Not looking cool in a kiln!

Our room with a view.

Yesterday temperatures in Leon hit 35’ in the shade: it’s piercingly hot, too hot to ride. But we cannot stay forever! Today we set off at six, and deliberately planned an easy 60km. It was great until we reached a dirt track, shown as a main road on both Googlemaps and locus pro, but it was definitely packed earth, sand and potholes, we did it, 13km of rolling hills to El Transisto, a fledgling surf resort, with a few expensive rooms on Airbnb, and a hostel that is full. It’s not even mentioned in Lonely Planet.

 

El Transisto is a really poor community, ramshackle shacks of corrugated metal and scrap wood. Outside we watch a group of boys throw stones at each other, there’s not alot else to do! And often (from my palace of clean sheets and AC) I hear kids crying. Along the dirt track poverty is extreme: always five or six children, barely a year between each one, barefoot and ragged, playing in the dirt.

 

But the beach is fantastic, so many birds and a wacky black volcanic sill – completely worth the dirt track ride to see it.  There are a dozen surfers out in the waves and I’m pleased to see that some are Nicaraguan. We ask a Canadian surfer who manages a bar/ hostel about the road down to the next beach from the highway, only 20 miles away and he has never been there. Two years spent on the same beach! Strange how a lifestyle can draw you in, almost like a cult.

 

Next morning we set off before 6am and spend the first hour bouncing along our dirt track. Once on the highway we pick up speed, but before long the heat combines with headwind and hills to slow us right down. And a slow puncture, first in over two  years. Sadly all roads lead to Managua (2.5m) so I booked a hotel on the southern ring road to avoid entering the city. LP writes “ Simply put, Managua is a shambles, chaotic and broken”. This was one of our hardest days. I enjoyed the views of smoking volcanoes once we reached 500m, but then we had to pedal downhill. Downhill!! The ring road was chaotic, four lanes to one into a village, then four lanes again, new tarmac then cobblestones, but worst of all roller coaster hills, one after another. Finally we had to cross an 8 lane highway to turn into our hotel, hidden in a little estate. Hot and flustered and ravenous we could smell delicious food, but “ No, we do not have a restaurant”. I could have wept. Then “But come and join our family for lunch”. Their kindness could not have come at a more opportune moment. I could have wept again! Fabulous lovely company, and the most delicious chocolate brownie with ice cream I have ever eaten!

 

Most people here are catching flights from the international airport close by. So of course it makes me yearn for home. Unlike Asia we are restricted to cycling on highways. I choose the quieter ones, and we always have a shoulder, but it’s not like a country lane alongside a river. Overwhelmingly, our biggest problem is the unusually high temperatures.  This ‘Dry Corridor’ in Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador), has been experiencing one of the worst droughts of the last ten years, compounded by strong El Nino effect. Our suffering is nothing to theirs. But the forecast for Costa Rica is cloudy and cooler. I hope so. We are taking a day off here in this delightful place to plan the next section in detail.

 

It’s not often that life takes you by surprise. We stayed an extra night in Leon so Michael could catch us up and ride together for a bit. Michael is the funny American table tennis guy, who runs utra marathons, intelligent but challenging for Charles because he is covered in tattoos. Inspired, he bought a $70 bike and since Guatemala our paths have crossed four times.

Michael arrived as we were going out to eat, we were delighted to see him, and later a group of us chatted and laughed by the pool. I even said ‘ You know what Michael, you bring out the best in people’.

Not so next morning. Michael was gone, bit odd, but he had disappeared early from a hostel in El Salvador, so maybe that’s just Mike. Then the owner came to speak to us about our biking friend. $100 was missing from reception and their camera showed Michael at 2am helping himself!!! The camera was not obvious with so many decorations, so Michael was oblivious, at 7am calmly reading a book. We weren’t there, but apparently Mike didn’t say much, paid back the cash and left. We were stunned.

We carry a false wallet and old phone in case we are robbed, but here is a westerner stealing from a hostel where all the staff work extremely hard for a low margin of profit. And yes, he had helped himself to cash from Charles’ wallet. We mostly lock the room but with a shared bathroom, there are times when the door is only closed. What a toe-rag! Never been duped like that before!!

Categories: Nicaragua | Leave a comment

Better safe than sorry…. but I was sorry.

