It’s been close to for a long time, but my Bluetooth keyboard is now officially un-usable, what with so many nonfunctioning keys, meaning the remainder of my blosts will be swiped rather than typed.
Seems fitting, as most of the things that I use regularly seem to be falling apart as I approach the end of this tour. Then there’s the many, many pounds of stuff I’m carrying the last 800 miles just because I don’t want to chuck it or give it away, nor do I trust that it would get delivered if I attempted to mail it back home…and if I were to do that, I should have at least a few thousand miles earlier.
Starting where we left off: I make it to León just before a big rain, do some sightseeing and eating, and then watch an amazing lightening storm from the roof of my hostel. The next day I go to Managua, taking 25km of unpaved roads via Google maps walking directions. As almost always, this shortcut is anything but, when measured by energy or time spent, but it’s not a huge loss, and it is nice to be off road and largely free of cars for a while.
Managua is the capitol, and I haven’t taken a day off from biking since the hike up Acatenengo 8 days earlier, so I decide that I’ll spend 2 nights there. The next day, I check out the plaza of the revolution and the waterfront. There’s a weird, deserted feel to the city, and the sun is searing my skin and boiling my brain, so when I get to and find that the national palace is closed, I use my phone to find a movie plex and go watch “suicide squad” (the only film playing withing the next many hours that’s subtitled, not dubbed) instead. If you haven’t seen it, don’t. It’s such a completely boring, scatter brained piece of shit that I would have left early were the respite from the glaring heat not so nice, and nearly did anyways.
Next I bought makings for a large batch of mujudara, used the well appointed kitchen at the hostel to prepare it, then ate most of it. I finished off the rest for breakfast the next morning.
Meanwhile a Facebook friend had mentioned in a comment on a post of mine that I was near the Mariposa Spanish School and Eco Hotel, where his nephew had spent a few months and really enjoyed it. I read a bit about the place on their website, and am about to post a reply to his comment saying something to the effect of “looks amazing, but it’s not really in the cards for me this trip” when I thought “but why not?”.
So I sent off this email (ah how I miss a working keyboard):
I’m writing from Managua, to where I’ve cycled from Colorado over the last 3 and a half months. I’ll be doing a shorter leg today to Granada leaving in a little while. I have a flight booked to return to Seattle from Panama City for Sept. 16.
I just learned of the Mariposa School from a facebook friend, and then read much of your site. The discussion of travel and experience vs. learning struck a chord. Bicycling solo has been an amazing experience, but has lately left me yearning for something a bit more meaningful. I have a 51 day (and counting) streak on duolingo which, while it’s not anything like the commitment of an immersion course, I hope gives some indication of consistent interest in learning Spanish. I’m also very interested in sustainable and low impact living, both generally, and in learning more.
So, I’m writing to see if, by chance, you have availability for a guest/student for a week, ideally starting tomorrow or the following day. I know it’s exceptionally short notice, but this will still provide me enough time to finish the bike tour, and I figure it’s either meant to be, or it isn’t…in which case I will hope to have the opportunity to return to Nicaragua sometime soon and will get back in touch when I do. If this could be made to work, I would be most interested in the home stay option, and/or any option(s) that provide for volunteer contributions in lieu of expense. I’m a software engineer that has worked in construction, and am generally a quick learner and adept problem solver.
In any case, thank you for taking time to read this, and for, well, existing. Learning about you and what you do has really made my day!
Richard responds within a few minutes saying that yes, they could make that work. I figure I’ll check out Granada (45km away) and stay at the hostel in which I’d just reserved a bed, then double back and ride the 40km to Mariposa. But as I’m riding and finalizing plans with Richard (yes, emailing and biking…actually not as dangerous as texting and driving), I was becoming more inclined to ride the 25km from Managua to Mariposa, start that day, and spare myself a somewhat gratuitous extra 60km of cycling. Again, Richard replies quickly and accommodatingly. Only later would I realize what an effort this must have been on his part. He gets back to me well before the junction where I need to turn to go directly there, and so I do. I roll in a little before 1pm, get quickly orientated by Richard and Kat, enjoy a lunch they had set aside for me, then do my first day of language instruction, 2 hours of conversation and 2 hours of grammar.
The instructors are all exceptional. I have 6 total in my 5 days owing to shuffling done to accommodate me and my last minute requests (I’ll make another for my final day so that I can join an outing to Apoyo, a lake formed in the crater of an ancient volcano).
At 5, after my instruction is complete for the day, I’m introduced to my host family, with whom I’ll be living for the next week. They are Miriam and Gonzalo, daughter Yalalina, her husband Che-something, and their son Eric. I interact primarily with Miriam as she prepares breakfast and dinner each day for me for the next week. She’s 10 years my senior, and a sweet, doting matriarch.
They have been providing homestay accommodations for Mariposa students for years, and have hosted 50 some students. They have a padlock for my room that they provide their guests, but I insist that it’s unnecessary. As the week progresses, Miriam evidently feels increasingly comfortable coming into my room while I’m at Mariposa, going through my mesh bags of clothes, and laundering the things she determines are in need of it. She starts small, and when I express gratitude and make clear that I don’t find it intrusive, she goes deeper through my things while I’m away for the day. I joke with the other students/guests at the school that my odor must be leaving her with no choice, though there may be some truth to it.
After a particularly long hot day, shoveling, weeding, and turning soil in the nature reserve, the volunteer work I’ve opted to do in exchange for discounted tuition, I notice the pig that lives in the family’s small courtyard is taking a keen interest in my feet that have gotten pretty ripe in the still wet, and themselves quite ripe, leather sandals that I work and bike in day to day.
On my second to last night with the family, Miriam is asking when she might have opportunity to wash the board shorts I wear every day. I say they’re my only pair, but no worry, they’ll get a thorough rinse tomorrow in Lake Apoyo, and laugh with the family as I demonstrate how I’ll scrub them while wearing them. A little while later, after some shuffling and Spanish spoken quickly and quietly in the way that things not meant for me to understand are, Eric walks towards me holding something behind his back and tells me close my eyes. I’m pleased with myself that I’ve gotten to the point that I can understand his instruction as I follow it, and then the obvious next instruction. He presents me with an alternate pair of shorts, a tank top, and a t-shirt. Gifts to me from the family.
On Saturday and Sunday there are no classes or volunteer work, but there are group activities. I go on a group outing to León on Saturday, and Richard is a fantastic tour guide, keeping us laughing throughout a tour of an old prison converted to a museum of Nicaraguan folklore. It’s a bit strange, the folklore portion of the museum is light-hearted, while the memorial to the victims of the atrocities committed there when it was a prison is anything but. It’s a full day, and we’re back after the sun has set.
I’m keen to take the opportunity of a night and following day off to go see the cauldron of lava in the Masaya volcano 25km away. I discuss with my host family and they persuade me to not go while there’s drunk drivers, so instead of going after dinner, I set an alarm for 3am. It rains heavily while I’m sleeping, off and on, up until 3, but by then it’s let up to a sprinkle. I don my shell and attach my lights and head out. My route goes through overgrown, pumice gravel road, and having removed my shell after the rain stopped completely I get wet from pushing through wet brush. But it feels nice, particularly a short while later when I’m climbing up to the rim of the crater just as the sun is rising. I have the place to myself, and it’s brilliant.
