San Ignacio, Belize
It was only 33 miles to the 1,000 ft waterfall in San Ignacio, but it would take over an hour to get there. I had already ridden 25 miles, and upon reaching a junction in the road I asked a guy manning a small booth on the side of the road which direction was the way to the falls— the main road in front of me, or the dilapidated road to the right where Maps.me was directing. He thought for a moment, “Derecha,” he said, pointing to the right.
A few miles later, a giant bird the size of a turkey ran out of the jungle in front of me, wavering back and forth until it finally darted back into the jungle. I was surrounded by dense foliage on either side, which had narrowed to the size of a small path. Deep ruts cut through sections of the road, filled with water and sand. All of a sudden that path dropped, the steep descent carved out by jagged rocks and sand. I decided to turn around.
30 minutes later, I rode back the same road, finally emerging out of the dense jungle onto the main road again. “That road is very bad,” I called to him. “Yes I think the main road is a much better way,” he agreed, “it also goes to the falls.” I sighed and continued down the main road, still trying to find the falls. 45 minutes later I was still driving around the mountain roads, which seemed to have turned into some sort of logging trail. I had followed a tiny sign with an arrow “1,000 ft falls this way” but there had been nothing else for miles. All of a sudden, I came across a section of the road that had been carved out by a water channel, and I barely missed hitting it— a section a foot wide and 6″ deep cut a canyon straight across the road. After coming across a series of wave-like bumps that made the whole bike shake, I decided no falls is worth this, and turned the bike around.
The sun was overhead, and it was hard to see the road made of bright yellow sand and clay. I squinted into the sunlight. All of a sudden, as quickly as an animal darting out into the road, I was upon the channel, and in a split second my front tire falling into it. The tire dropped, and I was flung from the bike. I hit head first, slamming into the ground, my helmet making a scraping noise on the rocks.
San Ignacio, Belize
I had arrived in San Ignacio from Belize, soaked, after hitting several big thunderstorms on the way. I didn’t see any hostels listed online, so I headed into the heart of the town hoping to find a cheap guesthouse for the next few days. I chose a random street, and all of a sudden I saw a sign for “Bella Backpackers”. Perfect.
I pulled the bike down the small gravel street, kicked out the kickstand, and shook the clump of what looked like metal bells at the gate (but really turned out to be some sort of decorative arrangement) and the guy coming towards me from inside the hostel gave me a strange look. His name was Daniel, and loved the bike, he told me. I’d be in San Ignacio for 3 nights, checking out the 1,000 ft falls, the ATM cave, and the ruins throughout the area. I heard Belize was amazing, and even though I had camped the night before on a lake to the north in-country, I was looking forward to being in a town and exploring the surrounding mountains.
Two days later, I was following a sandy path into the jungle, swimming across a river and walking across streams, until we reached the cave entrance. There were four of us— Shelby and Stephanie— both teachers from NY, myself, and our guide, Edgar. We jumped into the blue water at the mouth of the cave, and swam into the darkness, our headlamps illuminating narrow beams on the walls of the cave.
I heard the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) cave, was spectacular, and it was. We swam through giant caverns, and climbed through narrow slots chest deep in water. Finally, we reached a large rock formation we had to climb up to reach the main chamber. We climbed the rest of the way barefoot up a steep rock slab, the cave dropping away behind us to darkness, the steep drop a dark feeling behind us.
We entered the main chamber of the cave, an enormous chamber with toothy stalactites and beautiful flowing formations dropping down from the ceiling. It felt like an ornate ballroom that could spring to life at any moment. Pots littered the ground, some of them enormous and whole, others sunken into the ground. A small walkway was tacked to the floor, leading the way across the enormous cavern. Other groups were stopped at various places around the cavern. Edgar told us the history of the caves, how they were used as rituals and community leaders made sacrifices to the gods— sometimes agricultural goods, sometimes blood, sometimes human. As he led the way deeper into the cavern, he pointed out skulls on the ground next to the pots. We climbed a small aluminum ladder to a room with an entire skeleton, and another section with one of the most recent sacrifices— the bones of an infant.
Since there were only four of us, Edgar led us out of the caves through an alternate route, squeezing through water filled crevices and ducking under overhanging rock. We jumped off a falls in the cave into deep black water, and followed each other through canyons, our headlamps reflecting off the rock walls. Edgar stopped us in a dark cave of chest deep water, and we turned off our headlamps as he told us stories about disembodied voices heard in the caves in that exact spot, and how guides would sometimes feel hands on their shoulders. He told us how one day he was taking a nap on a rock, waiting for another tour group, when a rock flew across the cave and knocked his headlamp into the water— twice.
