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.
“Oh, it feels soo good to be back on the bikes, and finally making headway through Central America! Eh, Jase?” Riding carefree at a cruisey 50 miles per hour inching our way out of Costa Rica while her sun caressed our faces, a flash of worry began to flicker inside my head. Why was Pearl susceptible to the odd tremor on the smooth stuff? Her tyres weren’t flat, not even the front one—forging ahead after 23,500 miles—so why the wobbling, missy? Mmmn?
With zero warning, it transpired I’d destroyed the nucleus of my rear wheel. Royally. So royally in fact, that the hideous metallic racket assaulting my ears was the disintegrated bearings, clattering around inside my wheel in smithereens. The damn wheel was practically sliding off! Timeout. Post a test ride, Jason pragmatically urged, “I don’t want you to ride on a mile further, Lise. You’ll be at serious risk of losing that back wheel if you do.” ‘Arrr, right oh—cautiously commonsensical as ever—thank you for the update report,’ I noted wide-eyed at the gravity of the situation. The potential ramifications didn’t bear thinking about.
Despite being duly indebted to Pearl, she was trying her damndest after all, I think on this occasion the pair of us benefitted from some divine intervention: our moto-guardian angel, as well as Jason. The powers at play on Pearl’s back wheel—although far from road-worthy—hadn’t brought either of us to harm and Jase had put paid to that unpleasant prospect. That said, we were the merest of miles from the Nicaraguan border, on to making solid progress after our second city stint.
It felt pointless trying to divine meaning from the latest incident. Stop-start, stop-start; sometimes motorcycle travel is two steps forward, one step back, and fiercely opposing such an inevitability when it happens only makes the blood boil and frustration bubble. It forces you to take unhindered stock, even when you don’t particularly want to.
With just over 100 miles back to those we’d just left—Touratech Costa Rica’s mechanically-minded dream team—we were marooned for a third time by Pearl, who seemed to be expiring like a campfire at dawn of late. If it’s not one thing, it’s your BMW motorcycle. A lance of knowing dread shot through my soul, all too aware of the rescue scenario in which we needed to execute…somehow. Breakdowns for us had become far from extraordinary, no longer as rare as rocking horse manure; hailing down a truck to requisition the driver and his wheels was fast becoming part of normality.
Pearl had permitted us to breakdown next to an industrious set of workmen, tirelessly breaking their backs on improving Costa Rica’s highways. With a fistful of phone change and a handful of hope, I approached the foreman and began outlining our predicament—an urgent need to hire a truck to cart my motorcycle and me back to the capital—while stumbling over the (still) unfamiliar language. He gave me a long, contemplative look, as if he’d just perceived a vague pattern in a tangle of cat’s cradle string. With a little more sketchy embellishment, sound effects and animated gesticulating to just shy of a full blown game of charades, initial attempts of understanding eventually manifested into sympathetic interpretation. His resultant phone calls however proved fruitless; no one he knew was available to make a few bucks in rescuing this moto-damsel-in-a-rear-wheel-snag.
Time to launch the big thumbs-up and all the positive power of Morris persuasion I could summon in compelling someone blasting past to stop. Where’s a magnifying glass when you need one to accentuate the puppy-dog eyes? An hour or so passes by, and all I had to show for my efforts were sunburned shoulders and a sheen of sweat, which continued to bead on the small of my back as the rays penetrated me in a thousand places.
Along came Mr Badilla. The tropical sun and outdoor exposure had deepened and enriched his walnut complexion with a patina of age. He was a portly keg of a man, badged and dressed in blue astride his trusty Yamaha 250cc. Hurrah! Saved by the local police—not for the first time—and we’ll die another day. A fruitful phone call and another laborious wait later, a clapped-out old truck pulled up with its amiably willing driver. Having agreed an affordable price, we thanked Mr Badilla with hugs and handshakes; smacking his leathery hand against mine, which had knuckles like walnut burls. He smiled warmly in recognition of resolving our dilemma. Another good guy. Off we went with Jason following on his bike behind. I loved that a fellow motorcyclist had once again saved my bacon and my bike’s. Back to square one..!
