Gruffly waking up at 5am to the distinct growls of the howler monkeys, our alarm clock became their curiously deep throated bellowing, as I blinked in the faint light of false dawn. I closed my eyes for a moment, savouring the last strands of sleep as they parted company and shook the final filaments of slumber from my clotted thoughts. Stretching both arms and arching my back outside the tent, a mist spun down around us; thick and sparkling, it resembled a benign blizzard of miniscule snowflakes. I peered down and marvelled at a blotchy red-ringed bite on my leg the size of a two-pound coin; more than appreciating where I was. Deep within the maw of the Guatemalan jungle.
In the heart of the rainforest surrounded by lush vegetation, also lies the mother of all Maya sites. Tikal. Located in northern Guatemala’s Petén Province amid 57 lush hectares, the ancient city of Tikal—a name that means “at the waterhole”—flourished between the 6th century BC to the 10th century AD, give or take. It’s one of the few World Heritage estates inscribed according to both natural and cultural criteria; for an extraordinary spectrum of neotropical flora and fauna—including the hermitic jaguar, elusive cougar otherwise known as the aloof puma—as well as profound archaeological significance.
Resisting the white-hot itch, I launched for the insect spray; what did I expect? Jungles are always full of biting no-see-ums, and here was no exception—microscopic flies working feverishly alongside the more conspicuous mosquitoes to keep you a part of the bloody food chain. A flock of flycatchers wheeled in the sky above and all along the horizon, the tree line extended in a solid, unbroken mass of green. Engulfed in the clutches of the untamed place left me as energetic as a twisted rag. Eager to meet the vestiges of these magnificent Maya treasures, I still surrendered on the spot to the wonder of the morning.
Courtesy of careful excavation over years, a pocket of urbanisation poked out of the thick jungle, which hit us square on—after 20 minutes astride our bikes, from the entrance the day previous—and a 20 minute stroll from making camp at The Jaguar Inn inside the national park, at the crack of sparrows. The monumental size, restored condition and architectural brilliance of Tikal will more than astonish. Occupied for some 16 centuries by an estimated population of around 100,000 people, Tikal is perhaps one of the most compelling testaments to the cultural and artistic heights scaled by a jungle civilisation.
No surprise that Tikal became one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya. Tikal is the best understood of the lowland Maya cities, certainly in terms of its long dynastic ruler list, the discovery of the rulers’ tombs and the investigation of their monuments, temples and palaces. For centuries the city was completely covered under jungle where there are thousands of remnant structures yet only a fraction of these have been unearthed, after decades of archaeological work. However, the urban layout is still clearly discernable, which is also home to an almost surreal array of pyramids and ceremonial platforms, palaces and modest dwellings, and even ball-game courts.
In between strolling ancient causeways around the ceremonial centres, the abundant wildlife effortlessly averted our eyes and attention. Healthy numbers of white-nosed coatis roamed about our feet, lineated woodpeckers were easy to spot while the place crawled with Geoffroy’s spider monkeys. That alone was worth the entry fee. A troop of spider monkeys flung themselves with wild abandon from the canopy down to the lower levels of the forest to feed their faces and make their existence known. A sign near the first Maya site clearly informed passing visitors that it’s actually the howlers most likely to assert their dominance—and expect them to do so by defecating on your head. Super!
But no. It was the spider monkeys that took a disgruntled dislike to our presence. I bent my head unnaturally back to gawp at the monkeys where they peered through a hole in the patchy trees, taking the measure of us—limbs splayed wide and mouths agape—these guys were definitely on the defensive. The branches continued to rustle overhead, upon which a monkey lost patience with our disturbance of his peace and thrashed away from us, seeking the solitude of the forest into the maw of blackness.
Others in the troop advanced the proceedings by snapping off branches and lobbing them straight at us—I can vouch they’ve a remarkably good aim—aloft from the treetops. As I sidled up to a gigantic kapok, the sacred tree of the Maya, a male met my eyes with a crystalline intensity, waiting for the perfect moment to to dampen our day and treated us to a golden shower..! At the time, I shrieked in a successful attempt to dodge the spray but the smile still lives on my lips when I think about that. Cheers mate, we get it—we’re in your territory.
Walking beneath a canopy of emerald—the broadleaf, Honduras Mahogany, cedar and palm trees intertwined overhead in the lush bright green of new foliage. Wild grapevines—as thick as a man’s thigh—hung from the forest giants. Birdsong rose endlessly as parrots arced across the blue sky to caw excitedly. I’d barely looked up before a falcon flapped off to the north with a rasping of wings spiraling a deluge of delight through my soul.
Tikal is a wild place, which as national parks and UNESCO sites go, wasn’t bustling with bodies—human ones that is. It fell fabulously short of the masses, remained untamed for the large part and I was thoroughly enraptured with the notion of propelling myself back 2,500 years. Green parrots flitted from the brush up to the treetops in splashes of colour as they sang out. A thrill fit to burst built in my chest as we crept soundlessly through the forest screening the jungle for toucans or temples, pumas or pyramids and the myriad ruins and remains.
Many of the existing monuments still preserve decorated surfaces, including stone carvings and mural paintings with hieroglyphic inscriptions. They illustrate the dynastic history of the city and its relationships with urban centres—as far away as Teotihuacan and Calakmul in Mexico, Copán in Honduras or Caracol in Belize. The quality of architectonical and sculptural ensembles—serving ceremonial, administrative and residential functions—were exemplified in a number of places such as: the Great Plaza at the core of the place, flanked on the east and west sides by the Twin Pyramids; the Lost World Complex; as well as sophisticated irrigation structures built for times of draught. I poured over the location names within the city such as the Central Acropolis for the palace complex, the Temple of the Mask and the Temple of the Jaguar Priest.
Over moss-furred tree roots amid jungle clearings, we circumnavigated the entire ceremonial site with stone-heavy feet, sapped somewhat by the wet heat. Jason went back in for seconds before sunset and happened upon a grey fox to stalk. They kept each other company for hours. ‘More coy, less cunning,’ Jason urged as he tried to bend the fox’s will and gave chase to this beguiling little creature until twilight. There’s always more sly than shy in fantastic Mr Fox. Evening settled; the tropical birdlife of the day grew silent as the crickets trilled, and creatures of the night began to stir. I slept with the single-minded intent of any log in Tikal’s forest savouring the day of sunshine-lit jungle, cheeky monkeys and relics of an ancient past.
With not even two per cent of Guatemala’s landmass urbanised, I’m hard pressed to say we’ve encountered a more emblematic country to date in Central America. Akin to unwrapping a sweet surprise: sweeping with untouched jungle-clad landscapes teeming with indigenous wildlife lurking within and eagle-adorned skies above; pockets of emerald green and turquoise blue swimming holes; the cultural jarring of traditionally dressed Maya women toting the latest mobile phone next to age-old totemic Mayan ruins beneath rouged sunsets—will leave prickles of euphoria hovering around the soul. That said, the country’s prickles might also make the hairs on the nape of your neck stand on end with boisterous road blockades, gnarly dirt roads and lava-spewing volcanoes—sure serves Guatemala up as one heck of a rare if not raw dish to chew on. Not even age will devour that from a person’s soul.
All else had faded into the oblivion of a person pushed to the edge of her daily endurance; moto-wrecked from the joyous amounts of gnarly off roading, hugging the outskirts of Parque Nacional Grutas de Lanquín all morning. And would’ve done anything to make contact with soap and cold water; I was filthy, stinking hot and dog tired. Perhaps those regularities featuring in my life didn’t exactly warrant what I proceeded to do next, perhaps they did.
Rocking up to a raucous mass of men, something had made them incensed enough to obstruct everyone’s passage—just a handful of miles from Flores. Our next port of call. With the general elections coming up in September, huge bill boards through Guatemalan towns and villages plastered as many blown-up presidential candidates’ faces as they did the local response, ‘Guatemala needs work, not promises’. It might not be too unsafe to assume that the road blockade abruptly stopping us in our path was part and parcel of the locals making a political if not pertinent stand.
