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Guatemalan border to Antiqua, Guatemala 3/3/08 to 4/10/08

April 15, 2008

After a 12 hour bus ride, we spent a week on the beautiful Yucatan coast with our daughters and more of Pat’s family than she ever dreamed of (We surprised her for her annual 21ST celebration of her 29th birthday – she thought only our daughters were coming, but we ended up with 9 of her family members, most of which she hadn’t seen in over a year!!!!) It was a great time!

Then, after two bus rides (a 15 hour followed by a 3 hour bus ride) we were back where we left off (when Pat was a whole year younger) at the Guatemalan border. After an uncomfortably hot night in Ciudad Cuatuhemoc, we breezed through Mexican and Guatemalan immigration and found ourselves in the insanely busy border town, La Mesilla, complete with three-wheeled motorcycle taxis, heckling shop owners, and the incredibly colorful and famous chicken buses. The chicken buses typically have huge polished chrome grills and bumpers, flame decals on all windows (including the front window), and Technicolor paint jobs – I mean Technicolor!! They always have a huge roof rack stacked two or three feet high with huge baskets of produce, bushel sacks of freshly harvested coffee, cages of live turkeys and chickens (although they usually ride inside – pretty valuable!), and, of course a bike or three. We’ve actually seen the driver’s assistant climb up onto the roof and re-secure the load while the bus is rocketing down the always winding, hairpin-infested road. Oh, and have we mentioned the HORN? How could have we forgotten? They will always give a good honk that means, “Coming through, in a hurry, Oh and nice to see you!” As they pass you at Mach Schnell!!! they spew a warm , choking .“Welcome to Guatemala!!!” cloud of thick black diesel smoke. Gracias amigo!!!

We rode from the border to Huehuetenango (Way Way Tanango) the first day along a beautiful new road, with light traffic, an easy gradual uphill climb, winding along a clear running stream with small waterfalls coming off the steep rock faces next to the road. We went through numerous small villages where the locals were very friendly. The children would run alongside us. 2 Guatemalan boys even biked a couple miles with us until we decided we all needed a break. We took them to the local store and told them to pick out whatever they wanted to drink. Their eyes and smiles got so big – they couldn’t believe we were buying! (A moment like this makes even the toughest day seem like small potatoes, It’s easy to complain and feel like you have it rough until you realize you are in a country where 40% of the population lives in poverty, and 44% of the people are age 15 or younger! Tough statistics to be a part of as a kid, we’re sure!)

Also after the border, the terrain was markedly different – much greener and much more vertical! And! AND!!! MUCH CLEANER than Mexico!!! A pleasant shock indeed! The Guatemalans seem somewhat discreet about trash dumping. They seem to prefer to dump it in out-of-sight ravines instead of wherever the vehicle stops rolling!. It is at least more pleasant to the casual observer than Mexico’s refuse. The people seem to keep their property and vehicles, including mufflers, in much tidier shape, making for a much more peaceful country. We didn’t hear a single firework until our second night in the country! Yes, we agree, truly amazing. We must mention at the risk of being repulsive, the dead animal count along the road has markedly diminished – 1 per day as opposed to 1 per 5 kilometers in Mexico. Now we know you are itching to join us!

The steep-sided, once forest-covered mountainsides are a patchwork of small, steeply pitched corn fields with some forested ares remaining. Along the road we passed numerous coffee warehouses. Toyota pickups (the almost-exclusive pickup make in the region – we’ve never seen so many Toyotas at one time!) piled high, bring the gunny sacks of coffee from the Pacific slope to the warehouses to await shipment to Europe. Coffee beans were spread out on plastic tarps along the roadside to dry in the sun.

After a comfortable night in Wayway, we climbed up a gorgeous stretch of brand new deserted highway into ponderosa forests mixed with rolling farm land, consisting of small cornfields cultivated mostly by hand with hoes, or occasionally by ox-drawn plow. We rolled along the high country for a number of miles, past numerous small villages, then did a long screaming downhill with lots of switchbacks. Ralph had fun passing cars with his runaway locomotive, better known as a 100 lb bike. We ended up in a hot river valley with the occasional palm tree and rows of cactus for fences. We had fun explaining our trip to a local family walking down the road. They thought we were nuts to bike in Alaska. “Isn’t it really cold in Alaska?” they asked. When we told them about warm Alaska summers and 24 hour per day sunlight, they wrote us off as total nut cases!

We spent the night in a brand new hotel situated above a restaurant along the river at Sacapulas. There was a rickety and very noisy highway bridge several blocks upstream. It had a metal deck, but the sections of metal weren’t fully attached, so we were able to contemplate the stupidity of the attachment system every single time a vehicle clattered over it. And we can tell you – there were a lot of vehicles that night!

