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.