Bestriding a Border: Southern Chiapas into the Guatemalan High Country

Where I Rode: 

Day 1:  San Cristobal de las Casas –> El Chiflon

Day 2: El Chiflon –> Comitan

Day 3: Comitan –> Las Margaritas –> Lagos de Montebello

Day 4: Exploring the Lagos

Day 5: Lago Internacional –> Gracias a Dios –> Trinidad –> Bulej

Day 6: Bulej –> San Matel Ixtatán –> Santa Eulalia

Day 7: Santa Eulalia –> Soloma –> Huehuetenango

 

DSC08597

Two fantastic and full weeks in San Cristobal de las Casas were the ideal sendoff from my near 6 months of traveling through Mexico. Hosted by Thomas the Great in his urban jungle, we both left his home the same morning: He would be flying North to visit US family and friends for the first time in many years, and I’d be heading toward my first international border by bike in 2015: Guatemala!

 

DSC08600

On the outskirts of San Cristobal. Urban life meets country life. The wooden shacks selling gasoline out of random plastic containers lining the busy paved highway into/out of town.

DSC08607

Some small town just South of San Cristobal, it appears to be a pattern to have the main street through town lead directly to a big cathedral up on a hill.

DSC08608

I made haste to get off the main roads, finding a cool route through corn and then sugar cane fields as I dropped elevation from 7,000’ down to 2,000’. I seem to have been accompanied by some sort of huge dragonfly…

DSC08611

DSC08612

DSC08620

The back route eventually led me to the gorgeous cascading falls of El Chiflón with it’s cool and brilliant blue waters. A lovely, albeit highly developed trail (which meant lots of busy tourist traffic) led up the riverside passing many beautiful cascades to reach the main falls.

DSC08617

 

DSC08640

DSC08644

The 400’+ Velo de Novia falls. Hard to get a good up-close picture with the soaking wet spray from the intense flow! I was able to camp by one of the lower falls that night, lulled to sleep by the gentle roar of it’s roaring waters. Pushing off early the next morning, I began the long steady 3000’ climb to my final Mexican city of Comitan.

DSC08683

I rolled into the busy central square (zocalo) of Comitan de Dominguez in the early afternoon with plans to grab a quick meal and push on to the Parque Nacional Lagunas de Montebello where I’d find quiet camping by some beautiful lakes. But while searching for food, a man came up and asked me if he could take a picture of me with the bike. Turns out he’s a member of a local mountain bike club in Comitan… screech! Plans changed. Gotta hit some single track one last time here in Mexico. I ended up finding a super cheap hotel room in town, along with Karl, Marie and Kayla (the French Canadian couple riding the Americas with their now 2 year old daughter in tow). We got enormous and fantastic burgers served out of a colorfully decorated VW Combi (picture not available due to some frustrating camera malfunctions).

The following day, my new friend Luis came and picked me up at the hotel to ride the local trails outside of town in Las Margaritas. 5 of us hit the trails for a couple of hours that morning after Luis and his wife treated met to a great home-cooked breakfast. He also gave me a fancy new bike jersey from a race he’d sponsored in town! Unfortunately it’s white, so I don’t think it’ll last long given my dirty dirtbag lifestyle, but so kind!

DSC08681

While riding through the tight urban streets of Comitan, I noticed an extremely high proportion of the stores were selling a variety of leather crafts. All for use by ranchers, the stock included beautiful ornate saddles, harnesses, chaps, and machete sheathes among other things. A short conversation with a store owner informed me that Comitan is the place to go for all hand-crafted leather in Southern Mexico. People come from all over Oaxaca, Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche and Quintana Roo to get their ranching supplies. So… I used the opportunity to purchase one final addition to the zombie apocalypse bike: A shorty machete. I even found a leather specialist who worked with me to design a fork-mounted strap system for easy access, all for the equivalent of about $10. NOW I’m ready to hack my way through the back roads of Central America!!!

DSC08691

 After our jaunt through the local trails, Luis shared with me a dirt route all the way to the national park, avoiding the busy paved roads almost entirely!

DSC08698

 Winding through the dry pine forests, the road finally offered views of the first lake in the park. Each lake had its own special color and beauty. All in all there are over 40 lakes in close succession within the national park.

DSC08700

 By the park entrance, I ran back into Karl and Marie with little Kayla in the trailer. We decided to camp together for our final night in Mexico.