Impeding our progress by unceremoniously dumping logs and debris from the forest, strewn across the road, was the primary form of hindrance; the large knot of men armed with sticks buzzing around Jason’s bike like kicked bees was the second. I held back, out of sight. I needed time to survey the situation, my mind playing out several scenarios while trying to summon a Get out of jail free card. Something was being cooked up by my beleaguered brain as I was trying to fathom what £200 would look like in order to ‘Pass go’. Throwing a double six had never been my forte. Worst-case scenario, we’d have to miss a turn; sit this one out in compulsory support of the protesters, for goodness knows how long. As worthy as their cause ostensibly was—the prospect of being cornered by them didn’t overly comfort me.
Sat in sweat-sodden clothing soiled with all the usual suspects of the road: fumes, dust and dirt, black half-moons lay under my fingernails, and muck was ground into the webbing on my hands. I might holler, pleading into the rising tensions of the throng, thrash and whip myself up into a frenzy. Would anyone notice, or care? I looked up with gritty eyes to see scattered clouds scudding to the east. This fight is much larger than a fatigued female astride her motorcycle in need of a ruddy good wash. You will endure…because there is nothing else at your disposal. Or is there?
As I approached the stop-line, I clocked about the only chap that spoke adequate English, mediating with the more militant ones on our behalf. The show felt like it was on Act II already and the plot was going nowhere fast. Although I couldn’t ferret out the meaning behind the blockade with any specificity, I did zero in what was made abundantly clear; the activists wanted action, and wouldn’t be seen letting a couple of two-wheeled nomads slipping through the net. I flayed my brain; another trial loomed on the horizon, but this one would be for much higher stakes. That was the thing about travelling—you had your choice of tempests to face: natural or human-driven.
Far be it from me to hinder my own ability to create, but these guys weren’t the only ones that could mete out their own drama. Out popped my inner-performer, which surfaced a set of spectacularly cringe-worthy acting skills to boot. Mustering all of my heartrending emotions, a finished but cheery female rider emerged into a rather worrisome woman, having summoned a wealth of convincing crocodile tears with a hand on her…womb. Jason had initiated the pregnancy ruse, so I did the rest.
To the insider, I was ‘far-fetched-pathetic’ personified. At one point I gagged, trying to throw up—managing one dry heave cramping my stomach as more tears leaked down my face. Jason approached me and muffled under his breath, “Lisa, are you alright or are you just creating?” I was creating a spectacle out of myself but I’d passed the tipping point by that time. Better see it through and pray it’d work. Inside, I was fidgeting like a fish on a spear as I looked for a morsel of compassion from the crowd.
A faint spark kindled in the mayhem. Astonishingly, we were granted admittance through what I gathered was quite a serious blockade having cordoned off passage to the locals and tourists, charging them a fee and permitting access only to the back roads belonging to the farmers. A sympathetic voice instructed us to proceed but to ride “very very slowly!” Done. My emotions had exhausted themselves—as emotions always must—and I returned to a more favourable reality. No wiser, just a bit more weary.
Five minutes down the road and blockade number two waited to greet us. The atmosphere was a little more hostile than the last. Really, another one? I’d had a bellyful of drama and have to execute yet another compelling production. Uncertain as to whether my tear ducts were up to it, I was still feeling decidedly upbeat from the first feat, which impinged on my ability to deliver a further ‘damsel in distress’ scene.
I would’ve liked to redouble my efforts, but the thespian stores were depleted. Skin sticky with sweat, dig deep Lisa—you only need convince 100 more fellas—take one for the team. What a palaver! A dark warmth spreading in my chest caught me by surprise, and I grew heavy once more. Guys, stop with the heated debate already, there’s a sorry little lady over here pouring her heart and crying her eyes out.
I met the crowd’s masculine stare, reading challenge as well as a modicum of concern and defiance. The first edgings of a long unwanted wait ahead, sank talons into my soul. I struggled for words, suffering the first erosion of joy. Very well, let’s see what you make of this. The volume of my distress signals may’ve risen a little. And a little more. Calm it, no curb it—there’s 200 eyes on you right now, all shocked that they’d somehow missed this suffering if not insufferable lassie, clearly beside herself in her own grief.
“No problema, no problema chica, se puede ir a cinco!” indicating that all would be well after an afternoon-long stint of sitting out their trials and tribulations. And what, pray tell, are you going to do now, Lisa? My stomach, so long empty, growled in disagreement. Glassy eyed, I stared back in a locked gaze—distraught by their optimistic hopes of letting us go hours later at 5pm. Gods be good; we had a little more riding ahead of us, which I didn’t fancy in Guatemala’s darkness and I was still reeling from the morning’s turbulent trails. Any spare supplies of stamina had been cut off like a faucet.
“Aqua, aqua!” rang out in the horde. “Give her some water. It’s okay, it’s okay,” came the collective voice in soothing tones. Just stop crying woman, please; we hadn’t planned for a grief-stricken gal leaving puddles of pain and streams of snot all over the place, and her face. “We really need to go to the hospital,” Jason kindly explained but with a sense of urgency, groping for a response. Nothing. Wow, tough crowd. The men had a smoky-eyed inscrutability that left me uneasy. Still no access to go. With no attempt to move, I squinted into the sun’s red glare as my skin glistened in glossed ivory.
Self-induced commotion amid a wider cacophony aside, I resided myself to ‘You win some, you lose some’ and assumed a sad look of crystalline fragility, forlorn; anything but placated. Come on chaps, do you really want a vulnerable pregnant woman in misery on your consciences? As the sun still hung big and hot, beads of moisture clung to my eyelashes and I began to rue the misplaced faith placed in them. Deflated resignation began whispering to my soul, meddling with my hope. I wrung my hands, opened my mouth but the words just flew away.
“Okay, you go, GO GO! Now! Rapido!” came the eventual consensus. Oh! My ears worked correctly the first time…vamos. Without trying to milk it, a final tear escaped my eyes to trickle hotly down my cheek while a curious truth burned anew within me. Having negotiated an unfamiliar landscape of human experience, I was getting a firsthand demonstration of a truth that I’d known all along: humans are governed by love and compassion. A widespread high ground pointed the pack to an interesting direction on their moral compass of ‘We must take a stand but we can still do the right thing.’
As grateful as I was, I had plunged into an ocean of deceit—an ocean into which I’d never as much as dipped a toe before. I quickly donned my helmet before they changed their minds, fired Pearl into action and fled like a slinking fox, pursued by a whole raft of demons only a perpetrator can conjure: guilt, remorse, sorrow and culpability.
Fellas, forgive my shenanigans. What a scheming scoundrel filled with my own self-importance, a naughty Nelly, and a general pain in the nether portions. I am still, however, respectful of your no doubt worthy cause of protest and am sincerely sorry for the inexcusable interruption to your plight for justice. Next time, I’ll sit it out with you, get to know a little about you too. I promise.
All trace of bone-weary fatigue had vanished for now—even if I looked like I’d just lost a wrestling match to a racoon—how many ups and downs can a person have inside a day? No matter, the wind—warm and scented with the smell of a harmonizing equilibrium stroked my face and clothing. The land swelled with the restoring balance of quiet bringing a surging joy to my soul. I held onto the wondrous sense of freedom and life that flowed in my veins.
Sparing no breath for talk, I was content just to breathe, to enjoy the feel of air entering and leaving my lungs, and to listen to the shrill calls of the birds. High above, two swallow-tailed kites twirled about each other, the sole threats to the few shreds of clouds. A woman could do worse than to live with this kind of simple happiness and a tiny smile tugged at the corners of my mouth.
NB: Apologies for the notable lack of pictures; we were somewhat pre-occupied with the fun and frolics of the road.
An elevated 80 miles saw our sorry excuses for bodies, sore muscles that’d ache for some time to come and seized legs—on a less than welcomed ride—taking leave of Antigua’s stunning architecture up through the nippy Guatemalan Highlands and into the Sierra Madre mountain range. Ordinarily happy to earn the magic moments that often ensue post a slog of some sort, I just hurt, throbbed even and yearned for timeout. Gingerly negotiating steep switchbacks on a broken road peppered with gaping potholes was about the least desirable endeavour on my radar, or on Pearl’s suspension—the pair of us far from fresh. Still, it featured heavily on our agenda the morning after the day before our closure with Acatenango.
