12: Belize and Guatemala

Photo Album of Quintana Roo / Álbum de Fotos de Quintana Roo
Photo Album of Belize / Álbum de Fotos de Belize
Photo Album of Guatemala / Álbum de Fotos de Guatemala

    Wednesday morning is bright and warm in Tulum, but I depart with an uneasy feeling in my stomach. It has nothing to do with what I ate this morning, although I did unknowingly eat much sugar ant-infested granola before realize the ants everywhere in the hotel were coming from the bag. Rather, it's because of how my bike is running. Since reaching Tulum, my bike's exhaust has undergone a change in its sound. A once steady purr has turned slightly poppy. At higher RPMs it becomes less noticeable, but at idle it's very prominent. I'm far from any KTM shop; the nearest is in Guatemala City. I decide to continue on my path through Belize with hope it doesn't get too much worse.

Hotel Acuario (Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico 11/3/2010)

(Quintana Roo, Mexico 11/3/2010)

    As I head toward Chetumal, the Capital of Quintana Roo, Mexico, and border town, I follow the signs to the only northern crossing into Belize. But something doesn't seem right. As I continue on the road, I pass by chain-linked fences, roadwork equipment, and a gas station in construction. There's no one else on the road and soon the highway which once had a well-maintained shoulder, becomes overgrown and wild with plants creeping into the opposing lane. I sense this road is definitely not used often. Approaching me in the distance is a bridge. Crossing both lanes of this bridge are barricades, with a small opening blocked by barbed wire. Coming to a stop at the barricade, a man in camouflage wielding a rifle exits the small temporary building set up behind the barricade. Before he says anything, I yell to him, "Cómo entro Belize?" (How do I enter Belize?), and his reply is to the east. I turn around, and with the aid of my GPS, discover the correct road to the border. In order to leave Mexico, I must pay a small fee to the immigration officer for him to stamp my passport and allow me to cross over into Belize. Insurance is on my mind, and as I'm taking the next photo, a man waves me over to a small building with a sign above saying Atlantic Insurance Company (seen at the top left of the photo).

The very low-key Guatemala/Belize border sign (Belize 11/3/2010)

    The national language of Belize is English, the currencies are Belize dollars and US dollars, and the system of units is the imperial system (foot, mile, pound, gallon, etc.). I find this strange, considering all the surrounding countries use the metric system.
    The man that waves me over turns out to be a helper for an insurance agent in the small building. I don't plan to be in Belize for very long, especially since my moto is developing a problem, so I request only 5 days of motorcycle insurance. The cost is $29 USD for the agent and a $5 USD processing fee, which the helper will run over to the bank to pay and return with a receipt. He asks for a tip so I give $3 USD. He asks for more, but I kindly refuse. A tip nearing the cost of the service is a tall order I'm not about to fill. Within 15 minutes, I have my insurance card stuck to my windshield and I'm back on the bike for another ~300 meters to the Belize border. The border process is clean and orderly. I pay my entry fee, get my passport stamped, and continue to customs. My vehicle importation permit is also easily acquired and stamped in my passport. I'm in Belize in about 30 minutes.
    As I head toward Orange Walk, I watch ominous storm clouds move into in my path. I pull over at the first sign of raindrops to put on my over pants and close my jacket vents. I don't fear riding in rain, but I'm not expecting the type of downpour that hits. One of the previous days I was warned online by my friend, Austin, that there was a storm front in the Caribbean, named Tomas. I started following it and noticing its decline in strength. The road turns and I ride straight into the storm. This isn't the worst I've driven through in the slightest, but it was by far the wettest it has been south of the US border. It's actually quite a pleasant drive. The temperature is warm and the road, although wet, is slightly rough, which provides good traction. The storm isn't a lingering one, so large pools of water don't have a chance to form on the road. The road turns again, toward the only clear part of the sky, and I exit the downpour after 20 minutes, giving my rain gear an opportunity to dry in the wind. Over the next hour I'm hit by sparse showers, but once again, the road turns to the only clear part of the sky, and I ride the last hour dry.

A secondary road (Belize 11/3/2010)

The storm moves into my path as the road banks left (Belize 11/3/2010)

If this road only stayed going this direction... (Belize 11/3/2010)

A view to the east, toward the Caribbean, from where the storm came (Belize 11/3/2010)

Mi cueva de tormenta, my storm cave (Belize 11/3/2010)

    While contemplating where I want to stop for the night, at the crossroads to Belize City and Belmopan, I choose Belize City. A minute or so later, I find a hotel waypoint on my GPS in Belmopan. I impulsively turn around from Belize City and steer toward the capital, with the reasoning that I'll reach the border earlier when I set off the next morning.
    My GPS leads me off the main paved road onto a very destroyed, rocky path for over a kilometer. The last segment doesn't seem safe to venture down, so I turn around to explore the hotel sign I saw at the gas station on the opposing side of the main road where I turned off. It begins raining as I approach the main road, and at this point, it doesn't really matter what it costs for the night. I'm tired and the sun is setting. The gas station being at the hotel is also a plus for my departure the next morning. The room is $42 USD for the night.

