03.13.2003-04.06.2003 Quetzaltenango, Guatemala to Tegucigalpa, Honduras|
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|After weeks of villages and provincial towns Quetzaltenango, Guatemala's second city, was a bit of a shock. Images of Mayans trekking up impossible hillsides with their bundles of firewood were replaced by images of McDonalds and Dominoes. The rugged riding of the past weeks had raised my conditioning to a level not reached since British Columbia. Perhaps, then, it was no coincidence that the last proper climbs I had done were in that region as well. Surrounded by towering volcanic peaks, Quetzltenango offered plenty of challenging climbs. After a proper rest day I joined a group heading up the volcano Santa Maria. Our group consisted of an elderly Aussie couple, a Welsh/Dutch couple(Bob and Henry) and myself. Early on the Aussies proved unworthy and our guide very diplomatically sent them back down. The climb was a stiff one and we were on all fours before achieving the summit. The views from the top were fine but the real treat lay a short hike down the opposite side. From an overlook we were able to look down into the crater of Santiagito, an active volcano some 3000 ft. below. By then clouds had moved in, mostly obstructing the view of the crater. The volcano promises an eruption every thirty minutes but we didn't have to wait that long. First there was a rumble and then a cloud of grey ash rose gracefully through the white clouds above the crater. At that moment all present knew the climb had been worth the effort. We rested and watched several more eruptions before beginning the tedious descent. Back in Quetzaltenango Bob, Henry and I celebrated our accomplishment with a drink, which soon turned into several. Another rest/drink day followed and then I was back on the road.
My next stop was Chichicastenango, home of a huge twice-weekly Indigenous market. Market day is the main attraction but my arrival the day before market day allowed me to witness all the preparations. Throughout the afternoon and night villagers arrived to set up their stalls and set up camp for the night. I ran into Bob and Henry again with the usual consequences. On market day the plaza was packed and the market spread out into the surrounding streets. Not in the mood for shopping, I was content to just walk around and take in all the brilliant colors. From Chichi it was once again a single day's ride to the next destination, Antigua. Scenery along the Pan-Am was again superb and I was beginning to wonder if there would be a single dull ride in Guatemala.
Antigua was not an unfamiliar place. I had spent four weeks there the previous year studying Spanish. Yet I did not mind spending more time there. Blessed with a near perfect climate and a beautiful setting Antigua is hard not to like. One of the main excursions from Antigua is a climb up the active volcano Pocaya. I had done the climb the previous year but thought that it might be more enjoyable with my leg completely back in one piece. I joined a group and with them climbed the approach to the cone. Sadly, fierce winds led our guide to deny us the summit. However, Antigua, like Quetzaltenango, is surrounded by several volcanos. At my hotel I had encountered Jason, another Welshman who I had first met in Lanquin. He was also keen for a climb so we caught a bus to the village of Santa Maria and hired a local guide to take us up the volcano Agua. My intended route out of Antigua passed through Santa Maria but as we gained a vantage point of the area I could see no road continuing past the village. I asked our guide if he could point out the road to me. He replied that there was no road. I told him that my map indicated that there was and told him of my intentions to cycle it. He told me there was a path that I could cycle on but no traffic traveled on it due to its ruggedness. He also said there were many thieves along that stretch. I asked him if a machete would be sufficient defense. He said I'd better have a firearm. Or a lot of luck. I didn't want to stretch my luck so during the climb I began thinking of alternate routes. From the top I viewed the road leading south from Antigua, gradually sloping down to the Pacific. I hadn't had any easy rides in Guatemala so this was one was especially attractive. The only problem was I intended to exit Guatemala to the ruins of Copan in Honduras. The route below would take me down to the Pacific Highway and on to El Salvador. But I didn't dwell on this for there were other distractions from the top, namely the erupting volcano Fuego in the distance. The clouds were starting to move in below but our views of the surrounding volcanos were clear. Just as on Santa Maria a week earlier, I reflected on how fortunate I was to have the opportunity to witness such grandeur. We continued our circuit of the crater and were treated to more great views, most notably that of Pocaya in the distance.