Landing at Pierre’s place—Pasaj cap at the top of a rocky track in San Marcos La Laguna not only afforded one of the best vantage points of the volcano-ringed Lake Atitlán, but simultaneously bestowed one of the prettiest campgrounds in Guatemala upon us. It was glorious. The sky seemed a deeper blue, as if it pressed more closely to the ground. Supremely situated, we descended upon a tiered set of manicured lawns—sprinkled with hummingbirds, lush colour and seclusion, amongst a neat number of spaces for us and our two wheels and a smattering of other folks and their four-wheeled rigs.
Privacy on the landscaped grounds could only be interrupted if you so wished; there were three intimate yet sociable open lounge areas complete with thatched, palm-leaf roofs, lose-me-forever hammocks, cotton soft spongy lounge chairs and a barbeque. Pierre just happened to offer an appetising choice of the best cuts, red wine and fresh snapper. Dining on such culinary marriages overlooking the pale blue glints dancing on the lake, and even Fuego puffing smoke, twining up to the sky in sinuous grey mushroom clouds on a clear day was well, wonderful. As was snoozing in the late afternoon—a luxury I’ll never take for granted—until the sun sunk to within a hand’s breadth of the western horizon.
Our recuperation period at the lake—benign one minute, boisterous the next when wind roared off the whitecaps—was spectacularly interrupted by Paula and John, alongside their new acquaintances Janice and Gregor. Hah! An anticipated overnight stay viably oozed into six days of brain rest and body relaxation. I would have relished another week where nights spent in their fabulous company overflowed with merriment. Sometimes you just gel with folk, and that was one of those adhesive occasions where we made a few more fast friends.
An invigorating quick dip in Lake Atitlán and basking my bones on the sun-bleached jetty comprised a body-reviving remedy post my Fandango with Acatenango. That, and letting our heads swim in the buzz of beer thanks to Paula and John, who plied us with drinks throughout a few nights of story swopping and hysterics. The routine made whole by breaking our fast and taking evening meals at Hostel del Lago, ten minutes hobbling down the hill from camp. Their food was nourishing, prices not too shabby and portions top notch.
San Marcos La Laguna is all boho chic—a magnet for deep-breathing yogis, lovers of body spaces bigger than MC Hammer’s pants, the most harmless of hippies whose primary aspiration is to plug into the lake’s cosmic energy and wandering dog-on-a-string dreadlocked types. I could’ve people watched all day long. Laughably, Jason’s subtle indifference was noticed—a young slip of a girl around 18 or 19 strummed away on the guitar rapturously singing her song—when she broke off. A sweet thing, clad in homespun panelled clothing, pretty bows, and a floaty skirt with jagged edges and what not.
Looking up at Jason with a hopeful brightness behind her blue eyes, she gestured in a bubbly way, “Hey there, would you like to come join our Sing Song Circle?” to which Jason, caught off guard, faltered slightly. Smiling apologetically, responded, “Sorry love, I’ve got a voice like a goose farting in the fog.” Spurred on by the evident need for encouragement—to her mind, Jason was clearly playing ‘hard to get’—she ignored the rebuff and went headlong in for second time lucky, “Okaaaaaay, but it’s gonna be fun! You sure? Come ooon, it’s not baaad, it’s fun!” Too bad you didn’t join in, Jase, too bad.
Walking a small section around the crystal-blue waters of Lake Atitlán each night was the first time in a long time I’d seen fireflies. Out they came after twilight, where nights here were particularly black; glittering through the grass into the bushes and climbing into the tops of trees like a brilliant net of fallen stars. As visuals go last thing before pushing up zzZs, my head hit the pillow having conjured an enchanting fantasy in which to embed these dazzling little creatures and slept hard.
Predominantly, I had Paula to thank for that—to my dream-world and back. Within two minutes of meeting this complete stranger, Paula had loaned me a regular-sized pillow. What a lamb. My neck would cherish that pillow time forever. Jason and I nodded off to the staccato of drops on the tent and the whisper of rain on the waters. Vivid dreams twined easily around my soul after letting myself unto the last carnelian rays of sunlight, which bathed the trees that grew so thickly here.
Situated on the north-eastern edge of Guatemala’s Central Highlands—and therefore much warmer because of its location in the deep valleys between the mountains—was Lanquín. Incurring a stark contrast of the bikes ‘Tarmac surfing’ on smooth roads to bobbling over lively dirt roads took us past an eclectic mix of: armed police officers with the capitals ‘PMT’ heavily embroidered on their backs—I feel your pain sisters; two tiny little girls engaged in a fingernail-charged scrap and a bored-out-of-his-box boy doing his utmost to throw sizable rocks at a stray dog upon reaching an impressively large landslide. If your gut in Guatemala tells you something isn’t quite right, chances are it is but then again…
Distracting me from the unsavoury corners of Guatemala, El Retiro Lodge on the outskirts of the village Lanquín gave us a private room without en suite at half the tourist-duped rate and all night security for the bikes. Dumping our bags, we wasted not a moment to jump on the local collectivo (a huge truck to transport the locals and gringos packed in the back like livestock), and make our way to Semuc Champey.
Post a painstakingly slow, rough road up and down steep hills led us into a jungle-lush oasis; home to thunderous water of raging rapids from Río Cahabón—tempered by a natural 300-metre long limestone bridge—on top of which bore a natural system of cascading limestone pools. What is it about the sound of roaring water, gushing at an intense rush that makes you want to plunge down next to the violent rocks below? A morbid curiosity nibbled at my soul.
When it comes to swimming holes, a stepped series of clear emerald green, jade, teal and turquoise blue created just about the most idyllic watery setting imaginable. Each pool boasted perfect clarity, some deep and dark, others shallow and inviting—all possessed of a power effortlessly luring me in. The resident fish even gave us an unexpected pedicure, nibbling at our toes like a ravenous beaver gnawing at a log.
The shafts of green-tinged sunshine gleamed golden on the expanse of water that stretched over its sparkling sequence to the western horizon. For me, it was rural Guatemala at its finest. Expecting the cold insult of fresh water, instead we dived into an energising pool that allowed us to cool the clammy limbs ensconced in a verdant spot; a kind, gentle experience on the mind and body. The ability to dive and swim all afternoon sent a burst of sheer bliss to charge my muscles; after which it left me panting and exhausted. I smiled, letting my soul travel out over the water.
The tropical sounds of the forest in competition with the boom of the river, the brilliant colours of butterflies and flowers—were all amplified in the senses. Everywhere I looked, a warm grin played about everyone’s lips. But with such a roiling river nearby, the crashing white water rapids were frightening—while the pristine pools buoyed me up, reassuringly—it was country so wild.
Catapulted out of our state of chillaxed serenity took us totally unawares, dumbstruck to the rurality of the roads ahead. Through the boles of trees and back on our bikes, I could see the undulations and pits, some of them much deeper than others, that had been hacked out of the earth. Around us, I gave the land a lumpy look, piles of broken limestone, loose rocks and lashings of stones.
Taking a physically shorter but the half-day longer route over ruta 6 and then ruta 5 from Chipam, we wended our way around the picturesque Parque Nacional Grutas de Lanquín. And traversed our bikes over miles of gnarly tracks, broken up by the odd kid or workman cruelly hindering one’s momentum with a stretched line of near invisible string in order to drum up cash, down gritty dirt roads and up mere suggestions of rutty road. In the fierce heat of the day against the brute force of the terrain, I strained muscle, back and bone to delicately pull it off; namely keep Pearl upright and me into the bargain.
It took us the best part of three hours to ride a measly 30 miles. What a proud, gushing momma I became knowing I had to constantly strike a perfect harmony in keeping Pearl happy. I clung frantically to the balder patches but couldn’t afford for her to overheat—ideally maintaining second gear with enough thrust at which to keep air cooling over her engine—but not at too high a speed so as to lose control over the furiously fun lumps and bumps. Be that as it may, first gear is usually my best friend on the loose stuff. Although I’ve learned enough to know that it usually looks more difficult from afar than close up.
