Monday, 1 November 2010

Hello Guatemala

After a really good 10 nights in San Ignacio it was time to leave the town and the country of Belize and go and say hello to Guatemala.

I left the hotel just after 8am and cycled 30 metres down the road to the café. I had an extra large “breakfast of champions” and as the hour approached 9am I put my crash helmet on and started cycling to the border. 10 minutes later I was off the bike as the ¾ mile climb out of town was to steep to do this early! At the top I was back on the saddle and the rolling countryside was pleasant and the tarmac was smooth.

Just over an hour later I reached the border town of Benque and had a long and lazy rehydration stop...there was no rush. Leaving the town behind the border wasn't far away and once the small climb was conquered I free wheeled to passport control.

The formalities were just that and the Belizean exit tax was 3 times more than the fee for the Guatemala visa...sometimes that's just the way it is!

Once I was officially in Guatemala I crossed the river into the border town of Melchor and found a hotel on the main highway at the top of the hill. It only cost Q150 a night (there are 12 of those to £1) and it seemed nice enough. As soon as I had checked in the 1st thing I did was walk across the road to the convenience store attached to the petrol station. The only down side to hanging out in Belize is a complete lack of marlboro cigarettes....I had missed them so much!!!

From here its about 100kms to Flores, which might be to far for me right now (in the last 52 days I have spent 7 days on the bike covering a massive 230 miles) and I also have no idea what the terrain is like. However 40 miles down the road on the north-east shore of lake Petan is the small village of El Remate which has many I have a choice.

After a relaxing nights sleep I was on the road just after 7am and going out of town it was smooth and flat but I had an idea that it would soon be changing....and sure enough it did! I was passing through woodland and grazing pastures as the road meandered up, down and around the rolling countryside and an hour into the day I had my 1st “damn I really am an unfit bastard” climb. It was short but the 1st section was way too steep for me, so I got off the bike and walked it! Back on the saddle I managed the downhill section with ease and carried on.

Another hour passed and the 2nd climb presented itself. It was only about 1 mile in length but it was done sitting on the saddle....yippee!

By 10:30 I was half way there and so I had a long relaxing stop and enjoyed the very cold bottles of coke.

Carrying on the road continued to go up and down but as I was heading towards a lake I thought that at some point the road would head downhill. At the crest of each steep little rise I told myself “that's the last one it's downhill all the way from here” and after saying that countless times it turned out to be true......but only for about 1km, then it stayed flat.

Turning right onto the Tikal road I cruised the few miles to the village of El Remate on the north-east shore of lake Petan, I quickly found out that there was no ATM but the place I decided to stay at took visa....which is why I was staying there because my wallet was lacking in Quetzales. It costs Q205 a night which includes either breakfast or dinner and the room is nice with a bench and hammock outside in the shade. The large garden is well maintained and it also has great views of the lake and the sunsets here are fabulous.

On Thursday , after spending a full day in the hammock, I was back on the road to Flores. There were two roads to the small island town, one was south for 35kms and the other went around the lake and was 10 miles longer....I chose the latter!

The morning was overcast with low grey clouds blocking out the warmth of the sun and it was a chilly 22oc, it felt so good! Leaving the hotel with a small gift of a carved wooden toucan from the owner I turned left and headed around the lake. Two corners and 800m later the tarmac ran out and I wouldn't being seeing it again for another 15 miles.

The dirt road was bouncy, full of potholes and lots of sharp pointy fist sized rocks poking up through the mud and gravel. At least the road was quiet so that when I was weaving my way all across the road I didn't have to worry about traffic. Several times along the road it pitched skyward at such an angle that even if it had been tarmacked I would of struggled. The fact that the road resembled a washed out river course meant that I was off the bike pushing its heavy weight up the road whilst becoming weaker with every footfall.

There were several small villages along the road and I came to the conclusion that a gringo on a bike was definitely a curious sight to behold.

Finally after 3.5 hours of sweat and toil I turned a corner and there before me was sweet beautiful tarmac! Stopping at roadside shop for a well earned long rest, I was sucking down my 2nd ice cold gaterorade when I became the unwitting goal of a game that the gang of small kids had just invented called “poke the gringo” :)

Back on the saddle there was a steep downhill blast to the village of San Jose before a longer climb up to and through the village of San Andres. Cresting the rise I stopped pedalling and enjoyed the 3 mile free wheel to the river. There is nothing better than sitting on the bike with stationary pedals as the speedo hits 30mph.

