Learning the Guatemalan Way

Date: 5th March – 20th March 2012
Where: El Remate – Tikal – El Remate – Santa Elena – Finca Ixobel (Poptun) – Tuila – Fray – Cobán
Distance: 1037 to 1258 miles

Tikal are some of the most impressive ruins available to visit from the ancient Mayan world and they didn’t disappoint, but we didn’t have the best experience either. Meeting David (from Coba and Tulum) again was one of the better highlights of a day plagued by rain, Spanish-speaking guides & obnoxious French tourists who decided to join our already tricky-to-understand-tour. We learnt some important lessons.

The island of Flores proved a surprisingly peaceful retreat from the tourist-haven of Tikal, and we set off for Poptún refreshed, but once more, at late o’clock. Halfway through the day, any irritations were forgotten though, as the scenery suddenly changed to many small pyramids of shrub, grass & forest. It was a magical landscape, and our tired bodies appreciated every metre. Spirits renewed, we made our destination with time to spare. Finca Ixobel is a small farm just outside of Poptún and proved the perfect cyclist’s retreat: quiet, relaxing, internet, English-speaking and most importantly of all buffet-all-you-can-eat food! (including mashed potato!) We instantly stayed 2 extra days, before eventually committing to the unknown hills & dirt ahead.

This encounter was special to us on the road to Tikal, Eric & Goelle have raised two small children on the road. The potty gives an idea of what simultaneous touring and nurturing must be like!

The cloudy view from the top of temple IV at Tikal, looking toward the main plaza rising out of the trees.

Sarah at Tikal above a lot of altars.

Geoff’s hair got the chop in Poptun, small children have been running away from the weird gringo convict ever since!

The road to Fray Bartholome de La Casas was far more dirt-like than we’d anticipated (call us naïve!), but the most fantastic views more than made up for it. However, unfortunately we found ourselves nowhere near Fray come mid-afternoon, and so asked a local if there was anywhere to stay. We had stopped just outside the President of the village’s house and it wasn’t long before our tent was set up on his doorstep and we were chopping vegetables to a tune much like the pied piper’s. Every child young and old, small and large came to watch us, intrigued by the many many things of the odd couple with the fancy-looking bicycles. As darkness fell, they slowly drifted away allowing us to settle to an uneasy night’s sleep surrounded by the sounds of village life (Dogs barking. Lots). We reached Fray the next day where we met and had dinner with Sheena and Brad who are travelling the world in Nacho, their campervan (see links). The next morning another fight ensued with biting ants in the food pannier delaying our start up the mountains but we soon reached the base of the Alta Verapaces. Here we almost immediately ran into difficulty. The beautiful asphalt changed to loose gravel, gradient changed from flat to vertical, and sun turned to heavy rain. Sarah wasn’t feeling well on top of it all and 1km along the gravel road we flagged down a truck (full of freshly skinned cowskins) & rode in some degree of shivering discomfort all the way to Cobán. The views from the truck were breathtaking and we were amazed by the difficulty of the lives of the people who live along this road.

The beautiful mini-hills of Guatemala on the dirt-road to Fray

Off the beaten track, more and more people took an interest in our bikes!

As we got closer to the big hills, the weather closed in…

Chastised by our truck experience we spent almost a week in Cobán learning Spanish interspersed with side-trips to local attractions. During this time we were lucky enough to meet Achim & Barbara who are cycle-touring in the same direction as us. We found out they had also ridden in the back of a pickup to get to Cobán which gave us renewed confidence in ourselves during what was quite a low point. Visits to orchid farms, coffee plantations, caves & Semuc Champey (not a wine) ensued. We even managed to crack the ‘ser’ & ‘estar’ conundrum in our self-taught Spanish lessons. Of these distractions, Semuc Champey deserves special mention, as it is has such incredible beauty. So much so, that Sarah returned the following day for another bathe in its crystal-clear turquoise waters.

Soon we hope to meet Nico, before heading for the volcanoes and leaving Guatemala behind for the heat of El Salvador.

Side-trip to an Orchid farm, Cobán

Side-trip to the Rey Marcos cave system, hard hats definately required!

The view we would have had if it wasn’t raining on our truck-trip, taken on the way to Semuc Champey

Cycle touring isn’t always about pain and suffering! Relaxing in the tranquil waters of Semuc Champey

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