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Guatemala Report

posted May 15, 2010, 10:02 AM by Paul Gareau   [ updated Jul 2, 2010, 6:25 PM ]
I had stayed at the Trek Stop hostel in Belize the night before crossing into Guatemala. It was close to the border so it didn't take long at all to get there. It was good that I got there early since crossing the border ended up being a bit of an adventure...

I had planned it so that I would have as little Belizean money left over as possible by the time I reached the border so I wouldn't have to exchange any, and I planned to use my remaining US currency to pay the the exit fee for Belize. Unfortunately, I had a little less US currency than I had thought, and the exit fee was a little more than I expected. I had two options... I could go back to San Ignacio by bike or taxi, which was about 10 miles away if I remember correctly, or I could cross into Guatemala on foot to use an ATM at the town on that side of the border. They let me cross on foot, and I just had to tell the guards as I was leaving that my bike and passport were still on the Belize side and that I'd return right after getting some money. Near the borders there are always a bunch of guys with big wads of cash waiting to give you a horrible exchange rate on the new countries currency. I don't remember how it happened, but one ended up giving me a ride into town on his motorcycle, to an ATM where I tried withdrawing some money. The ATM just gave me some useless message and no cash, so we went to the other ATM in town where I had the same problem. I carry two ATM cards, one Visa and one Mastercard, in case I run into problems, but I had only brought one across the border with me. Since I didn't know what the problem with the ATMs was, I decided to go back to get my other card and try again. This time I went by foot, and it was a much longer walk than I had thought it would be. I had the same problem with the new card, so I went back to the border and explained my problem. There was a group of American tourists in line behind me, and one was either benevolent or impatient, and she offered to give me the remainder of the money I needed so that I could get across. With the loose change I had found, the loan came to about $2. 

So finally I had left Belize, and had to go through immigration on the Guatemala side. There was a $3 fee to enter the country, and I explained that I had no money, that the ATMs were broken, and the banks were closed since it was a Sunday. The guy shrugged and said it was OK, so after that I got back on my bike with no money in my pocket and started riding into Guatemala. My plan was to ride directly to Tikal where I could camp and see the ruins the next day, but since there is no ATM there, I had to ride to Flores instead. Luckily Flores and Tikal are about the same distance from the border, so I had about 100k/60 miles to ride either way. The scenery was great the whole way, with many rolling green hills, pasture and scattered trees. 

Flores is a nice island town on Lago Peten Itza, and I found a hostel there named Los Amigos. Most of the other guests at hostels are usually backpackers who carry all their stuff in hiking backpacks and ride buses from place to place. It's a pretty social way to travel, so just like with bike touring, people heading in the same direction will travel together for as long as they're headed the same way, for some company and to get better prices on transportation and lodging. Since I had already rode past the road to Tikal and don't like backtracking, I decided that I'd take a bus to Tikal the next day, then return to Flores that night. A Mexican girl named Estephania had the same plan, so in the morning we caught a bus together and then wandered around Tikal. By this point I had seen 6 other ruins: Palenque, Edzna, Sayil, Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, and Caracol, so maybe I was just a little jaded, but I didn't find the ruins there as impressive as everyone had said they would be. There are several large temples that were in good condition, but nothing there "wowed" me like some of the other sites had. 

When we were leaving, a bicycle tourist rode into the park. He had just met Baptiste, and also the Scottish family that I had met back in Canada. Since I might not have blogged about them back then, they're a family of three who is also riding from Alaska to Argentina. The daughter is 8 or 9 years old and rides on the back of a tandem bike, with the father on the front. They "home" school her and have to carry all her books and even a violin for her to practice on. 

The next day I was back on the road and I decided to take the western route down into the highlands. It was another pleasant day of riding through some nice small villages, but I think I was called a gringo more on this road than I had been during three and a half months in Mexico. I passed two schools, and both times I would hear one student yell out "Gringo!" then all the other students would run to the window and start shouting it too. There were a few places where I didn't feel comfortable stopping just because of all the attention I would have been given, but not because I felt that I was in danger in any way. 