Following FCO advice, we took a bus through Honduras to Nicaragua (the twice weekly boat across the bay that avoids Nicaragua was fully booked “maybe 2 weeks”). It’s true, better safe than sorry, but I was sorry: I love to ride across a border, it’s usually over a bridge, and simple on a bike.  Once in Honduras I was pleased not to ride, arid and empty, no sign of the recent riots and roadblocks, but we would have  struggled to find accommodation. It took two long and frustrating hours to exit Honduras, queing in a mosquito infected departure hall repeating the entry procedure, fingerprints, thumbprints, photograph, stamps (no border crossing compliment this time: the entry official took my picture and said “You are very beautiful” – here my blue eyes attract comment but this took me by surprise!!).

Our $20 hostel with pool but no AC.

A bugger with cheese or bacon? Or perhaps just a plain old bugger?!

Leon, Nicaragua

Last stop in El Salvador, at El Coco, with a generous owner (Tom, first night free for cyclists).

Tom’s tiny room but no glass, only mesh, so the breeze prevented us cooking.

By the time we entered Nicaragua we knew our bus crew intimately! One Belgian woman, our age, suffered cerebral malaria two years ago, the one that doesn’t reoccur if you survive! She had been on a trip to Australia, no malaria there, but her doctor considered her symptoms and decided to test for malaria, perhaps saving her life. And the mosquito bite? It could only have happened during her 3 hour stopover in Jakarta airport. I know that when I open my bag to pack two or three mosquitoes usually fly out, they love dark corners. There is a British woman with malaria who has never left UK, but she lives near Heathrow…

 

Malaria is not a problem where we will visit in Nicaragua, but mosquitoes here cause chikungunya and Zika, and dengue fever is endemic. I think mosquitoes cause more misery and loss of human life than any other organism (except other humans), they are whining unlovely insects and I hate them, but they are too important for wildlife – birds, bats, frogs- to destroy completely. Not That Charles won’t try..

 

So here we are in university town Leon with its beautiful contemporary art gallery and sixteen churches. Saturday night is party night, buzzing with music and laughter. We sit at a taco van as two teenage boys prepare our snack. Gold watch, medallion, skin tight jeans, and Peaky Blinders hair, long on top, shaved into patterns at the sides, often bleached but instead of blond the result is a dull orange. The boys are busy cooking, but not one girl passes without them commenting, flirting. Girls and women wear impossible heels and short tight skirts and dresses, but their hair remains traditionally long straight black and beautiful.  The teenagers are not drinking beer but twice we witness cocaine consumption, men in their late 20s.

An excellent contemporary art gallery. Stunning!

Leon cathedral

The parishioners leave directly after communion leaving the bishops and priests strangely alone.

This is a misogynist society. I am irritated by whistles and catcalls from vehicles as I ride. Grrrrr. I am old enough to be your mother (grandmother out here). Piss off.

New year’s Eve and New year’s Day are completely different to Saturday’s ‘Tertulia Leónesa’ (gathering). Now the teenagers are with their families, everyone strolling in their ‘Sunday best’, pressed shirts and chinos, party frocks, ribbons and bows. Charles’ crumpled look raises eyebrows. Flashing light roller blades are the must have Christmas present. It’s festive with food stalls and a kiddies’ funfair, but the church dominates, bringing an enormous altar out into the square, huge silver candlesticks, and twenty speakers!  Basilica Catedral de Leon is the largest Cathedral in Central America, massive and white and crumbling. Midnight was celebrated with firecrackers galore, and impressive firework displays in every direction (I watched from the hostel roof, the best view, as the only tall buildings here are church towers). On the stroke of midnight a deafening air raid siren sounded, a bit sinister, but it occurs daily in Leon at 7am and noon. Why? My Spanish doesn’t stretch that far. Originally for plantation workers???

A room with a view!!

We cycled alongside seven volcanoes before eventually climbing one. Then I was chased by 3 dogs, fortunately on the downhill side. They weren’t seriously going to bite me.

I wonder if she is full of sweets??

On New year’s Day we tried to reach a volcano but the road deteriorated to dust, so we backtracked and cycled to the beach instead. What a laugh! The black sand beach shelves steeply into the sea so the waves happen suddenly. We watch as three adults are swept off their feet in ankle deep water. We sat on the beach and were swept in and out, ridiculous and hilarious, everyone grabbing each other, legs braced for the next one. No-one is completely swept away. It was fun and friendly.

