We had hoped to start early knowing we had a lot of climbing ahead of us, and were putting our bikes outside when Jan and Noemi’s dog ran out after us and started running up the road. We didn’t want to be remembered as the guys who let their dog escape down the busy road so we followed after him. The more we followed, the further away he ran. If I crossed the road, he crossed the road. We followed for about 15-20 minutes before I eventually caught him, and then Peter carried him back to the house. Just before we got back, Jan came past us on his way to work and told us that we should have just let the dog run off. The problem was that as we were following the dog figured it was a game and just kept running. If we’d left him alone, he would have got bored and headed back to the house.
After saying our goodbyes, we made our way across town and headed towards the Guatemalan border. Just before getting to the border we saw an archeological site and made the most of our Mexican student ID to get in free and have a quick look around. We only got to see one of the three zones that made up the site because the others were too far off the main road and we were already behind schedule.
The town on the Mexican-side of the border was nice and we were met by plenty of very friendly people who were cheering us on. At the actual border, there were plenty of people who were busy trying to offer us their services to help us with immigration or exchange money and we waved them all away.
Peter stayed by the bikes to keep an eye on them while I spoke to Mexican immigration, and then I returned the favour. Because I’d got a student visa, I didn’t have to pay an exit tax, but unfortunately Peter did. I’m really not looking forward to having to pay entrance and exit fees when I start going through countries more frequently.
Entering Guatemala we were swamped by people offering to change money and those claiming to be working for immigration wanting to see our passports. When I asked them to see their ID they laughed and left us alone, unfortunately even after telling the money changers that we didn’t need any help they insisted on following us. It made me realise how much more annoying future border crossings will be without a second set of eyes watching the bikes while I’m in line.
After getting our 90 day visas, we left town and got a taste of what was to come with a steep climb out of town. It got us to a petrol station which was closed with signs mentioning contraband gas, we pulled in and I asked about the sign. Apparently petrol is much cheaper in Mexico and so people bring it across the border. A bunch of houses that we had been past had had gallons of petrol sat outside for sale and being under the table they don’t have to pay taxes unlike the companies who couldn’t hope to compete with the prices.
We stopped at the first town we arrived at to withdraw money from an ATM and find some food. It was immediately noticeable that there were fewer places to eat and it took some searching to find somewhere. It was a small room with a curtained off area at the back, which is where the cook and her family lived. Just before we were about to leave, the heavens opened and we had to sit around for about an hour just waiting.
After the skies cleared, we left town and started the climb for the day. Just as after we had crossed the border the hills were much steeper than the 6% average in the countries I’d been to so far. The climbs, which would have been fine on a road bike, were making us both drop into our smallest gears to be able to get up. Just before getting to San Rafael, a pickup truck with 3 bicycles in the back pulled up alongside me, the driver opened his window and we started talking while I was slowly climbing. We spoke for a few minutes and it turned out that they were going to San Rafael as well. One of the men, Rafael, told us where to meet him when we made it to town and so we said our goodbyes.
An hour or so of climbing later, we got to San Rafael, and unfortunately I’d forgotten where we supposed to meet up. We asked at the petrol station and they said that we could camp behind. We left our bikes there and went into town to find something to eat and get a SIM card for Peter’s iPhone. When we were in a hardware store looking for a card, we were amazed to see Rafael. He greeted us and invited us to have dinner with him and stay at his place, we gladly accepted and spent a lovely evening with him learning about Guatemala. Such a random meetup and a perfect example of the kind of things that can only take place on a bicycle.
As the day before, we’d hoped to leave early, but talking with Rafael that proved difficult so even though we’d woken up at 6 we didn’t leave until past 8. He’d mentioned that his brother, Victor, lived further up the road and that we could stop there for water. Rafael, as a cyclist, let us know that the 12km up to his brother’s house were the steepest part of the climb and he was definitely right. It kept going on and on with some very pretty views along the way. The road was in almost perfect condition, we later learnt it was because it had been destroyed in an earthquake back in November which we had both felt while we were studying up in Mexico City. I stopped along the road to wait for Peter to catch up and it took him a while. It turned out that the steep climbing was playing havoc on his knee and even after taking painkillers it hurt a lot to climb. We made it up to Victor’s place where we were met like heroes!
We stayed round chatting with Victor about his reforestation efforts for a while, before heading out. He was heading to the next town of San Marcos and was happy to take us there in his pickup truck. Peter, like myself, is quite stubborn, but after a while I persuaded him that it was for the best. With lots of climbing in the days ahead, and a schedule to keep to, a short lift would save the chance of much longer lifts and forced rest time later. We threw our things in the back of the truck and got taken to the top of the hill, missed a short downhill and were dropped off in town. It also meant we wouldn’t have to be pushing too hard to get to our destination of Xela that evening.
When we got let out, we kept going with fewer problems as the break had made the swelling in Peter’s knee go down. The climbing that we did have to do was mainly more gentle, other than one final climb up to the town of Palestina where we stopped for some seriously deliciously tender and cheap beef. Then it was a long downhill into the town of Xela where we only stopped for a bored policeman who waved me down. He started asking me about the trip, and while I’d normally have enjoyed talking with him I didn’t really want to. It was going to get dark soon and it was starting to get chilly so I tried to keep the chat short. Peter wasn’t his normal chatty self and barely said a word to the police either, and was glad to get going again.
When we got to Xela, we arrived at our Warmshowers host for the night. Ana, who was out when we arrived, had a French friend visiting as well and the four of us went to the oldest bar in Xela for a drink. It turned out that they’d met during their time living in Kyoto, and having spent 3 years there it was enjoyable to talk about one of my favourite cities.
Peter explains some ruins
In San Rafael – Before we met Rafael
View from the top