Hello Belize

A map documenting our progress through Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

A map documenting our progress through Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

After waiting a day in Chetumal for the Banjercito to open, Monday morning came and the rain clouds cleared to reveal the humid boiling sun. We packed the gear, counted our remaining pesos, and fueled up at the last Pemex of the trip.

Nathaniel packs his gear, getting ready to cross the Belize border. (Photo: Alex Washburn)

Nathaniel packs his gear, getting ready to cross the Belize border. Photo: Alex Washburn

Chetumal ended up being closer to Belize than we thought, and it took us less than ten minutes to get to the border crossing (we might have been able to cross on Friday, but after all the paperwork I think we may have gotten stuck in limbo). With all the issues we had in La Paz we knew we had all the needed paperwork, but were still ready for some bureaucracy.

First stop was to turn in our FMM cards and get stamps out of Mexico (check). Next off to the Banjercito to get our deposits back and release the bikes from Mexico, we went to the wrong Banjercito first but found our way eventually (check). Next we had to get the bikes fumigated (what?!) and get insurance for Belize.

The office where you get your fumigation certificate is also where you can purchase insurance. However, by the time we got there we were running low on money and Alex had to make a run to an ATM while I hung out with the attendant. It was during this time that a heavy rain moved in, and I discovered that the first language of Belize is English. Once Alex got back, we got the insurance slips and were informed we didn’t need to be fumigated because of the rain (sweet!).

After this it was off to immigration at the Belize border to get the bikes and us into the country. It took some time (the officers were in no hurry to fill the paperwork out to get us processed), but there were no hiccups in getting it done. Once all the stamps had been pushed, I walked over to join Alex in Belize, only to have a middle-aged man approach us.


I didn’t know who it was as Alex introduced me to Hector. The continued to talk in Spanish, and I was afriad this was a scam trying to get us to buy something before we crossed (or worse, be drug mules). I was later to find out that this was one of her Uncles who was running a load from Belize up to Huamantla. It’s such a small world, where you can run into family even at a border crossing. It was fitting, we had family at the beginning, middle, and end of Mexico, the best book ends.

As we left the immigration office we were all smiles walking back to the bikes. As we packed our documents back into the bikes, I saw another bike pass by and head towards the border, but he was soon directed (as we had been) to the immigration parking lot. This is when we met, Thiago Berto who is driving from Alaska to Brazil (or maybe all the way to Argentina, he hasn’t decided). He flew from LA to Fairbanks, Alaska and found this motorcycle (which was driven years ago from Brazil to Alaska and then left by another Brazilian, which it why it has Brazilian plates) that he is now riding down the continent.

We exchanged stories, he questioned us about the process of getting across the border, we asked him where he was going. There is a respect that fellow travelers have for each other, and that camaraderie is only magnified when they are also motorcyclists. Bikers like Thiago make us feel less bad-ass as he was riding in just a light jacket, regular pants, boots and his stuff heaped on the back of the bike, but to each his own (I seem to fall a lot so my choice of gear seems fitting).

Thiago is riding from Alaska to Brazil, trying now to get through the Belize border Photo: Nathaniel Chaney.

Thiago is riding from Alaska to Brazil, trying now to get through the Belize border (Photo: Nathaniel Chaney).

We wished him luck, readied our papers and made our way for the border crossing. The guard asked me if I was hot in my gear and I replied it was hot, but protective. He responded that that is true, but that falls don’t happened that often. My response? More often than you would think. And with that I was waved on.

We ran into Hector one more time after we crossed, he gave us some final directions (though there is only one real road in Belize) shook our hands and we were off.

About an hour down the road we hit the worst rain of the trip. It wasn’t just raining, it was pouring enough to work its was into our helmets and for me felt like pinpricks as the droplets hit my jacket. Knowing now that Belize is only 174 miles long, would have helped in that situation of knowing how far Belize City was, but we drove on, not worried about the gear getting wet because we knew we would have time to let it dry.

For a while, each time we broke through the black clouds and towards the blue sky the road would veer off back into the heart of the darkness. However, we finally blew past the storm and made our way to Belize City. It took a little while to find a place (Alex gets all the credit for finding the Palm Inn), but when we did and it was amazing. It had parking in the back behind high walls and under an overhang so we were out of the rain.

I will skip the details of Belize city (we were only really there a day and a half), but needless to say it isn’t the best city. It is mainly used as a stopping point for cruise ships and people heading to the Cayes (think of keys, but no bridges) and it shows. There aren’t many restaurants, and there is a hustle to the city that clearly denotes that a main portion of its income is derived from tourists.

