Lucky me, my van didn’t get flushed away with the river forming underneath my van. On the way to the Guatemalan border I spend my last Pesos on some diesel. When I got to the Mexican side of the border, I saw two American cars already parked there. Two couples were doing a similar trip so we decided to cross the borders together. First stop, stamping your passport out. Second stop, getting your car exported. They check the VIN number to make sure it’s the right car and take some pictures. The deposit should be back on my account early next week. Well, that was pretty easy and luckily no problems with the fact that I left the country without my van and so the passport and car stamp dates didn’t match. Drive through a bit of border land where everyone seems to be burning trash and than it’s off to the Guatemalan border. To get there you need to drive through the border village’s busy narrow steep roads. I can totally see how the Friday market would make passing here impossible. It’s already only one car wide on a two way street. Step 1 in Guatemala: getting your van bottom sprayed. Step 1a: change leftover Pesos to Quetzales to pay for spraying. Step 1b: realize that you didn’t have enough and change some dollars too. Step 2: get your passport stamped. Step 3: move car to car import office and give the people passport, car title, driver’s license and copies. 3a wait. 3b pay import fee at bank (knock on the door, guy with huge gun opens the door and lets you in). Step 3c find out you can only pay cash and you need to change some more Dollars to Quetzales. Step 3d find out you’re missing one sheet of paper the passport people should’ve given you and go back to that office for the important piece of paper. 3e signs loads of papers with unspecified numbers on it. 3f get your car checked and get a new sticker for your windshield. Done! Glad I met the Americans though to help me with some small Spanish translation issues. The whole border crossing only took 1 hour and it is still pretty early. My plan is to reach Quetzaltenango AKA Xela tonight which is only a 140km drive. Well turns out Guatemalan roads are slow and you don’t really get over an average of 40km/h because of the high number of villages with even more speed bumps; narrow winding roads with slow trucks you can’t overtake (unless you’re a chicken bus, then you can definitely overtake in blind curves). So it’s already 4 when I get to Huehuetenango. Time to get cash (apparently most ATMs in Guatemala only accept Visa and not Mastercard/Maestro). After that I look for a campsite of which there are none in town. But my overlander website points me towards a little wooden shed at the edge of town where a friendly family sells tacos and drinks. They let overlanders camp for 10Q (about 1.25 euros) in the grassy field behind their shed. They are very friendly but clearly it is a good thing that I’ll start my Spanish course next week.
The next day it is time for my first diesel stop in Guatemala. The prices are very similar between places but seem insanely high, even more expensive than in Europe…. Turns out that for whatever weird reason Guatemala measures fuel by the gallon which puts the price back to normal and even a bit cheaper than Mexico. That day I’ll stay in Xela, the second biggest city in Guatemala with a nice colonial center. I had written down a few hostels with parking in town but somehow I couldn’t find them. Backup option is a hotel with a parking garage in the center of town. A bit more expensive but after the cheap spot last night, very doable. Also I could really use a shower again after three days without. Xela is a nice town to walk around but without anything very special you need to see. Dinner that night is 1oQ tacos from a stand on the street, eaten in the park watching people.
Guatemala is a small country so I don’t have to drive much today. So I can walk some more through Xela in the morning when the stores are actually opened. This week I want to do a Spanish course. A school in San Pedro got recommended to me by another traveler so that is where I’ll go to. San Pedro is at Lago Atitlan, which is a big lake in an old volcano crater surrounded by more volcanoes. The road down to San Pedro is bad and steep. You go from 2600 to 1500m with loads of switchbacks, potholes, one lane parts, unpaved parts and all that topped off with chicken buses driving with insane speed. Driving down is doable but stressful. I’m not sure if I’ll make it back up without overheating the van. There are no turnouts or other places to stop. But there is no way to turn around so I guess I’ll find out in a week. The language school is at the edge of San Pedro and is run by a local Maya family. They are extremely friendly and let me sleep in my van in the parking lot the first night.
