Day 53: Chimaltenango, GT to Guatemala City, GT

With a short mileage day to get to Guatemala City, we took our time this morning, walking back into the main part of town for breakfast. We found and enjoyed a typical local place, with eggs, beans, good tortillas, and good coffee.

The road was somewhat hilly, but not too strenuous, but there was a lot of traffic, being close to a major city. Another recommended side stop that we had to miss was the nearby historic colonial city of Antigua. On the highway near the exit for Antigua, we came across “La Casa del Waffle” (The Waffle House). I’m sure the name was inspired by the American chain, but it was no official relation. It obviously catered American tourists; the parking lot had signs like “Jeff Gordon Fans Parking Only” and “Dale Jr. Fans Parking Only.” The inside was decorated with posters and pictures from Three Stooges films. We wondered if the owner had a particular fondness for the Three Stooges, or if he assumed that all Americans did. The food was good American breakfast fare, but with just enough of a south-of-the-border twist that we didn’t feel like we were totally selling out.

There was a scenic overlook for the Guatemala City just as the highway began its descent into the city. The traffic got especially heavy from here on in. We stopped in the suburb if Mixco, where we found a Sherwin-Williams store, and took a break to call Juan, our contact in the city. Juan gave us directions to meet him at El Obolisco, an easily-recognizable landmark near the city center. We dodged traffic for a few more miles until we finally reached El Obolisco and waited until Juan arrived to lead us in his car to the apartment he arranged for us to use for a few days.

We settled in at the apartment, which was in a very nice neighborhood of the city. We never ended up venturing out to explore yet this evening, though. After getting organized and catching up on other things in the apartment, we got tired and it got late, so we just sent out for pizza.

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Day 52: 4 Caminos, GT to Chimaltenango, GT

Among the noise and smog of 4 Caminos, the breakfast options weren’t looking too good at first, but after looking at and ruling out a couple of places, we poked our heads inside another, and once inside, it was actually a pretty nice and cozy place. The coffee and eggs were good and fresh, and as usual, made all the better by those thick Guatemalan tortillas.

There were more hills to climb and descend today. We ran into some road construction, and had to make our way dodging past some boulders that were being pushed off a cliff by a bulldozer from a temporary roadway up above.

After riding 20km up, 10km down, the 10km up again, we stopped for some lunch of fresh fried pork rinds. We learned there that Chimaltenango was another 80km to go, with more of the same road conditions. So we decided to catch a ride from the general store across the road. We had inquired about getting a small van or pickup truck, similar to what we had taken in Mexico, and it sounded like that’s what we were getting, but soon a big converted school bus pulled up, and we were motioned to get ready to get on board. We unhooked our panniers from our bikes, and help lift them up to the top of the bus, where they were just placed without any straps or rope to hold them in place at all.

It was a tough squeeze working our way into the mostly-full bus seats, with a very narrow aisle to accommodate ourselves and all the bags we carried. Room was made for us in two separate rows, though, about halfway back. The ride was quite an adventure; imagine your stereotypical third-world bus ride scenario from “Romancing the Stone” or another such movie. The road made the same climbs, descents, twists, and turns that we’ve gotten used to on the bikes. There was more construction, sometimes with the road reduced to one lane, or gravel or dirt surface. The bus driver took all this in stride and at full speed. Just when you thought he would not dare try to pass on that blind turn or into oncoming traffic in the left lane, sure enough, he would. All the while, vendors stood at the front of the bus, reciting their sales pitches (or preaching from The Bible), trying to peddle their goods to their captive audience.

We passed a popular tourist and resort area that was recommended to us, Lake Atitlan. It is surrounded by volcanoes, and is reputed to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. There looked to be lots of good lodging options, and it would have been a bike-able distance, but since we had somebody expecting us in Guatemala City within the next couple of days, we unfortunately had to abide by our self-imposed timetable.

When we boarded the bus, Ray had told the driver to just let us off in the city of Chimaltenango wherever it was convenient for them, near the center if possible, since were weren’t familiar with the city anyway. When we finally got to the city, they dropped us off, and hoisted our bikes off the roof. They appeared to be in one piece and in working order, thankfully; we were amazed that they had arrived at all. As we loaded our panniers back onto our racks, Ray happened to notice where we had ended up being dropped off and gave me a nudge. It was right in front of a Sherwin-Williams store! So we stopped in and got a picture.

