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The Guatemala breakdown

8 May

We spent a total of six weeks–March 12, 2014 to April 27, 2014–in Guatemala, beginning our journey in El Ceibo and ending in Valle Nuevo. Here’s a bit of a recap of our time in the country.

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Things were similarly priced to Mexico with the exception of diesel ($5/gal, but that’s cheaper than gasoline) and park/museum admissions. Entrance into Tikal was $40 for both of us. Crazy! Food and groceries were cheap though.

In the 6 weeks in Guatemala, we spent a total of $3,600, which came out to $78.26 a day, a little less than what we spent per day in Mexico.

BORDER
We entered at a small crossing in El Ceibo on the border of Mexico and northwestern Guatemala. Small borders are good because there’s little traffic but bad because there’s no oversight. We got a taste of each. No one else was entering or exiting this border. Nevertheless, it was a gigantic production and unnecessarily time consuming.

It took about 2hrs to cross into Guatemala and we were the ONLY people going through the process. No one wore uniforms and no signs indicated that the dilapidated trailers were the customs offices. When we stopped to ask where the border offices were, some guys put cones in front of our truck and said here.

Hani stayed with Skyhorse and the pups and I just walked into the first trailer (which had a/c!) and asked a nice man what I was supposed to do. This guy became my buddy for the day. He directed me to another trailer where our passports were stamped. I then went back to the nice guy who started generating our vehicle import paperwork. I needed to make copies and pay in Guatemalan quetzales so I needed to find the copier and bank.

The copier was all the way in the Guatemalan side. After the hike there and back, I needed to find the bank. The “bank”– a drunk guy that was supposed to be in a trailer but hiding somewhere else–had no money. I exchanged pesos for quetzales from a tuktuk driver (apparently this is the accepted means to get money at a border) and went back to the nice guy and told him I didn’t trust the bank. From then on, when I needed to pay some fee, I had the nice guy accompany me to ensure the bank processed my payments correctly and gave me the right change.

While this was going on, Hani was sitting in the truck. Some guy (apparently a semi-official border person) was telling Hani there was a fumigation fee and a fee for the dogs. The truck was fumigated and the guy told us 2 different prices. When I asked to see proof of what the fee for fumigation was, he showed me a paper attached to his clipboard that said a lower cost. Oh yeah, that’s the price you have to pay. At that, I wasn’t believing a word he said. The costs for the dogs went from 150Q per dog to 300Q per dog and he didn’t even ask to see their paperwork, just wanted money. When I called the guy out on his bullshit (yes, I really called what he was telling me shit), he flipped out and stormed away.

I went to talk to nice guy only to find liar already there tattling on me. After rounds and rounds inside and Hani outside revving his engine, moving cones and shoving some guy out of his face, I paid 150Q (about $20) for both dogs and we got the hell out of there. I was completely frustrated and upset that I caved and paid anything at all. Hani thought the experience was funny. At least it was over.

We exited at Valle Nuevo, Guatemala into Las Chinamas, El Salvador. Leaving Guatemala was a pretty simple process. As you drive to the border, there’s a big building to your left and the offices you need to go to are in order. What makes this so confusing and hectic are the groups of “helpers” swarming you to aid and ease your crossing and convert your money. I just put my hands up and told everyone to back away and they left me alone. The process was MUCH easier on my own, though if I didn’t speak Spanish, a helper would have been necessary as none of the border agents spoke English.

We opted to cancel our vehicle import, thereby mandating 90 days outside of Guatemala. Otherwise, we’d have to rush and drive back into Guatemala before our initial 90 days ran out on June 10. The guys in this office were very patient with us, explaining our options and the penalty fees if we drove back sooner than 90 days. They even made my copies for me free of charge. So we didn’t pay anything to leave the country.

In another room, we waited in a short line to get our exit stamp and a scrap paper with a stamp to show the border agent in El Salvador.

Once outside and back in the truck, we had to show our cancellation paperwork again and then were able to drive across the bridge to enter El Salvador.

Total on crossing the border: $71.66 (because we have to import 2 vehicles–Skyhorse and the moto)

SAFETY
As was our experience in Mexico, we felt completely safe in Guatemala. We were never stopped by police, even during “random” security checkpoints along the highway. We had no interactions with police at all.

