I woke up just before 5am, and on the hour the security guard came up to my tent to let me know it was 5. He must have been listening carefully when I said the night before I planned to leave around then. I don’t think for a minute that he was being pushy, he was just awake and wanted to help me out. I packed up and got my water bottles filled before going. As is often the case, I didn’t know my destination. It was about 170km to Chiquimula where I had a Couchsurfing host lined up, but considering the terrain that seemed a bit far for a day. From looking on Crazyguy most people seemed to stop about half way, in Gualan, although that seemed to at least be partly to get away from the horrible CA-9 that goes from the port of Puerto Barrios on the Atlantic Coast, through Guatemala City and to the Pacific making for not the nicest driving.
I made it the 25km which the guards had told me was flat (shock, it wasn’t) to CA-9 and just before turning on to it had my first ever collision while cycling. I was riding close to the white line, and a minivan filled with passengers (including the assistant that’s always hanging out of the side-door) decided to overtake me so he could turn the corner two seconds earlier. There was traffic coming the other way so he had to come so close to me that the assistant smacked into my hand. I was shaken up and let the minivan driver know what I thought of him, while the assistant obviously found it hilarious. Being minivans and it being a junction, they pulled over 50m down the road to let some passengers out. I caught up with them, although it wasn’t like I was racing after them, and pulled up next to the drivers window. He didn’t seem to care in the slightest that he’d hit into me and took off without a word, just more giggling from the assistant.
I pulled in at the petrol station just down the road and sat down for a while not only to eat something, but also to work out what I was going to do. If I’d had that kind of experience at the very start of this road that everyone had described so negatively then did I really want to ride the next 110km along it? Should I just hitch a ride? I got an email back from my CS host who said that I was welcome to turn up either that night or the day after, whatever worked for me was good with him. I decided that I’d give the road a second chance, I could always pull over and find a lift if I was having such a bad time.
In the end, the road was generally not too bad. The very heavy constant stream of traffic that others wrote of didn’t seem to be there, it was more like intermittent waves. There was some kind of shoulder, although a few inches lower and sometimes covered in rocks, mud, glass or tree roots, which meant I could ride along it and then when it got bad hop up to the main road. I had a couple of idiots driving too close, especially on bridges, and a lorry blasting his horn for 10 seconds until I jumped onto the shoulder (which had vanished before he started honking).
The road went through the normal large number of small villages and I got a few shouts of support, although only one kid who clapped. For the first few hours, the stalls mainly sold pineapples, but then after a while it was mango time. I bought one and proceeded to eat it while riding. I learnt in Cuba that you’re meant to peel a mango with your teeth, but I’ve not quite mastered eating them while riding without getting my right hand, my lips and bits of my bike where the juices drip incredibly sticky. I saw a mechanics on the right hand side and pulled over to see if I could clean myself up and was directed to a tap. While there, the owner came out and asked me where I was from. When I told him that I was from England he invited me over to talk and it turned out he had spent 10 years living in Vegas until 1996 when he had saved enough money to start the garage. He gave me a bottle of coke, and we spoke for about 20 minutes, before I had to leave. I’d decided at that point that even though it was still kinda far to Chiquimula and my Couchsurfing host it was just about doable.
I turned off the road in Rio Hondo, glad to be off CA-9 and was horrified to find that CA-10 is actually worse, at least for the first 10km until Zacapa. There are sets of 10 traffic strips in the road every 200m and the shoulder basically doesn’t exist. I had more near-hits in that 10km than the 110km of CA-9. I had a couple of people stop to try to talk with me, but with the sun going down soon and a climb before Chiqui I knew I didn’t have much time if I wanted to be off the hill in the light so excused myself after a few minutes with both of them even though they were still full of questions.
The hill ended up being a delight to climb. There were definitely some parts where it was steep, but I really do love the feeling of full-out exertion that you get from climbing hills. That burning in the legs as you try to accelerate up the hill as your heart is pounding and you’re doing all you can to breath, and then make it harder by singing along at full volume to your music is just glorious. I got so many beeps of support, waves from drivers and truckers using their airhorn as I wound my way up to the top and each one spurred me along. Then it was time to let go and fly down at 60km/h with only one idiot deciding to overtake me on a blind corner (and he of course almost crashed into a truck coming up the other way).
The sun had gone down and it was getting dark, but I stopped for a drink. I’d only eaten a mango, a small packet of biscuits and my new snack that I learnt in Chetumal – 8 hotdog and sliced processed cheese wrapped in tortillas, I hadn’t known that the processed hotdogs don’t need cooking before eating, so I bought and gulped down a litre bottle of coke. It gave me the energy I needed, but my brain wasn’t quite there. I thought that something was rubbing so I stopped and looked thinking my top, which I’d taken off on the climb, might be rubbing against the tyre. I was aghast to find that it wasn’t there and was wondering where it might have fallen off, when I realised that I was wearing it having put it on before buying the coke.
After 172km, I made it to Alejandro’s house, where he lives with his wife and young daughter, and went straight for a shower. I got cleaned up, had dinner and then sat round with him talking and learning all about the three-tier medical system in Guatemala, as he’s a doctor and runs his own clinic, before bed. He gets up at 5:30 and starts doing surgeries at 6am because then he can still get to his clinic for 9am to see patients. Working for himself, he gets paid per patient and so if he did surgeries at a normal time like 9 or 10am he wouldn’t be able to see patients in his clinic and he’d lose out on money.
The three tiers he described are national hospitals for everyone where the doctor are swamped and there are no specialists. This leads to the problem of getting to sit round forever and the example he gave me was of patients waiting and the doctor deciding to go for lunch, and then a siesta, and if you’re still alive he might see you after that, although if it’s something bad he’ll then probably throw you in an ambulance and send you to Guatemala City. The next step up are public ones for those with a stable job that pay social security, although I seem to remember that figure from my last time in Guatemala being around only 1/3, there care is good although there are waiting lists. Finally there are private clinics where you get great service but it obviously costs. For example he charges about $1000 for something like a c-section, which is apparently cheap compared to the $5-6,000 in Guatemala City.