Check out an audio story from our travels in Guatemala when we cycled down Tajumulco Volcano, Central AmericaÂ´s Tallest Peak.[podcast]http://www.ridingthespine.com/tajpodcast/tajvolcano.mp3[/podcast]
Check out an audio story from our travels in Guatemala when we cycled down Tajumulco Volcano, Central AmericaÂ´s Tallest Peak.[podcast]http://www.ridingthespine.com/tajpodcast/tajvolcano.mp3[/podcast]
Check out Adventure Travel Magazine for a story about Riding the Spine’s ascent/descent of Central America’s Tallest Peak, Tajumulco Volcano.
It is not always easy having Surlyâ€™s Big Dummy for a touring companion. While touring through Guatemala I became afflicted. It was nearly impossible for me not to show off this cargo bike that can carry more than your standard pack animal, doesnâ€™t whine and beg for hay, and has more sexy curves in its frame then your most food deprived lingerie model. Take for example the daily routine of hauling leÃ±a (firewood) several miles from the timberline back down to the village. All along dirt roads, highways, or narrow footpaths, strut old men, women, and children hauling burdens that would crush a gringoâ€™s spine like elote into corn meal. Somehow they keep their backs straight and stiff as ramrods, and their burly calf muscles (like knotted tree roots) would put even the most accomplished recreational mountaineer to shame. Without a hint of pain or exhaustion, they handle their business. And yet as I coast along on my extra-long bike, I canâ€™t help but think, â€˜hey, Iâ€™ve got plenty of room to accommodate those heavy loads, maybe the locals could use a breakâ€™.
Wishing you all the best this holiday season.Â We have been traveling for about a year and a half now, and are still having the time of our lives.Â Â A special thanks to all who have supported us with donations, words of encouragement, and help along the way.Â It has made a tremendous difference in our lives.Â Â
We are spendingÂ the holidaysÂ in Semuc Champey (pictured below)Â at aÂ rafting commune of sorts and are enjoying the company and hospitality.Â
Click on the photos to see the udpated Guatemala Gallery.
Our route map consisted of four photocopied pages, kindly drawn up by a couple guides from Quetzaltrekkers. Two pages were narrative instructions, the other two – a crudely drawn map. It was 50 or 60 kilometers from Xela to Lago Atitlan as the crow flies, and a mere 20 inches worth of lines scribbled to guide us. Our plan was to bike the recently blazed hiking trail, and these sheets of paper were supposed to get us there.It began in the village of Xecam, at a church with a road leading towards the mountains. I stepped into the tienda to verify, “Which road leads to the trails over the mountain?”The DueÃ±o, looked at me, then my bike, and said, “Forget about it. ThereÂ´s no way you will make it with your bikes.”
My Spanish fails me often, so I had to ask again,â€¦
Our first turn was “up a path with flat smooth stones”. We each tested our biking abilities against the obstacle . We each made it about 20 feet until our rear wheels began to skid, forcing us to step off our bikes. The trail leveled out here and there, allowing us to saddle up momentarily, but after we crossed a creek, the real pushing began.
“Remember when we used to ride our bikes?”I joked.
“Yep. Sometimes even downhill. Those were good times.” Sean responded.
The sun began to set. And we hurriedly looked around for a campsite.
“Glad we have our hammocks, would sure be tough to find a level spot on this cliff.”I commented.
I was becoming more certain that north and south America were ramming into Guatemala, squishing the country up into torturous mountains. The locals didnÂ´t seem to notice or care, walking up and down the trails with ease, often accompanied by a horse or two helping to carry the burden of leÃ±a (firewood) for cooking and heating. Every hour or two — into the night, a dozen or so locals would trample past us; until the foot traffic dwindled with the remaining twilight.
“Buenas DIAS!”A native merrily greeted me the next morning, shortly before the sun was up.
I was startled, and not just because it was so early, but because his dark stubby face was a mere 18 inches from mine, peering into my hammock.
“Si.”I muttered sleepily and rolled over, hoping he would go away.
“Donde vas?”He implored.
“A dormir, con suerte.”
At breakfast, we sat and watched all the locals passing by.
“There they are.”Many would say, having heard about us in Xecam, where word of three gringos passing on bikes must have circulated like the wind.
Then came pounding footsteps accompanied by nervous laughter, followed by two guys — apparently startled, they slowed down noticeably. “Seems they didnÂ´t hear about us,” I thought to myself.
Shortly after, I went to pack up my hammock, but encountered it on the trail, hastily stuffed into one of my dry bags. “Uh oh. What`s this doing, here?” I asked myself.