I head back in order to join a group hike starting at 8am.
After the hike, I go home and sleep a couple hours, then I ride up to San Marcos, the largest nearby town, to check it out.
Later that night there’s a car accident in town, and I join Eric and his dad in running to check it out. The place is a mass of people, milling about discussing the situation. Car crashes are a real spectacle here it seems.
For my last 2 days, I pay in lieu of working on the reserve. On my last full day I go to the aforementioned volcano crater lake. I’m the only guy on the day-trip that’s otherwise primarily composed of interesting, hilarious, beautiful women with whom I hang out on a floating dock until a storm rolls in. We swim back to enjoy beers along with the magnificent spectacle that is watching the storm sweep across the lake. The trip ends too soon, as we’re shuttled back to the school/hotel where I’ve made arrangement to have my final dinner with my new friends rather than with my host family.
In the morning, I have breakfast with and say farewell to my host family, then stop in at the school to say more farewells before continuing on my way. It’s been the longest I’ve stayed in one place since my tour began in April, and while I’m a bit sad to be parting ways, I’m looking forward to getting back into the rhythm of distance cycling.
Gonzalo was not home to say goodbye, as he starts working as a mini bus driver each day at 4am, but shortly after I start pedaling away from Mariposa, he passes me. I yell “GONZALO” as he leans out and looks back, waving, taking advantage of a gradual left turn that makes doing so possible, if still a bit crazy. I catch up with him in La Conception, the first town in that direction from Mariposa, and ride along side him for a few dozen meters, shaking his hand and sharing thank yous and goodbyes.
Over lunch, I connect with someone online who offers me a place to crash in the surf town of Popoyo. It’s about a 40km detour, but I’d been thinking I’d do a similar detour to San Juan del Sur just to get in some beach time. Plus there’s a Google maps walking route that I could take along the coast to hit both beach towns in a single, mega detour .
The detour, on the way to the coast, is unpaved but relatively smooth. Recent rains have left enough mud that my fenders jam up a couple of times, but I stop short of removing them, and make due by scraping them out with the file on my multi-tool a few times, while learning what combinations of textures of dirt/mud to avoid.
The town is small and built around surf tourism. I message my would-be host, then swim and body surf for a bit, then lay around reading while I wait for a reply that never comes. When it’s dark, I start inquiring at the various hostels about accommodation. Most are full, but there’s one at the end of the road that has a vacancy for $8. It’s a reasonably clean private room that I’m happy with. There’s two Israeli guys cooking rice and lentils on a camp stove in an open area, and an American guy taking to them. One of the Israelis and I help the American get into his van in which he’s locked his keys, accidentally busting out a window in the process. The American leaves in his van, and the Israeli and I take showers to wash off the tiny shards of glass (I need one anyways). The Israelis share their dinner with me, then a pineapple for desert, then we head down the road to one of the nicer hostels to drink a little beer and watch some Olympics. We’re not out late. I’m tired from my day of riding and they’re on a schedule that has them up before sunrise to catch the current swell and have it to themselves before more novice surfers show up.
The next day, when I get to the turn off where I’d turn the detour into a longer one, it’s a tiny road that, judging by appearances (in addition to my elevation profiler app and Google maps), promises to turn into a tight, windy, climby footpath. I decide against it. By noon, I’m back on the main Pan-American highway, in a large town having lunch. It’s only another 40km to the Costa Rica border, and I’m nearly out of Cordoba (Nicaraguan currency), so I figure ‘why not?’
I cross without difficulty, but there’s a line for the sole ATM that will eat well into my remaining daylight. So I convert my remaining Cordoba (about $8 worth) into Colón and ride off into what turns out to be jungle. There’s hundreds of tents and thousands of people of African descent lining the road from the border, and I’ll learn from a backpacker the next day that they’re African immigrants that have paid dearly to get to Costa Rica with the intention of migrating North, but who are largely blocked from doing so.
I stop at one of the few stores I see when it becomes clear that I’ll be wild camping for lack of alternatives, and pay nearly $2 for a liter of water that I guzzle while an African named Desmond chats with me in French accented English.
As the sun sets, I scope out the roadside for camping options, but the jungle is super thick and broken up only by small cottages and equally small, adjoining yards. A flash storm breezes through and I’m in my rain shell, but without my rear blinky which I’ve lost on my morning ride to the volcano. It’s dark enough that I’m nearly ready to ask the resident of one of the cottages for permission to camp on their property when I come to a roadside embankment where the road has clearly washed out in the past. It’s got all the things I’m looking for: reasonable seclusion and a place large enough to lay down, and flat enough to be comfortable.
I eat the remainder of my food and enjoy the sounds of animals that are completely foreign to me as I drift off to sleep on top of my biivy. When it starts raining some time during the night, I’ve already made sure that all I need do is slip into it and pull it over my head. Its a cool, pleasant night sleeping outdoors, though I pay the price of many bug bites acquired by morning.
El Salvador and Honduras have reputations for being dangerous and worth avoiding. Meanwhile, travelling solo by bicycle, one is obviously vulnerable to anybody or group that decides they’d like to take your bike and whatever you have in the bags hanging all over it. This has been in the back of my mind since the weeks leading up to this trip, and when I’d allow it, going through all the specific ways in which I’m vulnerable, could consume my thoughts. Before I left, I realized that it would be nice to have a spare debit/credit card and a driver’s license (which I happen to have a spare of) in the event I’m relieved of everything but my clothes on my back (and feet), and that the sandals that are my primary footwear on this trip (leading to some awesome feet tan lines) happen to have a slit in their sole where I could wedge these things. So I did that, and then concluded that I’d derived all the benefit I could from playing out these scenarios mentally, and resolved to stop.
I’ve succeeded in sticking to this resolution through my traversal of these two countries, as I write this from a few km inside of Nicaragua. It was no great feat; it seems to always be the case that the trepidation in anticipating a place exceeds that of the experience. All the same, I was very happy to meet Ryu, a cycle tourist from Japan on the road a few km shy of the Guatemala/El Salvador border.
But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. As you may recall, when we left off in Antigua, I’d decided to drop down into the coastal lowlands and stop punishing myself with routes up and down the brutal volcanic slopes of the highlands. Once I do so, the kilometers start to fly by. I could make it to the border by sundown, 140km away, but I opt to take a room in a town called Chiquimulilla, a few km detour off the road to, and about 40km short of, the border to El Salvador and any craziness that border might entail. Borders can tend to be hectic, with beggars and money changers swarming you. While Antigua was nice in its own way, it’s like the Sonoma of Guatemala, it feels good to again be well off the beaten track, clearly the only gringo for miles, and in a ‘real’ Guatemalan town, among Guatemalans, none of which interact with foreigners on a regular basis.
The next day I stock up on water and snacks then hit the road, and get caught up with by Ryu, a cycle tourer from Japan. On past tours, he’s cycled from Alaska to Mexico, and this time he’s started out at Cancun. It’s a no brainer that we’re going to cross the border into El Salvador together. This is the furthest South into Central America that either of us have cycled, and we share trepidations, even if we’re downplaying them a bit, for both our own and each other’s benefits.
We change our remaining Quitzal to US Dollars, which is what El Salvador has been using since they abandoned their own currency some years ago, and then go through the border. We go to the first town just beyond the border and grab some lunch.