We rode around the main plaza area to try to find a hotel, but ended up a few blocks away before finding a place. It was very reasonably priced, but probably the most secure establishment I have ever stayed in. To access it from outside, there was a large steel gate that was kept locked. Once inside, the courtyard/parking area and the rooms were very well kept.

After getting cleaned up and relaxing in the room for a while, we walked back into the center of town to explore. Ray got a much-needed haircut; I probably could have used one, but decided to pass. This seemed like a fairly working-class city, but oddly enough, we saw the first signs of a recreational bike culture here for the first time since leaving the US. From the bus on the way into town, we saw three guys on high-end mountain bikes riding up the road, wearing spandex and helmets and the whole deal. While in town, we saw one of these same guys hanging out in the street talking to a guy on a nice road bike.

For dinner, we decided on a local pizza place. After eating, we still felt kind of hungry, so we went to the Domino’s up the street and got two more pizzas (another two-for-the-price-of-one deal), then headed back to the hotel.

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Day 51: Chimusinique, GT to 4 Caminos, GT

After breakfast at the Hotel Pino Montana, there were many ups and down in store for us in the road today. First there was a 10km ride uphill, then 10km downhill. Then 45km uphill, 15km downhill. We made a couple of stops along the way, for snacks, water, lunch, and to ask how much longer we’d be riding uphill. It seems like the answer was the same every time–“Oh, you’ve just got this little bit more of uphill, then it’s all pretty flat from there.” And then we’d continue going up, up, and up.

We ordered hamburgers at the lunch stop, and they ended up being these tiny one-and-a-half-inch patties on huge buns. We were hungry and were tempted to get seconds, but I didn’t want to reward their providing a bad product by getting more of that product. But I did feel kind of bad; when we first pulled up, the man of the house yelled to his wife to come out to serve us. As we were eating, though, he was heading out, and looked back at us and said “Thank you” in English; I felt he was being very sincere and grateful. The whole experience made me think that we were the only customers they had in weeks.

Our destination for the day was Quetzaltenango, but the town of 4 Caminos was on the way. We were told that Quetzaltenango was a nice place to visit, but it was another 15 kilometers off of the highway, and we would have had to ride that 15 extra kilometers back the next morning, so we decide to just stay in 4 Caminos. The name means just “4 roads,” and that’s all the town was, a crossroads that it seemed nobody came to unless on the way to somewhere else. There was endless traffic streaming through the one traffic light, mostly school buses converted to passenger buses, taxis, and semi-trucks, all blowing their horns endlessly. As we sat at a Chinese place for dinner, the constant din coming from outside was almost comical.

The hotel was decent, though, and they had cable TV, on which we were able to enjoy the Cleveland Browns beat the New York Giants on Monday Night Football.

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Day 50: Cuautémoc, MX to Chimusinique, GT

As we suspected, our laundry was still pretty wet in the morning. Both of my bike shorts were in the laundry, so I resigned myself to pulling on a damp pair of shorts, as Ray and I arranged the rest of our damp clothes on our bike racks, hopefully to dry in the breeze and sun.

We stopped at the Mexican border patrol office before leaving town to have our “tranmigrante” permits verified and stamped, then headed up the road towards Guatemala. We crossed the border without any incident, only have to stop at the office to have our passports stamped; there was no fee.

The Guatemalan terrain was somewhat hilly, but the grades were not too steep, so the riding was pleasant. This section of the Pan-American Highway went through a long canyon, so the scenery was very beautiful. In some ways, it seemed very similar to Mexico, but in other ways, very different. The terrain looked a bit more rugged. The men dressed pretty similar to how they dress in Mexico, but the women wore more of the traditional hand-woven skirts and sweaters. Vulcanizadoras were now called “pinchazos;” topes were now called “tumulos.”

We had some very good and filling pollo asado for lunch. The tortillas in Guatemala are a little smaller around, but thicker than in Mexico, and quite tasty.