From Antigua I decided to head to El Salvador, thinking I could always swing up to Honduras later. From the highlands to the tropics I went again, and how effortless was that transition. Prior to entering Guatemala I had been somewhat apprehensive about leaving behind the relative safety of North America for Central America. However, after nearly four weeks of nothing but good experiences in Guatemala my comfort level was high. This was good because I was headed into probably the least safe country in Central America. Starting at the border I noticed the enormous amount of pride the El Salvadorans have in their country. When the immigration officer asked me how much time I needed on my visa I told him two weeks would be plenty. He suggested thirty days. He then asked me if I were carrying a map, suggesting that if I weren't perhaps I didn't appreciate the grandeur of his country. I assured him I was carrying a map. Nonetheless, he added another ten days to my visa. I wondered how I could possibly spend forty days cycling around El Salvador, a country the size of the state of Massachusetts. The heat was oppressive near the coast so I was eager to get back in the highlands. From Sonsonate I embarked on the Route of Flowers, a route which would take me through El Salvador's main coffee growing region and to its highest town, Apaneca. I intended to stay in Apaneca but it proved an unwelcoming town so I continued on to Ahuachapan. The next day I stopped in the town of Chachulipa to visit the Mayan ruins at Tazumal. These are the most important Mayan ruins in El Salvador but I knew not to expect much, other than a nice place for a rest. The ruins were not spectacular but I was impressed by the attendance. By the time I left the small park was packed with school children and no small number of adults as well.
Another reason for my entry into El Salvador was to pay a visit to the family of a friend of my family´s back in Minnesota. I made a short detour on the Pan-Am to the town of Candelaria de la Frontera. There I was treated to fine food and accommodations by Maria Antonia and her family. On the Pan-Am I witnessed a level of vigilance not seen elsewhere. In Guatemala I had grown accustomed to seeing someone ride "shotgun" in almost all of the large trucks. On the Pan-Am in El Salvador I saw trucks that not only had someone riding "shotgun" but also had an escort of one or two private security pick-ups, each loaded with a half-dozen armed men. This did little to improve my comfort level. I wondered if those private security services offered a similar service for Pan-American cyclists. I took a rest at Lake Coatepeque, a large crater lake southwest of Santa Ana. I'd been feeling a bit off physically for the past week and the lake's tranquil setting helped rejuvenate me. I stayed at a friendly guesthouse and there encountered the only two travelers I would see in El Salvador. Not surprisingly, I had met them several weeks earlier in Lanquin. From the lake I headed to Honduras. I'd planned to overnight in Aguilares but it proved a most unwelcoming place so I continued on and up to the more tourist-orientated La Palma. People were exceptionally friendly and sincere there so I was glad my last night in El Salvador would be a memorable one. I had only spent a week in El Salvador but the memories I would take away would be such as that. I'd remember the school boy who asked me if I were a Gringo and what it meant. I'd remember the young shop attendant who asked me to say Hi to her friend in Panorama City(part of LA) when I returned to California.
Last summer, before I embarked on this journey, I met some friends at a bar in San Francisco for a sort of farewell gathering. Part of the night's festivities included a trivia game intended to test my knowledge of the countries I would be passing through on my bicycle. The attendees took turns asking me questions and for each incorrect answer I provided I had to drink an amount of tequila. I don't remember much from that evening but one piece of trivia stayed with me. The question was, What is the most mountainous country in Central America? I think I answered Guatemala. The correct answer was Honduras. And so on my first ride in that country it was no great surprise that I broke my single day elevation gain record, a record which had stood since July 13th. The rural population density in Honduras is much lower than in Guatemala and El Salvador so I experienced a pleasant change in riding conditions after crossing the border. My route took me through a string of small colonial towns, first up to Santa Rosa de Copan, and then down through Gracias and La Esperanza. Few tourists travel this route, making the quaint towns all the more refreshing to visit. And although unendingly hilly, the riding was refreshing as well, often taking me through areas thick with pine trees and thin with people. In Gracias I took a day off to visit Celaque National Park, one of Hondura's finest parks. I shared the entire park with a few other travelers and remarked on how nice it was to go for a hike without the need for a guide or vigilance against bandits.
After La Esperanza I eventually dropped into the hot, arid Comayagua Valley and joined the main highway leading to Tegucigalpa. I had bypassed Guatemala City and San Salvador so Tegucigalpa was the first Central American capital I visited on bike. The city, like most of the country, is very hilly and the lack of a proper street grid and signs made gaining entry into the center a physical and mental challenge. After walking around a bit I had to admit that Tegucigalpa was the first city I'd been in where the presence of McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, etc. actually improved the image of the downtown area. Their presence also made Tegucigalpa a good place to fatten up. Given the lack of variety in the food, I'd found keeping my weight up in Central America to be a most difficult task.
|Distance||Elevation Gain||Flat Tires|
|Leg||704 mi/1132 km||63480 ft/20826 m||2|
|Trip||10631 mi/17108 km||117 mi/188 km||13||