In a way, our passage into Guatemala has been like our deliverance, and in truth, we are eager converts. We feast our eyes upon plot after well-tended plot of corn, lettuce, carrots, beets—all of it growing in dark, fertile soil—and we know that Guatemala will offer us a more varied edible smorgasbord than previous countries. Rather than monotonous tones of white, off-white, and the occasional brown, plates of food here more often resemble the color palette of Skittles—and it’s amazing to taste that rainbow.
Like birds of the Corvid family, the girls in the group have become mesmerized by all that shines and sparkles in this country, which includes most of the indigenous attire. The brilliantly colored textiles blaze in vibrant hues and most are embellished with dazzling embroidery or intricate beadwork. The complex woven patterns occasionally rival those of Escher. Indigenous women wear woven skirts complemented by embroidered tops, their hair either braided with ribbon or twisted and knotted just above their foreheads. These women are as beautiful and have as much poise as princesses. They walk about with graceful ease, balancing baskets of fruit, tortillas, textiles and other goods atop their heads. Interacting with these women is like listening to a sweet lullaby, since the gentle cadence of their voices is so delightfully singsongy.
Twenty-one different Mayan indigenous languages are spoken in Guatemala. Thus far, we’ve heard several of them, picking up words here and there, like the always handy hello, goodbye, and thank you. The indigenous locals giggle when we try out our new vocab, as if thinking, “Sure, throw out a few local words and you’ll surely disguise the fact that you’re gringos clad in blinding neon jerseys and spandex, schlepping loads of stuff around by bike.”
After breezing through the Honduras-Guatemala border, about half a day into our 70 kilometer ride, we become desperately hungry. The problem: we keep pedaling kilometer after long kilometer without finding a single little comedor. As beautiful as the Guatemalan rural landscape is, we’re ready to find some signs of civilization—preferably the kind that will serve us a hefty portion of lunch.
Finally, just as the trees are beginning to look like stalks of broccoli and the cows like T-bone steaks, we enter a town to find our first sampling of Guatemalan cuisine. And by golly is it good! We’re not sure whether the astronomically rich flavors of meat, potatoes, tortillas and unidentified red sauce can be attributed to our ravenous hunger, the fact that we’re eating something different than baleadas, or that, truth be told, it’s actually just really delicious food.
After lunch, we cruise along until we reach a freakishly long downhill, where we seem to lose hundreds and hundreds of feet in elevation. During the interminable descent, in the middle of nowhere, Alyssa, Devon and Kate spot a little old man pushing an ice cream cart down the hill in the oppressive heat. The spectacle is just so random and mirage-like the girls decide they can’t pass up the opportunity. They buy a round of lime flavored, chemical-green popsicles, and then watch as the old man continues to push his ice cream cart slowly down the hill, until the sweet tinkling of his little bell becomes faint in the distance.
Soon we reach Chiquimula (minus Janell, who stayed in Copan to catch a shuttle to Antigua with our fellow travelers, Mary and Nora), just as the sun is starting to scorch our backs like a hot iron. After landing a steal of a deal at a quiet little hotel in the heart of the city, we hurry to the bustling central market square, where, lo and behold, we gaze upon mound after miraculous mound of peaches, strawberries, blackberries, lychees, apples, oranges, bananas, papaya, watermelon, beets, fried plantains, tamales, and a funny looking fruit called anona. We feast on produce and fried sweet plantains filled with beans and sit in the park sampling anona, which tastes like an odd cross between banana and guanabana (a white-fleshed tangy tropical fruit). By the end of our feast, it’s official. We are in love with Guatemala.
The following day we drift around the market, indulging in fresh produce and eyeing the artisan wares, wishing we had just a little more room in our panniers to carry some extra weight. Kate decides to treat herself and buys a brand new pair of authentic Guatemalan leather boots and becomes the envy of us all, or at least Devon, who is a bit of a cowboy boot connoisseur herself.