We did, however, cross a very poor mountain town during our drive from hell from Rio Dulce to Semuc Champey. Some teens had propped up a plank of wood on some blocks and asked for money “for the community.” We laughed and gave them the equivalent of .70.

Total: .70

CAMPING
We didn’t boondock all that much. Kinda sad. We were intent on seeing cities while in Guatemala and didn’t want to park on some random small street if we knew we’d be out running around town all day. Or be inconvenienced by parking somewhere remote when we wanted to be in walking distance to a fun town. We free camped 9 days (when we first entered, when we got stuck on that hell road and were fixing the truck outside Semuc, when we were at the mechanic in Coban, when we were parked outside the Guatemala City airport) but they weren’t adventurous or cool spots. We then were able to free camp some more in Antigua at the Tourist Police lot for 6 days, one day beyond the limit, after we bought them soda and chips.

Total on camping: $210

FUEL
Diesel was pretty pricey in Guatemala, almost $5 a gallon. Luckily, since the country is small, we didn’t have to fill up all that often. We also road the motorcycle a bunch, which saved on fuel.

Total: $460

FOOD:
Because we wound up in a lot of American influenced towns (Panajachel, San Pedro, Antigua) for extended stays, we ate out a ton! It’s a tough call between cooking and eating really cheap (and good) schwarma or pasta or BBQ. The whooping $642.82 was well spent, but we could have budgeted better and ate in more often. I did cook, spending $433.78 on groceries. Since we were closer to towns, we often went out at night, spending $144 at bars.

Total on food and bev: $1,220.60

PHONE/INTERNET:
We splurged in Guatemala and went with the more reliable and slightly more expensive Tigo for phone and Internet service. Coverage was excellent, a nice change from the crappy service we had in Mexico. The SIM card came preloaded with data, minutes and texts and if you recharge your phone on triple saldo days (you’ll get a text on those promotional days), you get triple the amount you pay. Pretty sweet.

There are two competing companies, Movistar and Claro. The coverage is not as good but prices are cheaper and they do the triple saldo days as well.

Like Mexico, free wifi was easy to come by, especially in the touristy towns. Every restaurant/bar/coffee house/you name it had wifi. It is easy to get along without an Internet plan but again, having one makes life easier.

Total: $38.86

DOGS
Shae and Olivia are angels and continue to be visions of perfect health. No vet visits and no one seems to care that their paperwork is in English.

I’ve been looking for good quality dog food to no avail. In Coban, they laughed when I asked for a store that sold all natural or organic dog food. I bought the best looking brand but it cost like $60 for a 20 pound bag, much crappier quality than what they were eating at home and far more expensive. It’s completely insane. When that ran out, I caved. Yes, I’m that bad mom feeding my dogs the McDonalds of dog food, all fillers and grains. And even that was pricey! I guess locals feed their dogs table scraps because there’s no way they are paying $100+ on big bags of dog food.

I have to say, Shae and Olivia love their new generic dog food. Shae, who can sometimes be a picky eater, gobbles her food up. They seem fine and no problems with their stomachs or coats since the food change. Guess organic dog food isn’t all that after all.

Total spent on the dogs: $250.53 (dog food plus they needed more heartguard and flea meds)

NOT TO MISS:
The ruins at Tikal were pretty amazing. Our favorite ruins so far. It’s a mission to get out there because it’s so far away from every other town or site but completely worth it. You can actually enjoy the ruins (and climb them!) without hordes of tourists or locals selling you crap.

We loved Lake Atitlan and would definitely go back. It was so easy to fall into a comfortable routine in any of the lake towns. San Pedro was the best.

Antigua was also a favorite. Hani says it’s his favorite colonial village. This colonial town was very tanquillo, easy to navigate and not filled with gringos, even though there was a great diversity of food. The local food market was great and the artesian market next door would make it easy for a traveler to find all the textiles possible to then bypass the town of Chichi for the country-known market. The town is nestled in a valley between mountains and volcanoes, picturesque from any location.

WHAT WE’D DO DIFFERENTLY:
Not drive a road that no one’s mentioned driving before, especially when everyone takes a similar route but goes the long way. Just because a route is less than half the distance of the longer route doesn’t mean it’s faster!!

We could have bypassed Semuc Champey. It just wasn’t anything we hadn’t seen before. And I said it before, the road driving in just wasn’t worth it.

