Monday, December 21, 2015

Ruta de Flores

I had split from the Belgians in San Pedro, and they had taken a looooong bus ride straight to El Tunco in El Salvador, which they'd be using as their home base for excursions to other parts of the country. For me, though, I decided that I wanted to see the Ruta de Flores on the west side of the country before meeting up with them, because I wanted to be able to do it with the freedom of the motorcycle. So I spent some time researching the cities, and plotted a route.

I woke up pretty early in eastern Guatemala (helps to get to sleep early when there's no internet) and noticed something strange about my saddlebags... there was a giant hole in one of them.

Not looking so good.
I went down and took a look at the bike, and sure enough, I found quite a bit of the saddlebag melted on to the exhaust.

Lost a bit of the right side cover too.
I'm guessing one of the times that I went down the day before, the bag got smashed against the exhaust and melted on a little bit, which held it there, and it continued to burn like that for the whole ride to Cuilapa. I did a quick rearrangement of some things so there wasn't anything that could fall out of the hole on the right side, and readjusted how the saddelbags sat so it would stay away from the part of the muffler that was exposed, and then headed for the border.

When I got to the border, I was (as usual) accosted by a couple guys who were eager to "help" me through the border crossing. I knew it really wasn't worth the trouble, but just once I decided to say yes and see how it went, knowing I'd probably get ripped off somehow but curious to see how.

Honestly, they weren't much help. They walked me from window to window, exactly like I would have done without help, and didn't say anything to the guy behind the glass that I couldn't already say even with my limited Spanish. Eventually towards the end, they went to give me a little ticket, and said "Twenty dollars." I asked what it was for, or how it worked, and they kept explaining things... but not very clearly. They kept saying something about how it was lunchtime, and if I didn't pay for this I'd have to wait until 1pm once I got over to the El Salvador side if I didn't get this ticket from them. It was 11ish, and I really didn't believe that there would be a border that you couldn't cross between 11am and 1pm, but I eventually paid them and took the ticket just to see. I'm pretty sure it was a rip-off, but the guy on the El Salvador side did take the ticket and stamp it, so maybe not.

The El Salvador side was basically just a bunch of waiting while someone filled out some forms by hand, then someone else copied the forms by hand, and then someone else filled out some other forms by hand and looked at the bike to make sure the numbers matched... I spent a lot of time just sitting in the sun trying to drink enough water to make up for how much I was sweating in the heat.

Eventually I got all the paperwork done, and was officially into El Salvador. I started off by heading to the closest big city for some food, since I hadn't eaten breakfast that morning and it was already approaching 1pm. I stopped at a place on the side of the road where I picked up a huge plate of chicken, rice, beans, and vegetables for $2, and even chatted with the woman for a little bit too. I was starting to get back a little bit of that feel of traveling alone that I hadn't gotten at all in eastern Guatemala.

After that I headed towards the town of Tacuba, for no reason other than because the road there looked interesting. I was planning on sleeping in Ataco that night, which wasn't more than half an hour down the road, so a detour was in order. And sure enough, it was a nice sweeping curvy road with some nice hills and beautiful views, and Tacuba itself seemed to be a nice little town.

However, when I arrived at the exit to Tacuba where the road supposedly headed south and cut through the north end of Parque Nacional El Imposible, the pavement seemed to disappear. After my experience the previous day, I was hesitant, so I parked the bike and checked out the map a bit and looked for info online.

As I was waiting, a guy came off the road on a dirt bike. He stopped for a second and asked if I needed anything, and I asked him about the road. His response was "You could maybe do it on that bike... if you didn't have all your stuff on there." Not exactly a glowing endorsement, so I decided I didn't feel like picking the bike up another couple of times today, and turned and headed back the way I came.

I made my way back into Ahuachapan and then headed south to Ataco where I found a hotel that sounded decent. I went to pull in to the parking lot, and when I went up over the curb, put my right foot down. Apparently my ankle decided it had had enough for a while, and didn't hold me up, so down went the bike again. At least this time I could just unstrap my things and carry them into the hotel.

I rested a bit in the hotel, massaging my ankle back to normal, and then headed out in the evening to check out Ataco and get some dinner. Apparently, I was in Ataco during a festival of some sort, because there was a bunch of carnival equipment set up on one of the streets.

Most of it was pretty rickety looking stuff... I'm not sure I would have trusted the tall Ferris wheel. Some of it was driven by hand, meaning there was a guy sitting there spinning the ride around, and only few of them actually had any sort of propulsion system hooked up to them. But it looked like people were enjoying them, and it's always fun to see how a local town celebrates.

