Orientation to LongroadSTT

Welcome to Longroad STT

Posts on this site begin with the most recent posts and scroll down to older posts. If you would like to start from earlier in the trip, click on the archives box on the left side of the page and choose a month. The months of July 2012 – September 2012 discuss preparations and planning for the trip. To skip the preparations info, click on October 2012 to jump right into when team STT hit the road.

Each post contains a few select photos. To see a much more extensive set of images from the trip, including Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala, please click on the “Longroad Images” link on the left side of the page.

In preparation for the trip and throughout our travels, we relied on information gleaned from the blogs of many other overlanders. Please see my blogroll list for links to some of our favorites. SouthernTipTrip and TheRamblinVan are the blogs that continue to document the travels of the members of STT who remain on the road 🙂

Change in Plans

As I sit here typing this it is 6:30 PM on Wednesday February 20th and Bryan and I are parked a little ways outside of Mexico City in Cholula, a suburb of Puebla. “Wait a minute,” I can hear you say, “doesn’t STT stand for southern tip trip, as in the bottom of South America, and didn’t you just post from Guatemala 2 days ago?” Yup.Those of you who know that I am the only member of the STT crew who did not quit their job and that I was only able to scrape together 4 months off for this journey may have already been wondering what the hell we were still doing in Guatemala 1 month before my return to Oregon. 2 years ago when we as a group originally conceived and named this trip it was intended to be a 4-6 month whirlwind push to the southern tip of Chile for all of us – no one was planning on quitting, just taking extended leaves of absence. As time passed and the trip got closer though, the groups intentions changed – how could you possibly make this trip in less than 18 months and really experience things along the way rather than just driving a bunch every other day? Answer: You can’t. So Greg, Micki, Erik, Doug, and Marcia made the decision to change the itinerary, quit jobs, and take it long and slow. Bryan and I had to decide whether the trip, for us, was more about the goal of reaching our originally stated destination or more about the journey itself – an in depth experience of new cultures shared with a group of amazing friends who mean the world to us. In the end we decided that the companionship was more important than proving how far we could get   For the first few weeks of the trip, we thought we might be able to get away with splitting the difference – I would travel as far as I could make it before I had to get back to work, but Bryan would likely complete the journey with the rest of the group. In the end however, we decided to head home together when the time came.

That still doesn’t explain though why we are suddenly blazing full speed back through Mexico a full month before I have to return to work (we made it from Panajachel to Arriaga MX in one day yesterday and from Arriaga to Puebla today). Sadly, my mother was diagnosed with brain cancer 17 months ago. She had been responding miraculously well to chemotherapy and was stable until very recently. Unfortunately now the tumor has resumed growth and she is declining rapidly. It’s time to go home and be with her. I am sorry to leave Guatemala sooner than planned, but I am very thankful that I already have this time set aside and can spend it with my family. I will drive with Bryan long enough to get him back safely across the US border, then fly to Maine.

So, no more posts from me – but STT continues and I encourage anyone who has enjoyed reading about our adventures to continue following the crew as they head south over the next 18 months. You can get updates from Micki’s blog “SouthernTipTrip” and from Doug and Marcia’s blog “TheRamblinVan”, both of which are listed as links in my blogroll.

Adios, amigos!

The sun sets on Lago de Atitlan... and on my part of STT.

The sun sets on Lago de Atitlan… and on my part of STT.

Coban to Lago Atitlan – the easy way or the hard way?

As we sat at the campsite in Coban contemplating our next move towards Panajachel on Lago Atitlan, we faced a choice of routes. We could head south on Hwy 5, a heavily traveled and guaranteed paved trip that would take us directly through the jaws of Guatemala City and get us to Antigua in about 4-5 hours if nothing bad happened in the city. Alternatively, we could take “Hwy” (I use that term very loosely) 7W for a slower, steeper trip through the stunningly beautiful and much less frequently traveled Highlands of Guatemala’s Quiche department. This would be a minimum of 2 days trip, taking us through Uspantan, Santa Cruz del Quiche, Chichicastenango, and landing us directly on the shores of Lago Atitlan without ever having to deal with the dangers of Guatemala City. The choice hinged (again) on the road conditions on 7W, and as usual we were given wildly variable and completely unreliable reports as to what those might be. Reports ranged from, “yeah, it’s totally fine, we have friends who went that way and didn’t have any problems” to “oh my god, the whole thing is unpaved and treacherous, and there’s a landslide, don’t go”. The most realistic, up to date and accurate sounding report was that the way is “mostly” paved, with a short section out of San Cristobal that still not paved (Is this sounding familiar to you from my last post on Las Conchas? Will we never learn?). After much discussion, we chose to go the 7W way…I’m glad we did, but there were several points where it seemed like we had made a major mistake 🙂

The following is the true, no bullshit, up to date situation for this route as of February 13th 2013.

