GUATEMALA, 21st-29th March 2019
After coming down from Acatanengo we managed somehow to cycle our exhausted bodies to the nearby Antigua, where we got a good night’s sleep. The colonial town was certainly pretty, but a little too geared towards tourism for our taste, and we said goodbye to our cyclist friends and moved on the next day. We were hoping for a period of rest to recover our energy levels, and we thought that the Pacific coast would be more relaxing than the hustle and bustle of Antigua. It was a hundred kilometres away, but it was all downhill and we managed it in a day. Even with the long descent and good paved roads we reached our goal of Iztapa feeling even more worn out. Great then, that our destination, the Surf Shack Iztapa, seemed like a very relaxed place for us to chill out for a few days. The only other guests were a couple of Canadian brothers, Ryan and Sheldon, who were hanging out smoking weed and listening to punk music, who offered us some veggie stew they’d made, and it was just exactly what we needed to start our recovery.
The following morning we met Leen, a friendly Dutchman who was the brains behind the Surf Shack. He worked as a marine engineer and had been here many years ago helping to develop the breakwater at the nearby large port, when he’d met the woman who was now his wife, and he’d been here ever since. There were some good surf spots in this area and Leen had initially started all this as a way to help local kids get into surfing and give them something to do. Now it had blossomed into this great hostel where travellers would come and stay and do some surfing, but for Leen it wasn’t about making money, just about creating a nice place with a nice atmosphere. For us it was perfect, we could pitch our tent for a couple of dollars a night and just enjoy relaxing in the hammocks for a few days.
We were invited to go out surfing with Leen, his wife, his daughter, and a collection of Guatemalan teenagers who Leen had taught to surf. Leen proudly told us that one of them, Carlos, is now one of the top surfers in Guatemala and competes in world championships. I hoped I could pick up a thing or two from him. The Surf Shack is positioned beside a river amongst the mangroves, and Leen took us all by boat out to the surfing spot a few minutes away. We got off on a beach of unbelievably hot sand and headed over to the surf spot, where the waves were breaking between two breakwaters. I’d only ever tried surfing once before, in Brazil way back in 2007, and I hadn’t been very good then. I’d expected Leen to give me a few pointers before I got in so I was surprised when he just ran off into the water. Well, it couldn’t be that hard. I followed everyone else out into the water, paddling just like they did out into some pretty rough surf. I turned my board, waited for a wave, which didn’t take very long to show up. With a rush it hit me and I jumped up, planted my feet on the board, and stood up. I was doing it! I was surfing! I knew it couldn’t be that hard!
It was the epitomy of beginner’s luck. After that first fluke I didn’t manage to stand again for a very long time. But I gradually began to figure it out by trial and error, and by watching Carlos and the other top surfers, who were a little above my level, and I eventually rode one wave for a decent amount of time. It was great, great fun though. I didn’t want to stop, but after an hour and a half or so the tide had come in too far and it was no longer possible for me to catch any waves.
After four nights and a very fun and relaxed time, we decided to leave the Surf Shack and head onwards towards El Salvador, once again cycling with Ciaran. We followed the coast road to Monterrico, where the road ended and it was necessary to take a ferry to connect with more tarmac. It was a low-riding wooden platform of a ferry, and there was a moment of panic as I leant my bike against the low side wall, let go, turned away, and then realised due to everyone else’s sudden sharp intakes of breath, that all had not gone to plan. The top-heavy bike had toppled over, and was now balanced on the edge of the boat, precariously close to going over the side and into the water. Fortunately I was able to grab it and pull it back aboard just in time.
The road on the other side was brand new tarmac and had almost no traffic, and made for some very nice cycling as we headed back north to rejoin the Pan-American Highway. We asked to camp in a yard and found ourselves a nice spot with a great view of the sunset to enjoy on our last night in Guatemala. And it had been another great country. The three of us discussed which of the four countries we’d been to in the Americas so far had been the best, and we realised that they had really all been very good, and that it was quite impossible to choose between them (although Ciaran picked USA, and Dea Mexico).