It looked like rain in the afternoon, but it never came during our ride. We were recommended to go to the city of Huehuetenango, but after our Spartan accomodations last night, we didn’t feel adventurous, and we passed up a nice hotel right on the main highway on the outskirts of Huehuetenango, and decided to stop there. After getting showered, we walked up the road a bit a found a roadside bar, where we went in for a snack and some beverages. It rained for a while outside, so we stayed and talked to a couple of local men, who were just as friendly and hospitable as the locals we had encountered in Mexico. When the rain finally let up, we walked back to the hotel for dinner.

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Day 49: Comitán de Domínguez, MX to Cuautémoc, MX

We ate our Frosted Flakes in the hostel room and got rolling. As we headed through the city, we noticed an Italian Coffee Company shop, so we decided to stop in for a good cup ‘o joe.

The road outside the city involved some mild climbing, but it was good riding. Finally, we enjoyed the final run out of the mountains, with an incredible, continuous descent of 25 kilometers. Not long after reaching the bottom, we passed a small roadside cafe, and stopped in for one of our best lunches. Their specialty was ceviche, sometimes called “Mexican sushi.” It’s fresh shrimp, mixed in a salad of chopped tomatoes, cucumber, celery, and spices. I’d like to try making it myself someday at home…

The second half of the ride was easy; mostly flat with some mild climbing near the end.

The town of Cuautémoc is small with not many services; it functions mainly as a last stop before crossing the border into Guatemala. The hotel we chose was attached to the bus terminal; it had a very nice enclosed courtyard in the middle, with a row of rooms with shared bathroom in the back. It was clean, cheap, and functional, but the rooms were very Spartan; I could not help thinking that they looked like jail cells–bare walls, bare concrete floor, no windows, solid steel door.

We had been doing our laundry just by rinsing it out in hotel sinks for the past week and a half, and needed to do a “good” washing. We noticed the hotel owner and her helper doing laundry in the courtyard, so we asked them if we could get ours done (we showed them the two grocery bags that we had our dirty clothes stored in). The helper said sure, it would be 50 pesos. The owner asked her, “You mean 50 pesos bag?” and she said no, 50 pesos for it all. The owner apparently didn’t think that was enough, so she added, “And 20 pesos for the soap!” We told them that we wanted to leave early the next day, and asked if it would be dry by then, and they assured us that is would be ready in the morning.

It was still early in the day, so we walked around town a bit and got some snacks at a convenience store. In the owner’s living room beyond the counter, we noticed there was a soccer game on the TV. Ray was interested to watch it, so we looked around town some more until we found a restaurant and bar with a TV where we could tune it in. It was still rather early, so we just had a few drinks as we watched the game. That game ended, but another came on, so we continued watching, until eventually it became time for dinner, so we just stayed there and ordered.

After dinner, we returned to the hotel, and went to the courtyard to check on our laundry. We found that it was hanging on the clotheslines to dry, but drippinging wet as if it had just been put there minutes before. We wrung out each of our items to try to help the drying process along, but didn’t hold out much hope that we’d be able to pack it first thing in the morning.

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Day 48: San Cristobol de las Casas, MX to Comitán de Domínguez, MX

We ate our Frosted Flakes for breakfast in the hostel’s kitchen, then got on our way after finding a ATM to get some cash at a plaza on the edge of town. The Pan-American Highway was a bit hilly here, but nowhere near as tough as the Chiapas Highlands of the previous two days. The surrounding terrain was mountainous with pine forests; if you just looked around at the hilltops, you could image that you were in the Pacific Northwest.

We had a nice little descent into the city of Teopisca, where we stopped for a second breakfast. There were two other men having a meal there; one was wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers jacket.

We did some more mild hill-climbing in the early afternoon, and then a tremendous thunderstorm started. We tried riding through it for a bit, but it was too heavy and too cold, so we stopped and took shelter at the top of the hill where we happened to be, where there happened to be a half-constructed shell of a new convenience store.

The rain only came down harder as we waited under the tin roof of the shelter. A couple of taxis stopped to drop off local residents, and they waited under the shelter with us. One of them happened to be a man and his young son; the man said that he was the owner of the store being built, and his house was just up the slope of the hill behind us. He started using a bucket and the rainwater to rinse off the floor of his store, helped by his boy and some other young children who where there waiting for the rain to pass. I took some video of the boys, and they were quite tickled to watch it on my camera afterwards.