When I was done riding for the day, I found a dirt access road into some fenced-off pasture areas, and rode down it about a quarter mile to a place where I could set up my tent. While I was cooking my dinner, the rancher came by on his motorcycle. He said it was OK that I could stay there and we talked a little about my trip. 

That night it rained at least 4-5 inches - I know this because I left my pot out after cooking and it was nearly full in the morning. I was happy that the inside of my tent stayed dry, but the dirt road I had come in on turned into some of the worst mud I had ever seen. At first I thought I could ride through it, but when that didn't work I started pushing. It didn't take long for my tires to get coated in mud, which then became jammed between the tires and fenders until my three wheels wouldn't turn at all. The only thing I could do was take everything apart and make four trips back to the pavement, carrying a few pieces of gear each time.

I rode through a few more amazing villages where I was greeted by smiling and waving families, and of course called "gringo" once or twice by the kids. At one point it started raining again as I was riding through a village, so when I saw a small store with a dry place I could sit, I made a quick turn to cross the road. The turn was a little too quick for the wet road, and just like in Merida, my bike slid right out from under me like I was on ice. I managed to stay on my feet and run out of it, but there were people watching and I felt pretty ridiculous. I looked up in time to see one old woman shaking her head. Great... At the store the woman behind the counter acted very strangely, almost in a distrusting way. While I was drinking my soda at least a dozen kids appeared and stood there, at a safe distance, not saying a word, but only staring at me. I said "Hola!" a few times, but no one around would say a word to me. Between this and the the fact that young kids in these small villages aren't clothed, it was one of the most uncomfortable experiences of the trip. I would later learn that people in these small villages are very timid around outsiders, and there is usually only one person who talks to people from outside of the town.

The riding today was very good, there were no big climbs, some dirt, and great views of farmland, mountains and massive, vegetated rock formations.

That night I made it to the town of Fray Bartolome, which had a pretty busy market. Busy markets have been one of my favorite parts of Latin America - there is always so much going on and a lot of energy. In this particular town the stalls were along the main road, which was filled with pedestrians, cyclists, tuk tuks (half motorcycle, half taxi), and the expected cars and trucks. There are some pics in the album for this section. 

The hotel my travel guide recommended was full (and didn't look very nice) so I ended up staying in a very small room at a place that I think was called Vista del Sol.

Shortly after leaving Fray Bartolome the next morning, the hills started. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the first part was paved, so that made the going a little easier. The views right from the start were incredible, and there was even a pullover in one of the nicest parts, with a landscaped hill that had stairs to a viewpoint. Looking around I could see where my road would wind through the mountains, as well as some horses in the valley below. As I rode on, the road changed to dirt, got steeper, narrower and at times, loose and rocky. The views only continued to improve though. 

Not too far into the mountains, I rode through a really amazing village of small, simple, wood-plank homes, which were along a crystal clear river. There were woman at the river doing laundry, and friendly families smiling and waving. I was so blown away by everything, I nearly cried. (Yeah, that was really hard to admit - just don't tell anyone, OK?)

The highlight of the day was descending into a green valley that was covered by grazing cows and massive volcanic boulders. It was unreal and unfortunately my pictures and words can't do it justice. It was getting late by the time I got there, and I was still a long way from my destination - Lanquin. As it started to get dark out, it also started to rain, and I found myself riding up a steep, narrow dirt road, soaked, and only having my small flashlight to see where I was going. As I passed a small building, someone said something in Spanish that I didn't hear, but I stopped to see if I could stay there. There was a family of five standing on a covered porch in front of their small store. The father and oldest brother were both drunk, there was some commotion, and I couldn't tell if the younger brothers were holding the older one away from me, or just holding him upright. After that whole thing was over. I asked if I could camp on the porch in front of their store, but they said I could sleep inside instead. Cool. Next they asked if I had something to eat. I said I did but I'd have to cook it on my stove. One of the boys said his mother could cook my food for me. Very cool. We struggled for a while to get my stuff around a corner and into the narrow door of the store. After I was settled, I talked to three of the boys for a while. One was learning English in school and didn't really speak any, but he showed me one of his books, which had some horrible translations. 

