game when we got there.  The topic won’t end there though; we have a plan to ‘stir’ the pot.
Guatemala is pretty cool, the roads were great for motorcycling except for the sudden appearance of huge holes, tumulos (speed bumps), and various animals.  There were a lot of tumulos which in my opinion is great and kept the drivers at reasonable speeds.  The bus drivers however are all nuts and when you see these flaming, flashing monsters coming it’s best to stay clear.  The riding in Guatemala is good and there are lots of good gas stations and relative security for travellers, people are nice and don’t seem insecure about their position in the world.  I noticed, not sure why, that people started to look me in the eye, were more interested in us and never jumped straight into the racial imprinting.  Maybe that’s why I felt so much better about the place than Mexico, generally speaking.

We made it to Lake Atitlan, normally I don’t like tourist traps but it is better to get your bearings where there are some familiar services.  On the way in we saw a sign for camping and decided to stay.  We ended up staying for four days; it was cheap and had a lot of services, close to town and easy living.  Only 50 Quetzales a day, included bathrooms, showers, pool, electricity and a covered area.  In town we found a good breakfast place owned by a German lady called “Llama de Fuego”.  Nearby was a designer clothing store with fantastic clothing that had Deya hooked, I pretty much had to drag her out of the place which is unusual for Deya and make promises to return one day to load up. 

Lake Atitlan is a nice place and worth spending some time there, riding around and checking out the sights.  We were camped beside the property of the owners of Pollo Campero, similar to KFC and probably as rich.  These folks had helicopters and all night parties going, the result was a bit of fatigue for us enduring the noise and action, despite their excellent choice of music. 
In town (Panajachel), we walked around and bought food at the local market.  The selection is limited because they simply don’t grow a variety of stuff.  On our walk along the main strip I kept getting approached by people trying to sell a boat ride to the other side of the Lake.  One young lad was persistent and when I refused the boat ride he began offering drugs.  I don’t care if people want to fry their brains but I do know what the money from illegal means does to innocent people and it certainly makes you wonder about the people on the street offering seemingly legitimate boat rides to tourists and their motivations.  What are you going to do when you’re in the middle of a lake going some place you really don’t know for sure with a drug dealer as a captain.  There are enough tourist police in town but once you are out of sight…..who knows. 

Despite this we had a great time and left having a really good breakfast at the same joint.  We were going to head South to Monterrico on the Pacific Coast, check it out and take a ferry a short ways inland to carry on route CA2 to El Salvador.  We ended up taking a route around the lake that I must admit was beautiful, short, dirt, somewhat technical epic.

Instead of the longer paved route we ended up climbing a mountain in 35 degrees heat. What should have taken 30 minutes turned into almost 2 hours with no water. Coupled with three sleepless nights, Deya had suffered a serious injury which resulted in her total lack of mental and physical stamina.  I had to leap frog two heavy bikes up some difficult roads for almost two hours in the heat.  Riding up and walking back, trying to encourage Deya to pick herself up and move on without unleashing the evil eye.  Most parts of the road, if you stopped, you’d start sliding backwards, there were washouts and ruts, large stones and sand.  If the bikes were unloaded and we were at full strength I would probably be saying it was epic awesome but under the circumstances it was epic brutal.
Deya, as the ladies can empathize, was suffering from her monthly injury and so I could forgive her for the weakness displayed.  She really was beat and when one of the team falls down the other one must pick them up.  Deya appreciated the tremendous physical effort and the heat exhaustion I suffered for her and I’d do it again and again, despite how pissed off I was.  We made it through and regardless the ordeal I would think that this route and all the routes around the lake would be fantastic.  The lake is worth seeing if you are in the area.
WTF!?! There is garbage everywhere??!! Zoom-in
We ended up with an easy drive to Monterrico, it costs 5 Quetzales at the bridge to enter and takes about 20 minutes to get there.  Once there we stayed at a place on the beach, it was hot and the town was dirty.  The beach has a lot of potential and we heard that it was beautiful, but to be honest it looked more like a garbage dump than a beach.  I have a pet peeve about garbage and in order not to drive Deya nuts I try to refrain talking about it.  But simply, people who throw garbage should be whipped, it damages the environment and what potentially could be a world class beach is just disgusting. For that, we left the next morning headed for El Salvador.  A note to people who live off tourism, pick up the garbage and police it carefully, we would have spent a week there if it wasn’t a dump.  How hard is that to understand? 

We took a short ferry ride inland through a swamp, it cuts off a lot of time and kilometres and only cost 85 Quetzales for both bikes.  Unloading was difficult though as we had to back the bikes off the barge uphill.  It ended well and we were on our way until we got stuck in cattle traffic.  I had a very brief standoff with the head bull, not sure if I won or if he just realized I wasn’t pining for his cows.