DSC08702

Everyone is extremely curious about bike tourists. Seeing bikes so loaded down with gear is far from normal and the barrage of questions always follows wide eyes. However, Karl and Marie captivated all the attention, a happy respite for me from having to answer another round of familiar questions.  With a  2 year old in a trailer and a heavy load on both bikes to boot, they are quite the spectacle.

DSC08714

40 beautiful lakes all in a small area — well I guess that warrants pulling out the packraft!!! Kayla was pretty excited about it too.

DSC08718

This little girl. With a little over 2 years, she’s been bike touring for over half her life so far. I know it can’t be easy for her or her parents, but she’s certainly getting a unique childhood experience! I’ve run into this family in 6 different cities in Mexico already, seen this little girl multiple times in each place, and this was the first time she didn’t run and hide from me. Like a switch had been turned, we were suddenly best friends!

DSC08719

 Lake Pojoj. I was planning to bike the raft over to this lake and paddle around, but quickly learned that most of the lakes are strictly controlled by local communities (ejidos) which charge people for boat rides out to the little island.

DSC08725

While the wooden plank boats did look kind of cool, I much prefer autonomy to being carted around with a big group of tourists. I watched the local guides struggling to single-handedly drag these tourist-filled dinosaurs across the lake with a single heavy paddle. A little painful to watch, actually! Luckily once on a while a few tourists would pick up a paddle to help.

DSC08737

Cinco Lagos. Really just one lake with some narrow inlets separating it’s sections, but still. Pretty.  I spent the day with the Canadians touring around the lakes before we retired back our our own lakeside campground and cooked a hearty meal to prepare for the next day’s border crossing. We all decided to cross via a small dirt road nearby. There would be no legal crossing station at which to get our passports stamped. We’d just have to ride back up to the next legal crossing for that…

DSC08744

The time had finally arrived. My intention of a short and efficient push past Mexico for “more exciting” destinations further South had stretched out to a 6-month stay all in all. Mexico has been a surprise in many ways. From the enormous range of natural beauty to the magnanimous warmth of the Mexican people, it’s been easy to get drawn in to each sweet setting. And hard to leave. At long last, I felt ready to continue the journey towards the unknown experiences Central and South America had in store. The international borders will likely come faster now, with much fewer kilometers between them. But we’ll just see how things unfold.

Karl, Marie, Kayla and I left our sweet lakeside respite that morning for the border, just under a mile away. The furthest South of the Lagos de Montebello is the aptly named Lago Internacional, as the border with Guatemala divides the lake in half. Despite the white border pillars lining the hillside, this was an “open” crossing into Guatemala. So different than my experience of the Canadian and Mexican borders with the USA with their walls and border patrols. We arrived at this official border sign via a rough dirt road, with nobody but ourselves to verify the crossing. I bid the family farewell here, yet again, with what has now become our traditional goodbye phrase, “See you in Argentina,” as they travel at a much more gentle pace than I do. Our paths will certainly cross much sooner than Argentina, they always do.

DSC08742

The rare shot with me in it. Just to commemorate the moment.

DSC08745

On the Guatemalan side, the dirt road quickly rose steeply into the hillside, providing a final grand glance at Lago de Tziscao where we’d camped.  As the loose rocky road grade pushed 17-18%, I questioned whether I should go back and see if Karl and Marie needed help getting up it. Then I remembered 2 things: First, these two have gotten themselves here since Alaska. I think they know how to handle a steep hill. Second, This would be the first of an endless barrage of steep hills, according to the topo map I’d been studying. If the loose rocky back roads of Guatemala were going to push them past an edge, it’s probably good that they figure that out sooner than later. As for me, I was so happy to return to the dirt!

DSC08746

Immediately the route I’d found got a bit rough. Technical single track for a couple of kilometers, then back onto the road…

DSC08747

… A road which was not in particularly high usage, so it seemed. Just as technical, just a bit wider.

DSC08749

Amazing how just a few kilometers of road led to a completely different landscape than the Montebello Lakes. Lush pine forests shifted quickly into dry rocky terrain giving way to a broad mountain range. Again, super steep, super loose rocky terrain. I wondered again how this crazy road would feel for little Kayla, bouncing around in her trailer. So curious to know if they followed through with this route or decided to find another way around the technical terrain… Wondering how many more hours it would take them to get to this same spot.