The long ride back in a truck that had seen faster days took us sluggishly but steadily through blinding sunshine until a bolt flashed brightly across the cloud-wrapped sky—cracking the bones of the world with its bellowing roar. Frying white light split eerily, touching the Earth with its guttural thunder. Rumbling clouds pushed across a mulberry sky and the rain plunged down from the sky’s black belly. Enjoying the electric show more than the complementary power shower—Jason’s waterproof liners were in the back of the truck—he could neither see from a scratched visor nor his sunglasses under an already darkened sky. Blinking rivulets of stinging rain out of your eyes when soaked to the skin is as about as fun as a funeral. ‘At least it’s not cold or blowing a hooley, Jase,’ I mused, a Goldilock’s warm and dry inside the truck.
Back to San José for the third time—that old Power of Three rearing its thrice-the-price-of-one head—dispensing us with another tidal wave of city-bound time we cared not to unleash. Not with one we were so close on the brink of leaving, again. While the pair of us soon accepted the prospect of going backwards, Jason couldn’t help feeling smothered by the foreseeable delay; cloaked in a low-level irritation from unknown shipping and customs timescales that persists like Costa Rica’s wicked heat. We’d neither the funds nor consequent inclination to ‘live it up’ either. Game of Go Fish, Jase?
After a pedestrian few days in the hostel, Jason’s resolve was out of tune, sitting miserably in the wrong key and sounded flat as a fart. He’d contracted a serious bout of greener grass fever. Overhead, clots of fluffy white cloud scudded off, formed by the relentless thermals fidgeting beneath Costa Rica’s hot skies. I steepled my hands, clocking that Jason looked as terminally bored as I felt.
“Jase,” I positioned carefully—expecting a little resistance, “I’ve volunteered us both to work at the hostel. But don’t worry, the duties aren’t demanding and we’d only have to put in a few hours a day. Good move, huh!” “You’ve done what?!” he remarked incredulously. Oh no, here comes the heated tête-à-tête, and swallowed a curse. Only the sounds of the hostel filled the pause. But no trace of humour betrayed itself in his firm mouth as he gazed steadily at me, as if suddenly seeing the precipice upon which I walked between sanity and madness.
I ignored Jason bristling quietly—to smooth matters over I grinned encouragingly like a Cheshire cat to overcome any slight distrust and put the boy at ease—sympathising with the ache in his soul from being made to sit still in the same spot. (Perhaps a reference those closest to Jason will better understand.) “Yep! In exchange, we get: free digs, breakfast every morning, coffee on tap and machine-washed, tumble-dried laundry. All I’d like you to do is pancake duty; yours are like fluffy clouds compared to mine,” I pitched with eyes as bright as a chipmunk’s. Jason’s mind would projectile-exit his nose if he didn’t do something constructive with his time, and this seemed like an opportune temporary solution to curb the ants in his pants. Mustering a colossal effort of will Jason sighed, “Go ooon then but as soon as the parts come in, I’m outta here to work on your bike.” Thanks Jase, you’re such a lamb sometimes!
Evan, the manager showed us the ropes in running the hostel, grateful for the unpaid labour and dispatched a flexible rota of shifts to us. I thought he was joking when he handed me the ‘MOO’ to study (this guy had a habit of messing with my head at the best of times). The ex-US Navy Military owner’s Manual of Operations. Complete with binder, organised dividers of neatly labelled sub-sections and as thick as a village phone book. A person never really understands how big an ex-Navy personnel’s manual is until they look at one. Whoa!
My soul withered like a plucked cherry blossom in the sun at the mere thought of digesting it. Evan started eyeing me as one might a small child in a roomful of delicate knick-knacks. Okay so he actually wanted me to read the ruddy thing—my bad—without rolling my eyes, I humoured him. Expecting nothing more than routine inclusions such as: local information, hostel layout, checking-in procedures, the online system, allocation and tariff of rooms plus housekeeping, what I got was much and more. The deeper I delved, one thing became crystal to a gemlike lustre; it wasn’t queerer than imagined, it was queerer than I could ever have imagined.