The next day I start my Spanish courses: one week (excluding the weekend) of four hours per day one-on-one lessons starting at 8 in the morning. The school also offers small cabins in their garden at the lake for only 3.5 euros per day and because the parking lot is pretty close to a busy road I go for that option. The lessons are great. Sitting in the garden we do two times two hours with a small break in between. The two hours are about 1.5 hours of just talking Spanish and half an hour of actual rules. My teacher is from San Pedro and he spend a few years in the US. We talk about Guatemala, the US, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Travelling, the environment, movies and music. During the talking time it’s more important to talk than to be 100% correct. If I make the same mistake a lot or when I make big mistakes he corrects me, otherwise we just keep going. Four hours is pretty intense but already after the first day I notice that I can form sentences much easier and I’m way more confident speaking. Every day I get some homework to either write some loose sentences or even a short story. I had expected to have loads of time in the afternoons to explore the town and the rest of the lake. But the speaking Spanish is pretty intense so I enjoy hanging around my cabin.
It is low season at the school and we are only 4 students of which only one also stays at the school. The others stay with guest families. In the afternoons I walk to the center of San Pedro. When you’re at the school at the edge of town you would almost forget that the center is full of backpackers and happy hour bars. But it’s nice to be able to switch between the two. The school also organizes activities for the afternoon. One day we watch a movie about the civil war in El Salvador (in Spanish with still much needed English subtitles) and another evening we make tamales together. Tamales are mashed potatoes with tomatoes, spices, veggies, chicken and some dried fruits wrapped in banana leafs and than steamed. Extremely tasty, especially when you make them yourself. Other dinners are a bit more creative because my cabin does not have a fridge (and the one in my van doesn’t run for a week without external power) and there are no supermarkets but only small kiosk sizes stores with limited supplies. One of the afternoons I walk to the next village of San Juan. Which is a nice walk. The village is quite similar but just a bit less touristy.
On Saturday I hike the volcano next to the village: volcan San Pedro. I leave the school at 7 to get to the top 1500m higher before it gets cloudy. It’s a steep hike already to get from the town to the park entrance. There you pay an entrance fee and you get a guide who walks with you for the first 20 minutes to get you past the coffee plantations. This part I walk together with a very slow group. So I’m very happy when the guide drops us at the main path and I can continue by myself. At the halfway viewpoint I meet an American couple and we continue the walk to the top together. It’s a tiring hike but we end up being on the top in an hour less than the “normal” walking time. The view from the top is great. You’re on a volcano, you can see three more volcanoes and all of these volcanoes are on a lake which is itself a mega volcano. Pretty cool. I enjoy the view for a while before I start the even quicker decent. About halfway down I run into my slow group from the beginning. Glad I didn’t wait for them.
On Sunday my legs and I are way too tired to do anything useful. Also my plan of kayaking the lake is ruined by some abnormal wind and waves. So I read my book, practice my Spanish, write some blog posts and start planning the “expedition” to get my van out of this valley again. Plus just to be sure I check my van fans, they rattle a lot so I clean them to make them spin better. Monday was my last day of lessons, I’ve improved a lot. In 5 days we covered regular and irregular verbs present and past tense. To celebrate the end of our lessons, the French girl in the school and I go for drinks at one of the happy hour rooftop places in town with a nice view over the lake.
The day of the expedition. I split the trip out of the valley into three pieces. First from the school past some ridiculous slopes to the last village on the lake. From there the first bit is the switchbacks with 500m height. This leads to another village which gets me to the 500m height over single lane potholes to the top. From there it’s downhill to the main road. Already on the first bit I get stuck behind garbage trucks on steep slopes and have to do some uphill starting. At the village I stop the van to let it cool down a bit and bypass the temperature sensor to get the fans to run for sure. I have to make one stop on the switchback part to cool down. There’s no turnouts but the traffic isn’t very busy so I pick a flatish, straightish bit so I can stop and people won’t bump into me. Luckily there is no traffic on the one lane part and with one more cool down stop (and a possible skid mark while leaving) I made it out of the valley. Victory! All of this pain and worries for a 20 km drive. Plus for extra fun my next stop is at the same lake so I had to drive down again (no roads along the lake). But the road to Panajachel is way less steep and in a much better state. So that evening from my campsite (a hotel which has been “under renovation” for at least a few years with broken toilets, shower and pool) I could actually see San Pedro again. The campsite had the perfect Lago Atitlan view: the lake with the three volcanoes behind it. I had this view with a nice orange sunset from my van. Two French guys who were cycling from Canada to Argentina were staying there too so I even had dinner company.