Monday, March 30, 2015

A Great Big Volcano Island, March 26-29

Before leaving our hostel in Granada, we jumped in the pool with our clothes on.  Always easier to beat the heat when you're already wet!  The coolness didn't last long though; by mid morning the heat was going full blast but was minimized, fortunately, by the strong winds.  Whenever the land narrows, it seems winds get strong.  The same thing happened at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, aka the skinny part of Mexico.  So progress was slow, and we made it to Rivas, then the port of San Jorge in the early afternoon, just in time for the 3:30 boat to the Isla de Ometepe! 

All morning the Volcán Concepción had been looking over our shoulder.  It forms half of the Isla de Ometepe, the big island in huge Lake Nicaragua, the other half belonging to Volcán Maderas and the two being joined by a narrow strip of land.  Though Maderas is extinct, Volcán Concepción is still active, and recent lava flows can clearly be seen on its picture-perfect conical slopes.  Our ferry pushed through the wind-whipped lake to Moyogalpa, on the west side of the island, and, as the sun would set soon, we quickly biked out of town to Finca Samaria, a farm some friends recommended for camping.  We spent a quiet night on the beach, lulled to sleep by the soft waves.

The owners of the farm were really nice, and talking with them provided an interesting start to our day.  I wanted to hear especially what they thought of the new canal already under construction through Nicaragua.  It would severely hurt the ecology of the lake, not to mention the noise and sight pollution of huge tankers chugging by, so not surprisingly, our new friends were adamantly against the canal.  Hopefully Nicaragua's rights and future were and continue to be considered in the planning and undertaking of this project.

Our first stop of the day was at Reserva Charco Verde, a forest and lagoon with some short hiking trails.  We didn't see many birds, just a lot of jays, but that was okay because there were MONKEYS!  We had a great time gawking at their agility in the trees and how they use that wonderful prehensile tail as a fifth limb.  
Howler Monkey

Reserva Charco Verde

A few more kilometers down the road took us to the Volcán Maderas side of the island, the east side, where we set up at another farm, Finca Magdalena, on the slopes of the volcano.  At the restaurant we ordered big plates of plain rice and added our own veggies, beans, and some seasonings! Then an early bedtime for an early start in the morning.

True to our plan, we got up early.  But instead of packing the bikes, we put on our hiking clothes and started to climb the volcano!  The forest on the lower slopes was dry, and we saw tons of yellow-naped parrots and more monkeys, including a new kind: the white-faced capuchin.  Up higher the forest turned humid, and even higher we hit the clouds and the according cloud forest.  By the top the trail was muddy, the air cool and windy, and the surrounding forest incredibly dense.  No more could we see any birds, just the trees and vines immediately around us, until the path opened up to an overlook.  Down below us in the volcano's crater was a brownish lagoon, which stretched to the far side where, above, loomed the summit.  
The canopy was so thick that it looked as if we could walk on the leaves like a broad, green floor.  I think the trail continues to the summit, but we were happy just watching the clouds roll in and change shapes under the influence of the strong winds.  

After the descent, almost 30 km of riding took us back to Finca Samaria, where we enjoyed a massive dinner and an early bedtime.

Although the ferry back to the mainland was not running at the time we had hoped, and once we got started the wind was a strong headwind, after a few hours we made it to the border with Costa Rica!  
Leaving Nicaragua was the hardest part of any border crossing yet, and Costa Rica was super easy; if anything, we had hoped for a longer wait entering Costa Rica because the office was air conditioned!  

After the border, we didn't quite make it to the first town and asked a family to camp in their backyard.  They acquiesced, no problem, and as we were preparing dinner, we heard a buzzing sound from above.  We both looked up for a moment then resumed our activities, probably just normal sounds of the forest at dusk.  Unfortunately, a moment later, a bee flew into Tam's hair, and she started freaking out.  I got up to try and help her but quickly realized there were bees around me, too, and we ran together up a little hill and out to the road, where the family whose house we were camping behind helped pull the bees out of Tam's hair and make sure there were no more.  We both got stung a few times, but no harm done.  We still have no idea why they attacked us.  Later, as we were moving our stuff to a new spot, a troupe of monkeys swung by in the trees above.  So wonderful that these people have monkeys in their backyard!  Can you imagine eating dinner on your back deck and watching monkeys swinging around?!

