May 1-6, 2016
We stayed three nights with Pepe and his parents, who were sweet enough to bring the rest of our stuff from the city. He also took us down the other side of the mountains to some of the local beaches and a taste of the insane heat we had to look forward to once we left his place.
We really fell in love with his little village, Comasagua. The Cordillera is one of those special places on Earth.
May 3, 2016
We had a fantastic road down to the coast, although it would have been nice to have the sweet views we’d gotten from the car the other day. Here is a little video for you to see the roads we live for on this trip. This is the payoff for all the sweat and pain.
We broke through the clouds near the bottom of our descent, but that just meant we’d broken into where the clouds were dispatching their load in prodigious quantities and we were promptly soaked. We didn’t really care though because by this point we were low enough to feel the heat of the coast and it felt good. It was also our first good drenching of the trip and I’m happy to say that our wet weather gear held up admirably. In fact, we’d been very lucky with weather on this ride. The few fully rainy days have conveniently coincided with days off and the only other time I can remember riding more than a few minutes in rain was way back in Washington a year and a half back. The key piece of equipment was a mudguard Brandy had fabricated from an old bike tube to stretch from my water bottle cage to just above the fork. My old mudguards had kept the water out of my face, but failed to protect my water bottle, so every time we rode through any bit of moisture, the mouth of my bottle would be caked in road crud. The rainy season was beginning and we’d see plenty showers over the next few months. Luckily the rain usually comes in the hot, hot afternoon, and often only in localized deluges, so most days were still good riding days.
After losing something like 4,200 feet (1,300 m), we were back on the coast, riding there for the first time since Oaxaca. After waiting out the rest of the downpour in a cafe in Tunco, we got out onto the Litoral (coast road) that we would follow through the rest of the country, bathing in the kind of sweltering heat we hadn’t felt yet on this trip. The coast road was flat, straight and conveniently just out of sight of the actual coast, so really rather dull. At least there was generally a nice wide shoulder and a surprising amount of canopy shade for a highway. In fact, I was amazed by the quantities of monstrous trees all over El Salvador. Even the trees that didn’t have elephant-sized trunks had high, sprawling canopies.
We stopped at a delicious family pupusa restaurant on the edge of San Luis Talpa and they let us set up our hammocks in their covered dining room and even gave us breakfast in the morning. Unfortunately their ridiculous dogs kept us up barking all night long. I think that, despite spending all evening hanging out and petting them, they were stupid enough to have forgotten who we were and were actually barking at us, but cowardly from around the corner of the house.
May 4, 2016
The heat finally succeeded where all else has failed with respect to getting us out of bed EARLY to get in some miles before it got too bad.
Our outdated map didn’t show it, but the Carretera Litoral is split into two parallel roads for much of the length – the highway and the old road. We started off on the vieja (old road) but it was much more hilly than we’d been hoping, so after scoring some pupusas at a roadside stand we took a pretty downhill connecting road to the highway. I was concerned that it would be a massive divided expressway with no shade and tons of traffic like the piece of junk we’d been on before climbing the Cordillera Balsa, but it turned out to be a beautiful two-lane highway with massive, well-paved shoulders with tons of beautiful huge trees creating canopy tunnels and lots of shade. There was a lot of traffic, but with the shoulders’ it wasn’t much of a problem.
We came across a section of little mango stands. They were each piled with these big red mangos. I wanted to try them, but they were still too expensive so I got some other ones that were 3 for $2.50 or $0.75 each… Umm, ok, I’ll take two then? There were something like twenty stands in a row and by the time we got to the last stand I had to get one of the big reds. Brandy continued on to the gas station just ahead because she needed to get into the A/C ASAP. I’d chosen the right stand because the guys were super friendly and the price was the cheapest I’d seen yet, two for a buck. We talked about the different mango varieties for a while because I’d been noticing several new ones in El Salvador. I bought a couple of the reds and the guy gave me another small one (sud variety) for free so I could try that one as well. When I got to the gas station I saw Brandy standing in the window waiting for me. It was just a tiny convenience store without anywhere to sit and she’d been stuck in there plastered against the chips while I’d been yacking with the mango dudes. A guy selling belts outside told us there was another station several km ahead, but there was one literally within sight just down the road. Unfortunately, the convenience store section wasn’t finished yet, so we were out of luck. The guard suggested we take the connector road up toward town where we’d find a shopping plaza. We rode all the way uphill to the carretera vieja without finding any plaza, but finally encountered two gas stations. The first was another bust as it only had a giant carwash, but the second one FINALLY had a couple puny tables where we could chow a mango and guzzle some cold water.
Not more than a mile down the highway after the junction was yet another gas station so we hadn’t needed to waste our time going all the way up the hill into town after all. It was convenient though because not more than a moment after we’d given each other the WTF look, it started to pour rain. There were huge black clouds right in front of us, so we were afforded the opportunity to give this one a look, thus completing our regional gas station tour! We snagged the single table that was sitting lonely in an expansive floor space that could have accommodated six or seven and settled in for over an hour eating cookies and drinking moka from a vending machine. The rain gave us a chance to finish our game of rummy from the night before and I absolutely crushed Brandy.
When it finally started to lighten up the cloud was still looming in front of us, but we decided to get moving a bit anyway. We had a nice bit of downhill, but it wasn’t long before it started pissing it down again. We were about to pull into an overhang where a bunch of motorcyclists were chilling, but it was down in a ditch and the sky seemed a bit lighter ahead so I suggested we just push through. We were already drenched anyway and the cloud above us wasn’t budging anytime soon. The rain quickly slowed to a drizzle as we moved out from under the cloud and then suddenly the pavement was bone dry as if it hadn’t rained in months.
The church family was wonderful and as seems to be happening a lot here, went way above and beyond by feeding us an excellent dinner. A little neighbor kid was really interested in us and when he found out we liked mangos he kept bringing us fruit from the nearby trees. The family dogs were seriously a couple of dim bulbs, but at least they knew enough not to bark at us all night.
May 5, 2016
The church conveniently has service every day at the insane hour of 5:00 AM, so we didn’t have to worry about not getting up early. It was a very unique service. It was more like a group prayer session where a bunch of old ladies and only one old man kneeled down on the floor with their heads on chairs praying out loud for an hour.
Usulutan is one of the larger cities of the Orient and it was bustling when we arrived looking for breakfast. There were people and buses everywhere and even a guy trying to lead a pig across the road. A car was coming so he tried to rush it and of course the pig told him to shove off and stopped short in the middle of the road. The guy then yanked on the rope, which was tied around the pig’s rear legs, so he started dragging it backwards while the pig squealed angrily.
We have been looking for a replacement for the stripped bolt on Brandy’s front rack with no success, until we came across a hardware store that is actually a bolt and screw store. The kid who worked there spoke pretty decent English, or at least, he knew how to say bolt and nut and some other work-related things, but had a little more trouble when I asked some other questions. I asked the guys at the shop for where would be a good place for breakfast and they suggested Wendy’s. Do people actually think that is a good place for food, or do they just assume gringos eat that crap? Luckily we came across a nicer buffet-style place and didn’t have to compromise our happiness. We got two big plates of eggs, beans, rice, fried plantains and coffees for $5.00.
The highway is very busy with lots of speeding truck traffic, but the surface is in great condition and the huge shoulder was surprisingly nice and clean, so we didn’t have any problems. I started feeling a bit bored with the traveling today, wondering what we’re doing out here. The vegetation was nice and we had some decent views of cloud-shrouded volcanoes set behind vivid green fields, but otherwise the ride was rather uninspiring. It’s been nice to be riding a bit of flat road for a while, but it gets somewhat monotonous, especially with how densely populated the area is. I can’t even guess how many flat fix places we’ve passed. The rain clouds we’ve been enjoying/dodging the past couple days mostly disappeared today and we were treated to much higher temps in the direct sun.
We’ve gotten into a groove of stopping every ten miles or so for a beverage or whatever to cool off a bit. Our next stop was a cute looking roadside restaurant, like are common in Mexico. We hadn’t seen too many of these until we crossed into the Oriente. We picked up a couple refreshing OJs on ice for a buck each and Brandy took a nap in the hammock. Brandy is falling in love with the standard El Salvador hammocks. They are much better than the Mexican ones. Again we had some uneventful riding and I spent much of the time musing on the different vegetation here. There are a lot of jocote bushes along the side of the highway, but nobody picks up the fruits because these jocotes are different and very acidic. There is another fruit that we’ve been seeing a lot coming from a tree. It’s a bright yellow fruit the size and shape of a green grape, but is much tougher and shoots out to the side when you run over it at the appropriate angle. And of course, there are the massive, beautiful shady trees with thick branching trunks and astounding canopy – Conacaste and careto?
We took another stop at a Puma gas station to get some A/C action and a gallon of cold water for a buck. I also had to try out the local garbage and had a whatever Cola and a packet of Bridge wafers, fresa (strawberry) flavor of course. The cola wasn’t as bad as the Guatemalan one, but it still had the aspertamey barfy flavor, despite listing sugar as the sweetener. The wafers were different than the Cremax from Mexico, but were delicious in a different, more classy way. There were some women and little girls selling jocotes in front of the gas station and one of the girls was captivated by us. She came around asking questions when we arrived and then stood staring in the window at us smiling when she wasn’t selling fruit.
