Thursday, February 28, 2013

Cars of Guatemala

This is the first delivery of a series in which I detail some of the most interesting automotive finds in the countries I visit along the PanAmerican. Guatemala, due to its relaxed car import laws, has accepted many beaters from the US along the years. Cars are cheaper and –generally speaking– better maintained than in Mexico, where only current year models will be unscathed by the ravages of the road. For anyone interested, feel free to put names to these automotive oddities!

Chilling with two other German cars...
Well, here's a Jeep Grand Wagoneer. What is so special about it? It has wood paneling and it's BULLETPROOF.
A hybrid between a Toyota Yaris and a Mini Cooper, made in China.
One of the siblings of my iron steed, in use for a local German auto mechanic! 
In the middle of a square in Antigua, impeccably maintained, with all original hubcaps still intact!
Two 1970's econoboxes. One of these is guaranteed to have a slant-six in it!
On my way from Cobán, I fixed this little 240D for a hefty breakfast at this restaurant!
"There is a man with one like yours just down the road", I was told. A rare 230TE, indeed!
You will find tons of these little Japanese wagons still chugging up and down the streets!
On the flip side, you will find the mighty Unimogs on their way to the Philapelphia coffee plantation!
The star of the show in this 4x4 Guatemala BBQ was, without any doubt, the Land Cruiser FJ45!
Despite some of these cars being poorly beat, some others are in original condition!
Some others, like this little Datsun wagon, have been restored to the best of the owner's capabilities.
This Tercel wagon, a VERY popular vehicle in Guatemala, is expedition ready!
In the meanwhile, this WV bus has seen better days, but still looks impeccable.
Don't you miss the days in which cars were painted in colors that made you happy?
A little British flair is NEVER out of place.
This American jalopy is said to be running like a champ, despite needing EVERYTHING else.
A sporty Toyota coupé, not the eyesore one would expect from the automaker!
An ancient Toyota sedan in the style of an old Renault... funky!
The streets of Antigua are plagued with old BMW's, mostly E30, and some other rarities...
Naturally, the aircooled cannot be left out. This is an early 2000's model, made in Mexico.
Some surprises also arise in underground parking lots in the Capital... what a pimp-mobile!
Many of the expats buy these old relics and maintain them faithfully.
And the award to the best-looking Mercedes goes for this W114 in Antigua!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

By the Lakeside

Often times you will hear a quote from dystopian author Aldous Huxley, stating that Lake Atitlan as “too much of a good thing”, comparing it to Italy’s Lake Como.  While Guatemalans have taken great pride in this body of water surrounded by cloudy, Fuji-like volcanoes, the Lake’s condition could not be anything but dystopian: high levels of water pollution, sad concrete structures partly flooded in the lake’s rising waters, the ever-growing troop of indigenous people selling themselves to the tourism machine, and the complete state of abandonment of the surrounding roads. Lake Atitlan is indeed one of the most beautiful settings one could set eyes on, but in my heart it will live as a gift from God that has fallen into greedy hands –national and foreign. However, it just takes a walk to the shore to forget humanity’s opportunism and be humbled by the quiet volcanic outlines that circle the lake like a saw.

The road down to San Marcos and San Pedro, overlooking the shore.
A circuit worthy of the most elevating soundtrack!

My friend Blanca and I decided to celebrate Christmas by Lake Atitlan, so we set on a route that would take us out of the PanAmerican Highway on to peaceful villages full of curious faces, dirt paths in the middle of the forest, and steep, winding service roads designed to murder your brakes on the way down, and overheat your engine on the way up. Still, by sunset, we made it to San Marcos in the company of a friendly group of policemen that happened to be heading the same way.

The mixed weather creates some very interesting light contrasts.
A very Stephen King moment...
...and suddenly, the pavement was gone.
A "chicken bus" on the dirt, with no guardrails in this lake-shore road.
We arrived to our accommodations to find an interesting wooden hut on the top of a pickup truck, and an ancient Ford van with California plates. I instantly knew the hut belonged to my friend Tim Dennis, the legendary “Rambling Rat”, the man who had traveled around the world by himself in a Toyota Land Cruiser. We found him having some pizza in a local restaurant, in the company of good friends from the most diverse nationalities; and soon we got talking about our respective adventures. His face was shaggy with a dense black beard, and his eyes glittered under the brim of a Panama hat. “This is the place, right here”, he said, as he lifted his beer in the air with a smile.