Cooking and eating was moved to inside the tent, and we enjoyed a huge dinner of noodles, beans, veggies, and cheese, followed up by some PB&J sandwiches and an interesting Stuff You Should Know podcast on homeschooling.  Then, as we were about to leave the tent to brush our teeth, I noticed that the ground outside was covered with ants.  The sides, too, was swarming with them.  Not swarming, actually, because that implies disarray.  The ants had come out as darkness fell and were clearly following a line, a thoroughfare in the middle of which we had, unfortunately, put our tent!  Being resourceful creatures, they had found a way around the blockade: through our stuff.  We figured we would deal with that in the morning.  The wilds of Costa Rica, bees, monkeys, and ants, greeted us with the biggest welcome they could muster, and, while all of that interests me quite a bit, I was happy to have some mesh in between myself and them while sleeping.

In the morning the ants were gone, but looking at the grass, I could see where the millions of tiny steps every night had worn a path.  Next time we'll look for that.  Some rain kept the morning ride cool, and we arrived soon in the small town of La Cruz, where we found an ATM to take out some colones, the local currency.  One problem: we had no idea what the exchange rate was!  It wasn't in our guidebook, and we had no way of getting internet.  The middle option of the displayed amounts should be a good bet.  We were estimating it to be somewhere in the hundreds, like the other Central American currencies, so you can imagine my shock when Tam came out and showed me a 10,000 colon bill!  It turned out to be the equivalent of roughly $20, so we weren't quite as rich as I originally thought.

A few more kilometers brought us to Parque Nacional Santa Rosa, where we paid $15 each (!) to get in.  Each subsequent day would be another $15 each, plus the nightly price of a campsite.  If we want to have any money left over for the rest of our trip, we won't be doing the National Park tour of Costa Rica.  Santa Rosa was very nice, however, a dry tropical forest, and we were warmly greeted by Tam's friend Daniel, who works here studying monkeys.  
Daniel estimating the percentage of leaf cover for the tree above

We had a great day walking around with him and learning about the project, which researches the costs and benefits of being an alpha male white-faced capuchin monkey.  Plus we saw the most amazing bird I have ever seen: a keel-billed toucan!  Many thanks to Daniel and the whole research team for having us here!
Daniel and Tam

Keel-billed Toucan
Photo credit:

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Hot and Historic March 22nd-25th

March 22nd 
Rest day in Leon! This city is filled with beautiful cathedrals, including the largest one in Central America! We do a bit of exploring and purchase some delicious fruits and veggies at the large market. 
Giant avocado!

Photo credit:

In the afternoon we meet some fellow travelers at our hostel, Hannah and Dave. Turns out it's Dave's birthday today! We use this as an excuse to make extravagant ice cream sundaes. While enjoying these treats we meet some other travelers, Elliott and James, who happen to know Jake Preston (a friend from High Trails). This random connection inspires an evening full of funny stories. 
New friends, and Jesus of course. 

March 23rd 
We sleep in a bit, enjoying our quiet room. Heading out of the city there's a lot of traffic, but thankfully we have a nice shoulder. The only other vehicles we have to pass are several horse drawn wagons. Although this at first seems outdated, these people are certainly better off than those we saw in Guatemala who carry everything on their backs.
After a while, our road curves and traffic decreases. There is a lot of construction going on. We pass several areas where the two lane road becomes one lane but there are no signs or flaggers. It seems that the person who honks the loudest has the right of way. The scenery is remarkably remote. This is the first place in Central America where we haven't seen houses lining the road. Instead we pass large quiet farms and ranch land. It's quite nice. Progress is slow however due to a number of steep hills, a headwind, and typical extremely hot weather. 
Not a bad place to take a break

Late afternoon we pull up to a small store to get things for dinner and start talking to a guy named Carlos. He overheard that we were looking for a place to camp, and immediately offered the yard of his house. We were quite lucky to meet him! His house is beautiful, with a tremendous view over Managua, the lake and volcanos. He owns two personable scarlet macaws and three tiny Doberman pinchers. Most importantly, he's a great guy with lots of interesting stories. After attending college in Iowa, he lived and worked in the US for many more years and won a number of important law cases, including one in which he sued the casinos of Los Vegas! Quite a character. 