I figured we had a few more kms to go before the junction where we’d head south into the big climb of the day, but it turns out the gas station was only about 100 meters from the roundabout. Happily all of the annoying trucks and most of the traffic headed left toward the Panamerican and left the litoral in relative peace, which was good because we needed some peace to deal with the effort of an 8 km climb in the mid-afternoon heat. There was a guy across the street chilling in a hammock at one of our rest stops and we were compelling enough to actually get out of the hammock and cross the road! I can’t even imagine what would be needed to get one of us out of a hot afternoon hammock nap. Perhaps an ice cream cart. He chatted with us a bit and, as seems to be the case with everyone we talk to here, eventually got into talking about “delinquencia,” which here seems to refer to gangs, extortion, robbery, etc. It’s a huge problem right now and everyone is affected. He told us that there is a lot of extortion and it’s so bad that a lot of his friends have left to the United States. Much of the gang problem began during the civil war (US involved, of course) when huge portions of the population fled to the US for asylum, but then ended up in ghettos in L.A. and other cities. Some of the younger generation started gangs and were then deported back to El Salvador where they thrived in the lawlessness and have since managed to become powerful. People here ask us if we’re afraid of the delinquencia, but we feel the same way about it as we did in Mexico. We are very aware of the fact that there are a lot of people who could be desperate enough to rob us, but also know that we are probably not at very high risk for violence. In fact, several people have told us that being gringo is a bit of a green card and that the gangsters generally won’t mess with us.
We arrived at the home of our Warm Showers host around 3:00 PM and were greeted by Jose’s wife and immediately shown the shower. She’s done this before. They do not have duchas calientes, but we wouldn’t have wanted one if they did. In fact, it was so hot that we showered again after it got dark because napping in a hammock all afternoon was so much effort that we’d gotten all sweaty again. I’m talking a lot about the heat because it is in reality quite sweltering, but I’ve been impressed by how well I’ve been able to handle it considering how much I hate being hot and how I turned into a little baby back in the Huasteca Potosoní in Mexico. I’ve been riding in my sandals since we got to El Salvador and that has surely helped. My feet haven’t gotten totally roasted like I’d expected, and it’s fantastic not to have to decide between digging out my sandals or sitting in boiling sweat crucibles whenever we stop. There are no gruesome socks to deal with either. The downside is that I am much more susceptible to biting insects and something really took a biting to me last night at the church. They felt like fire ants, but were much smaller than any I’ve seen before and I couldn’t actually see them in the semi-darkness. I can sure see the bites though; there are massive welts all over my feet. Luckily there have been almost zero mosquitoes around since we’ve gotten to the coast, leaving the little fascists that tormented me in Comasagua. We’ve even been able to sleep with the hammock nets unzipped.
We spent two nights hammocking in the framed-out extra rooms being built at Jose’s house. He told us how he’d built up his business (two or three stores in a nearby city) over the past several years from nothing. We asked if he’d had to deal with any extortion or any problems with gangs and he told us that “they” (unnamed members of the community) had eliminated the gangs in the area by taking out the top guy and then just killing them one by one until the lower guys just ran away. It’s a small area and everyone knows everyone else, so if someone gets involved with that stuff the whole community knows about it and so it’s easy to just kill them. No problem.
May 6, 2016
Again, going above the call of duty, he suggested we take his car the next day to go check out some of the local beaches.
May 7, 2016
After the Warm Showers stay we had a relatively short ride to La Union where we could catch the ferry to Nicaragua if we wanted – we still hadn’t decided what was next. La Union is on a huge bay with El Salvador and Nicaragua on opposite shores. Honduras has a narrow strip of land that drops down between the two countries to also access the Pacific at the top of this bay. There is a ferry across that would have skipped Honduras. It could have been a cool way to go, but we didn’t want to be so close and then skip riding in Honduras altogether. We had also been considering taking a detour in Honduras and riding to an island in the bay and/or turning inland to go through Tegucigalpa so we could get a little more riding in that country. In the end we decided to do what most people do and make a quick ride across the little strip. Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua have been moving towards greater unity and created the C-4 visa agreement that theoretically would allow for greater movement between the countries. For us it means we only have 90 days total to visit all four countries. We’d used up a lot of that in Guatemala and wanted to be able to take our time through Nicaragua, so we dispensed with the Honduras detours, although we waited until the very last minute to decide that.
We stopped at a roadside stand, but she didn’t have any pupusas. We were going to bail, but decided to try her bread with potatoes, which turned out to be little French breads with a bit of pan fried potato cubes spread inside. They were actually rather tasty and for a quarter, the price was right. It’s good we filled up on snacks. Our host had told us that we’d have no problem finding breakfast today, and if he meant once we got to our destination, he’d have been right. Otherwise, there wasn’t much of anything around aside from the potato lady, to our great pleasure.
We had been hoping to find a truck taxi to take us with our bikes up to a nearby volcano where we could camp and then ride down the next day. We asked all around but everyone wanted outlandish amounts to take us up, so we just decided to get a hotel and GTFO the next day. One of the guys at the square was a Salvadoran who grew up in New York and was visiting for a couple weeks. He insisted on showing us to the “best place in town”. He assured us that it was very clean. It’s where he always went to cheat on his wife. It was good enough for the likes of us and indeed, the women who ran the place were assiduous about keeping the joint clean. They were scrubbing out the drainage culvert in the garage/lobby when we arrived.
After spending so much time in Guatemala we were starting to feel a bit of time constraint so we hopped on a bus from Guatemala City to San Salvador in order to meet some friends of my mother who work for the embassy there before they went back to the States for vacation. Deanne, Vic and their kids were wonderful hosts and treated us to a taste of home in their truly gringo-style house where we were able to enjoy luxuries such as a massive fridge and flushing toilet paper. As an embassy family, they are required to live in special posh housing in the burbs. We had a laugh together about the huge amounts of security required for government staff housing, but of course if something happened to someone because of a supposed lapse in security, there would be such a sh!t storm. We left at the same time as they did and they had to have a guy come do a walk-through to make sure that all the security features were intact and that nobody was lurking around in the closets.
I know we took some additional photos while there, but they seem to have vanished.
After saying goodbye to our new friends, we wheeled over to Santa Tecla, a legit village that has been subsumed into the city by the engulfing suburban barf. The plan was to leave most of our crap in Santa Tecla with brothers Pepe and Hector whom I’d met in my Vipassana course in Guatemala. That lightened us up for a loop tour of some of the countryside we’d skipped on the bus.
April 28, 2016
Our first day out of the city would take us down an unearned descent for several miles to Joyas de Ceren. A car passed us slowly a couple km before the park and pulled over. Usually if people want us to stop, they’ll get out or wave out the window, but these two didn’t. We rolled past, but I somehow realized that was what they wanted, but were perhaps too shy, so we turned around. The sweet mother and her daughter wanted to chat and then handed us some cold sodas and snacks.
The pre-hispanic ruins of Joyas de Ceren are known as the “Pompeii of the Americas”. They were created when a nearby volcano erupted and buried this Mayan village in ash, which preserved the site. There was little warning, but unlike Pompeii, the inhabitants had just enough time to escape, although a duck was found tied up in the corner of a house.
Contrary to what we’d heard we were unable to camp at the ruins, but there was a balneareo nearby where we could pitch up for a few bucks and cool off in the pools to boot. The best part was having a roof so we didn’t have to use the stifling rain fly.
April 29, 2016
We took some farm roads out of Joyas the next day. It was a great ride, even if I was a bit on edge because the area seemed a bit depressed and there were some really sleazy guys watching us entering the dirt roads.
We chatted with this boisterous crew while breakfasting at a roadside shack and they insisted on paying. Pepe’s neighbor had given me a sort of necklace with two wood cylinders. I hadn’t understood what he said it was, but that he felt I should have it because of our trip. One of the guys asked if I knew what it was and the others said they were earplugs (horribly uncomfortable and dangerous earplugs). He called them fools and tried to explain, saying multiple times that it had something to do with Bear Grylls. It took a while before I finally understood he was saying, “escout”. Oh, scouts! I had a lot of difficulty in El Salvador because they use a lot of English words, but in a thick accent and with extra vowels. Apparently these wood pieces are difficult to get in scouts because you need to do something badass, so I am honored that their neighbor had felt I was worthy, although I’m not sure it’s justified. It’s just a bike ride.
We had a few hours to kill before bedtime so we went to hang out at the restaurant that was blasting Bob Marley rather than Banda. The proprietor was an eccentric but friendly guy who gave us gifts, showed off his decorations and gave us facials because, why not? There were also a couple of drunk guys there, one of whom kept telling us how he loved American music, especially once the Marley CD gave way to the cheesy 80’s power ballads.
April 30, 2016
We’d unwittingly gone to the wrong side of the lake so we annoyingly had even more miles on what would be a long-ish day, given the big climb to the top of the Cordillera Balsa mountain range at the end.
