Here we sit in Antigua, Guatemala. It is reputed to be one of the most popular international tourist towns in Central America and our alternative choice for the cold months in Canada.
The weather is mild all the time, with no rain so far and the combination of picturesque mountains and volcanoes makes the roads (paved or dirt) heavenly for motorcycles. The trails are unlimited, traffic laws relaxed, and potential destinations are plentiful.
Four months ago, Tina and myself set out to escape the impending harsh Canadian winter.
We both own dual purpose Honda’s; mine a ’94 XRL650 and Tina’s an ’87 XL600. Our destination was South where it is warm and inexpensive and as active riders logging over 25,000 km yearly, we were confident we could complete such a trip.
Our main concern in preparing the bikes was weight and manoeuvrability. We didn’t want our bikes so loaded down that we couldn’t tackle more challenging terrain. Camping gear was a priority to help reduce the costs of travelling. Prior to the trip we used our equipment on test runs in Ontario leaving us with two “day-sized” packs, weighing about 25 lbs. each full. Unfortunately, we only had room for shower shoes which left us our awkward motocross boots to explore towns with. As a result, most of the questions were directed towards the boots (“Why are you wearing those boots?”). We installed helmet communicators and a motion alarm on the XRL650. While parked, we locked the bikes together and the one alarm would provide security if either bike was disturbed.
Despite all the warnings concerning bandits, sickness and the assured unreliability of our single cylinders, we travelled South via the Eastern States. Not everything went according to plans, especially the weather. Our way down was so cold and wet that we stopped for a rest on a beautiful island national park in Florida only to be chased off by a hurricane warning on the second night. At the Texas-Mexico crossing, we had to ride in flood conditions through the border controls while cars floated down the streets around us.
Travelling via the Gulf Coast, we found it largely underdeveloped with regards to tourism. The hotels and food were very basic and overpriced and the pidgin Spanish we were picking up along the way didn’t score us any points in breaking the communication barrier. In the “comidors” (restaurants) you could ask for anything you wanted so long as it was either eggs, chicken, rice or corn tortillas. The novelty of it wore off rather quickly and we cooked for ourselves wherever possible.
Accommodation was comical at times. No toilet paper or toilet seats, no shower curtains, no hot water, ant invasions, and leaky plumbing all taught us not to expect too much for our $10 U.S. per night.
Mexican beaches are government property, so we always knew we had a free (albeit risky) place to stay if we so wished. One night we camped on the beach beside a family of five whose rickety shack made our tent look like a luxurious mansion. On our way out the next day we were confronted by four armed P.G.R. drug and arms control officers. Wearing black T-shirts and holding loaded firearms. They jumped out of a black 4×4 and barked out questions at myself and our Mexican BMW travelling companion until they noticed a girl was part of the group, which seemed to calm them down. After that, we often found them set up behind curves pulling vehicles over and conducting searches. They were always very professional in manner though, and we never had any problems with them.
In the Chiapas where all the civil disputes are still an ongoing problem, traffic was halted for 24 hours at a main intersection just outside of Palenque, a tourist town built on the outskirts of a famous Mayan ruin site that we visited the day before. We drove up to the front line between cars to see angry peasants wielding nail-studded clubs and rock barriers. We sat for a while unsure of what to do. Tina eventually negotiated us through the roadblock with her broken Spanish and we were allowed through, but not before we paid a small fee that increased with every minute it took us to get it out of our wallets. We then basically bolted through the other two we encountered just up the road from there without incident.
Our first peek at real sunshine didn’t happen until we reached Quintana Roo, the western most state of Mexico. We travelled North to the Yucatan but didn’t find the cheap oasis we were hoping for. Cancun was like being back in the U.S.A. (Subway, Burger King, etc.) and most people spoke English, but we were so taken aback by the radical change in the culture (and the U.S. prices) there that we headed out after only one day.
We crossed the border to Belize one afternoon and pitched our tent in a river tour operator’s backyard, spending the evening discussing politics. Belize is an English speaking country of approximately 190,000 people which was previously under British rule. Crime rates are very high and so were the prices (sounds like it’s still under British rule – RH). For one month we helped a Canadian couple in the jungle getting their business ready for the tourist season. Often we’d see deadly insects wandering around and sometimes found them on our clothes (In England we call them Manchester United fans – RH).
We eventually ran out of traveller’s cheques and tread so we decided to travel to Guatemala on the rumour that they had bank machines and tires for larger bikes. Unfortunately we found no connecting roads to Guatemala at the southern most tip of Belize, so we hired a dive boat to transport us over.
In Guatemala we encountered numerous problems with the telephones, visa extensions and banking. We never did find a banking machine that worked, so we had to live on cash advances until we finally returned to Mexico.
Throughout our trip we met with numerous other motorcyclists and explored Guatemala with many of them. In that time we saw a great deal of the country. Travelling by dirt bike rewarded us with sights and experiences that not many can share: from the wide eyed expressions of the Mayan people to the excited and cheering children (even though some of them threw rocks at us as we passed – I think maybe Guatemala was influenced by Britain as well – Ed). We visited all the popular places, dirt biked up volcanoes via donkey trails and took all the roads we were warned against.
One of our most memorable experiences was in a town where the entire community wore a traditional “uniform” indigenous to the area. All the clothes were painstakingly hand loomed and embroidered. The surrounding mountains were breath taking; lush green with multi-coloured rocks and flowers. We took the bikes and later hiked further up into the mountains, after removing our packs at the guest house, and discovered people and places one could only previously have imagined of.
During the nights it was cold due to the high altitude (~3000 m). Thankfully a small wood burning sauna was available, but soon left us gasping for air due to the lack of smoke ventilation.
On New Year’s Eve we were all invited to a dinner by the owner of the guest house. Just a few hours previous, Tina had witnessed several animals being hung up by their rear legs before having their throats cut. This was followed by dismemberment on the butcher’s less than clean front porch and rendered the subsequent meaty meal slightly unpalatable.
The next morning we were treated to a comical horse race where the riders appeared to be totally intoxicated and could barely hang on as they raced their horses back and forth between two gates.
On our journey we sampled native Mayan culture and visited large ancient ruins throughout Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. We rode behind overloaded buses while ticket collectors threw bribes at the police (so that they would turn a blind eye to the excess of people on board), bought gasolinefrom a church and saw satellite dishes perched outside of crumbling shacks (the T.V. getting a higher priority than the ruins around them). We worked our way back into Mexico, this time via the Pacific coast, which we found more enjoyable and traveller orientated than the East coast. The road followed the coastline and kept in sight of the ocean, revealing numerous vacation spots along the way such as Acapulco, Huatulco, and Puerto Viallarta. The further we travelled north, the more developed the country became. At one point we were caught off guard by the fact a helmet law was in effect resulting in a Police escort back to our motel.
We eventually made our way back into northern Texas, where we rented a truck to transport the motorcycles back to Canada, as wintry weather conditions were already upon us. To our surprise, aside from the XR650L’s oil consumption, the XL600’s hard starting and a front tire blowout, regular maintenance kept the bikes running well – even after travelling all day long in raging hot temperatures.
Five months, four countries, three thousand dollars (each), two bouts of amoebic dysentery, and one amazing dual sport adventure later, we were back in Canada.
John & Tina.
This article was first published in OMG in July 1995. Since then both John & Tina have moved out to B.C. and no one knows exactly where they are. However, we still have some pictures of their trip and would also like to see how they’re doing, so if any readers out West have come across them, please ask them to call us at 416-538-6733.