Stuck at the Border

WRITTEN BY MICHELLE

First the metal lime squeezer handle snapped in half, then our only cooking pot developed a major hole in the bottom, and then my motorbike broke. Things happen in three’s right? I suppose we should have seen the last one coming.

My final motorcycle ride of the trip brought me just about to the Mexican border.  The ride was short and sweet, about an hour and a half. We planned to spend the night in Paso Hondo, which is a couple miles from the Guatemala border. The following day we had planned to head towards Lake Atitlan, where we had two weeks of Spanish school and a lovely Airbnb booked. I spent the ride thinking a lot about Mexico. We were definitely really excited to enter our next country, but really sad to see Mexico go. Prior to the trip, we had no idea we would love Mexico so much! It is an amazing country with so much to offer! I am so grateful for the nearly three months we were able to explore Mexico- and there is still so much we missed. Little did we know we were going to spend another whole week in Mexico.

We had nearly made it to Paso Hondo and decided to fill up our gas tanks to start the following day off with a full tank. Upon leaving the gas station, my bike would not start. With basic motorcycle repair knowledge, we jumped the battery and inserted new spark plugs, but still no luck. We were told there was a motorcycle repair shop in Paso Hondo, so we put the motorcycle tow strap to use. We connected the tow strap to both motorcycles, put my bike in neutral, each jumped on our respective bikes, and away we went. We were a bit frustrated by the situation, as no one enjoys breaking down, but we didn’t think anything of it. We’ll get it fixed- hopefully it’s not too expensive- and we’ll continue on.

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Attempting a quick fix at the gas station, but it was clear there was something major wrong
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Ready for a tow

As we were pulling into Paso Hondo, a tiny border town, we saw some guys working on motorcycles in front of a house. Upon asking them for directions to a motorcycle repair shop, one guy immediately started working on my bike. He first drained the oil and out dropped a chunk of metal. He then opened up the left engine case. At this point Evan and I were just observing, as our lack of adequate Spanish makes discussing engine issues difficult to translate. As he opened up the engine case, he pulled out a couple of pieces of metal and pointed to the shattered idle gear.  Although I had realized metal pieces in your engine can not be good, I was still thought “surely this can be fixed!”

The guys helping us out were telling us we can just get it welded and we should be good to go. They were convinced it should start with a bump start. They ran it up and down the nearby parking lot a few times without success. The rear wheel continued to skid when they would shift it into gear. They then ran off with my bike to a bigger hill down the road. They were gone for about 15 minutes, and out in the distance I saw them run the bike up and down the hill many times and still could not get it to start. We considered paying one of the guys to load it into his truck and drive it to a larger town a few hours away, but it was getting late, so we decided to check into a hotel room and research my bikes condition online and look into further options. My idle engine starter gear broke.  We came across this thread.  This condition has been documented in Suzuki DR650 1998-early 1999 models. Suzuki changed their parts half way thru 1999 to reduce such idle gear failures. If we had realized the seriousness of the issue we would have replaced the part prior to departing on the trip. But we didn’t, so now we suffered the consequences.

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Locals diagnosing the problem
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Attempting to bump start

At this point we had three options with my bike: attempt to weld back the broken idle gear boss and order a new gear online (as the gear had broken a tooth on it too), get a new engine, or sell my bike as is in Mexico and figure out a future plan. As we were weighing the options of my bike, we also considered our next step plans.   For the past month we had been discussing potentially switching over to a bicycle touring setup come South America. Mexico is huge and the Central American countries are small, so we only had a little over 1000 miles until we reached Panama. With that said, we needed to take the cost of repairs into consideration to ensure we could justify any incurring motorcycle expenses for 1000 miles.

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Our bikes together in font of our Paso Hondo hotel

We spent the next five days in Paso Hondo weighing our options. The situation sucked. Although we had a lot of options, none of them seemed to be straight forward and none of them seemed to be good. As time went by the reality of the situation really started to sink in. I was really bummed, saddened, disappointed, discouraged etc, etc. Here is an attempt to explain the various options we had.

