Different Parts of Everywhere

#096: Crossing Guatemala

GUATEMALA, 2nd – 18th March 2019

Back in Livingston Dea and I took our time to decide on our next move. It had long been our intention to head down the Caribbean coast into Honduras in order to go scuba diving on the island of Utila, one of the very best locations to do so in the world. I’d never done scuba diving before but Dea had and really loved it, and it was top of our list of things to do in Central America. However, a little more research into Honduras now had us reading travel advisories that warned us it was dangerous to travel in the country, and when combined with warnings of busy roads full of crazy drivers, the more than one thousand kilometres we’d have to cover going that way sounded like a rather unappealing prospect. We’d encountered a few Hondurans in Mexico and Guatemala, refugees making their way north towards the U.S., and they had seemed like desperate people. They were certainly leaving for a reason. We knew that Honduras was a country struggling with a lot of problems, and while we also knew that 99% of the people would treat us well and we’d more than likely be absolutely fine, in the end we decided the risk of something going wrong there was a little too high for us this time.

So we made a new plan, to head back west across Guatemala and pick up on the more commonly-travelled route south over on the Pacific coast, which would allow us to see more of not only Guatemala, but El Salvador too. We’d still pass through Honduras, but only for a couple of days on the relatively secure Pan-American Highway. There was also one big attraction of going this way. We would miss out on the diving unfortunately, but we would have the chance for another once-in-a-lifetime experience – viewing the active Fuego volcano. Seeing lava spurting out from an active volcano was something else I’d never done, and the possibility to do so was enough to make up for the disappointment of missing out on Utila.

We took the tourist boat back to Rio Dulce and started cycling west on a small road to the north of the vast Izabal Lake. With the main road west being on the southern side of the lake this was an excellent alternative, for the road was paved but the traffic light. There was also the chance to stop after 40 kilometres and visit a very cool place in the forest. We locked our bikes up and walked down a short trail beside a river. There were a few other people around, including a group of kids that were throwing rocks and sticks up into a tree. On closer inspection the reason for this was that there was a massive long snake up in the tree, and the children had decided that they’d try and knock it out. Not the kind of activity I ever did in my own youth, but good to see the kids getting outside I suppose. We left them to it and continued down the trail for another two minutes, and found ourselves at a beautiful location. A natural pool of water was formed beneath a waterfall that was cascading down over a cliffside. Surrounded by overhanging jungle trees with roots that crawled down the cliffside like tentacles reaching down to the water, this pool was an idyllic setting in its own right. But the real secret of the place was that the water flowing down was coming from a hot spring, and when we entered the pool and swam over to it we got ourselves a natural hot shower. The sensation of being in a cold pool with hot water raining down on us was really something quite special. Then as we sat in the water grinning, some small fish started nibbling at our feet and legs. “It’s good for our skin,” Dea said. “I know, I’ve seen people pay money for that in Thailand,” I agreed, and there was no doubt that we’d got the full spa treatment here. “I didn’t know places like this exist in the world!” Dea said, looking around in amazement. Well, maybe just the one place.

We spent a night in a hotel in the town of El Estor and then continued west on a road that was now gravel and quite tough going, with lots of little steep climbs. It was a very interesting ride though, with more indigenous people along the road. Women were wearing traditional outfits, long, pleated skirts and bright cardigans and blouses. Kids in ragged clothes waved and shouted at us from everywhere, the word “Gringo” being on repeat almost constantly. The people seemed nice, it felt good to be here, the real Guatemala in many ways, but the poverty was truly humbling. Watching young kids and old women alike struggling along the road with huge bundles of wood on their heads put things in sharp perspective as we pedalled along.

With so many people around it was quite extraordinary that we found somewhere to wild camp, but at just the right time a trail into a patch of jungle appeared and we snuck off unseen. It was super hot and humid in the tent even with the flysheet off and we lay down bathed in our sticky sweat, dreaming of climbing into the mountains just to find some cooler air. As we lay there in the dark we heard a pitter patter noise. “Is that rain?” Dea asked. It most likely was indeed just that, and so I got up to put the flysheet on.

(This is where we were, but it was dark at the time.)

I stepped outside and picked up the flysheet but before I could throw it over the tent I felt a burning pain in the lower part of my legs. Something, or rather some things, were biting me. I brushed my legs off and looked down at them, horrified by what I saw. Ants. Hundreds of them. They were crawling all over my shoes, making their way up onto my ankles. In a second it dawned on me that it wasn’t raining and I directed my headtorch towards the tent. Thousands of ants were swarming over it.