After that beautiful glamour shot road we were stuck riding for several miles on a very unpleasant highway with a worthless shoulder and plenty of fools. At least it was mostly downhill so it went quickly. We then turned off onto another small road that would take us up a long, steep climb to the top of the Cordillera Balsa. I had kind of underestimated/understated the extent of the climb while describing the day to Brandy. I may or may not have said something like, “well, we have a bit of a climb. It’s after 30 miles of riding, but I don’t think it’s too bad…”
April 7, 2016
Our next folly after the kayaking jubilee was Volcán Acatenango. Acatenango, at 13,041 ft (3,975 m) is the third highest mountain in Central America. Its great views and proximity to Antigua has long made it a popular hiking destination, but it is especially attractive now because its sister volcano, Fuego, is extremely active and hikers can get great views of the action from the summit.
The topography in the Guatemala highlands is ludicrous. It’s really beautiful, but all the land seems to be at a 45-degree angle. We entered the country on the Panamericana Highway, so the grades weren’t too bad, just a few sustained 8% ers, but once we got onto the back roads, whew! We thought the climb out of the lake would be tough because it’s a huge caldera, so entirely surrounded by huge cliffs and mountains, but that was actually one of the easier parts, just under 10 miles of consistent climbing.
Shortly after clearing the rim of the caldera we dropped into a deep gorge to a river where some women were washing clothes and then had to climb right back out of it on roads with grades often far exceeding 10%. This could have been ok but the pavement was crumbling with huge sand and dust pits everywhere. Our heavy loads make riding this kind of surface almost impossible, so we ended up pushing a lot. Our energy was totally sapped and we had to take several breaks and even considered hitchhiking. We kept going up and down and started looking for a place to camp, but of course any bit of flat land in these parts is in use. We kept at it but then started up a long climb and when we rounded a corner and saw a road cut way above us with tiny little trucks that looked like Matchbox cars, we knew we were done, even though we were only a couple miles from the next town. Luckily this gorge was completely uninhabited and the only sign of use was some woodcutting of the pine forest and a few small coffee groves. We managed to find a very nice little spot on an overgrown and unused footpath that was completely hidden from the road. It was wonderful and we were in bed by 8:30.
April 8, 2016
We were hoping this day would be easier, and yes, we were quickly able to make the climb out to the town of Patzún and sudden civilization and quaint farm lanes, but immediately after town we dropped into yet another gorge for more climbing. We weren’t really expecting this little gorge and the climb out was tough on the hurting legs before we got to enjoy the nice flat, straight road into Patzicia. The cosmos must have misread my thoughts as saying, ‘too flat, fire up the wind!’ because any time we were on a flat stretch, we had a fierce headwind. We had our first view of the twin volcanoes Acatenango through a gap in the terrain as we approached town, and they were beautiful. We stopped in Patzicia and started thinking that maybe we should find a hotel so that we could rest the legs. Unfortunately the only places in town were a couple of sleazy auto-hotels on the nearby Interamericana. Auto-hotels are the kind of place where you rent by the hour and each room has its own garage so nobody can see your car there. We checked them out nonetheless, but we weren’t about to pay 100Q for a windowless dungeon, so we went back to the center of town and took a good break in the central plaza.
We had another solid climb out of town, albeit only for a couple miles, and then it was a brake roasting descent down the side of a steep mountain. We were barreling down and around a corner and boom! there was Acatenango looming massively in front of us. It looked unbelievably huge, like a wall of land filling the entire sky. We both gasped. When we stopped a little later the view became proportionally more believable and we realized that it must have been the ridiculous grade we were descending that had made it appear to belong in some sci-fi story like Ringworld. At the bottom we hit a couple more outrageously steep, but brief climbs that tested our limits. You know you’re about done when you stop three times on a quarter-mile climb. We stopped at a large coffee finca to ask if we could camp. The manager agreed, but the spot she offered was a bit too rustic for even our tastes. She then verified that there was a hotel in Acatenango and that it was only 2 km away! and that it was mostly flat. We know not to trust locals with distances, hills, etc, but we’ve realized that we choose to believe them when they tell us what we want to hear. Luckily this was the rare piece of accurate info we’ve received and we arrived in no time. The hotel was cheap (80Q / $11) and lovely, so we decided to take a day off to rest the legs before hitting the volcano. The owner is this really charismatic 70 year-old gringo, known locally as the Gringo Loco, and we spent the evening hanging out with him and a couple doctors from Antigua drinking beer, watching Fuego erupt and listening to Phish. We’ve found people down here to be more receptive to Phish. They don’t have any silly preconceived notions and are simply excited for someone to share their favorite band with them and most people really enjoy it. Karl Denson and Galactic have also been very well received.
April 9, 2016
We used our day off to ride out with the Gringo Loco to some volcanic hot spring baths and tenderize the poor muscles and chill out about town. We also discovered something that we feel like fools for not having before – choco-bananas! They take frozen bananas on a stick and dip them in chocolate sauce. F##k quinoa, they’re the perfect food! They are phenomenal and cost only 1 quetzal (~12 cents). We will eat them every day until we cannot find them again.
April 10, 2016
We chose to give our legs a rest and catch a chicken bus up to the trailhead. Gringo Loco gave us directions to find a lovely family who would hold on to our stuff and although they never got his message that we were coming, they took us in with a huge smile and made us feel very welcome.
There is not much to say about the hike except that it was four and a half hours trudging up the side of a friggin’ volcano on a surface that alternated between six-inch deep volcanic powder and hard-packed dirt with a nice thin layer small loose stones. Regardless of the surface, dust was constantly blowing in our faces. It was tiring, but really beautiful as we passed through the milpa (corn fields) on the shoulders, through the dense cloud forest and then into the thin pine forest above the clouds. Near the end of the hike as we were traversing Acatenango below the summit we began hearing the booms and feeling the shaking from Fuegos eruptions. Suddenly we rounded a corner and there it was, spewing volumes of smoke and giant boulders into the air.
When we got to the campsites on the back of the mountain there was one other group set up. The guide, Oscar, tried to tell us that the campsites were private, but that we could camp with them. Obviously the campsites in the national park are not private, as any local will tell you, but we figured it would be nice to hang out with some others and not build our own fire. Oscar was friendly and shared hot chocolate and tortillas with us and offered to help set up our tent, which we declined. Of course we later discovered that his interest in our tent was so that he could rob us while we were hanging out at the fire with the others. Luckily we hadn’t left anything really valuable in there and he only got Brandy’s sunglasses, but it was quite disheartening so soon after the previous robbery.
We didn’t discover the missing glasses until the morning, so our evening was unmarred as we sat around the fire chatting with our new friends watching Fuego erupting every few minutes. It was even more impressive at night. We couldn’t tell during the day, but those massive stones were glowing hot when they shot out. At night we were treated to geysers of bright orange blasting out the top and showering down the mountainside. Each eruption shook the ground under our butts and rumbled like thunder.
April 11, 2016 etc.
We stayed up “late” chatting with one of the other travelers and elected to skip the sunrise at the summit which would have required packing up at 3:00 AM and hiking an hour up steep, loose sand. We enjoyed a beautiful sunrise out the front door of our tent from the warmth of our sleeping bags and indulged in a couple more hours of sleep. When we finally got up and discovered the missing sunglasses we became paranoid that Oscar had called his buddies to mug us on the trail, so I spent the slog to the top looking ahead for people peeping out from rocks and trees. It was a hump up there, but definitely worth it for the great views.
We were pleased to not get mugged on the hike down, but it was slow going on the loose gravel that was even more treacherous in that direction. It was too late to ride by the time we got down, but the family who was holding on to our bikes let us sleep in an empty storage room they had. The next day we had a beautiful, mostly downhill ride to Maya Pedal, a non-profit that makes bike-powered machines and hosts cycle tourists, where we nursed our tattered legs for several days.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I wanted to get some more time with the lake. Brandy had been in San Pedro for two weeks studying Spanish, but I’d been away for ten days at a silent meditation course. So I can admit that this folly was entirely my doing. Somewhere in those ten days I came up with the silly idea of kayaking around the lake, so when I got back to San Pedro, I immediately set to finding someone who’d rent legit kayaks and stumbled upon Kayak Guatemala. Lee, the owner sent me a bunch of info about paddle times and lodging around the lake. With his advice we plotted a three-day course around about 2/3 of the lake.
*See end of post for logistical info
April 3, 2016
This was to be a tough trip. Aside from being cyclists whose upper bodies muscles have atrophied into withered, prune-like farces, the weather made some odd decisions to our detriment. The lake generally has rather consistent weather patterns. Usually it’s very calm in the morning with winds pouring in from the coast roughing it up in the afternoon. We camped at the kayak rental place and awoke at the crack of dawn on the first day to wind rustling the tent. We tried to delude ourselves into believing that it was just some inconsequential breeze that would have no effect on the lake, but when we got up we could see the water was extremely choppy. We used it as an excuse to sleep in a bit and take our time getting going. If afternoon conditions were already happening, there was no reason to rush to beat the afternoon. We were a bit concerned because we were crossing open water through the middle of the lake with 1.5-foot swells running crossways. Our kayaking experience was rather negligible and I wasn’t too excited about having to upright in those conditions if one of us dumped. We crossed in about two hours, and it was actually kind of fun, albeit a lot of work. The afternoon winds usually bring in lots of fog and clouds, but this morning seemed to be the opposite and we were given the consolation of the clearest day we’d seen yet, which meant we had views all around and were even able to see Fuego erupting in the distance.
