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