Happy Holidays from Semuc Champey

Wishing you all the best this holiday season.  We have been traveling for about a year and a half now, and are still having the time of our lives.   A special thanks to all who have supported us with donations, words of encouragement, and help along the way.  It has made a tremendous difference in our lives.  

We are spending the holidays in Semuc Champey (pictured below) at a rafting commune of sorts and are enjoying the company and hospitality. 

Click on the photos to see the udpated Guatemala Gallery.


A Good Idea

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 Dueño, looked at me, then my bike, and said, “Forget about it. There´s no way you will make it with your bikes.”

My Spanish fails me often, so I had to ask again,…

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 didn´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 leña (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.”

“Y después?”

“Lago Atitlan.”

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 didn´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.

“It´s just not right to steal a man´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 couldn’t be that many schools out here, right… 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. “That´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.

“We´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. It´s what we want to hear, and it´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 couldn´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 it´s unrelenting steepness forced us to recognize it as the most challenging climb yet.

“We´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. It´s presence felt as we tried to sleep. Something just wasn´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 thought… 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.

Fundraiser Ride in Costa Rica

The world is a little larger than we imagined, and our efforts to explore the non-paved roads and trails has extended the duration of the trip an extra year.  Without the support of major sponsors or deep pockets, we are having to raise money to continue our journey. 

With the help of Coast to Coast Adventures and John Yost, an exciting bike adventure  has been organized to help us earn money.  Come join us for an extraordinary section of our trip across the continental divide alongside Volcano Miravalle, and on to Arenal Volcano and lake.  Click on the Picture for more info:

Costa Rica Fundraiser

Not interested in joining but still want to help?  You can donate to our trip by clicking here.

Or help us spread the word. Print out the trip itinerary and post it on the bulletin boards of your local bike/outdoor stores.

Xela to Lago Atitlan

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.

Full Dispatch to be posted later this week.


Anaconda in Guatemala

San Rafael Pie de La Cuesta, “Foot of the Hill,� 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 “Pie de la Cuesta,� 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, it´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.

“During the civil war,� Roberto began: “these 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.�

“Are you sure that wasn´t last night,� Sean remarked sardonically.

“Hah..That was nothing,� Roberto said with a big smile trying to restrain laughter. “Wait until tonight, that´s when the real show begins.�

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. “Sure I´ll go with you to the La Feria tomorrow,� 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, “¿Nos vamos?� 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, “Anaconda,� that towered over the small village.

I handed our tickets to the youngster operating the ride and sat down while the “safety bar� 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, “Don´t swing in these, it´s dangerous, built by hand, one women fell,� 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. “I think I like the Feria after all,� 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 “safety latch� 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 “incendiares� 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, “This Little Light of Mine.�.

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.

“What´s the candle for?� I asked Mario.

“It´s the light of God.� He whispered to me while looking around, apparently for an escape. “Hurry, put it out. Let´s cross the street here.�

His urgency made sense when I saw that he had just aquired a few feet of unexploded firecrackers and was eager to ignite them. “Can I have your candle?�
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.

“I think I like Guatemala,� I thought to myself.

Gimme Shelter

Rain welcomed our arrival into Chiapas. Mountainsides became waterfalls, every other kilometer we crossed a raging river, and the percipitation was so heavy we had to blow air forcibly from our nostrils to avoid drowning.

It did not deter drivers that the highway lay under a few inches of water, they exercized little extra caution. Struggling to maintain that thin line alloted as a shoulder, I waited for the inevitable hydroplaning auto to swerve, collide, and repeatedly roll over my bike and body as it made its way to the bottom of a ditch. It felt at times that we were no longer biking, but tunneling through a wall which resisted with indefatigable force.

Nobody could really see what was in front of them, not me with my fogged glasses, nor the drivers with their wiperless windshields. When we felt like we had tested our luck long enough, we searched for shelter to wait out the torrential downpour. One day I pulled over to a small grocers stand. It had a tin awning providing shelter for the customers who stood outside and conducted business through a barred window. I was thrilled to escape the monsoon until I realized that the roof was full of holes. A stream of water ran down my neck as I asked for some fresh rolls. An old woman slouched against the ordering counter next to me and smiled; not a drop of water had touched her. Her hair even had that frizzy texture reminiscent of a sun baked desert.

