Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Crossing borders, breaking bolts and taking our sweet time

Buenos dias amigos! We are currently residing in San Pedro, a tiny town on the edge of the beautiful Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. Our shady waterfront hotel costs $4 a night each, the U-bend under the bathroom sink is cracked and drains into a bucket, and on some angles the building looks to be an abandoned housing project. But raising my eyes from the hammock I lay in, to the surrounding jagged mountains and tree covered volcanoes that circle the clear blue water of the huge lake, makes the cold showers and the smelly room quite bearable. From this pleasantly reclined position I shall beam forth the events of our past weeks, using the majesty of the internet, of our moto-adventures from the Pacific coast of Southern Mexico to the lush, jungley hills of Western Guatemala.

Local kids rushing to touch their heros.
This is what we do on our non-travelling days.

Typical Southern Mexico or Western Guatemala mountain farmlands.
Feeling refreshed and ready for some Chiapas adventuring, we left Carlos gazing into the clouds at the mare's-tales in the approaching Northerly, in his lovely home in Puerto Arista. We continued down the Pacific coast towards Guatemala, but chucked a left when the border was 100km away, to again battle the steep, densely treed continental divide mountain range, the Sierra Madres. True to Carlos’s description, the road was awesomely windy and enjoyable to ride, taking us to yet another breath-taking mountain pass with epic views in all directions. From there we began a steep, winding decent of 1000 meters over about 10km or so, and leaned hard on the brakes to slow the lumbering bikes for each cambered hairpin corner. We stayed, and were heavily stared at, in Motozintla that night, to ensure we had internet access for Atley to finally purchase a new rear suspension assembly online. It was already failed on the first day of the trip, and after 20,000km of providing no damping, the bike is now a rattling mess of duck tape and cable ties, hidden under the curtain that is his moustache.

Lagoons of joy.
Our cabana overseeing the lagoons.
Las Nubes is amazing! Where's Atley?
From Motozintla we continued north, then turned east to follow the zigzag geometry of the Mexican-Guatemalan frontier. Here the towns grew smaller and further apart, and the humid, insect-ridden, monkey-filled, tucan-toting jungle took over. From the taller peaks we could gaze into the remote and seemingly unpopulated highlands of Guatemala, getting a glimpse of what was in store for Future Us. The weather that day was overcast, so our visit to the lagoons at Montebello was fairly bland and unimpressive. The following day we continued deeper in the jungle, on a road that has only recently been paved, then turned off and followed wayward signs to Las Nubes, something Carlos had told us to see, but couldn’t quite remember what was. We dual sported way out, along rocky, dusty tracks, over a few old river beds, to find ourselves square in the middle of The Jungle of Nowhere. We asked the next people and they sent us back the way we came, until we eventually found ourselves at Las Nubes, paying some entrance fees and nibbling complimentary pistachio nuts. We were alongside a beautiful green river, so we followed the path to the edge and spied a massive, gasp-worthy waterfall. We wandered around and sat on a rocky outcrop, just a few feet from millions of litres of waters pounding past us to make a washing machine of treachery below. Ferg reckoned he could survive a spin cycle through there, but we elected to dine at the overlooking restaurant instead, on crumbed chicken with rice, avocado, tortillas and lots and lots of delicious spicy salsa.

Random Mexican's house that were daring enough to invite 3 Australians into their abode for the night.
This is where radiator coolant comes from.
Running the Usamacinta River in Pablo's lancha.
That afternoon’s ride was spectacular, passing by pre-historic looking scenes of lush green jungle covered mountains. We dilly-dallied at lots of spots to take photos and stare at the hugeness of it all, and somehow all of a sudden it was almost dark. We hadn’t known where we’d be that evening, and hadn’t had time to assess the map very well. Turns out there were no nearby towns with hotels, which we found by asking a local family on the edge of a tiny town. Our halting, awkward Spanish skills gave them plenty of time to garnish that we are a respectable, trustworthy, amazing, humble bunch, so they offered their spare room for our slumbering that evening. With no other options jumping out at us, we happily accepted their offer, and under the heavy mortar fire of 21 amazed and staring Mexicans, we, the aliens from a far away land, dismounted our futuristic rocket ships in our fancy space suits. They did not break their gazes while we slowly moved a few of our possessions into their concrete room. We smiled as best we could, and flicked a few hola’s and wey’s around the place, but we were all a bit startled with the barrage of silent staring attention and leant casually on our bikes, the sunlight gleaming through Atley’s glistening, powdery facial hair arrangement, making them stare all the more. We had a halting conversation with Miguel, the Dad, over the whole evening and he told us confusing stories about things we didn’t quite understand with his tight little words, but we bonded nonetheless. He told us he had 4 children, but there were at least 9 running around, all with his grinning face. We had a lovely sleep on the concrete floor, listening to a Mexican house, with no doors, wind down for the evening at 8pm. We were up early and on the road by 7am the next day, keen to escape the gazing, but they were a lovely family, all genuinely interested in how weird we were, and always smiling........... most likely at Atley’s moustache.