Unlike making it through the Cordillera Blanca by the skin of Pearl’s teeth in terms of my riding ability, the pair of us beamed the whole way. Slow but quietly satisfied that for once, I could cope. Captain Slow? Okay that still applied but ‘Good girl gone biker’ sounded much more befitting if not appealing now. And Pearl, you little minx for whipping us up both up into a storm. And because we stayed well off the asphalt all morning, we saw an untouched side of Guatemala meant only for the locals.
Children screaming in ecstatic delight made me feel like I was winning some slow-race Paris-Dakar. They were endearingly keen! Thumbs up, shouts of wonderment rose in high splendour and a crowd’s worth of clapping with happy abandon—left the biggest coat hanger in my mouth. Grinning like a Cheshire cat, there’s no feeling like it when you ride through a backwater village and make a strong connection with the kids, just like that. Two wheels, one rider and the ability to form friendship with no linguistic barriers.
By the end of our two-wheeled slog, specks of dust pirouetted through the air. Pulling over to capture the moment amid the vast mountainous valley, I gasped happily and rested on my stomach, grubby chin propped in grimy hands. From the flush in my cheeks to every muscle, which knotted with a fiery exhaustion, my blood pumped with the living thrill of the day. I was spent but that was an admission of the flesh not the soul, which was beyond content. It was a feeling of getting to something that I can never quite name but that I knew I had to have more of; Pearl seemed even more pleased with herself. I finally chalked it up to the fact of being free. Motorcycling will do that to you time and time again.
With a week’s worth of rest and relaxation under our loosened belts, the physical and emotional reserves were as stockpiled as they were ever going be for the two-day volcano trek. Having recently scaled Cerro Negro for an hour, a modest volcano in Nicaragua; climbed Tongariro for two hours in New Zealand six years back and motorcycled up another one in Chile—you could argue that we were anything but prepared to get our ‘volcano’ on…
Dormant but not quite as far-reaching next to the fury of Fuego, Acatenango had been staring down at us in Antigua for some time. And taking the full measure of our resolve; whether we’d tackle her ‘boot’ on or wuss out and pootle up volcano Pacaya instead—the two-hour elementary ramble nearby. While we procrastinated about the decision; umming at the seven hours of tramping up steep switchbacks and arrhing at the prospect of plodding 9 kilometres back down, the rumours of lava continued to grow. The pressure started to build.
Biting the fiery bullet, the ascent started at 1,500 metres through flourishing farmland. In optimal walking weather, a merry band of 17, two Ox Expeditions leaders and a couple of porters with their packhorses trooped along in happy retinue. The birds erupted in chatter and fluttered about the whispering trees. Birdsong carried on the clear air; the land was coming alive ready to greet all that passed by. Farmland stretched into lush cloud forest where scrappy patches of outcropping rock dotted the volcano where the trees didn’t obscure them. Passing the stratovolcano’s first peak, Yepocapa, dense green eventually retreated and gave way to dry, dusty earth—the volcanic zone.
The steep stony climb made it a tough first day but we all reaped a tremendous sense of wellbeing atop of the world by late afternoon. Above the clouds, the soft rhythms of a happy-fatigued if not subdued camp soothed me. As did the ash billowing in plumes of pulverized rock, before expanding into dense mushroom clouds from Fuego—Acatenango’s simmering amiga—joined together to make the volcano complex known as La Horqueta. Fuego’s ash-coloured clouds meandered across and tarnished an amber sky. The fires of sunset reflected off the landscape in a play of colours; an iridescent mosaic of lavender, indigo and fallow gold. Although, the temperature dropped dramatically after sunset. The night had a bitter bite.
Forewarned, we all donned insulating layers and set ourselves to comfortable to see what the night might bring. Philip, one of the guides told us of a recent group that had scaled Acatenango to base camp—the location of where our bums were perched—and sent straight back down. Without a moment to spare, gather one’s wits or even stare. Unpredictably, Fuego had decided to erupt more than a little lava; she blew her top enraged in a white hot state—enough to affect the safety of everyone on Acatenango about two miles away. I tried not to underestimate any magma from within the Earth’s upper mantle potentially making its way to the surface, but prayed for the perfect quantity not preponderantly angry amounts.
Incredibly, good fortune had something different in store for us. Forming a ‘U’ shape curling around the campfire, flames clawed at the black belly of the night. Tongues of fire crackled around the stones as I watched the crowd, my new climbing comrades. Flames illuminated their faces as they sat chatting, hands clasped before them. Optimistic features puckered as they concentrated on the topic of conversation—lava. And then it happened. An explosive eruption of lava fountaining from Fuego—spitting out rocks and spilling lava flows, oozing over her vent. Flickers of firelight caught momentary glimpses of animated expressions. Black eyes sparkled, and wonderment could be seen in the set of mouths and eyebrows.
The molten hot display from Fuego became more striking as the night wore on; the pressure continued to build and the lava flows lit up the sky—elevating each upsurge to seem like the ‘Mother’ of all eruptions from the previous one. Through a hazy sky stuffed with clouds, a few stars dusted the heavens above the surrounding towns and cities, twinkling in the distance. While white flashes of lightning zigzagged across the ragged clouds, thunderous blasts stirred the ground and rolled off the forested volcanoes—I don’t think it could’ve got much better.
The leaders started stirring camp at 3.30am for the summit climb. Having slept soundly as a corpse in a coffin until that point, I awoke our tent of four and started singing a quiet rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ to Jason. “Relaax, it’s practically downhill from this point, Jase. Not that I’m saying you’ve ‘peaked’ in anyway…Happy Birthday hun, lava you!” “Cheers Lisa,” was the sleep-deprived response I got. Sorry sweetie, a handmade card and a chocolate biscuit is as good as it gets this year!
In pitch black, I braced my shoulders against the bitter cold. Bizarrely, I was feeling fit and doggedly determined post a five-hour slumber after the heavyweight hike. Jason and some others turned around early on, wise old wizards. Admittedly, visibility was limited to one’s head torch beam, a misty rain drizzled from a tormented sky and morale plummeted from the outset. So be it, that left an intimate group of four and Miguel, the other leader. Like the altitude, my spirits were high; may be I was delirious from the altitude.
A shame that the rain showed no signs of abating, or even relenting long enough to allow me a quick gauge of our progress. It was a case of ‘head down’ and staying huddled in on oneself, vaguely discerning the steep, stern face of Acatenango. Implausibly, I started enjoying the hardest part; not skidding or sliding, I pushed my toes firmly into the volcanic scree with a hungry gusto. I wanted this badly, and couldn’t for the life of me work out why.
Jason had summited Mount Kinabalu at 4,095 metres seven years earlier. I was forced to turn around from sickness and diarrhea at 4,000 metres so probably a part of me still had something left to prove. It was sawing at my soul, whatever it was. For goodness sake, you’re supposed to have dispensed with all those ridiculous antics by the end of your twenties, not still harbouring some God forsaken mission to attest one’s stamina. Perhaps there was too much pride tied up in the bee of my bonnet.
A demanding climb to the crater took us to just shy of 4,000 metres. Outrageously cold, my fingers gave out an agonising pain. The wind had picked up, lashing us in an absolute hooley. Raging rain in a gusting gale blew us around like dandelion seeds. We were forced to stay pinned to the edges of the crater, rather than reach the summit. Neither forgiveness nor understanding plays any part in volcano culture.
Fuego wasn’t the only one capable of spewing spectacularly. Although I’d managed to get to the top without my body unravelling with altitude sickness, I did leave a thank you gift and emptied my insides. I replenished the lost fluid and kept on pushing. Perhaps I turned a paler shade of white because Miguel took the back of his hand and commenced a regular check-up of my cheek’s temperature. It had been dropping as I’d been ascending. Mayhaps it was time to make a quick exit and lose some height.