Excellent road conditions!

Excellent road conditions! Note the size of the oncoming truck and remember that when you look at the rest of these pictures…

If you are in a hurry, on a tight timeline, afraid of heights, have any concerns about the roadworthiness of your rig’s suspension or brakes, or if it is raining – don’t go this way. If you have plenty of time, a sense of adventure, a hearty driver, a reliable rig the size of a Sprinter or smaller, a desire to get off the gringo trail and see some amazing high altitude country and parts of indigenous Guatemalan village culture that most tourists will never see, and it’s not raining – definitely go this way.

We left Coban in the rain at 11AM and made it quickly to San Cristobal Verapaz without incident, pavement all the way, patting ourselves on the back for our excellent choice. Entering the town, the road looks normal – but as you wind your way through the road becomes more and more narrow until all of a sudden is it essentially a VERY steep one and a half lane deeply rutted dirt road that looks like it is going to peter out into nothing within a couple hundred yards. That is, in fact, the road out of San Cristobal, and once you crest the top of the hill things don’t really look any better. We drove on for another 5km or so, averaging less than 13 km per hour, hoping that around every turn this “short” stretch of rough road would miraculously transform into pavement.  As we went, the rain continued to fall and the road was turning to slicker than snot mud. Around the 5km mark we stopped for a team conference, on the verge of giving up and heading back. The collectivo driver we flagged down laughed at our vehicles and informed us that we had another 20 km of unpaved road to go but the good news was that it was dry in about another 5 km and the “gap” through the landslide area was open – his collectivo made it, so should we. The boys put their heads together and decided to press on and go for it.

Convoy conference - turn back or press on?

Convoy conference – turn back or press on?

Lonely Planet states that in 2009 “the side of the mountain fell off” along this road – “a little bit of gratuitous hyperbole” I thought. It is now 2013 and the LP edition we have is 2010, so I thought surely this situation should be cleared up by now. So, so sad that I am apparently unable to learn my lessons. The landslide gap sits about 10 km (over an hours drive) out of San Cristobal, and does not appear to have had much done to it since 2009. Thankfully the road dried before we reached this point – this is not a needle you would want to thread on a slippery road. It was however, something spectacular to see and even with the clouds around us the steep drops off the mountain were readily visible and breathtaking.

When they say the side of the mountain fell off they weren't kidding - and by the way the road is essentially only one vehicle wide

When they say the side of the mountain fell off they weren’t kidding – and by the way the road is essentially only one vehicle wide

Nothing to keep you from falling off the mountain here...but honey badger still doesn't give a sh*!

Nothing to keep you from falling off the mountain here…but honey badger still doesn’t give a sh*!

Looking down the slide gap through the drivers side window

Looking down the slide gap through the drivers side window

Once we passed the gap we had about another 2 hours of 7km/hour super steep jarring road with amazing scenery through multiple very small indigenous villages. 25 km from San Cristobal we finally began to see the remains of old rudimentary broken pavement that was not really any improvement over what we’d been on. The real pavement started 27 km from San Cristobal where the road crosses the Chixoy river. Final tally is approx 3 hours to travel 27km.

Hard to explain how steep this was and how narrow that gap is - we were in 1st gear, praying that the brakes would hold and that nothing was coming the other way

Hard to explain how steep this was and how narrow that passage is – we were in 1st gear, praying that the brakes would hold and that nothing was coming the other way

We pressed on from Chixoy on to Uspantan where we spent the night at a tiny pensione   on Calle 6a that was the only place in town with an enclosed lot for the vans and with a gate high enough to pass our tall vehicles. We slept in the gravel lot with three collectivos that took off in the morning at 3AM, 4AM and 5AM respectively, loud diesel engines blaring.

Hangin' with the collectivos in Uspantan...

Hangin’ with the collectivos in Uspantan…

The next day we descended the highlands through Chichicastenango. The road between Chichi and Panajachel, although paved, is the steepest, twistiest stretch we’ve encountered on this entire trip and it is plied by multiple speeding chicken buses and collectivos driving like bats out of hell. It was during this Friday descent that I decided I didn’t care how cool the world famous Chichi market was supposed to be – there was no freaking way I was going to take my life in my hands on one of those buses to go back up the mountain on market day Sunday!

