Hitting the wall

May 24th, 2012

We sat at the side of the road, bikes thrown down in disgust, and glared at each other. Silently we blamed one another for our situation – but the real cause was another brutal, seemingly vertical stretch of Guatemalan climb which lay between us. Tears were rolling down her cheeks, and after three days of slog, I knew that there was no way we would be climbing any more. In silence we turned round and rolled back down the valley to the town of Todos Santos and a waiting bus, covering in five minutes a distance that had just taken us two hours to climb.

To any non-cyclist, I can imagine this sounds incredibly melodramatic. If a hill is too steep to cycle up, then of course you just get a bus. What’s the big problem? Who cares? No-one of course. Except that we did care – because for the first time in 10 months and 10,000km, we’d had to admit that we couldn’t actually cycle this road.

Of course, we’d “cheated” before – like skipping most of Canada on a long ferry ride, or taking a boat out from Laguna Miramar just a few weeks earlier in Mexico. But on those occasions we had deliberately chosen not to ride in exchange for another experience. This was different. In the ongoing battle of touring cyclist versus road, for the first time the road had won.  And to a pair of stubborn cyclists who thought they could ride up anything, that was a hard thing to swallow.

I guess I knew that eventually we would find our limit – but I had thought it might be in the mighty Peruvian or Bolivian Andes, rather than here in the little-known Cuchumatanes  of northern Guatemala. At least then, there would have been some element of honour and glory in defeat – I mean, who would try to cycle through the Andes anyway?  But I had underestimated just how steep this wall of mountains that welcomed us to Guatemala were.

Of course, as usual we hadn’t helped ourselves. In our constant (and to everyone else, probably rather tedious) quest to ride the road less travelled, we had avoided the main route from Mexico into Guatemala with its smooth tarmac and well graded hills. Instead we chose a circuitous back door route which our map classified as “seasonal track” and in reality meant three days of sweating, swearing and a lot of back-breaking pushing.

We sat in disconsolate silence as the bus crawled its way back up the hill past the point where we had turned back, our bikes expertly lashed to the roof alongside sacks of maize and half a dozen chickens. There was no pleasure in the cheat; no satisfaction in avoiding the sweat and toil of crawling our way up the hill. Both of us would have given anything to have been out there riding. For once, I concluded, the plan had backfired. We weren’t really the globe-trotting, off-road “adventure” cyclists we had hoped we might be.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realised it really hadn’t backfired. Firstly because no-one really did care if we had taken a bus or not. On that front, we just needed to swallow our pride and take ourselves a little less seriously. But mainly because if we hadn’t attempted the route we had just ridden in the first place, then we would have missed three days of incredible experiences amongst the sweat and tears : a river crossing without a bridge, a night camped in a municipal hall with an audience of schoolchildren, and a village football match with locals in their traditional dress.

It sounds like a terrible cliché from a motivational speech – but I realised that the real failure would be to take this experience to heart, and to stifle our curiosity for the roads less travelled. It would be easy to start choosing the obvious path, the nicely tarmaced but traffic-choked and monotonous roads we try to avoid. But we would have many more regrets.

Instead we should stick with our approach of seeking out more interesting and challenging routes – but just with a touch more pragmatism thrown in. Like choosing tracks that we can at least occasionally ride on, rather than footpaths that leave us pushing for hours. And if we have to take a few more buses, then who cares? At least we will always know that our experience will have been be so much richer for trying.

James

After an easy downhill coast from the Mexican border to Nentón, we had two options to take us up into the Todos Santos valley: a round-about tarmac route, or an intriguing dirt road "shortcut" from Nueva Catarina to San Andrés Huista. We deployed our usual tactic of taking a straw poll of three locals; one said the dirt road was rideable, two said we had no chance. Needless to say, we chose the dirt option...

Fairly soon we faced our first challenge - the bridge across the river at Vieja Catarina had collapsed years ago. Fortunately, these two friendly fishermen were on hand to help us find the best crossing point...

...and to help us wade across. A few weeks later and with the onset of the rainy season, we might have been swimming.

