Days 201 - 210: A Steep Introduction to Guatemala!

Tecun Uman to Antigua 272 km

The past two weeks were full of contrasts.  We spent just over a week adjusting to riding in Guatemala and negotiating some of the most challenging terrain we have encountered yet.  Then after we reached Antigua we were hurled into another world that included being in motorized vehicles, staying at luxury hotels, and eating gourmet food, as we flew to Costa Rica to celebrate Brendan and Kristi's wedding. 

Unfortunately we neglected to get too many photos of the wedding, but we will post the link to their wedding photo site once we get the go-ahead.  But, here are photos from the the first part of our Guatemalan ride.

Guatemala: Part 1

Initiation into Guatemalan Riding...

When we arrived in Guatemala we studied that map and realized that we had six days to do less than 240 km to Antigua, where we would be storing our bikes while we flew to Costa Rica.  We decided that that was way too much time... And taking that most direct route would be way too boring so after about 45 km on the main highway we turned off onto a secondary road which would take us up 2000 meters in less than 35 km.  After doing some pretty major climbs in Mexico we thought that we would be able to handle this, just take it slow and plod along.  What we were not prepared for were some intensely steep hills.  Hills so steep that we were struggling to go 4 km an hour, and we often had to switch-back up the road.  They were hills so steep that we didn't want to stop for fear that we would not be able to get going again, when we did stop we had to start going down the hills a little, then turn up just to get some momentum.  For the first time of the trip we were cursing our heavy loads and making mental lists of what we could ditch.  These steep hills are combined with some chicken buses riding along at break neck speed.  Chicken buses are colourfully painted school buses filled with people and packed to the brim with goods and baggage.  But, luckily this road did not have heavy traffic and the vehicles that did pass gave us wide berth...and a lot of the chicken buses seem to struggle with the grade of the roads as well!   

We made it about 15 km up that very steep hill that day, and stayed in the small town of Colomba.  Unfortunately Glenn did not get a good nights sleep in our damp, moldy, basement hotel room... So the next stretch was particularly painful for him.   We had intended to make it to a warm showers hosts place some 65 km (and 1,600+ meters of climbing) away, when we spoke to the host he was certain we would make it by lunch time.... Not so, by 1:30 pm we had covered about 25 km, entirely uphill.  We were beat and decided to call it a day.  Glenn caught up on some sleep and I explored the town of San Martin ... Where there happened to be a fair!  It was quite incredible... music, food, rides, and colourful clothing everywhere... As I was wandering around, and Glenn was back at the hotel there was another earthquake.   Everything at the fair stopped - the music, the people.  It turned out that this one was 6.4 in magnitude, and no damage was done in the town that we were in.   In just two short days we felt fully initiated into a Guatemala.... We were certain that this climb would be the hardest one.... How wrong we would be....

Return to Alaska and a vertical drop to Lake Atitlan

We continued on our less than direct route to Antigua stopping in the town of Totonicapan.  The department of Totonicapan has a strong indigenous population who are very active politically.  However there have been recent clashes with government. Just about a month and a half ago at a key intersection (that we passed through) called quatro caminos, a group created a road block in protest of proposed changes in the Guatemalan constitution which impacted education and energy costs.  The group had demanded a dialogue with federal authorities for some time, but had been ignored, so they were taking more direct action.  From reports that we read eight people were killed and up to thirty people were injured when the police forces arrived, you can read more about this here

From Totonicapan we continued up, and crossed what is reportedly the highest point on the Pan-American highway, and what is the highest point on our journey thus far.... Interestingly, this stretch of highway which sits at 3000 meters above sea level is known locally as ''Alaska"...

Alaska to Alaska...

As you can see in the video we were pretty excited about dropping some 1,400 meters down to lake Atitlan...sadly this would not be the relaxing downhill cruise that we were hoping for.  After reaching Alaska we reconnected with the main highway and dropped gently down to around 2,200 meters.  We then turned off the main highway headed for the village of San Marcos on Lake Atitlan... But instead of descending, we were climbing again!  Ever so steeply....  When we finally reached the top we got a stunning view of the lake,and breathed a very premature sigh of relief.  I should also mention the road had begun to deteriorate on the way up.  As we began to descend we were hanging on for dear life.  With our breaks on full we would still be slowly rolling down the hill at times! Our hands were cramping, and we were dodging vehicles, potholes and rocks that were around just about every corner.  We're not quite sure what the grade was but it was certainly over 10%.  I had to stop every few km to catch my breath... I was even considering getting a ride down the hill....but we persevered.  Every so often we got a 'break' with a short steep ascent, before continuing our dive to the lake.   We finally got to San Marcos, feeling utterly rattled.  The plan was to get on a boat to the next town over, Panajachel (no roads connect the two towns), and once more we had very false images of a relaxing boat ride to calm our nerves.  Oh, so very wrong again.  The water was rough, the bikes barely made it in the little lancha, and by the time we reached Panajachel we were soaked.  But, we had made it.  We were quickly accosted by a funny guy on a motorbike who helped us find a place, and told us that the world would erupt in war in two days.  'What a day' is turning out to be the theme of each day in Guatemala!

Last stretch to Antigua...and then living in the lap luxury 

Our last push to Antigua was just about as challenging as above.  Steep dives into valleys and steep climbs back out... We even got to do a river crossing where a bridge was out!  Here is a little taste of some steep downhill action, unfortunately it is hard to capture steepness on film and video....we'll work on it...


We made it to Antigua the afternoon before our flight to Costa Rica, and we would like to give a special shout out to the folks at OX Basecamp Hostal who have taken very good care of us, including letting us safely store our bikes and hooking us up with their bike mechanic for a very cheap (and much needed) tune up.  Thank you! 

And then...everything changed.  That sounds so ominous, but it truly was a strange experience to get on a shuttle bus and then an airplane and then another shuttle bus and travel over 1000 km in less than 8 hours.  Our bodies and minds were in a bit of a state of shock when we arrived in Jaco, Costa Rica.  But it was so incredible to see Glenn's side of our so incredilbe, and really sad to leave.  The wedding was great fun, the accommodation was luxurious and the food was stellar! The four days passed far too quickly, and before we knew it were were hurled back to Antigua at warp speed and are now back at basecamp reunited with our bicycles, and getting ready to hit the road again!