We landed on a windward rocky beach and Brandy foundered as huge waves filled her boat and battered her as we struggled to pull the laden craft out and dump it. After a long break we struggled into a large bay where we were planning to go to a city called Santiago de Atitlán. We were just about to cross when we noticed a beautiful posada and decided to check out the price. The price was good enough, the place was beautiful and it saved us 20 minutes of choppy water. It was only about 12:30, but we were done. Luckily they had really awesome and reasonably priced food because we didn’t have any supplies, having planned on going to the mercado in Santiago. They even made us egg sandwiches for the morning, which was a lifesaver because there were no places to stop the following day. We spent most of the rest of the day napping or eating.
April 4, 2016
The second day out was a big one. Our destination was San Lucas at the very southeast end of the lake and almost exactly on the opposite side of the massive Volcán Tolimán. It is only about nine miles of paddling, but the afternoon winds come from behind San Lucas, so we needed to be off the water by noon in order to avoid fighting headwinds. This shore is also where all the Guatemalan “elite” built their fancy-pants lake homes, which means that pullout places without armed guards are scarce for the 5-6 hour paddle and there is absolutely nowhere to get supplies. When we put in we were disappointed with the lack of glass water as it was already a bit choppy at 6:00 AM, but it was way better than the previous day, and in reality it wasn’t that bad.
We had some nice paddling for the first half of the day, but the views were a bit lackluster. Being right under Tolimán, we couldn’t really see it and San Pedro and Atitlán were Blokused from view. One thing that was interesting about riding through ‘the Hamptons’ as the kayak rental guy described it, was that there was quite a bit of submerged wreckage from the tacky vacation properties. The lake has no surface outflow, so it rises and falls depending on rainfall and tectonic shifts. It had dropped quite a bit over the last century, but there were some very heavy and sustained rains a few years ago. The lake supposedly rose about 18 feet within five years, but we’re not finding any good solid info online. All we could find was that it dropped six feet in one month in 1976 after an earthquake. Visually it is obvious that the lake has come up many feet because there are a ton of submerged trees and structures around the edges of the lake, especially in front of rich people houses. It’s pretty neat seeing stairways that go right down into the water. It’s quite clear, so you can see them below you. We had some fun exploring a couple of the more extensive ruin zones.
It was a long day for us and it got even longer when the winds came in earlier than usual. Everything was peaceful until we rounded a point and were slammed with powerful winds in the face that we would have to battle all the way into San Lucas. Head winds are bad enough on a bicycle, but at least on a bike you don’t go backwards when you stop to rest! It was horrible and we were utterly destroyed by the time we got to San Lucas. I kept thinking about how much fucking money we’d spent on these damn kayaks just to have a pretty lousy time and how goddammit, I should be doing something easy like hiking a volcano or something! I was quite angry with myself for such a stupid idea. Luckily the hotel was right in front of the beach so we didn’t have to carry the boats very far, and it was a good price to stay in a really cool old stone building. It looked like it had been a castle or something and our room had a nice view of the lake. The town was pleasant and not touristic and we took advantage of the afternoon to get out and have some ice cream, eat some cheap food and chill on the dock taking in the beauty.
April 5, 2016
After our first two tough days we were looking forward to a calm one, but didn’t get on the water until 7:00 AM because we needed to sleep in and weren’t as concerned about the winds today because they shouldn’t be in our faces. Naturally we were confronted with wind as soon as we started paddling, and of course it was the opposite direction as the day before, so yet again, in our faces. Luckily it wasn’t strong, nor did it last long. This day turned out to be quite different than the previous two and went far to make up for the misery. It was again extremely clear, and this time we were exploring a much less developed coast, such because of the huge, sheer cliffs that drop right into the water. There were still several mansions, but most of them were more beautifully designed, clinging to the cliffs. It was also nicer because we were now across the lake from the volcanoes, so we actually had views of the monsters. We slowly made our way up the coast to the next town, San Antonio and stopped for breakfast at a cute hotel with beautiful views. San Antonio was also impressive from the water. Like most towns around the lake, it’s on a steep hill. The buildable area is in a large bowl surrounded by cliffs and you can see the entire collection of buildings stacked up like blocks filling the bowl. All around and above the village are green terraced farms that make it look even more awesome.
The following town is similarly pretty and our views just kept getting better and better as we rounded the north side of the lake. We paddled much further (~13.5 miles) than the day before, but took our time and had several breaks. We were also stronger and had the technique down, so we felt much better on the water. Oh yeah, we weren’t pounding into the wind either. The views of the three volcanoes and the villages and cliffs around the lake kept changing as we moved on. In the afternoon the clouds started piling up around the volcanoes and we were treated to some great cloud shadows on the cliffs. We also had some nice wetlands areas to explore.
Towards the end of the day the winds picked up, as expected, and the water was rough for our last hour or so into Santa Cruz, but this time it was really fun because we were feeling much more confident and strong on the water and the wind was at our backs.
Would I do it again? Hmm, I’m not sure. It was an incredible experience, and the last day really helped make it, but the extremely high price to rent the kayaks made it a tough pill to swallow. We spent about two weeks worth of budget on a trip that lasted three days. We’re willing to do that from time to time because we have a lot of very cheap or zero days to balance things out, but the expense must be justified by awesomeness and I’m not sure this trip hit the target.
We rented through Kayak Guatemala in Santa Cruz. They were were legit, real kayaks and came with good paddles, dry bags and a bilge pump. Brandy’s had a slight leak though. Most of the kayaks available to rent around the lake are horrific quality and not suitable for more than an hour or two pleasure paddle. We paid $50 per person (regardless if you get two singles or one double), per day, which in retrospect is very high. To compare, I just searched kayak rentals in Tahoe, which is similar to Atitlán in many ways, but way more expensive. I found a place that rents single kayaks for $65 a day and doubles for $85, so Tahoe actually would have been way cheaper for us. We probably could have found a better deal somewhere else, but I didn’t want to spend hours or days searching around the lake to save a few bucks. The owner gave us quite a bit of info about conditions, paddle times and lodging and also let us camp on-site, which was very nice. He told us he normally doesn’t rent per day to people who aren’t doing one of their guided tours, but I’m not sure if that’s just what he says to give him the out to send you packing if you’re a bozo. They normally do pricy guided tours around the entire lake that take about a week and are more relaxed in terms of miles per day. The tours are out of reach for the budget traveler, but could be a great trip for someone who is willing to drop a stack for a beautiful paddle they don’t need to plan.
I was finally feeling better after a good night rest in Comitán and we got off to a decently early start at 7:30 AM, despite the fact that the kid keeping “night watch” in the foyer outside our room had his annoying alarm go off every half hour starting at 4:00 AM. The highway out of town was busy and uninspiring, but made for some good speed. After a couple dozen miles we came to a wonderful descent from the high Chiapas plateau down into the hot lowlands into some surprisingly straight, flat riding. The steep mountains of Guatemala suddenly loomed ahead of us and grew in dimensions and beauty as we drew closer to the border. It seems as though the Mexican cartographers reached these insane mountains and upon further discussion decided that this was as good a place as any to end the country. We were sweating pretty well after a couple hours of this when we came over a small hill and rode right into a wall of heat on the other side. The temp must have jumped at least ten degrees over that hill and it felt like riding into a blast furnace.
Despite all the heat we were still feeling energetic when we rolled into the nothing border town of Ciudad Cuauhtémoc around 4:00 PM. It was a border crossing on the Interamerican Highway, but it felt more like a sleepy country burg than a dirty, bustling frontier town. It is generally considered to be a good idea to spend the night on the border and cross in the morning, but it looked like nothing was really going on, so I decided to pop into the immigration office to check things out. I left Brandy watching the bikes and chatting with a young Mexican woman who kept warning her to “be caaareful” and moaning about how nice it must be to be rich Americans able to travel. Never mind the fact that she seemed to be doing quite well herself and had all kinds of advice for traveling all over Central and South America. There was almost nobody in the immigration office and I was able to walk right up to the desk. Mexico charges a departure tax to tourists, but because we’d flown into Mexico, we’d already paid our tax and I had the itemized receipt to prove it. The senior border official tried to scam me into paying it again by saying that is only for air travel and that the land border fee is different. When I asked him to show me the documentation he meekly pointed to some sign on the wall that said something unintelligible about tourists coming for 1-7 days or something. I told him he had to show me the law because I wasn’t about to pay again for something I’d already paid. He made me sit down on the horrendous attached row of 30 year-old plastic chairs while he pretended to type things into a computer and make a phone call. He then called me over and asked my name upon which he tried to tell me that my name on the tourist card did not match the name on my airline receipt. My handwriting is not good, but my name was still unmistakably L-E-W-I-S, which I spelled out to him and asked how it could be anything different as he scrutinized it with a magnifying glass. I noted with horror that I had somehow not written the final letter in my last name on the tourist card and hoped he didn’t catch that. Eventually he brusquely demanded the other passport and stamped both in a huff and thrust them back into my palms without so much as a glance. I curtly wished him a good day and strode out, being certain to not shut the door behind me.
Ciudad Cuauhtémoc is not actually on the border, so we had to climb a few miles out of town to reach the true border at La Mesilla, Guatemala. The climb out of CC was by far the most beautiful bit of riding of the day and ranks quite well on the tour. Timing was impeccable as the descending sun was shooting rays down onto the surrounding mountains from behind thick clouds.