We stop at a place with AC, which is blissful, and both get a lunch of chicken, rice, and salad. When we’re back outside saddling up, a drunk seeming guy ambles up to us and gets in our faces, in the way that drunk guys do. He shakes my hand, then puts his arm around me, and then another. By the looks of the guy, I’m a little surprised to be fending off a hugging rather than a mugging, but I manage to, after not too long an awkward, sweaty embrace. Ryu is subjected to the same, and it’s apparent that hugging strangers is even less amusing/familiar to him than it is to me, and we share a chuckle over it on our ride out of town.
I have data on my phone, my phone mounted on my handlebars, and a rearview mirror. Because of these three factors, it’s invariably been the case, when encountering other cyclists, that we decide it’s easiest if I lead, navigate, and keep tabs on the other to avoid getting separated, at least in the first few hours, until we get comfortable with separating and reuniting as cycle tour companions do. Despite the fact that Ryu caught up with me on our initial encounter, it seems that I’m consistently outpacing him. I wonder if the subconscious competitiveness that Jung and I shared is absent in Ryu, and while I’m pushing a little harder now that we’re paired up, he’s maintaining his same pace.
I miss the turn for the first town where we decided to look for a hotel, but we’re not far from another, larger town called Acajatel that has more promise for lodging, so I propose we continue on. Ryu is game for whatever. When we get there, it’s quite industrial and gritty, and when we pull into a street with small markets and the first town-like activity we see, we get leers from many of the locals. Ryu takes the lead in asking a group of women if there’s a hotel nearby, for which I’m grateful, as I’m feeling both intimidated and irritated by the reception we’re receiving. We get directed, we think, to go back out to the road we turned off, and continue on. As we ride off to do so, we get a number of whistles, including one deafeningly loud cat call. I’m wearing a scarf that Pao gave me, which I usually have pulled up over my face for sun protection, but which I don’t currently and I suppose is fairly effeminate by El Salvadorian (or Central American, in general) standards. Ryu is wearing cycling shorts, as am I, but whereas I cover them with board shorts, he doesn’t. Again, not something a local man would likely be caught dead in. The cat call makes my blood boil, but there’s no good option other than to act as if I don’t hear a thing. Ryu seems to do the same calculation.
We get back to the road and are at a junction where a bunch of well dressed dudes are filing out on motorcycles when one of them stops to ask “what are you looking for?” I answer “A hotel”, to which he repeats “what are you looking for?” as if he heard my reply as “huh?” a-la laurel and hardy. This repeats 2 more times and I get the sense that he might be messing with us, so the fourth time I answer, I put a long, and somewhat exasperated pause between “A” and “hotel”, not thinking to try “un” instead of “a”. He says “ahhh, yes” and points down the road we were about to check out, as it’s our only actual option in following the original instructions. We ask how many kilometers, and I think he says “about 4 minutes”. But maybe he said “about 40 meters” because that’s how far we have to go to find the one (and only, AFAICT) hotel in town.
The hotel is right on the beach, but not a stretch of beach that you can walk down to, and the rooms are quite grimy. The bathroom is a sort of shower, sink, and toilet all-in-one, and smells foul, but the proprietor is a kindly older guy and we’re both fine with it, particularly as we’re fairly confident it’s our only option. It’s $15/night regardless of whether we’re one or two in a room. The owner is totally indifferent, and we waffle a bit on this decision until I say that I’m happy to sleep on my pad on the floor and we can call it $8 for use of the bed and $7 for the floor, and each save some money. Ryu is happy with this, and buys me a beer to sweeten the deal.
After we drink our beers and space out for a bit as one invariably does when done a day of pedalling, he goes to find an internet cafe (he has to upload a video) and I go to swim in the ocean, leaving the key to the room with the hotel owner. I get smiles and waves from kids and young people enjoying the beach, putting me in better spirits. Seeing the massive shipping container ships not far off, realize that this is a primarily a port town.
Back at the hotel, I’m befriended by a guy that looks like nothing but trouble, sporting several capped teeth, a crew cut, a fist-weathered face, and a tank top with a large drawing of an ornate set of brass knuckles. And while his demeanor is gruff, he is, in fact, a nice guy that’s very excited to have foreign guests on his turf. He gives me a slice of watermelon and advice on where to grab dinner. He chats with me eagerly, but doesn’t linger when the conversation has run its course, for which I’m grateful.
We go to dinner at “La Poeta Viejo” where we’re harrangued by an over enthusiastic drunk guy. Ryu has the calm, collected cool that I remember noting about my cycle mate, Terry, once when he was being aggressiively begged from in Riga. Spittle from the drunk draws only the most slight bemused expression as Ryu takes it all in stride, and this ability to withstand reaction is, it occurs to me, a hallmark of a seasoned traveller. Eventually the waiter comes over to tell the guy to give us our space. The drunk meant no harm, which goes without saying, and he buys us a couple of beers to show he means it, then leaves to dance exuberantly with one of his women companions while we wait for our food in peace…or at least as much peace as the blaring PA will allow.
The next morning, we backtrack the 4km that we’d gone out of our way to get to Acajatel, then look for someplace to get breakfast more substantial than the pre-packaged coffee cake and coffee we got at the hostel for $1.50 total. We try a couple of food stands before finding one that’s open, where we get the typical breakfast of eggs scrambled with onions and peppers, refried black beans, a semi-soured cream, and tortillas. A hearty breakfast for $1.50 each.
We take our only viable option, cycling up away from, then back down to the El Salvadorian coast, where we yo-yo up and down steamy seaside cliffs, and go through a series of 5 tunnels. We stop at a seaside town for lunch and inquire about places to stay for the night, as it looks like a big storm is rolling in with long, gutteral rumbles of thunder that last for 10-20 seconds each. Ryu’s english is very good, and while he doesn’t know as many spanish words as I do (with which to try and often fail to be understood when speaking them), he clearly understands spanish when it’s spoken better than I do, maybe owing to a mental/linguistic elasticity that he has and I lack, being that he’s already multi-lingual. While I have a hard time making any sense of what our waiter is saying, Ryu determines that he’s saying there’s no rooms available for this evening.
Meanwhile, I’ve been on my phone, scouting out AirBnB options. There’s one in a town called El Tuncal a dozen km up the road, and the host is initially very responsive. I book it, ask her to save a bed for the friend I’m travelling with, and then she goes radio silent. We bike there anyway, and come to find it’s a somewhat fancy seaside hotel resort (with dorm beds) in a somewhat fancy seaside town. We get a room with 2 beds for $16 for me via AirBnB and $10 for Ryu paying on the spot in cash. The place is somewhat disorganized, and advantage goes to Ryu. He ends up staying there another 2 nights, motivated primarily by an interest in surfing, getting a private room for the cash price of a dorm bed.
The next morning, I’m ready to continue on, despite the fact that there’s a steady, medium rain coming down. So we part ways. We had discussed this over dinner the night before as the likely conclusion of our time together. I seal the deal in my mind by booking my flight home from Panama City for September 16, leaving me some spare time to get there, but not a lot. Not enough to linger in El Salvador or Honduras, especially at the expense of having that time for Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.
