< Chiapas | Honduras >



Having successfully accomplished my river based infiltration of Guatemalan soil, I set about reconnoitering the local currency and women, talking to the locals and trying generally to get the feel of the country which I just entered: I watched a soccer game, drank very affordable soda, and changed pesos at very competitve rates. I also managed to acquire the travel documents to allow me to be in Guatemala legally, got a hotel room whose quality matched the bargain-basement price I paid for it, and set my clothes out to dry from the refreshing, but ladening rain of a couple days prior.

And for the riding. 60km across flat or nearly flat dirt road with drifting patches of ridability until abruptly pavement started 7km outside of Las Cruces. Going from dirt to pavement was a bit of a shock, because suddenly everything felt too still and quiet. But I was glad to be able to make several km/h faster with no additional effort. I ended my first day of riding by taking a car-ferry powered by an outboard motor across a river and into the town of Sayaxché. The room I got there rivaled the previous room in terms of both quality and price.

Following the suggestion of a webpage my companion came across, we decided to head that day to Fray Bartolomé de las Casas. I took it as a good omen that it shared so much of its name with San Cristobal de las Casas, and so didn’t expect the backwater pit that it was. It didn’t help that the city was suffering a power outage the day I arrived, nor that I had to ride over 25km of bone compressing rock road to get there.

The next day was worse, however. Climbing over grades that were designed to test the souls of men, with a dirt surface that seemed to be taken from a river bottom and fixed into the earth at wholly inappropriate angles, it took me eight hours to travel 60km. When I finally saw pavement again at the junction to Languín, I shed a few tears of joy.

All along that road, I traveled through native villages and farms. When I would pass a rural school, one or more children would shout out “Gringo! Gringo! Gringo!”, attracting their friends and siblings who would join in the cry. I found it either endearing or infuriating depending on the grade I was struggling up and the age of the child doing the shouting. Several times groups of children would run along my bike shouting what I like to believe were words of encouragement in their local language as I crawled up some stretch of the road. I did enjoy that…

When I reached the junction where the pavement began, it was just before 4pm. I quickly ate as much as I could, and resolved that if I rode as hard as I was able, I would be able to ride the final 50km into Coban before it became too dark and dangerous to ride. Damn, but I did my best to make it. I made it about 4 miles from town before I decided to throw in the towel and stop at a hotel I came across.

And lucky that I did. The proprietor of the hotel used to race bicycles in Guatemala in the late 70s, lived in Seattle, and had a sister in Fremont, California. Over this common bond we discussed bicycling, bicycling in Guatemala, the things I should see and do while I was here, and the places I should go. I finally had an idea of how I wanted to spend my time in Guatemala, and was greatly relieved. Before entering the country I basically only knew that they exported bananas and coffee, had a large Mayan population, had a currency called the Quetzal and spoke Spanish (generally). But now I had an idea of what was what, and it felt pretty good.

The next day, I sampled some delicious coffee, finally got a haircut (the last was four months ago), did my laundry, and even rode the remaining four miles to Coban. And it was good.

While in Coban, I came across the opportunity to take a trek through the jungle and learn some ethnobotany. While the trek failed to teach me very much ethnobotany, I learned some words in Quiche, got to play with some wonderful Mayan children (who didn’t yell gringo every time they saw me), and see the rare quetzal, which is the national bird of Guatemala. I also got to eat the first corn tortillas that I found absolutely delicious, and final understand how a people could base their diet on them.

The road out of Cobán refined my concept of what the worst possible road could be like. I found that my legs were not nearly as fit as I had imagined, as I struggled up 15% and greater grades. Finding the current ones lacking in potency, I invented new swear-words to call the Guatemalan road engineers who laid out the road they way they did. But after two and a half days of grueling riding which included my chain and other minor components of my bicycle breaking due shaking caused by the roughness of the road, I arrived at Lago de Atitlan.