The Magic Maya Caravan, ready to take a load of passengers to San Pedro.

The following morning I found a derelict Jeep Cherokee in our backyard. It had been there for months, presumably abandoned by a New Zealander who had left it for the owner to sell. That woke up my curiosity and, after a closer inspection, got me dreaming about restoring it to running condition for the remained of the week. That day we set on exploring San Marcos and planning our stay at the lake. Two days before Christmas, we moved on to a more luxurious hotel to welcome the 25th of December with freshly picked papayas and homemade chocolate sticks from San Pedro.

Still sitting there, and still for sale for $900 USD.
The Akulaax Hotel, a little piece of environmentally-friendly Caribbean charm

Bit by bit I learned the stereotypical role of each of the little towns around the lake. While San Marcos seems to be more focused on the yoga crowd, San Pedro –still keeping its hippie roots– boasts its reputation as the “party town” in the lake. Panajachel –dubbed Gringotenango, city of Gringos–, to the East of San Pedro, remains the most touristic spot in the area by default, sporting some hideous high-rise buildings and a highly developed infrastructure to sustain the constant flow of visitors.

Looking rather meditative on the way to San Pedro.
Panorama near a used book store owner by a drunk expat. Good times!

The water slowly, yet surely, encroaches into what used to be San Pedro's most touristic attractions.
Businesses, road signs and religious hymns decorate the walls of San Pedro.
Water taxis in the shores of Panajachel!
Santiago Atitlán is a whole different story. As you approach it in one of the fiberglass water taxis, something in the depths of your intuition will tell you something is not quite right with that place. A veil of darkness seems to surround this thriving town: the atmosphere is thick, loaded with an eerie energy. Sure enough, Santiago has been the ground for numerous genocides in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and is home to an evil deity called Maximon, worshipped in a small, cluttered chapel reeking of alcohol, incense and cigarettes. Santiago used to be the local Mayan capital before the arrival of the Spanish, and still remains one of the most commercially active centers in the region –judging by the sheer amount of Toyota pickups loaded with merchandise and/or people, that is!

Welcome to the funk...
A safe choice that will get you anywhere.

Lake Atitlán is, along Monument Valley in Utah, one of the most impacting landscapes I have ever had the pleasure to visit –with the very special merit of driving there myself and not getting killed in the process. It is the solemn volcanoes, reflected on the calm water and my rearview mirror, which I will remember most fondly. The rest of what lies there, most of what is made by Man –the half-hearted constructions, the many walls, the million-dollar Gringo fortresses, the black magic and the blood in the cobblestone pavement– will slowly vanish in the backwaters of my mind and the rising tides of the lake to allow for a new –hopefully better– beginning.

Follow that... hut! I later found out they blew their differential...
Steep grade... AND cobblestone. Will my suspension last to the end of the trip?
Getting around in style amongst the floored ruins at the shore.
Aldoux Huxley was definitely right. Oh, what beauty!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Flavor of Antigua

It is nighttime already. The mighty rumor of by-passing chicken buses shakes the walls of a quaint, dimly-lit corner room dressed in colorful tapestry; outside the house, the moon fills each of the cracks in a dashboard made thirty-two years ago, with playful reflections bouncing off the odometer below, to reveal an amount slightly past 150,000 miles. The ghostly pallor of my laptop illuminates a few scattered equations from nights past; above the kitchen top, a teakettle boils. In the middle of the dark patio, a tall figure looks up in silence.

Antigua is a blend of the solid and the imaginative. Photo by Azucena Chang.

