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It was with great trepidation that we set out on our tour; this was to be the definitive tour of Guatemala. We were to venture into the unknown, to see the ultimate in mountain scenery, awesome volcanoes and yawning canyons, and to meet the proud keepers of ancient indigenous traditions. For here the vast majority speak the ancient tongue, Cliché.

It’s Quiché.

Ah. Sorry.

We started from Antigua, the old colonial capital, a lovely town of cobbled streets, low brightly painted houses and romantic ruined churches. The irony is that earthquakes preserved the town – in the 18th century it was abandoned in favour of the current capital. Antigua is predictibly rather a tourist honeypot now, but delightful all the same.

If we weren’t careful we’d turn into tourists, so we left Antigua and started climbing, joined the Panamerican highway and continued climbing. The coast of Guatemala runs roughly NW-SE. Inland there is a chain of volcanoes running parallel to the coast, and behind this, undulating highlands. The volcanoes are attractive, but the highlands are not very spiky.

At Tecpán, conveniently placed for lunch were several rich-bastard restaurants, gleaming tour buses outside and juicy fat steaks inside. We discovered a signpost telling us the true distance to Chichicastenango, which was rather more than the map had let on; we were never to entirely trust that map. We continued up through straggly villages and fog and descended through horrible Los Encuentros. The road saved the best till last: with a few kilometres to go, and when you can almost see Chichicastenango, you find yourselves facing a vast chasm. The road dives, lemming-like, and you have no alternative but to follow. Every hairpin, every gut-churning plummet this road treats you to, you know is going to be repeated in leg-torturing slow motion by its evil twin up the other side of the gorge. If that wasn’t enough you’re going to have to come back this way straight after breakfast tomorrow. We flop into Chichi as the light fades, and stay in the best hotel in town, which has baths. Chichi has a market on Sundays which is the second stop on the package tour circuit, hence the nice hotel.

South from Chichi is the tourists’ third stop: Lago Atitlán, the most beautiful lake in the world. Nothing will prepare you for the sight of Lago Atitlán, sighs the guidebook, presenting a large picture of Lago Atitlán. But the pictures don’t do it justice. It’s an immense span of blue water, backed by volcanoes, too big and too prodigal with scenery to seem real.

Panajachel, the main resort, is predictably touristy, but thankfully there isn’t (as yet) any large scale impact on the lake by powerboats or huge hotels. After a rest day spent on a boat, we had almost forgotten the monster 1000m climb back up from the lake to the PanAm highway. This road is now a lot quieter and more scenic, and we are away from the tourist circuit, which is jolly good, except there are now no more roadside restaurants. We climb over a ridge for a beautiful view of more ridges and drop to Nahualá, where lunch is staleish sweet buns from a shop manned by an eight-year old boy and his younger brothers and sisters. He teaches us some Quiché, which we instantly forget, and tries to persuade us to part with some of our clearly excessive number of wristwatches. More up follows, decorated with more hillfog. We reach the top, called Alaska, which resembles the sort of godforsaken scenery visited by hilly time trials, except here it’s nearly 3000m high. And then we round the corner to find the magical sight of three unexpected volcanoes, seemingly floating in the mist.

A well deserved descent takes us to Cuatros Caminos and then a vile, vile road to Quetzaltenago (aka Xela), where we check into the best hotel in town, much to the horror of the other guests. Already we need another rest day, for in this terrain we need one rest day for each moving-on day, so we climb the mere 500m to the hot springs at Fuentes Georginas. The little road there is one of the most gorgeous roads I’ve ever ridden – it’s barely wide enough for a car, and it climbs up, with views of Volcán Santa Maria, through lush fields and hedges, curving and looping, then up along a cleft in the mountain, deep and dark, with tall trees. The hot springs are are 2500m and are like a perfect hot bath.

