I am cycling to raise money for the fantastic UK based chaity Macmillan Cancer Support. Big thanks to everyone who has sponsored me so far! Justgiving is a quick, easy and secure way to donate online. See my other fundraising page, specific to the Macmillan organized part of the trip

Monday, 28 June 2010

Pura Montaña... Antigua to Xela

Pura Montaña - pure mountain, what one of the bus drivers in Escuintla warned me of, shaking his head, as I asked him to point me in the direction of Antigua over a week ago. Well that day was hard, as my grumpy-sorry-for-myself (sorry about that blip, it had to happen sometime!) Escuintla to Antigua blog entry pointed out, but I reckon it is a better description of my trip from Antigua to Xela... the gradients I have pedalled and wobbled and pushed up in the last 3 days have had me thinking back to the infamous day 3 of the Macmillan Mexico trip... although I have to be honest and make a confession at this point: the worst of them I saw through a bus window, a 20km 1400m climb around 20 hairpin bends that had my ears popping and my stomach churning for the hour or so it took (eventually I fell asleep, a pleasure I definitely wouldn`t have had on the bike).
I have to admit on some level I felt like I was ´cheating´... my idea has always been to connect all the length of my journey by bike, meaning I can go off on side trips as long as I come back and continue from the same point (apart from that for-safety-resons 100km bus transfer with Macmillan all the way back in Costa Rica)... but here is where I make y excuses and try and justify it myself and you guys: I had one day to get to Xela where my new host family were expecting me, I knew there were two serious climbs to do, the one I´ve just described and another at high altitude. I knew I couldn´t do both, and after my heart nearly jumping out my chest pushing Peggy up from the dock to the bus stop at San Pedro de La Laguna I decided to pick the one that was at least acheivable... and I reckon it was a wise decision... I might still be on that hill otherwise.

So after being dropped at Kilo 148 I reloaded Peggy (thanks again Jules for the dog-bag-pannier-holder invention.. genius!) and set off into the pouring rain... This was apparently the first day of Tortmento Alex, as I learnt at breakfast from Juán Carlos, a lovely fashion designer who is into recycled clothing - wicked- and who warned me hé´d heard newsreports of more rockfall on the mountainside, another decision maker in taking the bus for the first part of the day. I was squinting to be able to see through rain that felt like hail at times, my feet had been wet since the morning and were freezing, and gradually the rest of myy body followed.. but before you think this is another big moan-rant, I´ve got to say it was made up for by the gorgeous misty mountain scenery. I can´t really say views, because the higher I climbed, the thicker the fog, shrouding the trees in eerie gothic atmosphere (oh for the love of all things gothic!). It was my first panniered up high altitude climb, 600m over 15km to the highest point of the Pan American highway... to serious cycle tourers I´m sure that´s nothing, but it definitely had me short of breath, although I wasn´t sure if that was from the altitude or the general unfitness! But anyway I perservered, and was rewarded by a steady 15km downhill and the warmth of Pollo Campero - the ubiquitious chicken fast food chain of Central America that I´ve managed to avoid in all these months, but whose hot coffee and warm air was too strong a temptation to resist. Semi-thawed I headed along the pretty much flat 12km left to Xela where a shower, more hot coffee and my new host family beckoned.

While I´m on the subject of serious cycle tourers (as in not me!), I met a seriously hard core couple from the US on the road as I head out of Antigua (again with a stinking hangover after getting to bed at nearly 4am the night before, why do I keep doing that for my first-day-back-in-the-saddle days, maybe the left over alcohol sugar helps?!). Megan and Dan, they are a couple but not married which got us laughing about the typical Central American questions of are you married?, why not? and how old are you then? and the horn beeping, cat calling and whistling from both men and women. Megan also mentioned a hand gesture that they´d been seeing a lot in Guatemala, a sort of downwards shake that seems to mean ´respect!´ that I started noticing as well as I climber higher in the mountains... maybe it more means ´gringa loca´ or ´crazy gringa, what on earth are you carrying all that gear up this whopping steep mountain for.. and in the rain.. nuts?!´ They both had the Ortlieb handlebar bags that each tourer I´ve met other than Horatio has had... that´s got to say something for Ortlieb´s marketing or our lemming-follower-instinct... but rather than pannniers they were dragging trailers with the rest of the luggage, an option that somehow looks harder with the added drag from the 3rd wheel. They said it rides well with the low weight and they were definitely doing alright, since they had made it from Chiapas in Mexico over the notorious Guatemalan mountain range and were still smiling. After I left them I decided that my confused approach to cycle touring, of doing a bit of pedalling, a lot of hanging out, is better desribed as bike-packing, essentially I´m doing a backpacking tour with a bike.

Anyway now that that minor point is claified... so, the part of the journey between meeting the hardcore cycle couple and the rainy high altitude climb was the heavy-with-lorry-traffic strip of the Pan American around Chimatenango before heading up in the mountains through stunningly beautiful agricultural land, where I was able to see farmers working the fioelds by hand, the women in the traditional Guatemalan dress of colourful woven fabrics, the older men in belted jeans, shirts and cowboy style hats and the younger lads all in jeans and thick jersey hoodies, I´m guessing to protect from the srtong sun... Friday was a day of heat and beautiful clouds against sharp blue skies, one of those perfect days when I felt so incredibly free and lucky to be travelling.

The good vibes lasted into the evening when I arrived into Patzun after a pedal-pause-push effort, stopped to take a photo of a church and met 68 year old local Victor who wanted to let me know the name of the church, la iglesia el Cavario,and who ended up helping me find a hostel, that turned out to be run by his wife´s cousin. I met his wife later, when after taking me on a mini tour of the local mormon church he invited me for coffee and ´doblados´-folded toasted tortilla coated in avocado, tomato and cheese, delicious. His wife Naomi was equally welcoming, and walked me home after the food. They had an adopted street dog who sleeps in a plastic shelter on their doorstep and who they feed, the only thing they don´t do for him, Victor explained, is clean him. They also keep over 40 birds in their back garden, purely for the pleaseure of listening to them sing.

Patzun to Panahajel on the edge of famous Lago Atitlan was another day of mountain and stunning scenery, but also a lot of lingering signs of Tormento Agatha. As well as evidence of landslides and rockslides there were two points where the road had completely collapsed and was still in the process of being repaired. At the first point I was able to take off my trainers and walk through the shallow river. At the second it was only thanks to the kindness of random strangers, a definite Guatemalan trait I´m finding, that Peggy and I were able to make it up and over the mega steep sand-bank-foot-bypass. Arriving in Panahajel I headed straight to the wooden dock and took the lancha to San Marcos.

San Marcos has a hippie-yoga-retreat reputation and within a half hour of arriving I was chatting to a a beautifully colourful couple Mar y Ciel (Sea and Sky) and a jeweller who kept an eye on Peggy as I checked out hostel prices with my little guide Nicholas that I´d got chatting to on the boatride - it seems tips for hostel-guiding is a common earner for the young kids in the community. I also saw the plastic bottle walls that were my reason for coming to San Marcos, although I didn´t drop off my own recycling effort of the plastic-bag-stuffed-bottle that I´ve been travelling with because the rain kept me under shelter drawing at the port until I went back to the hostel, but I did find out from Nicholas´brother that the organisation who build the walls is called Pura Vida. I´m guessing that they also paint the murals I saw there, so they´re definitely a group I´d be interested in finding out more about.

And on the on-going theme of walls, the idea here in Xela is to volunteer with the El Nahual school by painting a mural with their kids. So fingers crossed for Tormento Alex to pass quickly and without damage...

Peace and big love from Xela

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