Yay we are entering Guatemala!!! That’s pretty much the initial vibe after all our mini catastrophes in Belize. It was hot and hilly then when we got to the border there was a lot of queueing involved but all that was forgotten as soon as we entered the boarder town, only to pull up at the cajero to find somebody had parked their horse outside. We did the only sensible thing in this situation, and parked our bikes next to said horse. Then Kirstin bought a 1.5litre bottle of aloe vera water which the boys thought way too healthy for them to be drinking, so stuck to their usual diet of coca cola. Seriously, we should buy shares! New country, yippee!
We were heading in the direction of El Remate so we could go and be touristy in Tikal. While at the bank admiring the horse we made the mistake of asking a local what the road was like ’flat, beautiful’ all the answers we wanted to hear, even when we questioned him a second and third time about the hills he was adamant there were none. We were elated, new country, flat roads, aloe vera drinks – when will we learn?! This friendly Guatemalan who regularly drives this road in his truck must coincidently blink every time he drives up or down the 1km 11% hill and not notice when his 4×4 bounces over the 5km of gravel at the top. These were not welcome surprises to our journey, however apart from this one section, to the defence of the friendly Guatemalan the rest of the road was indeed ‘gently undulating’ and very beautiful, we even saw an asleep snake!
At this point we had Thomas travelling with us, a French guy who was motorbiking back to Argentina from New York (he has lived and worked in both). The bonus of four bike tourists making friends with a motorbike tourist is that you can make them into your slave. This day we had sent Thomas ahead to find a room in El Remate for the five of us and suss out getting to Tikal the next day. Thomas did not disappoint. We arrived to Thomas swinging in a hammock by the lake, a five person room sorted, dinner booked with an old local lady next door, a bus booked to Tikal at 5am the next morning AND we were each handed a cold beer – Thomas our saviour!
Now a 5am bus may seem fairly vile when you are not a morning person however it is well worth it to get to Tikal when it opens at 6am. The five of us found ourselves in the middle of the Tikal central plaza about 6:30am, the dawn mist slowly being burned though by the sun and howler monkeys making a complete racket in the surrounding rainforest. It’s pretty special to see a place like that without the 1000 other tourists around, you get tiny glimpse into what it must have felt like when it was first rediscovered in the 1850’s. Moral of the story is getting up early is alway worth it, also doing touristy stuff is sometimes worth it too.
The next few days were spent back on the bike alternately complaining about the size of hills and being completely awestruck by the beauty of Guatemala. We were developing a love for the country akin to our love of Mexico and were trying to make the most of it as Ryan and Kirstin were due to leave us in a few days. Ryan works seasonally and as Alaska was starting to melt, his days on the bike were numbered as he was due back in work. Finally, a couple of weeks earlier than we had hoped Ryan and Kirstin booked a flight out of Guatemala city it was with heavy hearts that we said goodbye to our bestest bicycling buddies.
Because of their early departure Herb and I reconsidered our own plans a little. We had originally always wanted to do a little bit of Spanish study to try and make ourselves a little less obnoxious when trying to speak with the locals. San Pedro, a couple of days ride from Guatemala is famous for learning spanish and we’d had great reviews of the place from some other cyclists a few weeks ahead of us. Last minute we decided that instead of pushing on south we were going to take a couple of weeks off and throw ourselves into some total immersion Spanish school. All we had to do now was get there..
I had been feeling a little awful for about a week, ok I had a mild case of D&V but i’ll spare you the details. Our fist stop to San Pedro was a short ride to Antigua, 50k over a little mountain. Well I’m not sure why they hadn’t built ski lifts up the thing, a 7.5km climb with an average of 8% with several small death sections where the gradient reached 20%. I stopped a lot, cried a bit and in the end it was down to choosing between pushing or Herb taking my back bag. I justified it to myself that in the last week I hadn’t been well and had managed to loose a few kg’s (I think I lost a few kg’s, I haven’t weighed myself in months but there were definitely abs showing where there were none before) in any case I was a real weakling and bike aren’t made for pushing!
Once safely in Antigua we did the only sensible thing and signed up to climb a volcano the next day. The idea is you hike up in about 5hrs, camp on the top, watch the sunrise and climb down the next day. In reality it all sounds wonderful and it mostly was. They lend you the kit which consists of a 100 year old tent and sleeping bag, both extremely heavy, bulky and probably awful. Ah ha! we thought, we have all our own camping gear, which is new, lightweight and tiny. Going up the volcano I definitely felt extremely smug, our backpacks were a quarter of the size of anybody elses. The only downside of having a random group hiking a volcano together is that level of fitness were extremely varied. Having cycled from Canada and having tiny backpacks Herb and I were at the front of the group all day alongside a charismatic 69yr old French guy called Jean-Luc. A retired geology teacher and outdoors lunatic Jean-Luc was on a three month excursion of Central America to climb all the volcanos, when he’s back in France he also dabels in 70.3 triathlon, basically he’s as fit as a butchers dog. As the day wore on the difference in group ability grew more and more vast. We’d stop to let the slower people catch up, when they did the guide would push us all on again. All it meant was that we were getting more rest while the slower people were getting less and less, as the afternoon wore on some of the quicker guys in the group started to carry the bags of the slower walkers, just to try and get us all to camp before dark. We eventually made it, the sunset was pretty spectacular and we all sat round campfire eating pot noodle. It was all going so well, I mean it was bloody freezing and blowing a gale but we were camping on a volcano! Until some of the girls toddled off to bed, one of them returned pretty quickly with the phrase ‘er, I think your tent has blown over’…
We rushed over, to find our beloved house indeed flattened. Three of the carbon poles had shattered and subsequently ripped the flysheet in two places, we tried in vain under darkness and frozen fingers to bodge a repair job, it was futile. Our tent was ruined, we were on a volcano, it was dark, freezing and we had no choice but to pack it and dive into one of the other tents. The 100 year old tents were awful but at least the poles weren’t made of carbon so were vaguely staying erect, it was a long night squiggled up like sardines to strangers.
We eventually made it to morning and off the volcano, back onto the bikes and a pedal to San Pedro – we’re going back to school!
*To be fair to MSR (our tent manufacturer), the next day I called them with out tent woes and they immediately promised to send us out a new one with aluminium poles. Unfortunately it’s been five weeks and it hasn’t arrived yet, but now it’s in the hands of the Guatemalan postal service, for the time being we are still homeless but have fingers and toes crossed it will arrive soon.