Crossing the river it was about 7 miles to Flores along a flat road with just a hint of a tail wind

On the lake shore opposite the island is the town of Santa Elena where you will find not a single signpost to let you know which way it is to Flores but I went with the flow and guessed correctly when it was time to turn left. I crossed the causeway and found a gringo hotel on the edge of town (it only takes 10 minutes to walk across the town and therefore the island) that charged Q50 a night for an okay room (after Belize I think it's time to reduce my hotel bills).

I had only cycled 32 miles today but I was wiped out. However the bar downstairs is open till midnight so I should be able to recover.

In the morning it was overcast and cold enough for me to wear my fleece....happy days are here again!!!! After a lazy breakfast I was sitting on the terrace with a great view of the lake when it stared to rain....damn, it's like being back in England!

Come Monday morning this old dog is about to learn a new trick

The next day was Saturday and after having lunch in the Café Yaxha (these are the guys that took my money for next weeks Spanish lessons) the German owner mentioned that the local football team was playing in the afternoon and would I like to go...hell yeah! Jumping out of the tuk tuk with about 15 minutes to go before kick off we all found a place in the stand and waited. The team play in the 2nd division (think Slough Town quality) and the small pitch was surrounded by a 10ft high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire whilst a small contingent of soldiers lurked in the shade. Personally I thought it was a slight overkill...

With 10 minutes to go to half time the home team were 3-0 up and the opposition were suddenly down to 10 men after a really bad “studs up” challenge ended in a straight red card. Now the chain link fence made sense....In the 2nd half the home team were taking it easy but with less than 10 minutes left to go, 2 quick goals by the away side woke them up. They managed to “hang on” for the win.

Sunday morning found me having breakfast at café Yaxha before going on a full days tour to a couple of Mayan sites. Both of them were on the road to Belize so it was a case of deja a vu. The 1st site was called La Blanca and it was only about 10kms from the border. It was different to any other ancient site I've been to because the archaeologist only started their excavations here six years ago and are still on site today. New discoveries are being made everyday, like the skeleton they found yesterday. Our guide loved his job (although he never called it that!) and his enthusiasm was infectious.

After a slow bimble around the site lunch was provided by one of the local families. They take it in turns throughout the week to feed the staff working on the site and the tourists that come and visit. Then it was back in the minibus heading away from the border towards the next site. This gave me the chance to stick my head out of the window, like every dog seems to do, as the minibus made its way up the climb that tortured me 6 days before....damn, its a lot easier with an engine!

Several miles down a dirt side road was the Mayan site of Yaxha. Its located on the shores of a lake and there are literally hundreds of buildings. Most of them are still tree covered mounds but the ones that they have excavated and restored (which costs a lot of money to do and then look after and guard) are pretty awesome.

Moving through the site with foxes, woodpeckers, turkeys, butterflies and howler monkeys for company (plus one or two mosquitoes) we walked along dappled sunlit paths from one temple or palace to another. A few of the taller un-restored “hills” had wooden steps snaking up their flanks, the views were fanwowtastic. However, the guide, who has been here before, saved the best till last.

Climbing up the wooden steps that went up the side of the large fully restored temple (but with I ain't going up those stone steps on the front) you finally got to the top and as you were getting your breath back the views took it away again....

Right now it's Tuesday of Martes as the Spanish speakers call it....and my head hurts! (why didn't the British Empire rule over what is now called Latin America, it would make life a lot easier) It's my 2nd day of learning Spanish and this old dog is struggling with a new trick. Thankfully my teacher has the patience of a saint. However...for some reason I've had a complete brain freeze with two words. The 1st word is the Spanish for bicycle and the 2nd is for the number 40. Now it could be a complete coincidence but.....

Now its 21:30 and I'm in La Cueva bar (its the one below the hotel) sitting on a barstool banging my head against the bar hoping it will help get my head around “ser” “estar” and things that are close, near and far away..........…....Its now the early evening on Monday 15th of November and today I started my second week of trying to learn Spanish, I am a glutton for punishment. I've also moved from my hotel to a room at the school. It's a lot quieter (there is no bar below me and no gringo backpackers nosily moving around) and I have a nice shady courtyard to relax in. I'll be here in Flores for another week before moving on. Having looked at two different routes I have come to the conclusion that the route that goes into the mountains via the city of Coban is one that I would not be able to manage purely on the bike. The climbs are long, which isn't the problem but the gradients are just that little to steep for me right now. As I don't feel like going on a bus any time soon it looks like I'll be staying in the lowlands as I head towards the Rio Dulce and then the Honduras border, where there is no way around the mountains on the road to the town of Copan.

The café: and the school:

I almost forgot to mention the fact that I did finally get around to going to Tikal

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