We were starting to question our decision to cross though because the climb was certainly tough at the end of the day and we worried we’d be arriving in some slummy border town in an unfamiliar country after dark. We needn’t have feared though because as we voiced these concerns we came across a suddenly bustling center of storefronts and vendors crushing in on the now narrow roadway. It was the border commerce zone where Guatemalans could buy their Mexican products, or where gringo cyclists could stock up on their favorite snacks, Crackits and CremeQ wafers, before leaving Mexico for good. White concrete markers marched up the side of a steep hillside in the center of a mowed strip, indicating the true border between Mexico and Guatemala. Mexico has a similar relationship with Guatemalans as the US does with Mexicans in that they are a much wealthier country with a huge influx of illegal immigrants, although many of the Guatemalans entering Mexico illegally are only transiting to attempt a crossing to the US. We’ve been told that it costs anywhere from 50,000-75,000 quetzales ($6,700-10,000) to pay for a Guatemala-USA border run, with the higher end including transport and accommodations across Mexico and a coyote who hopefully won’t rob and shoot them in the desert at the border. Our host at the end of our second day in Guatemala told us he’d recently returned from six years in the US. He’d taken a small boat in the night from Guatemala to Salina Cruz in Oaxaca and then made his way across land to Chihuahua where he had to hike through the desert with 250 people for four days and nights. The father of our host family in San Pedro la Laguna told us he is saving up the 75,000Q for the high-end trip to come work in the US, which seems strange for someone his age. He has told us that he jokes around a lot as part of his helping the students practice, so this may have been BS.
At the official border we came to a large metal gate that was wide open, although there were Mexican border officials about. We could see the difference in development between the countries as there were official offices on both sides of the street in Mexico with officials working at computers. On the Guatemalan side was only the din of tuk-tuks and money changers crowding the gate. We were surprisingly not hounded when we crossed. The one money changer guy who approached us only smiled and said welcome to Guatemala when we told him we already had quetzales. Nobody else bothered us. The grandfatherly gentlemen in the immigration office were a nice change from the gruff official on the Mexican side and they smiled as they stamped our passports and talked to us about our trip. Then came the scam as they held back the passports and told us it would be 25 pesos per bike, which is a nominal amount, but I’m not about to pay any BS graft if I can help it. I responded in my hesitant Spanish that I was surprised because “my friends in the … bureau? had told me that I wouldn’t need to pay anything.”
“Umm, the uh, the embassy.”
The passports immediately slid across the desk into my hand and the smiling men mumbled something about supporting our trip and that Guatemala is very poor or something and to have a nice day, but go stop at customs about the bikes. At customs I asked if I needed to do anything.
“For bicycles?? HAHAHA! No, go on and have a nice day! Heh!”
And here we were in another country, after close to ten months in Mexico. Finally. It felt good to be somewhere new.
But in reality, things were not so much different on this side. For a town described online as a place with, “a few budget lodgings in case you get stuck here for a night,” La Mesilla was surprisingly bustling and friendly. There didn’t seem to be hustlers running around and nobody tried to lead us to their crappy hotel, although we did end up in a crappy hotel on our own volition. One change I noticed was that the traffic sped through the congested streets passing alarmingly closely at high speeds, which did not bode well for the cycling. The guys hanging around in front of our hotel were jovial and laughed and joked around with us. There were even a couple guys in workout clothes out for an evening jog, something I don’t recall seeing much at all in Mexico. We felt safe. The hotel may have run out of water, but for $6.75 a night… eh. We slept well.
March 11, 2016
We improved upon our morning performance by getting out the door at 6:45 AM. We immediately began a steep ascent out of town and were happy to have a lovely mirador at two miles as an excuse to take a quick break. The highway winds through a narrow gorge all the way from the border to Huehuetenango 50 miles to the southeast. In some places it is tough to see this and there are just hills around, but for much of this day’s ride we were surrounded by stunning views of steep cliffs and jagged mountains covered in jungle, thrusting up hundreds of feet.
We were up and down throughout most of the morning, but were following a gushing river upstream, so it was obvious that we were climbing. The early morning helped us make great time and we already had 30 miles under our belts by the time we stopped for brunch at a lovely little comedor at 11:00 AM. Aside from a little gruffness early on, the people of Guatemala were exceedingly friendly, even more so than in Mexico where there seems to be a bit more shyness. The children were especially sweet and would come running out to shout “bye-bye”, “adios” or “gringos!” and wave wildly. There were a lot of women weaving with the traditional back strap loom.
After lunch the climbs began to get a bit more aggressive and the sun was definitely hotter. We’d been told that the town of San Sebastian had a hotel, but alas, it did not. It didn’t even have an ice cream shop! Luckily the tienda where we’d posted up in the shade had some packaged ice creams to rejuvenate us for the last ten miles into Las Vegas where we’d been told there were some hotels. We had a small pass to climb over to get there and were exhausted by the time we arrived so we plopped into the first hotel we found. It was a bit pricey (almost $20!), but it was lovely. We’d managed another 50-mile day, despite lots of climbing.
After cleaning up we went out in search of food. We weren’t in a real town, so were stuck with whatever few things were scattered along the highway. There were only two little places and they both served meat or meat with meat, so we shifted focus to finding veggies for making pasta. In Mexico you can often find at least a couple shriveled peppers or something, even at the most miserable tienda, but here we stopped at several shops and none had a scrap of veggies. There were a few dudes BSing in front of one of the tiendas when we asked about veggies. They all sat around scratching their heads for a while and then two of them ran off, returning in a few minutes with huge bags of radishes, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots and an onion. They’d saved the day and turned our bland pasta and oil dinner into a feast chock full of mothafukkin’ nutrients! They refused any recompense, not even letting me buy them a drink. What kindness!
March 12, 2016
We did even better this morning, getting out at 6:15 AM! Luckily we’d filled our water pouches with water sterilized from the tap the night before, because despite being a somewhat fancy hotel, they ran out of water in the morning. The day started out well with a huge, amazing descent. We knew we’d have to make that up later, but enjoyed it while we had it. The day only went uphill from there. At first it was several steep climbs with only brief respite. By late morning all we were doing was climbing. We’ve gotten soft because of so many extended breaks and after four days of riding, we were flagging a bit. It was slow grinding climbing most of the day. The traffic was miserable. We’d have a few moments of calm and then a whole platoon of chicken buses and large trucks would careen past us belching plumes of black soot. Many of the drivers are very courteous and we get a lot of honks and waves from the trucks and buses, but way too many of them blow by disconcertingly close without slowing. It didn’t help that despite all the climbing, the vistas were rather lackluster. They may have been nicer, but the air is so polluted with exhaust and wood smoke that visibility is quite poor.
We finally got to the pass by late afternoon and were a couple miles outside of a town that seemed to be large enough to have a hotel. We were passing La Tienda del Paso when some cute kids came running out shouting and waving and I decided to go ask dad if there was any lodging ahead, with the hope that he might offer something. He told us that there was no hotel in the next town and we’d need to go all the way to San Francisco, which meant two big climbs. We told him there was no way we could do that and after a bit of thought, he said he could rent us a bed for 30Q ($3.90). We didn’t have to think twice; we were done!
After we’d relaxed a bit, the señor invited me to go watch a soccer game some of the local youths were playing. As he pointed out the houses of his family, it seemed as though the entire village was family. He protested this point by saying that there are more houses on the other side of that hill! He told us about his immigration to the States and complained about the fact that most Guatemalans have way too many kids (10-12). He was done at two.
It was a very tough day, but we’d still done about 30 miles. On top of the two big days before, we were looking very good on time and decided that tomorrow we could sleep in and go a much shorter distance. The big climb had kicked our asses and we needed a bit of a break. We later discovered from the elevation profile that we either climbed quite a bit more on our first day in Guatemala, or the same amount (8,000 ft on the first day vs. either 5,300 or 7,700 ft – the same website gave me different numbers when I checked it at different times…), but that first day was much more constant and gentle.
March 13, 2016
We had only gone about 30 miles the day before, but our previous big days had given us plenty of breathing room to reach Lake Atitlán in time for Brandy’s Spanish classes to begin. We woke up when we felt like it and had a nice leisurely breakfast next door. There was a huge yellow hotel in the middle of the next town a couple miles down the road. The señor had either totally lied about it so he could keep us there, or he knows absolutely nothing about his area. Neither would be a surprise. Oh well, we surely spent less and had a more interesting time.
There were a couple decent climbs, but generally it was downhill through a tight farmland valley all the way to San Francisco. In our state last night, we would not have fared well on the climbs and the actual town of SF was up an incredibly steep side road. The people were decidedly less friendly today. It was such a drastic change from the previous day, but maybe because it is much more densely populated here. It is the dry season, so the fields were fallow and the grey ashy soil and unfinished concrete structures lent a somewhat post-apocalyptic hue to the barren landscape. Things changed once again in San Francisco, which sits precariously on the edge of a sheer cliff dropping several hundred feet into a beautiful gorge. We stopped at a gas station that had amazing views both back towards San Francisco and the other way into where the gorge opened to the valley that holds the city of Quetzaltenango. This city is commonly referred to as Xela, its ancient name in the local tongue, and holds the distinction of being one of the few cities in Guatemala to retain its ancient name. As we were leaving the gas station, who should be coming up the hill toward us but Julian, a French cyclist who’d ridden from Brazil down to Tierra del Fuego and all the way north to here. Naturally we were excited and turned right back around to return to the gas station to chat. He confirmed what others had said, that Central America is definitely not the highlight of the trip and encouraged us to speed up and save time for South America. Julian rides in flip flops. I have been considering ditching my cycling shoes for sandals since they have begun to break, rendering the cleats ineffective, and his bare feet were an inspiration to move in that direction.