Super remote Yaxchilan ruins - probably the best ruins we've seen so far but still pretty shit. Where's Atley?
Where's Atley?
Stairway to immortality.
Indiana Jones sacrifice zones.
The sun god over looking his mayan kingdom.
We hurtled along that day, covering much pot-holed, poorly-maintained and missing-sections of road. We ended up at Yaxchilan Mayan ruins, the uninformed tourists, handing out precious pasos for entrance tickets to the parking lot where we could find the ticket booth for the boat ride to the next ticket guy.  We were momentarily annoyed at the stupid amounts of fees to be paid, but our 90 minute ride down the fast and wide Usumacinta River, that separates Mexico and Guatemala, cleared our heads. The Elders of The Clearwater from the North would be pleased with the Usamacinta. Our wooden vessel was long and slender, and our weathered captain deftly steered the tiller of a smoky big bore outboard engine. We stopped on the way to check out a small crocodile, then were dropped at a huge Mayan ruin archaeological site with evidence of ancient civilisations existing 800 – 2000 years ago. Riddled with the desperate screams of the surrounding howler monkey army, we discovered an Indiana Jones style temple atop hundreds of stone stairs. We respectfully climbed onto the roof of the temple, peaking out over the jungle top, and tried to ponder the daily concerns of freaky Mayan priest kings, from times long ago. We stayed in a big wooden hut that night, and celebrated the day by practicing the local custom of drinking beer and telling jolly stories to one another.

Palenque Ruins.
It's over there.
This temple was so old that it was falling down! I blame the Maintenance department.
That was pretty much the end of our remote Mexican jungle time, and from there the smashed-up road led us to the popular backpacker destination of the town of Palenque. There we basked at a sprawling hostel, under the shade of leafy green trees, immersed in the constant beeping, honking, wailing and shrieking coming from the jungle animals living within. There was a month-long hippy festival beginning that weekend, so the town was afloat with unkempt neck-beards, elaborate dread-lock arrangements, flappy earth-friendly clothing and the unmistakable waft of body odour. We befriended hopeful entrants of Rainbowland, but they became confused and unsure at our constant references to motorcycles and The Spreadsheet. Rather than fashion dream-catchers from the hostel garden undergrowth with them, we visited the famous Mayan ruin site nearby. There we found swarms of indigenous locals trying to sell their handcrafted wares to pale-skinned tourists camouflaged in North Face ski jackets and brand new $400 hiking shoes. TheMattandAtleyandFergShow gives the Palenque ruin site a rating of 8/13 apples for ancient infrastructure, and 17/88 rabbits for peaceful atmosphere.
Hostal living at its finest...
Luscious Chiapas.
Losing another bet at Lake Atitlan. Punishment: polishing everyones boots.
During a casual inspection of his bike Atley discovered one of the main bolts that secure the pannier rack had come out of its nest and was wedged between the side faring and the pannier rack. After several attempts at reinstallation we noticed that the bolt was in fact broken through the threads. Failure analysis indicated the root cause to be fastener preload relaxation caused by inadequate maintenance practices. The bolt was bent, and fracture face indicated signs of shear overload. As the bolt loosened due to the excessive engine vibration from the KLR’s 650cc single cylinder, the bolt was exposed to sideways forces outside of the design window of this grade and style of fastener. Had the correct bolt tightening program intervals been followed, this failure would have been prevented. Going forward, the lessons learned from this incident allowed inspection durations to be re-visited and corrected. Ferg also experienced the flaws of TheMattandAtleyandFergShow maintenance program, when he noticed a footpeg bolt was loose, because it wasn’t there. This was temporarily corrected with a smaller bolt and duck tape. The failure investigation has been postponed due to far more interesting social obligations.

