GUATEMALA, 18th-24th February 2019
It was so nice to be in a new country, to feel the rush of excitement and uncertainty that brings. For the past ten months we’d been in only three countries, Canada, the United States, and Mexico, three massive nations that it had taken ages to pass through. Now we were in Central America, and the countries were going to start coming at us thick and fast. Good news for my attempt to cycle in 100 of them. Guatemala was country 65, and it immediately introduced itself as quite different from Mexico. Certainly it seemed a poorer place, with simple shacks, made of wood, concrete, or clapboard, with corrugated roofs and sometimes walls, lining the road, and with people everywhere, lying in hammocks, hanging laundry, chasing animals. And children, everywhere children, hiding behind palm leaves and fenceposts and crying out when they saw us, “Hola”, “Adios”, “Bye-bye”, or, more often than not, “Gringo!”
And it was hot. Really hot. So hot that we stopped at every opportunity to buy ice cream and eat it slowly in the shade. We didn’t want to eat anything else. Our first night, right over the border, we’d spent in a cheap hotel, where the electricity went out at 10 p.m. and didn’t return until the next morning. The moment the fan above our heads stopped spinning the room turned into a sauna, and the night passed slowly – a sweaty, sleepless nightmare of a first night. We weren’t going to make the same mistake the second night, and elected instead to put up our tents. Wild camping wasn’t an option with so many people around but we found a football pitch and asked to camp at the back of it close to a house where the owners promised to watch over us. Not that we felt unduly worried, the people of Guatemala had seemed a most friendly lot so far. And when a group of lads turned up for a football match in the slightly cooler evening air, Ciaran and I were invited to join in. It was rather a large group, with approximately 14 on each side, and Ciaran and I were put on different teams. Rather unfortunately it was my side that were chosen to play in skins and there was much laughter about my tanlines, most of it coming from Ciaran. “Take that white shirt off, Chris,” he shouted at me with glee. I very much wanted to have the last laugh on the pitch, but unfortunately my team’s defence had a momentary lapse that allowed the Irishman the time and space to score a well-taken volley. With my team behind and my pride at stake I tried to rally us and saw a superb effort tipped onto the post, before providing an assist that really was a contribution every bit as important as Ciaran’s, but it wasn’t enough to stop his team triumphing over us 4-1.
After losing to Ciaran at the football there was no way I could cycle with him any more and we said goodbye and went our separate ways when we reached the tourist town of Flores. Actually it wasn’t because of the football, of course it wasn’t. It was because Dea’s father, Niels, and her brother, Johan, were flying out from Denmark to spend a couple of weeks travelling with us. Ciaran understood that it was time for us to have some family time, something that I knew was very precious to Dea, something I knew she’d been looking forward to for months.
It was bad timing indeed, then, that I was suffering with a bad toothache. It was a pain I recognised from a few years ago in Iran, and I feared I was going to need another root canal operation. I cursed my stupidity for not having visited a dentist in Mexico where they are well known for being cheap and professional, as I walked away from the tourist island over the causeway and into the hectic mess of a big Guatemalan town. It wasn’t until the fourth dental surgery that I found what I was hoping for, an English-speaking receptionist who didn’t push me straight back out the door. Cindy was her name, a young girl, both professional and giggly who was keen to practice her English with me as I waited a couple of hours to see the dentist. When I did eventually get seen I had an x-ray done that confirmed my fears, I would indeed need a root canal operation to save the tooth. And my failure to get a check-up in Mexico was made even worse when I heard the price. It would cost almost £200, and they wouldn’t be able to do it until Tuesday. Dea had planned the time we’d spend with her family carefully and we would be cycling out of Flores on Monday morning, waiting here until Tuesday wasn’t an option. But I also didn’t want to wait until we found another dentist at a future date, for I knew from experience how bad this toothache could get if left untreated. I was on the verge of agreeing to my only other option, an extraction, when Dea messaged me telling me that I really should save the tooth, and we’d figure out the rest later.