“When do you think the rain will stop?� I asked my fellow stranded companion.
“It´s been like this for three days now, and I don´t think it will let up soon�. She replied, continuing to smile.

Had she been leaning up against the same tienda for the past three days? Was that her secret?
“Well, I´m going to be in Guatemala in a day…â€�
“Ah�. She gasped, “There´s much more water there than here.� She sounded a bit concerned for my wellbeing.

At this point the grocer lady intervened; “Joven (young one) what are you doing riding on this road? You know we have many pretty girls here.¨

The rain seemed to be hiding them; perhaps there were classier tiendas with less leaky awnings upon which they leaned and displayed their voluptuous bodies. Yet now the grocer lady was pointing to a television screen perched on top of her refrigerator, that between intervals of static related a Pan-Latin American dating show.

“Just like them…â€� she wagged her finger at a Honduras girl, thin as a stick and hair dyed guerro style, her potential male suitor was informing her that she just didn´t have the goods. Her heart exploded into flames that ravaged her amber face. “We have girls like them here! And they aren´t in schoolâ€�.

She explained something about the school teacher having fled on an unannounced leave of absence.

At that moment Goat rode by. He was clothed only in board shorts. The rain pounded at him like a sledge hammer. I yelled, but he twisted his head wildly in numerous directions, unable to locate the source of the voice. I was close enough to hit him in the head with my stale pan dulce (sweet bread). Being momentarily removed the process of blind highway cycling allowed me the meditation time to observe just how insanely perverse this whole operation was becoming. What the hell was I doing pedaling down this crazy flooded highway anyway?

A feeling of profundity overwhelmed my soul; I was about to make a life-altering decision here and now. Turning to the match-maker grocer I nodded and murmered, “O.K.� What I meant to say was, “You´ve convinced me lady, lead the way to these idle beauties.� Of course at that essential moment my Spanish failed me. The two old match makers laughed and laughed. It must have been etched into the lines of my face that I was already married, that my heart and soul were invested into a piece of cold steel. After finishing off the grocers basket of stale pan dulce I returned to the slow process of drilling through that impenetrable wall.

In Chiapas, towns, farms, and houses were in close proximity to one another. Unused or unsupervised land was hard to find, hence It was becoming difficult to locate campsites that offered suitable trees to string hammocks from. One night as darkness closed in we decided to hang our hammocks from the beams of a high tension tower, not realizing that we were a few feet from a honey bee farm. When the family of bee keepers noticed our presence they engaged us heatedly, asserting the land underneath the tower was not their own, and that we should not camp there. Goat managed to pacify their concerns with some patient dialogue, and later that night the family presented each of us with a bottle of delicious honey.

The following evening we were again in a fix for a discrete location to camp. Much of the late afternoon had been spent navigating Tapachula, a large sprawling urban disaster with labyrinths of congested one-way streets. Luckily we found a beautiful grove of cocoa trees right outside the city limits, just as night approached. Surprisingly no fence obstructed our entrance into the field. Emboldened by the sight a clear sky, the first in nearly a week, I cycled back to town to pick up some beers. Being only ten kilometers from the Guatemalan border I felt that we had reason to celebrate.

A little after dawn we were awakened by heated shouts. Clumsily I twisted my body around in my wobbling hammock to see the source of commotion; a gang of farmers, armed with machetes had surrounded Goat´s hammock. The oldest among the gang talked in rapid fire bursts but it was clear that he wanted us all out of our cacoons and ready to explain our presence. Some small kid felt that Goat wasn´t acting with enough urgency, and proded at his hammock with a sharpened stick, as if tormenting an animal in a cage.