After a pleasant morning soaking in the sights, smells, and tantalizing tastes of Guatemala, the group waits for a shuttle bus, artfully arranged by Janell to pick them up in front of the city’s shopping mall. Although the shuttle is a couple hours late, the group finally reunites with Janell, Mary and Nora, and we embark on a five hour ride to Antigua, to avoid both cycling along the shoulderless highway and dodging Guatemala City traffic.
Five hours later, the group is dropped off in Antigua’s prim and trim central park. The temperature is brisk and layers of clothes are donned for the first time on the trip. We snake our way through the labyrinth of cobblestone streets until we reach our hotel, which affords a view of the towering Bacaya volcano. Here, the newest member of Cycles of Change, Melissa, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Panama, greets us with hugs and cheer and we warmly welcome her back to Central America.
We spend the next few days meandering through the city, feeling overwhelmed by artisan markets, the abundance of fine restaurants we can’t afford, and the fact that many people speak English, which never fails to throw us off. Our first day in Antigua, while the boys venture off on a hike, the girls set out on a quest to find artisan chocolate, and succeed. Handmade truffles abound at Chocolalala, a ritzy little hole-in-the-wall where the girls sample confectionary chocolates made with cardamom, pistachio, honeyed ginger, and rosemary.
For lunch, the girls get directions to a hidden comedor, which few tourists would know existed unless given a referral from a local. At first the girls are confused, because the directions lead them to a little tienda selling packaged food items. But they linger just long enough for the little old lady behind the counter to wave them through, back behind the counter and into a dimly lit room with about fifty framed paintings of crucified Jesus hanging on the walls. Inside, they are greeted by a handful of short, ancient, Guatemalan women. The sampling of food is divine, and the lack of any visible tourist influence on the place is a welcome change in Antigua.
In the afternoon, Kate, Melissa and Devon venture to a weavers market in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, a small town outside Antigua, where they hope to dabble in the art of back strap weaving and maybe even purchase a few souvenirs. The experience is markedly more overwhelming than any of them imagined. The market features stall after stall of beautiful woven goods. It’s the kind of environment that’s so overly stocked with lovely material items one almost feels obligated to help them clear out some inventory. Although one might not necessarily need a vibrant woven table runner, the skillful barrage of sales tactics entice you enough to consider buying one for your estranged aunt. “What is your name? Kati? A special discount just for you, Kati! Tell me, what is your price? You will need a special something to remember Guatemala. A present for your sister, or your boyfriend, maybe?” Yes, these women are good. They make you feel guilty for even looking at the merchandise, because you know you’re not going to buy it, and yet you kind of want it, but you can’t afford it, and oh god, now everyone at the market knows your name and might track you down if you leave without buying something!
The girls finally manage to escape the weavers market in a fatigued daze and catch a bus back to Antigua. There, the entire group spends a lovely evening with Mary, Nora, Katie, and Kieran, grabbing some dinner grub and then playing an amusing game of Taboo.
While pleasant, the following day is overshadowed by Logan’s imminent departure. Alyssa, Logan and Devon return to Chocolalala for more truffles and then stumble upon a stall of pastel textiles, all woven by women from a small indigenous cooperative and colored with natural dyes made from carrots, insects, avocados, berries and coffee.
Meanwhile, Peter scours the city for a bike box for his own flight back to the states in a few days. A box is finally found, just after Logan, Alyssa and Devon return to the hostel sporting matching Panama hats. For dinner, the group finds an impressive buffet of typical Guatemalan fare to host a farewell dinner for Logan. That evening is a sad one, and many group photos are taken, inside jokes are recalled and tearful goodbyes are made. After a truly minimal amount of sleep, Logan rises at around 3:45 a.m. to catch a shuttle to the airport, and our team is officially down to six. (We miss you so much Logan! Since your departure, we have experienced so many moments when one of us will say, “Logan would have loved this!”)