Alex and I were happy to plan our escape to Caye Caulker the next day. We spent some time at the Belize Museum and walking around the city, but really we were just biding our time and the moment was coming to escape!

One Month in Mexico

Nathaniel floating in Cenote Samula vear Valladolid Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

Nathaniel floating in Cenote Samula near Valladolid Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

It’s been one month since we left Oakley California heading towards I-5, and then quickly turned around 6 miles down the road because I forgot my wallet and Nathaniel forgot his malaria medication.

Today we find ourselves hanging out in a hotel we don’t remember the name of in Chetumal Mexico watching the rain drip till monday morning when we can cross the border to Belize.

When you drive a motor vehicle as deep into Mexico as we have from the United States your are required to leave a sizable deposit with the army bank Banjercito to pay for its temporary importation.

Once you leave Mexico the money is refunded to you in either cash or on your credit card (depending on how you first paid) and like the US most banks are not open on Sunday. We could technically leave Mexico today but it would mean giving up our $400 deposits.

Unfortunately, Chetumal is not a city I am enjoying very much. It’s the largest Mexican city to the northern Belize border and it doesn’t have a true Centro that we’ve seen with an adorable plaza and strolling families.

Chetumal is the seat of government for Quintana Roo (Our 18th state we’ve passed through) but the blocks near the water are an endless series of shoe stores, auto parts stores and Mini Supers – rinse and repeat.

This city it was almost completely destroyed in the 40’s and 50’s by three major Hurricanes. When they rebuilt they rebuilt for the next big one and I think it stripped the city of its charm.

Because of the time we killed in La Paz getting paperwork done we had to blow through a large portion of Mexico that we originally had plans for. So, we are both looking forward to getting to Belize, slowing things down a little bit and absorbing the places we see. -Alex

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It is sometimes mind boggling that we have been on this trip for a month and have been primarily in one country the whole time. I never fully appreciated how expansive Mexico is till driving across it, and looking at the distance reading on my speedometer.

What some may not realize is that Alex and I have now already traveled further in Mexico then we are going to travel to get through all of Central America. And thus, the reason for slowing down a bit to really absorb the places we travel through.

As we get ready to exit the country that has been our home for the last month, I look back on our time here.

Most of the concerns about this trip were over safety, with many remarking that Mexico is not a safe country to be in (Alex’s Mexican family were shocked we hadn’t had any issues with police on our ride).

Knocking on wood now, we haven’t had any issues with police, drug cartels, or petty theft and I have found the Mexican people to be overwhelmingly warm and hospitable. At a random intersection outside of Tuxtepec, a man on the side of the road saw we looked confused and told us how to get to the main city. All of the people we have asked for directions have been more then willing to help these two intrepid motorcyclists.

Many construction works and pedestrians by have waved or flashed peace signs as we have ridden by. Questions of safety ring true for any country (we did purposely ride through Baja to avoid certain parts of Northern Mexico, as much as for the beautiful scenery) as there are many areas of San Francisco I wouldn’t want to walk through after midnight, common sense goes a long way in any travel situation, even when that travel is to a local store for milk at night.

The sun sets on Cataviña Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

The sun sets on Cataviña Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

Outside of safety concerns, what has struck me most about Mexico (and something I have mentioned to Alex several times) is the natural beauty of this country. Mexico is beautiful! I have seen California, Arizona, Scotland in its countrysides and experienced high deserts, forest capped mountains, and tropical beaches in its scenery, to mention a few. Mexico has a diverse topography I never knew existed (I pictured it as mostly desert and cacti) that makes road tripping a visual delight.

All I can recommend is getting away from the tourist traps along the coasts and diving into the rich landscape, culture, and amazing food that Mexico has to offer.

I am looking forward to Belize, and finally getting to the third country of the trip, but it is bittersweet to leave Mexico as it was the proving ground. We have spent a lot of time and sweat in this country and I look forward to returning someday.

For now, we look toward the ocean and a whole new country to explore! -Nathaniel

The land of Piñas and Topes

Piñas at roadside stall just off Highway 145 in Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

Piñas at a roadside stall just off Highway 145 in Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

One of the tidbits of knowledge that Ceasar (Alex’s cousin) passed onto us, well mostly for me, was that the country between Tuxtepec and Villahermosa could be considered the Land of Pineapple’s.  Through Alex’s translation for me, he said something akin to “pineapples as far as the eyes can see” with a motion of the arms encompassing a wide circle.

Once we had chosen the northern road out of Oaxaca, it was predetermined for us that we would pass through the land of piñas (where you could get a bottle of fresh squeezed juice for a $1.00).  Getting a later start than normal to the morning, we headed out of Tuxtepec, at fifteen miles an hour.