By the time each of us had dressed and emerged into the chaos, two other men had arrived on the scene. Each was barefoot, clad only in boxer shorts. Wedged as they were in a crowd of dark skinned indeginous farmers their paisty complexions screamed of disparity. Their sweaty brows and paranoid expressions revealed that someone had abruptly woken them with severe news; it wasn´t the threat of mere bandits or robbers, but some kind of godless creatures incubating in hovering green cacoons preparing to overtake the property. When the younger of the two -a thin balding man adorned in boxer shorts decorated by Simpsons characters- saw that we were just weird gringos he embarked on a lengthy tirade. The phrase, “puta madreâ€� was applied in many new fascinating ways. When he attempted to reprimand us, the nasal tone of his voice revealed a kind of childish disappointment, like we had just played with his toy train without permission, and belligerently smashed all model freight cars to pieces. “Next time ask, just ask!â€� he whined. Eventually he pulled his foreman aside and imparted some wisdom, “Next time just ask what they´re doing…â€� -volley of expletives- “before you get me out of bedâ€�.

There had been an older bigger fellow with a stout white mustache and protruding naked belly, but he was already gone. Early on in the reactionary tantrum, he had been silently dwelling in resentment at the unamusing prank of his early morning rousing. He shook his head, like the gringos were just a weird dream to be cast out the ears, and trotted back to his bed.

Among the faces of the armed gang, expressions betrayed disappointment that a lynching would not be taking place. The boss man told them to disperse, but he and his foreman stayed awhile to chat and diffuse the tense situation, and eventually let us be.

We set about cooking up our breakfast, casually eating, resting and digesting. Then suddenly the boss man was back, still clad only his Simpson boxer shorts, accompanied by his machete wielding foreman. Their reappearance put us back on guard. They asked the same exact questions they had asked the first time, mainly who we were, what we were doing. We were a bit worried that we were dealing with an amnesiac man of volatile temperment who may very well allow his armed farmers to hack us to bits. But then he asked us if we wanted to have coffee, maybe something for breakfast. He was vague. He asked his foreman what he could offer us, and before a response was offered he just took off. I could only fathom that his sporadic departures were due to the high volume of vicious mosquitos buzzing about. The near nude boss man must have been accumulating a devastating amount of bites. The quesiton remains; why, if he was going to reconfront us, wouldn´t he at least put on some shoes? As he parted from our company the second time, I feared his absence would be but an ephemeral gesture, that perhaps he was really lurking behind a tree waiting for us to plunder his cocoa fruit and thus have a pretense to nail us. Hastily we removed our hammocks and packed up our things. Leaving our cocoa tree refuge, we encountered a sign designating the place as Finca de la Paz, (Peaceful Plantation).

Passing by Tranquillo

One day, while having a lunch of cheese, crackers and hot sauce on the side of a small rural road, Jacob made the observation that our tourist visas were near their expiration date. We were about midway through Guerrero at that time, and looking forward to all the dirt roads our map showed, winding through the massive state of Oaxaca. Our discussion that day, as always, was rather brief. We came to the conclusion that we would get on a toll road and blast through the next fifteen hundred kilometres or so of Mexico like lightening. Maybe it was time for a change of pace; we had long since become intimately acquainted with the country. To the point of recognizing all the popular songs, knowing the names of our favourite regional cheeses, and even being able to predict when to hold our breath to avoid the overpoweringly putrescent stench of rotten animal carcass. It is perhaps, best not to get too attached to things held familiar. A nomad has to know when to move on.

So we blasted through the coastlines of Guerrero and Oaxaca, occasionally finding paradise beaches with only a handful of kids from sleepy fishing villages playing in the waves. In Puerto Escondido we were offered beds at a fire station. The firemen treated us to a meal of Armadillo meat and related stories of the supernatural from Oaxacan folklore.

But mainly we just pedalled our bikes. Grinding out the hours on the straight and flat, there was an overabundance of time to think; time to reminisce on fond memories, or hit the repeat button on your mental music collection. I started to feel like a prisoner of my mind. I wished that something would liberate me from the monotony of the Carretera (high way), but all I could do was sprint at the top pace allowed by the knobby treads of mountain bike tires.