San Ignacio, Belize
I popped up like a jack-in-the-box, head hurting, worried about my bike. My shoulder and elbow stung, and I had an enormous welt on my right shin bone. My bike was overturned, and behind it, a woman was running toward me, asking if I was alright. The entire time I had been riding in the mountains, I had hardly seen anyone, but at that moment the bike fell, there was an SUV right behind me.
“I’m fine I think,” I said, barely registering we were speaking English.
“Is the bike okay?” I asked, mostly to myself as I inspected it on the ground. The driver of the car got out also, and the three of us picked the bike up. They waved goodbye and they drove off. The only damage done was the scratch on my helmet (thank you safety gear) some mild scrapes on my shoulder and elbow and shin, and a splitting headache from whacking my head on the ground. I couldn’t believe how hard I hit from going so slow, and I could only imagine how an impact at higher speeds would feel.
The howler monkey screams echoing in my head, I slowly rode down the empty road from Tikal National Park at 6 AM, the mist drifting through the jungle. I had spent the previous night camped in the park, my tent on a large concrete pad with a thatched roof tucked into a corner of a field outside the park. The ruins were spectacular, and I spent the day before wandering around in the rain, temples appearing before me, no one else in sight, exploring empty paths and ruins, howler monkeys in the trees and parrots flying overhead.
I saw no one leaving the park save a few tourist vans driving in the opposite direction. I was headed toward Flores, a small island on Lake Petén Itzá in Guatemala, and it looked like an easy ride. My hostel was on the opposite shore of the island, so my route took me around the lake via a secondary road off the highway. As I turned onto the unmarked secondary road, the surface changed from paved asphalt to gravel and grey clay, surrounded by green foliage. Here we go again, I thought.
I rode for miles on the gravel road, up steel hills with carved channels from the rain, around sharp corners and through puddles. All of a sudden I was in a town of some sort, a football field to my right, and the gravel started to disappear into wide swaths of grey clay. I cautiously navigated the streets, avoiding pedestrians and other motobikes, keeping an eye on the route. I was 2 miles away, then one. I saw the lake in the distance, and there was only one more turn to go until I arrived. All of a sudden, in front of me was a patch of road, completely devoid of gravel, a 10 foot wide patch of slippery, soft clay, covered in deep ruts filled with water.
I aimed for one of the ruts on the left, riding halfway across the rut when all of a sudden, the rear tire spun out to the left and the bike fell to the right, throwing me a few feet in front of it. This time, I hit right knee first, smacking my head on the clay a split second later.
I remember only one thought going through my head through the waves of pain— this is a cry worthy moment, and then, should I be crying? I wasn’t sure if anything was broken or torn, it was all I could do to sit up. I rocked back and forth silently as I saw a woman and a small girl running toward from down the road. As they reached me, I had managed to stand up, but barely. I was covered in clay, and the small strip of skin that had been exposed on my ankle had been worn off to expose two bloody marks.
Gasoline slowly dripped into the puddle on the ground from the top of the tank on my motorcycle. I was in too much pain to lift it, and the woman sent her daughter to run for help. A few moments later a man came walking down the street, and between the two of them they managed to lift the bike. I climbed back on, and wearily navigated the last 500 feet to the hostel. Covered in clay, bloody, and limping, I arrived at Casa Grethel, overlooking Lake Petén Itzá and the island of Flores. It was spectacularly beautiful, and I was a wreck.
I spent the next two days crossing the lake via the free hostel boat, eating cake and street food in the afternoons and evenings, visiting Jorge’s Rope Swing and reading my book on the balcony overlooking the lake. Luckily, after icing my knee and taking anti-inflammatories, I was able to hobble around the area safely, knowing no serious damage had been done.
Luckily, I didn’t have to ride the same way back— there was a small ferry that cost a little over $1 USD and would take me across to the island of Flores, where I could then ride the bridge across to the main highway. In no time, I was riding off the ferry and onto the main road to Rio Dulce, roughly a 3 hour ride to the South-East.
Rio Dulce, Guatemala
I think I must have been the only one crazy enough (or cheap enough) to stay in the hostel dorm room. It was stuffed with 16 dilapidated down beds, the white paint peeling from their ill fitted frames, the thin mattresses covered with nothing more than a worn sheet— meant to protect the mattress rather than be used as a blanket. Cracks through the floor showed the water underneath, and a giant sign with an illustration of a rat and a hamburger with an ‘x’ across it was posted on a beam in the middle of the room.
