Guatemala by bike

crossing borders

crossing borders

you can view photos that belong with this post here

22nd October – Lago de Colon to somewhere on the PanAmerican Highway
And so our adventure into Central America began. Crossing the border into la Mesilla we searched for sudden differences that would tell us we were somewhere else.  At first nothing much had changed. I think the first real change was when we stopped for a coconut, it was a lot cheaper than in Mexico, but did not come with lime and chilli, like everything in Mexico had done.  The second change was the attention we were getting, men whistling, small children shouting ‘gringo’ at us, this second change is still something we are adjusting to after 3 weeks in Guatemala.  The third change was the chicken buses. Chicken Buses are old American school buses, pimped and painted up which are now used for the majority of public transport across Guatemala.  The buses are bumpy and fast, people wait at the side of the road and are almost pulled on to the bus so that the bus can keep moving. They emit horrible black stinking smoke which feels as though it gets right into your soul.

And so we started riding in Guatemala, and it was beautiful, so many places growing and selling coffee on the sides of the road, for the first day or two there was huge river to the side of us with many small rope bridges crossing over to the other side of the mountains, and there were so many people walking through the mountains carrying huge piles of fire wood, from the very young to the very old.  No one in this valley spoke Spanish as a first language, if at all.

these views welcomed us to Guatemala

these views welcomed us to Guatemala

As we cycled into the afternoon we began to get really tired, we had woken at 5 am that morning, and we decided to begin to try and find somewhere to sleep for the night. We came to a roadside restaurant with some outdoor space, which looked like a good option. The owner was lovely, and agreed to let us camp outdoors. It was only 4pm but we had lost an hour since crossing the border, this meant that it would now get dark at around 5.30pm and be completely dark by 6pm. This means that we must of course change our game slightly and wake up earlier to make the most of the day time. We were in really high spirits in the restaurant, we bought a beer to celebrate, and even a piece of delicious tres leches cake. By 6pm the darkness was telling us it was time for bed, and so we crawled into our tents.

our first night in Guatemala, camping next to this restaurant

our first night in Guatemala, camping next to this restaurant

23rd October – Pan American Highway to Huehuetenango
It rained all night. I first noticed my feet getting wet in the middle of the night, I tried to ignore it, thinking I might just be sweaty, but by the early morning it was clear that my tent was letting water in from underneath. This was really gutting as the tent is a really expensive Big Agnes fly creek. The really annoying thing was that our sleeping bags and roll mats got wet too, and these were really difficult to dry out, making us pretty uncomfortable in the nights to come. I have complained to Big Agnes and they are going to send some replacement covers out to me. We ate what is a typical Guatemalan breakfast of black re-fried beans, eggs, fried plantain with cream, as well as tortillas. Tortillas here are different from Mexico, they are thicker and smaller and made exclusively by hand, rather than any pressing machine.

We cycled really easily through the valley to Huehuetenango, called Huehue (pronounced Wayway) by everyone. We stopped at a place at the side of the road where young boys were packing bananas in to crates, we asked to buy some and they gave as so so many for next to nothing, our panniers were brimming.

banana pedal power

banana pedal power

It was only 50km to Huehue and we arrived by 2.30, but decided to stop there for the night. We stopped on the outskirts of town to use an internet cafe to see if our warmshowers host had replied to us. The guy who ran the shop was very sweet, he gave us both meringes, but also advised us not to go into the centre of Huehue, he said there were bad people who would bother us because we were different to them. We didnt have a reply from the warm showers host but I had his telephone number from the site, so took the chance to call him, Arturo answered, he said he had had a problem with his email and hadnt received our messages, and he was happy to host us. He told us to cycle into the town cente and we would meet him in the plaza.

Aturo picked us up and took us back to his home, he is a journalist for the local newspaper and had to go back to work. We were proud of our new found habit of arriving to a place early, so set off to go check out the centre of Huehue, the market was buzzing and pretty overwhelming, I was taken a back by how all police men are armed and how most proper shops have armed security guards, this is something that we have now become accustomed to since being in Guatemala. One new Guatemalan snack we enjoyed was mashed and fried platain balls, served with a little cream and sugar, such a tasty but incredibly guilty street snack!

Arturo lives with his friend Luis, who was incredibly funny and great company, Leah cooked us all an amazing dinner, and Arturo bought as the Guatemalan drink of Quetzalteca, a sugar based alcohol flavoured with hibiscus flower, it was so sweet and a really high alcohol content.  It was a fun night sitting around chatting.