I have been living in Antigua for the last month and a half, and things have settled in a calm sense of habit. In the morning I practice for countless hours for my GMAT exam and fill in applications for scholarships; in the afternoon I teach English to cover my expenses, and in the evening I research opportunities and watch films that I missed while being in college. Lately, the idea of returning to school to pursue an MBA has been floating in my head: a major in business has the sense of creativity and big-thinking that I yearned for in Art School, the development of full potential I found in automotive restoration, and a realistic chance to travel to exotic locations and help people help themselves. Should the school route fail, I have three exciting job offers in Oaxaca, Seoul and New York City. While I am not in a hurry to zoom through the continent to finish, I am excited about the prospects that await as soon as I roll into the streets of Ushuaia exclaiming, tear in my eyes, hands clenched on the wheel “Good job, pal! We did it!”.

The magnificent view of the "Volcán del Agua" (Water Volcano) from the Cerro de la Cruz.
As the expedition heads South, the colors in each town just get brighter and brighter! Photo by Azucena Chang.

When I get a break from my test prep and my afternoon teaching, I slip into a tatty shirt and I spend my time walking and wrenching. Antigua is home to some of the most enchanting and colorful monastery ruins in all of Latin America; its cobblestone streets, as much as a pain to drive through as they are, make this charming town ooze with colonial flavor. Very much in the line of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Antigua becomes the daily meeting point for indigenous peoples –who descend into the valley in cramped, smoky “chicken buses” to work and sell their merchandise– and English-speaking foreigners eager to learn Spanish and seek adventure in exotic lands and lost villages.

The Church of La Merced has survived a few earthquakes; it looks brand new right now. Photo by Azucena Chang.

Other churches and monastery have not been as lucky... Photo by Azucena Chang.
Antigua probably has the highest ratio of romantic monastery ruins per capita! Photo by Azucena Chang.

My favorite activity so far has been the process of fixing up some cosmetics on the Mercedes. However, don’t be fooled by the apparent insularity of this action: the need to obtain supplies really makes for a truly integrating experience. Two blocks from the main square you will find a little hole-in-the-wall shop with no name, ruled by a very friendly “Chapín” (colloquial word for a Guatemalan) who spends most of his time behind a 1920’s sewing machine: from this man I bought a bunch of sheet foam and some assorted cotton material to restore my sunvisors. Further East, towards the end of town, a 6’4 man named Günter lends me a “Mitivac” hand pump to diagnose my vacuum locks, and talks enthusiastically, in perfect Guatemala Spanish, about his father’s Gelandewagen project, and how there is a couple Gullwings hiding in the outskirts of town. On the walk home, I find my friend Ricardo riding his Land Rover towards the hills; he asks about our common friend Dillon, laughing as we remember how our Candelaria Church barbeque was broken up by the police, and recalls that he still owes me a fuel filter.

This former marketplace was renovated by the Spanish government into a cultural center. Photo by Azucena Chang.

The Spanish colonial presence is obvious in town. Photo by Azucena Chang.

The true charm of Antigua, besides its robust architecture and noble folk, is the status of the town as a major stopover in the Great Pan-American Route. In just a matter of weeks I met the brave expeditionaires from 30forThirty ( and PatagoniaOrBust ( Just like any town along the Silk Route, or just like any of the sleepy villages along the Amazon River, every polished sidewalk, every weary bartender and every quiet arch bears witness to a small fraction of a major life story. From the smallest oil stain on the ground to the most insignificant scribble on a wall, from the invisible nail scratches on a wooden table to the dark eyes of the Maya shoe shiners, Antigua has been the grounds for itinerant people who doubt, fight, cry, love, defy, connect and dream in this minuscule bit of planet Earth. But then, they go away, and by some sort of miracle of these absorbent walls, they leave enough of themselves to consider the ground sacred.

The iconic Antigua arch, a popular tourist destination. Photo by Azucena Chang

Wherever you go you will see ruins from a splendorous past. Photo by Azucena Chang.

At night, the air in Antigua cools down, and wraps itself in candlelight and the trot of horses. As I get out to the patio and observe the clear firmament, I think about all these generations of travelers, past, present and future. I think about how, –despite the noble deeds, dusty memories, promising plans and the violent crimes incurred on this land– how all those constellations just sit above, ever so immutable and peaceful, watching us.