March 24th
It's cool and windy all night, a nice change from the usual hot, stuffy weather. For breakfast Carlos shares a delicious watermelon with us. Then it's time for goodbyes, thanks again Carlos! And we roll out. Our day begins with a descent to the outskirts of Managua, and then, since we're not going into the city, we turn and immediately begin to climb back out of the valley. It turns into, a hot, long, steep climb that we weren't really expecting. Luckily, we have delicious fresh tortillas, cheese, and mangos to sustain us. At the top our road skirts an extremely windy ridgeline where we can see the ocean! Thankfully, as we begin to descend, the wind diminishes a little. We stop for a lunch of rice and beans in a small town. After lunch we pass at least 30 shops selling furniture. If only we needed a new rocking chair! There are so many choices. Even though we haven't done a lot of mileage, the heat is very draining. We are ecstatic to discover that the last 20km are all downhill! Once in Granada it's easy to find a cheap hostel for the night. We meet two friendly travelers, Rachel and Jen, and make a fantastic dinner of pasta and veggies. 

March 25th 
We need another break from the heat so we're taking today to enjoy the pool at our hostel and do some errands. We decided to buy some corn flour and make our own tortillas as well! For our first try, they turned out pretty well. 
Rachel with one of the parrots who resides here. 

Granada is yet another city filled with beautiful old architecture and a bustling market. 

The beautiful central cathedral
What a sunset!

Check out Danny's flicker page as well!

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Hola and Adios, El Salvador - March 16-21

Our route through El Salvador

We woke up early in Guatemala and found ourselves an hour later standing in El Salvador!  Same as crossing into Guatemala, only easier: no stamp needed, no payment necessary.  El Salvador is a member of the CA-4 zone, in whose borders foreign visitors from certain countries, including the U.S, can visit for 90 days without a visa.  The other countries are Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, meaning the Nicaragua border crossing should be easy too!  Fingers crossed.  We have read stories of long waits and expensive fees at all these borders, but perhaps that's because they were crossing with more than a bicycle.

The road in El Salvador was great, too: huge shoulder, smooth surface for the most part, rivers and mango trees here and there providing shade, it was a nice morning.  
It did get hot eventually though, and we ate the majority of a watermelon to combat the heat.  The rest we gave to the extremely nice family we bought it from.

Down the road we ran into Elmar and Ellen, two cyclists from Holland who have been on the road now for 18 months and have cycled many of the roads we aim to do in the next year.  Talking to them, people who are our type of crazy, was refreshing.  Then the heat returned with zigzagging hills.  
Now we were on the Costa Balsamo, named for the fragrant bark of a tree that grows (used to, anyway) in this area.  The coast reminded me a lot of California with its rocky cliffs, beautiful coves and remote beaches.  Like here, California also has giant mansions above the crashing surf, but less pronounced is the poverty.  Many families here live in wood and tin houses right next to the road, and even with the tourism that the perfect surfing breaks have brought, they haven't seen much change.  We stopped at one such village, Playa El Zonte, where upscale hotels share walls with tiny cottages, and we were able to pitch our tent in a guy's yard next to the beach for $5.  We paid in US dollars, El Salvador's currency since 2001.  
Part of El Zonte Beach

I wanted to have some fish, being that we were on the beach, and when it showed up, it was a whole fish, head and everything!  I'm definitely of the school of thought that if you're going to eat meat, you should be able to handle seeing the animal being killed or dead in its full form.  And here I had an opportunity to apply my ideology.  It went well, but separating the meat from the bones was quite an ordeal.  I'll stick to fish tacos.