Once we finally left, we were treated to an incredible downhill coast all the way into our destination, Cuatro Caminos. CC is nothing more than a junction of four roads, each leading to a large city – Guatemala, Xela, Huehuetenango, Totonicapan – that has had scruffy comedores, tiendas, talleres and pensiones sprout up to feed off that commerce. I loved the gritty action, but all of the hotels there were rather expensive for our tastes. We decided to go to the nearby town of San Sebastian to have lunch in the centro and ponder our fate. We were directed to a country lane and immediately transported into a better world of tiny farm plots, strolling children and bubbling streams. We wound our way through the tight alleys of the village and hoped there would be someplace to lodge. Unfortunately there was not, but it was market day and I left Brandy watching the bikes while I went to procure some avocados. When I came back I was thrilled to see a gringo with a bike talking to her. Another touring cyclist! Justin is touring on a fat-tire bike and was staying here with a Warm Showers host while going to school in Xela for a week. He brought us over to Carl’s house who agreed to take us in to his round house last-minute and even provided some beautiful organic veggies from his
garden farm for our dinner.
March 14, 2016
We knew we had a lot of climbing to get to our goal for the day, a park where we could camp in the forest above Lake Atitlán about 30 miles away. Things didn’t look so good for us as we were confronted with some very steep climbs within the first few miles, before we’d even gotten to the huge mountain we could see in front of us. Fortunately the sustained climbing was a more reasonable grade and we were able to slowly progress up the side of the mountain to stunning views of the valley of Xela, random side gorges and highland farming communities. The highway was a very nice four-lane affair with shoulders, so we weren’t affected too much by all the truck and bus traffic.
A perfect little wooden shelter appeared just in time for our tuna/avocado sandwich lunch. It was a bit of a surprise because it felt like a piece of rural Wisconsin plopped down in the middle of Guatemala and we haven’t seen anything like it anywhere else in Latin America.
We were expecting to summit this climb and then have several miles of ups and downs until our turn off to the lake. We climbed and climbed until about our twelfth mile. As we topped out we had long valley views to the left and thick clouds pouring across the fields and the highway from the right. We kicked back and started coasting down, entering into a thick and chilling fog. I didn’t like the lack of visibility or the cold and decided to stop for lights and coats as soon as we hit the next climb. But the next hill didn’t come. We coasted and coasted, twisting and turning, in and out of wisps of clouds, finally dropping below the cloud level again where a new valley opened wide in front of us and we realized we had a loong way down. There is nothing that can describe the joy of an unexpected eight-mile descent, perhaps only to be countered in magnitude with the despair of the surprise eight-mile climb.
At the bottom of our ride we came into the city of Nahuala and back into the ups and downs. No matter, we’d just made up all the time we’d lost from the long climb and were on track to make our goal easily. We climbed and fell through sparsely populated pine forests for the next seven miles to our turn. The views were probably spectacular, but there was a lot of fog, so we didn’t see anything.
We arrived at the park in the late afternoon only to find that it was closed on Mondays. Luckily we were at the cusp of the screaming, brake-sizzling descent down into the lake and roared our way into the village of Santa Clara la Laguna where we found a cheap, unmarked posada with a beautiful view.
March 15, 2016
We didn’t hurry to get up, but our bodies still made us rise before 8:00 AM. Nothing was open in town when we went searching for breakfast, but after asking at a weird tienda with taxidermy decor, the owner shouted down the street to an old woman who ushered us into an unmarked house and shut the door to prying eyes. We were either about to have our organs harvested or receive an unofficial restaurant meal. Actually, we’d been to a couple places like this before. A lot of villages that are too small for a restaurant will have an old lady who feeds people at a bare table in an empty room in her home.
We were still almost 2,000 feet above the lake so we figured we’d have an easy day burning our brakes down to the water. So when we left town intact of offal, we immediately ran into a climb of unbelievable grade. Well, actually it was quite believable considering what we’d come down the day before. It was the + rather than the – that eluded reason. Never mind, a day of pure descent would have been quite dull and would have atrophied the limbs, so we were overjoyed. The true joy came though at the top, where we had our first glimpse of the lake. We had to pick our way through an informal garbage dump, but it was worth it.
*A note to other cyclists, the second view above is from what would make a perfect stealth camp. It is the first turn off to the right after the top of the climb out of Santa Clara. There is a pile of trash bags blocking the entrance that you’ll need to get around, but once inside you are hidden from the road and have full lake views.
We then had a long, steep switchback ride down the face of the cliff, stopping several times to let Brandy’s rims cool off. Once at the bottom we weren’t done with the steep hills as we had two more short, but tough climbs into San Pablo at the edge of the lake. It was then more up and down around the shore all the way into San Pedro where we checked into Brandy’s Spanish school and host family.
I fell in love with the lake upon first sight. Despite all the tourists running around, this place is magical and I intend to spend more time with the lake before we go.
Almost every village in Mexico has an annual festival in honor of their patron saint. With so many villages and so many saints, it was inevitable to come across one of these festivities as we tour the country. As we were climbing into the mountains just before Oaxaca a guy with a camera flagged us down to ask about our trip. After chitchatting for a bit, he told us the town was having its festivities and invited us to come check it out and get in on the free dinner. He assured us that we could camp anywhere in the village. We deliberated a bit because we wanted to get to Oaxaca the next day, but that would be unlikely if we stopped here. Someone once gave us the travel advice to “always say yes” and we have tried to let that philosophy guide a lot of our decisions.
We ducked under the edge of a huge green tent and were faced with a sea of picnic tables filled with locals. No other gringos were in sight. Our patron sat us down and then went off to continue his filming of the event.
We were each given a massive bag of flour tortillas, which is strange because most tortillas south of Sonora are corn. They were wide, flat and a bit tough, but I liked them. We were told, with a smile, that we must take what we don’t eat with us or the Majordomo, who is throwing the party, would think we don’t like them and would be sad.
Our neighbors were a bit shy and standoffish at first and we were feeling a bit weird about being there. I finally asked what was going on and they opened up and became very friendly. Unfortunately they were already finished with their dinner and when they left new people came and ignored us. I again asked what was going on and started talking with the woman to my left. Eventually the guys to my right became really chatty and one said he was sorry, but he thought we didn’t speak Spanish.
I was confused about this Majordomo character. My first inclination was that he might be a local narco boss trying to play the patron or some rich landowner, but then we found out that it was several old guys. I couldn’t get a clear picture of who they were though. I looked up the term and found out that the Majordomo is typically someone that runs a company or an estate for an absentee landlord, which doesn’t really clear anything up.
The rodeo, or jalipero, eventually began after seemingly endless formalities. A lot of the bulls were somewhat weaksauce though and just ran for the door and hung out over there. I’m not sure how you choose a winner in that kind of situation.
We were touched once again by the kindness and trust we received when a local family that runs a roadside tent store offered for us to sleep in the building where they store their stock.
Despite all the action going on, we managed to get to bed early and had an early start the next day. We spent most of the day winding around along a ridge on a nearly empty road with spectacular views in both directions. Then we had a glorious downhill into the central valley of Oaxaca and got onto some nice dirt roads.
We considered getting a hotel as it got dark, but could only find those sleazy auto hotels where you can take your mistress without fear of anyone seeing your car as it hides behind your private garage curtain. We weren’t too far out and rode the last few miles in the dark along a nasty canal with bugs pummeling our faces. We were exhausted when we got in, but scored a psychological victory with our longest day since we got back to Mexico.
Logistics for touring cyclists wanting to do this hike are at the bottom of the post.
How I plan our cycling routes is simple: enter where we are in Google Maps and where we are going and get the highway route; see if there is a lighter-shaded line that also goes there. There is a mountain range between Mexico City and Puebla. There is one major highway connecting the cities, and then there is this squiggly grey line to the south, my obvious choice. It didn’t take long to realize there was a huge volcano next to the pass, so clearly I wanted to hike it. It’s erupting, so that one was out. I learned that it’s sister peak, Iztaccíhuatl, is open. Sold!
We had a nice, flat ride out of Mexico City and got our cheapest hotel yet ($8) in Amecameca, at the base of the road to the Paso de Cortes. The next day was only 16 miles of riding, but it was a tough 16 miles. We started out at 8,140 ft (2,480 m), which is about the same as the highest point in our very difficult Sierra Gorda crossing a few weeks ago. Brandy was for some reason lacking energy and in a poor mood, so the 7.7% grade took its toll and we stopped every half mile or so. The poor air quality in the Valley of Mexico probably didn’t help. We spent the entire day climbing through the pine forest and finally topped out around 4:00 PM at the Paso de Cortez at 11,150 ft (3,400 m). We were planning to camp at the pass and then hitchhike the five miles to the trailhead in the morning, but we met some awesome hikers from Veracruz, Viktor, Omar and Cristina at the park office and they agreed to give us a ride, laughing and joking the entire way.
