Hills & Hilarity: Panajachel to Antigua & Through Jalapa to Honduras

Ten days ago I left cold and rainy Xela in a pick-up truck, now a considerably stronger and fitter version of that lad is being suppressed by the heat in Copan, Honduras. Having just completed my third and final traverse of Guatemala I’m thrilled to be back in the world of ‘real’ cycle touring. Most of this post-Xela time has been spent accompanied by Sarah and James, the other two members of the newly founded and unnecessarily hairy, ‘UK Thorn Crew’. We three Thorns of Rohloff and pride have forged our merry English way east from Antigua into Honduras with a sweaty style other nations would struggle to rival (why the British apparently sweat so much remains a mystery to me). There have been a few mechanical issues, a lot of climbing and a couple of stretches of great but gnarly riding. But it seems that when a group of English folk come together, adopt Yorkshire accents and share a bizarre love of struggling up hill after hill on heavy bikes, fun and laughter is unavoidable.

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They’re English, they ride Thorns & they’ve just reached Honduras

As a Quetzaltrekker I rode the route from San Pedro La Laguna on Lago Atitlan to Xela numerous times in the back of a pick-up. When you hike to the Lake you have to get home somehow, so I knew without a doubt that I really didn’t want to ride that section of the Pan American highway. It was therefore an easy decision to forfeit climbing to the highest point of the Pan Am and the dubious delight of riding out of Xela in favour of taking a ride with Victor, the Quetzaltrekker truck guy. This decision was further vindicated on the day by shit weather. Once safely (and drily) delivered to San Pedro, I jumped straight on a boat across the lake to Panajachel. In the middle of giant Lake Atitlan the heavens opened and let rip with a ferocious storm that had me terrified Shermy may be catapulted overboard. Thankfully she used her experience and decided to migrate back inside the boat and onto the laps of the two guys trying to protect us from the elements with a holey tarp.

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Victor straps Shermy in for her final ride out of Xela

Arriving in Pana I rode around in torrential rain looking for the cheap hotel I’d been recommended before settling in for some early reflection. A few things had managed to get on top of me during my time in Xela so leaving for a final time came as a massive relief as opposed to an emotional goodbye to happy memories. A great weight lifted from my being as I traveled over to the lake, this stress was further battered out of me on the choppy lake crossing and thankfully had done its utmost to completely disappear by the time I found myself holed up in the familiar surroundings of budget Guatemalan accommodation. Although still yet to push a pedal in anger things already felt as if I was back in the familiar territory and routine of bicycle touring.

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Looking back on Panajachel… the start o this new phase of the tour

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Climbing away from Pana thr views of Lago Atitlan became more and more inspiring

An early start had me riding out of Panajachel and onto the first climb of my return to the road. It’s a beautiful road that swings up to offer incredible views of what some regard as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. My early departure offered up blue skies and rewarded fantastic views of the lake. Then with the lake at my back the feeling of true freedom came back, setting out into country and landscape new, unfamiliar, seriously undulating and slightly challenging for legs six months from their last loaded jaunt. This ‘freshness’ of body gave me a slight cause for concern following the injury that I suffered at the start of my journey two years ago. It was quickly clear I’d lost a whole world of strength in the old biking pistons so I ended the day shortly after midday in the functional town of Patzun. In reality I was seduced into an early stop by the prospect of a nice hotel with TV’s in the rooms… I couldn’t miss the England Vs. Sweden match now could I!

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Welcome to Antigua… touristic and seductive

The next day I hit Antigua in no time, despite a unintentioanal detour to see Volcans Fuego and Acefenango. Sarah and James had pitched up in the Police compound, a bizarre arrangement in the centre of the most expensive place in Guatemala where you’re able to camp for three free nights and are afforded Police protection (for what its worth in Guatemala). A fun place to lay your head where you can combine Vietnam war chic with swear-ridden morning showers and strange unfathomable Police activity involving lots of shouting, drawn weapons and seemingly little genuine action… fun for all the family!

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Free ‘jungle’ camping in the Police Compound in the centre of Antigua

Having sorted out a stolen credit card issue, beat out a prospective route through to Nicuragua and decided that Antigua attracts tourists primarily because its bloody nice and really comfortable, we set off the next day. Initially sent down the wrong road, a backtrack and slog up what I thought at the time was quite a steep hill dropped us into the Fathers day parade of Santa Maria de Jesus. With all sources suggesting certain robbery on our proposed route over into Palin we united around a collective desire for survival and decided on an about turn and return to Antigua. After the card theft for James and Sarah, a slight mechanical for me and a route failure, it was surprising how pleased we all were to return to the comforts of the Police compound. Good signs for the future of our cycling alliance.

