The Gap

We didn’t intend to be riding into Guatemala City on Good Friday, but here we are. The streets are empty. It’s like Anchorage on Labor Day weekend. All the shops are shuttered. Our hopes of finding bike boxes dashed. We come up with Plan B, then Plan C.

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There’s a strip of land between Central and South America called the Darian Gap. There’s not an established road here. The two continents aren’t connected. An Internet search tells me things like the US and Panamanian governments don’t want a road here because of foot and mouth disease, or to stop deforestation. All sound plausible, but I feel like there’s more to the story. It’s 2016. If someone wanted a road, it would be built. Roads go everywhere now, it seems. Except through the Darian Gap.

In researching our trip, I read romantic accounts of sailing around the Gap through the San Blas islands. It was cheaper than flying. The truth is, I have terrible motion sickness. Small boats and planes are the worst. The other truth is that it is now the same cost to sail as it is to fly.

The last truth is that we’re drawn to the wide open spaces of the Andes. Central America is intriguing, but crowded. We’re not leaving because we’re afraid. We talk about coming back on foot, buying a burro to carry our gear. It would take another four or five months to see Central America on the back roads we relish.

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We have a finite amount of time and a finite amount of money. We plan to use it all up in the cooler climes of the high Andes.

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So, we’re cruising Guatemala City on Good Friday, looking for bike boxes. We give up our search, find a place to stash the bikes and take off on foot.

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We watch religious processions, preceeded by processions of vendors. It’s a somber event, interspersed with carnival food.  It’s like Mardi Gras, but no one’s throwing beads and the only drunks seem to be in Chinese restaurants, tables covered with ballenas.

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Ideas percolate in our head over night. In the morning, we source a few items then ride to the airport.

We turn this

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into this, and we’re on our way.

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Ahorita o nunca.

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Volancos for Him, Ameobas for Her

The rumblings in my stomach grow stronger. Things aren’t right, and I suspect they haven’t really been for awhile. 30 minutes and 20 quetzales later, I know they are not.

Carl’s daughter Nina is a nurse practitioner. She reads the results from the lab and tells me the bad news. She says these ameobas cause headaches. Have I been having any? Yes, on and off since January. They have now caused an infection she says. All the pieces fall into place. It all makes sense now. Nina sends me off with a bagful of medicine and instructions to rest.

Rest comes easy. The meds that kill the ameobas feel like they are killing everything else.

Tyndall climbs volcanoes. Kuxleqel one day, Santa María the next. I climb Zunil with him, Carl and Justin a day later. It feels good to leave the house. We drive through the dark, early morning hours to the trailhead, stumbling up the first kilometers just as the birds begin their morning songs. There’s big, old trees on Zunil, and at the top, one of the best views I have seen in a long time.

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We all go to Chicabal Lake the next day, along with two young women in Carl’s education program. Vicky is learning English and it is her dream to move to the United States. Margarita is studying to be a nurse.

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From San Cristobal we ride to Lago Atitlan, burning our brakes on the descent. Tourists kayak beside women washing clothes.

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In San Pedro, there’s a healthfood store, like The Natural Pantry but a quarter the size and without the wall of chocolate. I guzzle kombucha, trying to replenish my intestinal flora.

Instead of burning brakes, we burn muscle, climbing up and out of Lago Atitlan, eating fried chicken and helados on the side of the road. We can’t dilly dally too much. We need to be in Guatemala City by Saturday morning.

Guatemala

The border town of Gracias a Dios is anything but sleepy. The main street is chockablock full of vendors, money changers and traffic. The congestion is short lived. Soon we’re churning the pedals up and away from town.

For awhile, we follow a paved road. Coffee dries in the shoulder of the road. I swerve to avoid the first batch, and then keep my eyes peeled for more. I don’t want to be that gringa that ruins the coffee. Eventually the pavement runs out. The road is rugged. There are no road improvement projects here. Things are a bit more rough around the edges. In early afternoon in Mexico, all the kids are getting out of school. Here, only a handful seem to have gone to school today.

A group of women and girls carrying wood stop to talk. They ask if I am tired. I am not quick enough with my Spanish to tell them that they are stronger than I will ever be. I may be pushing my bike, but they have bundles of wood strapped to their heads. Pushing a bike seems easy in comparison.

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Up we go. We might walk the entire way, I think. This one is steep and I slide backward on loose rock on the switchbacks. Up above, I hear a loud speaker announcing food and drinks for sale. A mototaxi comes careening around the corner and we flag him down. He’s out of tamales, but we get two big glasses of pozole. It fuels a few more kilometers of pushing.

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Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

In Bulej girls giggle and men stare. Little boys ask what we’re doing. The center square has piles of burning trash. I order a torta for dinner, but it’s nothing like tortas in Mexico. Jamaica tea is served hot. Tortillas are made by hand. We’re in a whole new country.