The next 3 days and nights kinda blend together. I see a horse corpse being burned on the shoulder of the road, then a dog corpse getting pecked at by vultures. I get shouted “hey gringo” or “hey bicicleta” at by a lot of people as I cycle by, which annoys me, but I get necessary and sufficient satisfaction from the passive counter-aggression of acting like their shouts have fallen on deaf ears, aided substantially by the constant use of earbuds playing music or podcast, and feel particularly satisfied when their frustration is made apparent by increasingly loud/aggressive/desperate shouts for my attention. I ponder this dynamic for a bit and find some empathy…if roles were reversed, I could easily see myself in the role of heckler…but not enough to consider giving them the satisfaction of reaction. On the other hand, I always and happily return waves, smiles, and any greeting that strikes me as good natured, of which there are at least 4 fold as many.
I pound out 90-110km days. I stay on two consecutive nights in “auto hotels” which are, apparently, sex hotels, with commercial grade toilet paper dispensers at the head of the bed, and in the case of the second one mirrors in very explicit locations and heights and super sad porn on a USB drive plugged into the TV. But these are the only hotels around, and camping seems ill-advised. It’s gross, but my exhaustion trumps disgust-tion.
I have $32 to convert to Honduran limpara at the border, having not used an ATM since Antigua, at a loss of about 4%. I spend about half of it on an absolutely disgusting hotel room in a town called San Lorenzo in Honduras. I have an offer to stay for free with the parents of a Warm Showers host in a larger, nicer town called Choluteca another 30km away, but I’m at 110km for the day, fairly exhausted, and there’s a heavy rain rolling in judging by the skies and constant rumble of thunder. I actually ride off having seen the room, but after half a kilometer and feeling the rain start, I double back in defeat and take the room.
In the room, there’s is a window AC unit blasting away next to another window with shuttered glass that provides no insulation whatsoever, on which at least half the cost of the room must be being sunk. I go out and splash around in flooded streets with the rest of the people walking about, the rain having started and the town’s drainage being non-existent, and spend about half of the half of my remaining money on food for dinner.
Back in the room, I’m happily falling asleep around 8pm when I’m startled awake by the distinctive “pop pop” of gunfire, which had actually started a bit earlier. This happens a couple more times, and again I find myself a feeling a combintion of irritation and fear.
The next day, I’m grateful for having eventually been able to get to, and stay asleep and recharge in order to be able to continue on my way ASAP. I grab a few snacks for breakfast, cycle just out of town, eat them in the shade getting occasional whistles from passers by, and then heads down and pedal to Choluteca. There, I go to a supermarket, chat with the security guard out front and leave my bike locked near his station. I spend the rest of my Limpara and eat most of what it got me (granola, fruit, yogurt) next to my bike. I have 45km to get to Nicaragua, and I’m literally heads down, counting them off. In a somewhat fitting farewell, approaching the border, I see a couple of kids, maybe 7 or 8 years old, in the road doing acrobatics of some sort for the benefit of passing vehicles. When it’s my turn, one of the kids jumps up and down then holds out a hand for I assume a high-five, as I’ve given a kid earlier in the day, but as I pass and the high-five is delivered, he shouts “una dollarrre, assholee” as I ride off. Bien Viaje, Honduras.
The border crossing is pretty hassle-free given the employ of one of my emergency benjamins. I pulled a couple out of hiding and had them ready for the occasion to spare me having to find and use an ATM at the border. I mean, I’m pretty sure I did all the things and have all the cards and stamps in order, but one can’t be totally sure until one gets out the other end.
I’m sure a lot of it is preconception, but rolling into Nicaragua, everything immediately seems completely different, and, well, better. For one, there’s hardly anything on the Nicaraguan side of the border. No hustle, no shops. Within a few kilometers I find a nice spot of shade to take some food and water and map out my options for getting cash and more food and water, and a super chill guy on a bike rolls up and quietly greets me and asks if he can share the shade. I say sure, and ask if he’s hungry. He says yes, so I pour him a handful of the granola I’m eating. While we’re chilling out in the shade, munching and making small talk, a father and son on a horse-pulled cart rolls by. There’s almost no trash strewn about. Some kids in school uniforms walk by. Everything just seems much more calm, quiet, clean, and relaxed.
I roll through a town that has a pretty prominade along the main street, and there’s some kind of parade wrapping up (it’s Sunday). I don’t spot any ATM, but another few km later, I spot a hotel which looks like it’s not a sex/auto hotel (though I did pass an auto hotel on my way to that point). It’s only 4:30, but I’m at 100km for the day and pretty tired having pushed to get to the border as I have, so I decide to see what the room would cost, and then if they’ll take dollars instead of Cordoba. The woman seems nice, and the room runs 300 Cordoba. I offer $10 which is only a tiny bit less at the current conversion, and she accepts. She has some teenage or early 20s guys working there with her. I ask if there’s food, and I think they say that they’ll be making some later. I ask for water, and they give me a cold 1.5 liter. I try to give them a dollar coin for it, but they refuse saying it comes with the room. I take a shower and then pass out on the bed in my towel. An hour later, one of the kids wakes me, gingerly, and introduces me to Richard. He’s from Alaska, married to a Nicaraguan woman, and together they own the hotel. They drive me back to town with the promenade to get dinner. Richard and I chat over beers while the food is being prepared, during which he tells me about the place, and about how many places in the region don’t have municipal water or access to wells. When my food comes, he and his wife drive back to the hotel to attend to the project that the guys are working on, which happens to be improvements to their water well. Not long after I’m done eating, they come back, pick me up, take me back to the hotel, and arrange for breakfast to be prepared by the woman on site the following morning.
I sleep soundly. The following morning, I enjoy a delicous breakfast that runs 50 Cordoba (less than $2) as I wrap up this blost, then set out for Leon, 110km away.
Looking at a map, weighing various biking routes, it can be hard to truly realize the magnitude of what you’re committing yourself to. As it was, for me, the previous morning in Tapachula, Mexico, a dozen km from the Guatemalan border, trying to decide between hugging the coast and crossing via the lowlands, or winding my way up into the highlands. On the one hand, I’ve set a return date of September 16, and I don’t have a lot of time to spare to get from here to Panama City. On the other hand, it’s not a race, and I’d rather have to grab a bus or change my flight than make serious concessions around what I get to see and do for the next 7 weeks. Plus, how bad could it possibly be?
Well let me tell you. Until today, I haven’t had to push my bike because of incline alone. I’ve had to push it through many short and a few medium stretches of water, mud, and/or snow, but I had all but concluded that my bike had gearing sufficiently low to take on any paved grade. If the grade was steep enough to necessitate standing up and hike-pedaling, then that would only ever be found in some village or country back-road, and only for a short stretch.
My day, and ride away from the border and into the interior of Guatemala, starts with a series of steep inclines and declines, too short to show up in the elevation profiles that I’d used to weigh my options. I bomb down the declines, reaching speeds approaching 70 km/h, then cross a bridge or round a bend and almost immediately come to a standstill on the incline. After a half dozen of these I conclude it’s not worth the wear on my already beleaguered drivetrain to shift out and then back into of my lowest gear, over and over again.
I get to Malacatán, my first, not-tiny, Guatemalan town and spot a supermarket within a shopping mall. It’s immaculate and nearly indistinguishable from one that you’d find stateside. I stock up on road calories and a $16, 6oz bottle of sunscreen. Guatemala is considerably more expensive than Mexico, at least w.r.t. consumables, and evidently just plain expensive for certain imported things.