Catching up on Northwestern Guatemala

Despite my best intentions, I am a bit behind on the postings now 🙂 Here is the first of two installments to bring things up to date.After leaving Finca Ixobel we headed southwest towards Lago Izabal, passing through Rio Dulce on our way to El Paraiso on the north side of the lake. The road from Poptun to Lago Izabal is paved the whole way although the second half of it has several 1-2 km stretches of somewhat rough pavement. The road along the north side of the lake from Rio Dulce to El Paraiso is also fully paved although it does have some pretty good sized potholes. There are two camping options at El Paraiso, both right on the shore of the lake – we chose Cabanas Las Brisas el Lago (GPS N15.57130 W089.19823). This spot is run by Julio, who may just be the friendliest Guatemalan we meet on this entire trip! The dirt road in to his place runs through a working cattle ranch and we got to watch quite a show as three caballeros ran down and roped a bull as we drove by – the action was worthy of a Blazing Saddles cameo and I had no idea those giant bulls could run so fast! Since the drive from Poptun was quick and easy we arrived early enough in the day to walk about 2 km back up to the main road and the short trail Agua Calientes falls.    The falls are created by a natural hot spring that emerges about 150 meters from a cold creek, flows towards the creek and then reaches it by cascading about 10 meters over a  lip of limestone into the pooled creek below. This results in a massive hot shower! It is really hot – not quite scalding but about the limits of what you would want in a real shower. The limestone cliff overhangs the cool pool below somewhat so you can swim behind the curtain of the hot falls and find yourself in a little pocket that is like your own personal sauna – I loved it 🙂

Lovely Lago Izabal

Lovely Lago Izabal

The next day we set out for Las Conchas (a tiny village about halfway between hwy CA13 and Fray Bartoleme), with plans to meet up there with our German friends Peter and Marcella. We originally met them back at the Inglewood campground in Belize and encountered them again at Finca Ixobel. Peter is an experienced kayaker – both he and Greg had heard rumors via the Mayan Whitewater site of a run on the Cayu River at Las Conchas. Road condition descriptions varied but the general consensus seemed to be that “most” of the road between CA13 and Fray was newly paved, with only a “short section” of continued construction happening at the CA13 end – we decided to go for it. Turns out that the “short section” is really about 20 km of bone shaking construction with several places where you are doing one lane passes around giant earth moving vehicles. Bryan and Smokey were not happy 😦 We finally hit pavement shortly before the turnoff to Las Conchas, only to be treated to another 3 km of rutted narrow road to get in to the village and to Oasis Chiyu (GPS N15.84692 W089.45267), our targeted campground on the banks of the Chiyu river. Be warned if you plan to go here – the turnoff to the village is minimally marked and easy to miss. The road in to the village is 2.5 km of steep,windey, unmarked road – enough to make you wonder if you’re going the right way – then the final 0.5 km into the Oasis itself feels like you’re driving on an unused forest track. We were certain that we were on a wild goose chase, there could surely be nothing there at the end of this misguided adventure, and we would never be able to get the vans turned around and out of the jungle. Ah, we were wrong! Oasis Chiyu was worth the trip 🙂

Peter, Marcella, Bryan and I hanging out at Oasis Chiyu

Peter, Marcella, Bryan and I hanging out at Oasis Chiyu

Oasis is run by Felipe, his wife Mijo, and their 3 year old daughter Hanna – Felipe is an American expat so English is no problem. The property is in a lush, absolutely beautiful spot right on the river. It is set up as a guest place (with space for camping, 3 cabana rooms, showers, composting toilets, and a common area with kitchen) but Felipe primarily runs it as a working farm since there is not a lot of tourist traffic through here. They didn’t have electricity until they installed a solar panel about 2 years ago and they have to drive in to town on the main road to get internet, so building the guest business has been slow. The showers don’t require a pump as they are gravity fed from a high flow spring on the property and they work surprisingly well.

Felipe, Mijo and Hanna

Felipe, Mijo and Hanna

Felipe himself is not a whitewater guy so did not know much about running the Chiyu, but he graciously ran a shuttle for Peter and Greg up to the base of the falls that mark the upper limit of the run. Bryan, Marcella and I hiked up there as well and had an exhilarating swim across the base of the falls to celebrate Bryans 45th birthday!

