For the full photo diary of this part of the tour please click here
I am very impressed with the Guatemalan Highlands. The route I have just taken from Huehuetenango through Quiche into Alta Verapaz and my present location, Coban, perfectly suites my taste in riding. At two and a half days and 114 miles it is certainly not a long stretch, indeed a road probably more aptly described by the 12,700 feet of climbing involved. Although mostly paved, there is about an 18 mile stretch between the low point of 2,400 feet at the Chixoy River crossing into Alta Verapaz and the delightful town of San Cristobal Verapaz that remains unpaved. Along the way I have discovered the true Maya of Guatemala, witnessed the power of nature and that of spiritual devotion, and reminded myself of the fantastic challenges of unpaved surfaces.
Over the last few days Guatemala has presented itself with a certain honesty. The reaction I have had from people has been overwhelmingly positive, I’ve found the populace to be polite, curious and smiley. In fact my experiences thus for of Guatemala make my old mistress, Mexico, look rather obnoxious; all flashy, loud music and cheek. Up until now, it has always mystified me why so many people from the UK travel over to this part of the world just to explore one tiny little nation. It has its dangers and its McDonald’s but the counter balance in Guatemala is immense; women more beautiful than I ever imagined could exist, small children cute enough that even I want to take them home put them on a shelf and marvel at the incandescent infectiousness of innocence, a landscape that must have dropped directly from heaven and incredible coffee. The riding ain’t half bad either.
The road from Huehue to Coban is what I would describe as ‘generous’; high-grade climbing and descents combine with the regular afternoon and night-time downpours to make things a little, but not Copper Canyon style, tough. However, the returns from these investments expose a very generous interest rate. This became immediately obvious to me on the first morning out of Huehuetenango: A short sharp climb up Calle 1a took me out of town and onto the road towards Aguacatan. The polluted bustle of Huehuetenango gave way to a traffic free spin up through pine forests with great views back down the valley. At 7,250 feet the hill crested and I started to drop down to 5,500 feet and Aguacatan. The descent soon had me upon a recent landslide and marooned in half a foot of sticky mud. The intensity of the rainy season combines with the mountain topography to ensure that no part of road around here is free from such a threat. There were a couple of stretches of pavement on this route that seemed to have less hardtop remaining than had been washed down the mountain.
A short no-holds-barred climb out of Aguacatan deposited me onto a delightful steady climb up to 6,500 feet. The spread of milpas and small Mayan villages was totally mesmerizing, creating a man-made beauty that like the English Lake District, distracts you from the harmful deforestation that underpins its existence. As the road curved towards the edge of a falling valley I could see the junction town of Sacapulas nestled a couple of hundred feet below. Within no time the brake warming drop had deposited my into its hot and sweaty clutches. I bought water, indulged myself in the curiosity of the locals and then started what is the crux climb of the route up and over to Cunen.
A few miles and 1,200 quite intense feet out of Sacapulas the clouds had completely blackened and I could feel the powerful thunder rumble through my chest. After a short day of only just over 40 miles it seemed sensible to pitch up and avoid what promised to be the mother of all downpours. I spotted a track leading up the mountain side into the pine forest and figured there would almost certainly be a good spot to camp. There certainly was and thus began quite an evening. At the top of this little dirt road sat a largish shelter with corrugated iron roof and headed by some kind of shrine furnished with brightly colored and recently picked flowers. Behind the far end of the shelter two stout tarpaulin shelters sat overlooking the valley down towards Sacapulas. On the concrete floor lay a Mayan family; two women (one clearly the others mother) dressed in traditional Mayan clothing, two infant children and a young Ladino father. As they were clearly living up here I started conversation that led to a night under shelter and out of the rain.
Thomas, the father, tried to explain to me the flowers and why they were there. I understood that the shelter was connected to an electricity company in some way but my Spanish (which is finally improving) couldn’t stretch to further details. No matter, it would soon become more obvious to me. With great embarrassment and under the intense scrutiny and continuous questioning of Thomas and his 6-year-old son Juan, I put the tent up and settled in. Everything was fascinating to my new friends; the tent, Thermarest, sleeping bag and most of all my Primus Omni Fuel stove. I felt like and evil wizard as I summoned a loudly roaring blue flame from my magic red bottle. Juan was close to terrified by the contraption but mellowed as he and his mother sat at close quarters to analyse my every move. I felt like a rich spoilt brat with too many toys, guilt and embarrassment threatened to swallow me as I realized their whole family ate from a pot on a wood fire and slept together on a thin canvas mat, all covered by a single blanket. Although it is this kind of education that has bought me on this journey and this close proximity to another world that brings me by bike, the gulf in wealth made me feel very uncomfortable. I live in immense comfort and feel humbled with great remorse for the hardships I was perceived to be living with by North American spectators and commentators last year.
Then the fun really began. Midway through cooking, another couple pulled up in their truck, we briefly spoke and then they moved away. Next thing I knew, these new arrivals were absorbed in some kind of ritualistic prayer, a loud wailing, apparently giving thanks to some God. They steadily became more and more entranced by the experience that was obviously sucking them into an intense and deeply moving communication with some higher power. As their devotion continued other trucks arrived with families who spread themselves out over the surrounding hillside, lay a canvas mat on the ground and often under bucketing rain invested an hour or two in wailing their thanks. By the time darkness fell, impassioned cries were echoing loudly all around me. Deeply intrigued I retreated to my tent to sleep. That was no easy task, for as the rain grew in intensity more people moved under the shelter to join Thomas and his family, the most impassioned of them all, in their prayer. The wails echoed under the roof apparently unable to escape up to their intended recipient. People were crying and passions crescendoed to such a level that I became a little intimidated. Although the fatigue of a tiring day on the bike dragged me into light slumber a couple of times I was soon reawakened by another peak in vocal activity. By midnight I could hear only Thomas and his wife and can only guess how long their ritual continued.