  1. Put in a new engine and continue going. Although this would let us continue on down south, this had plenty of drawbacks. This plan was very expensive and the wait time to get it shipped to Mexico was about a month plus installation time and finding a mechanic to do the job. Although this option seemed the simplest, if we were going in fact switch to bicycles come South America, this is a pretty high price tag for 1000 miles of riding (especially considering the expenses we will have to buy and set up a touring bike). This option continued to be very tempting as it would allow us to continue traveling through Central America. However, there is the risk of inserting a used engine in my motorcycle.
  2. Get Evan’s bike back to the US, sell it, get a touring bike set up, and fly back to South America. This option was one we hung onto for a while. Almost immediately this is what we thought we would end up doing. It is difficult to sell a motorcycle in Mexico because the transfer of US plates to Mexico plates and legally importing the vehicle into Mexico is rather complicated, time consuming, and expensive. In addition, there are probably more buyers in the states and he could probably resell it for more than he could in Mexico. But, this option is rather complicated. What do we do with all of our stuff? We have two motorcycles worth of stuff and two people. There is no way to fit everything on one motorcycle. Do I take a bus with my stuff? Do I fly back? Do we ship a big bag of stuff and we 2up back.  Do we get Evan’s bike to Texas and stay there to set up our bicycles?  Do we go all the way back to Fort Collins and ride through winter?
  3. Risk welding my engine pieces back together and continue riding. We could then sell it as a functioning bike (fully disclosing the repair, obviously). If we were to attempt to fix it, we would need to order the new gear, which would take a few weeks to arrive. Then what? What if it doesn’t work? Did the shards of metal get stuck elsewhere in the engine and there is further engine damage? Is that why the bump start didn’t work? We did explore this option. We towed the bike and the pieces to a couple welding places and the people we spoke to said it was too tough of a job. Perhaps someone in the next town over would do it, but they would definitely need to take the whole engine out of the bike and get it apart to do the job. Someone on the online forum had some unsuccessful welding attempts, leading us to think the chance of this working wasn’t very high.
  4. Do we continue on thru South America either 2up’ing on Evan’s bike or buying a cheap bike in Mexico/ Guatemala? If we 2up on Evan’s bike, we still have our stuff issue. And it’s not really comfortable. And we won’t be able to do any fun dirt roads. If I buy a bike- it is time consuming/expensive/tricky to get it registered as a foreigner. Definitely not impossible, but an expensive option for only 1000 miles to go.  Or do I buy a motorcycle and we take the motorcycles through South America like the original plan?  Then we would have the huge expense of shipping the motorbikes from Panama to Columbia, once we got down there.
  5. Another thing we took into consideration was our two weeks we had previously booked and paid for in San Pedro, Guatemala for an Airbnb and Spanish school. With everything that was going on with the bikes and all he emotions that were involved with that, we were not quite in the mental state for two weeks of Spanish school. We wanted to take care this situation and continue efforts to get moving on or next plans. But if we didn’t go to Lake Atitlan, we would lose out on the $500 we already paid for the Airbnb/ school deposit.

We had a few other options as well, but I think you all get the gist. Although we managed to get thru it fairly well, we definitely had our downs. We kept thinking about everything we were so excited for: Lake Atitlan/Spanish school/cozy Airbnb, camping at hot springs in Guatemala, gallo pinto (a Nicaraguan/Costa Rican signature dish), the tropical forests, the monkeys, learning to surf, and so much more! Gah- it makes me so sad to think about! Every morning that I woke up in our Paso Hondo hotel, I kept hoping this situation was all a bad dream.

A couple words from people I knew helped me get thru these downs. Prior to leaving, our friend Jackie wrote Evan and I a note. In it she said “Remember the best adventures answer questions we never knew existed at the start and be sure to look for the silver lining in everything.” In addition, just after the incident, I was browsing the blog of our South African friends. In their FAQ section, one of their questions/answers included:

“What happens if one of the bikes breaks down?

It is never a nice feeling as it strains the budget and can end the trip. But, hey, shit happens! That’s all part of the adventure…After all, it’s either riding the world or hiking the world. Being able to deal with these situations makes us better people, so bring it on! Not all in life is easy or fair.”

Thanks Jackie, and Michnus/Elsebie for your motivating words! I repeated them in my head MANY times!

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The small tienda we frequented during our time in Paso Hondo.  The owner was so friendly and gave us the biggest smile everytime we walked in.

Ultimately we decided to not yet make a decision. We proceeded with selling my bike (aka nearly giving my bike away for sickeningly cheap) in Mexico. I first had to take care of canceling my temporary import permit on the motorcycle. If I did not get that taken care of, I would never again be allowed to enter Mexico with a vehicle. Luckily we were near the border. We towed the motorcycle to the customs office, where they took photos of my bike and completed some paperwork (my bike got towed so many places, we looked like clowns going up and down the one “main street” in town). I sold my bike to the owner of a motorcycle/bicycle shop in the next town over, who was going to part out my bike.