DSC08751

The rough road dropped into the official border crossing town of Gracias a Dios, still in Guatemala. I stopped by the immigration office to get my official stamp, y’know, to be legal and stuff. He told me I needed an exit stamp from the Mexican office, which unfortunately was a mile down a very steep hill back North. Ugh. Turns out these endless steep hills are par for the course here in the Guatemala highlands. Panting my way back up, I got my official stamp and 90 day visa covering Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. I’d have to be in Costa Rica in less than 3 months. Good motivation.

IMG 0502

I asked the border patrol agent where I could go to change my pesos into Guatemalan quetzales. He told me to just ride on into town, and some dude on the side of the road would offer to exchange money for me. There was no official currency exchange office here. Hmmm… So I just hand over some money to some dude on the street and he hands me some other money, in plain view of what ever possible opportunists may be watching? Exactly right. I rode through the main strip of Gracias a Dios asking to change money until I was sent to some random unmarked metal door. Out came a very nice man asking me how much I needed to change. He offered me his going rate, which was oddly a better exchange rate than I’d found to be currently reported online. Was the cash going to be counterfeit? No way to know, just change a modest amount and hope for the best. We traded cash wads and I quickly made my way out of town before finding a quiet place to stash the cash. I replayed the possible ways I could have or should have handled the transaction with more security, but it was too late. (FYI it seems to be fine. I have now bought some food with one of the bills and had no problem. Sweet! Still leaves the unanswered question of how it makes sense that he converted my pesos at a better than legal rate…)

DSC08752

It appears that the trash situation that was so challenging in Mexico is no better in Guatemala, at least not near the border. I noticed a stunning canyon just on the outskirts of Gracias a Dios, immediately followed by the sign, “Basurero” — Dump. Seemed like such a shame to destroy a beautiful natural wonder with piles of human waste. I know it has to go somewhere, but it was just sad to see it go there.

The moment I rolled out of Gracias a Dios, the hills began. Non-stop rolling hills of extremely steep grades composed the rest of the day. All in all I only ended up riding about 27 miles, but climbed about 7000’ in the process. Much of this was on loose rocky roads at nearly unrideable grades. There was much walking done. Luckily I ended up in a sweet little town in the mountains called Bulej as the daylight drew to a close. There was some sort of celebration happening for the town’s patron saint, San Mateo, so upon arrival I was quickly greeted with a huge crowd of inquisitive children and adults alike. The kids all laughed at me, poked and prodded at the bike, while the happily inebriated men all gathered around to try out the few English words they knew on the gringo. It was a bit overwhelming, but actually very sweet. Every person I asked reported that they’d never seen a biker touring through their town. The more I spoke with the locals, the more quickly it became obvious that these people do not speak Spanish very much, rather they were integrating certain Spanish words into the local indigenous language, called Chuk. Communication for that reason was a bit difficult, but a fun challenge. I found a cheap restaurant and with some much needed sustenance I came to the conclusion that I’d be finding lodging somehow in town, as I didn’t feel comfortable with the possibility of being stuck on another death-climb on a lonesome road in a new country with no flat ground in sight.

DSC08754

The restaurant had a hospedaje on the second floor. Basically a super cheap and basic hotel. My bike narrowly fit into the tiny room, jammed up against the little bed. What more do you expect for $2.50USD a night?!? I grabbed a quick breakfast and hit the ‘road’. 

DSC08756

Yep. Thanks again google for sending me through all the weirdest routes possible! I pushed up the first 1000’ of climbing on this rough track, slipping off of loose rocks and gathering all my force to shove the bike up the 25+% grade.

DSC08758

 Cruel joke. The first 2 kilometers and 1000’ of climbing took me up to a much smoother looking dirt road which, I assume, is how the NORMAL people get up and out of town. Again, thanks google!

DSC08760

 Looking back down at town through endless steep hillside cornfields.

DSC08766

Well, the road wasn’t much better for long. It got unbearably steep many more times, requiring lots more sections of hike a bike. How the little trucks were driving up these roads past me was a mystery.

DSC08769

 Sweet little hillside towns lining the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes.

DSC08771

 

DSC08776

First major town I crossed, San Mateo Ixtatán. The small section of paved roads through town were unbelievably steep. Luckily I was riding downhill through town to get back on route! Unfortunately that meant I had to climb right back up.

