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 🙂

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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.

Flores/Ixpanapajul

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

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@! 🙂