As I approached the southern border of Mexico at Las Champas/La Masilla on Christmas day I was greatly relieved on the one hand to finally tick it off as done after more than two and a half months. But after that amount of time a lot of familiarity had developed, which lay in stark contrast to the unknown that is Guatemala. Central America is very well represented in the top 10 most dangerous places in the world, and even Mexicans had told me to be careful further south. Such is the forced thrill of cycling touring, just as complacency sets in familiar surroundings are stripped away by an border. Or perhaps it was the massive mountains forming layer upon layer on the horizon, that precipitated a sence of unease.
The Mexican immigration office was a sedate affair a couple of kilometers before the physical border, and had it not been for some idle taxi drivers making the internationally understood stamping gesture I’d have shot past. Once on the Guatemalan side I felt like the bunny in the headlights, tense and frozen in confusion. I didn’t even know what the Guatemalan currency was called (Quetzales), or what I fair exchange rate would be for my surplus Mexican Pesos, of which I had stupidly way too much… Great preparations Retief. After some robust negotiations I changed my money and immediately set out to test my purchasing power at the closest drinks vendor. Seems I either got ripped off or things were a good shade more expensive here. In the long run it turned out to be the latter and I actually did pretty well in the exchange.
In heading into Guatemala I had to head up, winding through a long valley that will take me back up to 2000m after dipping to 600m in the run to the border. I was expected a fairly remote ride, with interspaced villages. I could not have been more wrong. The unforgiving steepness of the massive flanks of the valley forced the numerous inhabitants to live right along the edge of the road. Reality turned out to be the exact opposite of my ever wishful thinking, I’d be lucky to ride a kilometer without a house next to the road. But my thoughts were presently occupied by the novelty of being in the heart of coffee country. Every square meter of space that was not lived on was employed in coffee production, either through drying the recently harvested beans of growing more plants in patches of nurseries. The sides of the valley was an endless patchwork of coffee plantations, even at what appeared to me to be impossibly steep gradients. The musty yeasty sweet smell of the fermenting fruit, the byproduct of extracting the beans, filled the air.
As the light was fading on my first day I was facing the reality that wild camping was going to be a problem. Eventually I came to a park next to the river that gushes through the valley. I asked some random people and they seemed to indicate that it’s ok to camp here. As I was settling down an extended family group comprising of 3 generations came up and made it clear that camping here is suicidal and promptly escorted me to their home.
It always seems strange that a society that can produce such caring and open people can also spawn heartless criminals. I set out the next day, clean, rested and well impressed with the goodness of random Guatemalans. It was a second hard day in the mountains to get to Xela, as Quetzaltenango is known to the locals. In my final approach I stopped at a girl selling freshly squeezed orange juice. I was fascinated by her careful and considered movements. But as I reached Xela I realized that from a hygiene point of view they were nowhere near careful and considered enough…
My stomach was convulsing in full acrobatic mode. As if the normal chaos of meeting up with a Warm Shower host wasn’t enough… As Langenhooven remarked ‘I thought the world had turned upside down, but then realized it was only my stomach’. It a critical moment on the town square I abandoned my bike and rushed into McDonalds. There I faced more urgent and bleak decisions from the back of the que for the mens bathroom. I ended up violating the ladies toilet and rushing out of McDonalds in shame. It was packed on a weekend night with neatly dressed folk making an occasion out of it. I was pretty sure I was banned thereafter but was too scared to return to find out. Luckily the meds were kicking in and I found my host and his house in relative safety.
A rest day was an easy sell for the next day. But more importantly I had been putting of a big decision untill Quetzaltenango: To take Spanish classes or not, and if so where. Guatemala was undoubtedly the place for lessons in Central America, but within the country there were likely more than a hundred of schools catering only for foreigners, and Quetzaltenango hosted many of these. But since I’d burnt my McDonalds bridge, there was little appeal to stay. The towns on the shores of the magical Lake Atitlan also had many schools, and as soon as I had made contact with one I was good to go.
It was another hilly ride over the mountains followed by a murderous descent to the lake. Miguel and Julio, my hosts in Xela, had warned me about this downhill. But I thought ‘seriously, how bad could it really be?’ It was worse. I fried both my front and rear brake pads. Right down to the metal backing plate. Nuff said.
In San Pedro, I found the school and it’s owner, Javier, and after about 5 minutes all was settled. I start in the morning and my homestay host mama was on her way to fetch me.