Highlights amongst the fathomlessly in-depth offering containing countless ‘IAWs’ (In accordance with) included:
- A hierarchical chain of command starting with: Executive Orders from the Owner, appointed Officers as Second-in-Command and staff members. At ease, seaman.
- A glossary of definitions including ‘spare key’, ‘dorm’, ‘twin bed’ and ‘guest’. Really?
- Acceptable nicknames in reference to the room’s full names; e.g. ‘10 Downing’ instead of ‘10 Downing Street’. Presumably, ‘Number 10’ would be downright improper.
- “Disadvantages of long-term guests include less money per room-night compared to short-term guests, a decrease in refrigerator space and a tendency to feel as if they do not have to follow the same rules as short-term guests.” A tad shortsighted on the long-term nerve of said people.
- Staff may discuss “politics, sports, religion, money etc. but if the discussion turns heated the staff member must disengage from the conversation immediately.” A scene from the film ‘Stepford Wives’?
- “Male staff members’ shorts must extend to the knees when in a standing position”. Well, it’s no longer the ‘80s I suppose.
- “Female staff members’ shorts have no restriction in length.” Incredible!
- “At no time shall a staff member conduct any business at the reception wearing only a tank top. [On the upper torso] Por que? It’s up to 40 degrees around here.
- “The wearing of tank tops by male staff members is only permitted transiting to / from a bathroom with the intent to shower.” Well that has redeemed all then.
- No photographs or video shall be taken by staff of any actions that may “be deemed illegal or considered lewd.” A male staff member wearing a tank top en route to reception, perhaps?
- Male staff must ensure their attire around “the sleeves and neck are in the original factory condition and not altered with scissors or another form of serration”. Stay classy.
- “Staff members are required to take one shower / bath in a given 24-hour period or immediately after engaging in activities that produce sweat and odour such as but not limited to running or working out.” Goodness me.
- Beware of Potential Problems e.g. “Men, mostly middle aged and American, travel to Costa Rica for the sex trade”…and not only have a tendency to bring back ‘visitors’ but a “tendency to make the younger, female backpackers feel uncomfortable.” Men sound dangerous, don’t go near one.
- “Staff may engage in fraternisation provided the chain of command remains intact…and no coercion is involved on either side.” Rendered speechless.
A frightening wrongness possessed the manual and therein lay my problem. The author wasn’t slightly chiding, mocking without malice, as if he shared a grand irony with the world. No, his governing views were patronising, procedures anally retentive and methods teetering on lunacy. The hostel owner expounded on various arbitrary subjects beyond all rhyme and reason and I had to suppress more than a quip and a snicker. Bug-eyed, Evan shot me an expectant look and waited for me to opine my full judgment. Defenceless against his penetrating glare, for a moment I stood as though I’d been turned to wood and assumed dead silence that I fought to maintain with every bit of sinew in my body—until an uproarious laughter escaped.
May be the most bizarre 12 minutes of reading of my life by a nearly infinite margin. The odd barb of sarcasm occasionally spilled through the cracks in my reserve like piercing darts dipped in poison from a well deep inside. Oh, the mileage from the MOO would allow me to dine out on it for days. Evan being Evan—the kind of guy who was constantly on the verge of erupting into a big, hearty laugh—yet was serious and professional at the same time. For once, he let his guard down and exploded into a belly-rolling chuckle at my morbid fascination towards the MOO’s farcical absurdity. Pure gold!