The next morning we slept in a little bit (until 7:30!) at our little spot next to the waves, despite the roosters crowing incessantly.  Maybe I've gotten used to the strident cock-a-doodle-doos, but I can't say I'll miss them when they're gone.  Along with the roosters, there were two ornery geese, greater white-fronted geese, that got very territorial whenever anyone walked by.  They would lower their long necks, grunting and hissing loudly to display their aggression.  They meant it to be serious, but it looked really funny because they're not intimidating in any way.  When they hissed at me, I faced them down, spreading my arms wide and hissing louder.  They're big geese, but I was bigger by far.  Surely they would back down.  But no, after a minute of impasse, the male emitted a great honk and charged me!  I ran the other direction as it nipped at my legs, narrowly escaping its wrath.  I avoided that area for the rest of the day, accepting my part as the omega male in the goose hierarchy, but other people walking by, mostly locals, kept them busy.  I watched one of the geese charge a local woman at one point, and she grabbed it by the neck and threw it away from her into the air!  The goose glided to the ground, apparently unhurt and unfazed, as it continued its honking.  Clearly this is not a new game.

When not getting attacked by geese, we spent our day attempting to surf and eating pupusas, which are like quesadillas with closed edges about the size of a pancake.  They're 50 cents each, making it probably more economical to eat out, and we took advantage.  After our meal, more attempted surfing, and some bike maintenance (everything likes to break at once), we biked about 10 km to a new beach, El Tunco.  This is the popular party beach, but nothing was going on and we just walked around and ate more pupusas and ice cream.
El Tunco's location 

The ride from El Tunco the next day took us away from the beach on relatively uninteresting flats all the way to the relatively uninteresting city of Usulutan, where we stayed in a sketchy little hotel.  It was worth it, though: air conditioning!  Because we were in a rough area of town, we spent way too much money on delicious, delivery cheese pizza, which we proceeded to cover with a mishmash of our own toppings.
Yes, those are tomatoes, onions, green peppers, and a slab of cheese on the left.  Much improved.

Our next day took us over a legitimate mountain pass, albeit a small one, to the house of the friendliest cyclist in El Salvador, Jose.  He lived about half his life in Quebec, returning 11 years ago to his native country to see what it was all about, and he hasn't left since.  
Jose took us out for some delicious pupusas then lent us his car so we could go to a nearby beach, El Cuco, while he worked on his future house.  When we returned, we made a bunch of pasta, four packets, which would be our breakfast, too.  But Jose's wife apparently thought we made it for everyone because there was so much, so everyone took some.  Oh well, she's not a cyclist so I can't expect her to know the immense quantity of food that cyclists devour daily.  I think it's also a cultural thing; everything is shared, so it's expected that you share too.

The next morning we got up super early and made our way to La Union, where we would take a boat to Potosi, Nicaragua.  The port doesn't have a pier or wharf, just a bunch of small boats out in the water, so to get to your boat, you have to wade through muddy, waist-deep water or pay a few bucks for a rickshaw type thing, basically an elevated wheelbarrow with a board to sit on.  It was so hot already, so we waded and saved the wheelbarrow for the bikes.  The boat was less than what I would call comfortable, with only a cramped board to sit on.  This was not the luxury cruise.  
It was interesting, however, once we got into  the Gulf of Fonseca, to look simultaneously at the coastlines of El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, all the same from here but very different onshore.  The bikes survived without injury, as did we, so it was overall a good experience.  It beats, we've heard, the overland route through the skinny part of Honduras, which we were able to skip due to this boat.

Potosí, Nicaragua, is a tiny little village with not much going on.  There are hammocks on the front porch of the immigration building!  
Immigration on the right, ocean straight ahead

Immigration and customs were more thorough than in the other countries but still went by quickly with no problems.  Then into Nicaragua!  The first 16 kilometers were dirt and gravel, but I think it was my favorite road in Central America because there was no one around.  Usually there are people everywhere, so being by ourselves was a nice respite.  
There were some cows, too.

