April 13, 2016 | Posted in:Guatemala
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.