$15 pesos of Piña juice at a roadside stall off Highway 145 in Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

$15 pesos of Piña juice at a roadside stall off Highway 145 in Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

Tuxtepec is not the center of the universe in Mexico, and once you get on the back country roads and highways of Mexico, they run right through towns, literally. The way that they ensure the safety of the people in those towns is to construct topes (speed bumps) of varying sizes and inclines. Alex hit one of these going out of Oaxaca hard enough to make her think that she might throw-up.  Anyway, going along to Villahermosa was filled with tope after tope, which makes for tiring driving as you never really get up to cruising speed for long (plus if you don’t see the tope, it can make for a jarring experience).

After stopping for some breakfast/lunch, Alex had me lead for a while and gave me instructions to stop at a pineapple stand that looked good.  We got about fifty miles down the road, and I started sweating thinking I had missed the last one, when all of the sudden, like an oasis in the desert, a stand appeared in the distance with more pineapples than you can fathom.

Women stood in the road selling bottles of sweet, golden nectar while an older husband and wife stood in a shack on the side of the road crushing pineapples.  I knew this was the place, the land of the piñas, and we pulled over, took our jackets off and picked up a bottle of fresh pineapple juice for a mere $15 pesos.

Imagine being able to stick a straw into a pineapple and drink the juice straight out of it. That is what it tasted like.  Alex commented:

“You may never have pineapple juice this fresh ever again.”

It made the moment even more poignant.  Sitting in the shade, the sun high in the sky and burning, the juice was as sweet and tangy as I had hoped, and it fueled us better then any Gatoraid could have (I am sure it had more sugar then two cokes together, but it was delicious).

One of the Piña vendors we talked to along Highway 145. They juice it, bottle it, ice it and sell it the same day. Photo: Alex Washburn

Portrait of a Piña vendor along Highway 145. They juice it, bottle it, ice it and sell it the same day. Photo: Alex Washburn

With our thirst quenched, we continued on toward our goal of Villahermosa.  About fours hours into the riding of the day, the tope spotted landscape gave way to toll roads of US quality freeway status and we started to gain some distance.

We stopped for gas about an hour out of Villahermosa, and as we started to exit the Pemex (which I think are the only real gas stations in Mexico) I saw the sheen of water on the freeway.  Not thinking too much of it, we both continued over it, and that is when I grasped our mistake.  Alex made it across but as soon as my front tire hit the liquid, I began to skid and to my horror realized that the substance was oil.

As in all life situations where you brush against true adrenaline producing moments, time slowed down and I remember thinking clearly that I wasn’t going to be able to keep the bike up, that I was going down.  The next thing I knew I was on the ground, and then I was up again, my muscles moved faster then I could think, and I was trying to lift my bike up, slipping in oil that covered a wide expanse of pavement.

It was a river.

Nathaniel does a systems check on his bike (and himself) after a car accessories vendor helped him to an oil free stretch of pavement. Photo: Alex Washburn

Nathaniel does a systems check on his bike (and himself) after a car accessories vendor helped him to an oil free stretch of pavement. Photo: Alex Washburn

Luckily for me a guy came running up and offered a hand to get the bike up (Alex was able to stay upright, but couldn’t park her bike in the mess) and helped me get it over to the side of the road ahead of Alex.  I thanked him as he ran off, maybe he was a guardian angel because he was gone even as quickly as he had shown up, and I assessed the damage.  Other then some new scrapes to the panniers and my handle bar protecters, the bike was no worse for the wear.

Even a couple days removed, my heart still starts pumping when I think about this, but thankfully we were both going slow, and there hasn’t been any lasting damage to the bike (it fired right up once we got the situation under control). Furthermore, there was no bodily damage, I was completely protected by my equipment, I wasn’t trapped under the bike (thanks to the panniers), and the riding gear has paid off in my opinion. I now know what riding in oil is like, and I avoid substances on the road, even if they look like water just to be safe.

On the outskirts of San Mateo Yetla on Highway 175 out of Oaxaca. Photo: Alex Washburn

On the outskirts of San Mateo Yetla on Highway 175 out of Oaxaca. Photo: Alex Washburn

We barely made it to Villahermosa in the last lingerings of the day, and with heavy traffic leading into the city, pulled off at the first decent looking roadside motel for the night.  If it wasn’t for the piña juice I might not have made it.

The next day was more riding, heading north, I distinctly remember getting the smell of salt in my nostrils and knowing that the ocean was near.  I grew up in Santa Cruz, and while I may not have appreciated it then, the sea has a claiming effect on me that makes everything feel right with the world.

“How can things be bad if your by the ocean?”

