02.27.2003-03.12.2003       Bethel, Guatemala to Quetzaltenano, Guatemala
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I hadn’t thought much of Frontera Corazul but Bethel was simply a dump. It consisted of a few dirt roads, a few buildings and the rockiest soccer field I’ve ever seen. I found what passed as the immigrations office and stepped inside. No one was present so I waited until the officer arrived. She looked at my passport and told me I had a problem. I had come to Guatemala the previous year to study Spanish and somehow hadn’t received an exit stamp when I’d left. She said there would be a fine of $25 for this. I said this was ridiculous and argued with her for some time. She wouldn’t budge so I finally agreed to the fine. Then she told me that since there were no banks in Bethel she was unable to accept payment. I would have to go to the closest immigrations office with a bank, which happened to be in Flores, nearly a hundred miles away and partially in the opposite direction of my planned travels. This was absurd and I told her as much. She held fast. We had reached a stalemate. Fortunately, my persistence was about to pay off. I had prolonged the process well past closing time and when the official realized this she abruptly stamped my passport and ushered me out the door. Outside, she actually became quite friendly and gave me some useful information on lodging possibilities. That night I camped outside of town at a posada. The posada bordered some jungle and the ominous sounds of howler monkeys kept me awake through most of the night. I therefore had a groggy start the next morning and after returning to town managed to miss the unsigned turn to El Subin. When I realized this I simply chuckled. In a way the state of the town, my experiences at immigrations and the condition of the roads were reassuring signs. Mexico had been a bit too straightforward. Everything basically went as planned. This wasn’t necessarily bad but I’ve always felt half the fun of traveling lies in the unexpected.

I had hoped that by taking one of the “back-door” crossings into El Peten I might have the opportunity to ride through some jungle. Sadly, the roadside scenery was not so different from that I’d been riding through in Chiapas days earlier--cleared ranch land. However, the villagers were more friendly and it felt good to be back on gravel so I was happy. After nearly fifty miles of gravel I joined a newly paved highway. Horses outnumbered cars and the pavement abruptly ended on the banks of the River of Passion, the town of Sayaxche spreading out over the opposite banks. I boarded a car ferry and was amazed to find that the captain was able to maneuver this barge-like boat across the river with only a single outboard motor at his disposal. Sayaxche was the starting point for boat rides to the Mayan ruins of Ceibal. My guidebook described the passage along the River of Passion as “junglebound” so I was hoping the river would provide the jungle experience that the highway had failed to provide. But the “more cows, less jungle” mentality was in force along the river as well. The ruins again were nothing special but after Tikal and Palenque, what is? Before returning to our boat we took a side trail and happened upon some partially excavated/restored and then abandoned ruins surrounded by thick jungle. These were more in line with our expectations and afterwards we felt better about our outing.

The next day, back on the bike, I passed from the state of El Peten to the state of Alta Verapaz(and how shall I thank thee?). The geography changed from gently rolling to hilly and I soon felt like I was in Thailand, as hills with limestone faces jutted out of the landscape. My disappointment at the lack of jungle in El Peten was soon replaced by the good feeling that comes from the unexpected, in this case the splendid scenery of Alta Verapaz. By the time I reached the outskirts of Fray Bartolome de Las Casas I had covered a fair amount of distance and done a lot of gravel. I still felt good but I was about to feel much better for Fray greeted me with an irresistible stream. I hopped in and soon the rigors of the day’s ride had left me. The next day I rode into the hills-mountains en route to the fabled Lanquin. I passed numerous Indigenous villages along the way and seemed to be Sunday afternoon entertainment for the inhabitants. I especially liked it when I came upon some children unawares on the road. Their initial reaction would be to run away in sheer terror but as soon as they had attained a safe distance they would stop, look back at me and erupt into uncontrolled laughter. It was an unforgiving ride so I was happy for the distractions as well. The road leading from the “main” highway to Lanquin climbed for a bit and then descended steeply. I watched helplessly as the feet dropped off my altimeter, erasing my labor for the day. I knew I would have to return up this route and the thought of this future physical hardship left me frustrated. I was not happy when I finally arrived in Lanquin and having to bike past town to El Retiro, my final destination/accommodations, didn’t help. However, El Retiro is a mood-altering kind of place. What I had expected to be a simple guesthouse turned out to be a set of cabanas spread over beautiful grounds along a river. I was greeted with a “Welcome to Paradise” from Raven, one of the resident traveler-turned-temp workers. The sun was setting over the green valley and at that moment I couldn’t have agreed more. I had planned to stay two nights but ended up staying four. The main attraction in the area is Semuc Champey, a collection of multi-colored pools formed as water from the Cahabon river passes over a limestone bridge. More strenuous riding brought me to the pools, which I had to share with only a handful of other tourists. Experiencing such natural splendor unencumbered by masses of tourists or peddlers had become rare on the trip so I cherished the moment.

From Lanquin I cycled to Coban, my first proper city in Guatemala. At El Retiro I had met two motorcyclists, Chris and Erin from New York, who are nearing the end of their four year journey(Ultimate Journey). We met again in Coban and spent some time together. They shared experiences from their travels in South America so I was grateful for the encounter. My recent travels on gravel had reminded of the unique experiences that road surface provides. I wasn’t ready to return to pavement and there was a classic ravel route from Coban to Huehuetenango, promising three days of rough roads, punishing terrain and traditional villages. I had thought three days would allow for a somewhat leisurely pace but distance underestimates by my map meant three full days of rugged travel. In Uspantan I crossed paths with another cyclist, a Canadian named Jonathon. This encounter came as a surprise to both of us, given the remoteness of our location. We did what crossing cyclists do on such routes--we shared information regarding exactly where the big climbs started and ended. I also learned from him that a German cyclist on the Alaska-Argentina route was a day or two ahead of me. Jonathon passed on to me the cyclist’s e-mail address and web site. Several days later I looked at the web site and instantly recognized the cyclist. I had seen him in Denali during the first week of my trip but had been unable to meet him.

I spent my second night In Sacupulas and was somewhat surprised to find another traveler staying at the hotel. A solo female backpacker from Holland, she was somewhat stranded in Sacupulas and was grateful at the sight of another traveler. It was Sunday afternoon and the streets were littered with drunk people so she was glad to have some safe company. I was looking forward to a tranquil afternoon/night of rest and journaling so I can’t say the feeling was reciprocated. However, this was a situation that was becoming common for me in Guatemala. This didn’t happen in Mexico. Roads were good and buses usually ran on time. Backpackers didn’t get stuck in towns like Sacupulas, bikers did. I noted that the town I’d spent in the previous night in, Chicaman, had been the first town in Guatemala where I’d been the only traveler. And I hadn’t even planned on staying there. Impending darkness had prevented me from reaching my intended destination of Uspantan.

From Huehuetenango I joined the Inter-American highway. I had been dreading this transition but initially traffic was light, the pavement smooth and fast and the hillsides still had a fair number of pine trees. By afternoon these observations could no longer be made and another map error had added twelve more hilly miles to my ride. I arrived in Quetzaltenango nearly at dusk and felt completely exhausted. The first order of business in Guatemala’s second city would be rest. In the previous four rides I had covered only 170 miles but amassed nearly four miles in elevation gain.
DistanceElevation GainFlat Tires
Leg414 mi/666 km41020 ft/13458 m5
Trip9927 mi/15975 km105 mi/169 km11
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