So we finally left Mexico, but not before battling some headwinds in the Mexican Isthmus (considered for a while as a possible location for a panama-like canal in the mid-19th century) and spilling most of our malaria tablets. We also stopped for lunch in San Augustine and snorkeled in the pristine waters (at least Jess did – I watched from the bar, felt almost as wholesome and didn’t get any wet sand anywhere uncomfortable).
And just before we crossed the border to Guatemala we had this conversation with Rocinio our very smiley landlord-for-a-day (who also had a penchant for referring to himself in the third person):
Rocinio: You’re saddle is very high, too high for Rocinio. How tall are you?
Rocinio: That is very tall. Rocinio is much shorter. People must all be very tall in England.
[turning to Jess]
Rocinio: So which country are you from?
Our first job in Guatemala was a long hard climb to Quetzaltenengo Guatemala’s second city and also still known by its pre-conquistadored name of Xila. The following night we climbed (this time by foot) Volcan Tajumulco which at 4220m is the highest point in Central America.
The seven summits are a list of 9 (?!) highest peaks in each continent (oneish per continent). With Central America technically part of the North American continent, and Volcan Tajumulco being dwarfed by Mount Mckinley, I was disappointed to find Tajumulco doesn’t make the list. You can’t have 10 mountains on the seven summit list… that would be silly. Even if it was on the list however it would be the second shortest. This was small consolation to our tired legs however, and having climbed from sea level the day before, we were definitely panting pretty hard before we reached the top. But reach the top we did and a tad too early for the sun rise. We stamped our feet to keep warm and waited to see the daybreak. The time arrived but it looked as if our view would be ruined by thick cloud. Suddenly though the sun broke through and the scene was spectacular.
Trying to keep up with Jess on the bike can be challenging at the best of times but having lost my cycling shoes and shorts to the ocean during the frighteningly powerful `mar de fondo’ phenomenon we had experienced in Mexico, it had been even harder than usual over the last few days. Therefore I’d jumped at the chance to order some new ones to Annie and Rob, Jess’ aunt and uncle, in Santa Barbara and have them fed-exed ahead of us. However we had totally underestimated Robs love of long haul flights and were told the day before we climbed Tajumulco that he was heroically flying the shoes out personally to Guatemala City. Having left for the climb at 11 the previous night and returning at 10 in the morning we were both more conscious then we would have liked but we had no time to lose. We left the bikes in Xila and jumped on the bus to Guatemala city. The guys sitting next to us on this bus turned out to be English tourists:
Guys: We’ve just finished Uni and are travelling around Central America for a few weeks.
Jess: Cool, what did you study?
Guys: We’re all medics!
Jess: Me too!!
Guys: No way!!!
This was quite rude and I did feel bad but I was too tired for the medic chat I could see rising up in the distance like a `mar de fondo’ for the soul. The bus was far too rammed and uncomfortable to possibly fall asleep, everyone knew this, everyone knew everyone else new this, but despite these difficulties I bravely and instantly feigned sleep to the best of my ability whilst wave after wave of medical chat lashed about on every side.
Whilst this was going on I mulled over a disturbing article Jess had read to me earlier. Being a `chicken bus’ driver in Guatemala City was for a while one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. Chicken buses are re-vamped American school buses, privately owned but heavily subsidised by the government. For most people in Guatemala they are the only form of transport available. In 2007 gangs, collectively known as Maras (from marabunta a type of army ant), started exhorting the bus companies, if the companies or the drivers themselves didn’t pay, Mara members would board the bus and shoot them in the head. In 2010 155 drivers, 54 ‘brochas’ (bus assistants) and 71 passengers were killed. The excellent article which first made us aware of this tragedy can be found here.
Having survived the medical terminology we arrived in `Guat’ and soon found ourselves at one of the fanciest hotels I have been too. Tired, dirty, dishevelled and smelly we installed ourselves at the bar and ordered some beers whilst we waited for Rob, trying not to get too distracted by the beautiful models walking around for some kind of photo shoot. We had a great if brief time hanging out with Rob (who requested we lose/break something in Belize for his next trip – thanks again Rob!) but soon had to say goodbye and make our way back to Xila.
We now made our way to Lago Atitlan often regarded as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. But to get there we had 1500 meters of the hairiest descent of the whole trip. Jess wore her brake pads to the metal and often the road was so steep it was impossible to stop and we had to negotiate the hairpin turns and potholes at a speed determined by the incline. To add to this the road was renowned for car-jackings and muggings and the sun was setting. The beauty of the lake did not disappoint however and the dauntless Jess took some wonderful photos whilst I tried unsuccessfully to look calm about being on this road in the gathering gloom with an expensive camera on show. A kindly driver stopped to warn us against continuing and suggested we wait for the next bus. We knew others had cycled this route without problems though and we pushed on arriving in San Pedro without incident… almost (Jess landed on her knee again :-/ )
We stayed in San Pedro La Laguna and had a great time relaxing, kitesurfing and exploring the other lakeside towns some of which can only be reached by boat. Lago Atitlan is an awesome blend of old and new, the local inhabitants rely on either fishing or tourism for their living. Western style restaurants line the shore where fisherman ply the lake in dug-out canoes, traditional Mayan dress is still common and empty coke bottles bob in the water marking lobster pots.
Atitlan has no out flowing river and water must either evaporate or seep out through the soil of the volcanoes ringing the lake. The water level changes every year depending on the amount of rain and occasionally seismic activity (which can crack the lake bed). Over time towns must crawl up or down the steep mountain sides to accommodate the whims of the lake and some recently built houses are now semi-submerged and ancient cities have even been discovered below the water. It can be difficult to imagine such a huge lake changing level so much though, and when we first saw these houses Jess asked ‘Why did those guys build their houses underwater?’ … sorry Jess but I couldn’t resist I’m sure you will get me back in the next post!
Next up El Salvador!