Video (Belmopan, Belize 11/3/2010)

Very nice (Belize 11/3/2010)

Run for cover! (Belize 11/3/2010)

    After I arrive it begins raining heavily and continues throughout the night. At the convenience store I pick up some native foods of Belize- cassava chips and a Belikin stout. My dinner is comprised of chips, beer, dove chocolate, and peanutbuttered bread. The Belikin turns out to be very delicious and is the highlight of the beers I've tried on my trip so far. Mexican beers leave a lot to be desired for a dark beer enthusiast such as myself. The corona mega was nice, but nothing beats a delicious, warm, dark beer.
    I wake early Thursday and begin stripping my bike at 8:30 in the lobby to attempt a diagnosis. I replace the fuel filter and spark plugs. I check every jet I can reach from removing the bowls on the carburetor. I inspect hoses, carburetor seals, and the air box for any sign of cracks to cause a vacuum leak. I clean the pre-filter skin that is slightly dirty. After getting everything back together and tidying up, it's nearly past noon. I push the bike out of the lobby, prime the fuel back into the carburetor by turning the ignition on and off a few times, and hit the starter. I'm plagued by the same plop-plop-plop exhaust. I take out my camera to document the sound, and as I come around to the exhausts, I notice a striking difference between the two pipes. The left pipe, for the rear cylinder, is pumping exhaust very consistently and is relatively still. Conversely, the right pipe, for the front cylinder, is exhausting abnormally and can be seen vibrating more than usual. Perhaps I should have caught this before my efforts this morning. I figure there is something going wrong with the compression of the front cylinder. Perhaps a seal is going, and a leak has developed. Remembering what I noticed back in Texas at Tejas Motorsports, that from a cold startup, [only] the right exhaust had a smokey color until the engine warmed up. Although the cylinder leak tests came back OK, I now see this was the beginning to what has now developed.

Naked bike (Belize 11/4/2010)

Spark plug replacement (Belize 11/4/2010)

Video (Belmopan, Belize 11/3/2010)

    I press on toward Guatemala City, reaching the Belize/Guatemala border in less than an hour. This border process is also very smooth. After I finish my exit of Belize and am leaving the processing building, a currency exchanger approaches and offers an exchange rate of 3.5 Belize dollars per peso. I take out my journal with current currency exchange rates (current to 10/18/2010) and calculate Belize dollars to Quetzales. I find 4.0 to be more accurate, but after thinking about it for a moment, decide to exchange a small amount just to have some cash going into the country. Reaching the Guatemala border, I must pay $12 Belize dollars for my tires to be sprayed with insecticide against a particular fly (I think), then I'm on my way to immigration. My passport is stamped and I head to customs to import my motorcycle. The process is easy because I already have copies of all my documents, so I don't have to rely on helpers or copy machine clerks. I pay $40 Belize dollars to the bank for my vehicle permit, show the receipt to the customs official, and get my sticker. Apparently I don't need separate insurance in Guatemala, as I'm told by the customs official. There doesn't appear to be a casa de cambio (money exchange house) anywhere in sight, but the customs official that helped me says I should try the black market, and refers me to the money changers walking around. I'm approached by one as I ready my bike and he offers a rate of 3.6, which isn't great, but better than the money exchanger a few moments ago in Belize. I unload the rest of my Belize money I got from the gas station/hotel this morning, then venture into Guatemala.

The main bridge is closed for repair, this is the temporary bridge into Guatemala (Guatemala 11/4/2010)

Countryside (Guatemala 11/4/2010)

    While north to central Belize is mostly flat and Florida-like, with marshlands, pine-palm plains, and lots of rain, the southern region is very mountainous. I don't venture into southern Belize, but entering Guatemala, I'm introduced to rolling hills, lush jungle, then amazing twisty riding through the mountains the more south I go. There aren't many pictures of the twisties for obvious reasons. The video is also not that twisty because it was taken in the north, approximately 40 kilometers from the border.

Video (North Guatemala 11/4/2010)

Hilltop view (Guatemala 11/4/2010)

Another hilltop view (Guatemala 11/4/2010)

    Horses are lead by rope or roam freely, grazing on the road and countryside grasses. Children in many villages fly kites. Motorcycles are everywhere, both driving on the roads and parked on the shoulders. I pass parked bikes with the drivers visiting homes and restaurants; some have groups of people sitting and talking near them. In many cases, firewood is being collected and loaded as large bundles tied on the back. A couple times I see what appears to be police or military with a shotgun or rifle riding as a passenger. I also notice that nearly everyone wields a machete. I get the impression people are obligated to carry one, as though it's as essential part of being a Guatemalan citizen. It's more common than Mexico and Belize combined.
    A few times on today's drive the road changes drastically from pavement to rough, pothole-ridden packed clay, which continues for roughly a kilometer or more. I usually hug the smooth right side until it comes time to pass someone. I'm able to glide over most bumps by keeping my speed up and keeping an eye out for larger obstacles. After an hour, I stop for gas. It's a little over $3 USD/gal here, where Belize was a little under $3 USD/gal. After leaving the station, I quickly come upon an orange bus I had previously passed on a rough segment of the road and it's now stopped with hazard lights on, just before a tope. As I approach to pass, I see the driver holding a tube out his window that looks remarkably like the one I have mounted under each of my saddle bags, containing my first aid kit and chain lubricant. As I get closer, I see that it IS the same tube, but one plastic arm is completely broken off and the other arm has the metal mount ripped and mangled. After I stop, the driver hands it to me and I assess the damage. The tube is still completely together and watertight, but the mounts must have ripped off on one of the rough road segments. I pull over to inspect my other tube and it's fine. I suppose the heavier weight of the first aid kit was a big factor in it's failing. It had also been mounted with just two metal mounts instead of three, like the tube containing the chain lube. I thank the driver and strap the tube down with a bungie in the safe confines of my spare tires and continue onward.