Cold, so cold. The cold probed my clothing with such icy fingers, my shoulders couldn’t help shivering. “Miguel,” I said, trying for all the world to sound calm. “I’m c-o-l-d.” My throat worked in a way like I was having trouble finding either words or saliva. The cold leached into my soul, I started shivering so violently that my teeth clattered like gourd rattles. Without hesitating, he unzipped and layered me up in his heavy-duty jacket. He also offered his thick gloves over those I was wearing but my hands might have been made of wood, and just as clumsy. He eased the gloves on and ensured a proper fit for each useless finger. I’d donned plenty of thin layers and a waterproof jacket but was wearing a sodden pair of denim jeans. Damn that time I ditched my waterproof trousers to shed weight and create pannier space! Less is not always more.
Ditching his clothing to protect me from the exposure and the onset of hypothermia, I gave Miguel a sober appraisal. I’ve always wondered if a man’s face mirrors his soul. If so, Miguel’s soul was strong, gentle and heart-warmingly considerate. I’d found only compassion and thoughtfulness in his words and actions. I tried to stay focused by paying attention to Miguel walking in front of me, no move wasted. Everything about him bespoke control and grace.
Thrilled at having ‘earned it’ to the crater with two guys and a Scottish lassie—Melanie, we shared in a mind-numbing moment of pure elation. Despite it persisting it doon. And for the second time in my life, I was able to ascertain clear parameters around my limits at 4,000 metres. No drama, no pounding headaches, just violent shivering and vomiting.
Overhead the sky painstakingly faded from pitch black and transitioned into the full spectrum of grey. Howling wind continued to snap around us, vying for my attention as much as the attacks of driving rain. I spun on an unwieldy heel and staggered off erringly for the ride back to base. Stay there and heave, or ‘Get doon!’ and feel human once more. It was a no brainer to ski and carve one’s way down on my heels back to base camp. Too loose to do anything else, and the quickest way back to feeling a semblance of me again.
Recovering relatively quickly from a stomach-churning nausea, I scrambled on foot and buttocks to the group, all clustered around a blazing campfire. Jason met me on the outskirts of camp with a grave look of concern plastered over his face, “You look grey, Lisa. You alright?” I took a breath, held it for a moment to swallow back the tears, then let it out filled with words. Shuddering with a bone-deep cold, I spoke as though my mouth wouldn’t work quite right. “No. That was horrific. Barely saw anything but we looked inside the crater briefly. I’m freezing cold and wet.” Another lesson learned, Lisa.
Smoke and whirling sparks clouded my vision. I slowly warmed the cockles by drying off around a cosy fire, which left big red blotches on the top of my thighs. I put up my arm to ward away the heat and coughed in the smoky air, my watering eyes narrowed to slits. I was too cold to the core to care. Emptying my boots of sand, rocks and stones, I focused on pushing food into my face. Sustenance would help my body heat itself so I gorged on a giant jam sandwich until my stomach cramped.
Adios Acatenango, time to end our Fandango. Two thirds of the way down, Jason and I started suffering. A two-day build up of lactic acid began to take its toll on our endurance and we each started hobbling in a precarious fashion. The muscles in my legs twitched like termites in a half-eaten log. In an exhausted and spent state, the trail down felt treacherous, the terrain not icy but slippery all the same. Every limping step took concentration as we descended into the thickening forest. It was eerily quiet, pockets of people stayed in their ‘no go’ zone. The only sounds I could hear were the crunch of steps and laboured breathing.
My motor skills had as much traction on my limbs as a duck landing on a frozen pond. Arms flailing wildly in vain in the hopes of somehow maintaining balance, I found myself occasionally staggering towards a tree, eager to embrace me. Clearly under-acclimatised to that sheer distance up never-ending inclines at serious levels of altitude. I was anything but a mountain goat on the way down.
Like an ancient bag of bones, I trudged sluggishly beneath slate skies over loose pewter sand. I took umbrage with the fact that my fitness level was outweighing my stamina. Breathing loudly through my mouth, I struggled to regain any self-discipline. Now dormant, the land was profoundly scarred; this thing might not blow its top but I might and I began to rue the impulse of the whole trip.
Relying heavily on our walking sticks as brakes, they partially impeded the skidding if not the sliding. I rehitched my backpack and gave the low, dark clouds an inspection filled with misery. In no direction could I see the incipient shine of clearing skies, only the constant threat of more rain as we inched towards the bottom. Acatenango was taking no prisoners so we paused to take stock, before my wits completely fled. Eventually back in Antigua, we shared stories over lunch having experienced as a unit what it was like to love and loathe the experience.
Volcanoes such as Acatenango have a feel of age, of old power lying in wait. Something quite mysteriously arcane lies within but beware of the trade. If you want it, it’s yours. It doesn’t come free, of course. At times, it could be lonely. You may spend hours wet, hungry, with your muscles aching and body disturbingly chilly—nothing burns like the cold. You may fight a constant battle against dehydration and entertain anxiety for just a second, goodness knows what else you could will on.
But then there are those wondrous moments—like the lure of a sunset on the summit of Fuego, beneath the sky that lights up in every colour. Where the city-lit scapes sparkle below you and stars glitter the heavens above you. Or others that gift you with Fuego exploding in the most intense nighttime display of lava, savagely spewing from the planet’s core. At those moments bestowed on you, you can feel the very heartbeat of Pacha Mama, Mother Earth.
For an eternal instant, my eyes saw the world through heartrending beauty, an awe that will forever smolder within the soul. Was it worth it? Hell yes. It’s worth every moment of discomfort.
I’d grown quite fond of Nicaragua for the segment of it we experienced. Not least for its volcano sledging and studded landscapes, colonial jewels of the Spanish-American culture and corkers on the hostel scene, but also the food. Tasty fare from the Caribbean creole to the Maya-influenced Spanish style cooking was noticeably lighter on the pocket and consequently tastier somehow. Give me a street-side polystyrene plate of stuffed tacos, rice and black beans or a dish of homemade stew bobbing with the local veggies and blue corn pupusas (tortillas infused with egg and cheese) for dipping any day of the week. We owe our taste buds exposure to a whole world of culinary delights, do we not?
Take Mamoncillo fruit (a Spanish lime) for instance—is about the size of a bon bon encased in a hard green rind, which as bon bon sized balls go, are twice as sweet like sherbet with the texture of wet cotton wool. You simply suck out the pulp in one easy movement and bam! An explosion of flavour erupts in your mouth. And your tum will keep schtum for quite some time; apparently mamos are great against stomach aches. They definitely went the distance in trumping other locally prepared fruit; seasoned oranges. The chap standing at the back of his tricycle-truck had fashioned a nifty little way to unravel the orange skin in the flash of an eye by means of an antiquated peeling machine. The hand-wound lathe device left long, narrow trails and zesty tendrils behind with which to adorn his selling space. Perfect but for the heavy-handed addition of salt as the finishing touch. Yuk!
Relic-adorned ruins, bone-white beaches and tropical rainforests are often sights on which the eyes can feast throughout Central America but add tantalising tucker into the mix, and you’ve got yourself a meal deal to devour.
After another fiddly-free border crossing from El Salvador into Guatemala, we rocked up at 1,500 metres to a glorious municipality in the central highlands. Antigua. A UNESCO World Heritage site that’s cradled by three spectacular volcanoes: Aqua, Fuego and Acatenango amid mountains, pine forests, foothills, milpas (a plot of crop land cleared from the forest) and coffee farms. As the former capital, Antigua means ‘ancient’ or ‘old’ and I wondered without hesitation on arrival, could you get more of a photogenic city in Central America? To my mind and I’m still open to any serious contenders, possibly not. Even the public waste bins were elegant pieces of unusual beauty made from ornately designed wrought iron.
At almost 500 years old, it felt like we’d ridden through a portal into another century. It takes the colonial era to a heightened level with its mansions adorned in exquisite detail; tiny tiendas (shops) and intimate panaderias (bakeries) with pistachio green, burnt orange and deep yellow facades; as well as 17th and 18th century churches and convents lining the topiary tree-lined plaza. No street or avenue ruined by modernisation, it’s a city in harmony with itself and the last vestiges of another time.