Then one day we rolled into a small town all mad with thirst and completely out of water. Lately we had been filling our dromedary bags from twenty-litre jugs of purified water that we would buy from small grocery stores. It was cheaper to buy purified water than to pump it ourselves ‘factoring in the cost of replacement filters’ and it was tastier to drink water untainted by our iodine purifying solution. For some reason, finding water in this town proved to be a bit of a hassle. One market would send us on to the next; merchants would assure us that what we desired did in fact exist, if not at the next door down then certainly at the gas station. Eventually we came to the gas station they too would not sell us water. I decided to fill my Dromedary bag from the restroom tap, but a heavy set man beat me to the entrance and proceeded to take control of the sink. Hanging from one of his hands was a large bucket containing razors, a bar of soap caked in hair and grit, and cigarette butts. As he positioned himself in front of the mirror, I found myself impolitely staring; was he really going to chain smoke during his shave?

Suddenly overcome with nausea I turned my head and went in search of alternative water sources, but none were to be found. An attendant informed me about the existence of a garden hose that was conveniently located at the feet of the man with the bucket full of shaving equipment. I walked back to the restroom trying to gather the courage to ask the man to step aside for a moment. But when I got there, I found the man with his shirt removed and his protruding belly resting upon the edge of the sink I felt an instant drain of will power. We waited nearly half an hour in a thin strip of shade outside the restroom for the man to finish up with the meticulous care of his face.

We fuelled by the budding excitement of entering a new country and starting a new leg of the journey, we couldn’t adhere to our usual tendency of chilling out — it was hot and our adrenaline was high. We would make it to Chiapas by tomorrow morning, possibly this very night, and then Guatemala was only a few more days away. Driven, unconsciously, to preserve the efficiency of our pace, the shaving man incident seemed interminable. I looked up as the man finally took his leave of the mirror. Whatever he had done to clean up the lower part of his face was eclipsed by a thick drooping moustache.

Fully loaded with water, we once again took to the highway. Spinning over flat plains, we could see the road for miles ahead, every foot covered by traffic backed up by a rickety steam-roller. As we weaved our way through the line of stranded cars, we often had to barge into the narrow space between bumpers when an oversized bus or truck made it impossible to pass on the right side. Drivers glared at us as we executed our impertinent manoeuvre; each awaiting their turn to make the dangerous pass into oncoming traffic. When we finally reached the steam-roller, I was shocked to see the “shaving man� unconcernedly piloting the shuddering beast. With the same drooping moustache, his shirt rolled up over his rounded belly, and a cigarette hanging lazily from his lips. Then, as Goat and I sped past, suddenly the machinery made a bold leap forward, accelerating into chase mode. It felt like a cartoon sequence from the Road Runner Show, where the conniving Willie Coyote operates a contraption on the verge of malfunction to catch a bird madly spinning its legs. Had the presence of oddball gringos disturbed the serene atmosphere of ´Tranquillo´s afternoon shave? Would he catch up and pulverize our bike frames and bones into fine dust? Picturing the Roadrunner’s whirling legs which left in their wake a trail of flames I tried to match his intensity with my pedalling. Eventually, having put enough distance between my rear end, and that noisy wheel of immense crushing force, I could relax a bit.

Up ahead I could see a tow truck crew attaching hefty chains to the burned out shell of an exploded tanker truck. The charred remains were upside down in the drainage alongside the road; it appeared unlikely that the tow truck alone would be able to drag the long crumbling skeleton out of its pit. I wanted to hang around to witness the Herculean feat, yet moments after stopping; I could already hear the roar of the mechanical beast catching up from behind. It was time to move!

Due to our fast pace we had endured the record stretch of nearly two weeks without internet connection. So later that day we, when found a Cybercafé in a small town near the Chiapan border our eyes virtually melted into the warm glow of computer monitors. Before any of us could muster the willpower to rally an exit from cyberspace, the real world had become dark.

Toll roads are much too dangerous to ride on at night, even for short amounts of time, so we asked the locals where the best place in town would be to set up our hammocks. One man encouraged us to go to the central park. Another told us we could camp in trees behind a gas station — there we found a guard with a machine gun who forbade us from venturing anywhere near the gas tanks. Finally, we asked the police, and they motioned for us to set up our hammocks from the pillars in front their office right in the centre of downtown. Throughout the night, young people with expensive sound systems drove by our camp blasting their favourite party music. Sometime near the break of dawn the night-shift-police washed their cars and performed random engine maintenance about three feet away from my head. At seven o’clock sharp the megaphone system of a roving street hawker clicked on. We could count on the merchant listing off his whole inventory of goods for the next few hours.