We were pleased to find a structure that provided us with some shelter from the wind where we could set up the tent with a view of the twinkling lights of Mexico City far below. The Veracruz crew would hike in the dark to a hut halfway up so they could get an early summit run. There was also a pair of hikers from Los Angeles camping at the trailhead. They had already been at the hut, but were overcome by the altitude and went back down to Amecameca to recover. They had returned and would make a summit attempt at midnight. Everyone was so serious; we were just going for a hike. Actually, I was pretty excited because this would be the highest I’d hiked by at least a couple thousand feet and I was interested to see how it would affect me.
After a failed attempt to get a decent fire going with the wet sticks available, we got to bed early and slept soundly aside from some barking nearby. A stray dog had taken up residency at the trailhead and served as nightly protection for campers. His barks echoed wildly through the valleys, painting a picture in our minds of the vastness of the space we occupied. Brandy reported hearing coyotes in the night, but Rover must have kept them at bay. Other than that it was utterly silent.
I managed to get up before sunrise (Brandy did not, of course) and was greeted by frost glistening on the ground. Despite being beat from the previous day, we managed to get on the trail by 6:45. The trailhead starts at 13,040 ft (3,970 m) and I could feel the elevation in my legs and breath right away. Everything felt heavier and we proceeded more slowly than we would have lower down. I had a bit of a headache and although I attributed it to us idiotically not hydrating enough the previous day (I really cannot understand how we are so conscientious of our health, but somehow still routinely fail to drink enough water when riding), I remained alert to further altitude symptoms. The morning started out clear and we had great views of Popocatepetl, the erupting volcano.
The views got better and better throughout the morning, but soon the clouds started pouring over the ridge above us. Other clouds rose up the valley to meet them. They produced some interesting effects, but before long the entire summit was closed in and eventually we were completely surrounded. The rest of the climb to the shelter was a surreal landscape of shifting white mist and barren rocks. It was windy and cold whenever we were on the Puebla side of mountain. We decided to push up to the shelter and decide from there whether to complete the summit.
When we reached the shelter we were reunited with the Veracruzanos who were still planning to summit. We also met three French hikers who had been tailing us for the last half of the hike; each time the mist would lighten, their dim outlines would emerge a couple hundred feet below us. After eating lunch we decided that we’d head down. We were quite exhausted, Brandy was chilled, my headache was worse and accompanied by slight nausea (a sure cue to descend) and the clouds were thick – no point in beating ourselves to get to the top for no view.
We got down fairly quickly, with a few stops to appreciate the views that opened up below the cloud line, and then caught a ride down to the Paso where we’d camp before riding down to Puebla and back to warmth the following day.
This hike revived our desire to get off the bikes and into the mountains from time to time. We have also been inspired to do more high-elevation hikes though with a bit more preparation next time so we can actually get to the top and have a view. It seemed a bit ridiculous that we were just tra-la-la-ing around on this mountain going for a nice hike when there were all these people decked out in helmets and other gear, some of whom had flown halfway around the world to hike this peak. One of the reasons for the trip is that we have the freedom to stumble across and take advantage of epic opportunities that would otherwise require significant advanced planning and expense. We are quite lucky to be able to have these experiences.
This was a really beautiful hike and was a good intro to high-altitude hiking because if its non-technical nature. I recommend printing the trail description from http://www.summitpost.org/iztaccihuatl/150193. I added some notes in the comments section.
Notes for cyclists:
We spent the night in Amecameca in the very affordable Hotel San Carlos ($130 pesos 2 ppl, 1 bed) on the main square next to the market. The market is open until 8:00 PM and is especially flush with cycle-friendly snacks. The vendors are quite liberal with samples. The road up to the Paso was paved and in great shape with little traffic. Another option is to take a combi or taxi up there from Amecameca. The road down the other side to Puebla is hard-packed dirt with lots of runnels for the first half and then deteriorates into a bumpier rocky surface with several patches of sand. We had the ride the brakes the entire way.
Park entrance fee: $30.50 pesos per person/day
– At Paso de Cortes for $30.50 pesos per person/day
– At La Joya (trailhead), presumably for free. There are a couple sheltered spaces with nice benches but they’d likely fill up on the weekends. There are also a couple sheltered “kitchen” areas with concrete counters with grill pits built in.
– There are several decent camping spots along the trail up to the shelter and the shelter has space for about 12-18 people in large bunks.
We were able to store our bikes and gear in a back room at the park office at the Paso de Cortes (open 7:00 AM – 8:00 PM, daily) free of charge and felt safe with that option. You could ride to La Joya and lock your bike to a sign there, but then your gear is still out. We considered doing that and putting our stuff in our tent. It seemed like it would be a fairly safe option. The ride from the Paso to La Joya is a five-mile climb on a rough dirt road. There is sand in several places and the entire way is riddled with runnels. We had no problem finding a ride on a Wednesday afternoon, although if they hadn’t been able to take us, we’d have been stuck. Mexicans are very friendly and will help you out if they can.
One-liter bottles of water are available at the Paso for $15 pesos.
Aside from Arizona, which has been given its own summary section, we did very little cycling in the southwest. We bounced around between tons of visits and music and also did some great hiking.
California (19 nights: Oct 9-16; Oct 18-31)
|Distance cycled:||45 mi / 72 km / 292,431 RJP|
|Elevation gained:||785 ft / 239 m|
|Elevation lost:||639 ft / 195 m|
Our time in California can be divided into two distinct periods: Humboldt County and SF+.
We drove down to Humboldt County from Oregon for a long-overdue family visit after many years of absence. We stayed with my uncle with six of his seven kids in a doublewide trailer. It was chaos. It was amazing.
One of the benefits of using a krr was that we had time to take a short backpacking trip which we’d been jonesing for since we left the Olympics. We chose the Lost Coast Wilderness, and WOW! The drive there is the first part of the adventure as you take a curvy, dilapidated road over some steep hills and drop straight down to the coast. We were only able to make a two-night in and out trip due to weather, but we were touched by this place and intend to return to hike the full length.
The SF part of our trip was a mixture of friends, family and music. Most of the rest of my CA family lives around SF, so we were able to have some nice visits. Phish conveniently scheduled their fall tour around our plans, so we were able to see the three-night run there and we even got one of my old classmates to go to a show, which he seemed to enjoy. One of Brandy’s goals for the trip was to go to a west coast music festival and we were able to check that one off the list with the Hangtown Halloween Ball.
I had been to SF three times in my life, but had never actually “visited” it rather than just passing through. I finally put that to rest with this visit and got to enjoy the city. It didn’t woo me while I was there (I think the crazy gentrification and housing prices were always in my head), but I think back now and realize that it is indeed a special place. I was also disappointed with the cycling there, but not surprised considering the stupid court-ordered moratorium on infrastructure that was only recently lifted. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by how much they had managed to do in such a short time since the moratorium. I was very impressed with how much cycling infrastructure was available in the surrounding areas as well. Oakland was particularly great for riding, but we also rode through the silicon suburbs when we went to visit my aunt and I was pleased to see how nice it was to ride there and how easy it was to bring bikes on the Caltrain.
Nevada (4 nights: Oct 31-Nov 4)
|Distance cycled:||50 mi / 80 km / 324,923 RJP|
|Elevation gained:||2,379 ft / 725 m|
|Elevation lost:||2,733 ft / 833 m|
I don’t have much to say about Nevada. I have driven all over that state and love it. We spent the bulk of this time partying it up with our friends in a house we rented for the Halloween Phish shows in Vegas. The drive to Vegas was beautiful, like the rest of Nevada. I was impressed by how nice it was to cycle in Vegas. It’s difficult to use the bike for transport because everything is so spread out, but the roads are so over-engineered that there is plenty of space for all the traffic in most places so we felt comfortable riding as we left town. There were some very nice multi-use trails as we got further out of town. We did NOT ride on the Strip, which is a horrible krr-oriented hellhole. It’s a hassle to get anywhere, especially on foot. It is specifically designed so that you either never leave the casino complex you’re staying in, or you take a taxi everywhere. I really can’t figure out why people love this place so much, but with great friends and great music, it wasn’t tough to have a great time.
After a long train ride out West, we spent some great times traveling around Washington, British Columbia and Oregon by train, bike, bus, krr, boat, foot and dogsled. Ok, not the last one. We met lots of friends, old and new, and spent time in stunning natural beauty.
Idaho (Aug 29) Transit only
We passed through Idaho on the train to Seattle.
Washington (15 nights: Aug 29-Sep 3; Sep 8-18)
|Distance cycled:||326 mi / 524 km / 2,117,849 RJP|
|Elevation gained:||15,147 ft / 4,617 m|
|Elevation lost:||15,129 ft / 4,611 m|
Our route took us from Seattle up to Vancouver Island, British Columbia via the San Juan Islands, back to Seattle and then around the Olympic Peninsula. We cycled through incredible beauty in Washington and met really great people there. We also had some of the more challenging days of our trip so far in that state, both physically and mentally. We added the Olympic Mountains to our growing “must revisit with more time” list, but do not really recommend cycling the Olympic Peninsula. I had been looking forward to that ride for quite a while, but in the end it did not deliver. It was a nice ride, but the scenic views were too few and far between to be worth putting up with the absolutely horrible log truck drivers. These guys to date constitute the very worst group of people we have encountered on our trip, by a very wide margin. We felt in danger the entire time we were there and it is only a matter of time before someone is killed by their willful negligence.
