The border crossing between Mexico and Guatemala along Highway 190 proved to be a straightforward nonevent. After a brief hassle with Mexican immigration authorities, I rode another two miles, passed a smoldering open-air garbage dump, and was soon in Guatemala. My first experience with a Guatemalan was a young man in a sharp crisp uniform who informed me that my bike tires would need to be sprayed with pesticides. “Ahh…OK” I watched as he donned a simple respirator, fired up a small spray rig, and lightly misted the bottom half of each tire. I can appreciate that the good people of Guatemala don’t want my bike transmitting whatever this application was supposed to stop, but he only sprayed the bottom half of each tire. Once the bike moves just half the circumference… whatever. Clearly this process was intended more to create a job than to do anything else. Then he billed me! I paid for pest-control… and a half-assed job at that! The border crossing consisted of driving down a narrow street lined on both sides with flimsy stands selling all manner of disposable kitch, stopping first at immigration where I presented my passport, then at customs where I presented the Pennsylvania title document for the bike. Copies were made, small fees were paid, forms were stamped in triplicate, and bureaucrats were spared from joblessness. The only physical barrier to entry into Guatemala was a simple hand-drawn wooden gate like one you’d see exiting a parking garage. They couldn’t even be bothered to lift it. I just ducted low on the bike and rolled under.</p>
Guatemala looks even poorer than Mexico. Town after town appears as little more than a collection of ramshackle buildings and garbage strewn lots. I spent the night in I-Don’t-Know-Where, Guatemala because very few of what passes for a towns here have any signs indicating where you are. Even the route markers appear only every 50 miles or so. I actually spent the night at a junction where three roads, one of them dirt, intersect. Multi-colored ornate buses with every imaginable type of cargo strapped to their roofs stopped in the middle of this intersection to unload and collect more passengers before roaring off again, doors still open, men still climbing the ladders attached to the rear. Other men, whose job is to coordinate this madness, bark destinations and departure times. Stray dogs patrol the crowd in search of dropped food or discarded garbage. Children play soccer in a field edged with trash. In the morning, a young boy, drunk the night before on Tequila, lays passed out in my hotel courtyard.
I’m glad I didn’t leave Guatemala without a brief stay in Antigua. This vibrant and colorful city centered around a beautiful lush park is dotted with art galleries, coffee-shops, old Spanish Baroque architecture, and bookstores selling a rich array of Latin American literature. Antigua also seems to draw a certain type of visitor. Situated pretty far from the beaten path, it plays host more to travellers than to tourists, more to those who come to discover than to confirm. A guy in dreadlocks passes time before an eco-tour by thumbing through a dog-eared Che Guevara while pretty blonde twenty-somethings in flowing hemp dresses hurry along the black cobblestones en route to Spanish class – Berkley with a bit of dust and better coffee.