It was really sad to see it go. It was so surreal that I will never ride it again. It is amazing how much you can connect with an object! It made me realize how much I really enjoyed being on my motorcycle. However, it felt good to make progress towards getting out of our sticky mess. It felt good to have made a decision and to be able to continue to move onto our next adventures. We ended up storing a big bag of our belongings at the hotel in Mexico and 2up’ed to our Airbnb/Spanish school. We were a couple days late, but we were excited to have a peaceful home to cook some good meals and experience Guatemala.

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Last photo with my moto
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Watching my bike being rolled away 😦
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Starting our overloaded 2up to Lake Atitlan- an uncomfortably tight squeeze
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Fumigation at the Guatemala border
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Getting Guatemala vehicle permit at the border with double pannier bike
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La Mesilla- Guatemala border town
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Passing thru small towns with unfortunately a lot of trash

We made it to San Pedro, Guatemala in about 7 hours. 2up’ing on Evan’s motorcycle with a heavy load was uncomfortable to say the least. The roads were twisty with a sustained section of insanely steep switchbacks. We often were backed up by buses who took the the turns so slowly, Evan was having to balance the heavy motorcycle on the mixed gravel and pavement switchbacks. Being so overloaded, we wore the already getting low break pads down a little faster than we imagined. It was getting a little bit sketchy, so I ended up getting off and walking a part of the really steep section. Luckily, another (non-overloaded) motorcyclist picked me up and finished off the descent until we met up with Evan.

Surrounded by volcanoes, Lake Atitlan is the home of many smaller communities. We stayed in San Pedro, but visited the other communities via “lancha” (small shuttle boats). The towns surrounding Lake Atitlan are all Mayan villages. All women- young and old- still dress in their traditional clothing, while the men have adopted a more western style. We learned that the men were forced to adopt the western style at school once the Spanish took over the land. It was a rather quiet community. Women started opening their market booths around 7 and finished up around noon. As always, we enjoyed the fresh produce we found at the market, but we particularly enjoyed the abundance of perfectly ripe avocados. The going rate for avocados in the markets were 1 Quetzal (about $0.18). We made fresh guacamole every day!

The two weeks went by fast! During our time, we continued to go back and forth on our next plan. I considered purchasing a new motorcycle, and I even inquired about purchasing a couple. We contemplated riding back to the US to sell Evan’s bike in Texas, but we still ran into the issue of having too much stuff and would probably end up having to pay a pretty hefty fee to ship it back to the states. We also considered selling Evan’s bike in Guatemala, which is what we ended up doing.

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Our Airbnb in San Pedro- Lake Atitlan
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Lake Atitlan from San Juan
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The San Pedro daily market life- women in their traditional Mayan clothes
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Volcan San Pedro day hike
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Volcan San Pedro day hike
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One of the two rope swings along the Volcan San Pedro hiking trail
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Our Spanish school classroom and teacher Milton
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Over the past couple decades, there has been a significant increase in trash among the village, which has lead to contamination of the lake.  San Pedro has committed to reducing trash by banning the use of plastic bags.  It is great to see the community bringing their reusable bags to the markets and other stores!
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There are very few personal cars/trucks among the village, however motorcycles and Tuk Tuks are plentiful.

Prior to selling the bike we needed to pick up our bag of stuff that we had stowed at a hotel in Mexico and cancel Evan’s Mexican temporary vehicle permit. In order to have room on Evan’s motorcycle to retrieve our stuff in Mexico, we left a bag of stuff in Lake Atitlan. Yes, we felt scattered and regretted how heavily we had packed! Ironically, we thought we had packed relatively light, but we were quickly realizing how much stuff we had! We 2up’ed 6 hours back to Mexico and drove back down the same roads the next day to sell the bike in Antigua, which is just a bit south from Lake Atitlan. From this point on everyday brought us a new logistical frustrations. We sold the motorcycle to a Swiss Ex-pat, but only after having to pay a $230 bribe fee to fix an error made by the Guatemalan border patrol on Evan’s temporary vehicle import permit. In the VIN number, a 1 was typed as an I, which was an issue for the documents to transfer over to the new buyer.

We took a 4 hour bus to Lake Atitlan, retrieved a bag, and rode a 10 hour bus the following day to San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico. We were headed to Tuxtla to catch a flight back to Colorado to drop off our motorcycle stuff and get our touring bikes together. We spent a quick night in San Cristobal and caught another bus to the Tuxtla Airport the following day. We hadn’t even started our two days of flights and we were already feeling beat! Our pieced-together travel plans were an effort to make our unplanned transportation as affordable as possible. We were hauling around two huge bags, two smaller backpacks, and two helmets. It was exhausting! We made it into the airport and quickly ran into another logistical issue. My year of birth was incorrectly entered as 2016, so the airline had me down as an “infant” and did not have a seat on the plane reserved for me.