24th October – Huehuetenango to Pologua
The night before we went to bed at midnight, which isn’t late, but it meant that we didn’t wake at the crack of dawn as we had planned, and thus breaking our good punctual habit that we had formed in the first few days of riding in Guatemala. We went for breakfast with Arturo, this was a big affair, the place bought out porridge and bread to begin with, which was then followed by eggs and beans. This cafe also sold amazing looking cakes, so although it felt pretty crazy I also ate a giant piece of chocolate cake too. We finally set off at 10am and I couldn’t help thinking how a place seems so much less intimidating when you have friends.

Leah and I couldn’t get into the right mood for cycling that day, it was really undulating and mainly up hill, with nothing much to look at to make things easier, we were struggling a bit mentally, it was incredibly intimidating sharing a narrow winding road with a chicken bus, and we just were not happy about the new and less affectionate name of gringo. It became misty at the top of the mountain and it became apparent that we were not going to make our planned destination of Xela that night, we cursed ourselves for not leaving as early as we wanted to, blaming it on the chocolate cake, but another contributing factor was that the road was just a lot more difficult that we had anticipated.

We arrived in a small village and asked in a shop if we would camp next door, the women said we couldn’t, and then another man in the shop told us not to stop in this village ‘it’s full of bad people, go to the next place’, and so we went to the next village along, by this time darkness had set in. We spoke to a really friendly and smiley family of women who were happy to let us camp outside their service station home, but then as we were preparing our stuff one of the girls said ‘there are a lot of bad people around here’ and with that we decided to head to the next village along where we were told that there was a place to stay.  We found the place called a Hospetaje, but sure what the English word for it would be but we paid for a grim windowless damp room, we were afraid of getting bed bugs so decided to put our damp tent down on the bed and put our roll mats out. This was practically a prison cell that we were paying for.  My sleeping bag was still wet, and it was pretty cold at the top of the mountain, so it was hard to feel cosy.  We were still trying to joke about how dire the place was, but we were both disappointed not to make the warm showers host that night.  We played a Ricky Gervais podcast to cheer us up, but it was an episode about England, and at the end he read a poem called ‘The Soldier’ by Rupert Brooke, listening to this poemwas the first time I have felt so genuinely homesick, not just for people but for a place, a shed a little tear, sort of silly looking back on that now.

the cell

the cell

25th October Pologua to Xela (Quetzaltenango)
26th-27th October – Xela

We actually ended up sleeping pretty well in the ‘cell’, our body heat dried out our sleeping bags by the morning, which made things better. We made coffee on our stove and made porridge before getting on our way, predominantly down hill all the way to Quetaltenango.  It did however take us around 3 hours before we arrived at our hosts house, so we realised it would have been hard to manage in one day, which made us feel a bit better. Quetzaltenango is Guatemala’s second city, and it is known by it’s Mayan name of Xela. Our host during this time was Ana. She had a child like sense of fun and excitement, and was really great to be around. She had spent a long time living in different countries and could speak 9 languages, and had a PhD in art and philosophy which she gained in Japan. After a few years of being back in Guatemala she had been struggling to find her place again, she deeply loves her country but she told us a lot about some of it’s problems, the history of the civil war and the ongoing corruption, I was so glad to meet her to understand the country better. We spent a few days in Xela, we went to the hot springs in the next town, a volcano, markets, and wandered the town.

One afternoon I was chatting to another cyclist online who told me that another cyclist was in town, Phil from Manchester, England. We met up with Phil, who has been cycling the world for 4 years, he started in Manchester, headed for Turkey but once there he decided to keep going, he ended up in New Zealand before flying to Buenos Aires to cycle north. We prepped him for Mexico, and he prepped us for the road ahead, it made us so happy to meet another cyclist.  Phil was staying in a hostel but on the final night in Xela we went to say goodbye to him there, but instead Ana insisted he come and stay in her house, so we all spend the evening at hers chatting, which was lovely, you can read Phil’s here via crazyguyonbike.com which is the same site that Leah and I met, via the classified section.

28th October – Xela to San Pablo de la Laguna, Lago Atitlan
We woke up really early at 5.30 but then ate a big and leisurely breakfast with Ana and Phil, so we didn’t end up leaving Ana’s until 9am. It was sad to say goodbye and we cycled 15km out of town with Phil before it was time for him to go his direction, and us to go ours. It was his birthday in a few days time, so we had bought him a slice of cake which we all shared before setting off.

Ana, our ws host in Xela with Phil from dear old England

Ana, our ws host in Xela with Phil from dear old England

Cycling away we felt sort of sad. Making new friends is amazing, they become your family for the few days you share with them, so it often feels hard to set out again on our own, but then we always say to each other, ‘I wonder who are next friends are going to be’. That day we cycled mainly up hill to the highest road in Central America. From here we continued to the point where the road turned off towards Lake Atitlan, which was our next destination. On the map it didn’t look far at all to our destination, 15km down hill which seemed easily to accomplish in the hour and a half before dark.  Once we were on the road heading down to the lake it was not that easy, it was crazy steep in parts, with lots of potholes, which meant it was impossible to go at any speed. Leah had some problem with her brakes so she got off and walked. This was probably one of the worst decisions I had made on the trip as it was a pretty dark road with a bad reputation for muggings, so should not have been attempted in the late afternoon, if at all.  This was a big big learning experience.  We stopped and found a play to stay in San Pablo de la laguna.