Stuffed inside the dry bag, I found the camera and most of my sleeping gear. But I was still missing my pillow, the straps for my hammock and some metal stakes.
“ItÂ´s just not right to steal a manÂ´s pillow.” Sean said when I told him what happened.
Within an hour, it was no longer feasible to drag our loaded bikes up the steep trail. Forced to carry our gear and bikes separately, we shuttled them up, one at a time, one hundred yards at a time, again and again.
I find it hard to believe, but, eventually we did reach the “cuesta” of the mountain and celebrated with some banana bread and peanut butter, purchased from the Mennonite Bakery in Xela (a place performing small miracles of gastronomical delight every Tuesday and Friday).
We pulled out our map and realized that we were going to need a bit more than banana bread to keep us on the right track. “Ride through Pacural” was one of the more simple instructions we could latch onto, but when the (“Road will curve to the left, on the right side after the curve, some paths to right(ruts)”) ruts did not appear, I decided to inquire with the locals, “Is this Pacural?”
“Si.” Was the reply.
And to get a better sense of the area I asked, “And that town up there, what is it called?”
“And down there. Pacural as well?”
Plan B: Use our visual diagram to reach the trailhead to Santa Catarina. It was supposed to be at a school — there couldnâ€™t be that many schools out here, rightâ€¦ So we went to the first one, and then saw another one further up the hill, so we went to that one, alas another one appeared at the absolute top of the ridge. “ThatÂ´s the one.” I said confidently. I still believed in the power of our map.
We passed through small dirt streets in what appeared to be a long term refugee camp. After Hurricane Stan wiped out hundreds of homes with landslides around Lago Atitlan, many people were relocated up into these little mountain towns. USAID tents were still being used while they tried to scrounge up the resources to build more permanent adobe structures. Roadwork mangled the last stretch up to the school and a man stood by his truck, “Where are you going?”
“Lago Atitlan, por Santa Catarina.”
“But, the road is that way, pure pavement” He said pointing down the hill.
“WeÂ´re trying to find a hiking trail to ride.”
“No hay,” he said and repeated for emphasis, “There are none.”
He pointed across the mountains at the lake which we could see for the first time, its volcanoes rising sharply out of the terrain. “You can take a dirt road to the lake, it starts just 100 meters from here. Directo”
Directo. ItÂ´s what we want to hear, and itÂ´s what they like to tell us, but it rarely implies what it means. The best translation I can come up with for the word is, “keep going until you reach a T and ask somebody else”
We looked at each other with expressions that clearly said, “Why not?”
Down the mountain road we raced, checking our brakes before hitting the sharp cliff-lined turns. When we found ourselves winding around the mountain and away from the volcanic peaks I skidded to a stop.
“Any thoughts?” I tossed out, “Anything on the map.”
“Off the grid.” Goat replied.
This was no surprise, and as I stole a brief glance at the map, I couldnÂ´t help but laugh. It looked far too abstract to qualify as a map.
Through a patchwork of multi-colored agriculture draped over the mountainsides, we continued down the bumpy rutted out road. Creeping behind me was the feeling that this road was not as “directo” as promised, and the volcanoes faded from view.
Fortunately, dirt roads usually go somewhere, and we found ourselves in San Tomas La Union the next morning after having dropped about 5,000 feet elevation. We were such a rare sight in the town that they sent reporters to interview us and take photos.
“There is a road to Lago Atitlan?” Sean asked.
“Just turn left at the corner. Directo por San Miguel.” A fruit vendor said with an eager smile shaded by a wide brimmed hat.
Pavement abruptly ended into a chopped up track of dirt and rocks, passable only by pedestrians, motorcycles and four wheel drive vehicles. Men and women sat on bags of recently harvested coffee, waiting to be picked up. Their eyes followed us curiously. Pigs with floppy ears rooted along the roadside for food, and wild dogs tentatively followed our path. Coffee was being spread out under the sun with a rake, a rhythmic, musical sound. We traversed this neighborhood for many miles as we gradually climbed back up into the mountains.
By dark, we had come to the foot of what could only be described as “the hill,” because we would soon discover that itÂ´s unrelenting steepness forced us to recognize it as the most challenging climb yet.
“WeÂ´re looking for a campsite, a place with a couple trees to hang our hammocks. You know of any places near here?” Goat asked a man in front of a house beside the river.
With some form of K`iche` his first language, he replied in soft uncertain Spanish, “You can sleep here in this building. There is no roof, but the weather is good.”
