I put El-BP’s hand brake on in front of the pylons as a semi-official looking guy came up to my window and said something about fumigation in Spanish. I’d read about this online and it sounded like a total scam – to introduce a foreign vehicle into Guatemala one is required to pay the equivalent of about two and a half bucks to have it sprayed. Meanwhile, Guatemalan day-trippers appeared to be driving back and forth at will. Who knows, maybe it is legit; after all, two years ago we thought we were falling prey to a similar scam while leaving Siberia and being forced to drive Admiral Nelson through a decontamination bath, but it turned out we’d unknowingly driven past an anthrax outbreak that had killed a lot of livestock and even some people, but that’s a story for another time.
After getting El-BP’s undercarriage spritzed we spent about an hour going through the paces with G’malan immigration and then getting an import permit through customs. Gilles was going through all the same paperwork for his bike simultaneously. All of the officials were fairly friendly and helpful despite not knowing any English, in particular our customs guy, who wished us luck, slapped our shoulders, gave us cool-guy handshakes, and gave us the thumbs up as we rolled out.
The prior evening in Comitán I’d tried doing some research on Guatemalan car insurance and came up with jack shit aside from a vague reference to a company in Guat City that sold policies to foreigners, but not online, only in person. Guat City is on the other side of the country, so I was hoping to see some kind of building at the border that was selling insurance. No dice. I guess we’re driving without insurance again.
The lack of insurance is heavy on my mind in the first few minutes of Guatemalan driving. Tuk-tuks, kids in the streets, dogs everywhere, massive potholes, it’s completely nuts. We’d hoped to see an end to topes, but to no avail – Guatemala calls them “tumulos” but they’re basically the same but in generally worse condition. Driving in Mexico is like a well-choreographed North Korean holiday in comparison to this bullshit.
Most intersections don’t seem to have any rhyme or reason about who goes first, you just punch it and hope for the best. The situation didn’t improve as we left the border town we were in either – traffic moved slightly faster but there were still an inexplicable number of dogs in the roads, most alive but many dead, plus chickens, cows, sheep and goats. The view was awesome as we rounded the side of a mountain, with clouds ringing the peaks and rain forest vegetation bursting from the sides, but it also meant we encountered half a dozen landslides in the first hundred kilometers or so. In some cases construction crews were cleaning up the landslides, but in some we had to swerve around boulders the size of El-BP.
We’d also read a lot about corruption in Guatemala while researching what we were getting ourselves into, so as we passed military checkpoints (a bunch of teenagers standing around with automatic rifles) and police vehicles we tensed up, waiting for extortion in the style of the Kazakhstan police, but they didn’t seem to even notice of us. I’m going to chalk that up to the Burro’s unassuming guise and nonchalant grey paint scheme. Total under the radar Jason Bourne shit.
Murphy pointed something strange out after about half an hour of driving – almost everything along the roadsides, from buildings to utility poles to boulders were painted red, with a thumbs up, and the word “LIDER” on them. Apparently it’s a national political party that really loves painting everything red.
After some ways we decided to try to find lunch so we pulled over at a place with “chorizo” written above the doors. It wasn’t really a restaurant, more of a corner store that sold their own chorizo – like a week’s worth of chorizo for the equivalent of twenty-five cents. After tossing the idea of pulling out the camp stove and having ChorizoFest ’14 we had a couple of refreshing GuateCokes and hit the road again. It was our first interaction with regular folks here though and it was good – the lady working the store was really nice and the other customers were quick to give us directions to all of the nearby restaurants without us even asking.
Although some of the stretches of road were incredibly beautiful, some were pretty gnarly. In one town we passed through the sides of the road were completely covered in a continuous pile of trash, while innumerable mangy dogs dug through the trash scavenging for scraps. At another point we passed a large roadside trash heap where a number of small children sat on one side and vultures sat on the other.
After several hours of getting used to shitty roads a miracle occurred when we rolled onto a divided highway with decent pavement. It still hugged the mountainside so going more than 90 km/h wasn’t really possible in most places but it was a nice break from dodging kids, dogs and boulders. Even with the increased speed we realized it was getting late in the day and there was a good chance we wouldn’t make it to Antigua, our planned destination, before dark.
Two things to mention here. First, driving after dark in Guatemala is highly recommended against. Partially it’s because of road conditions and obstacles, but there’s also apparently a very high chance of getting caught in an armed robbery roadblock after the sun goes down. Second, because Guatemala doesn’t honour daylight savings time and it’s east of the Mexican border, we lost more than an hour of daylight during the transition. With the mountainous terrain, it’s pretty much completely dark by 6 p.m. With those factors in mind we swerved off the main highway towards Lake Atitlan, one of the country’s main tourist destinations. The road was kind of narrow and annoying – back to hitting kids and dogs every few minutes – but we figured it was a safer prospect than pushing on to Antigua.
Despite being at a very high altitude already, we climbed further on our way to the lake, which struck us as strange, since Google’s satellite image showed it as being pretty close. As we crested a ridge and looked down into the lake the descent was almost unbelievable. We couldn’t understand how a road could possibly descend that far in such a short distance, but as I crept the car downwards we were about to find out.
I’ve driven on a lot of bad roads at some time or another, as anyone who’s ever driven the Mongol Rally or lived in the Maritimes has, but this road really took the cake right out of the gate. Not only were we descending fairly quickly via switchbacks, with large trucks and chicken buses ahead, behind and next to us, there were massive potholes and washouts to navigate, plus a large construction zone where it narrowed to a single lane. I knew the brakes must’ve been just smoking but I couldn’t just put it in first to let the engine slow us down, it was too steep for that except for in a few spots.