29th October – 4th November San Pedro de la Laguna, Lago Atitlan
There are lots of different villages surrounding the lake, all with different personalities, we had spend the night in San Pablo but were bound for San Pedro. Phil and Ana didn’t think much of San Pedro, they said that it was really touristy with lots of dreadlocked backpackers walking around barefooted. We were staying on the edge of the town and neither of us found the town too overbearing which is how we spent a week there. Here Leah’s friend Adam from New York and his girl friend Allene were staying.  A month before they had packed up their lives in New York and embarked on an adventure, the lake was their first stopoff. The house they were staying in had a spare room so we found a place to stay. We were subletting our room from Lonny who was renting the whole house, Lonny was a really special character, he was really warm and excitable, and had lived about 1000 lives, with Adam and Allene also staying there we spent a lot of time chatting in the kitchen, and eating food together. The house staples were refried beans, avocados,local honey, tortillas, tostadas, bananas and peanut butter, most days we would all just bring our offerings to the table and share, this was one of the most lovely parts of the week we spent on the lake. Check out Adam and Allene’s photo blog, it really captures the beauty of the lake and the atmosphere of the house, plus my bike even made it on there.

Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan

We went swimming a lot, and one day we rented kayaks. We thought that we were going for just a leisurely trip along the shore, but our friend Hugo insisted we were going to Kayak to another village, San Marcos, the other side of the lake. Half way through Adam wasn’t feeling it and was ready to give up, I threw my toys out of the pram too, but somehow we continued, once we were back at the house we looked at the map and realised we had Kayaked 10km in total, realising this we sort of felt better about the whole thing.

I enrolled in some days of one to one Spanish classes, Adam and Allene were also learning so I just headed to the same school as them. For a while now I was feeling as though I had totally plateaued. I can speak with people on a day to day basis and have my needs met, we can stay with people who only speak Spanish and sit around the dinner table without the feeling of dread that I used to have, but if we spend any more time with people than that then there is a block, and things become boring for everyone. The classes really helped with consolidating and helping me move on to the next stage. I’d have really liked to have had more time, I am sure I will get the opportunity further along in the journey to do another week or 2 to help push me along.

the view from my seat in Spanish classes, with Adam and Allene either side

the view from my seat in Spanish classes, with Adam and Allene either side

The 1st of November was All Saints Day, this is a big day in Guatemala, on this day and the whole month leading up to this day people fly kites. This is a way of sending messages up to the souls on the sky. During our time cycling over the mountains we had seen so many children flying kites, a really special sight. We decided to take a trip to the town of Sumpango to witness a kite festival, the photos explain well how this worked. Ana, our friend from Xela was keen to come to the festival so we got the bus for an hour and a half from the lake to the main road, where Ana picked us up, and drove the rest of the way, so lovely to see her again. We were also joined by our friend Alex (from Ilkley, Yorkshire) who we had met in the hostel in San Cristobal de las Casas. By coincidence Alex went to school with my good friend Naomi, small world.

5th November – San Pedro de la Laguna to Godinez
We had delayed our departure from the lake by about 3 days, as we were enjoying being there so much. This week was my favourite of time spent in Guatemala.  That morning was an even harder goodbye than normal, especially for Leah as Adam is one of her very good friends.  We had no intention of cycling around the lake, there is a bad reputation for robberies, so instead we put our bikes on the little boat to Panahachel. From here there was a climb up from the valley, but it was fine compared with the road we took coming down, so we were not complaining.  Around 4pm that night we came across a little place that had a sign offering honey for sale, I noticed the big house shaped as a boat, and was really intrigued by the palapa roof, thinking it would offer good shelter for the night. No one was home, but instead a woman walking by stopped and told us that the owner was not around but she knew the man who was taking care of the place whilst he was away, the lady said she was sure that it would be fine for us to camp for the night. Just as we were pitching our tents the caretaker of the place turned up, he opened up the boat shaped house and told us it would be better for us to sleep indoors. That night Leah and I cooked pasta on our stove before hitting the hay mattresses.