 We got to the Frontera (Border) on the Guatemalan side at Pedro de Alvarado, La Hachadura on the Salvadorian side and immediately had a crowd of ‘helpers’ around us.  This pisses me off a bit, while I respect that they are trying to help people with the confusion of the border for a living, they often create the very confusion they suggest that they can help with.  I told Deya not to talk to these guys and go straight to the office, she continued to ask questions.  I left pissed off, they we’re pointing her towards a guy with a clip board sitting on the sidewalk, bullshit.  Once I road away, she got it and simply road over to Migracion office.  Once there the situation changed and Deya was able to get our documents done fairly easily.  We also got the contact to make a formal complaint against the fellows who charged us 20 Quetzales on the way in and an apology from the supervisor there.  We’ll let you know how that goes.
All 'helpers' waiting to run at you at the same time, bikes are so they can chase you down
The Aduana is on the other side of the building and there are 3 stations.  I think it was somewhat inefficient of a process though not complicated.  There are requirements on the wall near the office in English of what copies you need to get to cancel your stickers for the bikes.  It doesn’t cost a thing to exit the country and shouldn’t either.  The only hiccup was the volume of truck drivers but Deya said she would be documenting this clearance process and they started jumping on board.  Good stuff.
It’s important to have your papers in order, the clear out documents need to be presented to the Salvadorian officer, in this case, on the bridge entering El Salvador.  We drove past him but were stopped and told to go back to get him to stamp our papers. It was professional and well organized.  We returned and the guy just laughed, made sure our documents were in order, stamped the Guatemalan exit documents and let us go in.  When we entered it was obvious where the Migracion and Aduana were, there was a total absence of ‘helpers’ only money changers and police all over the place.  The Migracion was simple, cost nothing and took about as long as the short line up.  The Aduana process was clear and transparent at no cost but took over an hour.  It was long because they are thorough and go over the documents carefully.  You need to produce the exit documents that the guy on the bridge stamped and the agent reminded us that if you run your permit for the vehicle out then you get billed $622 USD per month of excess.  Now imagine you leave without clearing and return a year later to get stopped and fined $6000-$7000 bucks.  Smart for them, but better for us to make sure we take no shortcuts; I wondered how many other countries we’ve been to or will go to with similar rules, probably most.
In all Guatemala and El Salvador have good border crossings with the potential to improve. In my opinion, if they police the ‘helpers’ out of there the simplicity of the process will move the country to streamline their Migracion and Aduana process.

As soon as we left the border we were confronted by a police check point, they wanted to see our documents for the vehicles we just entered. Once that was done we could go, however, the road heading out is a toll and a young lady wanted 5 bucks each.  As luck would have it, we had no money, and had just used up our spare fuel too.  We had been unable to find a bank, ATM, or anyone else who accepted credit cards.  The girl phoned her boss and got us cleared to leave without paying.  I’m not entirely sure it was official but my guess is that, it would be if they could issue a receipt. 

The first thing I noticed about El Salvador was the lack of speed bumps compared with Guatemala, and the beautiful surf.  The people seem a little more serious but in general a welcoming sort.  We stopped for gas near Acajutla on the Pacific Coast, don’t go there it’s a sketchy dump, we had been warned about it but needed gas and when we got there, there were masked gang members looking dudes checking us out.  Some local riders stopped to say hi and chat, they confirmed that we should get our fuel and head elsewhere, there is a bad element.  Enough said, we headed for Puerto La Libertad.

We stayed the first night in a quiet safe place just entering town.  It was 30 bucks which just kills me when I consider our budget but we couldn’t find camping or anything better and I was suffering from heat exhaustion again, nearly puking at this point.  It had been a long day so Deya was calling the shots.  That night we had Pupusas and beer, a local dish and went to sleep.  I slept like the dead, the next day we found a place in town right in front of the beach with the surfers doing their thing and waves crashing in, way better (Hotel Renacer $15 USD). The beach here is rocky but the surf is very good, lots of surfer dudes around and clowns.  We’ll stay a couple of days before getting to the Honduran border.
The Honduran’s day should be epic, we’ll punch out of El Salvador, clock into Honduras, ride for 118 kilometres, clock out of Honduras and punch our way into Nicaragua.  I’ve heard that entering Honduras is full of shitz and giggles so this is going to make for a long day at 30-40 degrees… Celsius.

Later I’ll get a summary of the border crossing details for each country we have been in.

Clowns everywhere

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