Our delay incurred more days than we’d dare to bore you about. Jason rallied and I turned my back on the monotony of our situation and on things out of my control; the rest was just travail and vexation of spirit. Incredibly, imperceptibly I started having fun; I relished ruling the roost when on duty and helped to keep the lodging ship shape and shiny. Jason well, just went along with it…! To be fair, he was preoccupied running around like a headless hen: welding my cracked frame where the swing arm attaches to it (I really should invest in a Kindle rather than stockpiling at least four spare books); replacing all of our bearings bar those for his front wheel; as well as new bearings for the pivot bolt in the swing arm; changing the fork stanchion on my bike and fitting new mirrors to Pearl on top. Is Pearl good enough to be classed as rideable yet because I wanna get going!
We met some interesting backpackers from all walks of life, some sizably more sufferable than others. Admittedly, I felt like an alien on occasion who sees the landscape of human ideas and experiences differently than everybody else. Or may be that was just me compared to today’s youth—some almost 20 years younger than me. And then the silver lining of our circumstances revealed itself. The universe had aligned and paired us up with Daniel Rintz and Josie Flohr from Open-Explorers. Hanging out with these two, after rocking up on their BMW bikes by pure chance at our hostel was a godsend.
Thank goodness for like-minded folks saving us from ourselves, from climbing the walls in San José and the simultaneous act of being forced to learn patience and tolerance while parts were being shipped. Although short but sweet, we picked up where we’d left off with this couple—Jason and Daniel only having briefly met before—and got on like a house on fire.
Cooking, eating and drinking together is really all it takes to set the bond. While Jase and Daniel jabbered on about cameras, Josie and I produced some mouth-watering meals, exchanged stories, ‘Maps for Me’ pins for our opposing directions and our nifty little ‘couldn’t do without’ items in our panniers of tricks. I always adore pouring over bikers’ bits and bobs and was left beyond impressed at Josie’s ensemble of: a beautifully handmade and surprisingly robust ‘Mary Poppins’ style bag containing a condiment, herb and spice for every occasion (one of her panniers was devoted wholly to the ‘kitchen’!), a hand held sewing machine, two corkscrews—one of which I became a proud beneficiary, a knitting project and a GSI Outdoors pressure cooker! Too cool for school this foodie of a lady who had me hanging my nose over her delicious gadgets and goodies like nobody’s business. Incidentally Josie (at a week older than me), had also learned to ride a bike shortly before her big trip; my biking doppelgänger for sure.
And Evan was true to his word—for some moderately light work, we clawed quite a bit back while enduring the month it took to get us both rolling on fully functioning wheels. Perfick.
“How many milos back to San José, Jase?” I casually enquired astride Pearl having spent my energy and half the day with the hummingbirds at Chichona.
“According to the sat nav, 57 miles” was the succinct reply received down the helmet intercom.
“Really? Well, what’s that massive city down there then?” I queried as we contoured down the mountain road towards a metropolis of urban sprawl.
“I don’t know but we’ve still got nearly 60 miles to go yet.”
Blindly following Jason who was blindly following the GPS took us into the concrete heart of said unknown city, whereupon I enquired with stronger conviction, “Look at that sign Jase, it says we’re only three Ks from San José, this must be it.”
The sun ascended higher in an arrogantly hot sky and after a hand of time Jason piped up, “That sign must be telling us we’re three Ks from the highway going straight to San José.”
Unconvinced, “Look again J, we’re here!”
Jason answered with silence. Right, I’ll prove it to you blind boy and turned to my right, “Disculpe amigo, es esto San José?” I asked a local on his 125cc adjacent to me at the lights. “¡Si!”
“Oh yeah you’re right, we’re here” Jason finally acknowledged.
“Well, how come Doris [the Garmin] doesn’t know where she is? The capital isn’t exactly compact and bijou” I wondered.
“Mmn? I must’ve punched in the wrong Touratech” Jase freely admitted. Either that or we’d wandered into the Twilight Zone for 57 miles. Outwardly as I was inwardly pleased, my body didn’t fancy riding those extra miles; I love it when my expectations are serendipitously mismanaged. Nice one, Jase!