Streets of San Cristobal.
Guatemalan Highlands.
Escaping from the hippy-ridden swamp lands of Palenque, we left the jungle and re-entered the Mexican alpine. We climbed in altitude until our heated-grips were on medium and we wished our heated jackets were not stuffed in the bottom of our panniers. The city of San Cristobal lay before us, and we entered it one after another. It’s a large, historic city, full of churches, markets, squares, Mexicans and tourists, not unlike many other fine cities we’ve visited. We stayed at Hostel Rossco, a relaxed and comfortable property, and were conveniently allowed to park the bikes in their central courtyard during our stay. Jeorge the owner is a keen motorcyclist and was very pleased to have us aboard. He offered to take us on a ride through the surrounding mountains and we gladly accepted. The ride turned out to be ultra-scenic, riding the ridges of mountain tops, on smooth new tarmac, and we had a lunch at a lovely restaurant in the woods. Otherwise while we were in San Cris, we went to an amazing waterfall, ferg got food poisoning, we were led around by a crew of Mexican tour guides, had plenty of social nights around the fire pit at the hostel, visited some bars and engaged in various animated dance sequences.

El Aguacero
Moments prior to the GoPro tragedy.
While Atley and I were at the huge waterfall, El Aguacero, disaster struck. Over an amazing afternoon clambering in, up, around and under the 100 meter high waterfalls, we took some great blog-worthy footage with my awesome waterproof GoPro video camera. We floated down the blue river at the bottom of an untouched canyon, and revelled at what quality experiences we’re having. Alas, all too quickly we revelled right into some fast moving white water above some rocky rapids, and had a difficult few seconds extracting ourselves from the immense force the rushing water was pulling us down with. Happy to be safe and on a rock, I threw the running camera to Atley without warning. Time slowed down as I watched the camera fly through the air, towards Atley’s extended moustache. The bristles and his clutching hands grasped for the spinning device, and for a brief momemy he had his fingers around it. They then inexplicably released their grip and our reliable friend the GoPro went sailing into the vicious white water that we’d just ourselves escaped, so had zero intentions to jump in after it. With a fully charged battery, and 20Gb of available memory on the card, the 1080p video footage that it was capturing at the time of its loss would have rolled for many hours, down the river, around the rocks, to a new life, free from torment from TheMattandAtleyandFergShow. We are still mourning the camera loss. We contacted GoPro with our amazing story and links to our videos, but they were unwilling to come to the table and support us through this troubled period. Thus we dipped into the precious taco fund and ordered another online, hopefully to be delivered by our international courier, Phillip John Alsop P.Eng, in a couple of weeks.

"Might need some help here."
Lagos de Colon ruins are reasonably lame.
Last night camping in Mexico were by ruins and lagoons.
I found 1 peso! I am rich!
From San Cris we headed back towards the border and camped by Lagos de Colon, which has Mayan ruins dotted around it. On the way we had to ride through some sections of slimy rock-bottom river, and Atley and I both dropped our bikes in the 6 inches of rushing water. We crossed the border the next day with relative ease. The process took about 2 hours all up, which involved getting our US$400 deposit back for temporarily importing the bikes into Mexico, then getting ourselves stamped out of Mexico, then the reverse kanga to enter Guatemala. Once in Guatemala, we were treated to riding through a series of river valleys, with splendid mountains rising sharply up on either side. We ended up in Huehuetenango at a lovely hotel, with another motorbike-mad hotel owner called Juan inviting us for a guided tour of the surrounding mountains! Nothing finer than seeing a well dressed business owner get suited up in full leather bike gear, and ride his Yamaha R1 beast through the mountains. Such an amazing machine, and it made us feel like we were riding Victor lawn mowers.

I win!
It's volcano climbing time.
From Huehue we headed south to Lake Atitlan to see my cousin Joe and his girlfriend Sherrie, and 6 days later we’re still here. The lake is huge, surrounded by volcanoes and mountains, and the town of San Pedro where we’re staying is relaxed and cheap. We walked to the 3020 meter peak of San Pedro volcano a few days ago, which was super cool, led by our indigenous guide Manuel. The volcano is inactive, with little coffee and corn plantations dotted up the sides of it, and provides a kick ass view of the lake from the top. Like the good Australians we are, we lugged a jar of vegemite to the peak, and lunched on vegemite, cheese and avocado tortillas while scoping the buena vista. Otherwise while we’ve been here we’ve laid in many hammocks, swum in the lake many times, changed our oil, eaten chocolate-dipped frozen bananas, and watched our neighbours throw fireworks over the fence into the next hostel, over, and over again.

Perfect day for a 1500m vertical climb through the jungle and 2nd time he's used them boots.
The view across Lake Atitlan.
The San Pedro Volcano summit is nice.
From here we plan to do some exploring, on our way to Antigua for Christmas with Wendy, and the rest.... we’ll figure out on the day. Cheers!

VIDEO TIME! Full screen!