The rainy season is over. At last!
After a detour to the US (to air out my bronchial lungs, ride the Arizona Trail and, yes, work), followed by a trip to wonderful Cuba (for a brotherly tour), I’m on the road once more. It’s certainly been a long time coming, what with falling ill, my time volunteering at Mayapedal, and a dirt road loop back into Mexico’s Chiapas distracting me from my southerly journey.
And I have new company for the next few weeks, in the shape of Hat (or Sombrero, as she might be called over here), a friend from Bristol. Conveniently, Hat’s inherited Cara’s $100 Mongoose I put aside when volunteering at MayaPedal, giving this old steel hardtail yet another lease of unexpected life.
Hat has just under three weeks to ride. Our plan is to travel the infamously rollercoaster-like dirt backroads from Lanquin to Rio Dulce, crossing the border into Honduras near Puerto Barrios, before following the Caribbean coast to La Ceiba and Trujillo, to connect with Hat’s flight home for the Yuletide festivities. As for me, I’ll be stopping over Christmas to meet up with friends and knuckle down to some more writing work. Then, in the New Year, I’m hoping to catch a cargo boat to Puerto Lempira, in order to ride the dirt roads that weave their way south through La Mosquitia, the remote and apparently wild backdoor into Nicaragua.
Here’s a few pictures from our last few days in Guatemala, following the particularly stunning section from Lanquin to Puerto Barrios, via the small settlements of rambunctious Senahu and dusty Panzos.
Hat and I met up in the picture perfect but heavily touristed, colonial town of Antigua, up in the Central Highlands. This is one of the three volcanos that dominate the views from the rooftop of the bohemian Umma Gumma hotel - set to crisp skies I'd been lucky to have seen a few months ago.
And here's Hat, with our loaded up bikes in Lanquin: the trusty 100 dollar mongoose and the swanky Rohloff (and soon to be disk braked) Thorn.
We stayed in El Retiro, one of the massive hostels that cater to the daily influx of backpackers shuttling through this sleepy town, en route to the incredible limestone waterfalls of Semuc Champey. Although the atmosphere was a bit 'backpacker resort' for me, the fast flowing Cahabon river (overlooked by the bar) was beautiful, and I must admit to loving the bathrooms!
A cool tap and sink indeed.
Pictures never do a gradient justice... The 10km stretch to Semuc Champey was a tough introduction to touring in the Guatemalan Highlands. The average dirt road around here is ridiculously steep - and you know things are really cranking up when you hit concrete pavement. Pickup trucks overheat and skid, and I later found out Hat - a very strong rider - 'vomited into her mouth', as she so eloquently put it.
Vomit aside, it was beautiful riding, following quiet dirt roads through the Sierra de Santa Cruz.
With panoramas like these... As we climbed in elevation, we passed through cardoman and coffee plantations, camping in on a ledge in one for the night.
Soaking up those views. Before one of the rainy season's final deluges soaked us to the bone the next day...
Evidence of deforestation, one of the reasons for the severity of the landslides this year.
Chopping and collecting wood is part of the backbreaking routine of life in the Guatemalan highlands.
More gorgeous views...
Though a close up look reveals that typical Guatemalan calling card: a rubbish dump on the edge of town.
Religious graffiti: Me, You and Jesus. The Christian message is omnipresent in Guatemala.
Stopping for a minor mechanical. Inevitably, the ageing Mongoose needs a little TLC. Luckily, the beauty of these old quill-stemmed and cantilever-braked hardtails is everything can be dealt with in the local hole-in-the-wall bike shop. Like this one, where the kids who ran it lent us an adjustable spanner to tighten the headset.
... and the mountains behind.
Just in time... The roads round here are all being 'upgraded' to pavement. Workmen waved us on enthusiastically.
It was a massive descent. For no sooner had we toiled our way up to 1000m, than we were headed straight back down again.
Here's Hat, a civil engineer, winding through trucks and diggers on the work site along the stretch to El Estor. Apparently, this isn't quite how things are done in the UK...
The view from El Estor, on the banks of Lago de Izabal, the largest lake in Guatemala.
... where kids gathered to fish the afternoon away.
Our digs $3 digs in Panzos. Not too bad from the outside.
Though not quite as inviting on the inside. Luckily, Hat's snuffly cold meant she was spared the purvasive smell of urine that greeted us in the hallway.
This poor lynx had it even worse, and looked decidedly unhappy cooped up in its tiny cage, with barely enough room to pace a few steps up and down. Next to him were were two brightly coloured toucans hopping forlornly from one perch to another. As Hat said, our night camping in the coffee plantations was a whole lot more pleasant...
Still, it wasn't all bad. We took a lunch break at the surreal, hot waterfall of Finca Paraiso. Piping hot water plummets into a clear, refreshingly cool pool below.
A lovely spot, where tentacles of vines clung to the rockface.
From Rio Dulce, we took a boat journey through the mangrove waterways that seep out towards Guatemala's short coastline with the Caribbean Sea. There, the Garifuna village of Livingstone was in the midst of its 48 hour meddle of Gouadeloupe festivities.
Then it was time for another watery ride, as we hoped on the slow boat back across the river to Puerto Barrios.
Early morning fishermen.
After clearing customs, only a ride through the Chiquita and Del Monte-owned banana plantations, strung across no man's land, remained before the Honduran frontier. Here, an overloaded truck had jettisoned underipe bananas (destined for export) at every bump in the road - which we fed to the cows. I can vividly remember making this same journey over fifteen years ago, when the road was dirt and my mode of transport was the rooftop of a dilapidated chicken bus.
Luckily, we escaped the the ominous crop-spraying runs... Makes you think about buying organic...
Farewell Guatemala, hello Honduras. Our final meal, costing just over a dollar, was one of the best I've had. A delicious array of fried plantanes, eggs, peppers, tomatoes, onion, cheese, beans and tortillas, washed down with refreshing homemade linomada. Perfect cycling fuel for the day ahead.
For more info on this route, check out Ian Benford’s Cycle Central America, page 88, or download the pdf here.