And it is amazing. Three volcanoes rising 5000 to 6000 feet out of the lake and water that is clear, cool and refreshing made it the perfect place to rest and recuperate while Semana Santa finished up and all the crazy drivers returned to their hamlets and villages. While at Lago de Atitlan, I stayed at a campground populated by Sardinian circus performers, ex-pat hippies, and a dog who recently became the proud mother of six puppies. With an open-air kitchen and very good communal space, I collaborated with other residents to cook up fantastic meals that were nearly able to fill me up. And it was good.

The road out of Lago de Atitlan was as windy and steep as ever, but refreshed mentally and physically by four days rest by the lake, the riding to Antigua never seemed as challenging as before.

While descending into Antigua, the road surface finally became smooth enough, and the curves unwound just enough that I could finally take advantage of the steepness of the terrain to go for a new trip speed record. I topped out at 50 mph, and it felt wonderful.

While in Antigua I tried to go on a tour up to an active volcano, but the bus never showed up to take me. Later, I tried to go on a tour of a coffee plantation (a subject which I’ve become increasingly interested in while riding through Guatemala), but again the bus never showed up. I realized that I had bad luck with buses at that point and threw in the towel on arranging any more tours.

Perhaps it’s for the best. I feel scared for the passengers of the buses that careen around the corners up and down cliffsides, knowing that it is only luck that keeps them on this side of the great beyond.

I made good time from Antigua to Guatemala City, and after working my way through for an hour and a half, finally found myself on the other side. What greeted me, to my utmost delight, was a 13 mile downhill into Tierra Caliente. I finally managed to end that day just after dark in the abysmal pit of El Rancho.

The next day I woke up very early to beat the heat of the day, and rode to Rio Hondo. There I fulfilled my promise to call Gustavo (the man I met in Carcha who invited me to stay at his house along the Rio Dulce). Everything was still go for me to stay there, which was a great relief.

The next day I did about the same thing as the day before, but ended at Quiriguá, which is a small town next to the Mayan ruins of the same name. The ruins themselves couldn’t compare to what I’d already been priviledged to see here and in Mexico, but what made the site very interested were the giant stellae (pillars with carved images and hieroglyphics). After a suitable period of staring at the likenesses of Mayan kings from thirteen centuries past, I made my way back to town and called it quits for any further activity (the heat makes me angry and sleepy).

Finally the day after, I arrived in Rio Dulce found a man named El Negro as I was instructed to do. Told him I knew Gustavo and needed him to help me get to Gustavo’s house, and then set about acquiring the various provisions I would need to stay there (food, food, food, and… more food).

The launcha I took town the river insisted on a 25 Quetzal surcharge to carry my bicycle, and then during the trip itself probably caused another 100 Quetzales worth of damage to my bicycle (I have no idea how to value my labor at this point). The way it did it was this: It tied my bike to the interior of the launcha (good), then piled several very heavy traveler’s backpacks on top of my bike (no good). Then it zoomed down the river jumping over every wave. At each bounce the backpacks would come pounding down on my bike causing more damage and more internal crying on my part.

But eventually we arrived, I set to work doing what repairs I could in a house that his half over the water (absolutely wonderful by the by), and then set about turning all the food I bought into poo. And after a fabulous time of relaxation, where I was about to use their canoe to paddle around the river, and their hammock to swing back and forth for uncountable hours, I hailed a passing launcha and headed to Lívingston. Lívingston is a town on the Carribbean coast of Guatemala, and when I arrived there I had to keep repeating to myself that I’d actually managed to travel from the Arctic ocean to the Carribean. I just wasn’t prepared for the opportunites for relaxation and tropical decadence.

After a day in Livingston, I decided that I needed to either leave then or never, and so took the ferry over to Puerto Barrios. It had wonderful views of the sea, and I was able to watch a cruise ship sail out as I ate dinner. But other than that, I was glad to leave it as fast as possible.

And so I did. And after 25 short miles through banana and palm plantations, I found myself at the Honduran border, crossing the border, and finally in Honduras. And that ends this section.

< Chiapas | Honduras >