Even though Evan’s credit card was charged for two adult passenger seats, the only way they would let me board the plane was to pay for another seat. Since we purchased the ticket through a third party (Kiwi), the airline was not able to assist us. We paid for my ticket, again, and continued navigating through the airport. However, we quickly realized we were short an item. Evan had left his Gore-Tex motorcycle jacket on the bus. This was a product of us having too much stuff and being completely over too many long days of travel in a row. Needless to say, this loss did not help the mood of the whole situation. After landing in Cancun, where we had an overnight layover, we paid an exorbitant amount for a taxi to our hotel, and immediately contacted Kiwi to discuss the flight situation and to ensure our flight the following day would not be affected. After long frustrating conversations with them, they said I was in fact listed as an infant for the flight to Denver. They insisted I have to purchase another ticket in order to fly, and mentioned they will do their best to offer me a partial refund, as it does not make sense that Evan and I ended up paying for three seats on both planes.

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Heading out of Lake Atitlan- back to the border to retrieve our bag and cancel Evan’s Mexican import permit
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Busy street markets
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Heading to Antigua to sell Evan’s bike- the last photo we took of Evan’s motorcycle

By the time we were flying back to Denver, it had been about a month since my bike broke down. A lot expenses and decisions happened between then and now. But what about that silver lining Jackie told me to remember? Here are some silver linings….

  • Evan and I spent the last 3 months traveling around Mexico and Guatemala by motorcycle. If you asked me five years ago if I would ever be a motorcyclist, I would look at you with scrunched eyes and say “very doubtful.” This experience has taught us a new skill and allowed us to connect with other motorcyclists who we would have most likely never connected with. It allowed us to see the immense value and enjoyment that motorcycling can bring.
  • Dealing with a broken down motorcycle (and selling a fully functioning motorcycle) gave us a rich cultural experience of Mexico and Guatemala that we would have not had otherwise. We were forced to chat in Spanish with local motorcycle shops, welders, and hardware stores looking for repair advice, resources, and potential buyers. We saw the government “look the other way” when they canceled my temporary vehicle permit while knowing my motorcycle could not function. They were aware that my only option was to get rid of the motorcycle by selling it to a local, even though it was technically illegal.
  • Evan and I are both drawn to physically exhausting activities. For some reason we live for the long grueling days in the mountains, big ski backpacking trips, and hard bike rides. Although we have thoroughly enjoyed our motorcycle journey (and are truly bummed we couldn’t finish off Central America), we are looking forward to continue the adventure on a bicycle.  And, as everyone knows, we love to eat! Bicycle touring allows you to eat guilt free. 🙂

Some things we have learned:

  • Always pack lighter than you have to urge to. I am typically good at packing lightweight up until the last minute. Just prior to closing my bag, I always end up throwing in those “but what if I want this? It doesn’t take up that much weight!” items. After hauling our stuff around to so many places these last few weeks, we learned how much those last minute decisions really bite you in the butt.  All of our running around and retrieving bags would have been completely eliminated if we were traveling much lighter. For bike touring we need to keep it light! And, when we do a future motorcycle tour, we will definitely make sure two people with all our gear can fit on one moto prior to departing- just in case we run into another bike failure situation.
  • Always double check documents at the border, especially vehicle document numbers!
  • Cover all bases- we should have replaced my idle starter gear prior to departing on the trip and all of this would have been eliminated!

Our motorcycle route- not including our backtracking back to the border or our bus transportation back to Lake Atitlan and then to San Cristobal de Las Casas:

guatemala-map

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10 thoughts on “Stuck at the Border

  1. Michelle, these life experiences will leave you and Evan with so much you could not have had otherwise. Knowing how difficult it can be living in another culture and have everything go right, you are both my new heroes with all you have endured.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sorry your motorbike broke down and you had to make decisions on how to continue. Your next plan sounds incredible and we can’t wait to read about it.
    Talk to you soon!
    Love,
    Mom and Dad

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow… what an experience!
    This will carry with you the rest of your life.
    Sorry for these bumps in the road but a new chapter awaits you.
    Merry Christmas 🎄
    Happy New Year 🎈🎊
    Love
    Aunt Colleen

    Like

  4. So glad to hear you both are well and gaining great experiences along the way. Stay safe, looking forward to hearing and seeing more of your experiences.

    Merry Christmas, and a healthy, safe, and happy New Year! Thank you for sharing with us!

    Donna

    Like

  5. Wow! You two are amazing. These experiences will sustain you throughout your life. We enjoyed reading how you handled all the upsets and looked for the silver lining. We are very proud of both of you. Love you, Gram & Gramps

    Like

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