Post a hot hour of ‘hostel shopping’ in the pricey part of Guatemala—gripped by a heat made heavier from our protective suits, I was running low on patience. And cream crackered from the last couple of busy border days commencing at stupid o’clock. A handful of mid-range lodgings (to my knowledge, there were no budget choices), had all refused accommodation of both us and the bikes. That is, we could’ve struck a deal and left our wheels on the street until 8pm each evening, to then have to roll them back outside each morning. Afraid not madam, that’d be against our riding religion, lo siento. Rocking up to Posada de San Jeronimo—despite offering a more sensible rate (170 Quetzals or £14 pounds for a private room per night)—still left me in no mood to hear the same refusal by that point.
Make this happen, Lisa! the panicked voice of my soul cried—the command driving my vocal cords. Ashamed to admit that the Morris powers of pushy persuasion kicked in, and once successfully executed, I all but smothered the poor girl on reception with gratitude when she agreed that we could permanently leave our bikes inside. I’m a fru-gal when it comes to cost but fiercely vigilant where the wellbeing of Pearl and the 800 are concerned. We duly promised her a minimum three-night stay and an ‘enough to write home about’ mention of the marvellous hotel that really is Posada de San Jeronimo. It’s clean, the staff are friendly and boasts the prettiest micro-sized courtyard beneath the roof terrace too. After my initial approach, I’m amazed at how quickly the girl warmed to us, showed genuine enthusiasm for our trip and ended up giving us a matrimonial room with en suite for the same price as one with a shared bathroom. Girl, you’ll go straight to heaven!
There is always someone of interest to watch—from the highly enthralling to the morbidly fascinating—on every street corner in Latin America. Antigua is by no means an exception; whether it’s a band of musicians tapping their mallets on marimbas (deep-toned xylophones) or the city’s finest artisans who spread their wares on blankets—beautifully painted pots, handcrafted wooden figurines or more trinkets and charms than Guatemala’s population. Some of the local ladies would sit stationed in their patch displaying baskets of creamy avocados whereas others would wander purposefully advertising head fulls and handfuls of rainbow bright woven fabrics. A traditionally clad woman carrying her back-wrapped baby selling bags of the sweetest mango managed to catch our eye and Quetzals every day.
Bracelets, bangles, necklaces and earrings were constantly catching the light as they were being jangled before us with the same importance as the Queen Elizabeth II’s crown jewels around the jacaranda-lined plaza. Until onlookers looked to barter for a bargain, it became second nature to smile and softly refuse. I clocked a mother and son trying to empty their crate of newborn pups before sun down and loved that they prioritised play time with the mini munchkins over hankering for a sale with anyone passing by. Clever sales strategy though!
A Franciscan monk was fighting to stay awake in his plastic chair against an ancient tree; shading him from the honeyed warmth next to the chapel, and for some reason assumed the grumpiest demeanour around him for a mile radius. We called him the ‘Grumpy Monk’, which incidentally would make a fine name for a pub, Fancy a few in the Grumpy Monk, Jase? His eyes had taken on a furious squint—narrowing towards flammable and when he turned to gaze at me, a hot prickle climbed my spine. Strike no sparks, Lisa. The tinder is dry. Better take on a razor-sharp edge of cunning if we were going to capture this characterful chap. A fascinating fellow but one that remained resolute and seethed. The tinder is very dry indeed.
With a belly like a boulder beneath his brown habit he was huge, had no neck to speak of and his features seemed to huddle in the middle of his face. His fleshy fingers that started as thick as sausages just about managed to taper down enough to look vaguely useable. Tired, he rubbed his squashed apricot for a nose; the action pulled his wrinkles this way and that. As Jason angled the tripod mounted camera towards the monk, a gasp of hard-jawed outrage escaped from him. Studying us with open sourness, his behaviour was akin to a kicked bee and I didn’t relish getting stung. Rightly or wrongly, I interjected and stood between the monk and the tripod; pretending to pose while Jase set up the shot and focused in on our new favourite subject matter. Riling a man of the cloth—neither of us are likely to reach heaven.
Making a mad dash back to pootling the streets, Jason was perpetually solicited with “You smoke weed, amigo?” while I on the other hand got, “You drink champagne? Welcome to the House of Jade, amiga,” past every boutique. Jason even received invitations of “Come with me to a bar, it has many many beautiful blondes,” despite my being stood right next to the guy in the business of blondes. “Sorry chap, my fella isn’t in the market right now, and just for the record, he prefers redheads.”
For all the hustle and bustle of the central park, we found the city’s spirited bus station on the outskirts. All headed up ‘Guate,’ ‘Guate,’ ‘Guate,’ including one called the ‘Rabit Express'; the gigantic Guatemalan buses of bedazzling splendour hit me in the face—‘Out of the way gringo!’—the drivers had little incentive to delay their tight schedules. It took us an hour to get our fix and fussy out of the place. A photographer’s focal point alright. Highly polished chrome was the order of the day embedded into a brilliant spectrum of colours on the beefy bumpers and elevated bonnets. Apart from the US style yellow school buses parked up, most looked like massive travelling carnival trucks.
Taking a breather in the shade sat on the kerb while munching chunks of mango, we spotted a recent travelling acquaintance from San José. Aaron had stayed in Castle Tam hostel at the same time we’d volunteered there. Familiar with the highlights of the area (less so his sense of direction within!), it was great to have him show us a couple of ‘Must eat’ spots and what a lamb, he even bought us an ice cream. Cheers chucky egg.
Sure, you’ll be gently accosted on every street corner in Antigua; it’s a tourist-magnet, and who can blame all and sundry for being drawn towards a piece of the finest colonial pie? Hoping you visit, be sure to eat at least one lunch at Rincón Tipico—superb local fare for just a few Quetzals and Miso, a Korean restaurant (on 5 Avenida Sur). But happy digestion and digression aside, after a couple of apologetic nos, you’re free to keep perusing the intriguing treasures of Antigua.
As cities of rare beauty go, you might even happen upon a local beauty pageant. Randomly, we did. The contestants and winners of which flashed their pearly white painted smiles, positioned their curvaceous figures serenely to the serious cameras (I think Jase was in his trigger-happy element), and posed compliantly with all the grinning adolescent boys.
They were fun to watch for a hand of time yet I couldn’t help think what crowd-pulling stars they’d make dressed up in various princess costumes to do their ting at Disney World. Forget world peace, do it for the kids.
It was a glorious feel-good week engulfed in an age-old colonial city. I’m still stunned to the core that Jason adored it as much as I did, knowing his usual indifference towards Latin American cities. Antigua glowed in a beautiful light the entire time, which washed down from an unblemished blue sky accenting everything it touched. Although Antigua embraces you with its warmth—exuding a radiant heat by day—it emits a much cooler reprieve come sundown. Looking up to listen to the birds that come in to roost, gathering a throatier intensity as night approached, we saw translucent skies of evening extending to infinity, permitting us to watch the stars flicker through the limbs and leaves.
The sounds were wondrous, the sights intoxicating and vibrant flowers bloomed on every wrought-iron girded window sill. It’s pretty much an unlimited cultural scene resplendent with evocative buildings where your time won’t be wasted. The city has also retained that safe urbane vibe of a small town—one that oozes in cobblestoned quaint charisma.
My sleep-haunted cries came only as stifled whimpers, muffled by my clamped jaws and the bedding. What started as the previous evening’s premonition had been driven home with startling swiftness that morning. Jason rousted me from my slumber with, “Come on lazy bones, GET UP.” The coincidence of our hostel being called ‘Lazy Bones’ wasn’t wasted on me. Regardless. It was official; our trip in the tropics had turned into motorcycle boot camp. I didn’t dare to ascertain the time for which my morbid curiosity so desperately wanted to know. Too late, I was told. “Pass me my spork would you, darling and I can spoon your eyes out,” was my preferred response at 4.56am—fuelled by a desire for a sense of well-meted justice. You could even say I’m not a morning person.
