Kilometres: 12,300 or so
New countries: 2
Size of Guatemala if you were to stretch it out and flatten all the hills: Probably enough to cover the Pacific Ocean
“After all this,” said Rob when I left him in Tuxtla Gutierrez for a two-month break from Baxter, “you’re either going to be really excited to get back on the bike or never want to go cycling again.” That was back in May.
Well, after the Cuba trip, riding 80 flat, hot kilometres from Cancun to Playa del Carmen, spending four days in the lap of luxury with Rob’s visiting parents and then taking a bus down to Chetumal on the Belizean border, I was erring towards never subjecting my bum to a day in the saddle ever again.
For almost a year now I’ve been telling anyone who wants to listen about how Baxter and I are on our merry way to the bottom of Argentina. And then, well, I met a girl. She popped up in San Francisco last October and then in May there she was again, this time in Cancun. We left Baxter with a colourful alcoholic named Hector and spent a month backpacking around southern Mexico. One day she asked how long it was going to take me to reach Argentina, and I gave the usual vague answer about running out of money and finding work.
“Well, see you in two years then,” she replied. And that didn’t feel right at all.
I’ve had all sorts of talks with Rob, myself and others about how I am capable of going the whole way down. I mention other cyclists we’ve met who’ve come all the way from Alaska or Patagonia, but because they rode in a relatively straight line have covered less kilometres than I have. I point to that like some kind of proof that I really could do it. I could, I say. I could.
But those questions about making it or not are, I’ve realised, completely irrelevant. I’m not going to Patagonia anymore and it’s because I’ve happened upon something – or rather, someone – far, far more exciting than all that. So in about a week I’m getting on a plane in San Salvador, El Salvador to chase her back to her native land and I’m planning (or hoping) on sticking around and jumping Jehovah I’m just leaping out of my skin to get there already.
So, having bought said plane ticket in the hostel at Chetumal there was nothing left to do but get started on the thousand kilometres between there and San Salvador. There were very few border shenanigans at Subteniente Lopez and before we knew it we were into Belize.
There are only about 330,000 Belizeans in Belize and the Northern Highway, the country’s brusquely-named arterial road for half the country, would be nothing more than a quaint country lane anywhere else. Belize immediately seemed a very friendly place, with businesses like the “Happy Store” and “Friendship Restaurant” that seemed more concerned with wishing us well than taking our custom. People called out in a languid, friendly Caribbean English and we were “Good morning!”-ed everywhere we went. Wooden houses built on stilts in a British colonial style appeared among the low concrete homes from Mexico, and cane fields covered the flat lands between patches of bush. It felt like the countryside surrounding Bundaberg, a town I grew up in in central Queensland.
In the evenings we camped on land owned by families of Mexican or Mayan origin, whose kids yabbered away at us in English or Spanish and at one another in a mix of the two, a proper Spanglish. Young Luis, who lives on his family’s farm outside Orange Walk, told us about how his uncle once hit a chupacabra with his car. He also told us about mermaids. “The bad ones have black tails and tip boats over. That’s why we don’t swim in the ocean or in the keys.” In the same breath he moved on to Jesus: “He live up dur in the sky.”
I almost welcomed the yapping dogs and bellowing roosters before dawn of our second day on the road. It was just like old times and it felt good to be on the move again.
Camping at Burrel Boom
Emerson, James (“Jeeyums”), Gerardo and their dogs. They kept us company when we camped behind their house by the river at Burrel Boom.
Belize’s flat, green pastures and occasional swamps started to get a little monotonous as we reached the centre of the country and turned right towards the Guatemalan border. Towns with names like Roaring River and Sand Hill rolled by as we pushed into the hills in the country’s west. Belize has Spanish place names – San-this and Santa-that – but the funnest are those that belie its history as a British colony. It’s as if somebody placed a lady of the 1800’s high society in charge of naming things. How else could you explain Mount Hope (“Oh I do dearly hope someone could sell me a new parasol at the top of this hill!”), Middlesex, Hattieville (“I just love those charming straw hats on the natives!”), Ladyville or, my personal favourite, Teakettle. She betrays her almost-innocent racism at the town of Indian Church, which is right by the site of some Mayan ruins, and she alludes to dark deeds at the town of Revenge. Who knows what kind of lovely afternoons she passed at Silk Grass?
Anyhow, if you find yourself driving along the highway between Guatemala and the Belizean capital of Belmopan you might come across a sign that looks like this:
Baxter’s such a model.
Trey’s is only open on weekends and we just happened to pull in on a Saturday. I’m not sure Trey, a Belizean-born son of American and Lebanese immigrants, and his wife Ari, from Cuba, will ever have more satisfied customers than a certain pair of Australian cyclists who visited a couple of weekends back. The ribs, the twice-baked potatoes and the homemade barbecue sauce will have you praising mermaids, or any of your favourite deities for that matter. We sat with the young family in the restaurant sipping beers and rum until well after closing and camped on a comfortable patch of grass in the trees behind. In the morning they invited us up into their small wooden home for breakfast – pork chops, eggs and grits. Their impossibly cute two-year-old, Johnny, showed us his tractor toys and squeaked things like “I dropped my cuchillo“.
