5th- 9th May: Hanging out with old friends, and hooking up with some new ones, gave us the perfect excuse to stay in Antigua longer than we intended. After five days shrouded in cloud, we left on the perfect morning to see the fantastic volcanoes, for which the town is famous, in all their conical glory.
25 miles of pure downhill later and we had reached the hot, flat, fertile, coastal plain of Guatemala. Famous for sugar cane, banana and cotton plantations this is where for generations indigenous people came to get seasonal work – traveling down from mountain homes, often under duress to sweat in the lowlands. It certainly was sweltering in comparison to Antigua. Pedaling along the flat road in the heat was hard work. Luckily there were abundant break opportunities – with mangos in season every few metres someone was hawking them. For less than 10 pence a pop we gorged on the sweet, juicy fruit, allowing it to dribble down our chins and arms to the amusement of local children.
At Taxisco, after 50 miles we called it a day. Soaked with sweat we found the local fire brigade and, as the firemen were out on call, whiled away the time eating more mango and chatting to the girl from the shop nextdoor. When the ‘bomberos’ returned we were treated to their full hospitality – they readily agreed to let us stay, offered us the shower, cooked us dinner and generally entertained us. Yet another extraordinary example of unexpected generosity and kindness.
The next morning we both felt crook. The heat was stifling and the night had been restless inside the fire station. On our bikes just after 6am we gave the road our best shot, but after 8 miles I was done for, and Ned not faring much better. Feverish and weak we found a hotel and lolled about in front of a fan for the rest of the day.
Not feeling much better the next day we made the strategic decision to escape the hot flatlands and head for the hills – by bus. Heaving our poor bikes onto the roof of a chicken bus we traversed the windy, steep road to Cuilapa. This was an experience in itself. The journey was just over an hour but in this time hawkers squeezed their way onto the packed bus selling fruit, sweets, drinks, more fruit, dietary supplements and even corn on the cob with chilli sauce and salt. Heaven forbid that any Guatemalan would take an hour long journey without some form of sustenance!
In Cuilapa we holed up for another two nights in the budget ‘Hotel Max’. On the third morning I was feeling unable to cycle, yet also unable to countenance another night in ‘Max’ so we decided to bite the bullet and bus it to the border and to still higher ground.
The crossing into El Salvador was uneventful and after friendly questions from customs officials we arrived in our fourth country! And what a welcome we received! Shoving our bikes into a mini-bus we were inundated with greetings and questions from fellow passengers. This pattern continued, everyone seemed to want to help us, or at least say hi – from the guy passing in the street, to the drunkard on the corner who insisted on explaining how he had been deported from Utah because he got in trouble with the law after sexy dancing with another guy’s girl! The cherry on the cake was when we flagged down a pick-up after realising that our couchsurfing host for the night actually lived 7 miles further up the mountain than we thought. The kind driver agreed to take us to the village and absolutely refused any attempt to pay him. Amazing.
So, here we are in Ataco, on the Ruta de las Flores – a stunning 36km road in the mountains, through colonial towns and El Salvador’s premier coffee country. Our host Attilio and his wife, Rosario welcomed us with open arms making us feel instantly at home – something I was really grateful for after our minor ordeal. Former El Salvadorian basketball star, and Greyhound bus driver for 25 years in the US, Attilio has a lot of stories to share. They took us to a favourite pupusa (corn flour dough fried and stuffed with cheese, pork scratchings, beans, or all three) joint and even hooked me up with a Dr who informed me that I, like Ned, had amoebas. Having self-diagnosed myself alternately with cholera, dengue fever, and a host of other unpronounceable tropical diseases (thanks Lonely Planet!) it was good to get some certainty. Now, armed with hardcore antibiotics begins the recovery regime.