Yesterday I took Shermy (my bike) out for a little spin over the hill and out of Xela (Quezaltenango). I’ve been desperate to get some day rides in for a while, but it’s frustratingly taken me a fair amount of time to fix the old girl up to somewhere near her smooth riding best. Aside from the standard servicing of changing cables and brake pads etc., I’ve also had to patch up a couple of ripped and disintegrating Schwalbe Marathon XR’s. This latest set of tyres have really disappointed, the rubber has perished and I’ve been forced to plug rips with sidewall patches cut from old tyres. I know this solution to be potentially dangerous. I know it to also be a temporary fix at best. And I know how those patches can wear holes in the tubes. But do you know how expensive those bloody tyres are?
Anyhow, here is the story of that little day ride out of Xela. Adding a couple of variations on the basic route mapped out below, I rode about 11.5 miles and climbed a total of around 1,850 feet.
The basic Xela to Almolonga via El Baúl loop route
Elevation information for the route (distance in miles)
The route starts by spiraling up to the summit of El Baúl, a hill looming (if that’s not an exaggeration) over the east edge of the city. Then it spills into the next valley and the town of Almolonga, where I dropped into some crazy and intimidating local traditions. From there, the loop back to Xela is completed via an easy alternative road back over a much lower pass. It all goes a bit like this…
Viewed from the central park of Xela, El Baúl appears to take dignified command of the eastern horizon. By the time I’ve cycled out to the edge of the city its majesty has slumped into a rather unimpressive splodge of green, noteable only for its punctuating the end of the urban sprawl.
But as I mount its slopes and start to wind up through sweet-smelling forests, the magic soon returns.
Within no time I’m leaving the city to its sleepy Sunday self.
And as the road carries me around to the south side of the hill I delight in the freshness of the agricultural vista that presents itself.
Having had tyre issues I decide to carry my spare tyre which necessitates a pannier which in turn necesitates filling. I carry food (I don’t eat), swimming gear (there’s a nice outdoor pool in Almolonga that I don’t visit) and my book (I don’t read). Thankfully I don’t have to use the spare tyre either.
Near the summit of El Baul stands this rather grand cross, a landmark clearly visible from the city below.
About two-thirds of the way up the climb I’m caught by Sunday cyclist Eddin Huerrera, a graphic designer originally from Huehuetenango. We hang out and ride around for a while, time that ruefully exposes the lack of progress I’m making with my Spanish.
Fortunately words aren’t needed to communicate the impressiveness of the summit view over Xela.
This monument atop the hill is joined by market stalls and a children’s play area.
No one at the summit thinks there’s a quick way down to Almolonga… Eddin gives a worried frown as I head off down the single track I’d been told to look out for and spotted on the way up.
Steep, sandy and narrow, the track has me shaking from adrenalin overload.
But its over too soon and I’m off El Baúl…
And onto this choppy piece of pavement that immediately starts to drop down towards Almolonga.
But before I drop out of the small valley pass there’s time for a last look back.
Then it’s around the corner and a vicious drop into the adjoining valley, the home of Almolonga.
After an initially hair-raising decent the gradient briefly mellows and I’m able to enjoy the picturesque valley stretching away to the south-east.
But as buildings mark the edge of town my brakes are soon hot again. As I descend there are loud explosions that ignite the opposite side of the valley. Each blast produces a large white cloud of smoke, the remnants of one can be seen here in the top right of frame.
I move into the centre of town and it’s soon obvious that something is going on. The streets are packed full of people and explosions echo everywhere. Most bizarrely there are scores of very drunk young lads wearing threatening looking masks and wielding bull whips. They snap the whips with extraordinary volume at the feet and on the legs of their friends. I’m desperate to take their picture but instead yield to intimidation and make myself as anonymous as the only gringo around can do when sat astride a fancy looking bike, wearing a bright blue cycle jersey, helmet and sporting a long beard…
I make my way into the central plaza which is rammed with people. Suddenly the sea of people in front of me hurriedly disperses…
An old guy (not kids) has decided to set of an industrial strength firecracker in the middle of the dense crowd… genius! Aside from those who had already run for their lives, very few others even notice, let alone flinch. I play it cool… I feel safer around nuclear strength pyrotechnics than drunk youths with whips.
After spending a good while trying and failing to take it all in, I move out towards the road back to Xela. Everybody else is clearly eager to get home too. It’s pandemonium as crowds try to board trucks and buses that are themselves battling for position amongst snarled up traffic.
I’ve heard lots of stories about how packed the chicken buses can be, but was still shocked by how many people they managed to shoe-horn into them. I am so so glad I ride a bike!
Yet amongst the madness the women still manage to wait patiently with enormous dignity… before they climb into the back of the truck that’ll take them back to their villages.
Something is nagging at me as I begin the climb out of town… a row of giant flower pots give the excuse I need to stop and take stock of what a coward I am. My inability to pluck up the courage to take photographs of people has been bothering me for ages. I simply can’t leave without at least trying to snap the guys with whips… I turn around and motor back down the hill.
Most of the lads have either disrobed or passed out in the street (not unusual in Guatemala it seems), but I manage to seek out my prey. As I raise my camera I get spotted and my target starts marching towards me, beckoning me in threateningly with his hand… I stick my chest out remember the English world renown for football hooliganism and… get the fuck out of there!
High off the buzz of my first attempt I inadvertently stumble into the middle of a group of lads who appear to be taking limited pleasure in systematically whipping each other. Fortunately these guys are so wasted they keep falling over, the chances of them being able to see straight are 100% nil. I probably could have waved my naked white arse in their faces and they still wouldn’t notice! Although most of them had removed their masks, it allowed me to take aim with an action shot or two. Possibly my reward for exhibiting such courage in the face of grave danger.
Having tried to get an explanation as to what it was all about and being told simply that it was ‘tradition’ for the youngsters to get messed up and whip stuff (mostly each other) I fled the insanity of Almolonga.
The road up out of town back over the hill towards Xela was unremarkable, especially after the excitements of the previous hour.
Still, it offered picturesque views of Almolonga. The road can be seen rising up towards the left hand side of frame.
Having crested a small pass I found myself in more familiar and predictable pastures. This entry into Xela is impressively marked by a battered sign and abandoned car…
The temptation to get ‘arty’ was too much to resist. You may have noticed that there is an incredible number of chicken buses trawling the roads around Xela. In fact I think it’s safe to say that chicken buses pretty much rule the entire road system of Guatemala. Imagine one of those young drunkards of Almolonga driving a bus and you’ll understand the menace/thrill of the chicken bus.
Speeding down into Xela I’m intrigued by this small monument. There are a few of them about and I’m sad to say I’ve got no idea what the mark or commemorate. Although likely nothing to do with it, they always serve to remind me of the atrocities of the Guatemalan civil war.
Gradually I get swallowed up by the city…
Until I’m completely engulfed by the quiet Sunday streets of Xela. Seemingly a million miles away from the mayhem of Almolonga.
Soon I’m back home where I find the hostel owner, Jimmy, holding court outside. Now there’s a real man with a real bike! I return to the weekly power cut and am accordingly treated for my days efforts by a relaxing cold shower.
Stay tuned as my next weekend jaunt will be taking me to the summit of Tajumulco, a huge volcano and the highest peak in Central America.