I should probably back up a little and explain the type of place I was in. I had been riding up a one lane dirt road in the mountains of Guatemala. The store was the size of most tool sheds that a person would have in the US, and nearby, and across the valley were some other houses that belonged to members of the same family. There was no electricity, no running water, and not even outhouses. Most houses in villages like this in Guatemala have a single wall of 1 inch by 2 foot planks of wood, and generally corrugated metal roofs. My guess is that they see travelers rarely there, if ever. After all, most people travel by bus, and it's not on a bus route, and if a person did have a car there would be no reason for them to stop there. So with the remoteness and lack of visitors, I was a pretty big attraction. The oldest (and still drunk) brother had a fascination with my beard and tried to pet it as often as possible. I tried to politely push his hand away, but a few times had to say "No toca me!" (Don't touch me!). They were also impressed by how tall I am, since at close to 6", I'm quite a bit taller than most Latin Americans.

In the morning, they woke me up with loud music from a small radio before the sun came up, but I wasn't planning to leave until I could see it. This caused some kind of weird tension, which was made apparent by them looking at me and talking amongst themselves. When I finally did get ready to leave, and I asked how much I owed for the tortillas their mom gave me the night before, the boy who had done most of the talking earlier said I had to pay not only for those, but also for the lodging (I had slept on the wood-plank floor). It was a nice try, but for some reason I thought they were only being friendly, and I wouldn't say any part of the experience had any monetary value whatsoever. Best of all, he wanted 50 Quetzales, which is about $6 US, and almost double what I had paid at the hostel in Flores a few nights earlier. Since they were all only 3 feet tall (OK, maybe a little taller), I wasn't very concerned about my personal safety when I handed him only 15 Q. 

The ride the rest of the way to Lanquin had more spectacular scenery as the road skirted the edge of one mountain, offering exceptional views into the distance. In Lanquin, I found the El Retiro Lodge without too much trouble, and I was happy to find that camping only cost about $2.50 US per night.

My reason for wanting to go through Lanquin was the beautiful and remote Semuc Champey. I had arrived just a little past 9AM, and there was a truck leaving from the hostel shortly after I arrived, but I wanted to get settled first, so I decided I'd go the next day. I spent the rest of the day doing laundry, washing all the mud off my bike from the previous few days, and going into town for groceries and dinner. 

The next day I caught the morning truck into Semuc Champey with the hostel's tour group, but I didn't want to do everything they did, so when they headed off to a cave, I continued on to the entrance to the falls. There was another group entering when I got there, and the guards thought I was with them so I didn't have to pay. For some reason I went back when I realized the error and paid anyway. I stayed with the tour group, and we walked up a few thousand stairs to a place where there was a great view down to the emerald water of the falls. After we climbed back down to the falls, and since no one had noticed that I wasn't part of the group, I stuck with them as they swam through the pools and jumped off the cliffs next to the waterfalls. So much fun.

I had a description of El Retiro in a "Quick Update" post, but since it was so amazing, I'll write some more about it here. El Retiro isn't what I'd normally think of as a "Lodge", it's a hostel with a few big dorm rooms and some smaller shared rooms. There are a number of buildings, all scattered on the side of a grassy hill, at the bottom of which is a fairly fast flowing and seemingly clean. Across from the river are more hills and mountains, with cows grazing on the grass-covered hills. It's an amazing place where my guidebook warns people not to get lost. 

Not getting lost there ended up being good advice for me, because the next day it rained and I couldn't leave. The forcast was the same for the day after, so rather than being stuck somewhere in the mountains again, cold and wet, I decided to hang around. I was pretty tired both days, and thought I may have had a fever for a few hours both afternoons. On the fifth morning, I packed up again (2nd time), and went to get breakfast. It was some of the good french toast and fruit I had gotten there before, but on this morning, my stomach just wasn't up for it. Since I can't ride when I can't eat, I was there for another day at least.

I had no fever that afternoon, but since I couldn't eat, my energy was pretty low. The next day I was able to eat a little more in the morning, so after packing up again (3rd time), I rode up the steep cobblestone road into town where I was planning to find a truck that could take me up a huge hill and back to the main road. I was pretty shaky after reaching the top, and after a while, decided it still wasn't the right time to leave, so I rode back to the hostel for yet another night. 

