March 8 – April 7, 2007
La Hachadura (El Salvador) – Esquintla – Antigua – Lago Atitlan -Chichicastenango – Coban – Chisec – Tikal – Melchor de Mencos
Entering Guatemala from El Salvador was like cycling into springtime after a long, hot summer. Vegetation reappeared… and it was green! Blossoms in all colours burst open on the trees and the rivers even contained… water! The line of fire continued, and for the first 10 days we had a view of at least 2 volcanoes every day.
As we rolled into our first Guatemalan town, Chiquimulilla, Manolo with his Indian-built, three-wheeled taxi rocked up. With a cheerful smile he shouted “follow me!” and guided us in and out through the streets to a convenient hotel. Bienvenidos a Guatemala!
Cobblestone streets, dozens of monasteries/churches, colourful houses, numerous arcades, cosy cafes and traditionally dressed Mayans make Antigua quite the place.
We were lucky enough to hit Antigua during Lent as every Sunday spectacular religious processions take place. The streets are decorated with ´carpets´ of coloured sawdust, flowers and vegetables, in gratitude for favours received.
The intricate designs are elaborated by the neighbourhood about an hour before the procession arrives.
The procession itself consists of up to 60 men/women carrying floats depicting scenes from the passion of Christ, accompanied by dozens of parishioners dressed in purple gowns or as Roman soldiers.
Incense burning is an essential part of the ceremony as trumpets and drums set the rhythm to the swaying and marching of the bearers, who trod the recently-laid organic carpets.
The procession we saw initiated in a village 3km out of town at 11am and terminated in the cathedral of Antigua at 8pm. The streets were lined with onlookers from beginning to end and there was a real community spirit to be felt in the congregation.
This former lobster-diving village has now discovered ecotourism and fly-fishing as good sources of greenbacks. The laid-back atmosphere and extra-friendly locals make it a great place to hang out for a couple of days.
Surrounded by 4 majestic volcanoes, Lago Atitlan’s clear turquoise water is stunning picture postcard material.
Gentle locals clad in traditional garb, and lively markets make the few towns on its shores both interesting and entertaining.
The lads work the fields in woven three-quarter length trousers, with a short sarong around their waists. Elaborate designs on their cuffs and necklines make them fit for any catwalk in Europe.
The men from the hills...
We happened upon a weekly market on a daily basis, but the king of all markets has to be at Chichicastenango. Every Thursday and Sunday this small town quadruples in size and density with the arrival of vendors and buyers from the surrounding hills and villages, sporting their Sunday finery.
Because we were there on a Sunday, we witnessed another Lenten procession with a lot of Mayan influence in the form of fire crackers and incense burning rituals.
With all these markets, we seriously contemplated following John’s example of getting ourselves a donkey to carry all the textiles and trinkets that tickled our fancy.
The highlands of Guatemala offer magnificent views… but at a price. The climbs are insanely steep and we were often reduced to pushing. The roads are so steep that even half-loaded trucks can hardly make it.
We resorted to a bus ride of 40 km into Coban, when the going got too tough. Steep gravel inclines in the rain aren’t quite honeymoon material. This short stretch took all of three hours on the bus!
John (Wales) is one of those cyclists who actually relish such climbs… especially on gravel. Cycling from Mexico City to Lima, we’re sure he’ll opt for more challenging routes than we did!
We had a well-earned rest day in a very rainy Cobán, but spent it in style in the lovely Casa Luna Hostel. The next day was sunny, so we went on a tour to Semuc Champey.
Semuc Champey is a special little paradise where the Cahabón River disappears into a tunnel in the limestone landscape and reemerges some 300m later.
Meanwhile, little mountain streams flow down forming beautiful pools on the roof of this natural bridge, making it an impressive swimming spot in tropical surrounds.
The whole area is a maze of limestone caves with huge caverns of stalagmites and stalactites.
The region of Cobán is also known for its coffee and cardamom plantations and our exit on the paved road brought us through hills and valleys of just that. To supplement the diet, there was also a lot of corn, and then pine to provide the fuel.
We did have a very good argument for wearing helmets while cycling through the highlands. With 2kg pine cones falling from overhead branches… you’d better be quick!
A couple of days after George Bush’s controversial visit to Guatemala, Darina had a lump of mud thrown at her… must have been something he said!
From Chisec we were into flat scenery again – or at least what the locals describe as flat. The road meandered in and out of beautiful karst outcrops, but not without a persistent up and down resulting in constant gear changing.
On this stretch we met Markus (Germany), all 6’6” of him, on his way south from Canada. We were glad we weren’t going in his direction, as we had the hills pretty much behind us.
After a 32km bullet straight road…
…followed the local attraction: the curve, with an aptly named restaurant, well positioned a good 25m from the roadside to avoid being hit.
A typical lunch in Guatemala consists of meat, salad, rice and, of course, tortillas. Breakfasts are generally the same as dinner: eggs, fried beans, fresh cheese and… more tortillas! Unfortunately, Guatemala will not go down as one of our culinary highlights.
Northern Guatemala is Mayan ruin country. Set in the jungle, these amazing stone complexes, dating back at least 11 centuries, give us a glimpse into this fascinating culture. The whole area is dotted with ruins, but the grandest of the lot is Tikal.
Huge temples, pyramids, palaces and funerary structures rise majestically out of the jungle to heights of up to 64m. Needless to say, they had to be climbed! This awe-inspiring site was discovered in 1848 and well deserves its UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
El Remate was a lovely place to chill, swim in the lake and recharge the batteries before our head-wind experience on a bad road to Belize.
Our 3-and-a-half-week stay in Guatemala was thoroughly enjoyable, thanks to the unobtrusive friendliness of the locals. In addition, the national tourist board, INGUAT, has its huge tourist industry very well organised and looked after. This was our first encounter with such helpful information and service since Ecuador.
We loved Guatemala and it is definitely one of our highlights. For a diverse, entertaining and colourful experience of lakes, mountains, volcanoes, colonial towns, markets, ruins, beaches and jungle, Guatemala is the place for you! It’s even manageable in a three-week time frame… on a bike!