And for his 45th birthday I gave my true love a ... WATERFALL! :)

And for his 45th birthday I gave my true love a … WATERFALL! 🙂

The paddlers took out right on the Oasis property – final report is that it was a lovely relaxing paddle with not much in the way of whitewater. No worries though – this is an amazingly beautiful place, and the great time we had hanging out with Felipe, Mijo and Hanna were completely worth the effort it took to get here.

The takeout at Oasis Chiyu. The building on the right houses the composting toilets.

The takeout at Oasis Chiyu. The building on the right houses the composting toilets.

In case you're wondering how the composting toilet works - pee in the front slot, poo in the back...

In case you’re wondering how the composting toilet works – pee in the front slot, poo in the back…

We bid farewell to Oasis on the third day there and headed to Coban on blessedly smooth paved roads. We elected not to make the drive in to Lanquin after hearing reports of very steep bad roads that sounded like the vans would be unable to navigate. Peter and Marcella did brave the trip in their 4 Runner though in order to check out reports of true class 4 whitewater there. Coban is not a very touristy town, but it does fortuitously have the Parque Nacional Victoria with camping facilities situated right on the edge of the town, within easy walking distance to everything (GPS N15.47484 W090.38356 – if you are looking at the map of Coban in Lonely Planet the park entrance is at the intersection of Calle 3a and Avenida 11 on the northwest side of town). Marcella and Peter pulled in to Coban the next day with confirmation that the run would be worthwhile, so the following day all three boys piled into the 4 Runner, kayaks on top, and headed back to Lanquin. Marcella and I spent the day cruising around Coban, buying good Guatemalan coffee and visiting the massive orchid garden the town boasts. The guys returned around dark that evening with Greg and Peter looking very satisfied – successful class 4/5 run with one hiccup in directions that resulted in an unexpected portage around a drop called “Wrong Way to Capetown”. Everybody’s happy 🙂

Finca Ixobel and the Rio de Cueva

The day we left Flores the weather finally took a turn for the better and the sun was shining when we pulled in to Finca Ixobel (GPS N16.30335 W089.42032), a working guest ranch just outside of the pueblo of Poptun. The finca is set up for all flavors of camping – cool little treehouses, cabanas, tent, and car camping. They had plenty of space for the vans, nice bathrooms and showers, and water/electricity too (40Q per night). We found a fair number of people there, hanging in the common area of the main house, but it did not feel crowded and the overall atmosphere was pretty sleepy and relaxed. In addition to a full kitchen that puts out some really good food, they also offer several day trips off the finca.  Bryan and I hiked with our guide Aquino to the Rio de Cueva. This river essentially springs out of the earth and then immediately flows into a cave and runs underground for approximately 1.5 km from the cave mouth, with several small waterfall drops along the way.  At the terminus of the cave system you reach the tallest of the falls which cascades into a relatively still pool – from here the water seeps down into the rock again. Once you enter the cave, the entire hike is in the water, varying from ankle deep to over-your-head swimming. We each had a headlight – you need to make sure you have at least 2 hours of battery in your lamp because when the lights go out in there it is truly the darkest of dark. Aquino brought along candles and planted them every couple hundred yards to mark the way out should we lose our lights, but I would not want to depend on that.

Looking back at the entrance to Rio de Cueva

Looking back at the entrance to Rio de Cueva

Cascading underground waterfall about a kilometer in from the mouth of the cave

Cascading underground waterfall about a kilometer in from the mouth of the cave

Getting to the cave entrance was as much a part of the adventure as the in-river section. We left at 9 AM, did not dally, and got back at 3PM (an hour earlier than most folks we’re told). The trek in to the cave is by itself a 2 hour deal if you don’t stop and take breaks, longer if you do – definitely not a hike for pansies. To start with, after many days of unseasonable rain, at least 60% of the trail in to the cave was ankle deep in shoe sucking mud. Initially Bryan and I were both planning to just wear our own running shoes on the hike, but the manager convinced us to borrow from their stock of loaner shoes instead and I’m really glad we did! Unfortunately the smallest size they had was 2 sizes too big for me, so I had the shoes ripped off my feet at least 4-5 times on the way in 🙂 The trail in crossed several kinds of terrain, from open slopes full of grazing cattle to dense overgrown jungle trail – lots of razor sharp machete wielding by Aquino. The machete is the most ubiquitous tool in Guatemala and is used for a multitude of tasks other than brush cutting  – I’m pretty sure they issue one with your birth certificate here. Aquino said that in a typical year he goes through more than 20 machetes, replacing them when the blade becomes too thin to sharpen anymore. Bryan was so taken with the blade that Aquino allowed us to buy it from him – my husband is now known as Indiana Irwin 🙂