Climbing away from town in the morning we share the road with women and children, dogs and donkeys. Everyone is heading into the hills to collect wood or till the land. We are only slightly faster than they. I walk because the road is steep, but I also walk because there are so many things to see. Bicycle travel is too fast here. I channel my sponge like qualities and try to soak it all up.

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The towns here are remote, but cell phone towers abound. Mexico wins for road improvement projects, but Guatemala wins for cell phone service. Even still, people are fearful of us. Some don’t look at us. Some run and hide. I try to keep a smile on for everyone and murmur a friendly buenas dias, but it falls on deaf ears. Eventually a friendly face emerges and I ask about food, water and the road ahead. Spanish is a second language here, and we fumble through explanations together.

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Google maps doesn’t have the detail for Guatemala that it does for Mexico. We are easily turned around in towns. Ask a boy for directions, though and he’ll show you the way – running through the streets faster than you can pedal.

Descending from the mountains down to Huehue teenagers with cell phones line the streets. A bit further and an older couple marches up the road, bundles of wood strapped to their backs. The contrasts are stark.

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For a day, we ride the Pan American Highway. It chafes, literally and figuratively.

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It takes us to San Cristobal de Totonicapan and to Carl’s doorstep. He has built a roundhouse just for cyclists. We contacted him through Warmshowers and told him we wanted to climb some volcanoes. He has everything all planned out. We just need to keep up.

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Where we rode: Gracias a Dios – Aguacate – Bulej – San Mateo Ixtatan – Soloma – Huehue – San Cristobal de Totonicapan

Southern Chiapas

In San Cristobal new sounds and colors fill my senses. Xylophone music and drums. More colorful textiles. Clean crisp air. We spend a day exploring the market and sourcing a few items. It’s been a challenge for us to find fuel for our penny stove. Sometimes pharmacies have it, sometimes hardware stores have it. Once we even found it in a liquor store. We hear something about the government trying to stop pharmacies from selling alcohol puro. Maybe that’s part of our problem. In San Cristobal we find the good stuff in a paint store.

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From town, the road winds up. I have no expectation anymore of flat ground. Everything is either up or down. I consider changing my gearing to a 1×10. I haven’t used the big ring in front in ages. Tyndall’s route delivers. He even finds a slice of double track with grass growing in the middle. This is the best kind.

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Fuzzy burros munch green grass on the side on the road, horses and pigs too. The pigs are hairy, with long tails. They keep their heads down, and aren’t easily distracted from the food at hand. I wouldn’t mind some greenery in my diet, I think. Fruit abounds, but fresh greens are scarce. Maybe I should take a cue from the pigs.

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Spanish is spoken here, but it’s heavily accented. Some speak a different language all together. I strain my ears to understand, but sometimes have to just smile and laugh. Usually they do too.

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We make our way to the Lagos Montabellos and the end of Mexico. Greenery abounds and the lakes are a deep blue. It’s a good way to end our time in Mexico. One more plate of tacos, exit stamps in our passports and we make our way to the Guatemalan border. I could tell you we made a run for it, but that would be a lie. The border is at the top of a very steep hill. Slowly, we leave Mexico behind.

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Where we went: San Cristobal – Chanal –
El Vergelito – Las Margaritas – Articulo 27 – El Naranjo – Tziscao – Carmen Xhan

The Heat is On

Much as we do in any other city, we eat and drink our way through Oaxaca. Cheese, chocolate, fruit, tamales, ice cream. New things appear. Brightly colored textiles and clothing. It’s all a feast for the eyes and stomach.

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From Oaxaca, we aim for the coast. We want to see the ocean again, but are wary of the heat and wind we have heard about. A circuitous route through the mountains promises a couple nights of camping again. We haven’t slept outside in ages. I don’t know if the moon is waxing or waning, or how the stars have changed as we have moved south.

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We have our sights set on a pass, just above San Vicente. Near the top, the small dirt road turns into a big gravel one. It’s been a victim of what seems like a classic Mexican road improvement project. Instead of going over or around obstacles, the road engineers blast through them. Regardless, we find a quiet place on the edge of a corn field with a view.

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I wake to a few meager drops of rain in the night before dozing off again. Packing up in the morning, a pickup truck pulls up. There’s people everywhere all the time and it doesn’t register on my radar.

A man walks up and asks the standard question: where have you come from?  That’s when I notice his companion has a gun. He explains there are problems in the town and that there’s been an accident. Again, where have we come from? We slowly explain we have come from Oaxaca and that we slept here last night. Another truck, two more men, the same questions. A request for our identification. We oblige. We wait patiently. Walkie talkies crackle back and forth. Tyndall asks one man about the new road, trying to find out where it goes. It’s not on our map. He answers, says it goes around the town and that it’s two hours by bicycle to the next town. Soon, we’re told we can leave. We do, curious about the accident and the problems.