Our fishermen friends assured us that the road ahead was rideable - but within minutes we were off and pushing. Loose earth, a 20% gradient and fully loaded touring bikes do not mix well.

Up and up we sweated into the Cuchumatanes range...

...much to the bemusement of locals, who far more sensibly opted for horse-powered transport to collect their firewood.

After five hours of back-breaking pushing, eventually we reached the outskirts of San Andrés - where some villagers took pity on Bedders to give her a running push up the final hill.

There was no way we were going any further that day, and so we collapsed in a dusty heap and attempted to revive ourselves with coke and chips from the ever-present Guatemalan fried chicken stall.

After introducing ourselves at the mayor's office, we were given permission to camp in the village hall - a covered space enclosed with metal bars which we quickly christened the Gringo Zoo. We woke in the morning to the entire population of the nearby primary school peering through the bars at the strange visitors...

...and then following us as we made our way across the square.

Their teacher explained that most of the kids would only ever have seen "people like us" on TV - which explained their fascination with us, our bikes and especially with our cameras.

Over the next two days we continued to climb slowly up through the beautiful valley towards Todos Santos - dodging chicken buses coming the other way...

...and being chased by cheeky kids.

Stopping to watch a village football match gave us the chance to admire what must be the coolest traditional dress going - striped pyjama-style trousers and a high collared shirt...

...while the locals were equally intrigued to see where they lived on our map, and find out where the weird gringos on bikes had come from.

After being invited to camp in his half finished house by Jovel, a friendly local, we headed on up towards Todos Santos in the early morning light...

...past sleeping wildlife...

...and more curious bystanders. After lunch in Todos Santos, we set out on the climb that would eventually defeat us and have us coasting back down the mountain in search of an escape by bus.

After a night in Chiantla, Lee set off directly for Xela, while we headed east towards Nebaj. Here we abandoned the bikes to walk through the mountains to the beautiful village of Acul, set in a deep valley and surrounded by lush Alpine scenery. We'd heard rumours of a local farm producing swiss-style cheese, and so we set off with our guide Carlitos to successfully satisfy our craving...

...and come face to face with the undisputed king of the farm.

Our plan had been to spend the next couple of days riding to Xela via Santa Cruz del Quiché, but once again things didn't quite go to plan. The hideous sulphurous odours emanating from my every orifice told me that my giardia was back with a vengeance, and reluctantly we were once again forced to pile our bikes and belongings back onto a bus, and take the easy option out.

And so we headed for Xela, where we planned to spend the next few weeks in language school brushing up on our Spanish grammar. At least we were assured of a safe ride there on our chosen bus: "This bus is protected with the blood of Christ - the keys are in heaven".


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A tale of two volcanoes

June 6th, 2012

In a country split down the middle by a string of beautiful and restless craters, climbing volcanoes is a rite of passage for every traveller passing through Guatemala. From my previous time here, I had vivid memories of sitting atop Tajumulco, the highest peak in Central America at 4,220m, and gazing out towards Mexico and the Pacific as the sun rose through a beautiful sea of clouds.

Inspired by this experience, on our second weekend in Xela we headed out to climb Tajumulco on a hike organised by Quetzaltrekkers, an excellent not-for-profit and volunteer-run trekking co-operative.  Unfortunately the anticipated sunrise was not to be, as the clouds rolled in, the rain lashed down and we peered out into the mist.

It all would have been a bit miserable, if it wasn’t for the fact that we were lucky enough to find ourselves with a great bunch of people. Partly due to the altitude, but more thanks to the unique ice-breaking skills of Dave, a nurse from Colorado, shivering in a soggy tent at 4,000m has never been so much fun.

Our Tajumulco group when the mist cleared: Claire, Dave, Heather, Sanne and Nathan.

Dave the Naughty Dragon tries his moves on Claire. Oscars night will never be the same again thanks to Dave and Amanda Weeks.

As luck would have it, one of our guides on the Tajumulco trek was Nathan – a fellow Brit and PanAm cyclist who’d spent the past few months living in Xela and volunteering for Quetzaltrekkers. After a collective love-in over our mutual appreciation of Thorn bikes, Cass Gilbert, and going very slowly, Nathan invited us to join him the following weekend on his final trek before resuming his ride south.