Ankle deep, shoe stealing mud on the way to Rio de Cuevas

Ankle deep, shoe stealing mud on the way to Rio de Cuevas

Small obstacles in the trail on the way to the cave. Aquino had to wield the flat edge of his machete to deter a charging cow trying to protect her calf. Note the super high end Guatemalan backpack Bryan is sporting :)

Small obstacles in the trail on the way to the cave. Aquino had to wield the flat edge of his machete to deter a charging cow trying to protect her calf. Note the super high end Guatemalan backpack Bryan is sporting 🙂

Here you can see where the machete really comes in handy. This ain't no typical tourist trail - after this trip I really feel like I have been IN Guatemala.

Here you can see where the machete really comes in handy. This ain’t no typical tourist trail – after this trip I really feel like I have been IN Guatemala.


We were greeted in Flores by dark clouds and intermittent rainshowers. This small island in Lago El Peten is about 0.8 miles in circumference, with outer and inner ring roads. The outer ring is lined with small hotels, tiendas, souvenir shops and restaurants – the inner ring is a maze of dwellings tightly squeezed together. It quickly became clear that although Flores is very cute and a great place for backpackers, it is not ideal when you have a large vehicle you need to park and in which you want to sleep. We were able to locate a small hotel called the Villa del Lago that had a bathroom/shower adequately accessible for Greg, free wifi, and a manager who was willing to let us park on the street in front of the hotel. As luck would have it, this placed us directly across the street from the Dos Mundos Spanish school – how convenient 🙂 Greg and I signed up for 3 days of individual language classes (a week of classes here costs 120 quetzales – 5 days, 4 hours a day). We were both a little disappointed with our instructors after the first day of class, but things definitely improved over the next 2 days. Overall it was still a good experience, but given the parking situation and the fact that the quality of instruction in Panajachel on Lake Atitlan is reported to be absolutely stellar, we decided to abandon Flores and save our class time for Pana.

Street camping outside of the Hotel Villa del Lago in Flores

Street camping outside of the Hotel Villa del Lago in Flores

Tuk tuk on the outer ring road, Flores

Tuk tuk on the outer ring road

The upside of inclement weather - double rainbow in Flores!

The upside of inclement weather – double rainbow!

Good news though for overlanders who have rigs to park but still want to visit Flores for a day or two, or for those who need a place to stay on the way south from Tikal. Thanks to our French Canadian friend Denys, we discovered Ixpanapajul Parque Nacional. The park is about 12 km from Flores and is a SWEET place to camp! It is a gorgeous spot, quiet, not many people, with immaculate huge bathrooms and showers, water and electric, and a large palapa you can pull your rigs right up to (which comes in handy when it’s raining). They also have cabanas to rent and a very clean, well kept open air restaurant. As we drove in, we could hear and see a troop of howler monkeys in the treetops. There is a herd of horses that ranges free around the park along with a couple of donkeys and a burro – they had no qualms about coming up and grazing right around the palapa. Between the howling of the monkeys and the braying of the burro there was certainly no need for a morning alarm clock.

The herd at Ixpanapajul coming in to check out the vans...

The herd at Ixpanapajul coming in to check out the vans…

The best part of Ixpanapajul though was far and away the Skyway hike. Access to the trail is free. It is a strenous  2 hour walk up and down the ravines of the jungle on steep stone stairs that reminded me of trekking in Nepal. Along the way are 3-4 long suspension bridges that traverse several more ravines about 30 meters up in the canopy, putting you at eye level with the howlers. We were treated to a great show by a baby howler monkey with it’s parent both moving through the branches only about 2 meters from us, almost close enough to touch! I loved this place and highly recommend a stop here if you can.

Bryan doing his best spider monkey impression on on of the suspension bridges at Ixpanapajul

Bryan doing his best spider monkey impression on one of the suspension bridges at Ixpanapajul

Juvenile howler monkey about 8 feet from me off the suspension bridge - so cute! Doesn't look like something that can make a noise best suited to a horror flick, does it?

Juvenile howler monkey about 8 feet from me off the suspension bridge – so cute! Doesn’t look like something that can make a noise best suited to a horror flick, does it?