Finally, the rain let up, and thankfully, the road was mostly downhill for the last 20 or so kilometers into Comitán de Domínguez. As we rode the streets of the town looking for place to stay, a man poked his head out of his front door to ask if we needed any help. He spoke English very well; he told us that he was born in Texas, but has lived in Mexico for over 35 years, teaching English at the local university. He recommended a hostel just down the street, which we found and checked into promptly. It had shared bathrooms, but the room was very clean and quaint, and the price was right. Although not as much of a tourist destination, this city seemed to be another good stop for travelers on a budget, with lots of inexpensive hotels and hostels, like San Cristobol.

We explored the surrounding streets for a while, and stopped at a bakery for a couple of donuts, and then at a bar for a drink. We picked up more milk and another box of Frosted Flakes for breakfast, and after we dropped them off at our room, we were about to pick one of the limited choices for dinner in the area, when we decided to take a small side street. We were glad we did, as this led us to the as-yet-undiscovered main town plaza, where there was the usual crowd of people enjoying the evening, plus lots of restaurants, night clubs, and stores. We picked a nice restaurant on the plaza, and enjoyed our meal while listening to several mariachi bands audition for the locals.

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Day 47: Ocosingo, MX to San Cristobol de las Casas, MX

We got an early start after eating breakfast at the hotel. We planned to buy our usual daily supply of water on the way out of town, but it was too early, and none of the stores were open yet. We had a little left over from the previous day, so we continued on our way.

The hills of the Chiapas Highlands were just as tough as yesterday. The inital 50km stretch seemed to be almost all uphill, until we were able to coast to our lunch stop in the city of Oxchuc. I thought I was ordering a fried chicken filet, but I ended up getting chicken stew, but it was good anyway. Ray got chicken with some mole sauce that was incredible. Before getting going again, we were able to stock up on water at a mini-super next to the cafe.

The climbing continued again, until finally we had a 5km descent into the village of Huixtán. It started raining, so we ducked under a bus stop shelter to keep dry. We noticed it was almost 3:00pm, about the same time as we had to make a decision yesterday. Just then, a pickup truck for hire pulled up, so we waved and jumped in, having learned our lesson. The rain stayed pretty steady as the highway climbed some more, then cleared up as we finally descended to the city of San Cristobol de las Casas.

We rode into the central area of town. We stopped into inquire about the rate at the first hotel we saw. It was a good deal, and looked to be a nice place, but while I was waiting outside, a buy handed me a pamphlet for a youth hostel a few block away. It looked nice, and the price was even better, so we decided to go look for it. On the way, it started raining again, but there were a lot of other hotels and hostels in the area, and we found one that was nice and cheap before we could find the one we were originally looking for.

This town seemed to be even more of a tourist destination than Palenque, as we saw many Americans and Europeans. The large number of hostels also makes it a great stop for cyclists, backpackers, and other travelers on a budget. The scenery in the city includes a lot of historic architecture from the Spanish colonial period. There is also a several-block area with many upscale shops and restaurants. We eventually found a nice but moderately-priced restaurant, and enjoyed a very good meal before heading back to the hostel. We stopped at a store and bought a carton of milk and a box of Frosted Flaked (a.k.a. “Zucharitas”) to eat for breakfast. We ended up getting a little lost on the way, and flagged down a taxi. He drove us about a block and a half to the hostel, so we ended up being closer than we thought!

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Day 46: Palenque, MX to Ocosingo, MX

The hotel had American-style breakfast options, so we ordered some pancakes and eggs, then checked out and headed down the road. Just a few miles south of Palenque is a Mayan archeological site, so we took the detour to go check it out. In the parking area for the site, one of the private for-hire guides approached us to offer his services. As we told him about where we were from, he mentioned that his brother lives in Kent, Ohio; he runs a translation services business there. Yet another small world incident. We didn’t want to spend too much time at the site, though, so we bought our tickets and went in on our own.

We had asked last night and this morning about options for lodging along this route. There are a few resort hotels south of Palenque near the archeological region, but no hotels or anything along the route until the city of Ocosingo, which is about the mid-point of Route 199. So, we had to do the best we could to make time to get to Ocosingo before dark.