The Xela to Cuatros Caminos road had been so vile that we elected to chance the back road instead, and besides, we had to make sure we went somewhere that Ivan hadn’t been. The Rough Guide alleges there is a way through and the map marks a route, though that by itself should raise our suspicions. But there is a lovely new road, which took us as far as San Carlos Sija and the clouds, and promptly vanished. We asked in a shop, can we get to Pologuá? Not possible. That wasn’t what we wanted to hear, so the shop lady must have been wrong, and we tried someone else instead. This was better, because they said, “it’s up there, the road is bad for a few km but ok afterwards”. (We think). So up we go. The track is not all that bad (but we have been through Chile and we would rather ride along Chesil beach than go back to Chile). There are a lot of junctions but fortunately a local would always turn up before long and show us the right way. Indeed we even met a cyclist coming the other way, and incredibly, a bus.

Pologuá has several comedors, and we either tackle one, or starve. We are not sure how comedors work. You don’t go in, ask if they have a table for two, nonsmoking please, and can we see the wine list. Actually comedors are dead easy and we soon get the hang of it.

“¿Que desean?”

“er... ¿que hay?”

“Pollo”

“Ok we’ll have the pollo then” .

Comedors are decorated with posters of Swiss chalets, or saints, printed in Thailand, calendars advertising Kenworth trucks, dusty tinsel and deflated Feliz Navidad ballons c.1977. The really posh ones will have a telly showing a soap opera featuring Brazilian lovelies.

It was more or less downhill all the way to Huehuetenango. Now we could see some scenery again, and it was pleasant wooded and farmed mountain slopes. We dropped off the flank of the mountain range, to be faced by the next one. Time for another rest day then: in this one we were treated to our very first earthquake. The 3400m Cuchumatanes mountains are disappointingly unmountainlike, and are more like a big hill, but a very big hill that takes 3 hours to ride up. At least the top has a compensation in the form of the comedor ‘Cuchumatanes’ which did a delicious lamb casserole. Then we descended to Todos Santos, nearly 1000m down in only 11 km, and moreover, it was all roughstuff. It’s an attractive valley and we started to see people in the traditional Todos Santos garb. In the Maya villages it’s usually only the women who keep to the gorgeous woven clothes but in Todos Santos the men wear stripey shirts, straw hats and red trousers.

Todos Santos apparently is one of those vortices of astral energy that attract backpackers. Presumably they come here for the vibes, but we are not sure what these amount to. Certainly as far as the locals are concerned the place has no more vibes than we might experience in (say) Banbury. I suppose its appeal is that it is sufficiently exotic looking, and there is a restaurant serving spaghetti and apple pie where one can meet other backpackers and discuss visits to other similar vibrant places around the globe where there is apple pie.

The culture gap between the western visitors and the locals makes it rather awkward. The Maya are justifiably suspicious of people of European descent. There isn’t much for the visitor to do but hang about and one can hardly blend into the normal life of the town and hang about with the locals, experiencing it as they do. There is a language school which organises stays with a local family in order to learn Spanish, a good idea, though it’s a bit contrived as the locals’ first language is Mam. But it is good example of the sort of tourism that’ll bring decent income for local families and an appreciation of their way of life for the visitor.

A notorious case where the culture clash led to a tragedy is when a Japanese tourist was taking photographs of local children – a rumour spread, about child kidnappers, and he was killed by an angry mob. A similar incident happened in another village.

I confess we did dine in the spaghetti restaurant. Colin had spotted bottles of wine, and he was in ecstacies. I said it’ll be off. It was off, and Colin revenged himself by bouncing the cork on the head of the resident cute toddler. That evening, on our saggy beds, we were already reading what the guidebook had to say about Cobán’s best hotel. Four poster beds. Calorific cake cabinet. Guatemala’s finest coffee.

The climb back up to the main road was as hard as we’d anticipated – if it averaged 1:11 it was steeper than that in parts, and the surface was quite loose. In the comedor at the pass, two French women were ordering tortillas with cheese – it’s snacks like these you don’t get to find out about until someone tells you, so now you know. The descent to Huehue on deliciously smooth tarmac took a very ear-popping half an hour.

So, we’re now on the way to Cobán, and the four poster beds, but we have the serious part of the tour to go and we have a lot of beans and tortillas to get through before we see those cakes. The road doesn’t go all that high, but it crosses the grain of the land, and you’re constantly dropping into a valley and climbing over the next ridge. And it is all roughstuff.

