Misty Mountain Hop
After a breakfast of some of the best tamales I've ever had (thanks again Salmy!), I headed for the border. Imagine my surprise when I got there and saw Tom's bike! He had gotten farther yesterday than he'd expected and was only 10 km behind me, at best. I wish I'd had his number so I could've told him I'd found Samuel's place; he probably would've pushed on.
I changed my pesos for quetzales, only to find out a day later that the rate I got was so bad, I was robbed of half my money. Immigration was a snap though, and Tom and I decided to go ahead and ride together again for a while. The border area was dodgy enough that I wondered if Tom mostly wanted the company for safety. Only about 10 km into Guatemala, Tom decided to hang back in a city, and I pressed on, into the hills.
There are two routes through Guatemala: in the mountains or on the coastal plains. I'd normally go with the plains, but I'd heard about a beautiful lake in the mountains, dead-center in Guatemala. A couple days of hills didn't sound so bad if it meant outstanding scenery, and cooler weather would be a welcome change.
I was planning to get to a large city called Quetzaltenango, which everyone (including the road signs) called "Xela." There are five WarmShowers hosts in Xela, I'd contacted them all, and all of them either said no or didn't reply. I still had it as my goal because it was a good distance. Around noon, I met a friendly guy named Antonio who said he had a niece there and I could stay with her. He told me to call him around 6:00 PM, presumably once I'm in Xela, and he'd give me directions.
Not long after that, the hill started. Not that there weren't any before, but this one...
I don't have words that would do it justice.
The hill went on for 20 km. 20. I was moving maybe 6 km/h, at best. With a few breaks thrown in, I was climbing the same hill for about four hours! Almost the entire time, Valeria was in her lowest gear.
As I ascended into the mountains, moving from essentially sea level to over 3,000 meters (my highest elevation yet!), the weather went through a gradual, yet dramatic change. The haze changed its tune from weak and omnipresent (due to unforgiving humidity) to patchy, but strong. Wisps of fog appeared and blew across the road, until they congealed and obscured vision, enough that I put my lights on. My shirt, which had before quickly become drenched in sweat, just kept getting wetter and wetter until it was dripping, now from the moisture in the air rather than from me. I no longer felt hot.
Halfway up, an older gentleman gave me a friendly wave, and due to his calmer demeanor (people usually shout at me and call me a gringo), I stopped to greet him. Maybe I wanted a break at that point. Once he found out what I was doing, he invited me into his house for lunch. But first, I had to help him carry a heavy wooden log over a steep, slippery path to his house.
I was led into a shack made out of corrugated iron. There was a fire going and a big black pot on it. Pedro's wife, about his age, and presumably their seven-year-old son were inside; his wife was rolling masa and pressing it into tortillas. I was told to sit down and a big bowl of noodly soup was put in front of me, as well as a huge stack of fresh-made, still-warm tortillas. It started raining outside. The soup and tortillas were the perfect accompaniment to the weather, warming me up from the inside.
Before I left, Pedro and his wife taught me to make corn tortillas. It's not hard! Definitely something I'm going to start doing when I get back. They also sent me off with four juice boxes of some sort of corn milk drink, insisting that it would make me strong. I tried one right away for luck, it wasn’t bad! I put my jacket on and got back on Valeria for another 10 km straight up.
I was rewarded not with a downhill, but a flat area that led into a city called San Marcos. It barely registered on my map, but was hell to get through. The highway completely evaporated and there was no signage telling you how to continue east or leave town or go to Xela. I wound up on streets just wide enough for a single car, paved with uneven cobblestones. People walked anywhere they wanted to in the street, essentially treating it like a sidewalk. Signs hung over the road from every building, and wires were everywhere. The roads were built on unbelievably steep hills. There was an intersection every 75 meters, and each one forced you to stop. Like most cities, it was loud. It was a lot like San Francisco, only worse.
After the better part of an hour, I thankfully got out of San Marcos (I like the Texas one much better) and got back on my way. My reward? More hills. I might've liked or even admired the cool, misty mountain forest if I wasn't suffering so much.
I kept checking the time. I might make it to Xela before dark, but it would be close. Definitely not before 6:00 PM. It would depend on if the hills ever went away or got easier.
I could kill myself for coming this way. Intentionally heading into the mountains to do extra miles and bike through big cities where I don't have hosts was about the stupidest idea I've ever had. That lake had better be worth it.
At about 6:00 PM, I found myself in a small town in the mountains, still 30 km from Xela. Previously, it had been getting dark around 7:30-8:00 PM, but it seemed like it was getting dark already. Maybe due to the clouds? I'm also heading east, and that makes a small difference. Still, I remembered that at low latitudes, the sun goes down fast and it can get dark before you know it. I looked at my map. There were a couple small towns between here and Xela, but it didn't look like they were any bigger than this one. And there was no way of telling how long it would take to get anywhere. Defeated, I decided to call it a day, after only 85 km. I managed to find the only hotel in town, sans private bathrooms, and paid the $9 to stay there.
It wasn't until I messed with my phone that night that I realized the time zone had changed. Guatemala, like most Central and South American countries, doesn't do daylight savings. So I'd moved an hour back even though I was heading east. Weird! Also means the daylight shifts by an hour. I might start waking up at 5:00 AM again.