 

Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere after Haiti – 46% living below the poverty line, 20% children suffering from malnutrition, while the moneyed elite live like, well, us!  President Ortaga’s third re-election provides stability after a turbulent history but it’s not without accusations of corruption. The majority of the population are mestizo, of mixed descent; Indigenous, Spanish, German, Garifuna, throw in a few pirates! All in all an uncommonly good looking people.

Dredging manually

A hotel with AC, pool, lift, concrete walls!! But outside we could only find one ropey looking bar so we dined by the pool. Lovely!

Sadly traditional home cooking with veg is being replaced by AC fast food places, and rising obesity.

But history has not been kind. Spanish conquistadors slaughtered with abandon and the coastal tribes were decimated, 700,000 to 35,000 in 25 years, that’s 2,216 per month for 25 years!!!!

Recent history is dominated by USA intervention. In 1893 a liberal dictator antagonised the USA by seeking a canal deal with German and Japanese support (funny, it’s now being constructed) to compete with the US backed Panama canal. A coup led to a conservative regime and a US trained Guardia National to squash any resistance, led by Somozo Garcia. Somozo engineered the assassination of the main rebel leader Sandino after a peace conference, and set himself up as President, amassing huge wealth, and founding a family dynasty that lasted for forty years!!

 

The Sandinista rebels gained most support after an earthquake in 1972. International aid flooded in, straight into the Somozo family pockets! By 1979 the Sandinista rebels were victorious. But they inherited a shambolic state of extreme poverty. At first, under Carter, the USA sent in aid, but Reagan was suspicious of their links to Cuba and USSR so the aid was suspended. By 1981 US military were supporting the Contras, a counter-revolutionary military group of guess who? ex-soldiers of Somozo’s Guardia Nacional. Remember Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair? Weapons to Iran via Israel with profits fed to the Contras. Meantime USSR and Cuba free the Sandinistas.

In 1990 a democratic election replaced Ortego and the Sandinistas with a coalition government. President Chamorro was backed by US who lifted the trade embargo and donated hundreds of millions of dollars in economic aid. After losing three successive elections, Ortego returned to power in 2006. Persistent!

Categories: Nicaragua | Leave a comment

Christmas day cycling

What a great Christmas Day ride along the south coast! No traffic but many firecrackers.

Today’s scenic ride alongside volcanoes ( Wed) but its 26′ at 8.30am, and by midday I am cycling through the air from a hand dryer.

It must be Sunday morning: unable to repair a puncture one of the cyclists took a lift in their support vehicle!

Our Christmas Eve downhill blast from the distant volcanoes.

Mass deforestation: the few remaining trees line the roads

A lovely palapa hotel for Christmas, remote and quiet, nice beach but scary waves, and a tree growing in the shower and up through the roof!

With so many inlets, it was either uphill or downhill along the south coast

Locally called fire trees.

Christmas night at El Tunco, a surfers’ Paradise

Categories: El Salvador | Leave a comment

From volcanoes to the coast: a Christmas Eve to remember, or never forget?

Imagine buying mayonnaise in a gallon bag!

Snow White and a minion enjoy a Christmas kiss!

Casa Verde hostel in Santa Ana is AWESOME! Thank you Carlos.

I cannot eat another corn tortillas.

I disliked El Salvador when we first arrived: a tummy bug, short changed twice, our first hotel room doubled in price on our second night, and few smiles. But I wonder now whether I was the  grim faced person, especially on that first day, cycling 84 miles on an uncomfortable stomach!

From the coast we cycled north into the Parc National Los Volcanes, where the air is cool but the people warm and friendly. Carlos, and his team in the fantastic Casa Verde hostel in Santa Ana could not have been more attentive or hospitable. I loved our trip up Santa Ana volcano. Make no mistake, El Salvador not a safe country. I carry an old phone and fake wallet in case we are robbed, and an armed guard accompanies tourists on all hikes. Sometimes they follow us on the road, the same guys in an open van, checking we are safe. There is an edge to being in the city, but isn’t that true of most cities these days?

Food is excellent. In every town cantinas serve trays of piping hot meat stews, each piled high with vegetables and served with rice and pasta, proper chips and corn tortillas (I never want to eat a corn tortillas again!) There are loads of vegetables for me too – a plateful of colour – $5 for us both, including drinks. We snack on papusas, corn dough flattened into circles like tortillas ( we pedal to the clapping beat of women and girls shaping dough) but filled with black bean paste and maybe cheese. Served hot with chilli sauce and pickled cabbage and carrots. A typical breakfast is soft fried eggs on a tortilla, smothered in a spicy tomato sauce, with black beans, fried plantains and a square of cheese. Delicious, but we often eat our own cereal to be on the road by six.