166

6th November – Godinez to Antigua Guatemala
7th – 8th November – Antigua Guatemala

The following morning we got up and made porridge (pimped up with dried fruit that Ana had given us, she had made them herself using her fruit dehydrating machine) and coffee, which we shared with the old man.  That day we cycled some tough up hills in the morning, before stopping to eat a mountain of tortillas and refried beans.

ladies making tortillas

ladies making tortillas

we then had 2 options, to take some back roads to get to Antigua, or join some busier, faster roads. We opted for the later, wanting to guarantee that we arrived in Antigua before dark, especially as we had a warmshowers host planned. This was a good decision, we got there is good time before dark, and for Brian to come and meet us and cycle back to his house. Brian is from the States, and moved to Antigua with his wife Denise a few years ago, due to her job. They have the most adorable 9 month old baby, Stella. They are such a lovely family and we felt so welcome in their lovely home, Brian was a great cook too.

Antigua was once the capital of Guatemala and has some amazingly beautiful colonial architecture, coloured buildings and cobbled streets, it reminded me so much of Cartagena de Indias in Colombia, which we are now only a few month away from.  Antigua is pretty touristy, but in a more moneyed way, there is also a big (mainly American and Canadian) expatriate community. We spent a couple of days in Antigua, wandering the streets and markets, doing some work on our bikes, we bought maps for the rest of the countries in Central America and spending some time catching up with stuff online. Brian has recently opened a bike shop with his friend Matt, Antigua Bicycle Co-op. This has to be the best bike shop that I have been to since we left California. The mechanics had great knowledge. They had exactly what we needed – super links, chains, park tool patches. There was so much good quality stuff that would get any bike tourer excited, it is also attached to an outdoor shop, so it provides an opportunity to get any camping supplies too. The store also has a mini-bar selling Brooklyn beer, which made Leah really excited. What a gem!

9th November – Antigua Guatemala to Ciudad Viaja

10th November – Ciudad Viaja

Our time in Antigua was up, we made plans to head down towards the coast road, meaning that we would be crossing in to El Salvador in the coming days. We took a while to get going, I still had a few more things to do on my bike, and we ate breakfast with Brian, Denise and Stella. Brilliantly Brian rode with us for a while to guide us on to the right road. A little way after leaving Brian we were cycling down hill, when there was a speed bump, there was a sign I didn’t see it in time to brake, I careered over it, convinced I would meet the same fate as when I fell off a over a speed bump a few months before, but somehow I didn’t fall.  Then after me came Leah, I saw her go over, she lost her balance and I thought she was going to manage to correct herself but she wasn’t able to, and then careers into a giant rock on the side of the road.  She was hurt pretty bad, completely winded and couldn’t move her neck.  People stopped to ask if we were ok, and I helped gather all of Leah’s stuff from the road, and wiped all the dirt off her face.  Before long a volunteer fire-fighter came in a little van, we asked if he could just take us to the nearest town to rest, but he said that the police would have to do that, there were some police men just up the road.  The police agreed to load our stuff onto their truck and go to the nearest town. We were pretty lucky, the police drove us around several different hotels to try and find one as cheap as possible, they really took their time and was really grateful for the help, not sure what else we would have done.

Leah was in a lot of pain and I was actually really worried, she couldn’t move her neck and that night could just about get up to use the bathroom.  If we were in the U.K I would have gone to A&E, god bless the NHS.  We stayed another day in the hotel, which actuality ended up being really nice as the old  women who ran the place really mothered us.  It was her son’s birthday so the whole family were having a feast and slowly getting drunk, they kept plying us with amazing food, and by the end of the night we were joining them for whiskey and birthday cake.

gate crashing this family celebration

gate crashing this family celebration

11th November – Ciudad Viaja to km92

12th November- km92 to just before the border to El Salvador

Leah was ready to get back on the bike, the days riding was easy, down hill and then flat, we found a nice little place to camp with a family under some beautiful trees, we’d travelled down hill so much that the temperate had really changed and were back to sweating in our tents at night.

The following morning we were woken at the crack of dawn by the cockerels, this has become so normal to us know, and turned us in to real early morning people.  We cycled  in the heat towards the border and made the decision to stop, preferring to cross the border the following morning.  That evening we camped behind a road side cafe with a family who fed us cheese and tortillas.

To summarise Guatemala is a country which at first we struggled to adjust to, people in rural places seemed more reserved, and on several occasions within our first few days in the country local people told us that their own town or village wasn’t safe, this was the first time we had experienced this since beginning this trip. However maybe this was symbiotic, and as soon as we felt more relaxed and started to make good decisions about arriving places in enough time things were fine. We have experienced a lot of good naturednesss and smiles from strangers and the shouts of ‘gringo’ were only evident in the more remote mountain places.  When you read a little more about this countries civil war, the massacres of indigenous people in a number of the places we passed through; and when you begin to understand the United States of America’s role in funding the military you can understand why people may have been a little more wary of us in rural places.

And so we are moving on, 3 weeks here in Guatemala, and now ahead are even shorter times planned for the new few countries, and so it goes!

 

One thought on “Guatemala by bike

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *