Summary: Guatemala is a beautiful country full of lush, exotic plants and friendly people. After climbing its highest mountain, the volcan Tajumulco near the Mexican border I first rode from Tapachula along the lowlands near the Pacific Coast, then climbed up to Guatemala City and stayed there for the first time using the CouchSurfing.org service. Here I left my bike and flew to Costa Rica. There I spent a 1 week vacation with my wife Jill; we also did the 2-day climb of Chirripo during that time. After returning from Costa Rica I added a day-trip by bus to Antigua, one of the most scenic cities in Guatemala. Thereafter just 1 1/2 more days of riding to the El Salvador border.
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Monday, November 16
Tapachula to Retalhuleu
111km / 11403km; 6.25h / 617h; 1100m
Very hot and humid day; temperature topped out at 36C / 96F. Started at 9:30am after two breakfasts and email. First 40km still in Mexico to the border town of Ciudad Hidalgo. The border crossing was a bit tricky since at first I got to a crossing which is only for trucks. So I had to backtrack and go a few more km to the town (and then back on the other side of the river). In town no street signs, so I had to ask around a lot. When I got to the actual border I apparently took a wrong entrance to a central plaza. I needed to get to a counter maybe 20m away, so I wanted to just roll my bike across the plaza. But no, I was told to go back a few blocks through town and use a different entrance. When I asked why, the answer was: Hay cameras! (So because there were cameras I could not just move across the plaza – I still need to chuckle when I think about that!)
I continue in great midday heat and try to get to the next town Coatepeque for a lunch or coffee break. There is a weird guy, who stops his car in front of me, then makes some homosexual gestures like licking his lips or sucking his finger; that continues 3-4 times. I take some photos and tell him I’ll upload his photos to YouTube. Eventually he disappears, but that was quite uncomfortable.
I reach Coatepeque at 75km. I stop and eat my mandarines and bananas which I bought with my last pesos. I also drink a lot today – good thing I bought the 5l bottle cold water; that kept me going in my CamelBak.
Then the road begins to climb, much as I expected from the Google Terrain map, maybe even more, up to almost 900m! I’m reminded of the evening reaching Tepic and climbing up to nearly 1000m… Once I reach the crest of the pass around 90km the road drops down some 400m. I reach top speeds around 71km/h – which on these pothole-ridden roads is an adenture – and pass a truck on the downhill. That puts me past 100km, my goal for the day. Now it gets dark around 5:30pm, so I need to get off the road soon. At 107km I stop at a little restaurant place, but it doesn’t look like a good place to stay so I continue. At 110km I see several restaurants and hotels and a swimming pool, so I stop and inquire. I can take a shower in the pool facilities and stay there with my tent. I also have a great dinner there; unfortunately no Internet.
Tuesday, November 17
Retalhuleu to Escuintla
130km / 11533km; 7h / 624h; 1500m
Again a very hot day. I leave earlier as I have quite a long distance ahead of me today. My first goal is Mazatenango at 25km for breakfast. Once there I ride straight into town. The level of attention I get from the people on the street couldn’t be any higher – it’s a bit overwhelming at times. I decide to have breakfast at McDonalds. It’s the same food – so I know what to expect – just a different currency (Quetzales). Unfortunately their Internet access point doesn’t work; so I roll around two corners to a service provider and check my email there. I need to monitor my bike during that time, as many passers-by feel compelled to stop and touch it…
I continue around 10:30am; I still have 100km to go! The road is good at first, and not too many hills. So I make some good progress. There are some smoke clouds from the many fires set to burn residual leaves or branches, quite bad air quality as a result. In the early afternoon I reach a small village with roadside restaurants and stop for a light lunch. A young woman chops up coconuts and so I try one very fresh: First you drink the milk with a straw, then you eat the flesh of the nut – quite delicious and healthy, too!
I also stop at a roadside array of fruit stands for a great photo. Today I need to drink lots of water. At one point I inquire about the prize of a gallon of drinking water but feel I’m being charged a rip-off-the-Gringo prize, so I keep going without it. While that makes my climbing the hills a bit easier, I soon run out of water and just then it seems to take forever for the next roadside stand to appear. The last 40km or so the road turns into a 4-lane highway, but one with lots of construction and bad surface I finally reach a gas station and stop and rest there in the shade with lots of drinking water.
First I thought I have an hour to spare, but the last 10km to Escuintla are tough going with a good amount of uphill. So it’s again sunset by the time I get to Escuintla; I am tired, hungry and exhausted after nearly 7 sweaty hours on the bike. I need a shower and a place to stay tonight, it’s getting dark and I have no idea of where to go in this bewildering town. I do a form of triage and decide to have dinner first; otherwise I can’t think clearly…
I find a nice little restaurant place and am welcomed in, even with my bike! After dinner I am referenced to a friend’s hotel right around the corner – and how I found a great place to stay there overnight I have detailed on my Blog in a post titled ‘Riding and City Camping in Guatemala‘! This evening worked out very well after all.
Wednesday, November 18
Escuintla to Guatemala City
56km / 11590km; 5h / 629h; 1500m
Long day with lots of climbing. First 2h I only do 15km, all uphill to little town called Palin (!) lots of traffic, unfortunately lots of trucks and stinky buses! Otherwise scenic landscape with smoking volcanoes and lush greens against blue skies, but also garbage dumps and poor housing areas, big factories and badly polluted rivers.
At one point a pickup truck stops and 3 armed guys are jumping out, taking pictures and asking ms about where I come from. Later, a local family stops and hands me a Gatorade bottle, very nice. In Palin there is a total gridlock. Hundreds of trucks waiting to somehow squeeze through town. At the next little town I snell fresh bread and stop for a snack; again there is a small crowd of people curious about the bike and my project. These encounters with local people add much color to my day, which from a riding perspective is not an easy day at all – too much hard work climbing in the hot and stinky air!
I get to Villa Nueva, a suburb of Guatemala City. A short downhill is followed by another steep uphill of the now 8-lane highway! Only 50km but 1500m elevation gain for the day – hard work. Upon reaching the city I stop at a Office Depot store trying to find a city map; next I stop at a McDonalds for some coffee and icecream as afternoon snack and sugar-/caffeine-boost! From there I call Nitivia to coordinate a meeting point. I need to get to a shopping center called Tikal Futuro; this takes some gutsy riding on the 10-lane city highway Calzedad Roosevelt, but soon I’m at the meeting point. While I’m waiting I’m being asked whether I want to be interviewed for TV and I agree: A few minutes later I’m being interviewed for a Guatemalan TV channel in Spanish! While this is going on, my host Nitivia shows up and watches the interview.
Afterwards we go for a pizza at the shopping mall and then to her apartment where I can stay and leave my bike while in Guatemala City.
Thursday, November 19
Rest day in Guatemala City
Camino Seguro NGO office and field trip with 44 kids to local Science Museum.
Museo de Archeología y Etnología.
Miramar Cinépolis and Tikal Futuro.
November 20 – 28: Flight to Costa Rica, 1 week vacation with Jill, including our joint climb of Chirripo
Sunday, November 29
Rest Day in Guatemala City; Day-trip to Antigua and visit of Macadamia Nut Farm and Coffee Plantation.
Monday, November 30
Guatemala City to El Amate (CA-1)
106km / 11699km; 6h / 636h; 1650m
In the morning I have breakfast with Nitivia and briefly walk her dog. Then I create a new SPOT tracking page and check my email. I also sort my bags and study the route options through Guatemala to El Salvador. Then I get ready to ride around 10:00am.
Getting through and out of Guatemala City is the first challenge of the day. The route is fairly straightforward following some large avenidas; only once do I need to backtrack a little bit when I realize the direction wasn’t correct. Unfortunately I have to climb the rim of the big bowl of the city. It is hot and there is lots of stinking traffic. The particles of a few very dirty Diesel engines give me a slight headache – I’m sure this is not good for my lungs… But I need to climb about 350m to get out of the city. At the top I have some coffee and icecream to refuel a bit.
What follows is one of the longest and fastest downhills of the entire expedition: From 1800m down to 900m, on very good surface 4-lane road, not too steep so I never touch the brakes. The next 20km don’t take more than 25min, with top speeds above 70km/h I pass several trucks on this downhill.
The next section is a climb of a few hundred m to cross another ridge before the town of Culiapa at 70km. I stop at a little shop for a Coke and some sweets, while I chat a little bit with owner Carmen. Then the ride continues; I’m feeling tired, probably due to the many climbs which are always tough with my heavy bike.
At Culiapa I continue on the main CA-1 Hwy without detouring into the town.
There is also a lot of road construction, which slows me down and provides a lot of dust, similar to some stretches of the Alaska Hwy in Canada. Now a very long climb starts, up from 700m to about 1300m. This takes up 1.5hr from 3:30-5:00pm. As I don’t want to get caught by the dark in the middle of nowhere I hope to find a place to stay for the night at the little village at the top of the hill after the long climb. However, there is no restaurant, much less a hotel or motel. I would have to ask some family whether they let me camp in their backyard, but it doesn’t look very inviting. It’s 5pm and in a half hr it will get dark. Locals tell me there is a town some 20km ahead with mostly downhill road. After some short calculations I decide to keep going, hoping to teach the next town before it’s completely dark. At one short incline my right leg ceamps up – quite uncomfortable! I’m just tired after the 1500m elevation gain over the last 5.5 hr ride. There is 300m of downhill, which helps a lot. Finally I reach the village of El Amate, where I have some Tortilla dinner and plan my next steps.
The family of the restaurant offers me to camp on their private property nearby, so I have a place to stay. (Unfortunately a very loud place with roosters, dogs, trucks and a car stereo at 3:00am!)
Tuesday, December 1
El Amate to Santa Ana (El Salvador)
102km / 11801km; 5.45h / 642h; 1100m
Border crossing into El Salvador.