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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For a day, we ride the Pan American Highway. It chafes, literally and figuratively.
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.
Where we rode: Gracias a Dios – Aguacate – Bulej – San Mateo Ixtatan – Soloma – Huehue – San Cristobal de Totonicapan