The aftermath (Río Dulce, Guatemala 11/6/2010)

    At dusk, I arrive in Río Dulce, a town on the Dulce River, which lies near Lago Isabel, the largest lake in Guatemala. I stop at a gas station to ask about a good place to stay and am referred to Hotel Backpackers (http://www.hotelbackpackers.com), an economical hostel-style hotel right on the river, just over the bridge. A private room with shower, bathroom, and wireless internet is $120 Quetzales (~$15 USD) for the night. I'm satisfied, as this has been the cheapest place I've stayed south of the border. Apparently this is an expensive price for Guatemala, as I later hear, although this is compared to a shared room with a public shower and bathroom. I'm not stingy, knowing the hotel uses funds to help local education programs and the profits from the restaurant go to aid the local orphanage on the river.

Hotel Backpackers (Río Dulce, Guatemala 11/4/2010)

    While unloading my gear into my room, I'm approached by a guy with a US accent. He introduces himself as Ben and invites me across the bridge to have a beer with him and his friend. Beer is usually always the magic word after 6 hours of challenging driving. I spend the night with Ben and his friend Sam, whom he met a few days ago on a boat ride from Livingston, at a cozy bar at the base of the bridge spanning el Río Dulce. I enjoy a Moza, the local dark beer, with guacamole and a delicious onion, mushroom, and tomato pizza, before we find one last bar to top the evening. Today's had great riding and I found a couple new friends to end the night with.
    Friday is a restful day. I leisurely hang out around the Hotel, enjoying a nice breakfast of fruit, fries, and a tilapia sandwich. I make a few couchsurfing requests and have a confirmed stay in Guatemala City for Monday. I get in contact with David, who is a very helpful employee of the KTM shop in Guatemala City. I seems Monday is a better day to arrive, and I decide to stay in Río Dulce for the weekend. I spend the evening enjoying vegetarian tacos and guacamole, organizing my arrival to Guatemala City on the computer, and having a delightful conversation with a 10 year old girl, Raquel, whose mother works at the Backpackers restaurant. As the night goes on, the temperature continues to drop. I suppose being in the valley on a river, 70s F shouldn't be unexpected, but I would have a hard time believing it had I not been here.

View from the hotel deck (Río Dulce, Guatemala 11/5/2010)

Another view from the hotel deck (Río Dulce, Guatemala 11/5/2010)

Breakfast at Hotel Backpackers (Río Dulce, Guatemala 11/5/2010)

    Saturday's sunrise is at 6am this morning, and it's the first time I've seen and been awaken by it since coming to Río Dulce. I still roll over and put a blanket over my head to get another hour of sleep, but being the first sunny day since leaving Quintana Roo, Mexico, I take the opportunity when I wake up to go out explore and possibly find a boat to travel up the river.

Breakfast (Río Dulce, Guatemala 11/6/2010)

a fiddlehead (Río Dulce, Guatemala 11/6/2010)

Probably the best castnetter I've ever seen (Río Dulce, Guatemala 11/6/2010)

A tiny visitor on my spare tire (1.5 cm) (Río Dulce, Guatemala 11/6/2010)

Hotel Backpackers entrance (Río Dulce, Guatemala 11/6/2010)

Backpackers Hotel and Restaurant, from the bridge (Río Dulce, Guatemala 11/6/2010)

Wooden canoes are everywhere (Río Dulce, Guatemala 11/6/2010)

The main street (Río Dulce, Guatemala 11/6/2010)

The market (Río Dulce, Guatemala 11/6/2010)

Grains and beans (Río Dulce, Guatemala 11/6/2010)

Tanning the meat in the market air (Río Dulce, Guatemala 11/6/2010)

    At the docks, I discover boats usually only travel to Livingston, a 2-3 hour ride, at a price of over $110 quetzales (>$13 USD) each way. The price is a little steep, as I only wanted to travel a short distance, not the entire river. I decide a boat ride can come another day, and continue my morning walk.

Back across the bridge (Río Dulce, Guatemala 11/6/2010)

cacahuetes caramelizados, caralelized peanuts, bought from a boy at the top of the bridge (Río Dulce, Guatemala 11/6/2010)

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