In Aguacatán it’s market day. Here, the women wear white huipiles [1] embroidered with intensely coloured flowers. We stop for the night in Sacapulas where there is only one hotel, so they don’t really feel they have to try too hard, for example, by providing any running water or sheets. It’s beans for dinner. Now the standard grovel up 1000m out of the valley and up the ridge above Nebaj. We pass through villages with signs announcing that EU aid has brought electricity, which means telly and Brazilian soap operas. Nebaj is down the inevitible monster 1:10 descent. We stay in the best hotel in town.

I liked Nebaj. It is more of a town than Todos Santos and more latinised but it’s a place happily going about its own business and it’s easier for the tourist to fit into normal life [2]. The women here wear huipiles with brilliant zigzags, deep red skirts and long hair scarves with big orange pompoms. There is a Peruvian comedor, a pizzeria which we fail to find until the morning we leave, and a shop selling the best banana cake in the world. We are also treated to an earthquake and a power cut. A car drives round town that evening, broadcasting a loudspeaker announcement of which we understand nothing. Are they informing the town of the power cut? The immiment really really big earthquake? The breakout of renewed guerrilla warfare?

The power cut put out all the lights in the town; that night, the sky was thick with stars. In the morning from the roof of the hotel, we could watch the valley wake up: the mist dissolving, the cocks crowing, the dogs barking, and the woodsmoke rising from all the houses.

We made a day trip to Chajul, a more remote and traditional town – we rode through lumpy, steep hills planted with maize. Here we spot only one other gringo, who was probably an aid worker rather than a tourist. We feel rather conspicuous and are instantly spotted by the huipile mafia. We buy a few things, demonstrate the limits of our conversational vocabulary and show them our map.

We’d been planning to spend another night around this area but the lure of Cobán’s fourposter beds and calorific cake cabinet was irresistible. Just imagine, in two days we could be there. But between us and Cobán, according to Ivan, were some undulations. These ‘undulations’ turn out to be 700m climbs. In Uspantán, a strange place of wide concrete streets where firecrackers exploded at random, we dined on beans in the Comedor Kevin, where a poster advises how to keep warm in cold wet weather. That night the clouds roll over and it is cold and wet.

The dirt roads have turned to mud, we slither down 1000m to the Chixoy gorge, where there are a few basic comedors, but it’s only mid-morning so we don’t stop. One day, we shall learn our lesson and adapt to opportunistic eating. But tomorrow it is Cobán, City of Cakes! We slither uphill, stopping at carefully rationed stops, where we eat a couple of pieces of dried fruit. We didn’t really plan this one very well. Here it is a lot more remote than earlier on the road, and there is a long stretch with no habitation and very little traffic. The slopes are wooded, and it’s beautiful, from what we can see in the low drizzle. The road is now splattered all over us. After all this, will they actually let us into the four poster beds? And then the woods become coffee plantation, we see what has to be the final ridge, and we’re at last at San Cristóbal Verapaz and on the tarmac again. It’s 20km to Cobán, it’s raining, we’re frozen, we just do it.

At last we are in Cobán, but we’re filthy. We entertain the deliciously scandalous thought of abandoning the bikes. We hide them from the hotel staff, scrape off the worst of the mud from ourselves, and ask if they have a room. Yippeee, they do! And they have hot showers. We clog up the drainage system of Cobán, we eat a lot and the next day we make a tour of all the cake cabinets in town, because this is what cycling is really all about.

We get the bus back to Guatemala city and then Antigua. The road to El Rancho is attractive but it’s wet, though as you descend it gets drier. The coach was a posh one and showed a video – an action movie featuring car chases, which we can only imagine was shown to calm passengers down, since what the bus was up to in reality (overtaking on blind bends) was far more exciting. The main road to Guatemala city was barren, dusty, rather industrial and choked with lorries. It was here and only here, not on the attractive mountain roads, that we saw other gringo cyclists, heavily laden and presumably working their way up through the American continents in the shortest possible way.

[1] A huipile is a traditional woman’s woven or embroidered top.

[2] The Nebaj area saw the worst during the guerrilla war; fortunately since the ceasefire, life can be ‘normal’.

TCM. 2002

index | notes | narrative | photos | more photos | illustrated map (116k) | links