We followed the Ruta de la Flores with its pretty hilltop villages (it had to be hilltop). My favourite is Ataco with its cobblestone streets, brightly coloured murals and mountain setting. We returned, full circuit, yesterday (after a 500m climb!) to sit and enjoy the shady square, church and fountain. Lovely. Then this morning a whopping 1350m decent down the road we climbed almost a week ago. I couldn’t stop smiling, it was wonderful, truly the best way to spend Christmas Eve.

But for another reason I shall never forget this day. This is a surfers’ coastline but notoriously dangerous for rip currents and strong waves. I told Charles I would not go out in the waves. It looked benign, and Charles went further out. I took a body board into the shallows and that was fun, but then from nowhere the water swirled around my hips rather than my knees. I turned and I couldn’t see Charles. I ran up the beach for my prescription sunglasses and frantically scanned the water. Nothing. Still nothing. He was gone, and for a moment I truly believed he had been swept away. Then he appeared, then he was gone again, and then he was out of the breaking waves and wading to the shore. Visibly shaken, he said that a series of maybe five waves had tossed and tumbled him about as though in a washing machine. Not knowing which way was ‘up’ he struggled to catch a breath and thought he might not survive.

A sobering realisation, so we had a beer!

We watched the pattern of the waves repeat themselves: huge rolling pounders followed by a spell of gentle waves. Repeat. Synchronized pelicans swooped to enjoy the lift of air above the breaking waves, it is beautiful.

 

El Salvador is a story of traders (Pipil Indians, from the Toltecs and Aztecs) and raiders (Spanish conquistadors). Just like in Guatemala, 14 European families owned the colony’s wealth. Independence came in 1821, but land reform is an issue yet to be resolved.

In 1932 the Ruta de Flores region suffered the horrible massacre of 30,000 peasant coffee farmers, slaughtered by government troops for mass protest. The usual story – wealthy landowners displace indigenous people to expand their properties then exploit them as coffee growers. To landlessness, poverty, overpopulation and unemployment, add attempted coups, death squads, assassinations and of course Uncle Sam, President Reagan’s anti socialist support for El Salvador’s military. A 12 year civil war drags on (in 1989, a dubious election and the guerrilla socialists attack the capital, then the  military respond by killing 4,000 “leftist sympathisers”). In total 75,000 die.

The FMLN (former guerrilla now political party) were elected in 2009, and again 2014. But today, gangs prevent true peace. These gangs were formed against Mexican gangs in USA to control guns, drugs, illegal immigration and the sex trade. The USA deported all gangsters to here in 2004. No surprise then that  El Salvador became the murder capital of the world!

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Who ate all the cake??

The day after our huge climb to Ataco we cycled up to desolate Apaneca, then woosh! a great downhill between volcanoes to ever so pretty Juayúa. To be honest we were reluctant to give back some of our height gain so soon, but Monday morning had a definite party over atmosphere: in Apaneca a drunk lay sleeping in the square, his penis hanging out! These high altitude remote villages do not cope with an influx of weekend Salvadorans from the city!

Leaving Ataco

Coffee plantations behind Apaneca

Juayúa

Do we head for the coast or continue north inland? Both began with a climb, but then a huge decent.  I am frustrated by indecision and missing home, but pictures of Santa Ana crater swings it, and we head north. Serendipity. We meet two cyclists heading south with interesting bikes (no panniers) and route suggestions, and while we are chatting Michael arrives (!) to recommend his crappy Wal-Mart $70 bike – it’s junk, but he beats us to the hostel!!  Every blog, even the cyclists on the road, describe an incredible hostel in town, and truly, it exceeds all expectations. Spotless, cheap, friendly, pool and free coffee (not Nescafe, but Salvadoran beans – from the fridge Irwin!) and an honesty board by the beer and chocolate fridge! In corrupt El Salvador, Casa Verde is an oasis of calm. Recently we have been staying off the beaten track so it is a joy to speak to fellow travellers, and witty Mike of course.