After a week of limping around the streets of Xela, Bedders very sensibly declined and opted for some local hot springs followed by wine with girlfriends – while Nathan and I set off with fellow guide Jamie for a weekend climb up to the bizarre landscape of Santiaguito, apparently one of the ten most active volcanoes in the world.

It was an incredible, surreal experience which this time left me hobbling around like a 90 year old for the next week. Yet the aches and pains were well worth it – as we all agreed before we went our separate ways, it was a truly memorable way to bid farewell to Xela.

James

My guides for the weekend: Jamie from Colorado and Nathan from Reading, who started his PanAm bike ride south from Alaska nearly two years ago.

After hacking our way down through thick vegetation and some spectacular and mostly unintentional slides down a polished rocky ravine, we reached the boulder field at the base of Santuaguito. Next up was a sweaty scramble towards our campsite...

...which we reached just as the clouds rolled in and the rain started to fall. We huddled in our tent while Santiaguito, eerily invisible in the mist but less than a kilometre away, rumbled loudly as it erupted every 30 minutes or so.

Finally the clouds cleared, and we were able to escape the tent as night fell...

...revealing Santiaguito for the first time, ominously spewing ash and steam and dwarfed by its mother volcano Santa María in the background.

Up at 3am the following morning, we scrambled in the dark up towards the crater, until we were perched just a few hundred metres away.

We were surrounded by a bizarre grey moonscape of rocky outcrops, volcanic ash and steaming vents...

...broken only by splashes of bright green moss which had sprouted since the start of the rainy season only a few weeks earlier.

Spirals of steam twisted out of the crater while we waited expectantly for the show to begin.

Needless to say, we didn't have long to wait before the steam grew in intensity, the deep rumbling began, and a cloud of ash was launched high into the air above our heads...

...catching the first sunlight of the day.

Showing his pro guiding skills, Nathan pulls out his brolly in preparation for the ash shower that followed every eruption.

After watching a few more eruptions, we set up the obligatory group shot. Right on cue, Santiaguito obliged with a final spectacular effort which had us gawping over our shoulders.

Back at camp, we tucked into breakfast with a final chance to soak up the spectacular backdrop. All that was left was a tough slog back up and out to the road, before falling into a bus back to Xela; exhausted and filthy, but grinning and happy after a unforgettable weekend.

 

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Rediscovering our rhythm

July 8th, 2012

I don’t want to tempt fate but I am in a cheerful optimistic mood so I am going to say it anyway – we are both feeling much better.  Parasites are either gone or dormant for now, hills are not quite so steep and the muscles in our legs are remembering how to turn the pedals on our bikes for six hours a day.  We’re back in the swing of cycle touring.  It seems like it’s been a long time since we felt like we had the remotest idea what we were doing….but you know what they say about riding a bike…

Our final days crossing Guatemala settled into a reassuring rhythm of filtering endless litres of water, sweating, preparing porridge and coffee as always for breakfast, sweating, climbing hills, drinking carton after carton of super sweet Central American chocomilk, sweating, climbing hills, and discussing latest bowel movements with a new cycling companion: Nathan.  None of this is particularly interesting or glamorous, in fact some of it is entirely disgusting but it’s our familiar routine nevertheless and it feels good to be back.

Before we left the comfort zone to return to an almost forgotten cycling trip we'd embarked upon, we went for drinks with my fantastic Spanish teacher Alma and our old cycling comrade Lee. He'd been in Xela a week longer than us and caught the Quetzaltenango bug, deciding to stay in town to teach English, salsa dance and generally put down roots for a while. We hope to see him along the road somewhere....

No more procrastinating, the two of us hit the road early on a Sunday morning, leaving behind our wonderful host family whilst we'd been at language school. Patti cooked us amazing food, encouraged my fledgling attempts at Spanish and gave us the warmest of Xela welcomes. We hope to return to her and her delicious tamalitos one day.

We set ourselves a fairly hefty target on the first day back on the bikes after a month, aiming to reach Lake Atitlan, more than 80km from Xela. We had sunny skies and the twin peaks of Santa María and Santiaguito to look back on as we climbed a short section on the Interamericana highway to its highest point, and then rolled down towards the lake picking up a police escort along the way.