“Ants!!” I cried, “Ants, everywhere!” And they really were everywhere. In my mind I knew I’d heard something about these types of army ants before, ants that swarmed in huge numbers all over everything. I also remembered hearing that they would eat through anything in their path, including tent fabrics, but with Dea alone inside I thought it better not to mention that particular fact. Instead I ran away.

I had to go quite a way to find some ground where there were none of the ants, and I could brush off those that were feasting on my legs without instantly having them replenished, giving me some time to think about what the hell we should do. Packing up and leaving wasn’t an option, the ants would be all over us in no time. The good news was that they didn’t appear to be eating the tent, and Dea was calling out to me, in what I hope she won’t mind saying was rather a nervous voice, that the thousands of ants all around her were, for the time being, still all outside. I decided to return to her, and I ran back to the tent, throwing the flysheet on as an extra layer of protection, all the while batting at my legs, and climbed inside, zipping the tent up as fast as possible. Of course a few ants had come in on me and my shoes, but we soon got those ones squashed. And then there was nothing else for it but to wait and see if our tent would be enough to keep the army at bay.

Thankfully the army of ants marched right on past us without ever breaching our defences, and by morning peace had returned to our jungle camp. We packed up and moved on, and soon began our climb up into the Guatemalan highlands. A thousand metre climb, then a 600 metre descent, another 900 metres up, this was how we spent the next few days. The lush green jungle soon transformed into a much drier and yellower landscape. This was the dry season in this part of the world, that much was very obvious. It was good to be in the mountains again, benefiting from the cooler air and the interesting views, but we had to work for it. The amount of climbing and the steepness of some of the roads made things very, very , very tough.

After five days of long climbs we reached Santa Cruz, a big town on the road to Lake Atitlan. From here the road suddenly became a lot busier, with the introduction of ‘chicken buses’ especially making the road a less pleasant place to be. In a former life these once transported American children to school, but now repainted in garish colours they roar around Central America belching out smoke and storming past honking their extremely loud horns. We needed a new plan, and rode the remainder of the way to Lake Atitlan on small back roads. These climbed even more steeply in the mountains, but the lack of traffic certainly made it worthwhile, and it made for a pleasant last day towards Lake Atitlan. We had to rejoin the main road for the final descent, a breathtaking swoosh of a ride down to the lake.

Don’t like it.
Like this better… I think.

We found a great Japanese-run hotel in the town of Panjachel and ended up staying for five nights. It was a very relaxing place, a short walk from the lake itself. Atitlan is often described as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, due to its clear water and the three volcanoes that sit on its shores, and watching the sunset behind it it was hard to disagree. By an extraordinary coincidence, Hal and Tracey, the Canadian couple we had house-sat for in Canmore when I wrote my second book, were on a short cycle tour in Guatemala and happened to be in Panjachel at the same time as us, so we had a nice evening catching up with them before they rode off to explore the north of Guatemala. They weren’t the only other cyclists in Guatemala though, and we were soon also joined at the hotel by our old buddy Ciaran, and two Japanese cyclists. Yasuhiro and Kazuhiro had never met before, but they were both on long journeys down through the Americas, and it was soon decided that we would cycle onwards and climb the volcano together as a group of five.

We all left Panjachel together, inevitably on a steep climb. It was fun to be in a group again. Ciaran we knew well, Yasu was a very friendly and good guy with a lot of stuff on his bike, while Kazu was a big fellow who, despite being powered mostly by cigarettes and beer, was usually the first to the top. We only cycled 21 kilometres the first day, before camping together in a beautiful valley beside a river and playing EurekaBall.

Buying honey.

The following day we climbed again, Guatemala is just that kind of place, there was no getting away from it. The twin volcanoes of Fuego and Acatanengo appeared in the afternoon and grew closer throughout the day. Acatanengo was the dormant volcano that we would be climbing up in a couple of days’ time, to give us the perfect vantage point to watch the spectacular eruptions on Fuego. Although Dea had seen smoke coming from Fuego already, we knew that the best time to see the eruptions would be at night-time, and so we planned to camp on the slopes of Acatanengo. It was an adventure I was looking forward to very, very much.

Fuego erupting in the distance. Somehow I didn’t see this at the time. Lucky Dea took a photo.
Market at a town along the way.

That night we asked at a fire station if we could camp and were told that it would be fine, and it was a perfect location, with plenty of flat ground, bike storage, and we had a great view of the volcanoes, or at least we would have if there hadn’t been a bunch of clouds in the way. I drifted off to sleep. A few hours later and Dea woke me up. “Chris,” she said, “you can see the volcano erupting.” I jumped up and tried to focus my sleepy eyes outside. Sure enough it was possible to see a bright orange glow on the tip of the silhouette of the peak. It was a special moment, even from such a distance. I fell back to sleep, dreaming of what it was going to be like to see up close and personal. Soon I would find out.

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