Friday, January 22, 2010

Day 14-15 – January 18 & 19

When we arrived in Tapachula on Sunday, the DHL office was closed, which meant we had to wait until Monday to get the package containing Roger’s title before we could cross the border into Guatemala. Once Monday arrived, and the office opened an hour late, Roger eagerly retrieved his package and opened it, only to discover that his office had sent the wrong title. So we had no choice but to continue on without it, hoping that Roger could bat his eyelashes a bit and get over the border buoyed only by his wit and charm – and he did, he had the border boys & girls eating out of his hand.

As we were preparing to leave, there was a noticeable shaking of the hotel which we later discovered was due to an earthquake in Antigua (our next destination) that registered 5.4 on the Richter scale. Was this a foreshadowing of the shakedown we’d be met with at the border? Perhaps.

Red Tape, Con Men, and Currency

As we checked out of Mexico at the Guatemala border, we learned we had to return to our hotel to obtain the proper paperwork to clear our vehicles out of Mexico. Without this paperwork, you have to pay a tax for importing your vehicles. So we obtained the paperwork, headed back to the border, again checked out of Mexico and had an extraordinary experience as we entered Guatemala.

We were acting a bit like naïve tourists and were the victims of three amusing scams. Upon clearing the border, we were rushed by a group of money changers and asked to change dollars and pesos into Guatemalan currency. There were numerous groups of these money changers, all anxiously offering their services. Remarkably, they were all offering the same exchange rate. We changed a small amount and later discovered that all the groups were in cahoots as their exchange rate gave us 20% less Guatemalan currency than the banks and ATM machines offered. What amazed me about this was how effectively these 20 eager people conspired.

Confusion at the border

The second scam was a classic “guide in sheep’s clothing” scam. We were approached by men who told us that they would help ease us quickly through customs. First, they led us into a parking lot full of cars that appeared to be waiting in line; they told us it was siesta time at the immigration office. We waited for over an hour, had lunch out of sardine cans, and then a “fixer” arrived with some bad news – he was wearing an Armani tee shirt and a gold chain and said it would cost us $20-$30 a piece to expedite through customs. But Helge, smelling a rat, checked around and found that we had been falsely taken directly to the “problem cases” area and determined that all we needed to do was to find the proper line. We found the line, and after virtually no waiting, met with a customs official. But we still did not escape the 3rd scam – which was paying for our spots in the “problem case” parking lot, which as we determined later, we did not need to be in.

Problem area parking lot – cars being towed across the border

Helge asks one of the junk car dealers if the “expeditors can be of any help to us” and is told “absolutely not – go to the customs office”

Processing into Guatemala took a very long time and we did not clear customs until after 3:00 p.m., having started at 9:30 a.m.

There’s a huge difference between Guatemala and Mexico – Guatemala is largely agricultural with only 15% of the economy devoted to manufacturing. Poverty is more prevalent, the roads are poorly kept, and the road on which we traveled to Antigua had speed bumps (not as clearly marked as in Mexico) – it was easy to hit them at full speed.

Our first major shock was this bridge - - we didn’t go across it.

There was incredible traffic – generally in both directions – but here in only one direction.

Driving in all sorts of contrivances – no seat belts here (let alone child car seats)

We were clearly entering the tropics – big trees, lots of streams, everything moist and sticky.

We went through mountainous areas and saw many trucks hauling sugar cane to the refinery.

As night fell, we got ourselves into what my sister Harriet calls the worst case scenario – driving at night in Central America. On top of this, we got lost trying to find a shortcut to Antigua, Guatemala. We ended up on a toll road with pedestrians crossing the road and drivers on motorbikes in the wrong lanes. I got cut off passing someone in my lane, and at another point was cut off by someone head-on.

The process of getting to Antigua required lane splitting, which seems to be acceptable to other drivers but is quite distracting at night.

Upon arriving in Antigua, Helge asked a random pedestrian where to stay and he suggested a beautiful hotel around the corner which had just opened – we were four of perhaps only a dozen people staying there.

The city square was as gorgeous as those we previously encountered…

And was wired for WiFi!

Helge hired an extraordinary guide, Faust.

Three volcanoes were prominent on the perimeter of town.

And as you can see, one (on the left) is still active.

Old government buildings surrounded the square.

While we were touring, the active volcano continued to snort – there are 33 volcanoes in Guatemala, 5 of which are active.

As in Mexico, Guatemalans do not feel you should have to leash your dogs. Most of us our drawn to cultures that like dogs – but none of their dogs compared to our dog, Scrappy!

Antigua was the Spanish capital of Central America in the days after the Spanish conquest, but was entirely evacuated in 1776, three years after a devastating earthquake. The entire city relocated to Guatemala City, which is less seismically active. Since then, Antigua has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the qualifications for which is that only eight colors may be used for building exteriors.

With the amount of religious culture in the area, I was somewhat surprised by this statue in the square of a maiden with water flowing from her breasts, sitting on what looks like a fish.

Helge told us the proper way to lay in a hammock (crosswise so as to not hurt your back) – he spent the better part of 10 years motorcycling with a hammock.

To plan for GlobeRiders’ future trip, we investigated the city’s gorgeous hotels with beautiful courtyards.

Some ruins from the numerous earthquakes.

We talked with a group of well-scrubbed, attractive and articulate Mormon missionaries.

A chair that a local blacksmith handmade - $60.

We visited a wonderful Mayan museum with terrific facemasks (I think I know this guy)

With a guard bearing a Winchester “street cleaner.”

One of the notable activities in Antigua is the teaching of Spanish. There’s a variety of Spanish teaching programs where you live with a family for two weeks to one month speaking only Spanish – the cost is approximately $200 per week, including tuition, room and board. These programs are apparently very effective and most travelers can learn Spanish within a month.

Antigua appears to me to be a “must see” destination in Central America – not quite as elegant as San Miguel – but definitely worth a two- or three-day visit.

Tomorrow at 7:00 a.m., we are off to Honduras!

1 comment:

  1. Dan, Sorry my travel plans didn't coincide with yours. Would have loved to show you Antigua, perhaps when you return. Love the travel writing.

    Chris Thompson