I went in search of dinner, first heading to "Portland Bar and Grill" in the hopes that they were attempting to emulate Portland by having craft beer. No luck there, and I was their only customer at 7:00 on a Friday night, so I decided to head someplace else. At Sibaritas restaurant I ended up ordering a cheesesteak, expecting the sandwich but actually getting a real steak smothered in cheese and onions - oh man, was that ever good.

I wandered around the town some more before heading to sleep, and then woke up nice and early in the morning to explore Ataco before heading further down the Ruta de Flores. I'd heard the coffee was really good in the area, but for some reason I was unable to find a place to just grab a coffee and a pastry. Maybe it was because it was Saturday morning, or maybe it had something to do with the festival the night before, but either way I just ended up walking around the town and taking pictures of a bunch of the murals around town.

"When you do any type of work, have the innocence of a child, the stubbornness of a camel, and the courage of a lion."

Not exactly a mural, but I liked this: "I paint because [they/you] don't listen to me."
After wandering around town for a bit, I went back to the hotel and packed up to make my way to the next town on the route, Apaneca. it was pretty quiet there, so after a quick ride through and a glance at a few of the signs, I continued onward to Juay├║a, which was supposed to be one of the highlights of the route.

It was fortunate that I happened to be here on a Saturday, because that's the day of the famous food market. When I arrived things were still just getting set up, so I found a coffeeshop and settled in for a little bit of reading and some pastries.

Three different flavors of pastries, and I followed it up with some delicious coffee cake. All for less than $2
After relaxing a bit, I wandered around the market. I ended up spending a good three hours or so weaving between stalls and checking out what people were selling, taking pictures, and then eventually picking up a fried shrimp dish for lunch that was delicious. I wandered around a lot of the side streets as well. I knew the Belgians who were also doing the Ruta de Flores the same day, and if I was going to run into them it would probably be there. I kept an eye out, but apparently they weren't at the market until later in the day when I'd already headed on.

Interesting house on a side street, though I really couldn't quite capture it the way I wanted to.

The church overlooking the main square.

I found this old building a few blocks for the market, and was fascinated by it.

This guy really liked his motorcycle, and we sat and talked bikes for a bit.

For a buck or two you could hold the snake.

The entrance of the market, though it extended for quite a few blocks.
Eventually I decided I'd spent enough time at the market and hopped back on the motorcycle, this time backtracking to Apaneca. While it was quiet when I went through the first time, I'd seen signs for a zipline tour, so I decided to head back and find it. It turned out to be a blast. For $30, it was about 3km of zipline, including some huge ones that sailed across a big valley. There were four of us doing the tour, and eight employees who would sail down ahead of us to set up and help us transfer from one line to the next.

Sailing through the trees out into the open valley.

Yeah, I did it in my sandals.
After I finished up there, it was time to make my way to El Tunco. I headed down to the coast and then cruised along a nice curvy road that swept back and forth, putting me in the shadow of a mountain and then back into the light of the setting sun over and over again. It was a gorgeous ride, and I pulled into El Tunco just as the sun was reaching the ocean, and re-joined the Belgians at the hotel (which they'd already been at for two nights). Even better, the two French guys that we'd met at the bar in San Pedro had ended up on the same bus with them, so they'd now become a part of the travel group as well.

I think those two nights/three days away from my travel buddies were pretty much the extremes of traveling solo. On one end, falling on the motorcycle twice, having problems with my saddlebags, ending up in a shitty hotel with no internet, a town with nothing to do, and a crappy border crossing. On the other end, a wonderful town and market, a good hotel, a town with a bunch of interesting sights to see, and some amazing, amazing roads for the motorcycle.

But I can't help but feel that, motorcycle roads and problems aside, all of that would have been better with travel partners. To be fair, my experience of the Ruta de Flores was better than what they later told me theirs was. But when you're traveling with people, the bad things aren't quite as bad, and the good things always seem to be better. You lose a little bit of freedom when traveling with other people, but you gain so much. I'm still going to be going back to traveling alone in the not too distant future when we all part ways, but more and more I'm enjoying traveling with people.

Though the arrangement we have is definitely part of it. Because we all know that at any time, we're more than welcome to go off on our own, like I did. At any time, I can just say "I'm getting on the motorcycle and going here, I'll meet you guys later" and have my freedom back, so there's never a point where I'm staying with them because I have to.

But one thing is for sure, partying is definitely better with people you know, and I arrived in El Tunco on Saturday night, so it was time for some of that.

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