Popping out of the field onto the road, we catch the attention of more men in trucks. Where did you come from? Where are you going? We start to explain, but then are relieved from our explanation by the previous group. Again, we’re told we can go. Tyndall politely asks what the problem is. A stabbing, we’re told. These men are all out, policing their own town. Out here, they are the law. There are no Federales in sight.

We evaluate our food and water supplies and decide on the new road. There’s not much desire to descend into a town in chaos.

Past the big cuts through the mountains, the old road prevails. It climbs steadily through pine forest, twisting and turning with the contours of the land. It’s peaceful, in contrast with our hectic morning.

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Spring is on the way here.

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We scout another campsite, relishing the cool mountain air and crickets. We know things will change tomorrow.

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Our shirts are soaked through before 10 am. The air is muggy and hot. The heat opressive. Moving provides relief. Bananas provide fuel. Locals lounge in hammocks drinking light beer. Who’s idea was this, anyway?

I cycle through the thick air. New England summers can be humid, but this is a new experience for me. A side road takes us down to the ocean. Locals surf. Rain clouds threaten. We find temporary relief from the heat in the ocean. But then face the challenge of drying off. Without a towel and without a breeze, dampness lingers. Sand sticks. Who’s idea was this, anyway?

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Behind the dune, we set up the tent. Mosquitos make camping here tricky. They start swarming at dusk, taking cover from the rain beneath our tent fly – they are cheeky little buggers. We lay side by side, sweating through the night. Who’s idea was this, anyway?

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Our curiosity satisfied and 500 kilometers of highway riding stretching out before us, we look for the quickest escape option to a more desirable climate. A day later and we’re on a bus, bound for San Cristobal. We’ll be there in 11 hours.

Where we went: Oaxaca – Yogana – San Vincente Coatlan – San Pablo Coatlan – San Baltazar – Santa Maria Colotepec – El Tomatal – Mazunte – Puerto Angel – Pochutla

On A Mission

It all started in Montana. Hot on the trail of Lewis and Clark we discovered that the Shoshone provided horses to Lewis and Clark in a time of need. But where did these horses come from? The only plausible explanation is that they were traded north from the Spanish. I didn’t understand. The Spanish?  What did they do in North America?  Only now, after three months in Mexico, am I truly beginning to understand the influence of Spain.

Lewis and Clark traveled west in 1804. Large portions of the United States were unknown prompting Thomas Jefferson to develop the Corps of Discovery. This is what I learned in school. What I didn’t learn, is what the Spanish had succeeded in doing to our South long before Jamestown or Plymouth. Or what Native Americans had been doing on this continent since before the birth of Christ.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (Teotihuacan)

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (Teotihuacan)

When we reached Santa Fe, we began to hear about the Camino Real. A trade route reaching south into Mexico or Nueva Espana as it was known by the Spanish.

In Baja California, we had the chance to see a beautiful example of a Jesuit Mission, an example of the Spanish attempts to colonize the region. Remote oases surrounded by desert characterize the missions in Baja. Small refuges attempting to bring the local population under the crown of Spain and opening additional trade routes.  But the Baja never grew much beyond that. It was too remote, too dry, and not on any major trade route. Most of the missions there have since crumbled or been destroyed and used by the locals for other purposes. San Ignacio is one of the best preserved in Baja and also my favorite.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (La Purisima Ruins)

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (San Ignacio)

Upon landing in mainland Mexico it quickly became apparent that things were very different from Baja. There was more money here. More people. The cathedrals larger and more ornate. Historic centers larger and older. Banners in Durango celebrating its 450th anniversary. We began to hear about the Camino Real once again.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (Sombrerete)

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (Sombrerete)

In Zacatecas, our host took us to Guadalupe, one of the northern most Convents in Mexico. Used as a jumping off point, this Convent helped support the missions in Northern Mexico. It was also a part of the Camino Real.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (Zacatecas)

The Camino Real, originally a loose network of trails used by Native  Americans, was improved by the Spanish as they saw fit.  The silver mines in Zacatecas and the surrounding area were a significant reason for its expansion. The road stretched from the port city of Veracruz to as far North as Santa Fe. Significant riches removed from the earth of Mexico traveled this road and were  loaded on boats for Spain, for the King. The Missions continued to grow and amass new subjects for the king, as well as labor for the mines.  Any resistance was dealt with quickly and harshly.  Under Spanish rule the church and state were seemingly one entity.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (Mexico City)

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (Mexico City)

Over time the road continued to expand and Spain profited greatly up until Mexican Independence in 1810.  This was an enormous blow to Spain which soon lost control of nearly all its colonies up and down North and South America.  While the Spanish Aristocracy has not been in control of Mexico for over 200 years, their presence is still heavily felt in the culture of Mexico.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (Oaxaca)