A Gringo In Guatemala

For the full photo diary of this part of the tour please click here

It dawned on me yesterday as I rode my first few miles in Guatemala that I’ve officially ridden the whole length of North America. What that means in itself I can’t be sure but there is no disputing in my mind that I am nearing the end of the first grand chapter in my adventure. Having bonked hard yesterday I decided to get a room in Huehuetenango (think Way Way) today to slow down, make the necessary resupplies and get my head around a new country and the next leg of the tour up to Belize.

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Yes, the border crossing at La Mesilla really is this inspiring

So far having only cycled on one road to a point just over 50 miles into Guatemala I can’t say there are many great differences from the beautiful Mexican state of Chiapas that I have just left. The vegetation is lush and green, the mountains absolutely stunning and the rain just as predictable and unforgiving. The major point of note so far is that the occasional cry of ‘Hey Gringo’ that started creeping in after entering Oaxaca state has escalated into a torrent of shouts alluding to my pale skin and apparently obvious origins in the USA. The cries are friendly and sometimes amusing but I know even the most up-tempo cycle tourist tires of it eventually. The children are hilarious, with a say what you see mentality virtually all of them will utter ‘Gringo’ as I pass, some are cute, others need a sharp kick in the groin. The adults often join the Gringo chorus or will wave and say ‘bye bye’ as I chug past. CA1, the highway I have just ridden is well and truly part of the Gringo Trail and I am aware that this easy ride in is perhaps the most popular entry point for touring cyclists into Central America, so these guys get plenty of practice with their funny comments. The couple that stick with me are the two grown men who shouted ‘Hey baby’, the lack of irony reeked of too many Hollywood movies and no appreciation of the inappropriateness of the phrase. People would just whistle in Mexico… maybe this is what its like to be an attractive woman.

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Mexican vultures over a sleepy Chiapas

I knew full well that the ride from San Cristobal down to the Guatemalan border at La Mesilla would be quick and easy. A bit over 100 miles there is a few ups and downs before the town of Comitan after which the road quickly descends into the hot and humid world that exists below 1,500 feet. In reality it is just a day and a bits cycling but I had my reasons for stretching it out to two days: I wanted to hit the border early in the morning and I knew that camping opportunities are few, if any, in the first 30 miles of Guatemalan riding. So I left San Cristobal in the afternoon camped up just before Comitan and then used every trick in the touring cyclists handbook to waste time the next day. This wasn’t hard after the exit from Comitan left me in a complentative mood. Sculptures representing each of the Mexican states line the road taking me back on a mental journey through my last six months in Mexico. Even knowing I’ll be back in the country in a few weeks I was left surprisingly emotional.  I carried these feelings with me to a decent camping spot about 5 miles from Ciudad Cuauhtemoc on the Mexican side of the border.

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The highway threads itself through this mesmerizingly dramatic V-shaped valley up towards Huehuetenango

5am yesterday morning I woke and started my usual camp break and breakfast routine, pausing to enjoy my steaming cup of tea under a clear sky and sparkling stars. By 7am I was on the bike and by 8:30 I was riding up out of the Guatemalan border town of La Mesilla. The hardest part of the whole experience was the 3 mile climb between Mexican and Guatemalan immigration and that really was no challenge at all. Mexican immigration scanned, grunted and stamped, barely acknowledging my existence outside of a passport photograph. Guatemalan immigration followed the same routine only with less scanning and more grunting. Lifting his head only to confirm I was travelling into Guatemala I can’t be sure that the guy even looked at my face. Sum total of time in both offices amounted to literally 5 minutes. I have a 90 day stamp in my passport and a nagging feeling that I missed something. I like to think it was worth getting up early for anyway.

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About as inspiring view of Huehuetenango as I could find

The afternoon deluge has just started here in Hueuetenango but for once I am under a roof and not a victim of the rainy season. Yesterday the first cracks of thunder and large splodges of rain were the final straw, pushing me off the road and into the tent. This is normally not my style, provided its not too heavy (by this I mean heavier than anything imaginable in the UK) I’ll soldier on enjoying the cooling relief and knowing full well that an hours riding in the morning sun will get me back to square one. But yesterday I bonked, struggling 10 miles after a delicious lunch in Colotenango until I had nothing left in the tank. I’ve had low energy moments on tour but this is the first time its hit me so hard. I was lucky though, I hadn’t seen a decent camping opportunity all day but as the rain became heavier I was able to dive off the road to set up in a perfect high ground spot sheltered from the road by undulations and trees. Up until this point the road had either been snaking through a picturesque and severely V-shaped valley with only cliffs on one side and a large drop to the river on the other, or been entirely lined with buildings or inaccessible and uncampable farmland. Aside from a couple of bridges across the river there had seemed no opportunities.

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The scene of my hibernation…Fellow campers will appraciate the beauty of sleeping with your head above your feet.

Having organized myself inside the tent I immediately fell asleep. I slept from 5:30 until 9:30pm, got up for a piss and to do my Spot then slept again 10 through 7 am the next morning. I’ve never missed dinner before so this is more than unusual for me. My only guess is that I was more nervous about the border crossing than I thought. I never felt any anxiety but figure that nervous energy and tension release must explain my mega sleep. It was a long day and I didn’t realize until checking the bike computer this morning that I also climbed over 5,000 feet yesterday, not massive, but above average. The upshot is that this morning I completed the 8 remaining miles into Heuheu, the destination I had hoped to ride into yesterday.

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Topographical model in the town square of Huehuetenango shows my route in from the left of shot. Clearly visable are Colotenango where I lunched and Hueuetenango (bottom right)

Tomorrow I start moving towards Coban and begin my first tour through Guatemala. Knowing that I am on a circular route that will bring me back into the country after Belize, Quintana Roo, Cuba, Yucatan and Campeche, this visit I consider myself in transit. I am going to enjoy the riding and what I see experience from the road but will leave all the sites and attractions until I return. This is why I have taken this quick and easy route into the country when I know full well that there are great and interesting dirt routes through Todos Santos or San Mateo Ixtatan. I’ve certainly missed a trick with these routes but there are definitely methods to my madness.

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