Many Happy Returns

Before I start my ramblings it may be of interest to some of you that one of my Guatemala photos is currently ‘Photo of the Week’ on the Adventure Cycling Association website. See it here.

Things seem to be coming full circle for me as I reflect on a series of returns that will launch me back out onto the road. After arriving back from our hike across to Todos Santos I took Ben over El Baul to Almalonga, a little jaunt that I was glad to ride again and which Ben thoroughly enjoyed despite the lack of youngsters with whips. Then a day later I couldn’t resist the seduction of a full-moon night hike up Santa Maria. Having been denied any sort of sunrise on my first attempt, the hope of clear skies lured me into the large hiking pack, a group heavy with new friends, that was to scale the peak again. Then yesterday I used Valentines day as an excuse to revisit my old lover, taking a day on the buses to skip back across the border and return to Mexico for the fourth time this year. It was only a visa run and I was only there three hours, but she is as hot as I remember. It is in a couple of days however that I shall make the biggest return of all, a return to the saddle, riding out of Guatemala to explore Honduras. That is before I once again return to Xela…

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Volcanoes and clouds… my experience of Volcan Santa Maria

I guess that’s probably the big news of my moment… I’ve decided to take three months out of just being a selfish traveller and invest my energies in working voluntarily as a hiking guide with Quetzaltrekkers here in Xela. The organisation is non-profit, with all proceeds being invested in helping local children and admirably run. After my first hike with Quetzaltrekkers I struggled to work out the appeal of hiking the same route repeatedly, but after my third, the range of people I’d met and the differences apparent on the routes with each visit had me struggling to work out how I could justify passing up such an excellent opportunity. I’ll be doing what I love in hiking, working hard, pouring my energies into an altruistic cause while also staying fit for an eventual return to the bike… perfect. It’ll be cheap and valuable. No doubt more valuable to all concerned than using that time to cycle solo through Central America (Justin and I went our separate ways weeks ago).

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Clouds aren’t all bad, but one day I’ll witness a clear sunrise on a Guatemalan volcano

I’ll be starting work with Quetzaltrekkers at the end of March and therefore have a bit of time to kill. This works out perfectly for me, I’m dusting off Shermy and doing a round trip through Honduras. My hopes are high for this time, I always seem to prefer travelling when I’ve got something tangible to look forward to. Presuming Quetzaltrekkers are still my friends after a trial period it’ll work out that I’ll be riding south into El Salvador at the start of the rainy season, not the best plan but to hell with it, what’s a little humidity and rain!?!

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Morning has broken… clouds, but considerably less than my last time on Santa Maria

But that’s the future, what of the past couple of weeks? Its been a strange and fortunate train of events that first introduced me to Quetzaltrekkers and then bought in my buddy Ben. His introduction really pepped things up, injecting an unharnessed appetite for fun into my time jaded adventuring spirit. I was starting to become a bit insular, catching myself planning routes around factors other than my own value and enjoyment. Ben came out of nowhere to remind me of what I really enjoy and what I set out to find on this journey. I had a little vacation from my vacation and have emerged much more tuned in to purpose. Without his intervention and the new friends I found because of it I would never have reclimbed Santa Maria, the act that quashed any lingering doubts I had to committing another three months to moving nowhere.

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Ian & Ben enjoy our midnight ride in the back of a truck to the base of Santa Maria

The word on the streets of Xela was that there is never cloud cover when the moon is full. Although it made no logical sense, after the storm that blew in on my last trek up the volcano I was more than happy to believe. After a tasty curry and short doze, Ben and I joined the throngs at Quetzaltrekkers HQ and over thirty of us piled into the back of a truck for a midnight ride to the base of Santa Maria. Amongst this huge group were Marcy, Malta, Ian, Rachel, Matteo, Charlotte and Ben, stalwarts of the Nebaj trek. I really didn’t notice any of the other unfamiliar members of the group as we laughed and farted our way up the volcano. If it weren’t for the company the night hiking ascent would have been a bit boring. The route is not the most exciting at the best of times and a steady cloud layer obscured the moon for all but a couple of brief moments.

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Warm and cozy with Charlotte and Marcy on the summit of Santa Maria

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Our large crew of hiking refugees make for a happy if slightly ridiculous addition to the summit

Our leading group must have summitted about 4:30am, immediately changing into fresh dry clothes and snuggling down for an hour or two of shut-eye. For some reason (there was no wind) we set our high camp on the west side of the mountain and missed the first cloudy snuffles of sunrise. The cloud layer decided to mute the might of my second Santa Maira sunrise but there were still ample openings to make it all worthwhile. I would chuckle as the clouds momentarily opened and flocks of camera wielding hikers would dash over to the east side of the summit plateau to get the shots they’d paid for. It may also have been the whisky-coke and Redbull that made me giggle, a cocktail that certainly turned one of our party towards ‘raptor’. Having been suffering with a touch of illness, Matteo only joined the hike at the eleventh hour. The exertions of the climb coupled with an empty stomach seemed to tip him over an edge. Matteo’s descending display of birdlike dexterity will stick with me for a while… my jaw still harbours a dull ache from the laughing.