As soon as we began unpacking, we were swarmed by curious townsfolk. Every item we pulled from our dry bags elicited a quiet wave of curiosity. The headlamps were particularly fascinating, as were the Thermarest chairs we set up in the empty, roofless structure. The narrow doorway was painted with awestruck faces, watching our every movement. When I got up to grab my water bottle, the kids all ran off giggling, returning to their lookout posts as soon as I sat down.
It just so happened that the Bridge was out, and the trucks that shuttled the villagers up to the Lago had to stop in front of the house and discharge their passengers to cross the river on foot, and change trucks. Every hour or so, a new group would entertain themselves with a bit of gringo voyeurism while waiting for their ride. In exchange, our window was a constant reel of entertainment, a makeshift television splashing images of beautiful faces; kids covered with snot, others with leathery skin, tightening to expose a genuine smile.
All the while, an imposing wall of a mountain guarded the entrance to Lago Atitlan. ItÂ´s presence felt as we tried to sleep. Something just wasnÂ´t right about it, the way the line cut up the mountain, the angle too abrupt, the pass too close. I pitied even the crow as it flies to the top of this mountain. The faint sound of giggling woke me up, bubbling into unrestrained laughter as I opened my eyes and sat up. I counted 17 different people standing around looking directly at me from various openings in the structure.“Buenos Dias” I greeted them as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes.
A chorus of voices echoed my words. I hoped we were right, but as I looked to our path ahead, I wasn`t so sure.
A desperate stretch of dirt road clung to the steep mountainside. Each turn switching back and forth, unsure about its destination.
Every revolution of my cranks caused my bike to creek and groan and I expected my chain to snap at any moment. I could have walked up this hill faster than I was riding and thought about one of those questions we get all the time, “You ever have to walk your bike up a hill?”
On this particular road, that would be a luxury, I thoughtâ€¦ The reality is that walking a fully loaded touring bike is exponentially more exhausting than riding it, and so I made every effort to keep momentum. Stepping off meant having to step back on – a delicate maneuver at best, on such steep terrain. This involved holding the brakes and leaning against the bike so it wouldn`t slide down, jumping on, clicking into the pedals (maintaining balance through the first traction-less pedal stroke) and grinding your way up again.
“Guess how many kilometers that hill was?” Goat asked as we sat for lunch enjoying the view.
“Too many.” I replied.“8 K.” Goat verified after checking his computer. “Have any idea how long that took?”I looked down at my watch and answered, “Ooohh, about 4 since the river.”
“2 kilometers an hour.” Sean added.
“Heh, I probably sat against my handlebars wheezing for at least half of that.”
Just before sunset we found ourselves resting on the roof of a friend`s house. In front of us, a vivid panorama of the lake resting at the base of three volcanoes while the sky flashed its remaining torrid pigments across the cloud before the darkness brought out the stars. A lady was singing at the community church and her voice was amplified across the lake.
I thought about our map for a moment, laughing about the confidence a few scribbled lines can give us; I pulled it out to look it over. The pages weren`t much to look at, but they were an idea, and they had served their purpose.
And the view couldn`t be better.
A Google Earth preview of our recent bike trek to Lago Atitlan attempting to follow a hiking trail. From Xecam up to the ridge was a serious hike-a-bike requiring us to haul up our gear and bike separately. From the ridge we had to blaze our own way down to San Tomas la Union on trails and dirt roads that were not on our map. From there we began a grueling climb back up into the mountains up to Santa Clara la Laguna and down into Lago Atitlan.
San Rafael Pie de La Cuesta, â€œFoot of the Hill,â€� but the huge climb getting there begged me to differ. However, the clouds cleared revealing the mountains towering above and the valididty of the name. At the â€œPie de la Cuesta,â€� we were easily convinced to stick around the town for a weeklong celebration.
I never learned exactly what the ocassion was, but the constant aerial bombardment of multi-colored Chinese mortars ensured that I would not forget there was a festival happening. In the middle of the night, I would wake imagining a civil war was occurring outside the door. Hours before the sun rose, an concerted effort was made to destroy the sky with homemade mortars, which must have been unsuccessful, because around sunrise another attempt was made.
I was relieved to see that sky was still intact when I got up to make some coffee at La Finca Villa Alicia, the family coffee plantation of our friend Roberto. The hot, caffeinated beverage was just what I needed before a hike across the rugged Guatemalan terrain that brought us to a lookout over the city.
The horizon burned with a copper glow as the sun reflected along a sliver of the Pacific ocean. Below us was a clear view of the plantation, itÂ´s rows of coffee plants and shade trees added lush texture to the mountainscape. Towards the center were the large cement panels used for drying the beans and a little cobblestone road connecting to the city.
