May 17, 2014
Told in the collective first person, jointly from Stu and Janell Clarke's perspective.
Narrated Audio Blog
Never do a border crossing on an empty stomach. We'd done it a few times now and it makes a hot and slow process so much worse. Crossing in to Mexico we were lucky to have two experienced travellers with us, who both spoke Spanish. The countries that were to follow – Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua – progressively got hotter and slower, taking anywhere between 1.5 hours to 5.5 hours.
Janell handles border crossings for The Pack Track. She is the most organised out of the three when it comes to paperwork and is picking up Spanish phrases a little faster than Stu and Skyla. To cross a border (a bridge over a river in most cases) we have tourist visas, motorbike permits and live animal import/export (that's Skyla). The process involves moving from the immigration and customs queues in one country to get stamps and permit, then moving to the administration buildings of the next country to get more stamps and permits. Sometimes you pay some money. Interestingly not all countries require insurance so when its not mandatory we don't get it as in these instances the cover you get is usually only around $5,000 and we can back ourselves for that amount.
So with Janell safely back with her pack in Mexico and both titles in hand, The Pack Track headed off for our first unaccompanied border crossing. Belize is a very small country in both population and area; the population is about the size of Newcastle in Australia at 340,000. Another interesting fact is that it's an English speaking country so it was a good first border crossing for us on our own. Everything was fairly straightforward except that we had not completed an online form to import Skyla. Initially they said there was no option but to return to Mexico and follow the correct procedure. However, seeing the distress on Janell's face, the official finally said we could just pay the $30 fine and bring Skyla in today, this was a no brainer, the fine was paid and this little drama easily diverted. Belize city, located on the east coast used to be the capital of the country but the coastal area is prone to flooding and tsunami's therefore was strategically moved inland to Balmopan, but Belize city remains the commercial centre of the country. We spent our one night in Balmopan. Visiting the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich was a major highlight of our trip so far...to our surprise, Skyla was allowed in with us and we had great fun climbing up and down the ruins taking silly photo's.
The process for importing a bike was fairly painless but insurance was compulsory. Part of the process involved having the bikes sprayed with insecticide, to do this we had to visit a separate hut in the Free Zone where a guy charges you a few dollars, sprays the bike and gives you a ticket to show at the exit checkpoint. Janell went first, she got off her bike and the guy sprayed the wheels and then moved on to Stuart's bike, seeing that we were concerned about the insecticide with Skyla and wanting to move her off the bike, he simply said "I won't spray this one, I'll just charge you for the ticket", we were more then happy with this option, we paid the man and proceeded to the checkpoint were all our paperwork was checked and we were free to go.
We quickly left the border area and headed in to Belize, the crossing had taken around 2 hours and we were getting a little hungry so immediately went on the hunt for lunch. We picked the nearby town of Corozal located only 15km from the border and found a Chinese restaurant with a fish burger on the menu (very Chinese).
After lunch, we packed the bikes back up and prepared Skyla, as we did this, a couple pulled up next to us, Janell instantly recognised them as Lisa and Simon of 2 Ride The World, a couple who have been on the road for over 11 years and very inspirational to us. They stopped and chatted for a couple of hours, providing advice and suggesting routes and places to see and even had a look over the bikes for us.
After we said our goodbyes, we headed for the capital, Belmopan (a recent change from Belize City). Belmopan was tiny, if you blinked you would have missed it, the hotels were all very expensive too but we did find a simple little hotel with rooms for $20 a night with secure parking. This experience taught us to always check the bed before deciding on a room, the bed felt like a floorboard with a bed sheet over it, certainly the most solid surface we had ever slept on. As well as the terrible bed, the room had no ventilation and became very hot and smelly before long, the supplied fan did nothing to help. By 5am we had had enough and got up and packed the bikes, the main doors to the hotel were locked and we had to wake staff to get out, but we didn't want to spend any more time in that hotel then we needed to and were happy to inconvenience the staff to get out.
On the way out of Belize we pulled into the Mayan ruin of Xunantunich. To get to this site we needed to take a car ferry across the river. Getting onto the ferry was not easy, there was a short descent to the rivers edge on a road which was sealed but covered in loose gravel. Having the fall experience just outside of Oaxaca freshly in her mind, Janell was very nervous about any situation involving gravel and insisted on Stuart leading and reporting back on his progress. The ferry pulled up and Stu rode down the slope and safely onboard, seeing the ease in which this descent was done and with the knowledge that dropping her bike in this situation would have far less consequence than the pervious experience Janell proceeded. Using plenty of back brake as she rode down the short hill, she boarded without a problem and could not have been more relieved to be onboard. Very much to our surprise the ferry was free, the operator asked for our details and took down our plate number. After disembarking we found ourselves riding up a long steep ascent to the ruin site, again the road was covered in loose gravel, but Janell was much happier riding up hill under these conditions, the ride back would be a different story. On arrival at Xunantunich we asked at the ticket booth (as we had done at all ruins) if we would be able to take Skyla in and to our surprise they said yes, this had been the first time we were allowed to do this, so we made the most of it.