We could have also gone without seeing the Chichi market. Granted it was only a cheap bus ride and an “event” for the day, but we saw the same goods in mass quantities for the same prices in other parts of the country.

STRANGEST THING:
For the amount of travelers that make their way from town to town, I would have expected the roads to be better. They were AWFUL! Seriously, the worst roads of our trip to date were in Guatemala. We saw tons of chicken buses and microvans just get pounded on the pothole laden roads.

BEST MEAL:
The best food was in San Pedro La Laguna, with a tie between the all you can brunch at El Barrio (we hit it twice and stayed from the start at 10am to close to finish at 2pm) and the amazing pasta at Alfredo’s, a tiny restaurant run out of this woman’s home. Her living room doubles as a dining area when they are full. We ate there two nights in a row.

The best coffee was in Panajachel’s Cafe Loco. Delicious innovative flavors, super cheap, and artistic. Can’t beat that!

FOR YOUR OWN GUATEMALAN ADVENTURE:
+ visit Lake Atitlan and any of the surrounding towns.
+ explore the textile markets and buy buy buy because you’ll never see fabulous fabrics like this again.
+ find the hot waterfall around Lago de Izabal. Heavenly!
+ soak in the traditional dress of both the women and men in a small village.
+ wander Antigua. It’s not as touristy as you think.

Feeling My Way

28 Mar

The day begins slow.  The morning is cold and slow to warm.  The place is new and I am lost within, empty.  I don’t brush my teeth, I just want to be happy.  I am mourning the loss of Sarah’s presence.  She is in New York.  The sun is on, I look out to three mountains on a lake.  The dogs are free to roam a healthy sized green field.  Olivia explores.  Shae pants while laying at my feet.  A black Chihuahua ironically named sunshine follows Olivia from a distance.  Two mountains on one side one in front of the other.  I am trying to make peace with where I am.  The opposite side is another mountain.  In between the mountains is a low place that curves down as to form a bowl.  Shae makes her way under Skyhorse to find shade, her coat is long.

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A loud Spanish speaking man is talking to two small children who are swinging intermittently.  My ankles, lower legs and waist are covered in bite marks from days prior.  My body itches, it’s hard to focus.  I keep looking around.  Small black flies are on my legs, I’m unsure if they are making the situation worse.  Olivia is at a neighbor’s Ford Aerostar.  She circles it standing on her hind legs taking it all in, looking for food.  A ten year old boy approaches, making dog call noises while snapping his fingers with his arm extended towards her.  Olivia draws a towards him for a moment and wags.  She goes back to the Aerostar.  I’m trying to be in the moment.  My mood softens.  Boats glide criss crossing the lake.  The water gives the sense of home.

Eleven months straight day and night I’ve been with her living in a 14’x8′ space and sleeping in a 1964 Cessna 310 fuselage.  Yet I’m not rejoicing in the space I have without her.  I’m immobilized without her energy.  The sun gives life but the soul has its own type of sun.  Sarah is my sun.

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I’m telling myself today is for the pups.  Let them roam free and remember their wild nature.  Olivia is far and I’m mildly worried.  Sarah would have wrangled her back by now.  I’m super glad the dogs are with me.  We are a pack.  Olivia pees as usual with one leg up.  She goes further challenging her boundaries.  I bring her closer with a treat and Shae at my side.  A boat almost arrives at the shore.  I think about launching the kayak.  Man I love my dogs.

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Nothing fits.  I look out to my surroundings.  The more I sense the calmer I am.  If you can feel it, it has meaning.  I move to the shade.  My body cools and wind pushes all over me.  A cool breeze make me happy.  I walk over to a shy boy in a bathing suit at the pool.  He is fearful of some dogs.  I introduce Shae and Olivia to ease his discomfort.  His chest is on the concrete while his waist is in the pool.  I move to a concrete table and bench with a metal umbrella.  Unappealing materials for a natural setting.  Shae has left my side to roam.  The boy is submerged in the pool.  I miss my childhood days swimming in our backyard pool with my yellow lab, Hercules.  One time I got him to jump off the diving board before the insurance man declared the board unsafe and made us remove it.  Hercules and I owned the summers in that pool.  He will always be a dear friend.  Hell he swam in it by himself in the winters.  Shae comes to my feet.  Olivia hears my call and joins us.  He swims alone although he has four siblings.  You can’t connect with people on all levels even if they are family.  But the the more levels you connect with someone else the more beautiful the friendship.  It’s rare but profound.  It’s hard for me to make friends.