 

But I’m saving the best! There are two super stocked kitchens with super sharp knives!! and spices and herbs (and the biggest basil plant I’ve ever seen). Way better than our kitchen at home (I know James, hardly difficult). I can cook! I buy piles of vegetables and we feast on fabulous (not fried) food!
Santa Ana volcano is mostly accessible by road. We join about 30 people to climb up from 1750m to 2300m in glorious sunshine, a once per day event supervised by a guide and armed guard! Bizarrely, we descend with the two super tall Dutch girls from our hostel, a Honduran coffee farmer and his noisy family who befriend me (instead of the other way round!) and the armed guard. I learn about coffee, corrupt elections and the curfew, and I sing along with the guard, he is so delighted, – George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper’ on his phone. You couldn’t make it up.

Look! No panniers!!

Every stall around the square sells masses of massive volcanoes. There’s a small sign on the corner ‘No smoking’

We have been listening to recent experiences in Honduras: a Guatemalan divorcée visiting his young daughters who was rescued by a stranger. She guided his car into her lock up then barricaded themselves into her home overnight as riots raged outside. Backpackers isolated (but safe) in hostels and hotels waiting for safe transportation. Seven hour waits at the border, only to be turned back. We always planned to avoid the southern coastal section of Honduras that lies between El Salvador and Nicaragua by taking a private launch across the bay, but now the twice weekly boat is fully booked. Perhaps by the time we reach the border it will all calm down…..  I love how UK FCO daily updates their website, it’s precise and clear:

 

“The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all but essential travel to Honduras, with the exception of the Bay Islands (Roatán, Utila and Guanaja).
Honduras held nationwide elections on 26 November 2017. Political tensions are high and there have been reports of violent protests, looting and disruption to travel, including road blockades. You should avoid all political demonstrations and monitor local news channels for the latest information.
On 1 December 2017, the government declared a 10-day curfew. This has now been lifted in most cities in Honduras”

 

Meanwhile in Mexico… “Homicides have more than doubled in Baja California Sur this year, with 409 people killed through October, from 192 in all of 2016”. The Guardian. Two years ago we were there, and I think of the British couple we stayed with through Airbnb.
And who ate all the cake? (8”round) and the coconut mousse cake, and the biscuits, Charles of course! In 24 hours!!!

Categories: El Salvador | Leave a comment

El Salvador

A beautiful new road! And a pair of cowboys!!

There is a ferry from Monterrico to the new road, packed with friendly laughing locals and us!

Michael, we are in Ataco! If you crossed the border you are probably nearby. Staying at Santo Domingo hotel.

My skin is blotchy and red – after a particularly long hot day on bikes a heat rash appears on my thighs. It soon goes, but yesterday a after 9 hours on bikes it reached my ankles and this morning, showed no sign of abating. Last week I accidentally slept with my arm against the mosquito net giving me over 30 mosquito bites to add to the sandfly bites on my fingers and toes.  Not an attractive look by the pool! I tell you, it’s not all roses in paradise lol!

Christmas crackers get my vote, they are quieter!

Every few weeks I choose a luxury hotel that passes the Debra and David test, ie they would stay here!

Last few Kms in Guatemala.

This is the Rio Paz, separating Guatemala and El Salvador

Yesterday we set off from our gorgeous hacienda hotel in Guatemala at 6am and didn’t find this hotel until 4pm! We planned to sleep in Costa Azul: Google maps showed two hotels and numerous rancheros with a hotel symbol. Instead we found huge private homes with razor wired high walls and a very poor community that seem to service the luxurious beach houses. We learn later that the home owners are military men, and it’s a village best avoided. We didn’t know. The 3km access track was rocky and the village tracks were soft sand – not made for a quick departure! The beach was stunning. A couple of gardeners told us to leave, no hotels here; after Guatemala it was strange to feel so unwelcome.

Back on the highway we found an upmarket ‘love hotel’, a basic garage sized room with a discreet garage space outside, all hidden from the road, and an odd little wooden box that opens to the rear ( for secret deliveries of beer!). This one is newly constructed, has ac and is spotless. Better still the owner speaks English. Internet here? No. In the town? No. Anywhere in El Salvador? He didn’t laugh at my joke!

A nice man, like most with money he spent decades in USA and he gave us a tour of his properties, talked about gangs and corruption and Trump! A man who wants to impress.

Our room cost $20 last night, $35 for tonight “ a night and a day”. Go figure. Perhaps love hotels charge by the hour??? Twice in two days we have been short-changed, small items, water, ice creams, there’s an edge here that we didn’t feel in Guatemala.