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Rachel shoulders the weight of Matteo’s madness… thin air, sleep deprivation and other things appear to turn some people a touch loopy

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Ian & Charlotte join the madness as we prepare to descend

All these friends are now sadly departed, with only me hanging on at Casa Argentina, plotting, packing and focusing. It is an annoying fact of Central America for true adventure cyclists (I’m excluding the Pan-American highway riding time and mile merchants here), that Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua have a border agreement that allows tourists just 90 days within their collective borders. This is not enough time to fully explore and enjoy four countries, so visa runs are necessary. A visa run just means leaving that collection of countries, crossing the border into either Belize, Mexico or Costa Rica so that you can re-enter and gain another 90 days. There are bureaucratic routes to extend your stay in any of the four countries Capitals but they are very slow (8 days minimum) expensive and unreliable. When you leave the country you’re supposed to do so for 3 days before re-entry, but this is a ruling rarely enforced.

My visa-run route from Xela to El Carmen via San Marcos & Malacatan

The easiest and most accessible border crossing from Xela is that at El Carmen, near the Mexican city of Tapacula. There are tourist shuttle buses that will take you there from Xela but they are expensive so I opted to make my own way on Guatemalan public transport, the infamous Chicken buses. Before I started using these buses to get to the base of my various hikes, they terrified me. Loud, fast, violently driven and reputedly ‘dangerous’ I would frequently thank my lucky stars that I travel by bicycle. However, as is often the case, we fear what we don’t know and understand. I am by now very familiar with tourists perceptions of ‘danger’ and can take that with a pinch of salt, I am now also familiar with the madcap but ultimately admirable workings of the Chicken bus system. It’s crazy, frenetic and fast but people are always helpful telling you where to go, so once you’re dialled in it’s quite painless and more than a little exhilarating (to start with).

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A Chicken bus charges through the streets of Xela

For the uninitiated, Chicken buses are retired North American school buses that are driven south to start  new lives carrying similarly sized central American folk around. The name comes from people’s apparent willingness to transport livestock around on them but in my mind forever relates to the way people are crammed in like battery farmed chickens. Three to a two person seat is mandatory and all types of luggage is carried in impossible formations on the roof. Aside from the driver there are one or two helpers that collect money (and possess an incredible ability to squeeze through the densest mash of human bodies) and deal with luggage demands. These guys are amazing, as the bus is being thrown around winding mountain roads at unhealthy speeds the helper acrobatically swings himself onto the roof and back in through doors or windows. Such antics would make the front pages of newspapers back home but are standard practice here and make for a quick and efficient service. On my first bus out of Xela towards the border the helper also acted as mechanic, fixing the ailing machine and winning a heavy coating of oil in the process. Imagine a young guy blackened head to foot with oil prancing and swinging like and ape around the wildly driven bus… my hero and a ‘real’ man for sure.

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Back in Mexico for the 4th time in a year… back in Chiapas for the third time

My day started at 4am to ensure that I’d get to Mexico and back in the same day. Unfortunately the hostel was locked up and I didn’t get out until about 5:20… tired and frustrated before I even started. Any negativity dissipated on the half hour walk up to Xela bus terminal and I was soon ‘relaxing’ into the crowded comforts of my first bus, the adventure underway. After several stops due to some unknown but seemingly oily mechanical issue, the overloaded bus eventually deposited me in San Marcos where I rounded a corner and hopped straight onto bus number two. In less than a minute I was off again, soon descending violent turns out of the mountains and into incredible heat, an issue I had conveniently forgotten with the kind climate of Xela. After and hour and a half my second ride terminated in the town of Malacatan and I was immediately collected by a passing microbus (minibus). Even more crowded than the chicken buses, this rather intimate experience led me into El Carmen and to the border throng. By 11:30am I had stamped out of Guatemala (with a Q10 fee) and was in Mexico again.

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A welcome return to Guatemala… it’s been too long!

Having tried to leave Mexico straight away the border guard rebuffed me saying I had to stay for at least 2 or 3 hours (still better than the official 3 days). So I changed a few Quetzales to Pesos, found a cafe and enjoyed my first Coke in weeks, occupying the time with reading and fascinated observance of the streams of cars that are for some unknown reason towed all the way from the U.S.. Just before 1 o’clock I was permitted to re-enter Guatemala, getting stamped with my new 90 days (another unofficial Q10 fee) and boarding a waiting microbus back to Malacatan. Fortunately the microbus driver fought to get me into town in time for the 13:30 direct chicken bus to Xela. I arrived back in Xela just before 5pm, tired but quietly satisfied with the success of the day. The whole process cost me just Q85 (£6.50 or US$10.30), not bad for nearly 140 miles of travel and considering the border guard bribery stories that float around.

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Neighboring volcanoes make themselves known through the clouds as dawn breaks on the summit of Volcan Santa Maria

It’s been nice to inhabit the world of the ‘ordinary’ traveller for a while. Although the buses are easier to use than I’d expected I still wouldn’t swap my bike for anything. That said, for a little while back there I was starting to think I’d become a cyclist, obsessing too seriously about all things bikes and taking my eyes off the ball a little. Now I’m happy to reaffirm my self-proclaimed existence as simple traveller, one that just happens to ride a bike. I have benefitted from my recent times off the bike, my perspectives have freshened and explorative vigor heightened. No doubt these benefits will kick in again when I return to Xela for my next cycling hiatus, but have no worries, my cycling days are in no way behind me, I am really looking forward to cycling south through South America, perhaps the jewel of the entire route.

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