We rode the whole day, along coasts lined with palm trees and fisherman.  The final rays of the sun were fading over the water as we rode into Campache.  It is the capital of the state and you can feel the forced jubilance it emulates for tourists in its historic district.  For us it was just a hotel room, a warm shower, and a place to hang our helmets for the night.  I am sure it is an amazing town, but we wont know on this trip.

Our days in Mexico are numbered, tonight we are sleeping in Merida and we plan Chichen-itza and a cenote (sinkhole) in the coming days, more adventures to come.

Days of the Dead

A man dressed in drag dances and poses in the lights of a police vehicle as the residents of Tule Mexico exit the city cemetery following a dance party on November 2, 2013.

A man dressed in drag dances and poses in the lights of a police vehicle as residents The residents of Tule Mexico exit the city cemetery following a dance part on November 2, 2013. Photo: Alex Washburn

Alex did a pretty good job of filling everyone in on what was going on in Oaxaca for day of the dead (in fact there are multiple days of the dead, with one big celebration at the beginning for All Hallows’ Eve). It begs to be mentioned that for every flash happy maverick we saw in the cemeteries, there were plenty of tourists being respectful of the families and celebration (though there were a crushing amount of tourists).

On Friday afternoon we got back from Tule cemetery and having been out late the night before, going to three cemeteries for Day of the Dead, we thought we’d just spend the night in. However, someone was going around the hostel promoting a cemetery tour that night that would go to a couple of cemeteries we hadn’t been too.

We said yes and signed up, and only after did I find out it didn’t start till 8:30 and was a five to six hour tour (you read that right) meaning it wouldn’t be over till one or two in the morning. I almost ducked out at the last minute before the tour started, and after what was to come, I wish I had.

The road out of Oaxaca. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

The road out of Oaxaca. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

The tour was the worst both Alex and I had ever been on for a multitude of reasons. The person conducting the tour (asshat) hadn’t done any research and half of the cemeteries we went to ended up being closed for the night by the time we got there. Of the two we did visit, one was Tule (where we had just been earlier in the day) and the other was the main cemetery in Oaxaca (where we had been the night before). While touring the two cemeteries we did go to, the guide didn’t offer any insight or knowledge of what was going on and I honestly think Alex and I know more about Day of the Dead than he did.

After leaving the main cemetery at 11pm, we then proceeded to be dragged from closed cemetery to closed cemetery until finally at 1am, the tour asked for the guide to just take us back to the hostel (where he informed us he wanted to take us to one more place that was supposed to be happening, we didn’t bite). Once returned, he offered us a free tour the next night, but we all declined citing other plans. I could think of nothing worse then to have to relive that experience again. I would pay money to not have to go a second time.

The road out of Oaxaca. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

The road out of Oaxaca. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

We spent the last night touring the celebrations in Tule and Oaxaca, which is where I met a posse of drag queens and was escorted around town. The next morning it was time to pack all the gear, load the bikes and head on out to the gulf coast.

Alex’s cousin (who is a truck driver) told us that there were three options out of Oaxaca: 1) was a pleasant, but relatively boring back-track, 2) was over 200 miles of hairpins going kind of the wrong direction, and 3) (the one we picked) was just over 100 miles of s-turns with gorgeous views and a nature reserve.

Heading out of Oaxaca and into the mountains, it was all climb for the first two hours of the ride. What had started as a warm, muggy day in the valley quickly turned into a chilling, foggy climb where at one point we broke through the fog (yes literally climbed above the clouds),

The road out of Oaxaca. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

The road out of Oaxaca. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

before descending once more into the mist. However, about right at the halfway point, the road circled the mountain and started heading down and we were suddenly in the middle of the nature reserve complete with roadside waterfalls.

If you are ever in the Oaxaca region with your bike, you have to take the road from Tuxtepec to Oaxaca (hwy-175). Make sure your bike can handle the mountain terrain, but the views you get will be some of the best anywhere. We finally made our final descent, and rode on to Tuxtepec for the night.

Oaxaca

Martin Santiago Lopez plants marigolds for day of the dead on the tomb of his grandfather as his mother watches in the cemetery of Santa Maria del Tule, Mexico. Most of their family buried in the cemetery and since the family trade is landscaping they use a lot of plants in their Dia De Los Muertos decorations. Photo: Alex Washburn

Martin Santiago Lopez plants marigolds for day of the dead on the tomb of his grandfather as his mother watches in the cemetery of Santa Maria del Tule, Mexico. Most of their family buried in the cemetery and since the family trade is landscaping they use a lot of plants in their Dia De Los Muertos decorations.Photo: Alex Washburn

Oaxaca is a fantastic city. It’s known for so much I might pity its advertisers when they need to select what to highlight for the city and state. Do you gush and rave about the food? The diversity of languages and cultures? The handicrafts? The scenery? The architecture?