But we set off again this morning, fully recovered from bites and a tummy bug (me, from water), and climbed up a delightful road to Ataco, sea level to 1300m. It was a huge climb but a quiet road through forest with quite friendly people. The town is pretty, with a weekend fun fair and market. Everyone speaks and smiles, perhaps I’m going to like El Salvador after all.

Suddenly much poorer 🙁

Our $20/$35 hotel, but boy we were ready to quit!

We had to take a chicken bus to Sonsonate, a grubby, incredibly noisy town but the only place with an ATM. The bus was crowded and interesting with food sellers climbing over the barrier at the front, selling for and drink, then exiting at the back by the next stop, and yes, someone did get on board with a good of live chickens.

These are hot drinks made with nuts and honey and corn, all sorts, delicious!

I shall miss that blue sky next winter in Somerset!

Brightly coloured almost child like murals are everywhere, copying the style of a famous artist,, Fernando Llort.

At Monterrico we met American Michael, 35, a marathon runner, but also an ace table tennis player. Bingo!! Charles has a friend (sorry Neil), and they get on really well. Michael decides to buy a bike and cycle south, so they are off investigating tatty cheap bikes, and he buys a new bike for £70.

But despite being genuinely kind and a fun guy, also very handsome and strong, Charles struggles to understand how someone he really likes can have tattoos! Michael has the word devastation and two pistols pointing to his groin area and a full arm tattoo that includes a bicycle!!! Also Michael’s tobacco, weed and mushroom intake. They talk seriously about what the drugs are like, the effects. And then Michael talks about his girlfriends, one story about a pathological liar, had us in stitches, poor Michael, but even worse for her husband, another was into swinging parties. Michael really is lovely, it’s rare that we both like someone so immediately.  Charles listened goggle eyed as Michael described all the different options for sexuality and relationships in the states. So Michael’s latest girlfriend was poly-amorous, ie they can have other lovers. Fine with Michael as he was soon travelling. But Michael left his hoodie in her flat, and the next day he saw a guy wearing his hoodie!! He stopped him, yes it was his hoodie and Michael was annoyed, a line had been crossed. Poor Charles, bewildered that Michael could share his girlfriend but not his clothing!

In conversation charles had talked about Sarah and James, and impressed by their sports, Michael asked ‘ is your daughter beautiful?’ “ She is beautiful” said Charles but suddenly stopped, and looked at Michael and it was so obvious that no way would he ever condone a son in law with tattoos! We all laughed, Michael and I at Charles, and Charles, perhaps with relief, definitely with confusion…. it was very funny. But traveling makes you face your preconceived notions, and challenges expectations. Charles’ prejudice against tattoos is softening to dislike!! Thank you Michael

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Plan B, let’s cycle to Hawaii!!

Charles showed our kind hosts our planned route east to El Salvador, avoiding Guatemala City. Silence! I registered concern in their faces. Is the road too busy? ventured Charles and he mimed a broken surface, bouncing on an imaginary bike. Bandidos? I knew it! Gangs! (resorting to English in times of stress). Relief flooded their faces: did they feel it was disloyal to tell us directly? But once the gates opened out poured all their concerns: yes, and a busy road, but also a dangerous road, too many gangs, they wouldn’t drive on that road let alone cycle. Good to know! Plan B it is then!

So we cycled south between volcanoes, a HUGE downhill,1600m to sea level with a tailwind of 40 km per hour. It should have been incredible, it was incredible, but a strong gust almost took me off my bike. I forced myself to relax, smile, relax into the saddle, drop my shoulders, look at the amazing scenery, another gust and my smile became a grimace! But I did it and it was awesome. Once in the lowland, we met groups of Sunday cyclists, ate a fabulous lunch in a street cafe and cycled 120 km to Monterrico.