“Huh?” was the almost imperceptible noise grunted from the most vocally awake part of me as I opened an eyelid midway. My voice had a curiously far-off timbre, like that of a child awakened from a dream and not wholly in this world. Having willingly agreed to riding in the wee hours—before the tormenting heat seared both us and the bikes—didn’t sugar the pill in dutifully carrying out the said promise. For a moment, our stares locked, a battle of wills escalating. Abruptly, Jason made a beeline for my neck and licked it like a slobbering dog. I was utterly defenceless and burst into a fit of giggles.
Alas, it was time to claw back lost time in Costa Rican bike delays and make some serious headway. Time to get my ‘hardcore biker’ on. I was too sleepy to be remotely concerned at the prospect of making a presence in three Central American countries and undertaking their befuddling border crossings in between each one, before the day was out. Previously, I’d spent an hour taking the salient points down from Shannon’s wealth of border reports by motorcycle, my biking buddy’s comprehensive set of golden procedures (available on S&M Boiler Works).
I felt prepared más o menos, even if my bullet points would have to work in reverse for us; our friends’ foray into the Americas was southbound. No matter, the plethora of processes one has to go, ride, pay, scribe, jump, yawn, photocopy, pay some more and wait through might actually make just as much sense using the pertinent pointers against the epic levels of border chaos we’d seen to date.
Foremost, Pearl seemed to be enjoying herself. At last! Politely answering (for the most part) Jason’s same question, “Has the light come on?” on and off for a day-long period was understandably natural from him and unbegrudgingly anticipated by me. “Nope.” Boy oh boy, “Still no but if the status changes, you’ll be the first to know.” Jase listened to my words but found nothing placating in them. I too didn’t want to breakdown in 40 degree heat that settled like a suffocating blanket on the soul; appreciating the bigger picture of how my bike had started to affect the progress of the trip on top.
“The Kawasaki fan must be working,” Jason verbalised the words a little disbelieving. I agree! Pearl will live to die another day. I felt euphoric knowing Jason had worked his mechanical magic, reaping his leisure time back tenfold. Sourcing certain parts for Pearl in Central America was often far from a cinch. Still, she’s an absolute pearler for accepting a fan from another brand of bike—riveted into her original fan housing—and I’m glad I didn’t lose the faith in my fair lady.
On the approach to the Honduras border, potholes started rearing their ugly black backsides; just about every combination of size and depth from ankle-deep ones that would conceal a skate board to others that would swallow the wheel arches of your motorcycle. But the border itself? Apart from being fumigated myself (it’s usually just your tyres)—it was a breeze! The ‘Ghostbusters’ backpack clad guy decided to smoke out the entire Aduana office to exterminate all pests including any pesky people. Well at least there’s no flies on me. I’d read that particular border near Somotillo (the NIC-24 road onto CA-3) was a busy one, so had utterly convinced myself we’d have to endure another snafu-induced border of travail and vexation.
But no, incredibly. It was ridiculously early and therefore quiet, our paperwork was in order and hence the officials’ reactions were made marginally quicker. And we were lucky in getting competent border personnel to process the piles of paper exchanged. I also had no qualms in indulging a teenage kid, Levington who very sweetly showed me where to go, while his mate Kenny watched the bikes for us when Jason was required to surrender his bike permit in person. Jason’s job ordinarily is to stay with the bikes and snaffle any snacks being sold, both of which he performs admirably.
Fixers at the Central American borders aren’t essential if you’ve mastered even survival Spanish—and it’s not as though we don’t know the basics of Latin American crossings by now (inside out and backwards)—but what a perfect way to get rid of your loose currency in coins.
The nasty pits of evil however became noticeably bigger and more frequent once we’d crossed into Honduras for a good few miles. Having failed to miss a couple of them down the shaded tree-lined roads—many manipulated to grow their branches bent over forming an arch with the opposite tree’s; peculiar as they were perpendicular—I hit Pearl’s front end hard. Sorry sweetheart, I do want you to stay peachy I promise—even if my riding coerces you to the contrary.
Next up: adios Honduras and hola El Salvador. Having not even put the side stands down for a bite to eat in Honduras, I’m not sure you can count jumping into the bushes to attend the by-products of hydration as experiencing the country, let alone stepping foot in it. Hey ho, we were itching to get into El Salvador, beyond contented to skip Honduras so kept going.
I was indebted to all that encountered me on leaving Nicaragua, entering and exiting Honduras and rolling into El Salvador. Namely because Jason’s passport is rapidly running short on space and every single person armed with a stamp—those inky bad boys get bigger when travelling on a bike through Central America—was accommodating in consuming the creases of the passport pages or overlapping other stamps where I pleaded. Definitely my day for border crossings; if not always efficient or clear-cut, it was still a painless effort overall. Long may that last for the remainder…
Our bitchin’ border day was made complete once we’d garnered the information that the customs office in El Salvador responsible for processing our temporary import vehicle permits, was four kilometres down the road. That also entailed swinging a left down a dusty track from the country’s border, forget the customs next door to immigration (there solely for declaring goods and paying taxes). Pointless trying to seek any logic behind or signs to the obscure location, this is Centro América bebé..!
El Salvador greeted us with the gentle lines of textbook conical volcanoes and the soft floppy ears of Brahman cows and their calves, grazing by the roadside. Others were poised and perfectly still—basking in the sun on the highway amid massive US style trucks, cars and motorcyclists zooming either side of them. So docile in demeanour was this Gertrude-esque group of road users, little and less could be done to entice them to budge. At least pick a lane my lovelies, any lane. I slammed the brakes on to stop just in time and watch one liberally lay some ‘pipe’; a welcoming gift if you like.
Eight hours of biking and a trio of countries in 100 degrees Fahrenheit, becoming the subject of intense observation from some unabashed staring at us astride our wheels, over the day that just ‘kept on giving’—took us to a utopia around 45 miles from the border. Playa Río Mar was situated between Playa de Shalpa and El Zonte; a small, secluded palm-backed beach next to its glamorous counterpart, the tourist jam-packed resort.
The stretch of sand before us was deserted—I’m not sure our day could’ve got much better. We picked a gorgeous spot to make camp amongst the tall shady palms on a soft grassy green, laid out only the sleeping mats and ditched the suits for our swimmers. I couldn’t lose the layers quick enough, get me in that sparkling blue water! In the campsite manager’s absence, access to a supply of fresh or even brackish water remained cut so we resided ourselves to a cat-lick in the Pacific. The water was tranquil and tepid, and although I came out less a layer of sweat and sun cream, I was covered in patches of sand. Who the heck cares, I ask you?
Jason dutifully fetched two takeaway dinners from a nearby restaurant while I cracked open a couple of beers having met the owners and handed over $5 fabulous dollars for our stay. We clinked our bottles as elation crept into the set of our mouths: Pearl, our border endeavours and progress inside a day had gone swimmingly. Blatantly better than the last four weeks combined. “Cheers little ears!” we celebrated as I grinned at Jase. Those Pearl-induced jitters began to wiggle out of Jason’s gut like roundworms and that unsettling notion he’d been feeling broke free to scarper from his soul. “I feel really mellow, Lise. And happy that your bike didn’t give us any problems.” His worry had finally gone to water, for now at least, which told me normal times had just hit town again.
Post a cursory shower, the blaze of sunset ignited the translucent vestiges of clouds that limned the sky. Faded wooden beach huts sandblasted smooth, stood on the sun-baked shores. The rhythmic chorus of the ocean intensified, the retreating surf flooded the shore and contracted into the whispering waves.
I watched the vast sea of amber sky transform into an endless deepening blue. The moon’s face crept over the horizon and sprinkled the sky with diamond fires—its bright countenance tarnishing the land with a silver sheen and light blazing so brightly, that it shadowed each blade of grass. “Look at that one over there,” Jason pointed upwards. Slow and pompous, a fiery strut, a star that knew it was a star.
I hit the wall. Peeling into bed below a sultry, moonlit sky, I let my eyes slip shut for just a second—and then the ground started to curve beneath me, and I felt myself spiraling slowly downward, back into a bottomless slumber.