"I am arresting you for crimes against facial hair"...These guys were either bored on a Sunday afternoon or else genuinely concerned for the welfare of cycling tourists; whichever it was they did a thorough check on our details, sternly warned us that the road ahead could be dangerous and offered to escort us to the village on the the lake that we were headed for. We accepted their offer and sheepishly rode into San Marcos behind their cruiser.

Movement between the villages and towns dotted around Lake Atitlan is easiest by lancha and so we prepared to throw the bikes onto one of these little boats and move on to Santa Cruz for our second day on the lake.

We arrived at Santa Cruz and checked in to a beautiful lakeside retreat called Arca de Noe, in sight of Volcan San Pedro. James had stayed here a few times more than ten years previously, whilst he was living in Guatemala City and remembered it as a peaceful, beautiful place.

He was right. The perfect place to sit amongst the flowers, sip strong coffee, gaze at the volcano, listen to the sounds of the lake and...........relax.

We liked Arca de Noe so much we couldn't help ourselves and stayed an unplanned extra day - thank you to my wonderful, generous family who put birthday presents into my bank account, you paid for our lovely second night here! We ate delicious homemade pasta made by the manager Christian, who is originally from Patagonia, and has kindly offered to hook us up with friends and family of his when we reach Argentina. We're already looking forward to meeting his contacts somewhere along the road.

After our difficulties with dirt roads and hills before arriving in Xela, we decided to look the problem in the face and tackle a few on our way between Lake Atitlan and Antigua to make sure we hadn't become allergic.

This great dirt track was perfect, tough but not too steep with beautiful views and then a great descent.

Reaching Patzicía, we found there were no cheap hotels but someone recommended we have a chat with the guys at the local fire station. Next thing we know we're all set up with a comfy bed in one of their dorms and use of their kitchen facilities....

Arriving in Antigua, we went to find Dave, who James knew from his previous time in Guatemala; they volunteered at the same charity and then cycled from Guatemala City to Panama together. Dave now runs his own motorbike touring company out of Antigua and in his spare time, likes to zoom around on this crazy trike that he recently picked up from West Virginia. He's heading down to Colombia on it this summer, so we expect to be looking out for this orange beast along the road in a few weeks' time.

The tourist police compound in Antigua gave us chance to catch up on some washing, to dry out our stuff and enjoy some free camping in the heart of Guatemala's most touristy city.

Joined now by Nathan, a British touring cyclist who we met in Xela, we left Antigua and set off with excitment towards the Honduras border...or so we thought. It was a lovely ride but our first day out of Antigua was a non starter. It saw us take a 10km wrong turn, and then be turned back on the correct road because it was too dangerous and so we ended up back in Antigua where we had started.

The next day everything went a little more smoothly and we took a long steady climb out of Antigua by a different road. Lunching on a roundabout, and fuelled by Coca Cola as always, we ended the day in a shabby hotel in San Juan Pinula, to celebrate Nate's birthday with takeaway pizza and a couple of cold Guatemalan beers.

Climbing out of Mataquescuintla (yeah, try saying that after a few cans of Strongbow!), we found this turkey chick by the side of the road. He evidently thought he could fly and dropped off a high perch about ten feet above. Being a long time frustrated veterinarian, I scooped him up and returned him to his family.

This corner of Guatemala, up in the mountains, is beautiful. Our days here were all about getting up early to beat the lunchtime heat, cycling up big hills, wowing at marvellous views, stuffing ourselves on pan dulce, setting up camp or finding a cheap hotels and then seeking out newly discovered hula hoops...they're almost as good as the ones back home, but to my dismay, unfortunately they don't come in salt and vinegar flavour.

Our last day in Guatemala, headed for the Honduras border was going to be a big one and to make it we had to get up super early and couldn't really afford many stoppages or delays. Things didn't quite go to plan as punctures don't really tend respect your schedule; just half an hour into our ride, Nate found himself changing a puncture on the back wheel...while I helped out by reading my book...

