4/21 – 4/26
We crossed into Guatemala on April twenty first, my thirty sixth birthday. The night before had been spent in a border motel where they lock a massive gate at night so nobody gets in or out. A strange cast of characters ran between one another’s room shouting, slamming doors, smoking, and occasionally making phone calls that involved short outbursts that I perceived to be mild to serious threats. I wondered if perhaps we’d been locked on the wrong side. Our morning ride to the border was about eight clicks. Crossing into Mexico offered a sort of nervous excitement. We’d been there before. We had some idea of what to expect. For some reason the Guatemala border offered a bit more of that “Shit is getting real,” feeling.
I have no idea how the border between Mexico and Guatemala was drawn. I know that many of these imaginary lines came from natural boundaries such as rivers or mountains. Chiapas was the most rugged terrain we’d been through yet. It is hard to imagine a mountain range in the middle of the mountains to delineate one country from another, but as we climbed toward Guatemala that morning we turned a corner to see the American Cordillera transform from steep and manageable climbs into sheer canyons. Plate tectonics works in mysterious ways.
The border crossing was unremarkable. Nobody made an attempt to stop us on either side and it seems that people and cars generally flow between the countries unchecked for basic short term commerce. We gave a uniformed man some money. He stamped our passports. Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua share the C4 visa. This allows unrestricted travel through all four countries for ninety days. There were some men waving stacks of money at us yelling “Cambio, cambio.” We decided they were likely hustlers and sought other means of currency exchange which proved to be non-existent. We went back. The transaction was smooth and we decided they were of fine moral pedigree.
The climbing in Mexico was hard. The climbing in Guatemala was hell. The road from La Mesilla carved through a chasm and eventually gave way to constricted switch backs. This was the norm. In the States, three hundred meters (1000 feet) was an average day of climbing. In Mexico it became a thousand. Most of our days through Guatemala involved more than two thousand meters of elevation gain, some as much as three. We could spend four or five hours climbing twenty five kilometers. This would be followed by a bitter sweet downhill that was too steep to take without braking and usually marred with potholes.
In addition to the change in landscape, Guatemala was noticeably poorer. There were more indigenous people walking the roadside carrying bundles of wood or vegetables. The homes were mud and straw with tin roofs instead of concrete and block. Strangely, prices were also much higher. We learned quickly that we were seen as a source of philanthropy here more so than in Mexico and needed to bargain prices in almost all transactions.
Our first stay over the border was near Colotenango. We’d bartered a patch of ground at a water park for about three bucks. It was packed with the dregs of Semana Santa parties. We locked our bikes to a tree and went for a swim. Soph said people were pointing at her and she could hear kids whisper “Gringa” to each other. When we got back to the bikes a family invited us to their picnic table for steak tacos and beers. They asked the standard questions, had the standard amazement at how far we’d come, and gave us their numbers in case we needed anything. They welcomed us to Guatemala and assured us that it was nothing like what we read in the news.
In addition to the poorer road conditions and tighter turns, there was more traffic. Vehicles, although still not aggressive towards cyclists, didn’t slow much when passing. They honk when approaching to pass others through hairpin turns and shoot through without hesitation if they don’t hear a horn on the other side. Most noteworthy are the chicken buses. Old US school buses painted, chromed, covered in lights, and often inscribed at the top of the windshield with something like “Jesus es el patron,” (Jesus is the boss). The result is something that looks like a party bus from hell. They never stop. They slow down just enough for the doorman to reach out and pull an old woman onto the platform while another pair of arms reaches out from a window, grabs her bag, and tosses it to a man on top with all the luggage. If you didn’t know how things worked here, the whole thing could look like a kidnapping.
After a night in a strange motor lodge in which I was unable to discern whether the sounds in the next room were from a baby crying or a couple having sex we descended into Xela, which is the Mayan name for Quetzltanango. The road was under construction and the top layer had been scraped off, leaving a surface that resembled the corrugated tin roofs on the mud huts. We fired down the steep slope at fifty kilometers an hour with our wheels fitting perfecting into the grooves. They were anything but straight, so as they moved from side to side the bike would swerve and shimmy uncontrollably. It was generally safe as long as you didn’t try to fight it and focused on staying upright.
Krista, an old friend from Detroit, was living in Xela and we stayed with her and her boyfriend’s family for a few days. They owned a bakery. We spent an evening making bread with them, visited some hot springs, and had a tour of the city.
We left Xela for Lake Atitlan on the twenty sixth. The Pan American Highway climbs through scrappy little mountain towns before dropping more than three thousand feet to little pueblos around the lake in the crater of a dormant volcano. The switchbacks are stacked on top of each other on the cliff side. Little indigenous folks haul bundles of sticks the size of a bathtub on their backs. All the elders are permanently hunched over. I promise myself that next time I see one I will offer to put their load on my bike. We approach San Pedro and there are two kids yelling at each other in the street. One has a loaded slingshot. The other is holding a rock the size of a softball. I realize we are caught in the middle of certain skullduggery and pick up the pace.
San Pedro itself is a bit overrun with tourism, but still has a decent vibe. We found a cheap hotel to post up in for about a week while we took some Spanish lessons.
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