Home from home, particularly for us Brits, we struck gold when rocking up at Castle Tam hostel in the capital. Although their rates advertised in-house were somewhat pricier than those we’d seen online at Hostel World. After a little rapport building with Evan, the acting manager on reception, it didn’t take me too long to broach negotiation. I was tired, in supreme need of soap and water, lets crack on with this.
But he met my honest intentions and hopeful gaze balefully. In an expression of pure disgust, he shot me a look as if I’d wrapped double-sided sticky tape on my fingers when the collection plate went by of a Sunday church service. Crumbs, was this guy messing with my melon or had I just grossly overstepped the mark? I felt like a hunted mouse, nowhere to hide. Seconds passed before he exploded into belly-rolling laughter while I grinned and raised one eyebrow in ‘amused’ acknowledgement.
The service provided by Evan was first rate—incredibly an ex-AFL player—attentive and personable as customer-facing personnel come. And as ex-pro American football players go, Evan didn’t let the side down once. At precisely double my weight, he was super-sized with a trunk-like neck, ironman sized traps and thunderous arms of pure muscle assumed only by true athletes. It’s safe to assume that this guy was strapping and supportive to all and sundry to boot. That’s a touchdown pass from me.
I also admired the hostel’s artistic references to good old Blighty’s capital and culture in every corner, nook and cranny. There was ample security for both bikes (once we’d detached the boxes and edged them gingerly through the doorway-width gate), an efficient laundry service and clean rooms. Two decent kitchens, one of which was the hub for a tasty breakfast each morning comprising ‘Top of the mornin’ to ye, Lisa’ coffee and light fluffy pancakes—made for a very comfortable and affordable stay at $9 per person. Especially compared to the average robbing-you-blind hostel in San José. Our experience there was anything but average and checking into the same room ‘on spec’ three different times was testament to that.
Big cities: yeh or neh? I’m usually less inclined when it comes to trawling around big cities for the sole purpose of running errands to get stuff done. (Not unless it involves some people watching and a piece of cake.) But Costa Rica’s capital pleasantly surprised me in doing just that.
When Jason spotted an ant carrying a tiny pink wild flower, he assumed it was a ‘girl’ ant but it looked more like a romantic male to me, wanting to surprise the Mrs on his way home. Next find: I came across a curly haired, freckle faced kid; around four or five years old who took great delight in revealing her ‘Not afraid to be ugly’ face. With a pinched nose, she squinted her eyes and pursed her lips, sticking her tongue out at me with full force. When I returned the gesture straight back at her, with childlike abandon she burst into the funniest set of giggles, and we shared this sweet little moment together.
Leaving childhood innocence and wholesome fun far behind, we strolled past San José’s seedy ‘Sexy shops’, a Scientology shop front and as many fast food joints as there were streets. Highlights were the Baywatch-elevated police eyeballing the streets, the city’s eccentric statues and stunning street art. Look closely enough and there’s always something interesting going on, eh?!
So long San José, we were once again done with Latin American cities, or any big city for that matter. Getting stuck in them seems to be an occupational risk we regularly run, however, needs must when the bikes require some urgent attention. Impeccable timing too as just how much farther Jason’s wheels would ‘Cadillac’ him UP and down through Central America was in grim question.
And as Touratech Germany had graciously agreed to exchange Jason’s first prize of a motorcycle Compañero suit for an equivalent value rear suspension system (from the 2016 Horizons Unlimited photo competition), it was well worth the time invested slowing the pace and chilling in the capital. Beeming with an upgraded front suspension on top, the BMW wheels and Jase were transported to their happy places; muchas gracias again Marco (General Manager, Touratech Costa Rica), who went way beyond the extra mile in providing us with a timely and professional experience for the second time running.