Trying to get rid of the last of our Guatemalan Quetzales before we crossed the border, we bought some healthy and nutritious snacks: biscuits, an ice cream each and one more to share...I look worried because I am anticipating the terrible state of my teeth by the end of this trip if we keep up this routine of sugar based snacks.

Once into Honduras, we visited the ruins at Copán. The site was peaceful and well preserved. The ruins date back to AD250-900 and amazingly the beautiful detail and hieroglyphics remain.

The site at Copán is also home to lots of noisy macaws who are making the transition from a nearby bird sanctuary back into the wild. The flashes of colour from their vibrant feathers as they flew past was a stunning addition to the lush green canopy of the woods around the ruins.

The journey between Copán and our next big-ish stop at Gracias was an undulating and pretty ride. Through valleys and over rivers like this one.

Once in Gracias, James, sufferng from the heat of Central America finally succumbed and visited the barber for the first time in the year to get his locks chopped off. Here are the obligatory "before and after" shots. All I can say is "...thank goodness for that!"

A hot and steady climb out of Gracias and into the rolling green countryside. Our morning break in this little village was witnessed by no less than seven local children, the shopkeeper, two dogs and a chicken. All watched us munch on bananas, gobble up biscuits and guzzle down Coke as usual and then we set off again, with Nate and I accompanied by the kids who escorted/raced us to the village border line - the local school.

After an overnight stop camped in an ironmonger's workshop, we started a long climb up to Honduras' highest town, La Esperanza. Looking back at what we'd achieved halfway through the climb was a satisfying experience.

Unfortunately just a few minutes later, in what has also become part of our regular routine, and nastily interrupting the steady rhythm we'd acquired, we had stopped, removed my back wheel and set about fixing yet another puncture...this time thanks to a thin piece of wire on the side of the road that got stuck in my tyre.

A couple of days relaxing in La Esperanza and we were off again on one of the most enjoyable roads we've ridden in a while. A dirt road took us away from town along a quiet back route to the border with El Salvador. It was of course hot but through beautiful pine forest with wonderful views. A ride to remember.

Close to the border we stopped at a military settlement for the night. The soldiers generously invited us to pitch our tents in their lovely grassy field without telling us that it was the grazing area for two very large bulls. This one took a keen interest in my bike, leaving a slobbering trail of drool all over my handlebars. I was not impressed and we slept with anxiety for fear of being trodden on in the night....

...thankfully, we woke safe the next morning, bid farewell to the soldiers (and the bulls) and set off for El Salvador.

The border crossing was straightforward enough and we rolled into the nearby town of Perquín. Notorious as a base for guerilla troops during El Salvador's civil war, we visited a reconsutructed guerrilla camp for an introduction to this new country.

Little did we know that we'd only be spending 36 hours in El Salvador. We thought it would take us at least a day longer to make our short cut through the north east corner of the country but the roads were fast and either downhill or flat so we were through in no time. Thankfully our one and only morning there was a beautiful one with views of mountains and trees through clouds and sunshine.

With such little time, we squeezed in as many of El Salvador's pupusas as possible. Maize dough stuffed with cheese...beans... or beans or cheese...or cheese and beans (spot the theme?) - then cooked on a hot plate; great for our raging hunger. We ordered a stack of them to share before crossing the border back into Honduras.

The short time we spent in El Salvador was a little confusing money wise as their official currency is US dollars so we were reintroduced to familiar notes unexpectedly...dollars are apparently also more commonly used in Costa Rica and Panama so we can expect to use them again soon.

As I might have mentioned, we've been a bit hot. James' cycle computer confirmed what we already knew - just in case being drenched in sweat and eternally thirsty wasn't enough of a sign.

Back into Honduras from El Salvador and another crossing over another river - El Salvador on the left, Honduras on the right...

Our second time in Honduras was really mostly about making our way to Nicaragua. We had no option here but to take the Interamericana, the main route through Central America for heavy freight. The landscape has changed so much within the last week and now we're down at sea level and the roads are flat, busy, narrow and pretty boring....and of course hot! We searched for shade in bus stops and looked back to those dirt days in Guatemala and Honduras with fond memories.

Sarah

 

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