26th-30th April: With many fond farewells said and done, and equipped with excellent maps -thanks to our photocopies from Dagmar and Mete, who we met again in Xela – we hauled our heavy legs, and heavy bikes back onto the road. Before leaving the city we paid a visit to The Bike House where the kind owner gave us route advice and a lot of much needed encouragement. All was gratefully received as we nervously prepared to cycle after a month out of the saddle. In the street while we were engaged in the shop a pidgeon crapped on my Brooks – a good luck charm. Things were boding well for our ride to Antigua.
That first day was tough. A 12 mile climb out of Xela up to a place the locals know as ‘Alaska’ – a little confusing for those unsuspecting cycle tourists who explain proudly that they have cycled from Alaska, USA to unimpressed Guatemalteco reactions! ‘Alaska’, I imagine, bears little or no resemblance to its namesake – it’s a bit cold, and very cloudy at an altitude of above 3,000m. Anyway, we were glad to get there as it marked the pass and the beginning of the long downhill stretch down the mountain.
At the bottom we stopped at the town of Nahuala. The only hotel in the dusty town was closed and looked unappealing to say the least. So, we continued riding around followed by the stares and giggles of locals until we came across the local volunteer fire station. In Guatemala the fire brigade (bomberos) seems to be largely voluntary. We remembered that other cycling friends Javier and Silvia, who we spent time with in San Cristobal, stayed with the bomberos a lot. We decided to try our luck.
Jackpot! The kind bomberos took us in, allowing us to camp in their shed and use their spotless bathroom and kitchen facilities complete with toilet paper, soap, coffee and purified water. All for free. Luxurious camping indeed.
Next day we cycled until lunchtime and then began to feel the effects of a month without pedaling. After calling it a day at 12pm, the next day we felt much stronger and determined to make it to San Andreas Itzapa and Maya Pedal where we could find Javier and Silvia, and Sarah and Tom once again. Incentive to chew through the 50 miles. The day was great, more mountains but we felt good – Ned thankfully seeming to have recovered from his recent bout of amoeba trouble. We met with a few mechanical difficulties on the way – a phantom deflating tyre on mine, and a jamming derailleur on Ned’s bike – both thankfully quickly remedied.
Climbing up the steep valley towards San Andreas we found ourselves in the middle of a running race. Wiry young Guatemalans were finishing the race to the screams of excited girls hanging out the back of police trucks. They switched their support to us, helping us pant up the impossibly steep switchbacks towards our destination.
Maya Pedal is an NGO that builds and reconditions donated bikes from the USA and Canada, and also invents bici-machines that can substitute bike power for electricity. The sentiment is great, but the reality of the place was a little disappointing. They have not had a shipment of parts for over a year, and the volunteering opportunities are suffering from a lack of resources and lack of organisation. The workshop is great, however and is fully equipped with tools and the expertise of Carlos, the jefe, not to mention the skills of the 10 other cycle tourists we met there. With a little time and effort you could make something of the place – get stuck into a project and into the community. We were keen to move on after a stationary month in Xela, so after a couple of nights camping on the roof of the overcrowded house we took off for Antigua.
Antigua is a culture shock. It is posh – land of frappucinos and gringos. Don’t get me wrong, it is beautiful – the cobbled streets, the imposing volcano, the brightly painted houses and the grand plazas. It’s just different to the Guatemala we have become accustomed to.
Despite the plush hotels and expensive restaurants, Antigua offers a free camp spot next to the tourist police station. Gleefully setting up camp, we set off to enjoy the city with Tobias – a friend from PLQ who happened to be in town. It had taken him five hours on the chicken bus from Xela, a journey that ended up taking us three days!