We chose the perfect time to visit western Washington because the rains had not yet started and there was an unbelievable amount of apples, pears and especially blackberries available for picking on the side of the road.
The ferries throughout the San Juan Islands were a nice treat, although we didn’t see any whales. Orcas Island claimed both of our brake failures. On a steep downhill, Brandy lost a screw, which dropped the pad it was supposed to hold in place. This is a serious design failure in some otherwise excellent brakes. Luckily she was able to find the pad and poached a screw from another, less crucial spot. I had a brake cable snap while coming down a very large hill. Luckily I had been on the road previously and knew I could coast it out without worrying about some busy junction or crazy potholes. I would find out in a couple months that I had made a serious rookie mistake of not investigating why it snapped (hint: that should never happen).
British Columbia (5 nights: Sep 3-8)
|Distance cycled:||85 mi / 136 km / 549,770 RJP|
|Elevation gained:||2,155 ft / 657 m|
|Elevation lost:||2,178 ft / 664 m|
We had a short, but sweet visit to Vancouver Island. The cycling was fantastic and almost entirely on trails. Our host in Sooke, Justin had been a Couchsurfing guest of ours in NYC back in 2013 right after we first decided to take this trip. We stayed at his parent’s beautiful B & B / blacksmith shop and had a good time catching up.
Victoria is a cute, but pricey town where we had the best sushi of our lives and our first intro to bike polo! I think this town has some good soul, but we just weren’t there long enough to get too far into it. My cousin came down to meet us and we took a krr trip out to the isolated tourist town of Port Renfrew. Everyone says this part of the island is incredibly beautiful. It is definitely pretty, but I was a bit underwhelmed, perhaps because the coast here is so much like Lake Superior so the scenery was not much of anything new for me. We got some more time with BIG trees, which is always magical.
Vancouver Island is HUGE. We only got to see a tiny part of it. Hopefully we’ll get a chance for further exploration in the future.
Oregon (23 nights: Sep 18-Oct 9; Oct 16-18)
|Distance cycled:||215 mi / 346 km / 1,398,469 RJP|
|Elevation gained:||4,340 ft / 1,323 m|
|Elevation lost:||7,926 ft / 2,416 m|
I had not been back to Oregon since I lived there in 2008, so I was excited to come back to this place I loved, but I was also nervous that it might have changed, or I might have changed or my expectations would prove ruinous in one way or another. I am happy to report that Oregon withstood the scrutiny. Portland was as comfortable and welcoming as ever. I was a bit disappointed to find that the city seemed to have stagnated a bit in terms of cycling infrastructure and ridership. Portland was still high on its early cycling successes when I lived there and there was so much optimism about capturing an even greater share of travel. They hadn’t backshifted, thankfully, but there did not seem to be much new, aside from a sweet car-free bridge they were about to open. People I spoke with in the industry seemed a bit disheartened about some negative governmental changes and lack of energy. The low-hanging fruit has been picked and the momentum doesn’t seem to have been enough to take it to the next level. Nevertheless, it is still an awesome city for cycling. I was not at all surprised after six years living in New York to find Portland much smaller and quieter than I remember.
I was not at all let down in the brewery department. There are tons of good ones and we even took a brewery bike crawl one day. On the west coast I discovered that it’s not that I don’t like IPAs, I just don’t like crappy, stale East Coast IPAs. The difference is night and day. On the flipside, IPAs are great on the West Coast, but the diversity seems to be a bit limited. Everyone makes great IPAs, but not much else. It could be worse though, it could be 1976 and everyone could be making light American lagers only.
We also made it down to Bend, and so did our bikes despite being strapped to the top of a Ford Focus. The town was a little more car-oriented than I expected, but we had a nice time, and again, the breweries did not disappoint. The ride over the mountains to Corvallis was spectacular and we got some hot springs action.
We had been looking forward to cycling the coast down to visit my family in Humboldt County, CA, but when we compared the timeframe with the distance, it was looking like we’d have to do some heavy pedaling and I was starting to have some pain that couldn’t be ignored. When my friend Araby offered us the use of her krr AND said she’d go with us to the Phish show in Eugene, it was a done deal. I realized that I probably would not have enjoyed cycling the coast too much anyway. There is too much tourist traffic, not enough shoulders and not enough views. I think the way to see it would be to hike the Oregon Coast Trail and I intend to do that someday. The sea has captured my affection on this trip in a way it never has in the past. Although I consider Humboldt County to be part of the Pacific Northwest in spirit, it’s still in California, so I will lump it in with my Southwest summary.
My conviction that Oregon is a very special place has been reinforced. We had an incredible time checking out some new parts, drinking delicious beer and best of all, reconnecting with some great friends I hadn’t seen in a long time. I have also had my conviction reinforced that krr travel is for the birds. It could be great for certain things (like Phish tour!) and some of my greatest childhood memories are of grand road trips out west. These are the trips that started it all for me! But man, sitting in a krr driving around just sucks the life out of me these days. It puts me into a state of hypnosis where I just float unconsciously from one place to another. The air is stale, even with the windows rolled down, there is no connection to the places we pass through and I become insanely tired for no reason at all. After all the cycling touring I have come to realize just how much of the experience of a place is missed when boxed in.
We continued our USA travels with some visits and riding in the Upper Midwest, primarily my home state Wisconsin. Despite several flats, a broken rack and getting hit by a car (almost all on the same day), it was a wonderful way to really break in the bikes and legs.
Ohio (Jul 15)
|Distance cycled:||17 mi / 28 km / 112,423 RJP|
|Elevation gained:||174 ft / 53 m|
|Elevation lost:||75 ft / 23 m|
We took the train to Toledo and rode up into Michigan. The inner-city neighborhoods had the missing teeth to show for their storied past, but the holdouts had kept up their places and everything looked really nice. We were the probably only white people within miles and we got a lot of quizzical, WTF looks. Luckily there were some nice trails once we hit the burbs, so we didn’t have to dance with krrs.
Michigan (2 nights: Jul 15-17)
|Distance cycled:||42 mi / 67 km / 269,686 RJP|
|Elevation gained:||282 ft / 86 m|
|Elevation lost:||240 ft / 73 m|
This little Ohio/Michigan detour was so we could visit Colleen, a friend we’d made back in Brooklyn. She was living on a farm in, of all places, Brooklyn, Michigan. From the Ohio border we were hammered by such a fierce headwind that we couldn’t even get to Brooklyn and had to be picked up about 20 miles short. We chilled out on the farm and caught a Phish show outside Detroit! The ride to the train station in Jackson was much nicer than the windy hell on the way in.
Indiana (Jul 17) Transit only
Passed through on the train to Chicago.
Illinois (5 nights: Jul 17-22)
|Distance cycled:||40 mi / 64 km / 257,989 RJP|
|Elevation lost:||0 (Illinois is flat!)|
We spent several nights in Chicago visiting friends and going to a three-night run of Phish shows. The miles listed include riding from the place we were staying across town to the shows, changing spots in Chicago, and riding to the Metra train that would take us to Wisconsin.
Wisconsin (36 nights: Jul 22-Aug 27)
|Distance cycled:||436 mi / 701 km / 2,832,030 RJP|
|Elevation gained:||4,994 ft / 1,522 m|
|Elevation lost:||4,712 ft / 1,436 m|
|Times hit by krr:||1|
|Ass kicked by bike:||3 times|
Finally, some real cycling. Metra dropped us off in Kenosha from which we rode to Milwaukee, West Bend, Sheboygan, Wausau and Buckhorn State Park. We also did a bit of riding in and around Madison and visited Lake Superior by krr.
Both flat tires, the broken rack, the krr crash and two bicycle defeats occurred on the same day. That day started out upbeat on a beautiful morning leaving a perfect stealth camping spot. We hadn’t even gotten off the dirt track out of there when Brandy’s front rack broke and rolled down under her tire. I stopped to see what happened and forgot to unclip. Oops! Down I went. I got a flat later in the day and was pushing the bike to change it under a shady tree when some guy sideswiped the bike. He even had a bumper sticker that said, “watch for motorcycles.” Luckily he stopped and took us to his motorcycle shop down the road to assess the damage and fix the flat. He destroyed the huge can of white fuel we’d been carrying around and had wanted to unload anyway and also exploded our toothpaste. That was all. We were very lucky. All these delays caused us to still be riding when night began to descend. We were on an unpaved trail and I saw an outlet to get to the road, but Brandy was ahead. She tried to make a U-turn in the trail and toppled over. Not only was this a bike ass-kicking event, but the torque tore the tube valve and we had to change another flat, this time in a mosquito bog warzone at sunset.
The third ass-kicking event occurred leaving Wausau as Brandy was taking a photo. She was straddling the bike and it went down with the sprocket wending a badass tiger slash on the leg.
Despite the fact that I got hit by a car, Wisconsin drivers have been some of the best we’ve encountered in the US and it is a great state for touring, as I’ve discussed before.
Minnesota; North Dakota; Montana (Aug 27-29) Transit only
We passed through these states on the train to Seattle.