Four worker clumsily disassemble an outdoor tent.  Sounds of metal and awkward body movements.  The clouds cluster on every point of the mountains.  Shae and the boy lay in similar positions.  Shae prefers the shade.  A sound is let out.  I’m unsure if it was the boy or Shae.  I’m recovering from spending time in Guatemala City.  Big cities are so gluttonous.  They lack natural space.  Where do the souls of city dwellers find rest?  He moves to a different spot along the pool.

Each day we race to fill our lives with things.  The brief moments I have spent watching this morning, I could spend weeks unpacking them.  Nature encourages a slow rhyme of quality.  I am learning to love silence.

The boy’s sister comes in bright clothing close to her brother.  Her movements seem to mock his enjoyment of the water.  She leaves quickly.  He stays a while longer to hold fast to himself.  Maybe I will take a kayak ride.

 

The Mexico breakdown

16 Mar

We spent a total of 4 months–from November 13, 2013 to March 12, 2014–stuffing our faces with tacos and churros and Modelo in Mexico. We started our Mexican journey in Tecate, Baja and ended in El Ceibo, Tabasco. Here’s a bit of a recap of our time in the country.

OVERALL COST
Everything was definitely cheaper in Mexico from groceries to fuel. In the 4 months here, we spent a total of $9,421 which came out to $2,355 a month. That was on average $1000 less a month than we were spending in the US. Now I understand why everyone heads south first. Your dollar definitely gets you much farther south of the border.

BORDER CROSSINGS
Since we entered and exited in small towns, our crossings were pretty uneventful, thankfully. In Baja, we were the only vehicle there and the woman barely looked inside the truck. Dogs were ignored. It took about 5 minutes to get our visas and stamps and pay the fee. We did the vehicle import in La Paz, Baja before we boarded the ferry to mainland Mexico. That was pretty painless as well, where all they needed was the vehicle title and info on the main driver.

Leaving Mexico, we opted for another small border town mainly because it was the shortest distance between where we were in Mexico (Palenque) to where we wanted to go in Guatemala (Tikal). I randomly found the border at El Ceibo while googling potential crossings. This border is pretty new, opened in 2009, and seemed pretty unvisited. The buildings were immaculate and had air conditioning!! It took the guy 10 minutes to cancel our vehicle imports for the truck and motorcycle and take pictures of the plates and VINs. After showing proof that we payed the fee entering the country, our passports were stamped and we were good to go.

Total on crossing the border: $159

SAFETY
The entire time we were in Mexico we felt 110% safe. Seriously. At the start of our trip, hell even before we left, everyone said not to drive through Mexico. But we, and all the other PamAm travelers we know, made it through without incident. The good aspects of a country are never newsworthy, only the bad. We came across both the local police (when we got stuck in the mud) and the federales (at random check points) and they were all nothing but nice and helpful. On one small beach, the local police came over just to introduce himself and tell us that he was patrolling the area if we needed anything. We did not encounter any roadblocks either. So everyone reading out there– as long as you are as cautious of your surroundings are you are normally, travel in Mexico is safe.

Total: $0

CAMPING
We camped for free more than half of our time in Mexico. Most of that was at a scenic random place we found. The other (small) part was on convenient quiet streets or outside new friends’ houses. The rest of the time we relied on the Church’s Guide to Camping in Mexico to find the ideal paid campsite. We did this typically in bigger cities where we’d be leaving the dogs all day and wanted a secure spot. I feel like we relied too heavily on the Church’s book and could have found just as nice of spots for free. But, a lot of times with these campsites, you’re paying for the security and piece of mind that you and your stuff are safe. We don’t hook up so we never used the electric or water that few of them offered. We did, however, always use the wifi when campsites had it. That was often worth the cost of staying there.

Total on camping: $499

FUEL
One fuel company runs the country, Pemex. Prices are fixed, which is really nice because we didn’t have to run from station to station finding the cheapest fuel. The stations are clean and equipped with a slew of attendants who eagerly want to pump. But the machines aren’t calibrated accurately so you never know if you’re actually getting a liter of fuel or less. Diesel cost us about $3.78 a gallon.