Tikal sunrise viewed from the top of Temple IV at about 5:30 AM

Tikal sunrise viewed from the top of Temple IV at about 5:30 A

We were fortunate enough to hit Tikal during a break in the rain. After much debating we elected to pay for the next days 4AM sunrise tour to Temple IV. You are not allowed to enter the park before 6AM without a guide – entrance prior to 6AM requires that you not only pay for a guide but also pay the park an additional 100 quetzal on top of your standard 150 quetzal park entry fee. The experience was 100% worth it, not only for the visual effects but even more for the auditory experience! Although it we entered the park in the dark at 4AM, we were just a few days past a full moon – the bright moonlight created a truly surreal effect, illuminating the temples in the clearings we passed on the way. The majority of the hour long hike in though was on pitch dark paths under the canopy. As we walked along we were suddenly surrounded by the loudest, most unbelievable roaring sound. Howler monkeys are misnamed -they don’t howl. Greg described it best when he said they sound like some movie producers idea of the noise a huge monster should make. To hear that sound in the pitch dark was pretty freaky!  When we reached the top of Temple IV it was still dark, the roaring had stopped, and the jungle was still. As the horizon began to glow though, the sounds of birds, monkeys, and goodness knows what else began to swell into a huge symphony – it was amazing to hear the forest wake up 🙂

The view from Temple IV in full daylight - lotsa jungle out there!

The view from Temple IV in full daylight – lotsa jungle out there!

Jaguar Temple

Jaguar Temple

Huge ceiba tree - The "fuzziness" of the limbs is created by the multitude of epiphytic "air plants" (like tillandsia) and saprophytic orchids that cohabitate with the tree.

Huge ceiba tree – The “fuzziness” of the limbs is created by the multitude of epiphytic “air plants” (like tillandsia) and saprophytic orchids that cohabitate with the tree.

Although there is a camping area within the park, it was really swampy from all the rain so we parked the vans at the Jaguar Inn instead (also within the park). We didn’t have to go very far to start seeing wildlife – the trees around the Inn were full of spider monkeys and toucanettes, and there were several ocellated turkeys and the odd coati mundi marching by in the grass.

Super cute and very bold coati mundi :)

Super cute and very bold coati mundi 🙂

Toucanettes chillin' next to our vans at the Jaguar Inn

Toucanettes chillin’ next to our vans at the Jaguar Inn

Speaking of wildlife – we added a little of our own. Our faithful driving mascot posed for a photo with one of the many signs we saw coming into the park 🙂

Snakes? Honey Badger don't care - Honey Badger don't give a sh@! :)

Snakes? Honey Badger don’t care – Honey Badger don’t give a sh@! 🙂

Belize Part 2 / Guatemala Border Crossing

FINALLY! After almost a week of grey skies and rain, the sun returned to Placencia and Bryan and Greg were able to get out bone fishing! Sounds like Egbert wasn’t the most personable guide, but the sky was blue and fish were caught – hurray 🙂

Bryan with bonefish - courtesy of Gregario, fishing photographer extraordinaire

Bryan with bonefish – courtesy of Gregario, fishing photographer extraordinaire

The next morning we waved goodbye to Placencia and headed towards Monkey River Town a tiny remote fishing village that just got electricity 3 years ago. The road in is pretty rough (took us about 25 minutes to make the 15km), and it leads to the river mouth on the opposite bank from Monkey River town – the only way to town is by boat. We hitched a ride across and spent about 2 hours drinking beers and listening to some thick, thick Creole conversation with a group of about 7 villagers who miraculously appeared when the caps came off our bottles.

Hitchin' a ride to Monkey River Town...

Hitchin’ a ride to Monkey River Town…

Creole philosophy talk - "iss just de broken English mon, ju no no?

Creole philosophy talk – “iss just de broken English mon, ju no no?

The rest of the day was spent back on the Hummingbird Hwy (even more beautiful this time with the sun shining) heading toward Belmopan. We camped at Hummingbird Haven about 38 km southeast of Belmopan (not listed in Lonely Planet but should be) – a beautifully kept piece of property with screened rooms, hot water showers, communal kitchen, dense clouds of small biting insects, and surprisingly clean outhouses for $12.50B per person per night. Greg bought a big feed sack full of oranges from Jaime the groundskeeper for $5B  ($2.50US) and we squeezed them all for about 2 liters of the most amazing juice I’ve ever tasted. The beauty of the communal kitchen is that there is always a great chance of finding a fellow traveler or two in there who’ve been where you’re going. We met a very nice Austrian backpacking couple who’d just spent several weeks in Guatemala and had lots of info for us. The bad news is that they had not intended to stay in Guatemala as long as they did, but were forced to when all of their stuff (including passports) was stolen from their room in Lanquin while they were eating dinner. The thieves did not bother with the door, they just ripped the back wall of the cabana off.  The good news is that they now both have brand new shiny white temporary Austrian passports and are free to move about the cabin again. They gave glowing reviews of Flores (near Tikal) and painted a very bad picture of San Pedro/Lago de Atitlan, so we are now rethinking our choice of places to take Spanish lessons.