Even with a myriad of micro-climates in Costa Rica, and with the best will in the world you’ll still get soaked in the rainy season. But at least the consistency of the mid-afternoon downpours pounding a staccato against body, abode or bikes make it worthy of rising with the roosters to enjoy the best of the beautiful weather. Next stop: a 170-kilometre ride in the northwest delivering us to a secluded settlement on the pristine fringes of Santa Elena, Puntarenas. It was settled in the ‘50s by Quakers who departed Alabama to dodge military service and nestles in a densely forested landscape near three small nature reserves. Connected by a winding, dusty mountain road lined with lodgings, intimate eateries, independent sellers of wholefoods and artisan craft shops. My kinda place.
There’s something about Monteverde’s cool undulating cloud forest, that while the rains might leave you soaked to the skin will leave your soul drenched in green. Stepping into a world of dappled green—the Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso—where the spongy forest floor cushions each step. I loved that the trails although well-maintained and signposted were often muddy, deliberately unpaved and moist. Damp leaves, yellow, brown and matted crushed beneath my booted feet where duff sank underfoot, soft and forgiving. Dark shapes of moss-covered deadfall wavered in the mist. Where mushrooms made thick clumps around the bases of trees, logs and gnarled branches stood canted at odd angles around me, tens of metres high. It felt enchanting and primal all at once.
Around me rose the sturdy boles of trees, solid in presence and spirit; creating an interwoven maze around the sloping fairytale path we strolled over. Perfect for the tree-climbers of the forest like a family of coatis roaming through. Wild vines hung like impossible strands of Rapunzel rope, from around 30 metres above—some of them as thick as a man’s leg. The leafy canopy of the forest interlaced in an emerald miracle, home to bundles of bromeliads where the unforgiving strangler fig, tree fern and wild avocado giants prevailed. As I saw a butterfly bestowed with delicately transparent wings, I placed my hand on the rugged bark of a palm, aware of the ancient tree’s eternal power.
High above the shadow-dappled wilderness, tropical birds chirped and called. The trill of a nightingale thrush carried magically. A hummingbird chick cried out continuously, bidding its mother to keep feeding it inside the snug little nest. Elegantly sculpted into a tear-drop, the nest had been constructed from various materials including the web of a spider—the adhesive properties of which lending to its location—stuck to the underside of a large protective leaf. Suspended, the nest was perfectly hidden from hunters and the never-ending story of the rain-pour. Amazing.
Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso is undeniably the best spot for hummers we’ve seen to date, and we’ve visited a handful in the Americas. It’s nigh on impossible not to get giddy with them, darting through the air like miniature cruise missiles. Shooting them with a lens is like shooting fish in a barrel according to Jason and mayhaps took some of the photographic challenge away from being in such prolific numbers. Personally, I can’t think of a nicer problem to have..!
Flitting across my face in scores, wafting wonderfully across my hair humming their ‘wing whistle’ was like no other feeder site to which we’ve seen. Impossible to tire of them, I couldn’t decide if the hummers were tame, unperturbed by or simply indifferent to our presence. I settled on a harmonious co-existence and let my eyes descend upon one to watch its blurred wings in the slanting sunlight, the sheen from the hummingbird’s colour-intense feathers glowing radiantly.
“D’fancy having some fun? By ‘fun’, I mean serious fun,” I solicited as Jason smiled his agreement. That was settled then and off we went to one of Latin America’s intense zip-lining canopy tours, courtesy of Monteverde Extremo. Aptly named, it sounded promising as I loathe splurging a pile of dollars on these adrenaline-fuelled frolics only to have them end in half a heartbeat.
Traversing directly beneath 15 steel cables whizzing you wildly above and between the treetops of Monteverde’s cloud forest was an assault on the senses. Yet a treat for the body and mind. Assuming the position and velocity of a speeding bullet on some, suspended from your back so that you fly Superman stylee, to a carefree-child-swinging-in-a-flower-filled-meadow on others, we flew without wings on a wire until around noon. With some aerial runways over 2,500 feet long and at 450 feet in height, gaining an incredible airborne vantage of the forest’s canopy level was one heck of a means to whizz our maracas off. At that height and speed, the leafy canopy billowed like small green clouds. And what a way to blow the cobwebs out on a Monday morning.
