We crossed over the border from Chiapas, Mexico at Carmen Xhan on the 31st of May with no trouble. In fact, not much attention was paid to our bikes or any of our stuff, which was a huge relief as this was our first international border crossing on bike.
¡Bienvenidos a Guatemala!
Unfortunately by the time we left the customs office in Guatemala, Erin started feeling sick. Possible food poisoning, we thought. We managed to cycle several miles to the next village of La Trinidad where we stopped at a tienda for water and a few basic items for dinner. Upon entering town, we rode up to a property and began speaking with the grandmother who, after hearing about our travels, immediately offered us a safe place to pitch our tent. Their compound consisted of two simple houses, both with dirt floors – old, long, and rickety one room buildings, fashioned out of wooden planks and corrugated metal.
Piles of corn cobs sat in the corners of the house as their staple and primary food. All of the cooking was done on a wood fire inside the house with inadequate ventilation. We made dinner that night on our BioLite camp stove. "How can we get these stoves into these homes, where they are most needed?" we asked ourselves.
A dozen kids darted through the yard, staring and giggling at us as we pitched our tent. We realized most of these kids lived between the two little houses. We gave them some mangos we found cycling that day as a thank you for letting us stay there for the night.
The next morning we awoke in our tent and it was clear Erin had either a stomach bug or parasite. We caught a chicken bus to Huehuetenango where we arrived late after a long, bumpy ride... not the kind of bus ride you want to take when you're dealing with a stomach bug. The scenery, however, more than made up for it. We found a cheap room to rest up for the night. It doesn't seem like we'll be able to cycle until Erin feels a lot better.
The market and bus station of Huehuetenango were packed, noisy and colorful. We loaded up on fresh fruit and vegetables and headed back to our room.
The next morning we took another chicken bus to Xela, where we spent the next 10 days resting up, making tea and eating mostly fresh produce. Erin's lab results showed positive for blastocystis hominis - a parasite that happens to be particularly resistant to antibiotics and other medications, but also lives in the digestive tract of most people. The parasite thrives on processed and sugary foods, so maintaining a healthy plant-based diet is essential in strengthening the digestive tract, making it less hospitable to this and other parasites. We are learning a lot about this stuff...
We would end up spending most of our time in Guatemala resting, dosing Erin with herbal teas and antibiotics and unfortunately, not cycling much until we left Antigua.
But Xela was beautiful, even with the persistent drizzle and parasite. It had a different feel from the rest of Guatemala and after the heat of Mexico, we enjoyed its cool mountain breezes. We visited Las Fuentes Georginas hot springs and, of course, frequented the market for fresh fruits and vegetables.
After our stay in Xela, Erin was still operating at minimal speed, so we decided to bus it again to San Pedro La Laguna at Lake Atitlan. Another long, bumpy bus ride was not good for Erin's stomach but the upside was that when we arrived, we were in paradise! We would spend the next 12 days exploring Lake Atitlán and the villages that surround its shore. We visited weaving shops, ceramic studios, witnessed a spiritual ceremony and visited the shrine of a debaucherous saint.
While at the lake we spent most of our time exploring the surrounding villages. The lancha boats are an incredible form of transportation around the lake, just make sure you're not on the last heavily-loaded boat at 6pm.
Initially we visited San Marcos where Mehedi bought a beautiful handmade djembe for $28. Later that day we decided to head Panajachel where we explored a bit more and Erin picked up a tiny travel guitar. Commuting via boat across the lake to hop from village to village was such an amazing and unique experience. By the day's end we were back in San Pedro jamming together on our rooftop patio overlooking the lake.
We also managed to make it over to San Antonio Palopó, a quaint village built on the steep hills above the lake known for its blue ceramic wares. The village is accessible by the larger village of Panajachel, where we took a boat and then a local camion for half an hour through steep, windy lakeside roads.
We spent the day exploring this wonderful, unique village where we witnessed a peculiar spiritual/religious ceremony. As we learned more about the spiritual practices of the local Maya, and the popularity of Evangelism and Catholicism in the area, it appeared this ceremony and others like it share a mix of all three.
Some locals led us to a small mom & pop ceramic studio, and it was extraordinary! It is a good thing we are traveling by bicycle or we may have been tempted to bring home an entire tea set. And plates. And bowls. San Antonio Palopó makes it on the "places we have to return to" list.
People were extremely friendly and welcoming in San Antonio Palópo and it was one of the best days we spent at Lake Atitlán. It's off the beaten path, but more than worth it to experience the exquisite craftspeople that have been living and making art on this lake for generations.
Another beautiful and unique little town we visited was Santiago Atitlan, tucked away in a little bay of the Laguna. Similar to the rest of the villages on the lake, Santiago had an abundance of textiles and artisan work. We heard Saturday was the day to go as the market was in full swing allowing a colorful and lively glimpse into this beautiful culture. Before heading back to San Pedro we were persuaded by a man who offered to bring us to the shrine of Maximón, a Mayan saint of debauchery.
Again, another local custom that seemed to blend stories, figures and traditions from Maya, Catholic and Evangelical teachings. Visitors bring beer and cigarettes as offerings to this saint. Pretty interesting afternoon, that was. Back to San Pedro we went, just as a storm rolled in...