Up early the next morning I packed away quietly so as not to disturb my sleeping hosts and moved down the hill and over the road to prepare breakfast. Before I had cycled away I could hear that they had started again, their now all too familiar chants, repeating vocal patterns that will perhaps be forever burnt into my consciousness. In a strange way I found their devotion empowering, giving me plenty to think about as I sweated my way up the remaining few miles and unforgiving ascent to 7,250 feet where the road splits. At this junction one road continues up towards Nebaj while the other forks down my way, 1,000 feet to Cunen. It was only 9:30 but I sat at this first summit to enjoy a cold Coke and watch the world go by. I have shed the guilt of my now incredible Coke and Pepsi intake and am resigned to a future of sleeping with my dentures in a glass by the bed and certain diabetes. It’s always cold and is not only cheaper than water, but has loads of sugary goodness to boot. Anyhow, the junction provided interesting spectating as it is where people change buses who are heading the way I had come from. I even saw a Gringo girl on one bus, so pale and although pretty in her own way, she looked so drab next to the vibrant beauty of Mayan women.
Cunen was memorable only for marking the start of another drop, this time down to 5,350 feet and unsurprisingly the start of another steep climb. At about 6,650 foot of altitude the road leveled out into a rhythm of general descent punctuated by some very short and sharp little climbs. It took me through the town of Uspantan where my location slightly off the Gringo trail became obvious. As has become usual on entering these Guatemalan towns I ride around all the shops to find one selling large bottles of purified water (most only have small bags or bottles). The town was the centre of some political rally and extremely busy, meaning I had to battle through a couple of crowds to eventually find the shop I needed. As Shermy drew a gaggle of intrigued admirers outside, I attracted my own little club inside. Perhaps unsurprisingly given my lycra shorts, the men gravitated towards the bike and the women towards me. One young lady even plucked up the courage to touch me, I turned to see her running away amidst fits of embarrassed giggles. If only I could tell them that they have stolen my heart to the extent that when I die I want to come back as a Mayan man.
The afternoon started with the massive drop down from Uspantan. The meandering road battles through numerous small landslides, eventually falling into the steep valley of the Chixoy River. As small villages sped by I could feel the heat enveloping me until I eventually bottomed out at 2,400 feet where the road crosses the river and the pavement ends. There is no ceremony in the transition; one minute you’re gliding down hill on smooth hardtop, the next you are seriously battling up slope on loose and dusty gravel. It was hot, the road steep and traction limited… I was back in the Copper Canyon. I prayed that the clouds would close in sheltering me from the blazing sun and showering me with cooling dust relieving rain, but this day the rains never came. It was with a great deal of effort, frequent stops and a little bit of pushing that I found myself at 3,800 feet and a small village marking the start of mellower climbing. I fell into conversation with a large group of Police and became unnerved by one of them that responded to my plans of riding up and through Peten with a cut throat gesture. The same guy was trying to get me to go to Venezuela to get him Cocaine and kept talking about me smoking weed (which I apparently must do because I have a beard), so I think he may have been the joker of the pack, still I really didn’t need his advice.
A sticky night in the tent accompanied by a large colony of stinging ants led me into the third and final day of the route. The gravel road was now in good condition, taking me up gentle grades towards the town of San Cristobal. The Police had told me that before the town the grades were so intense that I’d definitely have to get off and push. I couldn’t see it, the road continued kindly on and I could see it clinging to the mountain side up ahead. I was even beginning to get a little cocky when I rounded a corner and the road completely disappeared. A huge landslide had taken out about half a mile of mountainside leaving the road onwards hanging far away above a rocky abyss. The owners of the land below the slide must have thought all their Christmases had come at once though as they have fashioned a brutal way down around the problem and charge motorists for the privileged of not turning around and going back the way they’ve come from. They didn’t charge me, perhaps knowing I’d have to pay another way. The way down was precarious on the loose gravel but the way up was plain ridiculous. It didn’t look like much but turned out to be one almighty effort. Too steep and loose to ride I had no alternative but to get off and push. Traction was just as hard to gain with my feet, a situation not aided by my rapidly dying shoes that I had to keep stopping to reassemble. Close to the top, having spent what felt like an age, an amused truck driver got out and took a picture of my struggles on his phone. I gave him the finger and he understood the joke… a measure of my comfort here in Guatemala, I would never have extended my middle digit to a Mexican.
With the struggle back onto the original road the excitement was over. A gentle ride into San Cristobal where I sat and ate cake by the lake, drinking in the relaxed and welcoming ambiance of the charming little town. Then in no time I was back on pavement and dealing with 10 miles of busy highway into Coban. Delighted to have found a great little hotel in Posada de Don Jose for a shade under two English pounds a night I ventured out into a rich urban world far removed from that I’d just cycled through. Having managed to either appall or impress (I couldn’t quite tell) serving staff with my ability to polish off a giant pizza the size of one of Shermy´s wheels, I am now sleep refreshed and enjoying a day off. Tomorrow I move onwards into the hot jungles of Peten, not something I am particularly looking forward to, especially having just enjoyed a couple of the best days of the tour in the glorious mountain environment that I love so much.