The woman who showed me the room told me there was no one else there, then cheerfully ‘closed’ the wooden shanty door behind her. If there were ever a place to murder someone then leave the body, this space was it, I decided. A row of toilets ran along the back wall like a wall of outhouses. I opened the door, and it was like the bathroom had been pieced together over the water by the oldest, cheapest scraps of wood leftover from a project 100 years prior. I half expected it to collapse into the river— but there was a mirror with a sink I thought cheerfully, and it was like a private for for only $6— better even. I stowed my things in the wooden cupboard that hovered over the river with open slats, imagining all the creatures that could climb inside my bags from the outside world, and tried not to think about it as I locked the padlock and dropped the key into my pocket.
I spent the evening writing and hanging out in the hostel restaurant, a creaky wooden structure that hung over the water. Passing boats sent waves into the small river oasis of the hostel as I sat drinking mineral water with salt and lime at a small plastic table at the edge. That night, I started chatting with a girl from Guatemala City, and we sat for hours, our legs hanging over the edge of the deck above the river. We talked about our favorite Reggaeton artists, watched music videos, and talked about Panera and different slang words in Spanish and English. While we were chatting, another guy and a family with two small kids showed up in the dorm room, and I discreetly moved my sleeping pad and bear mace from the row of lockers overlooking the river in the corner (where I planned to sleep if I was alone in the cavernous room) to an actual bed. I wasn’t worried about other people, I was worried about R.O.U.S.’s— it was the kind of place one could imagine something crawling in from the river, creeping up the floorboards, and eating its fill from the dorm beds.
Since I would no longer be occupying the room alone, I cheerfully brushed my teeth before heading to bed. I was on a top bunk, so whatever crept into the room in the dead of night, everyone else would be eaten first.
Guatemala City, Guatemala
I’d never felt unsafe on the road until I rode 179 miles from Rio Dulce to Guatemala City. Guatemala is going to kill me, I thought to myself.
I left the hostel on the river at 8 AM, the sky filled with watery light from the morning rainstorm. I was hoping I’d avoid the rain by leaving early enough, and had been obsessively checking the weather in every city along the route since the previous evening. When the rain started petering off around 7 AM, I finished my breakfast of fried plantains, tortillas, and a pile of black beans, and hurriedly packed my motorcycle.
As soon as I started riding I knew it was going to be a long day. The road would abruptly end, a sharp drop off into potholed gravel, sometimes mud. Giant potholes would appear out of nowhere, and I started to flinch at shadows on the roadway ahead. Cars would pass if there was a fraction of space between me and the car in front, leaving me no reaction time to spot potholes, or in one case, a giant canal carved out from the road at a bridge crossing, a section I was almost certain I would lose control on.
It took so much concentration to ride, I was exhausted 50 miles into the trip, and had never used my horn so many times in such a short period of time. 14 miles from Guatemala City, it began to pour, and enormous puddles of water covered the roadway. Tuk tuks and small motorcycles darted in and out between cars, and trucks and cars alike pulled out into the roadway without looking. Dogs ran along the roadway, and people ran across between traffic.
I wiped the water off my faceshield, wishing with every fiber of my being the rain would stop. To top it off, the only reason I was stopping in Guatemala City was to visit the Suzuki Dealer and get a new tire for my almost completely worm rear wheel. Every swerve, every rain soaked section of road, every time a dog looked ready to dart across the road, I worried I’d lose traction and go down. It was the most stressful ride I’ve ever done, and even though I had to stop at three different hostels in the city to find a place to stay (and a Taco Bell to utilize the free wifi) I had never been so happy to unload my bags off the bike and stop riding for the day.
Rafael, the guy working the front desk of Theater International Hostel, helped me carry the bike inside the foyer of the hostel, and we tucked it into a corner at the base of the stairs. The Suzuki all tucked in, I spent the rest of the afternoon in a daze of exhaustion, watching the rain pour into the courtyard, drinking coffee and feeling grateful to be alive.
Perspective is driving along a broken highway, fearful of crushing dogs and wrecking along the pot-holed stretch of asphalt, grateful for wool socks and a hot drink at the end of the day. No matter what happens this next week, no matter what horrible weather or roads or creatures I encounter, I’ve made it this far, and I’m alive. I toasted myself with my Instacoffee and put on another pair of socks.