DSC08781

 Topping out at around 12,000, it was quite a day so far. The road would be paved for the next 40-50 kilometers, and was welcomed with a deep sigh. 18% grade continuous climbs on loose gravel and rutted rock just wears on you after a few thousand feet of climbing. Stupid packraft. Why did I bring you??

DSC08784

I’ve been seeing a few words spray painted all over the roads around here. Some on the streets themselves. Some on passing buildings. Always the same color coding: “Lider” in red, “UNE” in green, “Somos” in purple. After a while, it became clear that they were political parties. There was a major presidential and congressional election happening in about 2 weeks and the parties were doing their own form of promotion.

DSC08786

Passing through another lively town of Soloma, there happened to be a big parade through the street! Lots of young students booming on bass drums, touting their trumpets and exciting the crowds with their xylophones. It was a clear change from the street band music I’d seen in Mexico. The beat was a bit more funky, and the xylophones were a new addition. Very interesting sounds! I had to wait for the parade to pass in order to make it through town.

DSC08792

Back to climbing. This third day of climbing would be far easier due to smoother pavement and the comparatively gentle grades for major commerce, but no less climbing. The highway is the only connections between some of the small communities due to sections of very steep cliffs, so the roads are used by truckers and shepherds alike.

DSC08797

DSC08803

 Just some lizards hanging out enjoying the vast view on a politically-painted purple rock.

DSC08810

 I don’t think this one was political. Just a cute little dino.

DSC08808

Back up around 11,000’, the landscape on the high plateau was quite distinct. Wide valleys of huge boulders lined with vibrant wildflowers.

DSC08814

DSC08818

 Riding around another corner and all of a sudden a dense section of terrain lined with some kind of maguey/aloe/agave type of plant. Anyone know what this one is called? I hadn’t seen them growing out of themselves like this before…

DSC08820

Getting close to my first pausing point in Guatemala, the city of Huehuetenango. I decided to take a ’shortcut’ through the mountains rather than stay on the main paved highway into town. Up and down and up and down through ranches and farmlands, with local indigenous people either staring at me with wide eyes or pointing to their friends and laughing. Par for the course sometimes.

DSC08822

The rough back route proved absolutely worth the work. I got to enjoy a 5000’ descent right into town on fun, tight, windy back roads!

DSC08823

Looking back up at the mountain I’d just descended. Pretty sweet. I think I took some serious life out of these brake pads though.

DSC08856

 Down in Huehuetenango (locally referred to as Huehue (way-way). I stayed with a Warm Showers host in town, Arturo, who is a professional journalist. He took me with him to cover a big march that was happening through the city streets.

DSC08866

  I happened to arrive at a very significant political moment in Guatemalan history. A committee was imminently deciding whether or not to repeal a long-standing law which gave the president and congressional members immunity from legal prosecution while in office. In a country with a great deal of political corruption, it’s been pretty rough. A very small number of people getting very rich off of a great deal of very poor people. If the political immunity was repealed, the president among other congressional members would be immediately jailed in order to await trial for various impunities. 

DSC08825

DSC08882

After a day in Huehue, I pushed on to the next city of Quetzaltenango over yet another high mountain pass, littered with political promotions. Turns out the two major parties of Lider and UNE are intimately connected with the narcotics trade in Guatemala, but have the most financial backing to get their people elected…

DSC08891

 Just before reaching Quetzaltenango, I saw this: It roughly translates to “seeing is believing”. I thought it was a great random thing to see on a wall, but then realized it too was just the catch phrase of yet another political party.

It has been a long time in the making, entering a whole new realm of land and possibilities here in Central America. So far, my experience of Guatemala is one filled with kind and curious people and vast mountainous beauty. I’m learning about the many indigenous languages and customs, and how these cultures attempt to coexist in a land with such challenged social history. As I write this the votes are being tallied from the general and presidential elections yesterday. Jimmy Morales, the symbol of hope for a better and just Guatemala, is in the lead by a wide margin. Hitting the road this morning, I hope for the best.

2 Responses

  1. Batya
    | Reply

    I mean, so so good to read and see… this art… those roads… 7000′ in 27 miles…
    “Just some lizards hanging out enjoying the vast view on a politically-painted purple rock.” And then after it all… that video… descending with you.. had a permanent grin the whole time. What do you say at the very end?

Leave a Reply