I’m starting to see a pattern to the Guatemalan Highlands. Mountain after mountain. Ravine after ravine. Tortilla after tortilla.
Here, the paved backroads are ridiculously steep, and the dirt trails even steeper. Up and down. And up and down. Throw in intense midday heat, diesel-belching chicken buses and power-shower downpours unleashed by the rainy season, and it’s a recipe for some of the toughest backcountry touring Cara and I have experienced.
But the riding is also incredibly rewarding: the dirt roads rarely anything less than epic (to ride down) and the people, for the most part, unbelievably friendly and curious – as these last few days weaving a route back from Coban to San Andres Iztapa have shown us.
I know my legs are certainly feeling it. It seems my bike must be starting to struggle under the strain too. Just as we were leaving town, I noticed my rear tyre had a cut in the sidewall, and one of the V brakes had broken. We stopped by this friendly shop where Guicho, Rene and and Francisco sorted me out with second hand brakes (2 dollars) and a new mountain bike tyre (5 dollars). Apparently there are many vederas – singletracks – in the area, so I promised to go for a Sunday ride if I make it back one day…
After a stint on pavement, following the main road to Guatemala City, we were relieved to turn off onto a dirt cut-through to Salama, involving a half dozen, axle-deep river crossings.
The track descended steeply down to the Rio Cerchela Quilila, before wrapped its away up and over a ridge, culminating with a massive, ear-popping descent down to Salama. Our late start repairing my bike meant we didn’t make it to the central square until well into dark, picking our way down the stoney track by moonlight. No tour of ours would be complete without at least one night ride…
The next morning, a sizeable climb led us out of Samala, answered with a fast descent, swooping us down to Rabinal at 1000m again. It’s that Guatemalan ‘up and down’ formula we know and 'love'.
Smoothies and coffee. Just what we needed for a recharge.
Cubulco, known for adhering to its pre-Colombian traditions. A dead-end town, unless…
… you continue across the mountains via a dirt road that the locals promised would be hard, positioning their arms beyond 45 degrees for effect. There weren’t wrong. We pushed on and off the bike for the next few hours, struggling to average even a few kilometres an hour, dripping in sweat under the afternoon sun.
You know things are really cranking up when random slabs of concrete are laid down for just a few hundred metres, generally around tight switchbacks. Jeep wheels spin as they struggle for grip. We push…
We were soon back up into the high mountains again. Just as dusk was falling, we discovered a perfect grassy camping spot hidden from the road by a corn field and settled in for the night.
Resuming the climb in the morning, we set our sights on the cell phone tower at Tres Cruces. The last few kilometres were well packed and reasonably graded. After our ridiculous corkscrew ascent the day before, it does beg the question: why can’t all Guatemalan roads be like this?
Here’s a rare sight for Guatemala these days. Acres and acres of untouched cloud forest, that has yet to fall foul to tree felling, part of the reason for the intensity in the recent landslides.
A local dog, whose dreads I looked upon enviously.
Out in the sticks, one of the aldeas – the villages – had this sign for a hairdresser. ‘Your professional stylist…’
‘Come on in…’ Perhaps we could both have done with a visit.
Up and over the pass, the road was far better for the most part, rewarding our toils with an incredible descent back off the mountain into the valley far, far below. It was blistering quick and fun riding, except for the odd muddy quagmire.
A local family having a good chortle at Cara...
Or more precisely, her shoes.
The jeeps were struggling too. All of them had jacked-up suspension to handle the deep ruts chiselled out by the vagaries of the rainy season.
Slowly creeping forwards, bobbing up and down like a boat out at sea…
Many of the houses round here were roofed with these beautiful terracota tiles, lending the landscape a timelost Spanish feel.
We reached the relative metropolis of Pachalum at lunchtime. I’ve been on a tortilla diet for some 9 months now. This pizza, ‘the best in town’, as English-speaking owner Belvin promised, tasted so good… Like many, Belvin had spent time in the US saving up money, returning to buy a house, car, and set up a business.
There’s a lot of shuffling backwards and forwards of goods and money between Guatemala and the US. In fact, remittances in the country account for more than the sum total of all exports.
Cara, sporting clean feet once more…
From here, a paved road hairpinned right down to muddy shores of the Grande Montagua river, before climbing sharply back up towards the dirt road turnoff to San Martin Jeloteque. We were hoping for a wind-down to the day, but it was not to be. Or maybe our legs were just reaching exhaustion point. The track guided us back up into the coffee and banana plantations, before traversing a ridge. As an elder in one of the aldeas informed us, San Martin still lay ‘cuatro legas de aqui’. Four leagues away, or 16 kilometres in modern money.
Then, only one last stretch of main road lay ahead – divided neatly into two with its Guatemala-style dive down towards a frothing, muddy river and accompanying steep hike up the other side – to Chimaltenango. After a month on the road, we were almost there…
Our backcountry route from Cubulco to San Martin Jilotepeque. The ITMB Guatemalan map was speckled with these faint dirt track markings, some of which are only passable in the dry season, others of which are little wider than a footpath. For those with strong legs, a taste for tortillas and a love of ridiculously steep mountainous roads, it’s clear that there are many adventures to be had in this rugged country…
Bike War. This shops means business.
More stylish cuts to choose from. I’m tempted by the layered pony tail at the bottom.
Loading up in San Martin for a dusty ride back over the mountains.
Polishing the family silver. There’s a lot of pride in keeping chromework spick and span, as shown by this lustrous example. Chicken Buses, as they’re know, are ex-US school buses repainted and colourfully decorated, their engines retuned for the demands of Guatemala: speed.
Reaching the edge of Chimaltenango was a good reminder of why we’ve steered clear of main roads and larger cities. Tearing through people-packed neighbourhood streets, buses overtook cars, who were themselves in the midst of overtaking cyclists, ambling back from the fields as they rode two abreast. Speaking as someone well versed in the road manners of India, this really was scary stuff.
Pimp my ride.
Despite the cocophony of noise, the honking of horns, the squealing of brakes and the puffs of thick, chocking exhaust fumes, there’s some sense of order to be discerned through the apparent chaos of the venerable Chicken Bus.
Each is operated by a two man team. The driver focuses on nothing more than manhandling these old behemoths round the tightest of corners at the highest of speeds.
The ayudante – the helper – is a multitasker. His job: dangle out into the road and scoop up would-be passengers, yelling the name of the destination like an incessant mantra. All this happens in a blurry motion. His trademark move is a brave, rash leap out of the front door, only to appear as if by magic through the rear hatch just a moment later, having stashed the passengers’ produce/animals/bicycles instantaneously on the roof. The moment the ayudante gives the sign – a bash to the roof – the driver guns the throttle like his, and everyone elses, life depended on it.
But we made it: home sweet home. Arriving back at Mayapedal, in San Andres de Iztapa, a month of predominantly dirt roads after we left… Tired. Happy. Ready for a rest…