Xunantunich was an amazing site, and made even more special was being able to share it with Skyla even though she clearly couldn't care less. We were able to climb to the top of the main pyramid which presented beautiful views of the surrounding countryside, clearly visible was the Guatemala border that we would soon cross. We took a few photos and videos to document our visit making sure to include Skyla before getting back on the bikes and hitting the road. The return ferry ride was without drama, Janell was again nervous but with the confidence gained from the earlier crossing and knowing this descent was slightly less challenging she pushed all negative thoughts aside and rode down the hill and onto the ferry without a word. Off the other side we rode and made our way to the Guatemala border, our first crossing into a country in which we didn't speak the language!!!
The Guatemala border was very quiet. It seemed to be that most overlanders skipped Belize and went directly from Mexico to Guatemala. This suited us just fine, before long we were in our fourth country and looking for accommodation. Janell came down with a cold leaving Belize so we found a 'resort' near Lago de Izabal to stay for 2 nights and rest (well within our budget); when you're sick on the road you really want the creature comforts around you. The rooms were big but with little furniture. there was a pool in the courtyard which we enjoyed to cool off. It was fairly relaxing and we popped in to the nearby town, El Remate, about 30km out of Santa Elena to get food. One restaurant in particular we loved. It had brightly woven fabric table cloths, excellent local food and a wooden rope bridge to a viewing deck over the lake. We couldn't bring Skyla but she was happy in the air conditioned room of the resort when we popped out. Janell felt herself after our relaxing stay and ready to move on to El Salvador.
From Guatemala we spent two nights travelling across El Salvador and then one night in Honduras. Our entry into Honduras was dramatic to say the least. Our research suggested the only payment required for entry was $15 for Skyla. We had tried to withdraw money from 5 ATM's in El Salvador unsuccessfully so rocked up to Honduras with only $50 thinking this would be fine and we'd have better luck with ATM's in Honduras. After a lot of running around, very vocal arguments between the immigration officer and Chief, $90 and 5.5 hot and sweaty hours of standing around we were allowed into Honduras. Initial arguments with the Honduras immigration officer began when he said entry required a fee of $35 per bike. Janell had paid for Skyla which left us with $35 only. As we couldn't pay we wanted to return to El Salvador but the immigration officer had taken our passports and registration paperwork before telling us about the $35 fee per bike ($70 in total for both of us). We explained we didn't have enough money and he wouldn't give us back our documents to re-enter El Salvador. A local 'fixer' got involved translating for us and took Stu back in to El Salvador to find an ATM that did work and we got the money out but on returning, an officer from the El Salvador immigration took Stu away from the 'fixer' and explained that entry into Honduras is free and the fixers work with the immigration officer to take money from people. The problem is when they have your documents you have no choice but to pay. And lets face it, once you reach 4 hours of standing around in the sun (there is no shade to park and wait) you just want to pay and get out of there. It doesn't seem fair to judge a country based on one experience. We will certainly be back to Honduras one day to spend quality time visiting the Copan ruins and other sites it has to offer.
Nicaragua was a delight after Honduras. Easy border crossing and lush green country side as soon as you leave the customs buildings. We both wanted to just stop and spend a week in Leon and another week at San Juan del Sur. Leon reminded us of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. We stayed at a hotel with a pool owned by a charming French family. To top it off, they had a brand new puppy running around with Janell running around after it when no-one was looking. Shhhhh, don't tell Skyla!!! San Juan del Sur is described as Bali 20 years ago. We haven't been to Bali but its a great beach destination with a lot of surf shops, restaurants, bars and cheap decent accommodation. Sunset over the Pacific Ocean with a Nicaraguan beer in hand is a must.
A bit about the riding for those interested. The main roads through Central America had been really good, much better than we expected; only a few patches of compacted gravel/dirt but at that time of year its not raining so they are just a bit dusty if you're following another vehicle. The difficulty for us had been rushing of course. Often the roads are single lane and have a lot of truck movement transporting freight. Through the mountains this can be a slow and tiring ride in first gear going up hills and trying to hop around the semi's at any opportunity. We work well as a team in these situation and the helmet comms have been fantastic as the person in front is able to tell the person behind when its clear to move around the traffic.
To put our journey so far in perspective, we had put around 6000 miles on each bike since leaving Dallas, Texas, about 7 weeks earlier. We would however suggest around 12 weeks just for the route we'd taken. We missed seeing the Pacific Ocean in Mexico which could easily have added another two weeks on the timeline. Coming up next would be Costa Rica and coffee!!! Our bikes were in need of a service and some minor repair work. We were also in need of a few days off to give our muscles a break and stretch our legs before heading to Panama and figuring out how to get The Pack Track into South America.
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