When the pavement started, so did the people as well, everyone responding to our greetings with a friendly smile and wave.

We planned on going to the beach town of Jiquilillo, but upon arriving at the intersection and realizing that the road was 12 kilometers of thick gravel, our plans changed quickly.  We ended up finding a little store, buying a few things for dinner, and pitching our tent next to it as night fell.

We neglected to ask the store owners whether any of the local female dogs are in heat.  It's not a usual question. Unfortunately, the male dogs were going crazy all night, making sleep difficult.  Groggily, the next morning, we biked for a bit until my rear dérailleur cable snapped.  I had been expecting it to for the past few days and figured it would give us a nice, unexpected break somewhere while we stopped to fix it.  It turns out that the spare cables we had were too short!  Who knew there were multiple sizes?!  Live and learn.  We tried a brake cable but couldn't even cut one of the ends off; it was too thick.  A guy whose house we stopped just outside of came out to see what was going on, and when we asked him if he had any tools to cut cables cleanly, he deftly used his machete and two hammers to cut the cable much more ably than our little multitool.  But the brake cable was still too thick to pass through the gear cable housing, and the guy ran inside to get one of his longer gear cables.  Alas, that one was too short too, but hold on, the guy had an idea.  We didn't know what he was thinking, but he clearly knew a lot about bikes and managed, with only a nut, his machete, and two hammers, to splice together two cables.  He put the cables inside the nut and hammered it flat so that it trapped the two cables inside, effectively making one elongated cable. Voila!  
Tough to see, but there it is.
We'll make sure from here on out that we always break down in front of a resourceful bike mechanic's house.

The rest of the day was less interesting, riding into the wind, uphill, and on a heavily trafficked road (with a shoulder, thank goodness).  The most exciting parts were 1) seeing a dust devil, a mini tornado about 50 feet high, and 2) taking a cold shower to wash off all the sunscreen, sweat, and grime that had accumulated.  We're staying tonight at a small hostel in Leon, and we're going to stay tomorrow, too, to rest, explore the city, and run some much-needed errands.
These were exciting, too: a superb bike path and a fresh beet smoothie

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

El Salvador

We entered El Salvador yesterday morning (March 16), and we've been basically following the Pacific coast.  It is absolutely beautiful, and we spent today surfing, doing bike maintenance, and eating pupusas on the beach.  They're like tortillas but double-layered, and with beans and cheese and garlic and whatever else inside.  More details later!
We'll be continuing to follow highway 2 through the south of El Salvador.

Our current location at El Tunco beach.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Flying Downhill 13th-15th March

March 13th
In the morning we can really see why this town is so loved. The ancient churches against a backdrop of gigantic volcanos make for some spectacular scenery. We spend a good part of the morning visiting the maze-like, colorful marketplace and mailing thank-you postcards to all our friends in Mexico. I hope they all make it there despite the sluggish and rather incompetent mail services in these countries.
Today since we're starting at 5,029ft and heading to the coast, our road is basically all downhill. It's awesome except for the fact that there are a number of unmarked speed bumps and extremely narrow bridges. We wind our way down between the two enormous volcanos, at one point passing what appears to be the remnants of a previous lava flow.
Big and beautiful volcano!

It's not long before our road turns into a dusty highway that will take us out the the coast. Early afternoon, dripping in sweat, we stop at Dominos for ice cream and lunch. We end up talking to the friendly security guard for a while (yes there is a guy with a shotgun guarding Domino's pizza) and someone gives us free cinnamon sticks. Nice!
In the late afternoon we ride along a quiet road by the coast. All the people we see are very friendly and wave as we pass by. One lady selling fruits by the road side gives us several for free when she learns we've never eaten them before. They look sort of like peppers, but are  extremely watery and rather tasteless. We appreciate the gesture nonetheless and share our cinnamon sticks with her and her kids.
After arriving in Monterrico we go in search of a place to camp on the beach. Without too much effort we find a spot by a restaurant for a small amount of money. The sand is black (volcanic) and the undertow of the ocean waves so vicious even I don't want to go in the ocean. Luckily after we eat dinner there's a huge thunderstorm and we run out in the glorious rain to cool down. Did I mention that it's hot here? It's just so hot.
A delicious licuado (strawberries, milk and ice) that helped quell the heat.

