For the love of the mountains
April 16, 2023
The ride to the Ruta de las Flores seemed to be a great choice for us. We both love cycling in the mountains and from then on we decided to do more of that. With Guatemala ahead of us it wasn’t so difficult to keep this promise. It’s a big country with almost everywhere (steep) hills and many people we meet warn us for that. For us, we enjoyed it really hard, even if it meant pushing harder and slower progress. With mountain passes over 3000m (10.000ft) we were in for a treat!
Exiting El Salvador and entering Guatemala was again such and easy process. Only showing up at the Guatemalan immigration (El Salvador didn’t even give a stamp) and a few minutes later “Bienvenido a Guatemala!”. This is by far the easiest region to be crossing borders (speaking from my side with a Belgian passport). It makes me realise how lucky I am holding this passport and very aware of the inequality in the world for people wanting to do similar trips.
Sick of the hills?
Most people travelling the Americas go from North to South. Making us meet many travellers along the way as we’re heading the opposite direction. It’s the first time I really meet so many cyclists on the road and when we talk to them, most are pretty sick of the hills in Guatemala. They seem to look forward to the coastal roads of Central America with more facilities and flat roads. Marie and I talk about it and it makes us feel a bit nervous for what’s about to come. Still we head on the first climb in Guatemala. That day is beautiful and very bad at the same time. We found ourselves in a mix of bigger roads with lot’s of traffic (I hate it when going uphill) and some quieter roads with beautiful views.
After a while we decide to take a really quiet gravel road up to lake Amitatlan. Mainly because there we get closer to Guatemala City, which has crazy traffic in its surroundings. Luckily our warmshowers host gave us a different option to avoid most of it to Antigua. Still we couldn’t avoid all busy roads, but a beautiful climb with perfect new asphalt and almost no traffic takes us over a mountain pass to Antigua.
In Antigua we decide, on the advice of Thomas (our host), to have more rest days than planned. It’s a beautiful city and we meet Darius, another cyclist who had a brain tumor in the past and was left-sided paralysed for a while. Now he’s cycling his way down from Canada to Argentina! Always great to meet inspirational stories on my route.
After 2 days of rest our legs start to itch again and we decide to climb the Acatanango Volcano by foot. It takes only 2 days to hike up to almost 4000m and down, but the main highlight is the view of the Volcano de Fuego (Fire volcano). Every 30 minutes or so it erupts some smoke, or so it seems during the daytime. But when it’s night we had the view of erupting lava from the top.
After the summit we headed down really easily. But then the next days our legs were burning! We are really well trained and everything went so easy, but the downhill made our legs really sore. We took another day off to walk around town and prepare to cycle further into the Guatemalan hills.
First stop after Antigua was the NGO “Maya pedal”. They make human powered tools for people around the area out of old recycled bicycles. These include coffee grinders, water pumps and even washing machines! It’s another great project I’m visiting along the way and my next talk (after the one for Authentico) the funds will go to this project.
With many highlights in Guatemala we had to make some choices for our visits. The obvious choice was to head to Lake Atitlan, a magical place in the middle of the mountains. At 1.500m a very cool place with chilly nights and fresh water. The ride there wasn’t easy though and definitely not around it either. There’s no flat road and going around it means climbing up and back down to the next village, multiple times. I really enjoyed this whole region and was getting nervous for the way out of the lake area. I heard horror stories from car and bicycle brakes melting away, with roads op to 30%! With a fully loaded touring bike it’s not an easy task. Still I was up for the challenge and took it one step at a time.
It took me 3 hours to complete this gruelling climb, but enjoyed every bit of it. You’re almost always climbing over 10% at least and when you get to a point of 15% after hundreds of meters in the 20%, it feels like a recovery section. My Garmin (and komoot) indeed gave me parts up to 30%, but luckily just in the steepest corners. When cars where passing in the downhill direction, I smelled the burning brakes for sure!
We headed further to Huehuetenango and were getting up to 3000m with our first rain in weeks! Very quick we got cold and wet and Marie was having a hard time on the road in these days. I like this kinda “type b fun”, but it took me a while in my life before I could enjoy days like that.
The last days in Guatemala where mainly one big downhill. Sometimes with beautiful views through the valley, but the last part to the Mexican border where pretty tiring. Mainly because of the traffic and pollution. We didn’t really enjoy that part (edit: Marie enjoyed those days), although it was mainly downhill and we were looking forward to enter our last country together, Mexico.
A whole new place
Mexico was immediately different for us, everything is farther apart which meant more quiet roads. The vastness of this country brought us to some highlights like Cenotes ( natural hole in the ground filled with water), waterfalls, beautiful cities and rock! We even made a detour by going down for 1000m and all the way up again for the Cenote of Chucumaltik and the Cascades El Chiflon. They where definitely worth it! After a great sleep at the waterfalls we climbed up again to San Cristobal, a beautiful town in Chiapas where we took some time off and went rock climbing.
We had a good time in San Cristobal and our rest there was well spent. From there we had a very long downhill, beautiful but on a more busy road. Not too bad when going downhill because you have the right speed not to be bothered by traffic that much. At 2200m it’s quite cool in the hills and by the time we got down to Tuxtla we where both having a hard time with the heat. Temperatures where up to 38°C (in the shade) and just during the last 100m of climbing up to this city, Marie tells me she can’t go on. We stop and immediately she needs to lay down, then she vomits and suffers hard. We fix her a taxi who takes her and her bike up to a hotel where it’s obvious she will not cycle the next coming days.
Tuxtla is not the most beautiful city to be stuck, there’s only the Canyon which is definitely worth the visit but that’s about it. Luckily there are many hotels and we find some good and cheap accommodation where Marie can rest. It turns out she’s having food poisoning and in this heat it is so hard to have. While Marie is resting I’m trying to keep busy climbing in the local gym. I’m not only cycling, I still need to keep fit for climbing and other sports in this project. I prefer to keep fit instead of getting back to shape from scratch, with climbing gyms in medium (says the Belgian where the biggest city has 1.2 million inhabitants) sized towns, Mexico is great for that.
New energy for the final push
When Marie felt better we were mentally and physically ready to head to our final goal together: Oaxaca. We still had quite some time so we decided to take it easy with some detours to nice places like waterfalls and lakes.
The heat got back to us and from the beach we had a final climb up to Oaxaca at 1500m with many ups and downs. We really enjoyed this climb as it winded through different landscapes and amazing views. We cycled through many agave fields which is used to make mezcal or syrup. The cooler air gave us again more energy up to 2000m and we made a little detour to Hierve El Agua before our last stop together.
Pain in the end
As we got closer to Oaxaca our energy started to get lower again. Not physically but mentally. We knew the end of our journey together was about to end, which is always hard. It’s hard to say goodbye. From October ’22 I’m on this journey and we didn’t see each other for 3 months. Then we where cycling together for 2,5 months in a very intense way and suddenly, we’re all alone again. It’s a mix of feelings, happy we made it to Oaxaca, sad that Marie is leaving, thankful for all those moments, proud of Marie, scared to be alone now, excited to be alone as well, so many mixed feelings going on which is normal until I find a new balance in my life here again…