The yo-yo-ing continues seemingly interminably, and on each ascent I hope that it’s not followed by a descent because I know I have to earn and keep 2500 meters (8200 feet) to get to San Marcos, my destination goal for the day. The bulk of this is over about 15km. For perspective for any of my Seattle brethren that have biked it, the climb from Port Angeles to the Hurricane Ridge visitor center is 5380 feet over about 30km. So this is 50% more climbing, at more than twice as steep a grade.
San Marcos is my goal because Estefania has added me to a WhatsApp group created by another cycle tourist of all of his hosts, and Fernando, a member of the group has offered to host me there. I tell him that I’ll be there that evening before I really appreciate what the effort this will entail.
When the yo-yo-ing seems to have stopped and the big climb seems to have started, I find a pull out by a idyllic little creek and take the opportunity to cool off with a dip, and to load up on calories. I’ve been hyper vigilant about staying hydrated as I’ve been sweating profusely in the jungly humid heat since I set out a few hours earlier.
At about 1000 meters elevation, a welcome mist rolls in (or do I roll into it?) and mercifully, the heat lets up. It does, however, heighten my concern over the positively insane chicken busses (brightly painted and ornately decorated school busses converted into regional transit busses), and their ability to see me in time to narrowly avoid clipping me. While I do sincerely appreciate their artistic splendor, I’ve come to detest these fucking things, many of which couldn’t come closer to running me off the road if they tried, and I’m not entirely sure that they’re not trying. Whereas in Mexico it was 1 in 20 busses that would come dangerously close in passing, here it’s the converse…1 in 20 chicken busses don’t come dangerously close. I actually don’t think they’re trying to kill me, rather, I conclude, they have a culture of ridiculously stupid risk taking, as I watch them pass one another, and other vehicles, around blind corners, bellowing black smoke so thick that it in itself is a serious road hazard, as they open up their throttle.
It’s common that drivers of all varieties of vehicles (chicken bus and otherwise) honk just as they’re upon me. When I’m feeling less than cheerful in general, I’m currently in the practice of honking back, in kind/parody/mock, verbally, just to release the tension that the initial honk invariably injects me with. All the same, I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of honks are well intentioned, as it’s not uncommon for them to be followed by waves and thumbs ups. So once I’m in better mood, it feels a bit dickish to mockingly honk back.
Ok, so those are my main gripes. That, and this hill that is going on for-absolutely-ever. On the other hand, the scenery is magical, and the beautiful, gold-capped-toothed, diminutive indigenous folks that are all about, walking down the road in the opposite direction, almost always give me the most warm, welcoming, heart melting smiles.
My legs are screaming, and in order to maintain a speed where I can stay upright without weaving so much as to make myself too easy a target for the chicken busses, I have to exert a torque that seems unsustainable for my knees. I’m deeply grateful for them scantly ever complaining. I know that by the time they start complaining, the damage has started, and I either have to take significant time off the bike to let them properly recover, or risk doing serious and irreparable damage. At my age, and at who knows how many thousands of miles, I know I am incredibly fortunate to be chronic/acute pain free. I experience the diffuse pain of muscle fatigue daily, but other than soreness in my achilles tendons the first weeks while I adjusted to long distances without clip-less pedals, a couple of back spasms when I’ve foolishly slung my loaded rig a bit too hastily, and assorted scrapes and scratches from tumbles and pushing through brush and stuff, I’ve been injury free. So, rather than taking my knees for granted for the sake of my pride, I concede defeat in biking my way up all 2500 meters, and dismount and push. I’ll cross paths with a kid toting a scale tomorrow morning in San Marcos, and pay him a few cents to use it to weigh my rig, via W(myself + rig) – W(myself), and find that it’s 100lbs, not including water. Pushing this up a steep grade is non-trivial, but at half the speed of pedaling it up in the lowest possible gear, it’s about half as much exertion. I take breaks every 30 minutes to stop panting for a bit, pee, chug more water, and try to estimate how much more climbing I have left.
When the slope decreases, I remount, even if it’s only for a few hundred meters. It seems a shame to forsake the mechanical advantage when indeed it is an advantage. On one such occasion, a semi with a trailer load that is a standard-semi-container-length open bed, covered by tarp, secured by thick twine wrapped around it, passes me going only about 10% faster than I am. I seize the opportunity. The twine runs horizontal across the back of the bed, and when I grab hold of it, it stretches to give me 2-3 feet of distance between my front wheel and his rear end. He can’t see me at all, which is great, except that if he brakes suddenly for whatever reason, I won’t be able to avoid colliding into the trailer. My legs are burning having sprinted to catch up and stay caught up long enough to safely approach, so for about 30 seconds I let them recover. But using my arms alone to pull myself along quickly tires my arms, or at least some very particular muscles in each of my arms and core. So I shift to my middle crank chain ring, since my left hand is on the bike and that’s the shifter to which I have access, and this puts me in a reasonably good gear to pedal assist my arms at our cruising speed of 15 km/h (up from about 10 when I latched on). I make note of my trip distance after about a minute. Cars are routinely passing us, and when I catch a glimpse of the driver, they’re amused and giving thumbs ups. Even if they were indignant at my parasiticness, I can’t see how they’d alert the driver about his parasite. It occurs to me that one of them could get in front of him, slam on the brakes, and ruin my day/month, but the odds of this seem too low to give up on this blessed get-out-of-climb-free card. It’s about 4km later when even with pedal assist, I need to switch the role of my arms if I’m going to continue with the assist. Doing so without letting go of the rope would in some sense be easiest, but would require a moment of having no hands on my bike, which seems likely to end badly. I wait until there’s no cars behind me, invariably tailgating while they jockey to pass, and then pedal hard, release, and re-grab. With my right hand now on the bike, I can fine tune my choice of gear so that the pedal assist requires a minimal amount of effort. But not more than a couple minutes later, everything is seeming a little less effort, and then a little less, and a glance down at my speedometer indicates that we’re up to 17 km/hour. My eyes are otherwise peeled on the few feet of road surface I can see in front of my front wheel, on lookout for rocks or potholes that I might need to avoid on very short notice. The driver shifts gears, and with a firm tug, we’re approaching 20 km/hour. Not wanting to look a gift truck in the mouth, I release. Indeed, we’re not quite at the pass, but we’re close enough that the grade is leveling out and cycling this incline is cake compared to what I’ve just gotten pulled out of. The cars that pass me immediately thereafter seem as delighted for me as I am for myself for what they just watched me do. I’m not sure about the driver, but as I get into the area of visibility of his side view mirrors, I wave, beam a huge smile, and call a long drawn out “graaaaciaaas”.
I pull over to don my rainshell as it’s starting to drizzle. Also, I’m about to bomb down a decline and give up much hard won (and some easily cheated) elevation. Even if it wasn’t drizzling, it’s chilly up here at 8000 misty feet, I’m still drenched with sweat, and with apparent winds of ~60km/hour, I would be chilly enough that it would detract from what is otherwise blissful flying. As a rule, when the navy blue rainshell goes on, so does the helmet, and on that goes the rear red-blinky. I eat the rest of my road calories then saddle up.