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James is loving our great day of riding into Mataquescuintla not for the fantastic road but for the rain which allowed him to bust out his new Japanese  micro-pored ‘T-Core’ waterproof… lucky lad

My 32nd birthday was ushered in with a customary 5am start, a bonus cup of coffee and surprise banana muffin topped with fake candle (aka a wire tie). A utilitarian day on the bike took us east of Guatemala City to a perfectly grotty ‘sticky sheets’ hotel in San Jose Pinula from where we’d set off the next day under heavy wet skies. The next 33.5 miles are certainly the highlight of the route; a total of about 4,500 feet of climbing on reasonably graded dirt roads into the backwater town of Mataquescuintla. The weather was in on us all day and with a heavy load the going wasn’t easy but it was great fun to get back onto the dirt and into rural Guatemala. Things are different in these parts; the fields green and full of cattle and the whole feel a lot more developed and agriculturally industrial than what I’d become used to in the highlands. I understand that when it’s clear the views from this section are stunning… we didn’t see shit.

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The crazed, the hungry & the tired… settling into our luxury apartment in Mataquescuintla

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After a good nights sleep normal service is resumed and the smile is back on James’ face

A free night in a part finished room in Mana hotel in Mata and a 3,400 foot climb out-of-town had us back on asphalt for a time and bought a thrilling meandering free wheel down into the larger town of Jalapa. We’d dropped a fair altitude by then and the temperatures were starting to climb, bringing with it a marked increase in biting insects. A night in Jalapa and we were soon climbing again, a smaller hill this time that became harder as the surface turned from asphalt to well graded dirt and then on the descent into a challenging rocky track. Having rattled and battled our way down into San Pedro Pinula a well deserved lunch was tainted by loud music before we rolled out to the pleasant surprise that my front tire had split. After pouring a fair amount of time into a patch job on both tires in Xela, I knew it was a time bomb. So it’s with slight relief that I know the thing is now completely shot… a series of 50 mph descents on dubious tires is not always advisable!

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Before the climb over to San Pedro Pinula we pass through and stop for licuardos in a charming little town

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Then after a steady climb we start the descent into San Pedro… this gorgeous dirt surface soon turned a bit more aggressive

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A few miles through Ipala a tire failure for Sarah leads us to this great school camp spot

A brief stop in Ipala and a pleasant evening was welcoming us towards a mystery camp spot before Sarah’s front tire also decided to give up the ghost. It’s an incredible coincidence that two tires that both have over a year and thousands and thousands of miles on them should both decide to give up on the same day. Possibly a reflection of the road surfaces we’d been riding but definitely a quirk of fate as it blew right next to a small rural school. I’ve come to realise over the last few days that good Spanish makes for a completely different touring experience in Latin America; James has good Spanish and thus charmed us a nice little camp spot in the school. My final night in Guatemala and another encounter with the kind and beautiful people of this diverse and complicated country.

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Under hot conditions its an exhausting 50 miles for tired legs into Copan

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I never expected it to take me over two years to get here!

The day before yesterday we made the 50 mile slog through more stunning scenery and over the expected plethora of hills to cross into Honduras at El Florido and negotiate the cursed cobbles of Copan with weary legs and battered arses. Having spent so much time in Guatemala I leave with excitement for a new country and not sadness for the familiarity that I leave behind. The border officials gave us all a new 90 day quota and it feels like a fresh start in a new and largely unknown country.

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One of the attractions of the Copan ruins are the details

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Another is the noisy Macaws

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The incredible trees give the whole place an otherworldly feel

We’ve taken a well deserved couple of days in Copan, the Antigua of Honduras. Entrenched in this most touristic of Honduran towns I still have no idea what the ‘real’ Honduras is all about and am entirely nonplussed by what I’ve discovered here. That said, our trip to the Mayan ruins that give Copan it’s actual name of ‘Copan Ruinas’ this morning was an enjoyable and worthwhile excursion. A lot less crowded than the similar ruins of the Yucatan, Chiapas and Guatemala, and snuggled within a rich green world of vegetation, the details in these ruins are unbeatable and the whole place quite enchanting. Also, while Tikal has monkeys, Copan has Macaws; these richly coloured birds strutting around the site in impressive numbers. An enjoyable morning that made up for another England footballing failure and gives fond memories for us to take on our next lef through Honduras and into El Salvador.

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