The next day we headed south steeply and relentlessly uphill through forests and farm country to Chichicastenango (no, we aren’t making these names up – get out a map and see!), a bustling little mountain town with one of the most colorful graveyards we’ve seen (yes, you could say”to die for!”) and one of the best markets in all of Central America. It was certainly the most colorful and interesting one of our journey so far. We stayed a block from the plaza and early in the morning we got up and wandered the plaza – the core of the market – as it was getting rolling. People were carrying unbelievably heavy loads of produce, woven and leather goods, and fresh flowers up steep hills in baskets balanced on their heads and bundles on their backs with straps around their foreheads. We saw one 5′ tall man carry a 2’x2’x3′ crate of bananas on his back with a forehead strap up a 15% rock-cobblestone street. Try that at home! The cathedral steps were filled with huge bundles of flowers of every color imaginable. What a sight! When we returned to the street our hotel was on we could barely recognize it – it was filled with vendor booths! We could barely get through the throng! After leaving the hotel with our fully loaded bikes it was even more of a challenge. We eventually pushed our way through the madness. Being an alien being towering at least a foot above everyone else, dressed like a spandex circus clown, and wielding the strangest looking bike anyone has ever seen sometimes has it’s crowd-parting advantages.

We headed south out of town, immediately rocketing down a steep, switchback-cluttered ravine. Yes, once again Ralph had a great time passing cars, trucks and chicken buses until ,of course, the uphill. It was small-chain-ring-stand-up-and-pump steep. STEEP! And to add salt to the wound, the multitude of combis (small VW-type vans used as people buses) passing us would belch out enough black diesel smoke while chugging up the hills to totally obliterate them from view. What about our lungs? We ended up having a few such hills before bombing down a huge hill with incredible views of gorgeous Lake Atitlan below and to our right. We came to rest in the lakeside tourist trap, Panajacal, and got a third floor room with a kickin’ view of the 3 volcanoes across the lake.

We spent an extra day at the lake, visiting the small village of Santa Catarina, where local ladies weave and sell colorful fabrics, garments, purses, table runners, etc along the streets. The young girls of the village go to school for 1⁄2 the day and sell woven stuff on the streets the other 1/2. A half dozen of them took time out from work to climb up on Pat’s bike (3 at a time) and ask us a multitude of questions. It was a wonderful sight to see them in their traditional colorful long skirts and blouses crawling around on the bike, fully forgetting their tourist sales pitches for a while and just being the kids they are.

The day we planned to leave, Ralph woke up with a bad case of Guatemalan weight loss program. No, you don’t want to eat when you feel like this or even ride your bike! So we decided to catch a combi to Antigua. Please note – this is not cheating, for we plan to bus back to the noisy bridge at Sacapulas to continue east. Ralph has strict trip rules – Pat thinks he’s slightly crazy. We got a room at the Black Cat Hostel, where we met some folks from southwest Colorado on a break after an epic snow year (news that’s really hard for Ralph to handle!) We wandered the beautiful colonial city, complete with a multitude of ruined cathedrals (victims of many earthquakes over the centuries), ate at several good restaurants. and climbed one of the three volcanoes near town to the flowing lava field near it’s summit – spectacular! The town is unfortunately quite the tourist trap, with hoards of young backpackers whose main interest seems to be bar-hopping. Prices are quite high and lots of folks are out to separate you from your money, as it is in most tourist traps, but the town is still great to see. And the three volcanoes make for an incredible backdrop.

We ran into Tector, a Japanese friend we met in Creel, Mexico. He is taking a break from his Alaska-to-Argentina bike trip to study Spanish for 6 weeks in Antigua. It was great to see him again and catch up on his adventure.

We also ran into our Swiss friends, Katherine and Philip once again. They had just gotten into town and poor Philip was very sick with some sort of bug. We helped them get a room and get the bike and gear in the room which is always a chore even if you feel good. We plan to bus to Sacapulas tomorrow morning to continue our trip east through the mountains. We hope we can bid another farewell to them in good health.

Bike on, Pat and Ralph

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3 comments

  1. Hi, we saw you when you were pushing your bikes up a hill on a muddy road heading toward Santa Cruz. I hope you guys made it all right, that was a nasty little 30km stretch, and you were just starting it. I took photos of you two on your camera and on mine. I will be posting mine to Flickr shortly, and will keep checking on you. Good luck to you both, it’s an epic ride, and my prayers will be for your safety.


  2. Hola!

    Good stories, as expected. Can almost smell the coffee, flowers and produce. Its not likely to stop snowing here anytime soon if the pattern of the winter continues. It was warm yesterday but 50 mile per hour winds preceding today’s cold snap and snow again. Winter conditions until the lifts close. Have been working like a donkey all winter so have been thinking about Ouray a lot and some kind of vacation in the fall…Oh! and the 50mph winds fanned a wildfire here yesterday and I ended up sleeping on the shop floor as the ‘Ranch’ was evacuated. Ditch behind house burned and made short work of Sunday’s huge brush pile…saved some time! If the snow stops there may be bike season here by July.

    Adios, Mark Mace


  3. Hey Guys,
    Mike and I just found out about your trip yesterday at Uncle Leo’s funneral and then Pat Flynn mailed us this site today. So we have a lot to catch up with.

    What an ezperience – it will be fun to read your journal. Here is a wish for every success your trip has been and will be and for all you dreamed it to be.

    Jojo and Mike Flynn



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