Hovering on the periphery of memory, I’d all but forgotten about the ‘Tarzan swing’ incorporated into our high nerve-action package. Gracias Monteverde Extremo, geared really only for the most jaded of adrenaline-junkies who are lovers of heights blessed with exceptionally low blood pressure. Stood on a gridded platform at eyeline with the treetops and Karabiner’ed onto the swing rope, the attendant gently ushered me to teeter on the edge of the platform. I had no idea how to ‘grow a set’ of seriously sized cojones but knew I needed to and fast.
I swallowed. It was like choking down a knotted sock. The thick dryness of thirst coated my tongue, I’d forgotten to drink a drop all morning. Just as the notion of backing-the-heck-out-of-this-senseless-act fastened itself in my thoughts, the attendant lifted my harness up from behind, the way you’d grab a toddler from the back of its nappy, denied me the briefest of moments to ready if not steady myself, and dropped me into a 45 metre abyss of oblivion.
Breath tore at my lungs as I plunged into the merest hint of an arc, pure fear contorting my face horribly for two full swings. Shock imprinted its tracks on my face, bulging my eyes and tightening around my mouth. It wasn’t the prospect of this voluntary undertaking that stitched dread across my chest while queasiness sank claws into my gut, or even the heights, it was the realisation of doing it. The 1.5 seconds of eternal freefall, practically bungee-jumping before the cable stopped it. Without an ounce of equanimity, an unladylike and distorted grunt slipped from my mouth before I’d even suspected its presence. Post two Tarzan swings, this timid Jane breathed the deepest sigh of relief, finally inhaling some air and in a flood of words, became gloriously voluble.
My real-time fear crawled back and allowed my soul to turn its attention away from the churning sensation and to the visuals of swinging through an old forest of giants, their trunks as thick as three people, standing tall; lifting their gnarled branches toward me like supplicating hands. I would’ve high-fived one but was still clinging onto the rope as though not clipped on at all.
Just as a tiny dagger of hope pierced my heart, an Extremo staff member threw out the cushioned buffer on a rope to pull me back in. But instead of executing a textbook gentle stop like the previous lucky ones, my moving body was yanked in two. Both lower and upper body halted to an abrupt stop, jerking back hard on the rebound. Never again. A less pleasurable and more of a sucking-your-backside-up-through-your-mouth activity. There was also a fearsomely high bungee jump we could’ve indulged but give over, we’re no mentalists.
Blasting off from the ballsy fun of Monteverde, we said our goodbyes to an eco-centric and generous group at the campsite—educating me about permaculture and filling my stomach with an incredible vegetarian meal bursting with layers of flavour. Our direct neighbours had been a body-beautiful couple from California cruising around in a whopping expedition truck and a couple of chatty Brits in a hand-built camper. Man alive, the places they’d seen and been. Living in a rustic and perhaps insular corner of southern France, their rationale for travel was simple: to meet like-minded people.
With the impermanence of our lives, I guess all we can do is use the present well. Time passes unhindered, which I suppose is why we choose to do what we’re doing now. To try and live out positive, creative and fruitful lives. Whatever meaningful shape or productive form that takes now and in time to come. Akin to the Dalai Lama’s perspective, I agree that the source to lasting happiness is compassion for others: kindness, affection and a genuine honesty. I think he’s hit the nail on the head: that my happiness is inextricably bound with the happiness of others. I neither relish nor cherish my own company for sustained stretches, which is probably why I find peace with other people and where I can, contribute to their well-being.
We all want one thing: not to suffer and when that’s unavoidable, to cope and adapt instead. So rather than engaging in meaningless activity, I’m striving to engage more in the human spirit, taking pleasures where I can but not at the cost of neglecting, disrespecting or harming those around me. A succession of unnerving clattering noises and resultant wobbles broke my reverie of calm and directional thoughts on the approach to the Nicaraguan border. What the…?! Something felt very wrong, zooming on Pearl along the dual carriageway at speed.
To be continued…