I actually only give up a few hundred meters of elevation as I descend out of the mist into what feels like a new day, with a low-ish sun casting a golden evening light, but air still cool. I stop at a bakery, unable to resist the temptation to indulge in something carby and sweet. The owner all but embraces me the moment I walk in, shakes my hand heartily as he gets my standard trip synopsis, and then orders me a coffee and a ham and cheese sandwich. He sits with me as I enjoy them, and then I get up and help myself to a slice of chocolate cake. When I ask him how much it all is, he says that the coffee and sandwich are on him, so I tip 60% on the cake, which goes to the employee that’s been waiting on us. He takes a couple of photos of me for his facebook page, I give him my info, and I’m on my way.
I get to the location pin that Fernando sent via WhatsApp and message him. He comes out from what turns out is his motorcycle shop and greets me. He takes me to a hotel across the street, which is where I’m actually being put up. The hotel proprietor seems obliging, but not particularly thrilled to have me as a guest staying but not paying (he must owe Fernando a favor), so I resolve that I’ll give him a decent tip when I depart. Fernando says that his friend is going to provide us dinner in about an hour, and leaves me to go back to close up shop while I shower, change, and generally make myself presentable.
We drive to his friend Pedro’s place, which is actually a cafe, where we use Fernando’s macbook air to aid in our conversation (Google Translate, Google Earth, Google Search, Facebook, in roughly that order). His friend brings us several platters of appetizers, sandwiches and coffee. A little while later, a young woman joins us, and this is, it seems, Fernando’s girlfriend (sadly I can’t recall her name) with a six of beers. She knows enough English to supplant use of the laptop. Pedro closes up shop, and periodically takes breaks from cleaning to sit down and join the ongoing conversation. Fernando’s girlfriend’s sister, Paola (Pao, for short) comes by an hour or so later, also with beers. I’m drinking at a rate of about 1 per hour, but with my day of significant exertion and my metabolism thusly through the roof, I don’t feel any effect, which is fine with me. Pao is a bundle of delightful energy, and this is key to me staying conscious and engaged when otherwise I would be collapsed into a puddle of exhaustion. One or two trips are made to a convenience store down the road for more beer, but eventually it’s some time past midnight (my phone’s battery has died and I’ve lost track of time) and it’s closed, and everyone is ready to call it a night. We pile into Pedro’s car. He’s abstained from having anything to drink, and the responsibility demonstrated is admirable as Fernando leaves his car in that part of town for the evening.
Pao is an avid photographer and wants to do a photoshoot with me and my bike the following morning. How can I decline? We agree to meet at my hotel at 10:30.
Back in my room, I’m so far beyond exhausted that I’m having dream like hallucinations before I have a chance to slip into unconsciousness. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this or similar, but it can be a little frightening when it happens. One trick that seems to work for me is to find the energy to shift my body a bit each time a scary thing happens. Eventually, I assume, sleep comes before dream stuff, and all is well. Of course I don’t remember falling asleep, I just know that I manage to.
In the morning, I message Fernando, then go out for a couple of breakfasts. I’m just getting back to the hotel when Fernando is getting there as well to check in on me. He calls Pao and confirms the plan to meet in 30 minutes. I spend the time packing and then Pao and I head out for our photoshoot. I feel pretty goofy and self-conscious, but she gets some nice shots for which I’m vain enough to be grateful. She walks me back to the hotel, during which we encounter the boy with scale that I mentioned earlier, and says that I should stop by the bakery her family owns, and at which she and her sister work, on my way out of town.
I finish packing, say goodbye to Fernando, who lubes up my bike in front of his motorcycle shop, and then head to the bakery. I meet and chat with Pao’s brother and then buy a half dozen sweet and savory things. Just as we’re saying our final goodbyes, Pao’s son is getting out of school, and I get to meet him. He’s a super sweet 7 year old, and not as shy as most kids his age.
I have a couple of 300 meter climbs ahead of me, and I’m only a few km out of town when I can’t resist stopping and eating some of the pastries I’ve just purchased, and I can’t resist starting back up until they’re all consumed. The climbs are much shorter than the day before, but just as steep, and I spend about maybe an hour total pushing the bike, which is not bad, but maybe would be a bit easier had I gotten more rest the night before.
I get into Queztaltenango, Guatemala’s largest city, second to its capitol, at about 5pm. I check into a hostel I in which I reserved a bed on hostel world. It has a well appointed kitchen, so I walk to a market to get a bunch of veggies and beans to make myself a massive, nutritionally optimal dinner, taking in the sights on the way, and using awnings to avoid the downpour that I’m grateful to have come now rather than while I was still in transit by bike. I wolf it down and then pass out by 9pm.
In the morning, I make another large, nutritious meal for breakfast, boil a half dozen eggs for the afternoon, and eat them while chatting with one of the hostel staff who is proposing activities that are tempting me to stay another night in town. But I’m averaging 60km a day, and at this rate perhaps not tracking to make it to Panama City by Sept. 16, so I decide to continue on and preserve precious momentum.
Google maps doesn’t provide bicycling directions in all countries. Seems Mexico is the last country of this tour where they’re available. So I have at my disposal driving and walking directions. I’ve been in this situation before, in Eastern Europe, and walking directions are to cycling directions what cycling directions are to driving directions. That is, the things they’ll take you down are sometimes definitely not bike-able. But today, in order to get to my next general destination, Lake Atitlan, there’s a section where I can shave off 10km by taking a walking-route leg of a triangle (where the other two sides of the triangle are driving direction legs), putting the distance at 50km total instead of 60km. I have to ascend 600 meters to 3000 meter elevation elevation in either case. If I take the walking direction route, the walking-only leg terminates at the 3000 meter pass. The driving route looks steep in itself, so if I’m pushing my bike anyways, how much worse can it be on a trail of some sort?
The answer is, much, much worse. But I don’t find this out until I’m a couple hours committed to the shortcut, which early on takes me through single track trails through cornfields, and up some pretty steep but manageable stuff. But the last 500 meters of climb (yes, 500 of 600) goes up a road that turns into a trail that grows increasingly narrow. Then the trail diverges from Google Maps account of it, at which time I get the dreaded “rerouting” message and am proceeding on faith that the trail will meet up with the road. For longer than I should, I resist the inevitable need to separate bags from bike and carry them individually, in turns, relaying them up the trail, which by the time I do, is a narrow swath of bowling ball sized and larger rocks through dense foliage.
I see an old indigenous man walking barefoot down the trail at a snail’s pace, carrying a bundle of wood and a machete. Not a great sign that the trail terminates at the road, but by this time, I can hear the occasional truck at some distance and figure there’s no way it can’t…eventually. He’s making strange grunting noises, which may or may not be expressions in an indigenous tongue. He doesn’t seem to speak any spanish, or at least understand my attempts at it. It takes him a few minutes to go the 20 meters or so between him and I when I first spot him, but I don’t want to try and squeeze by him carrying my bike, which he points to repeatedly with his machete and grunts and/or says something. Despite the machete, he’s not at all threatening seeming. To the contrary, and at the risk of coming across as patronizing, I find him adorable
I count off a hundred steps when doing the relays because it seems to help me cope with what I’ve gotten myself into, and because why not. I do about a half dozen of them, and then, reassured by being able to hear more/smaller passing vehicles, and more clearly, I stop to eat the last of my food, boiled eggs and peanuts, and think of MJ in Tempe and how much I could go for a PB&J and fried egg sandwich. A bit later, when I’m back at the carrying stuff relay, doubling back for my bicycle, I hear someone tromping downhill, off-trail, from above. It’s a younger guy, dressed pretty sharply, toting a small valise. He speaks Spanish, and confirms the road is up the trail, and not too much further ahead. I’m in no position to take his shortcut, struggling to carry my things up the narrow trail as it is, but very relieved to hear his affirmation. He chuckles as we get to my bike and he figures out what idiocy I’m engaged in before continuing down the trail with the agility of a mountain goat.