We explored San Pedro during our time there, wandering its many small winding streets. We met an older man who farmed a big patch of organic vegetables where we went almost every day to refill a big carton of delicious greens and herbs. There were a handful of health food stores as well where we indulged in things like tahini, yogurt, saurkraut and kombucha.
We spent an afternoon kayaking the lake, shooting photos, and getting a mellow upper body workout. Another afternoon we spent a few hours riding horses along the side of the lake, surrounded by misty volcanoes and mountains terraced with corn and coffee fields. Lake Atitlán is truly a world wonder.
Towards the end of our stay, a bicycle touring couple who we connected with online met us at our lakeside spot. Amy and Facundo from Canada and Argentina, a fine and friendly set of fellow bicycle travelers heading north. It was so good to bond, cook and share stories of the road with one another. Too bad we weren't going the same direction or we'd all ride together for a bit.
After much debate, we decided to take a bus to Chimaltenango, where we rode the remaining, mostly downhill distance into Antigua on our bikes. It was a bit of an experiment to see how Erin would fare after The Parasite and, unfortunately, it didn't go as well as we had hoped. Luckily we were in Antigua when we arrived and she could continue to rest up!
Our arrival in Antigua was highly anticipated and we were greeted warmly by Victor at OX Expeditions who put us up. Of course Antigua immediately enchanted us with its beautiful cobbled streets, multicolored indigenous textiles and beautiful old colonial architecture, not to mention the fabulous restaurants and cafes with incredible coffee and food.
The market of Antigua was one of the best and largest we've been to. Our time in Antigua was mellow – no volcanoes – but great exploring of the cultural areas, farms and long walks throughout.
After almost an entire month, Erin was finally feeling better and ready to get back on the bike! Xela, Lake Atitlán and Antigua rejuvenated our minds, bodies and souls and we were ready to get back in the saddle.
Back on the road!
We cycled out of Antigua and enjoyed a long, gradual descent to the coast between Volcán Agua and Volcán Fuego. It was a gorgeous ride and a very easy day. We settled into a dairy farm where we camped for the evening. Pickings were slim in the family's tienda, so we made our first 100% processed dinner. Refried beans with jalapeños served with corn chips. It was actually pretty tasty though we much prefer the fresh stuff. We walked around the farm with the family at dusk.
We enjoyed some really mellow terrain, and after Itzapa our road got nice and quiet! Beautiful riding through wetlands and marshes. It is so hot here on the coast but the promise of swimming in the ocean at the end of the day makes up for it.
We camped at a restaurant on the beach in Monterrico, although in the evening we got a wild storm – the owner offered us a room for the night for no additional charge, so we could get out of the rain. The room was extremely hot and full of mosquitos. Note to self: the tent may have been better.
The next morning we hit the road early! We love riding dirt roads after a storm - sandy roads in particular become hard-packed with the rain and are much easier to ride.
After leaving Monterrico our paved road turned into a smooth, sandy road. We planned to cross two rivers, hoping to locate a boat or canoe so we wouldn't have to backtrack to the highway. We cut off onto the beach and rode to the first river where we saw a canoe. After only a few minutes, a fisherman came up and offered to take us one by one to the other side. We live for these moments! When we left Antigua, we intended to cycle dirt roads along the coast and just hope that we'd be able to cross a few rivers by boat. Where there's a will, there's a way...
We then cycled down the beach and forded the next river by canoe again. It was about three or four miles of beach riding in total – a little tiring but so worth it.
On the other side of the second river crossing we decided to stop for the day in Chapintón, a cool, small fishing village. We had fish and tortillas for lunch, 45 quetzales or $5. As dusk drew closer some fishermen came onto the shore with the day's catch, selling to the locals right out of their boats. Kids looked on, fascinated.
We set up camp on an upstairs patio above a restaurant on the beach, but in the evening another big storm rolled in – this time with high winds – so we had to move our tent to the covered portal on the bottom floor of the restaurant. Apparently rain is now a daily occurrence.
After a quiet and tranquil paved section in the morning we cut off onto dirt roads! Next day was lovely but long and hot. This was the day that we discovered how refreshing an ice cold mineral water with lime can be. We are not drinking beer so this mineral water + lime thing was something that changed our cycling game through the rest of hot and humid Central America. Having a refreshing and healthy reward to look forward to at the end of a hot day of cycling became a new ritual for us.
Between our GPS and photos from Google earth we had mapped out a 17 mile section of dirt roads and tracks. Our route cut through several farms, a shrimp fishery and some forests before reaching a little tienda just before Rosales. It was an awesome, muddy and beautiful stretch.
The family who owned the tienda where we stopped for water that afternoon offered us a place to stay for the night. We helped them rake the backyard up and then they brought out a table, chairs, plates and forks for us while we ate dinner. Such hospitality! They loved that we were cooking dinner on our stove instead of eating processed junk food. We tucked in early that night and another wild rainstorm rolled through.
We had an excellent night's sleep on the portal of the family's tienda during the immense storm. In the morning we had a great start with fruit, coffee and fresh cow's milk right from the family's cow pasture. We headed out, belly and hearts full, bodies and minds well-rested. We cycled over the border into El Salvador in the morning, but we'll leave that for the next post!