After the construction zone we hit a small town and although I couldn’t see the lake I figured the worst must be over – we were in the populated area so we must be in a lake town and we could find a place to crash. Nope. We were on a small plateau and the town was really a village with no real accommodations. As we exited we could see the real lake towns and what had seemed like a baffling drop at the top seemed completely absurd and ridiculously dangerous at this point. The switchbacks became even steeper and more precarious, with more potholes and only sporadic guardrails.
Here’s what it looks like on Google Maps:
I alternated between rapidly pumping the brakes for most of the descent and letting first gear eat some of the velocity as each switchback ended, hoping in vain to give the brakes a rest. It was no use, they really smelled and this shit was starting to get worrisome. As we rounded one very, very steep corner, the situation went to the next level.
My foot on the brakes went right to the floor with zero resistance. We started rolling faster. No brakes. As the adrenaline exploded through my body it felt like I’d left my guts on the broken pavement and injected amphetamines into my skull. I reached for the hand brake but before pulling it a few more quick pumps brought the brakes back to life. At the bottom of this stretch was a small curve with a short uphill segment rather than another switchback.
I told Murphy what had happened and as the adrenaline subsided I jokingly said, “If that happens again, you’re going to see a grown man cry.” Then I said seriously, “Actually, I don’t really feel very good.” I almost pulled over to vomit but managed to keep it down. We came over another crest and although we were close to town, we still had a lot of hills to go down and I knew the brakes were in trouble. The hills were less steep, but now I had kids, dogs and other vehicles to deal with. I won’t sugarcoat it, I was pretty much shitting my pants and my hands wouldn’t stop shaking.
The entrance to the first lake town of San Martin was gated and a couple of guys, one wearing a police uniform, forced us to pay some bullshit daily “lake tax”, the equivalent of about forty cents. The town didn’t have any real accommodations that we could see and we didn’t want to have to travel after dark – the roads between the lake towns are notorious for banditry after dark – so we didn’t have the luxury of getting our brakes checked out or even taking the time to let them cool off, we had to start circumnavigating the lake. The road to the next town was completely fucked, more like an ATV path than a road, and the next town was no good either, with no apparent hotels. We had to keep pushing on, racing nightfall at speeds that were often less than those of pedestrians. Now we’d probably have to give up on getting to Santiago de Atitlan and settle for something closer.
As we drove up to what were obviously European tourists, we pulled over to get details on where the hell we should be going. They assured us that San Pedro, the next town, was the place to find plenty of hotels and hostels. A police officer we spoke to confirmed it was only another ten minutes down the road. Whether this meant ten minutes in a standard issue police pick-up or ten minutes in a Pontiac Wave with 14″ wheels was unclear, but we did manage to get to the town and find a place to park for the night through a combination of crawling through holes in the road, punching it through muddy sinkholes, and rapidly pumping the fading brakes on the descents. I seriously needed a drink.
We park our car in the lot of a coffee shop / internet cafe that offers overnight parking and the guy running the place tells us about some of the nearby hotels, including one called Mikaso that’s supposedly the best in town – views overlooking the lake – plus it has a killer restaurant. Sold. The walk up to the hotel seals the deal – it’s a narrow path between some fences that leads onto an even narrower wooden boardwalk over the edge of the lake. It definitely doesn’t feel like the entrance to a typical hotel. One turn off of the wooden boardwalk and you’re standing in the hotel lobby.
Apparently the lake is expanding, or the ground around it is sinking (not sure if there’s a difference?) because there are numerous semi-submerged structures around the waterfront, like a basketball court that now resembles a large boat ramp and this house:
We unload our gear and head over to snag a room. No one’s at the front desk so we head upstairs to the third floor resto-bar and start drinking, but we check back a few beers later and fortunately they do have a room for us. We’re also introduced to Patcho, the German Shepherd that lives in the hotel. When we’re shown our room, Patcho follows us up and when the hotel employee leaves us, Patcho curls up at the foot of the bed and hangs out.
My nerves are still shorting out from the drive, more medicinal alcohol is needed. Patcho is leaning on my leg snoring so jokingly I say, “Patcho, vamos!” He immediately jumps up and heads straight out the door. Holy shit, this dog’s Spanish is better than Murphy’s.
Flick on the Bardar and a couple of minutes later we walk through the doors of a place called The Buddha, an Eastern-themed bar that looks like it could have been transported straight out of Ubud. We grab a couple of Guatemalan beers and seeing smokes for two bucks a pack I ask if we can smoke in here. The lady behind the bar says sure, but we point out the No Smoking sign behind the bar. She says, “Yeah, that’s just the law. We don’t really worry about that around here.” Awesome.
We ask our bartender about what this sign behind the bar means, and if she’s Helen. She sort of laughs and says no, but that Helen’s a total nutcase who gets in trouble when she drinks. Not understanding the gravity we pry a bit more until she tells us that Helen has killed two men while drinking but has been released from jail and still comes in to try to get drinks. She tells us we’ll recognize her when we see her, and that she doesn’t want to talk about it any more. Damn.
A few minutes later a couple walked in and the guy shouts, “Hey! You made it!” It was two of the tourists we’d spoken to earlier. We hung out and got to know them for a bit, it turned out the guy was from Bern and the girl was from Marseilles.
After we step out for a bit we return to find the place bouncing to open mic night, about a 50/50 mix of tourists and locals. A local dude in front, emanating a greasy vibe, tells us that this isn’t where the real party is at – we should let him take us a couple towns over via the bandit-ridden dirt roads and perhaps onto a boat. Oh, and would we care for some cocaine? As we decided that we would prefer to retain our organs for at least one more evening, we politely declined and had a few more beers instead, then called it a night.