March 14th
Neither of us sleep well due to the heat and a drunken party behind our tent. In the morning we take our bikes to the Tortugario, a center for the protection of the animals who live in the mangroves here. We are sad to see that it is overgrown and filled with mosquitos, the water in the enclosures so murky that you can barely see the creatures inside. Since we can't find anywhere that rents kayaks we hire a guide to take us out into the mangrove forests.
Our guide is named Sergio and the boat he takes us out on is a simple wooden barge, moved with a long pole. It's quiet and perfect for viewing birds. 
In the mangroves.

We see about 25 species, including several new ones. Sergio tries to educate us about birds but we already know more than him. We still appreciate his effort. We are impressed by how much of these mangrove forests are conserved until he takes us out to see where iguanas lay their eggs and we walk into a huge field of just harvested corn.
Us: "we thought this area was conserved?!"
Sergio: "well you can still grow corn, of course"
That's Guatemalan conservation for you.

In the afternoon we learn about another aspect of Guatemalan culture. Monterrico happens to be a hot spot for people from the city to visit on weekends. Basically the rich people in Guatemala all come here to get drunk. This means prices for hotels go sky high, but luckily we're able to find a reasonable rate for a room and a pool! The pool provides a much needed refuge from the heat.
A few things we notice about the Guatemalan elite:
1) They are mostly overweight. I don't see a single person at our hotel, except for young kids, who is not noticeably overweight. Perhaps this is a symbol of status?
2) A lot of them are extremely rude. They honk impatiently and then barely look at the guy who opens the gate, or they are served food and don't even look at the waitress, never mind say thank you. It seems that there is a big gap between the social classes here, and the people with more money like to make that clear.
3) All things American seem to be good. One guy tells us he was raised in the US, although based on his English I would say that his story is highly unlikely. Another guy sports American flag swim shorts with matching towel.
Of course these are huge generalizations and I in no way mean to imply that every rich person in Guatemala is like this. This is simply what we noticed from the people we saw or met.

March 15th
We wake up early and take a small motorboat through the mangroves to La Avellana. There is no road here, so boat is the only option. It's kind of nice to begin our morning in this way.
Bikes in the boat

In La Avellana we are greeted by a bunch of surly men on the dock. It's Sunday, so I'm pretty sure some of them are already drunk. We bike out quickly. The pavement on our road is in horrible disrepair but there is next to no traffic and the people we pass are friendly. It's quite a nice ride. Around 11 it starts to get unbearably hot. When we can't take the heat anymore we stop for lunch at a small place blasting cheerful music. Not long after lunch we reach the border town and find a small hotel for the night. Heading into El Salvador tomorrow!

Our current location
We're going to spend the next few days following highway 2 along the El Salvador coast.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Chicken Bus and Volcanoes to Antigua

"Chicken buses" are everywhere in Guatemala and, we hear, Central America.  They are repurposed US school buses painted in flashy red and green, and often they sport a weird mix of religious and amorous decals, such as "Jesus Lives" juxtaposed with "This Bus is My Baby" or something like that, both huge and right in the middle of the windshield.  The drivers don't seem to worry about not being able to see the road.  Whenever someone gets on, the luggage is thrown on the roof rack and the bus begins driving away at breakneck speed while the driver's helper ties the luggage on.  When he finishes, he climbs down the back ladder, opens the rear door, and goes inside to collect the fare from passengers.  It's a busy job.  We've seen numerous guys hanging on the backs of buses for dear life while flying down the highway.
Photo credit: drlopezfranco on flickr

We had no desire to bike up the incredibly steep and narrow road back to Solola and the main highway, so we took one of those buses up the hill this morning.  We implored the guys to be careful with our bikes, then cringed as they threw them on top with the rest of the luggage.  We changed buses in Solola and disembarked in the junction town of Los Encuentros, feeling thoroughly Guatemalan.  Ride a chicken bus... check!  

