On rocky roads and how to warm a nomadic heart
My phone wakes me up. Since I arrived in the south I get up before sunrise every morning. I pack my stuff, have breakfast and try to be on my bicycle as soon as it gets light. I write ‘try’, because it seems to get light earlier every morning and seen the fact that I’m riding south that might actually be the case.
But this day it’s already bright outside at 5:00… Only two days later I will realize that my phone thought it was already in Guatemala, where they don’t use daylight-saving-time.
I planned to take my time this morning to pack, take a shower and bake an omelet with banana (my latest invention). Instead I shove my stuff, including three raw eggs, into my panniers and roll my bike towards the ‘embarcaderro’ where I board a little boat that will take me across the river to Guatemala. I descent a steep stairway with the help of the boatman, cross a floating bridge to a rock island and get into the boat.
Suddenly I’m feeling nervous. Guatemala! After a good three months in Mexico and eight months in the USA and Canada I feel like it’s my first big leap of faith into the unknown. And not just any unknown, but into a country that is known for its high murder and other crimes rate.
Stepping out of the boat and onto Guatemalan soil the first thing I hear is: ‘WELCOME TO GUATEMALA!’. I’m in a short street with on both my left and right four tiendas (little shops), after those shops a rocky road leads into the dense jungle. Yes, welcome to Guatemala, Hera.
A week before I reached the border I was in San Cristobal de las Casas, a cool place, literally, set at over 2000 meter altitude. To my surprise by reaching that town I’d also reached the backpacker hotspot of Mexico, I hadn’t seen that many white faces together since the USA. With my Costa Rican host Edû I visited a canyon, floating down the river in-between kilometer high cliffs and with crocodiles on the shore.
From San Cristobal I pedaled to Ocosingo over the main road. On Google Maps I’d seen a thin white line from there leading through the jungle towards the Guatemalan border. On the GPS map on my phone this was literally a gray area without any roads. My craving for adventure proved stronger than the need for more information and so I decided to obtain that information myself by going this route. With the Google map cached in my phone memory I set off with a 100 meter downhill from the firefighters’ station where I spend the night. A great start! After six kilometers I stopped to have some breakfast and realized that I’d left my powerbank plugged in to charge at the station. 100 meters back up that steep hill. So much for a early start.
When I looked on my phone after twenty kilometers the blue dot that tells my position was located in a gray area, even on Google Maps now. So at that one crossroad I should have looked at my phone instead of just following the instructions of the police officer there. I knew the route that first day would include about 1500 meters of altitude gain, this alternative route would surely add a good 300 to that. I was relieved to see the blue dot on the screen finally hit the white line again.
Not long after the asphalt finished and I continued on a rocky dirt road. According to the signs along the road I’d entered a autonomous region. From the look of the villages it was pretty clear that they were mainly self-sustaining. Since there were no tiendas to buy food I dug up the emergency stash muesli bars that I’d carried since Canada.
From the faces of the people here I could tell that they hardly ever or never had seen a white person. The jungle was rough and beautiful, especially when every now and then it opened up and provided me with a view over the valley. With 5 km per hour I crawled, sometimes pedaling sometimes pushing, up the hills only to descend carefully with 7 km per hour, squeezing my hands red on the break levers.
Despite the unique experience and the beauty of the area I wasn’t to sad when near the end of the next day I felt asphalt under my tires again. Apart from the paved road the area stayed pristine, the villages small and simple and the sun relentless. A few hours of biking more got me to Frontera Corosal. The most remote and quiet border crossing between Mexico and Guatemala.
I looked at the trail of rocks leading into the jungle passed the eight tiendas at the embarcadero in Guatemala, took a deep breath and got on my bike. Fifteen kilometers down the road I was greeted by the one-man-committee of the immigration office. He flicked through my passport and stamped it for 40 quetzal (7 dollar), good for 90 days in Guatemala.
In the first town I found along the road I went looking for a comedor (little restaurant). The houses and huts were even simpler than in the south of Mexico. I found a comedor and ordered a meal of beans, rice and eggs for 10 quetzal. As the woman started cooking I walked through the house to the bathroom. The floor of the house was black bumpy slippery dirt. The kitchen was a mess with dishes, food, toothbrushes, laundry, chicken (both dead and alive) and flies. Behind the house towards the wooden toilet-shack the garden was covered in trash. This clearly wasn’t a restaurant where it was common to use the bathroom. Back in front of the house I sat down at the table where a young guy was having lunch and I thought: ‘Well, if I don’t get sick from the food here then I’ll probably won’t get sick of any food anywhere. At least I’ll find that out.’
The meal was delicious and while I ate I asked the guy about Guatemala and his village using my growing Spanish vocabulary.
Also to this rocky road came an end and the next day, to my own surprise, I pedaled 75 kilometers and still arrived at 11 a.m. at my WarmShowers address in Flores where I still am now. The American-Guatemalan family has a permaculture project and offers a homestay for travelers and free camping for bike travelers.
Unexpected and to my delight there are four other cyclists here. Four of us heading south and one heading north, hailing from Germany, Canada and New Zealand. For the first time since Asia 2015 I sit around a table with more long distance adventure cyclists bend over maps and shared meals. The scattered panniers, electronics, adapters, bottles. The sun bleached clothes with irremovable stains on the washing line. The smell of sweat and the exposition of stoves, pots and pans and knives in the outdoor kitchen. I love it.
I recharge emotionally during these short but intense meetings. There are many types of bike travelers and a nice click isn’t a given. But often a get-together of long distance solo cyclists creates a spark that, with a bit of luck, starts a fire on which I can warm my nomadic heart.
A thunderstorm last night killed the electricity. Therefore, I’m writing this blog on paper now and with the batteries of our laptops and phones all dead we spend our time simply and sheer with each other. Despite the frustration this morning, because we all got here after up to a week in the jungle, the lack of WiFi and power shows great for the atmosphere.
Tomorrow I will ride to Belize with one long day on the bike. Three bike- and two rest days I’ve spend in Guatemala. But after a week in Belize I will return via a different border crossing. A nice forecast, cause my first impression of this country is great.
For the coming week I have some beautiful roads and sights to look forward to. I’m curious to see Belize. English-speaking, rough, touristic, expensive Belize with its cowboys and Mennonites, its coast and mosquitos. But more on that in my next blog. First I get to experience it! What a privilege.