The whole dentist ordeal took so long
that by the time I staggered hungrily back over to Flores, Niels and
Johan had arrived. It was great to see them again – more than two
years had passed since I’d said goodbye to them in Denmark – and
despite their jet lag and my tooth troubles everyone was in good
spirits as we went out to dinner. Our restaurant of choice
highlighted what a touristy area we were in, packed as it was with
100% white foreign faces. That did at least mean quite an exciting
menu, and I went for the veggie burgers, while Dea had an Asian dish.
Johan avoided the Asian menu, but as we tucked into our food and Dea
said her Asian food was good, he said. “I thought about getting
that, but I thought, no, I’m in Guatemala, I should eat Guatemalan
He was, interestingly enough, eating falafel.
Dea and I wanted to make sure that her father and brother experienced the real Guatemala, so the next morning after breakfast at our hotel we walked over to the mainland town. We wandered through the market, met a friendly man from Honduras, and, crucially, we all ate ice creams. It was hot work though, so when we got back onto the island we wasted no time in jumping in the lake for a cooling swim. This huge lake was really the key selling point of Flores, and the following day we went out on a boat to explore it, with Jesus as our guide. Not the messiah, but a simple, smiling, uncomplicated local man, with absolutely no English skills whatsoever. He took us over to a small island, where a nice man showed us a museum and some iguanas. The tour then continued to the other side of the lake, where we hiked up to a lookout point, before a final stop on a beach. A fun day out, to be sure.
But the real reason for Flores’s popularity with tourists is its relative proximity to the Mayan ruins of Tikal. They were, however, still sixty kilometres away down a dead-end road in the jungle, and to get there would require a full day of cycling, or an hour on a bus. It had been decided that Niels would take the bus and that Dea would accompany her father, while Johan would borrow her bike and ride along with me. It seemed like a great idea that would give them some father-daughter time, while giving Johan a taste of the cycle touring lifestyle. And so at 9 a.m. on Saturday morning Jesus picked Johan and me up in his boat and motored us over to San Andres on the north shore of the lake. We had no real idea what it would be like to cycle there, but there was a road on the map that promised to be quieter than the main highway from Flores, and that, I hoped, would surely give Johan the best impression of cycle touring.
And things started out great, with a paved road next to the beautiful blue water of the lake passing through some real Guatemalan villages. Excellent cycle touring it was. But then the villages ended and the road got very remote, not only passing through jungle, but turning to very rough, sandy gravel, and rising and falling in a series of steep peaks and troughs. It was really brutal stuff, but Johan acquitted himself tremendously well and continued to smile up the climbs. It seemed like I still had a chance of convincing him how awesome cycle touring is.
After twenty kilometres we came out to a village, where we swam and then took a break in a park where scrawny dogs and pigs competed for our banana skins. From there the road improved, and we made good time. We chatted, played games, and learnt Danish along the way, and spotted monkeys and coatimundis in the forest as we neared Tikal, and in the end it seemed like Johan really did have a great time. So much so that he was even talking about coming and cycling with us both in Europe when we arrive back in Spain next March. This was fantastic news, and to complete the demonstration as to how great our cycle touring life is we set up tents at the campground next to Tikal and, now reunited with Dea and Niels, we cooked dinner and ate outside, then lay on the grass looking up at the stars. And then, just as everyone was commenting on how very fantastic this outdoor way of life is, I spotted a big black scorpion nearby, and everyone jumped up again, no longer quite so convinced.
We were awake at 5:45 in order to beat the crowds and see Tikal in the early morning light. It turned out to be a great idea, and as well as having the mighty old temples almost to ourselves, we also got to see plenty of nature. There were parrots and toucans and monkeys in the trees, and a coatimundi ran out between the temples. The coatimundi didn’t even mind being photographed, which is great, because you can stop sitting there wondering what the hell a coatimundi is and see for yourself.