Even after the rough treatment, only a water bottle cage was bent, thank goodness, so we started pedaling toward Antigua.  Mostly downhill, beautiful overlooks of the lake and its surrounding volcanoes, and the cool temperature at high altitude all made for a nice ride.  
Around midday we entered a big valley with some volcanoes ahead, and as we were watching, one of them started to erupt!  It wasn't sending out huge lava rocks, but there was definitely an expanding plume of gray ash.  We looked around... umm, should we be concerned about this?  No one else seemed to notice, so we figured it was a regular occurrence and continued on our way.

The traffic increased as we neared Antigua, so we were happy to finally arrive in the city.  After wandering around a bit trying to find someone with enough managemental clout to override the silly rule that RVs, but not tents, can camp on the grounds of the tourist police station, we finally gave up and found the cheapest hostel in town, which turned out to be surprisingly nice.  

Antigua is a very picturesque old town with incredible churches everywhere, and it's also super touristy.  We'll be enjoying it for what it is, especially speaking English with people other than each other, which is kind of like being allowed to write again with your dominant hand.  Hostels are great for meeting other travelers, or so I'm learning; we'll be sharing our dorm tonight with new friends from all over the world.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Lake Atitlán

Today we sat by the lake, wrote postcards, and ate tons of fresh tortillas, cheese, beans, and veggies.
The visibility was pretty bad, I think due to the volcanoes acting up, but this was still a nice place to spend a rest day.  Tomorrow we're going to catch a bus up the narrow, 25% uphill section that we came down, then bike on the CA-1, the Pan-American highway, to Antigua.  At least that's the plan.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Mountains and Maya, March 9-10

The market in Huehuetenango is absolutely crazy.  There are shops on top of shops on both sides of the street, loud music and audio advertising, and people walking around selling random things.  One lady was advertising rat and ant poison, then she switched a few minutes later to marijuana for back and bone pain.  Go figure.  The markets in Mexico are usually inside a big designated building or warehouse, but here it was all happening with traffic going by on this narrow, one-way street.  At one point a truck decided to go through, the mirrors hitting every vendor's umbrellas on both sides.  We bought a few things and left the craziness as fast as we could.

We spent part of the morning debating whether to go west or south, to the remote highlands or the more popular highlands.  Everywhere except the coast, we're learning, is highlands in Guatemala.  We decided to take the road more traveled, the Pan-American Highway.  Robert Frost might be disappointed, but the popular places are known for a reason, not to mention the security risks we had heard about remote Guatemalan roads.

The day's ride started with some rolling hills, then it turned all uphill.  Over the course of 50 kilometers we climbed from about 6,000 to over 9,000 feet, the wide valley where Huehuetenango is located falling farther and farther below, and the mountain range on the other side of the valley, the Cuchumatanes, poking its ridges through the clouds.  
A side road overlooking the valley

The bus drivers here drive like they're late for their own wedding, but we had a decent shoulder for most of the day, so no problem.
A common sight: political advertisements being painted on the side of the road.  We saw about a million of these red strips with white text promoting the Lider party.

Around 6 pm we reached the top of the climb and descended briefly into a little village.  On the outskirts we asked a guy if we could pitch a tent behind his business, and he said he couldn't give permission because the owner wasn't there but we should go ask at the next house; his sister lives there.  The sister said she also couldn't give permission because her husband wasn't around, but she waved her brother over, he gave the okay, and they (by this time the whole family was outside) showed us a spot to put our tent.  It was odd to us that the word of this woman's brother would supersede hers, as he didn't even live there.  Clearly there's not much gender equality in this area, doubtfully anywhere in rural Guatemala.  