In the months leading up to October 31st, November 1st and November 2nd most of the hype seems to be about the Dia De los Muertos celebrations that the city and surrounding areas immerse themselves in. But, I’ve noticed a shift in the atmosphere in the three years since I last visited Oaxaca for Day of the Dead.

More tourists and more Halloween.

As someone recently told Miriam Jordan for the Wall Street Journal:

It’s not mexican halloween.

But as awareness of Day of the Dead spreads through the United States and beyond I believe we are going to see more and more candy corn and Jack-o-Lanterns creeping into the holiday.

People walk past graffiti protesting the Halloween-ization of Dia De Los Muertos. Photo: Alex Washburn

People walk past graffiti protesting the Halloween-ization of Dia De Los Muertos. Photo: Alex Washburn

I’m not directly irritated by Dia De Los Muertos celebrations spreading in the United States, but it has the affect of getting tourists to throw down their plastic and crowd cemeteries as REAL people try and observe traditions their family has more or less followed longer than they’ve been speaking spanish.

Day of the dead is something even the Spaniards couldn’t destroy but how will it fare against Disney?

As I feel my anger building on the subject I have one memory playing over and over in my mind. A little old woman hunched over in the Xoxocotlan cemetery surrounded by a half dozen people popping flashes at her. One woman (who told Nathaniel she was a hobbyist being escorted through the Dia De Los Muertos festivities by a National Geographic photographer) had a remote flash that she worked that little old woman over with for at least 30 minutes. And I don’t mean one shot every few minutes – I mean celebrity style motordrive shooting at times. At one point she even placed the flash on the grave the woman was mourning over.

I asked the woman’s family member (I assume daughter) if the photographer had asked to take her photo and she said no. I asked her if the old woman was bothered by it and she said yes and explained that was why the woman had stood up and turned away from the cameras for a while. I offered to intervene for them because the photographer didn’t speak spanish but she said it was okay and thanked me anyway.

We stood and watched horrified by it… we think she was with a Photo Xpeditions Tour .

The hobbyist photographer was certainly more aggressive than most but at times it seemed there were more tourists and TV crews present than locals.

Four photographers focus on one woman in the old cemetery of Xoxocotlan. The photographer to the far left used a remote flash on her for at least 30 minutes. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

Four photographers focus on one woman in the old cemetery of Xoxocotlan. The photographer to the far left used a remote flash on her for at least 30 minutes. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

I might be a hypocrite for allocating so much space to complain about the effects of tourism when I myself am a tourist. But, I think people need to use more common sense when they try and absorb the traditions of other countries.

How would that photographer feel if someone she didn’t know accosted her the same way? Someone she couldn’t talk to and was maybe a little afraid of?

Every photo you see in this blog post of someone in a cemetery I either had a very lengthy conversation with (see photo at the top of the post) or a short exchange with to assess wether or not they were okay with my camera and I being present (see photo below).


A young boy lights candles with his sister and grandfather in the main cemetery of Xoxocotlan Mexico in observance of Dia De Los Muertos. Photo: Alex Washburn

A young boy lights candles with his sister and grandfather in the main cemetery of Xoxocotlan Mexico in observance of Dia De Los Muertos. Photo: Alex Washburn

Our first day out for Dia De Los Muertos Nathaniel and I went to three different cemeteries – one of which was during the day for both of us and another I visited during the day alone and took Nathaniel back to later at night.

For me – the sweetest memory so far has been standing in the cemetery of Tule with Martin Santiago Lopez and his mother and learning from them about their town’s history and the people they loved that are now buried there. I was hesitant to speak to them at first, but when I saw them openly engaging with some other daytime visitors I approached to strike up a conversation.

They were incredibly welcoming to me (and my camera) and told Nathaniel and I to come back to Tule today (Saturday) for their town’s big party in the afternoon, which we intend to do.

The photos do not have the soft romantic glow of like the other images I took later in the night but they are authentic images of wonderful people freely giving permission to be photographed by the only camera in the cemetery, which to me is more ideal than candles and a solitary figure hunched over hoping I will go away.

The second night we decided to take a tour and see if it was surprisingly insightful or as terrible as we feared, but Nathaniel will tell you more about that tomorrow.

A woman carries marigolds traditionally used for Dia De Los Muertos decorations through the town of Xoxocotlan Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

A woman carries marigolds traditionally used for Dia De Los Muertos decorations through the town of Xoxocotlan Mexico on October 31, 2013. Photo: Alex Washburn