We were well acquainted with these persistent amplified voices — they rarely took breaks for breath, nor altered their script. Every member of town no doubt knew the inventory by heart. After nearly half an hour of trying to ignore this auditory abuse I heard Jacob mumble: “This would be the absolute worst place in the world to nurse a hang-overâ€�.

Later on that morning we crossed into Chiapas, and the terrain transformed from the marsh wetlands of lower Oaxaca to dense tropical foliage of the Sierra foothills. Studying our road map, we gauged the distance we had covered in the past ten days to be roughly eight hundred kilometres. In that time we crossed a land that daily underwent drastic transformation, passing through towns and villages of diverse cultures and history. It all went by like a blur, my mind focusing on instead the random eccentric encounters, and of course that carrot at the end of a stick; Guatemala. We were just three hundred kilometres of toll road away.

Dirtbag Tip #2: Lubrication

Bike chains (especially the extra-long version our bikes require) have more moving parts than the rest of the bike put together. And not just moving — but grinding together, while being exposed to moisture and all sorts of dirt and grime.


Clearly, lubrication is of the highest importance. But, chain lube has an almost impossible job description: It must be thick enough to resist heat and moisture, thin enough to penetrate into the inner workings of all those moving parts, sticky enough to hold position on exposed smooth metal, but not so tacky that it collects dirt, becoming a grinding paste.

There are several companies whose products have reached this holy grail of chemical engineering, but their elixirs are astronomically expensive (for the off road bike tourist who must clean-lube their chain every other day) and far from available in rural Latin America.


Fortunately there is a solution that is cheap, readily available, well within your ability even if you failed high school chemistry, and most importantly, it works really well.

Only two ingredients are necessary:
Oil (of the heavy sticky variety), and solvent.

225px-motor_oil.jpg                       1528150289.jpg

Our favorites are motor oil, and white gas.
(Though gear oil, chainsaw bar oil, paint thinner, mineral spirits and regular gasoline are all reasonable substitutes)

The mixing ratio varies from 1×1 to 3×1 (solvent to oil) depending on your materials and conditions (in wet weather your oil wants to be thicker, etc.).

Simply mix, and use…

The magic is that the solvent helps the thick (lubricating) oil penetrate into all the little cracks where it is needed, and then evaporates, leaving your oil stuck right where it needs to be, but lasts long enough that when you wipe your chain after oiling (always wipe off excess oil) the thinned oil comes right off. Leaving your chain well lubed, and clean/unlikely to attract dirt.

Your chain is happy, so it lasts longer, and so does your trip.

Tierra Caliente in the Time Of Cholera

            A substantial roundabout between the states of Michoacan and Guerrero wheels the traffic around like a spinning game of fate.   Roads spoke off to all parts of the country, including Acapulco and Mexico City, but without the benefit of any signs, your path can veer off into uncertainty.  We paused to review our map before entering the endless deluge of cars rushing to their future.  Like a steel bearing dropped into a roulette wheel, we spun madly to circle the roundabout with the flow of traffic.                         

            We were flushed out on a road heading towards Mexico City.  The sky was draped over with a hazy layer of clouds delivering a steady drizzle.  We shared the road with both the speeding vehicles and the ever encroaching jungle that formed an impenetrable six foot wall of barbed plants reaching out to snag us.   No…these conditions were not suitable to our desired mode of travel, but we could find no other options and only could hope that the cars on the road could see us through their rain splattered windshields.


            As the rain picked up, I wiped off my sunglasses and saw Sean talking to some locals resting from the laborious task of clearing a patch of roadside vegetation.  The smell of liquor greeted me as I stopped to chat.  A happy go lucky fella´ with a big machete and even bigger drunken smile made some incomprehensible noises while flailing his arms about in what appeared to be an attempt to communicate.

            “Amigos,� I was able to translate.

            We have had much experience with this apparently universal language of the village borrachos.  They don’t know any English, they’re too drunk to play a proper game of charades or even articulate decipherable Spanish words, and they can’t fathom the gringo speaks Spanish anyways.  This, however, does little to stop them from inventing their own language, which, as far as I can tell only really has one word in it´s vocabulary.  