The house was a group of buildings next to the road surrounding a big open-air garage.  The whole family lived there, from the little kids to the oldest great-grandparents.  The kids were painfully shy at first, and the adults not much more open.  They were all descendants of the Quiche Maya (key-CHE), and while we had heard that some indigenous groups shun gringos because they believe that they come to Guatemala to steal children, we were pretty sure that wasn't the case.  They were just shy, not used to people they didn't know.  After we showed some pictures of our families and shared about our lives and our country, they began to open up, even teaching us a few words in their native language.  The older folks didn't speak much Spanish, some none, but we were able to communicate with everyone else.  Good thing, too, because everyone stood around us while we made dinner, a rather awkward state of affairs, but we tried to keep conversation going.

After, the mom of the house, Elamira, invited us to check out her kitchen.  She poured us some small glasses of the tea she was making and brought out the dough for tortillas.  There was already a fire going in the stove.  She deftly slapped some dough into a perfectly round, flat circle, placed it on the stove, then showed us how to do it; it was much harder than it looked!  The corn being planted, sown, reaped, husked, ground, mixed into dough, and now shaped and cooked all by hand right there, made for the most delicious tortillas there could possibly be.  She later gave us a bag to take with us.

The next morning we woke up to frost on the ground.  Elamira's mom, who didn't speak much Spanish (and us no Quiche, obviously), made us some steaming hot plantain tea, which we enjoyed while Elamira made some more tortillas.  Then she introduced us to the family's pigs, wolves (they breed huskies), sheep, and chickens and talked to us about what they use all the animals for.  Not surprisingly, they make many of their own clothes starting from the very beginning: shearing the sheep. 

To give what little thanks we could for this family's generosity, Tam gave them one of her paintings and our contact info.  Hopefully the kids will come visit us someday in the U.S!  For obvious reasons, I didn't want to take out our expensive smartphone, so unfortunately I don't have any photos to post here.

In the next town, I asked a gas station attendant if there was anywhere nearby to buy cheese, fruit, and veggies, and she said she didn't know about fruits or veggies, but (she pointed to a guy walking by), "that guy sells cheese."  I bought two blocks of cheese wrapped in corn husks straight out of a bucket in the trunk of his car, and they were absolutely fantastic.  

We then started our daily climb, this time up to over 10,000 feet, the highest elevation of our trip thus far.  All around were patchworked fields, each separated by a small row of vegetation so that, in the larger areas where the forest had been cleared, the hillsides appeared to be draped in giant quilts.  
Walking frequently on the sides of the road were indigenous men and women carrying what looked to be very heavy loads of wood, usually on their backs with a strap over their forehead.  Sometimes the women were balancing a load on their head with a child in their arms or on their back.  Always they, the women, wear the most beautiful, colorful clothing, undoubtedly all hand-woven.  The men seem to have adopted the easygoing style of jeans and a t-shirt, at least the younger men.  We've seen numerous shops advertising American clothing, so maybe they're just being trendy.
The way up

Up at the top of the pass, the view was incredible: a row of volcanoes, low-hanging clouds shrouding and accentuating the peaks, more quilted hillsides.  We wanted to stay longer, but deforestation and wind meant blowing dust and stinging eyes.  The descent was quick, exhilarating, and, I believe, well-deserved.  

A few hours, some tortillas, and a licuado (blended fruit juice) later, we reached the turnoff to Panajachel.  The road turned super steep downhill; we had to stop numerous times to let our rims cool off and our hands uncramp from squeezing the brakes so tightly.  Never before have I wished so much for disc brakes.  
In Solola we got our first glimpse of Lake Atitlán below, and while the day was hazy and the air thick, the view was still amazing.  I could tell why this is such a famous destination.  A few more hand-cramping minutes later, we entered Panajachel, a touristy town right on the lake.  It took us awhile to find a decent place, but we finally found a relatively cheap, family-run hospedaje, went out and got some groceries, and settled in for the night.  

Our current location:
Northeast side of the lake