As we departed Lanquin we discovered that all of the rough roads throughout Baja, mainland Mexico, and Guatemala took a toll on Chimera’s suspension. We made a temporary repair with a frisbee and headed to lovely San Pedro La Laguna for some Spanish school and to await new parts ordered from the U.S.
On our drive through the mountains to Semuc Champey, we noticed a clunk coming from Chimera’s front left wheel. It got progressively worse over the following days and the half-hearted attempts to locate and fix the noise failed. After the drive from Lanquin to Cobán, we decided that it was time to dig into the suspension to locate the culprit. We pulled into Parque Nacional Las Victorias, a common overlander camping location in Cobán, and Tim pulled out his coveralls and began to investigate. Rather quickly he found the problem was a bushing on the lower control arm that had worn down to nothing.
The arm had been rubbing and clunking against it’s mount on the frame of the van. This bushing is not a part that we would be able to find in Guatemala, or likely anywhere in Central America. We decided to make a temporary repair to prevent any further damage and allow us to make the drive to the town of San Pedro La Laguna on Lago Atitlán. We had planned to try our luck with the reportedly horrible mountain roads in western Guatemala, but it was not to be. We were already planning to head to San Pedro for 2 weeks of intensive Spanish classes, now it would also provide a good place to wait for the new bushings to arrive.
Although Tim had done some work on the front suspension prior to our trip, he had not removed the lower control arms and thus had to work out how to get the affected arm off in order to try to fix the bushing. After about an hour and some inventive profanity, he had the control arm in his hands. The control arm bushings are usually installed and removed using a hydraulic press. Since we don’t travel with a hydraulic press per se, we had to get inventive. Using the weight of the van, a bottle jack, and a 46mm box end wrench, we were able to press the bushing back into position in the control arm.
Although the bushing was very worn, we hoped that it would hold until we could make it to San Pedro. As an additional precaution, Tim cut a plastic washer out of a frisbee that we had along to keep the control arm from rubbing directly on the mounting surface.
Early the next morning we set out on the long drive towards Lago Atitlán. We drove up and over one set of beautiful mountains with clouds shrouding many of the peaks and dropped down toward Guatemala City. We stopped frequently to check the bushing and makeshift washer, hoping that they would hold up for the drive. Although there is no good bypass around the busy traffic of Guatemala City, we hit it on a Sunday afternoon (this was a good thing) and with Emily at the wheel, we easily passed through the city and climbed into the mountains beyond. The CA-1 (the official Pan-American Highway!) is a nice four lane divided highway. It had no potholes, depressions, or eroded sections, unlike most of the previous roads we had traveled in Guatemala. Ticking the kilometers off, we soon turned onto the small rural road that led to San Pedro, just as it started to rain. By this time we had about two hours of daylight remaining and the GPS told us that we should arrive in about one hour. This was because Mandy, as we call her (because she’s so demanding), had no idea what the road was going to be like.
After some steep hills and rough unpaved sections, we came to a point where the road appeared to go off the edge of the world into the clouds. In reality, it pitched down sharply into a series of some 15 to 20 switchbacks connected by steep grades and filled with massive potholes.
Emily downshifted into granny gear to save the brakes, and we started our slow decent down toward Lago Atitlán. By the time we reached the bottom, at the edge of the lake, the rain was falling in sheets and we had less than an hour of daylight remaining. With only 15 km to go along the edge of the lake we thought we had plenty of time, little did we know that the road ahead was littered with potholes of unknown depths. We trundled along, avoiding the ones that looked like they could possibly swallow a whole tuk-tuk, driving through small lakes covering the road, and slowly inching closer to our destination. Finally, we reached the town of San Pedro La Laguna in the dark. We snaked our way through the steep cobbled streets, which had become rivers in some places, and were just barely wide enough for even our narrow van. By the time we reached the Corazón Maya Spanish School it was dark and pouring rain. We were warmly greeted by Doña Marta who invited us into the dry office and made us some Hibiscus tea. Without any sort of reservation, we were fortunate enough to drive up on a Sunday evening, get signed up for classes beginning the next day, park Chimera in their locked parking space, and even secure our own cabaña for the next two weeks. We were extremely lucky to have made it to San Pedro when we did. As we later found out, all of Guatemala was being affected by Tropical Storm Bruno, which caused three days of nonstop rain, closing the roads in and out of the area.
Tim ordered a pair of replacement bushings the next morning and we set off on brushing up our Spanish skills, which up to this point were no more than basic survival level. The two weeks in San Pedro flew by as we explored the town, the lively central market, and around the lake in the mornings, then studied Spanish one-on-one with our maestras during the afternoon thunderstorms.
Tim got to practice his Spanish with the dozen or so calls that he had to make to DHL in order to figure out where the parts were, how to pay the import taxes, and finally where to go retrieve them from when they didn’t get delivered to San Pedro as expected.
The food, the market, the lake, and the Spanish classes were all highlights of our stay. In addition, we loved getting to know and understand a bit of the vibrant Mayan culture of the area.
After a complicated game of hide-and-go-seek with DHL, we finally got the new bushings on Friday, our last day of class, and Tim installed them on Saturday, just in time for our planned departure on Sunday morning. Better late than never!
Despite enjoying being stationary for two weeks in a great area, and improving our Spanish, our feet were itchy and we decided it was time to move on. We slowly wound our way back around the potholes, up the switchbacks, and back onto the Pan-American Highway.