â€œDuring the civil war,â€� Roberto began: â€œthese mountains used to be a stronghold for the guerillas. The military once set up camp at our farm, and when the guerillas figured out where the generals were sleeping; they opened fire in the middle of the night, made Swiss Cheese of the tin roof. You can still see some of the bullet holes. Some nights we could sit on our porch and watch the guerillas exchanging rocketfire between those two mountains.â€�
â€œAre you sure that wasnÂ´t last night,â€� Sean remarked sardonically.
â€œHah..That was nothing,â€� Roberto said with a big smile trying to restrain laughter. â€œWait until tonight, thatÂ´s when the real show begins.â€�
I was not concerned with the fireworks as much as with the promise I made to Mario, one of the kids living at the farm. â€œSure IÂ´ll go with you to the La Feria tomorrow,â€� I said, hoping he would to forget.
Maybe it is because we have seen these caravans of rickety contraptions pass us on the roads littering bolts and screws or that the rides are built and operated by thirteen year olds. But, I have come to understand a healthy fear of these nomadic playgrounds. So when Mario snuck up behind me and said, â€œÂ¿Nos vamos?â€� my heart skipped a beat.
Only two rides were of interest to the kid, pushing thirteen years old, his hair combed and gelled, his shirt tucked in and shoes shined. The first was a large circle of rapidly spinning swings that I had to veto since I could see that the kids short legs came mere inches from hitting the power lines. The second was a large ferris-wheel named, â€œAnaconda,â€� that towered over the small village.
I handed our tickets to the youngster operating the ride and sat down while the â€œsafety barâ€� was latched into place. With a heavy jerk, we began our ascent. Mario, quickly became bored with waiting as people were loaded, and began aggressively swinging our seat to add to the thrill. After making one slow revolution, the young worker stopped the ride long enough to utter a few broken sentences that amounted to, â€œDonÂ´t swing in these, itÂ´s dangerous, built by hand, one women fell,â€� and point to the thin bolt holding our seat onto the ride.
Of course, the ride then began for real and Mario was either unconcerned or unaware of the warning and continued with determination to flip our seat. The ferris-wheel spun fast enough to create the sensation of free-falling. And this combined with the swinging seat/warning, to make the ride both exhilerating and frightening.
Then the power suddenly failed for the entire Feria, jerking the ferris-wheel to a standstill while we were at the top. All the lights that had polluted our view were now absent and we could see down the mountain and just barely make out a silvery reflection of the moon on the Pacific Ocean. â€œI think I like the Feria after all,â€� I mused silently.
After 15 minutes of wondering how much longer I would be stuck on the Anaconda, the power sputtered back on. But the many lights on the ride, remained unlit, until the young worker climbed up the wheel and began turning each light on, one by one as the ride slowly spun around and the crowd watched, gasping at the boys dangerous maneuvers.
Eventually the â€œsafety latchâ€� was undone and we escaped La Feria to explore the festivities on main street. An inflated Globo ready to light the night sky stopped us in front of the church, while a 100 foot roll of firecrackers was laid out and quickly ignited, beginning the procession. A large gate opened for a couple dozen folks armed with mortars and â€œincendiaresâ€� marching ahead of a large shrine carried by the locals: two dolphins in mid-leap over sparkling ribbons fashioned into water and an angelic looking figurine standing on a large conch shell. A full marching band formed behind the float and played what I imagined was, â€œThis Little Light of Mine.â€�.
Everybody nearby lit candles, and began following the procession. I sauntered behind all this trying to get back to the farm for dinner, but a candle appeared in my hand, and I was enveloped by a crowd of lit candles.
â€œWhatÂ´s the candle for?â€� I asked Mario.
â€œItÂ´s the light of God.â€� He whispered to me while looking around, apparently for an escape. â€œHurry, put it out. LetÂ´s cross the street here.â€�
His urgency made sense when I saw that he had just aquired a few feet of unexploded firecrackers and was eager to ignite them. â€œCan I have your candle?â€�
I left in search of food while he found people and toys to torment with his explosives. About midway up the cobblestone road, I saw my shadow suddenly cast in front of me, followed by the percussion and ear shattering boom that signaled the begining of the fireworks display. For the next thirty minutes, I sat on the mossy road, lined with bamboo hedges and coffee plants illuminated by the full moon and spectral brilliance of incendiares filling the sky.
â€œI think I like Guatemala,â€� I thought to myself.