             “Si, Buenas tardes AMIGO.  ¿Como esta usted?� I said, instantly regretting further engagement in the conversation.

            Again, a wild gesticulation of body movements and boisterous speech was unleashed; this time, he almost lost his balance, nearly floundering into a pile of debris.  But he steadied himself and grinned at his triumph over gravity while his eyes settled in a satisfied, but crooked, uncertain gaze. 

            “Amigos,� We established again.  

            The other guy, 53 years old, had divorced his wife and estranged his family in the United States, to live in Mexico.  He gave no indication that he missed them very much, and seemed quite content with his 16 year old girlfriend.

            “She’s one of about 6 in this village,� he proudly proclaimed in English while the young girl lovingly wrapped her arms around him, attempting to woo him into telling her what he just said.

            “That’s her uncle.� He motioned to the drunk, who was still amusingly staring off into space.  “I just buy this land.� He looked over the lot, nodding his head with satisfaction.  “I bring back a Jeep Grand Cherokee and pay a coyote to smuggle girl into the US and they give me this land.�

            “¿You want to come to my house? Eat authentic Mexican food.  You can stay at my house.” He offered, carefull searching his English Words.

            Helpless to resist the magic phrase, “Free Food,� particularly when accompanied by an invitation to sleep under a roof during a rainstorm, we followed him home.

            Fate works like this in our world.  If we lingered a few minutes longer at that roundabout, we would have spent the night with a tarp as our shelter and the same old meal of rice and beans.  Instead, we feasted on tacos in town and slept inside, only to be awoken by the smell of hot coffee and a traditional Mexican breakfast.   We departed with full bellies and the satisfaction of a good night’s rest.

            Under a sky opened up by the blazing sun, we took to the road through an area called “Tierra Caliente�.  A description for which we could readily vouch as our shirts quickly became saturated with sweat and our gringo skin “tostada�.  Feeling somewhat prematurely exhausted, we set up camp in avocado orchard well before dark.  As we lounged in the shade, we couldn’t help but wonder if something more than the sun was responsible for draining our energy.    

             Our curiosity was soon abated by a collective need to empty our bowels in the middle of the night.  Goat succumbed to a raging fever and passed out en route to the bathroom.  We started the night with a full roll of toilet paper and by the time the sun rose, we were running low.

            The next morning we began eating Imodium AD like candy, to no avail and were forced to camp for two more nights while Goat’s fever broke.  It became apparent that after living on the road with two of your friends for over a year, you run out of things to talk about.

            In an effort seek camaraderie, conversations about bowel movements can become an important bonding experience.  For the next week, discussions about our “stool�  became commonplace and terms like “soft serve� and “explosive� took on whole new meanings.  I wouldn’t let a day go by without knowing the intimate details about their digestive waste.

            Unfortunately, the few days of rest in the avocado orchard did not bring us back to good health; but we had to keep moving.  We each stocked up on toilet paper to keep “at the ready” in our handlebar bags, and continued across the “tierra caliente”. 

            Chronic dehydration plagued my ability to ride, and I sought electrolytes and cold beverages at every possible stop.  But to put it gently, everything just went right through me.  

             In spite of our health, we slowly and not so surely made our way over a sizeable mountain range before dropping into the town of Iguala.  While squatting on top of the pass looking out over the valley, I couldn’t help but think back to that roundabout and wonder, “What if I had left that intersection just ten minutes later?�   

             Prologue: There was pain and anguish in the time of cholera.  It was not until a heavy course of antibiotics were we able to produce anything but “soft serve�.                                                                      

Guatemala or Bust

Upon realizing that my tourist visa does not last a lifetime, I checked my visa to discover that its life expires before the end of the month. 

Instead of our most anticipated bike explorations through the regions of Oaxaca and Chiapas, we struggled over the Sierra Madres on a paved road to the much quicker Coastal Route. 

Our life is palm trees, mosquitos, sunshine and terrifying roads with overgrown spikey foliage where the bike lane would be where it to exist (which it doesn´t).  We are looking forward to getting on the unkown dirt roads of Guatemala.

A river crossing.


An alacran in my bike shorts trying to hitch a ride.