Negotiating a decent rate with Gonzalo, owner of Cabinas Corobici in Cañas made our final overnight stay in Costa Rica a good one: peace-of-mind parking, a rudimentary but comfortable room and a cheap Chinese restaurant nearby where the portions were substantial and the prices not too shabby. Topped off with an invigoratingly cold shower, I could ask for no more post a hot day’s ride.
A long and lengthy border crossing eventually inched us into Nicaragua, and biking Gods be good, meeting three Brazilians on their blingy 1200GSs sped up the snafu no end. Gustavo, the best English-speaker insisted having our paperwork processed before theirs, which after shelling out $20 US to fast-track the chaotic procedure for the time-poor trio yet still managing to finish after us, did leave me feeling a tad culpable. Guilt wedged into my soul with the sure chill of a polished ax head; so sorry guys but obrigado for the supportive intervention and happy(ish) ending.
Headed west, Backyard Hostel in Granada was reasonable if not erring on the party-backpacker paradise. Although in play, I wouldn’t let it ‘collect £200 and pass go’. To its merit, the premises was located in the heart of a bright old colonial city. The colours, architecture and ambience of Granada were dripping with vibrant grandeur, as well as geared towards the gregarious. I loved it and positioned the city as Nicaragua’s colonial capital, which was saying something after 16 months of Latin American cities, some remarkably more alluring than others. Stay open-minded, Lisa even if those eyes are no longer fresh.
To my mind, it was vice versa in León—the guidebook’s colonial capital—where we descended upon a cracker of a lodging Lazybones Hostel in the crumbling city of tired ruins. I guess the place was still charming behind the scaffolding and sheets of tarp overall, although unique selling points of the hostel boasted: a breakfast fit for a king, all morning coffee, easy parking inside and a rather lovely swimming pool amid a vividly cheerful decor. Foremost, a noticeable semblance of quiet after 11pm. Goodness, I’m host to such an old soul. Mayhaps those crazy o’clock starts might be taking their toll on me; no one wants to ride in the mind-befuddling midday heat, least of all Pearl.
Barely making it to Granada, Pearl became consistently hot and irritable in the bike-unbearable temperatures; overheating without a moment’s notice as we entered Nicaragua’s searing region of three-Fahrenheit figures. The air had grown suffocating and pressed down. So close that it should have been visible, like a greasy mist in the air. I went from cruisey to cantankerous—a million miles from cool. There was little and less I could do yet my anger flared; fanned by the heavy heat, it continued to smolder like a buried ember.
As I worked up a fine sweat, a local mechanic ingeniously suggested installing a computer fan in place of the expired radiator fan, which cajoled Pearl to make the distance from Granada to León, although this was by no means a medium-term fix. Or waterproof. It didn’t harm but it didn’t overly help unhindered either. I steeled myself, forcing calm into my voice when answering Jason’s question for the twentieth time—intuition and recent track record telling me otherwise, “The temperature light still hasn’t come on, Jase! The computer fan must be working.” To my chargrin, “No wait, it’s just come on.”
It took time to source a new radiator fan, leaving Jase and me grateful for an opportunity to explore our surroundings. And moreover, stave off feeling fed up with motorcycle breakdowns and bike niggles. Jason had lost confidence in Pearl and I think he believed that something was taking perverted joy in inflicting every conceivable ailment on Pearl and misery on him (my personal mechanic on permanent standby and well, so much more).
Admittedly, she was costing us more than just Córdobas from the travel fund to keep her going; eating into our reserves of riding time, savings and sanity, and swallowing the realisation that Pearl was becoming a false economy. Rightly or naïvely, my faith in her still held water; fix or repair just about everything on her and in my mind’s eye, she’d be fabulous for the foreseeable, and beyond..!
Like Granada, León’s culinary offerings left us ravenous for more. The fare in Nicaragua didn’t cost us several arms and legs unlike in Costa Rica—even if the tap water wasn’t potable—and it’s the land of jungle-clad volcanoes. Initially, it was slightly disconcerting when hearing the ‘potential eruption’ alarm being sounded, akin to a World War II air raid siren but one soon gets used to the disturbing noise and treats it as you might when your office’s fire alarm rings. You acknowledge it during the conversation, dismiss it as a drill and it’s business as usual. Probably unwise to be so complacent—a number of volcanoes in the vicinity are pretty damn lively.
Hungry for some fun, I left Pearl to cool down in the shade and we jumped onto the first organised tour courtesy of the hostel in León. Taking us bobbling over the sand in a minibus for an hour to reach Cerro Negro, which as distinctly active volcanoes go, happened to be neither puffing smoke nor striking. It is Central America’s youngest volcano however, having spewed into life in 1850, erupted at least a dozen times since but by no means has finished its business post the last messy fallout over León in 1999.
The group that comprised Alexander, the tour guide and the two of us—‘jammy’ is most assuredly the word—huffed and puffed our way up, or was that just me? We took a moderately slow hour to clamber over the black sand, lava rocks and rubble to summit the top, hauled a couple of boards en route, stopped to gauge the magnitude of the concave landscape and warmed our already hot hands on the sizzling patches of sulphurous cinders. At the peak of the hike it was blowing an absolute hooley, a hot hairdryer wind that blew me around like a dandelion seed in a cyclone. Inching closer, my nerves hummed as we dared to take a peep at the steep face of the volcano for which we were expected to bomb down. Not being able to see the bottom I prayed to anyone listening that calamity wouldn’t hit on my imminent daredevil descent, feeling anything but adventurous.
Donning a mechanic’s boiler suit, safety goggles and bandana across our faces, I plonked my backside down on the sled—nothing more than a crude piece of plywood and a rope handle. Teetering at the top of the conical mound, it appeared I was all set. “So the heels of my feet are my brakes, is that right?” I reiterated. You’re catching on, “but remember Lisa—don’t put just one foot down or you’ll come whizzing off”—gotcha!
According to the tourist records of accomplishment, I might’ve conceivably reached over 50 miles per hour…holy flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants moly. I looked up and Jason stood poised with the camera while Alexander gave me a sweep of his arm, urging me to go. After shuffling off, fear started to fray and fun hemmed itself in; I started to pick up speed as I kicked up a cloud of black dust over the rocky cinders. And at enough volcano velocity—just after midway, the tipping point—I managed to skim spectacularly all the way down jubilantly shouting “Weeeee!”
I confess almost peeing my pants from the speed at which I clocked; being blissfully unaware of this beforehand was a blessing but incredibly, the velocity accrued from plunging down a volcano leaves you positively tingling. The drop was at a gut-wrenching 41 degree angle for a stomach-churning 2,000 feet, no wonder I was tingling with scared-out-of-my-wits relief at the bottom—bones intact and body buzzing. Having survived smeared in soot and black sand, who knew volcano bobsledding could be such a white hot rush?
Interestingly, a French chap Éric Barone tried to set a land speed record after having wheeled down Cerro Negro’s cinder cone slope at 100 miles per hour on a serial production bicycle. On his second attempt pedalling the treacherous terrain on a custom prototype bike at 107 miles per hour, he neither made the distance nor set an official record, but did blow his front tyre, collapse the frame and break many bones and more besides. He later learned of his friend, an Austrian guy who promptly followed in his tracks without a glitch, hitch or injury and successfully set the production bike record at 102 miles per hour. Double ouch.
A morning’s worth of running a fool’s errand—sourcing parts for a 14 year old motorcycle can be a chore and there’s much and more to be said for investing in a younger bike whose parts are not as rare as unicorns—Jason finally sourced a radiator fan off a Kawasaki in a scrap yard. It fit like Cinderella’s slipper, my soul gloriously drinking in the sight. I slipped my arm around Jason’s waist, clutching him the way you would to a log in floodwaters. A journey is never as easy as you would hope, and it’s sometimes more challenging than you ever believed it would be. Different visions, woven from imagination and desire—those of a two wheeled trip, certainly one that will give rise to its fair share of mechanical interruptions but not a myriad’s worth of more. Our hemorrhaged budget couldn’t take much more.
For now, a surge of joy erupted from every pore in my body, I was one happy rider again and Pearl permitting, we were good to go.