When I finally emerge from the woods to the highway, it’s on the ridge of a crest. I’m not exactly at the pass, but the grade looks (and turns out to be) blissfully easy relative to what I just did. It’s 3:30pm, and in the current timezone and location, the sun sets at about 7pm. So I should have enough time to cover the remaining 35km to San Pedro La Leguna, the town on this side of Lake Atitlan that I’ve decided to get to today, especially considering it’s mostly flat-ish and descent, with only a couple of minor climbs.
I’m bombing down a descent as the sky is threatening to open up an afternoon rain, periodically checking that I’m still on course. But I let a few minutes and a few hundred meters of elevation gain go by between checks and then realize that I’ve missed a turn. Instead of heading to the West side of the lake, I’m running parallel to the North edge of it. Doubling back and climbing those hundreds of meters is a non-starter at this point in the day to my mind, so I plot a course to Panajachel, a similar but slightly less touristy town on the Northeast side of the lake. Driving directions take me off highway, but that’s fine. I have to do a couple more non-trivial climbs, and some large descents, but I think I have the energy for it.
The route turns out to be pretty great, winding through tiny hamlets nestled in misty hills. I’m well off the route taken by other tourists, cycling or otherwise, judging by the level of gawk my presence elicits. My spirits are high, knowing that I’m at the tail end of a fairly epic day of exertion, so I respond positively and enthusiastically to all the whistles, shouts, and hoots.
The last climb is not long, but is steep and non-trivial, and takes every bit of juice that I have left, and then some, as I have to walk a bit of it. At the top of it is a town that seems small at first, but turns out to be fairly large as I get to it’s core around a central plaza. It’s dusk and nearly dark as I crest the terrain and roll into the town center. I know it’s only a rapid descent into lakeside Panajachel, but I figure that if there’s a hotel in town that’s reasonably priced, it would be nice to call it a night and leave the steep, bombing decent for morning, when with any luck, I can stop and enjoy views of the lake from above.
I find such a room on my first try in a hotel run by a kindly older man. I check in and don’t even bother washing up before heading out to indulge in a couple of dinners and deserts. While I’m making my way from dinner #1 to dinner #2, a mob of mostly children descends on the town square. They’re shouting, running, carrying torches and glowing spheres, and flanked by cars pounding on their horns. There’s deafening fireworks being set off from all over, while they make a couple of laps around the central plaza. I have no idea what it was all about, and I don’t really have the energy to ask, but based on their fairly homogenous clothing, I’d venture to guess that it was a sort of pep rally for a local school or some affiliated organization. It definitely seems celebratory, and not protest-atory, in nature, as onlookers are generally smiling or indifferent.
I watch a guy in a soldier uniform escort a incoherently drunken man into an alcove, help him lie down, and then go back to where he came, his work concerning the drunk apparently complete.
I head back to the room, where there’s a window directly adjoining a main road out of town, and passing trucks make the panes of the window rattle with their deafeningly loud, rumbling engine brakes. But this is no matter. I’m out like a light shortly after I’m horizontal, at around 9 and not woken until the same noises resume at 6 the following morning.
I take my time getting going, having a big breakfast and a post breakfast nap. I’ve had a grueling 3 days, and while momentum is great, my parts are telling me they need a break. I’ve decided I’m going to descend to Panajachel, find accommodations, and take a day off in a touristic resort town.
And this is what I do, along with working on this blost, using my rapidly decreasingly but still just barely sufficiently functional bluetooth keyboard. I do so, more or less camped out at a touristy cafe that has the kind of food that is easy to find in Seattle, but quite rare in these parts. At night I venture around by bike, and the streets are mayhem and the churches have racous revival music bellowing out. I make myself a big dinner of chopped veggies and pass out. I have a pretty big day if I’m going to get to Antigua the next day.
I make myself a basic breakfast and then head out to take on the big climb out of the lake valley. I have a climb of 600 meters, then a descent of about half of that, then another climb of 600 meters and change. Of course, all of this assumes that there aren’t descents and climbs that are short enough duration that they don’t show up on my elevation profile app, which often there are. Thankfully, today, it’s largely monotonic. When I’m about 1/4 the way through the second climb, I encounter a mountain biker. His name is Francisco, and he and I ride to the top of the climb together while making small talk. His English is only a bit better than my Spanish, so it’s good practice for us both. I think I’m not holding him up too much, but it’s hard to tell as he’s a very gracious companion. He invites me to lunch at his home in Patzun, which turns out to be perched on top of a hill with a beautiful panoramic view of the city and surrounding pastures. It’s a small compound on which live a couple of his five brothers. Not long after we settle in, his 6 year old niece, wearing a traditional dress, entertains us with a non-stop monologue which is great practice for my Spanish comprehension, as the subject matter and vocabluary are well suited for my skill level. Also, she is positively adorable in her relentless delivery, pausing only, and with strained patience, when I occasionally need Francisco’s assistance translating what she’s saying.
The skies are darkening and Francisco is sympathetic to my desire to get the remaining 45km to Antigua. I’ve only covered 25km so far, but it was a very challenging 25km, and the rest of the route should be comparatively easy, and take a little less time.
It is, and does, though there is a heavy, albeit breif downpour during one of my big descents into the greater metropolitan area. The only close call is with a black dog that I’m late to notice, with my rain splattered sunglasses acting as goggles, who’s facing the road, not noticing me, and taking up the entire shoulder to which I’ve been relegated by the traffic that is indifferent to the rain and the associated decreased visibilty and increased stopping distances. My only option is to yell to get the dog’s attention and hope that he understands the urgency of the situation. I yell “Oye!” with all my breath, to which the dog casts me a sideways glance and nonchalantly takes a minimal two steps before I whiz by, missing it by inches. I can pratically visualize the dog’s thought balloon saying “pfff, whatever” as I’m simultaneously shuddering with the adrenaline of the near disasterous collision of canine and cycle and feeling an undeniable awed respect for the complete lack of fucks given by street dogs in general, and this one in particular.
Traffic coming into town is at a standstill, and I and other two wheeled vehicles weave through it. It seems I’m actually a good deal more nimble than my motored counterparts, able and willing to squeeze through gaps that they’re not. I’m not much narrower, when taking into account my bags, but at 100 pounds, my bike is considerably lighter than even the lightest motorbike, and I figure this must be the main factor.
I take a walking-directions short cut which actually is a short cut and also spares me a lot of up-down getting into town, shaving probably 30-45 minutes of hard pedaling. On one of the descents, the road is smooth, steep, and straight enough that I set a personal speed record of 78 km/h. At anything beyond 65 km/h my gearing maxes out and pedalling makes barely a difference. It comes down to gravity vs. terminal velocity, and so at those speeds I stop pedalling in favor of positioning myself to minimize drag.