A large part of any cycle tourist’s day consists of meeting new people, and all the more so in three-villages-per-square-kilometre Central America. You almost become desensitised to the kindness and generosity you receive every day. And then you meet people like Trey and Ari, who share time and good conversation as well as food and alcohol, and you realise all over again how full the world is of good people quietly going about their lives.
At Trey’s Barn and Grill
Never seen one of these signs before Belize. Didn’t see any tapirs though.
This isn’t creepy – I swear they asked me to take it.
In the mid-afternoon of the following day, one of Baxter’s gear shifters cracked and stopped working as we rolled down a hill towards the Belizean border with Guatemala. The first Guatemalan we met was the pretty customs agent who spent five minutes flirting with Rob before she deigned to stamp our passports. The second was a man who was drinking with his friends outside a petrol station where I was fiddling with Baxter’s shifters.
“Gringos?” he hissed as he passed on his way back from the urinal.
“Australians,” we replied.
“You best watch out. We don’t like gringos around here. Someone might just take offence and kill you.”
We each took a half step back, averted eye contact and bid him a muted goodbye, which is the usual crazy person treatment.
“I spent three years in los estados unidos. Gringos don’t like me and I don’t like them,” and with that he marched off.
One of his drinking buddies was next in line for the urinal and gave us a smile as he passed. “How’s the bike? Fixed yet?”
Two minutes later the surly chap was back. He put both hands on Oscar, Robbie’s steed, and tipped it – slammed it, really – into the pavement. Rob’s valuables spilled out of his handlebar bag and all over the car park.
Well, there was a bit of a scene after that. I started yelling and he started yelling and his friends came over and the petrol pumpers drifted closer and so too did the man with the shotgun, of whom there is one at every Guatemalan service station. The bike tipper said something about how he didn’t want us here and how we should bugger off and I pointed out, again, that we weren’t even proper gringos and called him in an hijueputa in the best Bogotano street snarl I could muster and was he pissed at us just because we had the hide to be born in the wrong country and have the wrong-coloured skin?
“Si,” was the haughty reply and, well, how can you argue with that?
His friends helped Rob replace his things and others dragged the surly bloke away. “Andate,” said one in a hard voice and a pleading look in his eyes. “Please, it’s better if you go.” And off we went.
The state of Peten is Guatemala’s largest and juts north between Mexico’s Chiapas and the Yucatan. It is mostly flat, with a few patches of thick jungle left between the vast ranch lands and palm plantations. Most tourists see Peten through the window of a bus speeding to or from the pretty colonial town of Flores and, nearby, the Mayan ruins of Tikal. We didn’t see Tikal and only spent a night in Flores, but we did see a whole lot of Peten. We rode the wooden barge across the river at Sayaxche, driven by a man on a two-stroke engine that whirled around like something out of a Mario game. We rode through villages of wooden huts and thatched palm roofs, and everyone in town turned out to see the gringos go by. I’m not sure how often foreigners ride Highway 5 through this part of Guatemala, but the kids sure are good at the art of gringo spotting. Sometimes the hut would be hundreds of metres from the road and there’d be a kid waving and calling from the garden. They’ve got some kind of gringo-sense. They’d come dashing out of houses, waving and hollering “Greengo! Greengo!” The cry would precede us along the highway and at times it’d be lined with these little cheerleaders who would scream with laughter when I rang Baxter’s bell in greeting.
The ferry crossing at Sayaxche.
Nearing the mountains in southern Peten
We hit mountains after Chisec, Alta Verapaz, and the roads became steep, steeper than the steepest roads in Mexico by a long shot. Hillside villagers therefore had far more time to get a good look at us as we puffed our way past their huts, most of which have been painted in the colours of one political party or another in exchange for a fistful of Quetzals ahead of next month’s election. Often we would stop at the top of a climb, sprawled on the roadside and catching our breath. Five minutes would go by and then you’d look up the embankment above you to find at least three, often five wide-eyed faces staring down from somebody’s garden.
Morning on Farmer Diego’s farm. He was the littlest farmer I’ve ever met, but he rocked the biggest hat and belt buckle combination this side of the Rio Grande.
Speaking of elections, Robbie’s expert advice is to avoid travel in Latin America in the lead-up to any kind of voting. This isn’t because of the usual warnings governments give about “unrest” or possibly even “violence,” but because of the incessant billboards and posters with smug white faces and empty slogans and the cars blasting political theme songs (yep) may just drive you to violence.
One afternoon we spied a rusty sign advertising a balneario that was “five minutes” down a dirt track. In Mexico a balneario is a swimming pool, usually in the countryside with nice grass and perhaps a restaurant and some picnic facilities. A woman took an entrance fee and said we were fine to camp by her “pool”. What we found instead was like an innocent version of Eden. A river trickled down a series of waterfalls and then bent in a wide, deep pool of the clearest pale blue before babbling its way down some slippery stones at the other end. Huge trees hung over it and one small kid, called Wilson, climbed them to hang from the branches like a monkey before dropping himself some five or six metres into the water. A constant procession of villagers, usually girls, made their way to the water’s edge to fill plastic versions of the ceramic jugs of folklore, and older women scrubbed and beat clothes on the rocks upstream.