My host family was a female dominated affair, with Ma Maria Lupe (I assume short for Guadeloupe) heading the household. Her husband was working in the US, and I assume his visits home are infrequent. The eldest daughter is Stephane (13), followed by Juanita (11) and Chusita (7). Manuel (4), a todler, was the only male in the house, not counting Doki, the ever annoying and poorly disciplined dog. During my stay it happened to be Ma Lupes birthday and I was well surprised to find out we were of the same age… yet lived worlds apart. But I was welcomed into the household like family, and as much as these things normally makes me uneasy, I really enjoyed my time with them and being part of the rhythms of a normal simplistic life.
My first Spanish esson with Milton was frustrating as he spoke just about no English, but after an easy chat with Javier it was settled that I would rather be taught by him in the afternoons. From there the only bottleneck in the arrangement was my brain’s stubborn refusal to absorb a new language. Near lethal doses of locally grown San Pedro coffee helped a bit, but man I’m linguistically retarded. A further disadvantage I never realised I had is that I hardly understand or know grammer, i.e. the science of language. I blame the timing of the switch from Afrikaans to English schooling at the onset of highschool leaving me with a blind spot in my education.
After my first week of lessons I was ready to cut my losses, despite knowing more of English than ever before. Seriously. But a new student, Ben, a Brit teaching English in Colombia arrived to improve his own Spanish skills. I was quite surprised at how much I could understand of his conversations with his tutor, so I decided to slog it out for another week and at the very least consolidate my meagre gains.
Somewhere along the way New Year’s slipped by with the typical disappointment stemming from Hollywood inspired expectations. I just hoped the endless fireworks would quiet down with the arrival of 2016. They didn’t. I was highly amused at the time by an emotional Facebook tiff started back home by a dog owner having a grand go at people setting of fireworks and his resulting veterinarian bills of substantial proportions. Never mind the emotional trauma suffered by the pooch. Geez. In San Pedro I was busy developing a slight case of bomb shock that might also need future professional attention to treat. You see in Guatemala the primary consideration for fireworks is the noise factor. In fact it seemed to be the only factor. My concept of a fireworks display is a choreographed bedazzlement of light and colour, with the noise being an unavoidable evil to be accepted. Not so much in San Pedro. Here a fireworks display is a nerve fraying assault on your ears. Here the emmision of light is an unavoidable evil, a fractional loss of energy not converted to sound, that is to be accepted. And since darkness is not a required backdrop for these shows they strike at all hours, starting right after the first rooster crows. If you’re lucky you hear the dull thud of a mortar being launched, giving you precious seconds to prepare for the coming boom. Needless to say the local dogs were hardly phased by any of this.
A week later I rolled out of San Pedro. Well, first on boat and then on the bike as I made my way around Lake Atitlan and over the mountains that defines it. I had a 100kms to cover to Antigua, the tourist capital of Guatemala, where I stayed with a legendary Warm Shower host, Julian Roodt. He’s a bluegrass banjo player who, whilst on a bike tour of his own, landed himself a gig playing banjo in one of the many bars in town. He was back some months later making a living with his music, alongside bandmate Dave. All this in a stunning colonial town shadowed over by 3 mighty volcanoes, Fuego, Acontananga and Agua, with Fuego being amongst the most active in the world. Not a bad setup indeed.
As I arrived in Antigua another touring cyclists from Holland, Mark, came up to me and we had a nice chat. One of the small details to emerged from our meeting is his advice that if I wanted to do a volcano hike, this is the place to do it. So after exactly one day my cycling was put on hold again.
The next day I made enquiries about the cost of joining a guided tour group. It was rough. Then I ran into an Aussie guy working with one of the guide companies and he gave me the rundown of doing it without a guide. I was in the final stages of committing to thus idea when a friend of Julian, Aisha, entered the fray and negotiated a deal at a fraction of the cost I was quoted. We roped Julian into the expedition as well, and that is the backstory of how I got to watch the sun rise over a Fuego from the top of Acontananga. Fuego had a massive eruption some weeks before, so we had to settle for only 3 smaller ash and dust eruptions, but to me it was a magical highlight of the trip so far.
In leaving Guatemala I tried to find some back roads to El Salvador, and ended up doing some very picturesque riding through the ever present coffee plantations and a nice track through the jungle.
But after much time off the bike I was dead keen to put the miles in due south, and soon enough I was on the run in to the El Salvadoran border. Which reminded me of a conversation I had with the El Salvadoran cyclists neighbour of the Grant family in California, where he unequivocally stated that he would never ever risk cycling in El Salvador since he didn’t harbour any death wishes. But that aside, what is the worst that could happen?, I thought as I tried to remember where I stashed my passport,
… and more importantly my bear spray.