We were just 3km on our way up the road from the Haven the next morning when what to our wondering eyes should appear but the Country Barn, a Mennonite dairy bar. After months of ultra pasteurized, tetra packed, dairy-like products there was no way we were bypassing that, so we stopped and got breakfast ice-cream and some killer homemade yoghurt.

Ice cream for breakfast on the Hummingbird Highway

Ice cream for breakfast on the Hummingbird Highway

We arrived in San Ignacio mid afternoon and set up camp at Inglewood RV park, just north of there near the town of Succotz. Greg and Bryan, desperate for some fresh water paddling, snagged the first whitewater run of the trip on the Succotz river – putting on despite multiple warnings from the locals about the dangers of running Clarissa Falls, the most difficult rapid on the run. Check it out – must be 5+, eh dude?

Clarissa "Falls" had Greg shakin' in his booties, but he decided to buck up and give 'er!

Clarissa “Falls” had Greg shakin’ in his booties, but he decided to buck up and give ‘er!

It took us about 15 minutes to drive to the Guatemalan border the next morning. Our crossing took about an hour, completely easy and uneventful, step by step exactly as Life Remotely described it. The money changers on the Belize side gave us a very fair rate to exchange our Belizean dollars to quetzals – FYI they will change pesos too but at a much less favorable rate.

Now on to Tikal!

Belize Border Crossing/Placencia

Successful and uneventful border crossing completed, with many thanks to our friends from Life Remotely for the step by step Belize border instructions published in their overlanding ebook “Don’t Go There, It’s Not Safe, You’ll Die” (link to their site and the ebook download is on the blogroll at left). Our crossing, with 2 vans, took approximately an hour and a half (including the purchase of insurance on the Belize side of the border) and was essentially hassle free. We had cleared the van of beer, milk, eggs, meat and fruits/veg prior to arrival, but we still had a couple of half filled bottles of rum and tequila that we made no effort to conceal. The customs inspector gave the van only a cursory look, was not concerned about the small amount of alcohol we had, took a 2 second peek in the fridge and waved us on.

Welcome to Belize

A couple of notes to supplement the Life Remotely info: 1) The Mexican immigration booth where you turn in your tourist card and get you passport stamped is no longer dark blue, it is now painted grey. 2) The stop to get your vehicle fumigated is SUPER easy to miss. It is located in a tiny white building with green trim on the right side of the road just as you come into view of the actual border station. There’s no real driveway or parking area, just pull off in front of the building. The only sign that this is an official building or a necessary stop is a very small sign on the side of the building that says something like “Compulsory stop”. The cost is $10B, the guy will spray your tires and give you a receipt that you will later need to show to the customs agents. 3) We bought our insurance in the big white clearly marked insurance building on the Belize side of the border (you can see it from the customs hall) and paid $23US/$46B for each of our vans.

We completed our border business and were heading south on the Northern Highway by noon. The “highway” is comparable in quality to the 2 lane Hwy 200 in Mexico, but with far fewer topes. Unfortunately the topes they do have are VERY poorly marked and there were several times that we had some close calls with almost running an aggressive tope at 60 km/hr! Having been warned by multiple sources about the dangers of Belize City, we used the Burrell Boom Cutoff to bypass the city entirely and connect to the Western Highway. The more direct route from the Western Highway towards Dangriga and on to Placencia appears to be the Manatee Highway (Lonely Planet map), which shows up as the “Southern Highway” on our GPS and is labeled “Coastal Highway” on our foldout map. When we reached the turnoff for this highway however, the officer at the police security station told us that the Manatee highway is unpaved, in poor repair with monster potholes, and that we would be much happier and faster if we took the apparently longer but paved route via Belmopan and the Hummingbird highway. We took his advice and were treated to a beautiful ride through the jungly Belize highlands. In 5 1/2 hours of driving we travelled 2/3 of the vertical length of Belize and arrived in Placencia shortly before dark.

