A late lunch was quickly turning into an early dinner as Jill and I wandered through various small towns looking for the right place to eat. Our hunger was distracted by the beautiful scenery of the mountains surrounding Volcan Baru in the NW corner of Panama. We entered the one horse town of Cerro Punta and soon passed what looked like the perfect little restaurant, equipped with large windows and a view of the surrounding peaks. We pulled big blue into the driveway of the small restaurant which was attached to a residence. There were few signs indicating it was open and soon our suspicions were confirmed when our polite knocking received no response. We hopped back in the van and I shifted the Astro into reverse, pressing my foot to the brake pedal. Instead of the expected resistance, the brake pedal fell quickly to the floor. We had lost complete pressure in our brake lines.
We departed Antigua early in the morning with plans to hike Volcan Pacaya. Well under a half day’s drive from Antigua we planned to get there early enough to hike to the summit before the clouds set in. Fast forward 3 hours and a number of U turns later we still had no idea where the hell we were. As we lovingly discussed with each other how we would revise our plans we decided that our chances to summit were quickly evaporating. Instead of waiting around to hike the following day we followed our standard break glass in case of emergency procedure. When all else fails and we continue to be grumpy, we move on. For us, a change of scenery will almost always reverse the flow of karma and result in a change in mood. We decided to make our way to the black sand beaches of Monterrico on Guatemala’s southern coast.
Antigua is a “can’t miss” stop on anyone’s route through Guatemala. It is a beautiful colonial city, known for its crumbling churches and towering volcanoes, both being somewhat related. Antigua has paid the price for its beautiful skyline with various earthquakes throughout the second millennia. Like other colonial cities in Latin America, Antigua’s streets are lined with single story buildings roofed with clay tile shingles and pastel colored facades. Its charm attracts wealthy tourists both domestic and international, which in turn attracts business. Antigua is packed with high end restaurants, fancy hotels, and clean little markets where you can buy Kashi, something I doubt you could find anywhere else in the country. The presence of all this wealth puts Antigua in stark contrast with the rest of Guatemala. Although on the surface it may not feel as authentic as a small mountain village, it is Guatemala none the less, and without having to go to too much trouble, we were able to discover plenty of authenticity throughout the city.
There are basically two routes you can take if you’re trying to drive directly from Tikal in the north to Semuc Champey in central Guatemala. According to our map the most direct route was a skinny little red line, indicating a secondary road, and a more roundabout fat blue line indicating a nice paved two lane road. We decided to try to make the drive in only one day and thus did not want to take our chances on the skinny red line, despite it being a shorter distance. We aimed for the fat blue line and by mid afternoon we were making good time. At this point, we were supposed to stop driving south and catch a road to head west. Thinking we were looking for another fat blue line of a road we easily sped past the sleepy little town of Modesto Mendez. Once we realized we had possibly gone too far we double backed passing the turnoff once more. Without a decent map, and struggling to understand the directions given to us by the locals, we would waste the valuable daylight we had left searching for this supposed fat blue line. When we finally found the road it became apparent why we were able to drive past it four times. The road was dirt, wider than one lane but not by much, and ravaged by the previous rainy season.
Border crossing days can be stressful ones. It’s a day full of unknown variables that no amount of research can entirely prepare you for. Procedures seem to change regularly, new taxes or fees can be attempted to be extracted, lunch breaks can be taken at all hours of the day leaving you stranded until the officer returns, and around every corner are unofficial porters pouncing on even a momentary lapse in confidence offering their services in the hopes of scoring a few bucks. Although porters can make the process easier, and surely cost less than a cheap lunch, have no doubt, it is a form of cheating. Up to this point we have had a few notches on our border crossing bed post but it was Guatemala that taught us some important lessons, lessons that we had to learn the hard way.
I was forced to use that as a title, but I won’t say by whom.
We said our goodbyes to Mexico and moved on to our first new country in over three months. Crossing over the invisible line that separates Belize from Mexico was unlike any other border I’ve ever experienced. It was like stepping into a completely different world. Not only is the national language English but the people and food have more in common with the Caribbean islands than with the surrounding Central American countries. It was a bit of a culture shock, but after spending 3 months in a foreign culture we welcomed the respite and enjoyed our days in the comforts of our native language.
When our trip was in the early stages of planning our timeline was frequently debated. Unlike me, Jill had the advantage of a reference point. She had spent many hours on other travelers’ blogs and had a feel for a slow pace versus a quick pace. Envisioning what kind of travelers we would find ourselves to be Jill estimated accordingly. I on the other hand was shooting blind. And as is often the case, this did not stop me from defending my position fervently. I saw Jill’s position of allotting three months for Mexico as a gross overestimate. I considered the country a hurdle between us and the rest of our trip. For reasons unknown to me at the time, I found it easier imagining us cracking into cultures in Central America, and saw Mexico as an impenetrable wall. What I later came to realize was that although publicly I spoke skeptically of the perception of Mexico in the US, I was not immune to its influence. A part of me was, and I hate to say it, scared and wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. Luckily for me, I have a stubborn enough partner who kept faith that once we were into the deep I would come around. And after stepping into our first municipal market, I did.
One of the tricky parts of continuous travel is that with every new day comes a new place to research. Always a new town with a brand new list of must see items. Guide books are obviously a good starting point, but seldom do they give you what we consider the “good stuff”. The stuff the locals know: how to avoid the traps, where to get an authentic yet cheap meal, or how to avoid the crowds and get off the beaten track. When we were in Oaxaca I visited a few outfitters not with the intention of purchasing services but only in the hopes of gathering information. I hit the jackpot when I met Eric, a native Oaxacan who was kind enough to spend over an hour giving me the goods. I left with a laundry list of enticing places to see and things to do. If not for him we may not have stopped in San Jose Del Pacifico, nor would we have been likely to stop in Chiapas de Corzo to take a tour of Canyon Sumidero. When we arrived in Chipas de Corzo we quickly realized we had lucked out again in that we had coincidentally arrived during their week long annual fiesta. And if there’s only one thing we’ve learned about travelling through Mexico it is to never pass up an opportunity to fiesta.
After travelling through Northern and Central Mexico, entering the state of Oaxaca was like entering a whole new country. We began seeing signs of a culture different than any we had previously experienced. Oaxaca marked our entry into Zapatec country. No experience better encompassed the most notable differences than a walk through the city market. The produce stands carry a number of new and strange items, the tortillas have doubled in size and are fried and stuffed with an assortment of delicious fillings and amidst the hum of the market we overheard languages that were neither English nor Spanish. The metropolis acts as a magnet drawing in all of the regional specialties that left Jill and I overwhelmed with new foods to try and shops to peruse.
My US centric perspective left me surprised by the fact that, although Whitney may be the tallest mountain in the lower 48, Mexico owns a number of peaks that supersede 15,000 ft. One of those peaks is Toluca Volcano in the state of Mexico, which happened to be along our route to Mexico City. The mountain has good signage from highway 134, which for Mexico is rare. Heading south down highway 10 a dirt road will split off to the left leading to a toll. It was 40 pesos for our camioneta (van), 20 for autos. After the gate the road begins its long ascent up a winding road. The road to the trail head is 17 km long from highway 10 and can be a bit rough at times. That being said, we saw a number of vehicles with little clearance making their way up. When we reached the parking lot, the air was crisp and cool, snow was scattered on the ground and a heavy fog was moving briskly by, a far cry from the sandy beaches of the Pacific.