 

Monterrico is a black sand resort with a few backpackers and many middle-class Guatemalan families. It’s great: two nights became 3, and in this hotel, after three nights in the 4th is free…….. £100 including delicious meals and an evening G&T or beer! Rolling Pacific waves thump onto the beach, sculpting the sand into cusps and ridges. Pelicans take advantage of the rising air above the rolling waves; as soon as the wave begins to break they each in turn sweep up into the sky, a flock of up to  20 synchronized flyers. I fumble to capture it with my camera: too late again.
This afternoon we cycled to a tiny village called Hawaii, on a dead end road east of here and to our surprise a village Rodeo. Did I write that the Guatemalans dislike alcohol? Not true: every table was laden with beer bottles, drunk ranchers hiding beneath their huge Stetsons. Oscar introduced himself, truly a Guatemalan Brian Blessed: loud, drunk, delighted to meet us and to introduce us to his horses, his beautiful (second) wife, his shy teenage daughter, and his guns, in that order. I held the horses so he could show Charles how he could swing his lasso, clutching his patient wife in a tight embrace as the loop circled their bodies, a huge personality. I love it when alcohol brings out the very best in a person! Then he wobbled and laughed to his 4×4 and drove off, leaving his men to load his horses and beautiful saddles into truck. We left the party early to avoid sharing the road with drunk drivers. 

Sometimes Charles complains that I always bring my camera. Not tonight. On our sunset walk we meet a small group releasing baby turtles. Ahhhhhh so cute!!

Tomorrow we ride again, El Salvador on Friday.

This is Michael, Charles’ table tennis partner ( sorry Neil) and today, owner of a brand new bike from the village (£70) to ride south like ourselves.

Categories: Guatemala | 4 Comments

“Too much of a good thing”

We visited many villages around the lake and stayed here, Santa Cruz de La Laguna. A precarious existence perched above the water and dependent on corn and coffee, but beginning to cater for tourists. They have a worthy charity that provides sewing machines and a workplace for women, and education for village children. Some boys have achieved a degree, but after 20 years, a village girl has finally graduated from university. They are so proud.

The community project Centre in Santa Cruz

There are JCBs at the top repairing the road after a landslide.

See the speed bump? So busy taking a photo I tripped and grazed my knee! Saved the camera though!

Weird tree flowers in the forest

Rather like my Dad, enjoying a fag and chatting to everyone who passed.

This is corn but we saw coffee grown on slopes of 70′

This is how    Aldous Huxley described Lake  Atitlan in 1935. Kayaking  in the early mornings – no photos – I have to agree: it was truly delightful. A highlight of all our travels. Majestic mountains surround the clear lake; at that time we were the only ones on the water, isolated, tranquil. Incredible. I was reluctant to leave the lake, then pleased to return safely to Antigua, what a nutty driver!! Guatemalans are truly lovely, kind and  gentle, but this driver was possessed!! Tomorrow, we depart at 6am, back on the road, knowing that it’s all downhill after here…. well not literally, not until we have first climbed 600m, then it is downhill, figuratively and literally!! It should take us two days to reach El Salvador, so I am going to dump some photos here and create space for another LocusPro map  ( still way better than Google).

My volcano climb: San Pedro

The oldest Catholic church in Guatemala: most have tumbled in earthquakes! Guatemalans are devout Christians, many are Evangelical.

 

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Lago de Atitlán

Envy is a strange emotion. I noticed a young Guatemalan woman on our collectivo boat wearing a pretty blue dress with a bicycle print. ‘ I’d like that dress’ I thought, ‘and her diamonds, and yes please to some of her youth’, but barely for 3 seconds. After a strenuous 36 hours climbing and camping in cloud and winds on Acatenango, I was miffed to see our volcanoes subsequently enjoy a few days of beautiful sunshine. Imagine seeing sunrise and eruptions with such clarity!! Envy kicked in big time!! My only cure was to climb another volcano, dormant St Pedro here at Lake Atitlan, 1700m to 3020m, no spewing lava, but a fantastic view over the lake and a rope swing! Charles stayed in bed, he has added climbing volcanoes to his list of ‘don’t-need-to-do-that-again’ (Mayan temples remain no 1), so I went with a guide (for safety) learnt some Mayan vocabulary en route, and enjoyed stunning views: to be fair, views that Charles sees most days at work. There are few bandits here but you could be unlucky. Two villages each claim ownership of Indian nose viewpoint. So you pay to enter the park at one village but get hassled for money by bandits from the other village, and vice-versa. End result, no-one does the walk. My guide was fine: in this misogynist society he was a bit grumpy when he realised that yes I really was going all the way to the top, but I tipped him well. We descended quickly making my knees ache.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We are continuously crossing paths with other travellers – partly because I chat to everyone, but also because we are on a circuit of tourist sites, but there were 12 people on the volcano path yesterday and one of them was Heinrich, the (only) long distance cyclist we met in Mexico. But leaving Charles alone for a few hours is dangerous: he has read blogs!! and planned a route towards El Salvador!! Fortunately it’s the road I planned to take to the border, the route with least lorries, but it looks hilly!

