21st – 24th March: We hung out in San Cristobal de las Casas for a week, mostly in Joaquin’s El Hostalito where we happily encountered fellow cyclists, Sarah and Tom again, plus some new friends – Javier and Sylvia from Spain. We were one big biking family, it was hard to leave. We’d postponed departure once already though, and leave we must – we had a date to meet Ned’s dad in Guatemala, something we were very excited about. Saying a fond farewell to Fallon off we went.
The 60 miles to Comitan took us through lots of small, traditional villages winding up and down amongst pine trees. Beyond, Comitan, as the sun got low in the sky, we began to look for somewhere to camp along the highway. Prospects were not good for stealth camping so we started asking people. First in a hotel with a HUGE garden, but no, the lady didn’t like the look of us and sent us packing. We had better luck when we asked at two garden centres – ‘viveros’ – but the people working there were not the owners and could not give us permission. Beginning to think that we would have to retrace our steps, back to Comitan for a hotel, we stopped outside a house just off the highway. Four gorgeous little girls were playing in the yard, and when we rocked up they stopped to stare and giggle. One of them fetched a man who after some brief minutes of explanation agreed to let us camp in his garden, next to the sheep pen.
Hector and his wife, Carmen, then gave us supper while his little girls ran in and out, fascinated by the strange looking guests. This, our last night in Mexico, was one of the best night’s sleep – apart from an outburst from a flatulent sheep, there were no interruptions to our slumber.
Our first night over the border in Guatemala was not so salubrious. The cheapest room of our trip so far, in a hotel packed to the gunwales with guests. Over night the water supply packed in, with disastrous consequences for the communal bathrooms.
Anyway, our ride to the border was great. Lots of long, sweeping descents to the frontier at Ciudad Cuauhtemoc. At the small town we spent our last few peso coins on ice cream and went to get our passports stamped. Here we encountered a small drama having lost one of the receipts proving that we had both paid for the VISA on our entry into Mexico. After some discussion and pleading the official relented, allowing us to pass without paying again. We were lucky, the guy rightly pointed out that we would not have been so fortunate finding someone willing to bend the rules crossing into the USA, or the UK.
The last three miles to the Guatemalan side of the border greeted us with a tough climb past a smouldering rubbish dump – thank you Mexico! A bit more paperwork to complete, and some fast bargaining with the money-changers prowling around with bags stuffed with wads of cash, and we were in Guatemala.
We needn’t have worried about waking up early enough the next day to make a start before the sun got hot. The entire hotel seemed to get up at 5.30am! The town was pumping at 7am as we headed up into the Western Highlands. A beautiful ride lay before us. Being in a new country was fascinating, and the area is heavily populated with many small villages along the route as we climbed up a river gorge. Kids smiling, waving, giving us high-fives and often clubbing together to shout ‘gringo’ accompanied us. The highlands is big coffee growing country. Men lugging sacks of coffee beans on and off trucks, signs along the way saying ‘we buy coffee’ (though it was difficult to buy a cup to drink), and beans out in the sun to dry were a welcome diversion from the climb. As was the sight of women weaving the wonderful traditional costume by hand, using back-strap looms. Every inch of possible land is cultivated, often crops are growing on impossibly steep gradients, where no machinery could ever reach.
After six hours pedaling we began to think about camping. The first place we asked, a small comedor, we struck lucky. The lovely family offered us a place to stay above their home on the unfinished upper level of the house. We were given blankets for the cold, water and they even swept and mopped the floor for us. Our host was an evangelical priest with seven children, and an even larger extended family. We were blown away by their kindness and openness to total strangers.
Heading into Huehuetenango the next day we hopped, skipped and jumped on a bus to make it to Panajachel and Lake Atitlan in time for the rendezvous with Ned’s dad. Navigating the chaos of the bus station – a melee of people, vehicles, market produce, an open drain and the ubiquitous dogs – was a slight culture shock in contrast to the air conditioned, marble-floored Mexican terminals.
We got off the bus at the junction for the lake – just at the right point to ride the 15 miles of precipitous descent, to reach Panajachel with smoking brakepads. We hardly pedaled at all – most enjoyable!