The next day my stomach still wasn't right, and I didn't even try to leave. On the next day, I was feeling better, but I had decided I'd just take a bus to Antigua from Lanquin. This was a hard decision because the route I had chosen to get from Lanquin to Antigua by bike was supposed to be incredibly beautiful, and by taking the bus, I'd miss the famous Lago de Atitlan, a lake surrounded by three volcanoes. Since I hadn't been able to eat for the previous three days, I thought it would take about 2 more days to completely recover my strength. Even after a full recovery, I wouldn't have been able to reach Antigua before Semana Santa started. Semana Santa is the week proceeding Easter Sunday, and Antigua has some of the most famous celebrations. During the week, I'd also be able to take some spanish lessons, which would hopefully help me understand the various accents more easily.

Unfortunately, only the small bus came that day, and there was no room for my bike. (Oh - 4th time packing). That afternoon, I did a tubing trip down the river with some other people at the hostel. It was great to get out and do something, and it was a pretty relaxing way to spend an hour or so.

The next day the big bus came, there was room for my bike, and 7 hours later, I was in Antigua. If it had not been for this bus trip, I'd have been convinced that all of Guatemala was incredibly beautiful, but this was not the case. The route the bus followed went through a desert landscape unlike anything I had seen before. It was as if the place had recently been grassy, with small shrubs and trees, and suddenly everything had dried out and turned to a dull shade of gray. As much as I love deserts, nothing was appealing about that one. 

I was immediately excited by Antigua. It's a beautiful colonial city, with all the colors and classic architecture Latin American colonial cities are known for. I found the language school I wanted to stay at, but since it was a Sunday, they couldn't take my registration then. There were a bunch of students outside the school, along with teachers and the owner, all preparing a very colorful and intricate "carpet" for the Semana Santa processions. There are many processions throughout the week, and many colorful carpets that are created especially for the processions. The carpets are made from colored sawdust, which is painstakingly sprinkled through large templates by dedicated volunteers. They have carpet creation down to a science, starting first thing in the morning, and finishing as close as possible to when the procession comes through - this way it's in the best possible condition. I think they finished the carpet at around 6PM, which left about an hour for them to take pictures, and for people to admire their work. 

The procession is either all men or all women, and the groups carry statues and huge floats that can weigh up to 600 pounds. Men usually wear purple or black robes, and the processions include bands and drummers playing solemn hymns. The processions trample the carpets in a matter of minutes, and leave behind little more than a pile of sawdust in their wake. At the end of procession there are always a bunch of guys with shovels and brooms, to clean up what was left of the carpets. 

Someone showed me to the student house of the language school that night, where I'd spend the next week and have three meals a day for only $100 US. The Spanish lessons themselves were with a private instructor and cost an additional $120 US. The name of the school was Sevilla Spanish Academy. 

During the week, I found out that another Pan Am cyclist named Matt was in town so we met up, and after talking about our plans for Central America, decided to join forces and ride it together. We agreed to leave on Monday, instead of Sunday, thinking that the traffic would be a little lighter because all the tourist traffic would have left. 

On Monday we headed out, using roads that would let us avoid riding through Guatemala City. Most riders do the same thing, and we had heard from one of them about an insanely steep hill that was on the most direct road back to Route 1. The hill ended up being worse than we could have ever expected, making it incredibly difficult to even maintain the speed necessary to keep the bike upright. Matt's gearing wasn't as low as mine, and for some stretches, he was forced to get off  and push his heavy bike up the hill. Just before finishing for the day, we experienced our first downpour of the rainy season. It was torrential, and within minutes the road had vanished under a river of brown water. We hid out at a water stand (ironic?) until the worst of it was over, and found a cheap hotel just a little farther down the road. I think the town was called Sepemech. 

Our last day in Guatemala was mostly downhill, but there were enough climbs that we still had to do some work. We got just beyond Valle Nuevo, and even though we had plenty of daylight left, we decided to camp at the Guatemalan side of the border, rather than cross without knowing where the next place to stop would be.