Comitan to San Pedro de Atitlan. 9200 miles. 10th March.

 

All the way through the US we were warned about travelling in Mexico. "You are not going there are you?" "Itís very dangerous." "You will get robbed or murdered." "Watch out for the Banditoís." All this is myth. Ourselves and the many people we have met traveling in Mexico have met nothing but, smiles kindness, and helpfulness even from the police and military.

We were often waved down by the military at checkpoints, but all they wanted was a chat as they were inquisitive about what we were doing. We have had no problems with officialdom in Mexico apart from one immigration officer in Tijuana - indeed, found the tinpot officials at the campsites in California very frustrating and annoying.

Come on you American readers, dispel the myth.

Downhill most of the 50 miles to the border. (9008 miles). As usual, both border posts were plain and easy to miss if you are not keeping a lookout. The Mexican side and the Guatemala side were 2 miles apart. No charge for exit from Mexico, but about a dollar to get into Guatemala. Itís a good job that we stopped to get our exit stamps from Mexico as they checked at the Guatemala border. If not, we would have had to cycle downhill and come back uphill 2 miles again.

Stayed in the border town of La Mesilla. This is a very busy little town astride the Pan American Hwy which at this point is dirt, rocks and very narrow with market stalls taking up much of the space. There was just enough room for a bus to get through. As a matter of interest, some people we have met think that the grand sounding Pan American Hwy is a major freeway or motorway, which runs all the way down the Americas. It may run all the way down the Americas (apart from the Darian Gap) but certainly is not a good condition highway all the way. Some parts in Central America (and other places) are just dirt, mud, rocks and is as narrow and winding as a logging road. It is 15,000 miles long and its highest point is at 12,000ft in Guatemala. We will be up there soon.

The road from the border was uphill all the way to Huehuetenango and passed through some wonderful mountain scenery and villages. The hotel we stayed at for two nights was only 30 Quetzals a night. Very basic, but light and airy. We have now worked out that there are about 11 Quetzals (pronounced Ketsaal) to the pound.

Internet access in Huehuetenango was 30 Quetzals an hour - much more expensive than we had bargained for. Donít yet know why.

Arranged by phone to visit Max and Mary in Chichicastenango, who we met in Mexico. Looking at the map, there was two ways to get to Chichicastenango, both about 80 miles away on mountainous territory. To make a change David chose a route taking us over minor roads. The first few miles were relatively easy, but then the hard work started. The road surface was a mixture of fine volcanic ash and gravel and the road weaved over mountains. Some parts were so steep that we had to walk for the first time since the logging roads in Canada. The views were spectacular - We could see several volcanoes and a vast patchwork of small hillfarms on what was obviously deforested land.

We were greeted with smiles and waves by the Indian hill dwellers. As we sat by the road eating a snack, a young Indian woman with children approached us. We could not understand what she was saying but as she showed us her small child's badly swollen joints it was obvious that she was asking us if we could help him. Sadly, we could do nothing. We felt like giving her some money but didnít know if this was the right thing to do. We will find out while we are here.

Continued on atrocious roads which eventually went down very steeply to Sacapulas where we found a place with a balcony overlooking a river with mountain views all round. Lovely view, but we were now at the bottom of the mountains. 20 miles of continuous uphill, some very steep followed the next day. We had to pass through two deep gorges with very steep winding roads and hairpin bends before we finally made it to Chichicastenango.

Max and Maryís place was a lovely house with views from a rooftop pigeon loft. They made us very welcome and we finally collapsed into bed at 11pm.

Max and Mary took us into Quetzaltenango where we arranged to have Spanish lessons in San Pedro situated on lake Atitlan. The system for Spanish lessons is that each person has his/her own tutor for 4 hours a day, and we stay full board with a local family for about 100 US Dollars a week each. The system is apparently very flexible and we can change locations anytime we want. We plan to spend two weeks by the lake and more time in Quetzaltenango. But, our plans have changed before.

Our second full day in Chicicastenango was very eventful. As well as being market day, the town was visited by Sophia the queen of Spain. We watched her arrive by helicopter on a local football field and joined the crowds when she toured the market. As part of the welcoming celebrations there was a demonstration of pole-diving where three men slowly descend by swinging around a 100ft pole. The market is one of the most famous and colourful in Guatemala and the colours of the various cloths and costumes worn by the local women is stunning. The women wear costumes called Huipiles which are intricately woven and embroidered in brilliant colours.

The stay with Max and Mary was a welcome break from cycling. They both made us most welcome and we could relax, although we all lost some sleep by staying up later than usual while gossiping. Max Studies Latin American history, culture and language. He speaks fluent Spanish and it is a pleasure to watch and listen to him chatting and joking effortlessly with the local people who obviously appreciate a gringo who can communicate so well. Maybe someday we will be able to chat to them as well.

They both work voluntarily to support a local language school and normally charge a registration fee to cover expenses and to pay for education for some of the local girls who would not otherwise get the opportunity. Their families are reimbursed the money the girls would have earned by selling crafts on the streets. The website for the language school is:

http://www.centromaya.com

A highlight of our stay was when we were invited for lunch at the home of a local Guatemalan Indian family. The house was a basic mud brick and timber construction with a tiled roof. We met the family of husband and wife, their mother and children.

The meal, cooked on an open fire was of a meat stew with vegetables, a potato - like root vegetable (chayote squash) and corn tamales. A cold drink (atole) made from maize was also served.

The women showed us how they wove the intricate cloth to make their huipiles (a decorative blouse worn by the women). The grandmother who could not speak Spanish, but only an Indian language chatted away merrily most of the time and enjoyed the occasion as much as we did.

After saying our temporary farewells to Max and Mary, the road to Lake Atitlan was via a very deep canyon and a 2000ft climb out with vicious hairpin bends. The roads so far in Guatemala have very steep hills and the cycling is somewhat like Devon in England, but the hills go on for longer. Fortunately, the roads are of good surface. An extremely steep final few miles down and we arrived at the wonderfully scenic lake. A very fast half an hour boat ride over choppy water and we were at San Pedro. The language school was 85 dollars a week each and board with a local family included.

The local family supplied us with a room and bed. Toilet facilities were outside through a dusty yard and consisted of a toilet with no flush, but a flush from a bucket filled from a tub. The "shower" was a tub of warmish water and a bowl to pour it with. Three good meals were served each day. Although the family was very friendly and the food excellent after a week, we decided to spoil ourselves and rent a room near the lakeside with a wonderful lake view. Home cooking was back again although to eat out is less than two pounds each for a very good meal.

San Pedro is a small village on the lakeside and is dominated by a huge volcano. The lake is at 5000ft and the volcano at 10000ft. Although San Pedro is starting to cater more for tourists, it still has very narrow steep roads, which are largely inaccessible to much traffic. The local people are mostly Indians and the men wear very fancy trousers and jackets.

The lake is about 4 to 5 miles across and is said to be bottomless although our book says it is 1000ft deep. Every day presents us with a different lake scene as the light and clouds change. It is difficult to decide when to stop taking photos, as the scenery is so wonderful.