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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6 Responses to “Hitting the wall”

  1. Erin Says:

    You both are amazing! I love reading your stories and have told many of my friends about your blog. I wish you all the best on your journey. Cheers to you both and to your total awesomeness!

    [Reply]

    james Reply:

    Erin! Great to hear from you! Hope all is good in SLO and the nursing is going well? We were just talking about the great time we had with you the other day…and dreaming about your delicious bangers n mash as we tucked into plain old rice and beans – happy memories! Keep in touch, J&S x

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  2. skip Says:

    It’s about time, we were starting to think you are immortals. Fantastic narrative from a very difficult time in the trip. Glad you both have a sense of humor. When Nancy and I were recently climbing some absurd rocky track I thought “at least I don’t have a 75 lb. bike”
    You are both inspirational, and the photos get better and better.
    Good thoughts go your way all the time,
    Regards, Skip

    [Reply]

  3. Charlotte Lowry Says:

    Awesome. Enjoy it you guys. XX

    [Reply]

    Sarah Reply:

    Hey Charlotte! Thinking of you often here in Central America as there are so many beautiful butterflies…you’d love it! Hope all is well with you…are you still at RSPB? Keep smiling and keep in touch! Sxxx

    [Reply]

  4. Edgimundo Says:

    I care you big cheaters! 2Tone, I always suspected you were a big sissy…

    [Reply]

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