As we proceeded down Route 199, the terrain became very steep and hilly. It was very beautiful, but very challenging. We stopped and ate pollo asado at a roadside stand about 25 miles in. Mid-afternoon, around 3:00pm or so, we stopped to take a break at a convenience store, and figured that we had about 30 miles to go until Ocosingo. Our choices were to keep going, or catch one of the microbuses that seemed to be passing on a pretty regular basis. I looked at my bike computer, and figured that we had averaged a little less than 10 miles per hour so far, so we decided that if we hustled, we could make it.

The steep hills continued unrelentlessly, and it started to look like a thunderstorm was coming as well, which made the daylight fade a little faster than we had expected. With about 19 miles to go, the rain came, and we stopped to take shelter at another convenience store. It was almost completely dark by now, and because of either that, or the rain, none of the buses or trucks that we flagged down were willing to stop.

We talked to the family who ran the store, and the owner had a pickup truck. We asked how much would he want for a ride into Ocosingo, and he said 300 pesos. A little steeper than we had hoped, but we had no other option, so we agreed.

During the drive of the final stretch to Ocosingo, the hills were just as bad, if not worse, than what we had pedaled all day, and we realized that we probably could not have made it all the way, even if it had not started raining. We might possibly have made it were it not for the stop to see the ruins, but it still would have been a close call.

We got dropped off near the center of town, and we found a hotel right around the corner. It was a bit more expensive than we would have liked, but we didn’t have the time or the energy to go exploring at the moment. We got cleaned up, had some dinner at the hotel restaurant, then took a walk around to explore the town and got a few taquitos to supplement our dinner.

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Day 45: Villahermosa, MX to Palenque, MX

After breakfast at the hotel, we asked for directions out of the city from the staff. We think they either steered us wrong, or else we missed something. We intended to head staight south from the city, where we would take Route 195 for a couple of days, which would connect us to the Pan-American Highway just east of Tuxla Gutierrez. We rode about 10 miles, and ended up near the airport, and realized we were on the wrong track. Our option was either to back track to the city and find the correct road, or continue east on our present route, and eventually take Route 199 South to connect to the Pan-American Highway.

I had looked at a couple of guide books for Mexico back in a book store in Austin, and one thing that stood out in my mind was that one of them mentioned Route 199, between Palenque and San Cristobol de las Casas, as being the road through the Chiapas Highlands that is notorious for bandits and kidnapping activity. I had planned all along that this is one road to be avoided.

We asked for directions at a nearby convenience store. The man we spoke to said that parts of our originally-intended route were closed due to flooding, and our only choice was to take Route 199 from Palenque. He said that it’s a much more scenic and interesting route anyway, and assured us that it was safe, as long as we only traveled during the daytime.

So, we continued east, and at some point crossed the border into the state of Chiapas, our fourth Mexican state. It was a hot day, and the road was narrow, made worse by more construction, with rough lanes and sometimes single lanes for about 10km. We finally arrived at the turnoff for Route 199, near the town of Catazaja. Ray arrived a little ahead of me, and started talking to a microbus (taxi van) driver about the route; during the conversation, the driver mentioned that he could take both of us the final 26km to Palenque for only 50 pesos. So we agreed, and loaded our panniers into the van as the driver tied them to the top of the van with rope. We had to wait a few minutes for some other passengers; when the van was full, we were on our way.

The driver took us to the center of Palenque, and dropped us off in front of a very nice hotel with an attached pizzeria restaurant. We checked in, showered, and ordered dinner, before heading out to explore the town. We saw more non-Mexican tourists in this town than anywhere else so far; most appeared to be Europeans. The town was pleasant, including the usual public square full of people and activity.

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Day 44: Cárdenas, MX to Villahermosa, MX

The route was all highway again today, for a short ride into the city of Villahermosa. We made our way to the Hotel Camino Real, which had been set up for us again by the good folks at Sherwin-Williams. It was probably the nicest hotel of all on the trip. After checking in and getting showered, we took a walk around the area, and got some lunch at a cafe.

Nearby was a Sanborn’s, which is one of Mexico’s largest chain stores. I imagine it’s like what Woolworth’s used to be in the early 1900’s–a small department store with an attached cafe and bar. We stopped in to get a good cup of coffee. After that, we walked down the street of the hotel, which appeared to be the trendy night life area, with a lot of night clubs and such, but it was still mid-day, so not much was open. Back near the hotel, we stopped in another Sanborn’s which was inside the shopping mall that was attached to the hotel. Later we had dinner in the hotel.

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