There are many tribes around the lake, each with their distinct styles of clothing. We daren’t look at a market stall else the owner pounces! But the people are too nice to even attempt a hard sell: they could learn from India! Genuinely kind and chatty, the best place to eat and hang out is with the lady street vendors at night. Supermarket beer in a bucket ( for the tourists, few Guatemalans drink), bbq meat with black beans, rice, potatoes tomatoes and heaps of guacamole. My veggie version is extra potatoes. But it’s a nice mix of people. £5 for two. I get by in Spanish, could do much better (Valerie). There’s a Mayan name for the reliable afternoon wind that crosses the lake, it means the wind of forgiveness!

Lago de Atitlan is a magnificent vista of lake and towering volcanoes. 85,000 years ago huge volcanic eruptions expelled so much magma from beneath the earth’s crust, that the surface crust collapsed (a caldera) and filled with water.  25,000 years later smaller eruptions formed the San Pedro (3020m), Aitilan (3537m) and Tomilán (3158m) volcanoes on the southern shore. The lake is roughly 18km by 8km, an endorheic lake which means that it is an enclosed drainage system, without an outlet to the sea. Water enters as rain and a little is lost into the ground or through evaporation.  It makes the lake vulnerable – torrential rain and landslides have engulfed villages, in 1976 an earthquake cracked the lake floor and the water level fell 2m in a month. Recently increased rainfall has caused the lake level to rise, but its biggest threat is continued development – tourism and more intensive agriculture – leading to the spread of blue-green algae. Look what happened to the Aral Sea, another endorheic lake, admittedly huge in comparison.

There was no evidence of algae this morning when we kayaked on the calm, clear, empty lake, probably my most enjoyable hour on any body of water! The slopes are mostly forested with coffee plantations and avocado and corn, with villages perched on the steep slopes, almost tumbling down to the lake. It’s so green and bountiful, no surprise really with plentiful sunshine, water and volcanic soils.  But to see trees laden with avocados, oranges, limes, peppers, chillis… and unusual flowers.. it’s fabulous.

 

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A pair of old goats pretending to be mountain goats!!

Manfred ( our stylish Italian) sent me these 3 photos taken on his mobile phone. Time to replace my old camera!!!! Do you like my tatty borrowed coat?

Yesterday we set off with an English couple and a stylish Italian, all three half our age, to climb up dormant Acatenango volcano with Juan, our gentle Guatemalen guide. It was a really steep rigorous climb starting at 2,400m arriving at our ‘campsite’ at 3956m. At 4am this morning we scrambled up the last 200m to reach the summit (3976m) in time for sunrise. Going up was surprisingly easy because of lots of pauses for Katerine who suffers with asthma (a brave girl!). We ascended through oak forest, then (my fav) the cloud forest before reaching alpine forest and flowers. As we gained height I was thrilled to hear the roar of active Volcán Fuego 3km away, erupting roughly every 20-30mins. At the campsite watched the eruptions well into the night. Throughout the night the volcano roared and exploded, the tent canvas clapping with sound waves.

Then at 4am this morning we scrambled up the last 200m to reach the summit (3976m) in time for sunrise. By the time we realised our route was quite dangerous, we were committed, and struggled up 45′ gradients with hand held torches in the spooky dark (v cloudy), clambering over lava boulders and sliding up loose cinder. We sheltered from gale force winds close to the summit then carefully reached the perfectly rounded top -no crater- at 3976m, for a beautiful sunrise. Between the clouds we could see village lights way way below, and then Fuergo volcán erupted again, and it was magic. By this time we were freezing cold, despite my night attire – three top and bottom layers, plus hat, gloves and two coats!! So we decended to our camp fire for chocolaté, cocoa flakes stewed with sugar in hot water, granola with yoghurt and a chicken pot noodle. Juan made me a vegetarian alternative, mushroom soup from a powder mix (knotted in cling film) in a grubby bowl and spoon he wiped on his shirt! Bless he really tried hard to please us.

The route is very popular at the weekend, we must have met at least 200 going up with heavy packs (at least our camping gear was already on site). Most were Guatemalans, in wealthy North Face gear, no-one close our age. And being Guatemala, we greeted every single one!!

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