I had never managed 3,000 meters in a single day of before. 2,600 meters on the Dalton was the tops on this ride. That is now a distant second: over 4,000 today! I was already dreading another day of hills before I even started the next. Why on earth did I do this? I looked at the map again. There was a way out of the mountains near Xela, only it would take me southwest. I'd be backtracking, and I'd miss the lake. It still might be worth it, and if I moved at the pace I did yesterday, that way might even be faster despite the longer distance. I had until Xela to decide.
Once I got to Xela, I stopped. I looked at the map again. I must've stood there for a good five minutes. I put the map away and pushed off. Mountains it is.
I'm not sure what it was that kept me in the mountains, but I think more than anything, there was an I've gotten this far mentality. I didn't want my excursion into the mountains to be pointless. There had to be some kind of reward. If I didn't make it to the lake, all this would be for nothing. Besides, I was already in the mountains. From here on out, there should be as many downs as ups.
Luckily, things were different in two big ways: the pavement was outstanding, and the road wasn't graded as steep. This was the highway connecting two of the biggest cities in the country (Xela and Guatemala City), so I guess it was important to do a good job. The road was equally squiggly and there were just as many hills around, but half the time, the road was curving with the terrain and only gave you rolling hills. The day before, squiggly road meant switchbacks, and only uphill. There were still some tough hills, of course, but they were manageable. Valeria's lowest gear was used sparingly.
Despite hills all day, I made much better time than the day before. A downhill here and there will do that. Happily, I reached the turnoff for the lake with about three hours of daylight to spare, and it was presumably all downhill from here.
Guatemala, compared to Mexico, is even more fond of putting speed bumps in the middle of the highway. And unlike Mexico, they particularly like putting them at the bottom of hills, without painting them or putting up a warning sign. More than once, I hit one hard, once at the same time I slammed on the brakes, which only made it worse. I barely managed to stay upright, but my front panniers didn't fare so well. One was barely hanging on, occasionally touching the spokes, and the other flew off entirely. I stopped and walked back up the hill to collect it.
One of these days, one of those speed bumps is going to cause a crash, and when that happens, I hope there's not a truck behind me. I imagine they've caused auto accidents before, and they can't be good for the suspension, wheels, or tires of the cars and trucks on the highway. I wonder if they contribute to the astronomical number of auto mechanics you see in Central America. You see them everywhere, a lot more than you see in the United States, even though less people here have cars. Ironic that a safety feature is dangerous.
I coasted most of the way down to the lake, but kept stopping to take pictures. I was eager to get down there and finish up the second of two long days in the mountains, but this was too much.
Was it worth it? It was definitely worth not taking the route south in Xela. But worth the whole climb the day before? The fact that it's even up for debate means this lake was special.
After talking to a charming Dutch couple, who offered a place to stay in the Netherlands next spring (too bad I'm not going there), I found a hotel for about $10. It had two comfortable beds, lots of room, a nice common area between the rooms, and WiFi. $10! And the owner even gave me all the bottled water I wanted! The water alone could cost $10!
I knew I'd have to climb back out and away from the lake. And I almost cared. But as I'd expected, as the road wrapped around the lake and I was treated to even more stunning views.
Once I left the lake, I was looking forward to an exhilarating 20 km downhill, one where I would absolutely scream down the mountain. No such luck. It was a good thing I'd tightened my brakes the night before (and trued my wheels after my encounter with those speed bumps), because I was holding my brakes for over an hour. It wasn't too steep. It wasn't too curvy. The road was just that crappy! The road was more pothole than not, and not because there were cracks or divots caused by stress, it was paved that way! Irregularly-shaped layers of perfectly flat asphalt, covering up other perfectly good asphalt, with a 3 cm difference between the two. I couldn't keep a speed of more than 20 km/h, and I spent almost half my time in the left lane, avoiding the worst parts.
I finally bottomed out, and for whatever reason, decided I'd have lunch at a roadside kitchen, something I rarely do. Now that it's not quite as hot, about 4-5 C cooler than Mexico, I might do this more often. Keeps me from having to carry so much food, breaks up the day nicely, and it's a little less important to finish early when the heat isn't so bad.
I knocked off the last 55 km to Esquintla quicker than I'd thought, even though the first 30 km were in the foothills instead of the plains. Maybe it felt quick in the end because it got easier as it went. Only 2 km before I was to stop, I managed to miss a turn. On my map, it looked like the way I wanted to go meant go straight, but in reality, to continue on the same highway in the same direction, you make a left turn. Not on a ramp or overpass or highway exit, but a left turn lane, like you're turning onto some rinky-dink side street. I went 10 km before I noticed, then had to do another 10 km just to get back, then found my destination only 2 km later. At least it was all flat.
For the first time, I tried an auto hotel, something common in these parts. It's a hotel where you pull your car into an enclosed garage, and your room is through a door inside. No reason I couldn't use that and ignore the garage part. The rate was 85 quetzales, about the same as I'd paid both other nights in Guatemala. No WiFi, but a decent room. There was another auto hotel next door, so I asked if they had WiFi, and I was told no (of course, that could be a lie). And for whatever reason, they wouldn't let me peek inside a room before I paid. Kinda strange behavior, but I paid up anyway.
I was about to conclude that auto hotels are a good deal, when at 9:00 PM, the phone rang. They wanted more money. Apparently 85 quetzales is the rate for only three hours. If I want to spend the night, I have to pay 115 quetzales. And they won't subtract what I've already paid, because "a night" starts at 8:00 PM. I have never heard a more ridiculous hotel policy. I paid up anyway. Now on my last night in Guatemala, I had the equivalent of about $8 in cash. At least if I got ripped off again when I exchange currency, they won't make out with much.