Camping opportunities in Placencia are essentially nonexistent. Since this is the busy season, our usual trick of renting a single cabana or room for bathroom access and sleeping in the vans did not pan out as everything is currently full. Luckily we stumbled across Veronica, the French proprietor of Caribbean Tours. For $20US per night she has graciously allowed us to use her relatively secure and private lot for parking, her internet, and her own bathroom and shower (“only one shower a day please”). Further, less pressured searching in the light of day has failed to turn up any better alternatives, and Veronicas place is right in the center of the village, so here we stay.

In between downpours on the beach in Placencia

In between downpours on the beach in Placencia

Now the waiting begins for the bone fish/tarpon/permit Grand Slam that Bryan has been lusting after. He has identified a reputable guide and negotiated a price, but the weather has not been cooperating, with overcast skies and heavy rain for at least part of each of the two days we’ve been here. The guide assures us that the forecast is good for fishing the day after tomorrow… we’ll see 🙂

Belize Beckons

As usual, the entire SUP replacement procedure took longer than expected, but the boards are now safely in Doug’s possession and we’ve moved on. The last few days of waiting were spent at Playa Xpu-Ha, a nice spot about 16 km south of Playa del Carmen, with friendly folks and a stunning beach. Unfortunately the water supply was pretty saline and the bathrooms were kind of scary, so two nights were enough for Bryan and I. We split a little early from the group and headed south to Punta Allen in search of bone fishing opportunities for Bryan.

Punta Allen is at  the end a very narrow 45 km strip of land that juts south of Tulum into the Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka’an. The strip separates the Caribbean from the huge Bahia de la Ascension – the bay is reputed to have outstanding fishing for bonefish, tarpon, and permit. Needless to say Bryan has been salivating over this opportunity 🙂 The road to Punta Allen is a little bit of a dice roll. Reports are that conditions vary from impassable even with an ATV (after long stretches of bad weather) to reasonably driveable by non 4 wheel drive vehicles like our beloved Sprinter. We lucked out as the weather has been good for a while and the road recently had one of it’s periodic gradings. We were able to average a speed of about 17km per hour – it takes a surprisingly long time to make the drive. Power on Punta Allen is sporadic. The town itself has a generator and provides power each day to the pueblo from 8AM-noon and from 6PM to 11PM. After 11 PM any power is from individual generators. The properties along the point between Tulum and PA get by on their own generators, wind and solar. Needless to say our campsite did not have internet, so Bryan and I had no idea that the others were camped within a couple of miles of us.

The narrowest point along the road to Punta Allen, facing back towards Tulum. On the left is Bahia de la Ascension, on the right the Caribbean Sea.

The narrowest point along the road to Punta Allen, facing back towards Tulum. On the left is Bahia de la Ascension, on the right the Caribbean Sea.

Following our afternoon arrival, Bryan got in an evening and morning of shore fishing in front of our camp and caught a pargo.  Then we drove into Punta Allen itself, scouted out guided trip opportunities and made a plan for Bryan to go out in a boat a day or two later. Unfortunately that afternoon Bryan got really sick with severe abdominal pain – fishing was out of the question. When the next day came and went with no signs of improvement we decided that our remote location with no communication access was not the best place to be, so we packed up and headed in to Tulum.

Along the beach leading to Tulum...

Along the beach leading to Tulum…

Camping near the Tulum ruins is almost nonexistent, except for a couple of public playas which looked pretty sketchy. La Belle restaurant kindly allowed us to park in their lot overnight, then I got up early the next morning to see Tulum before the crowds arrived while Bryan continued recuperating in the van.

Temple of Venus at the Tulum ruins

Temple of Venus at the Tulum ruins

The rest of the day was spent driving to Chetumal, on the border with Belize. We had intended to have this be a quick 1-2 day stop before crossing into Belize, but circumstances have required a longer stay. A family situation at home is currently evolving and has required that I stay put in a place with reasonable internet coverage for communication. In addition, Big Red ended up loving Punta Allen and has not yet pulled in to Chetumal, while Micki and Erik have a property management emergency at home in Maui that is going to require them to backtrack to Cancun and fly home for a few weeks before they return to rejoin Vanna and the STT crew. We are now on day 4 in Chetumal, Greg has joined Bryan and I, my family issue is close to resolved, and Bryan and Greg are busy plotting a bone fishing expedition in Belize to make up for the opportunity Bryan missed at Punta Allen.

The office to buy the required vehicle insurance for Belize closes at 2PM on Saturdays (today) and does not reopen again til Monday, so we will be chillin’ here in Chetumal for another 2 nights, then making my first big border crossing on Monday morning. Wish us luck!