I get into the hostel I reserved that morning, and meet Sebastian, who’s just waking up from a mid-day nap. He’s just come back from a hike up Acatenango, a volcano adjacent to an active one appropriately named Fuego. He shows me pictures and videos of the volcano, and they are amazing. It turns out that the volcano was more active the prior night, during which he was on Acatenango, than it has been in years and possibly decades, so I resolve that I too need to do this trek. But first, Sebastian has a lead on a nearby hotel where we can make use of pool and sauna for 40 Quetzal ($5.30), so we do. Then we grab dinner at Samsara, another establishment that is very much like what one can easily find in Seattle (kale, quinoa, veggie swarma, smoothies involving raw cocoa, etc) and then he accompanies me to the hostel where he booked the trek, a few blocks from the one in which we’re staying. I get booked, and make arrangements to leave my things at that hostel when I’m picked up at 9am the following morning.
I’m up and packing at 7am, and say my farewell to Sebastian before heading out to breakfast, and to stock up on food supplies to augment the fairly meager lunch, dinner and breakfast that are provided on the trek, per Sebastian’s much appreciated advice. I meet up with a couple of women from Hamburg that I’d met at the hostel the night before, and we chat on the shuttle to the trailhead. There, I pick up a backpack that I’d rented. Alfonso, the guide, has a sheet of gear that’s been rented, and it does not reflect the 40Q that I paid for use of the backpack, but we were seated next to each other on the hour ride to the trailhead, and chatted about my trip and his mountain biking and I’m pretty sure it’s because of this that he just shrugs off the accounting discrepancy and gives me the pack without any further inquiry.
There’s about 25 of us in total, along with 2 guides. I’m the only American in the group, but there’s several Brits, a couple of Canadians, and not surprisingly, English is the default language among the clients. German runs a close second. I believe only the Peruvian is a native Spanish speaker.
The hike up the mountain to base camp covers about 2000 meters of elevation gain. Not surprisingly, I and the guides are in considerably better shape than the majority of the crew, and there are a half dozen breaks to let them catch up. At base camp, which is blustery, the guides pull out a fifth of whiskey and pass it around, while we huddle around a roaring campfire of machete felled pine trees, also provided by the guides. There’s a lot of cloud cover as the sun sets, and many people in the group are vocally anxious about whether or not we’re going to see any eruptions at all. We’re all keenly aware of how active the volcano was two nights prior.
Shortly after I confirm by show of hands that I’m the only American in the crew, and invite and field the disgust and humiliation of Donald Trump, a massive log about a foot thick and 4 feet wide tumbles from the fire. It’s rolling down the gradual slope that comprises our campsite, with only me standing between it and another camp of volcano watchers about 50 meters down a steep slope just behind me. It rolls into my rain shell covered legs and is starting to melt the plastic when I hop over it, but also halt it by pressing the sole of my shoe to the top of it as one might do with a soccer ball. The guides are immediately apologetic and thankful, understanding the catastrophe that’s been avoided as someone in the group calls out, good natured jokingly “america saves the day, again!”
We are to get up at 3:30am to set out for the summit, and by 8:30pm, I’m the only one still up. I’m brushing my teeth when I see a small plume of bright red lava shoot up and spill down one of the slopes. There’s a chorus of “wooo”s from other camps on the observation slope, and I instinctively call out “lava! lava! lava!”. Within seconds, everybody is out of their tents, looking at the now again dark cone in the distance. I feel a bit crappy for getting them up for nothing, but I’m also ready to go to bed, so this seems like as good as time as any. I’m getting to use my bivvy and sleeping bag for the first time in some time, and it’s very chilly and windy at our camp at 11,800 feet. I wish everybody goodnight and crawl in and start to warm up my hands and feet when I hear another exclamation, this time including “woo”s from my crew. I don’t bother getting up, knowing that the eruption will be done by the time I do, but I feel a lot better having now not gotten them out of bed for nothing.
I’m too excited for our nocturnal ascent to 4000 meters to (hopefully) watch eruptions and the sunrise to sleep all the way through to 3:30. We set out and it’s a tiring, tricky, and tiny bit terrifying scramble up the pumice pebble cone in the dark. But we’re rewarded by a couple of giant geysers of magma shooting into the sky as we do, that are much larger than what I’d seen the night before. The wind is frigid and whipping through all of our clothing, none of us particularly suited for sub-freezing, high-speed winds. About a dozen of us huddle up as we sit down to watch the cone and wait for an explosion, and it’s quite endearing how comfortable everyone is, particularly some guys that I wouldn’t have guessed would be so non-homophobic, pressing into one another to share warmth and windsheild. Eventually, we’re rewarded with a giant plume at least a kilometer tall, against a dark blue sky, where the light is just right to make out the car sized rocks being sprayed in the air, the thick black smoke, and the red hot magma. It’s not the constant stream of a couple of nights ago, but we’re all happy that we got to see one of the few currently active volcanos on Earth demonstrate it’s might. I saw lava a few years ago from a boat off the coast of the big island in Hawaii, and that was also awe inspiring, but this was a distinctly different and in some ways more powerful experience, to see a geyser of earth-guts spray from the top of a cone of the stuff, and hear and feel the gutteral rumble.
None of us is unready to leave the peak when we the guides call for us to descend, as the cold was acutely painful despite our efforts to band together against it. During our descent, there are a handful more eruptions, though we’re not able to discern the magma against the now bright blue backdrop.
We pack up camp, have coffee and breakfast, then descend back to where the shuttle picks us up. For each of our rest breaks, and on the ride home, I’m asleep within minutes, and I enjoy having the ability to close my eyes and almost immediately slip into unconsciousness.
Back at the hostel where I booked my place on the trek, the hostel staffer that helped me do so, a delightful young guy from Holland named Jordan (pretty sure), has made my case to the hostel owner for allowing me to stay with them despite being fully booked. When I wait my turn, among other clients, to chat with her, she tells me that they’re fully booked. I mention that Jordan and I discussed the possibility of me camping out on the roof, to which she says “Oh, you’re Jeremy!? Yes, you’re quite welcome to. Jordan’s told me all about your bike adventures.” I propose that I pay something, since even though I won’t have a bed, I will be making use of the bathroom and other facilities, but she declines. It seems having ridden my bike as far as I have is a sort of all-access card. I try not to take advantage of it, or take it for granted, but I’d be lying if I said I haven’t gotten a bit used to (in a good way) the way people, particularly other travellers, light up when they ask where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to, as travellers do with one another.
I pull my bags out of storage, re-organize my gear that became disheveled in my rush to go on the trek, say goodbye to my new Hamburgian friends, and am carrying my bike out to the street to seek out some much needed sustenance when a young english woman named Rebecca calls out “Hey, I heard about you. I want to hear about your trip.” I tell her I’d be happy to, later, after I grab some food. Which I do, as I finish this.
Antigua is about half way through Guatemala. From here, I think I’m going to head out of the highlands towards the Southern costal low lands. By some local accounts, while this will get me away from grueling gradients, it will lead me to equally grueling heat and humidity, so much so that other bicycle tourists have had to resort to bussing their way away from it. We’ll see…from my perspectives so far, Guatemala can indeed be punishing, but equally rewarding once endured. Plus, how bad could it possibly be? ;P