That night we had another evening of what Robbie calls Dinner With Friends. Dinner With Friends is where we find ourselves surrounded by curious villagers as we cook what is usually a very plain camp dinner of rice, beans, vegetables and maybe some meat if we’re lucky. This particular edition featured about twenty boys between the ages of seven and twelve, and they clucked and hissed away at each other in the local Mayan dialect, and giggled as they tried on our sunglasses, helmets and hats. Women are usually shyer Dinner Friends but you can see them watching as they glide by. They’re usually most interested in our camping stoves. Children are our most common Dinner Friends but sometimes we’ll have adults who’ll discuss us in Spanish at great length within earshot, but will rarely engage our tired, half-hearted attempts at conversation. You must understand that Dinner With Friends usually comes at the end of a long, hot day in the saddle. The most flattering and also annoying Dinner Friends are teenage girls, who creep closer and closer as they snap photos on their phones, and then run away giggling if you dare look up at them. Y’know, because we’re such studs.
I’m not joking. On at least two different occasions, in an attempt to rationalise Dinner With Friends, both Robbie and I have uttered the phrase “we must look like movie stars from the TV”.
“You’re going to be a complete nobody in San Francisco,” said Rob over sugary drinks one afternoon while yet another village looked on.
We had a couple of days off in Coban and took a thoroughly restful bus ride down to Semuc Champey, a series of waterfalls and cool, clear pools. I don’t have much to say about it besides that it was beautiful and full of good tourist watching.
Guatemalans like to greet one another with a whistle, which is but one of their many charming traits. There doesn’t seem to be any system or distinct meanings for different whistles, but everyone has their own. I’ve been experimenting with a “tweet-tweeet, tweet-tweeet” that I copied from an old man near San Francisco, Peten. One morning I tried it as I climbed past a group of wood carriers, men and boys who haul bundles of fresh-cut firewood in sacks that hang from their foreheads, the machetes sticking out the top. I got a chorus in immediate reply as everyone sounded off with their own signature whistle. I was smiling all morning.
We had one more range to cross between Coban and Antigua, our next destination, and it almost broke me. There was Dinner With Friends on the other side of a long, steep climb and equally steep descent from Salama. The road turned to dirt and a high point came with Rob’s 8000th kilometre.
“For a relaxing cycling time, make it an Ice Dorada time.”
At the bottom of that valley that Rob’s looking at down there is a river. There was once a bridge over that river, but three or four years ago the river flooded and washed away the bridge. Now it looks like this:
The Guatemalan government hasn’t bothered to replace the bridge or even clean up the old one, so instead we dragged our bikes through the river, which almost became hairy a few times. A little way down the dirt road Baxter’s pedal decided to detach itself from the rest of Baxter. It was as if you were to ask a five-year-old to describe something that could break on a bicycle: “Ah, the pedal could fall off?”
Of course it wasn’t that bad. There was a picturesque village just down the road where we ate lunch while a man looked for a new bolt. The village was full of flowers, for chrissake. Still, there were about 15 minutes there where I was ready to give up. I’ve got a vision of comfortable domestic bliss with a fantastic woman under two weeks away, why keep up with this crap? But of course the bolt appeared and the pedal was reattached, and on we pushed.
If I was going to tap out, that village would’ve been the place to do it as the next several hours took us up the steepest roads in the country yet. I had to hop off and push Baxter for the first time. In the documentary Melons, Trucks and Angry Dogs a Swede says he “left part of his cycling soul” on a particular mountain pass. That about summed it up for me on the climb into Chuarrancho. Poor Rob was suffering even harder, as his saddle had started slipping and every half hour or so he would have to stop and readjust. Chuarrancho is a poor, dirty town on a ridgeline and after deciding to splash out on a hotel for the night, we found that there are no hotels in Chuarrancho. It started to rain again.
But if there is one lesson be learned from this big old bike ride of mine it’s that people are a fantastic bunch. A man named Gamin let us sleep on his veranda and cook up a big soup on his wood fire stove. He kept bringing us coffee and tortillas and sat down for a chat as easy and casual as old friends.
He might say otherwise, but I think Rob secretly never gets tired of Big Hills
So here we are in Antigua, the former capital and a darn pretty town at that. Yesterday we were riding through the streets looking for a place to stay when a German literally bounded at us from the footpath.
“I’m too am travelling by bicycle!” he cried. His name is Christoph and he’s ridden all the way here from Ushuaia, way down in Patagonia. I listened to his stories about Bolivia and Peru and imagined myself riding there, as I might have done, and found myself indifferent. Patagonia and all the places between here and there can wait, and maybe someday I’ll hop back on the bike and pick up where I left off. Or maybe not. All I know is that for now, I’m done. It’s time for something different.
That said, there is still a volcano to climb and another country to ride into! There will be one more Big Bike Trip post and then that’s that. Hope all’s well at your end!