The next day was another very hot one, with us hiding in air-conditioned gas stations for every break just to get a little respite. A long line of waiting trucks signalled the border area, but thankfully we were allowed to glide past them all and straight through an incredibly uncomplicated border process. Suddenly we were in El Salvador, where an increase in the width of the shoulder on the road earnt the country some instant brownie points. At the first town we were looking for food and found excellent pizza for two dollars, and a nice, English-speaking man, who welcomed us to his country. Great start, El Salvador, great start!
We took a nice, quiet road off the Pan-Am and back to the Pacific Ocean, where Ciaran had organised a warmshowers host for us. It was only camping, but what a jolly fine place it was, underneath a palapa with hammocks, beside a palm-fringed river where we sat and watched another beautiful orange sky. With the others getting an early night I stayed up for a while by myself and looked up at the stars and thought about how very happy I was to be here.
We awoke to a sunrise every bit as beautiful as the sunset had been, and then made our way to the beach for some games and an early morning swim. This really was a nice way to start the day, and we set off in good spirits. Five kilometres on a bumpy, rocky road took us to another boat crossing. This time it was just a tiny wooden craft, and yet we somehow squeezed all three of our bikes, and us on it, and the poor fellow manged to punt us all across the bay. Not wanting to overdo things, we then stopped on the beach again, had some food at a restaurant, and once again took to the water. With the memory of the fun surfing experience still fresh we even took to surfing here on our inflatable rings. It was a beautiful beach, a seemingly endless strip of sand in both directions that we had to ourselves.
We rode on,
now on a nice quiet paved road with plenty of local cyclists. It seems bicycles
are popular in El Salvador. But it was a foreign cyclist coming the other way
that we stopped to talk with. This was Tyler, or Woody if we preferred, a 27-year-old
from Indiana with a very long beard and straw hat. He told us he’d started in
Michigan, not on a bicycle, but in a kayak. He’d followed waterways all the way
to the southern coast, then caught a lift on a sailboat across the Gulf of
Mexico to Cancun. There he had begun to cycle, on a ride that he hopes will
continue until Santiago, Chile, where he’ll ditch the bike for the last leg to the
bottom of South America. “Then I’m gonna walk,” he said, his eyes lit up, “that’s
my favourite way of doing it.” But first he would be flying home from Colombia
for a friend’s wedding. “My buddy said I can’t miss his wedding, so he bought
me a flight home.” Impressed by his friend’s generosity, I asked, “Are you
going to shave for the wedding?”
“Hell, no!” he laughed.
Woody was on his way to spend a night on the beach, before turning around and no doubt catching us up very easily on the way south. We said farewell, and soon the three of us were back on the main highway, but with a good shoulder. It was a busy road, with lots of people about everywhere, lots of bicycles, and lots of trees curving over the road. It was a most interesting phenomenon, one I couldn’t precisely work out, but all the way along it seemed like trees were contriving to arch over the road. Oh, and there were lots of churches too, where people were singing karaoke, a very peculiar Central American way of worshipping we’d also witnessed in Guatemala.
After a night of wild camping when we miraculously found a part of El Salvador that wasn’t full of people, we rode on south on a pretty nice coastal road. It wiggled along the coast all day long, with plenty of ups and downs and nice views out over the Pacific. Still, all the climbing was hard work in the heat, and we were hoping to find a good place to take a rest day. Just before the popular tourist beach, Playa el Tunco, we found what we were hoping for. It was a hostel that also allowed cheap camping, run by some friendly locals, with a relaxed atmosphere. There was even another touring bike propped up outside. It wasn’t long before we met its unlikely owner, when an older guy with long blonde/grey hair and a matching moustache came over to us. He had a bit of a belly on him and an odd way of walking, slightly hunched over. “Been here three nights now,” he announced. “This is keeping me here,” he held up a beer. “And the cigarettes don’t help much either.” He did have a bit of the homeless drunk about him, but he was a fun character, on his way from Alabama to Panama. And what will he do when he gets there? “Well I don’t know, I’ll see when I get there. I’m Randy, by the way, and yes, my name is Randy,” he bellowed.