Total on fuel: $2,118

FOOD
I would say I cook about 80% of the time. All food here is really cheap. The produce is always super fresh and very very inexpensive. But it’s just as cheap to eat out. When we go out to eat, it’s usually to a cart on the street. Rarely will we actually sit down at a restaurant for a meal. In Baja, since we were typically in the middle of nowhere, we cooked practically every meal. Once we hit the mainland, we’d do lunch or snacks out and dinner in (we spent about the same on groceries in mainland as we did eating out). We spent $1,764.41 on groceries, $172 at bars (we didn’t do much bar hopping) and $1,286.93 on restaurants.

Total on food: $3,223.34

PHONE/INTERNET
Before we left the states, we had our iPhones unlocked and put them on seasonal standby (so we can keep our numbers/plan for when we return but pay a fraction of the regular plan price now). The day we crossed, I got a SIM card with Movistar. The service was cheap and sucked but you get what you pay for. The main Internet company in Mexico, Telcel, has much better coverage and is more expensive. I went with cheap Movistar because I’m cheap. It was fine for what it was. In smaller cities and on the beach, mainly in Baja, we didn’t have service but it forced us to disconnect. In bigger cities, I had slow, extended service. A few times I had 3G!

Many of the cafés, restaurants, and campgrounds have wifi so staying connected was easy and we probably could have done without the SIM card. But it did made things more convenient.

Total: $107.39 (less than a 1 month plan in the states)

DOGS
Thankfully, we’ve had no issues with Shae or Olivia. We didn’t take them to the vet before we got to Mexico for that silly USDA health certificate so we’re still traveling with their paperwork from our Key West vet. No one asked for their paperwork in Mexico.

We did run out of their fancy organic all natural American dog food in Guadalajara. A Petco had just opened a few weeks earlier (the first and only in Mexico) and we headed there to buy more food. A 40lb bag of almost as good quality dog food cost as much as it would have in the States. Apparently the price of dog food just increased at the start of the new year. We rode on the motorcycle with this insanely gigantic bag sandwiched between us. It was hilarious.

Total spent on the dogs: $85.86 for the bag of dog food

NOT TO MISS
Baja! But not the Cabos part of Baja. Bahia Concepcion and Todos Santos were our favorites. The state is lined with gorgeous beaches that are completely uninhabited and you can find a beach all to yourselves that has interesting rock formations and peaceful blue waters.

The mainland beaches were just as spectacular, La Manzanilla and Playa Zipolite, being a few of our favorites.

I am obsessed with the Monarch Butterfly Reserve. It was such an unbelievable site seeing millions of butterflies swarming the space before you. It was a trek to get there but so completely worth it.

Another favorite was Agua Azul, just south of Palenque. It was completely magical! Blue pools and waterfalls tucked into the jungle are as far as the eye can see.

WHAT WE’D DO DIFFERENTLY
We started the Mexico part of our trip filling our water tanks with purified water. This meant finding an agua purificado, which was always on a narrow one way street when we were coming from the opposite direction. It was cheap to fill our tanks–around $10 for 100 gallons, but got to be a hassle finding the places and then halting traffic and getting a long enough hose with the right fitting to make it happen. After 2 months, we just started filling up with whatever water was easily accessible, usually at a Pemex, and buying garafones of drinking water. It’s what we did in the states and works best. We shouldn’t have even bothered with the purified water system.

STRANGEST THING
The strangest thing we saw in Mexico was not people drinking juice from plastic bags with straws or magnifying mirrors sold on the side of the road. It was auto hotels or “no-tell hotel.” These hotels are in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by high concrete walls and have 2 car garages attached to each room. All this to aid in concealing elicit relations. They are everywhere! And so creepy!

BEST MEAL
San Miguel de Allende had the best food by far! Since there are so many gringos in town, there was an insane array of diverse cuisines. The best was a tie between the Italian Cafe Firenze and Argentinean La Virundela. Both were equally amazing!

Tacos were definitely a staple of our Mexican meals. The best fish/shrimp tacos were in Sayulita at the Real Fish Taco stand. The best taco-tacos we ate were found our last night in Mexico at a hole in the wall in downtown Palenque.

FOR YOUR OWN MEXICAN ADVENTURE
+ find a secluded beach
+ taste mezcal
+ listen to a mariachi band
+ eat as many churros as possible
+ participate in a turtle liberation, they happen in most coastal communities
+ explore and don’t be shy! Locals love sharing their favorite aspects of their towns