Sunday, we decide, must be none other than National Exercise Day in Guatemala. During our morning exit out of Antigua, we stumble upon a running race. The problem: we bike right into the race, heading the wrong way. We emerge from the mishap unscathed and make our gradual way to Tecpán, some 50 kilometers away. Along the way we spot a female jogger with a brick in each hand. We also find ourselves in the midst of yet another race, but this time, with other cyclists. Again, we are moving in the opposite direction, but we cheer on the spandex-clad racers as they whiz past us, envious of their load-free bikes.
After some significant elevation gain on Melissa’s first day of cycling, we reach Tecpán, chilled to the bone and in dire need of hot showers. We find a hotel, warm up our core temperatures, and then indulge in a four-course meal of grilled corn-on-the-cob, hot chocolate and cookies, tostadas (fried tortillas topped with beets, carrots, cheese and ground meat), pupusas (cheese-filled tortillas), arroz con leche (warm milk with rice and spices), and arroz con chocolate (rice drink with chocolate). (Logan, you would have said this was the best meal yet!) After devouring dinner, Janell, Melissa and Peter return to the hostel while Kate, Devon and Alyssa decide to hit up the local festivities.
Although the girls don’t quite understand what the good people of Tecpán are celebrating, their way of celebrating whateveritis proves to be quite the hair-raising ritual. The girls follow the crowds to a large congregation of people obviously watching and waiting for something to happen, as they have made space in the middle of the crowd for a show of some variety to take place.
Alyssa, Kate and Devon are taken aback when they realize the craziness that is about to ensue. Men have formed themselves into groups to compete in a challenge to win $500 (US). All they have to do is untie the bundle of money. The problem: the bundle of money is strapped to the top of a fifty-foot wooden pole coated in wax. The rules: anything goes. The girls can’t decide whether the competitors are brave or just plain foolhardy. But they watch as group after group attempts to climb the pole, standing one on top of each other’s shoulders and holding on for dear life. Each attempt usually measures about four-men tall until the bottom guy crumples under the weight of bodies and they all slide slowly and sadly back down the pole. The highlight of the night occurs when one group rests a rickety old ladder against the pole (again, anything goes) and one guy stands at the top of the ladder while three others stand on top of him. Next, a smaller dude clenching a dagger between his teeth pulls his way up each body until he reaches the top! He tries again and again to hang on for dear life while untying the wad of cash, but to no avail. Defeated, the group slides down the pole. As much fun as this all is to watch, the girls decide to head back to the hostel before witnessing a freak death.
Monday morning we rise and visit the Tecpán Mayan ruins, which are less impressive than those in Copan, but more intimate. We leave the town around noon and make it about 38 kilometers before we realize how cold, rainy and close to sunset it is. We stop for the night at Los Encuentros, about 12 kilometers from our planned destination. At our hotel, we fiddle with the showerhead in vain, praying for hot, even maybe mildly lukewarm, water to pour forth. Peter and Alyssa brave the icy water, while the others wait, and their patience—or maybe just their cowardice— is rewarded with steaming hot showers later that evening.
Tuesday morning our breakfast consists of arroz con leche con cornflakes (Logan, you would have loved this!), and then we descend to Sololá, a town with a bustling marketplace that caters to locals rather than to tourists. Here, we see both men and women dressed in traditional clothing. The market is truly alive, bursting at the seams with local flavor. Crowds of people squeeze past each other through a maze of stalls chalk full of fancy textiles, fluffy little chicks, stuffed animals, naked Barbie dolls, shoes, fruit, vegetables, blue corn tortillas, dishware, hats, hanging meat (including a grilled armadillo) and almost anything a local could ask for.
Peter and Alyssa part ways with the group to cycle the rest of the way to San Pedro la Laguna—Peter’s last cycle in Central America before his departure date on the 20th. Melissa, Kate, Janell and Devon decide to bike down the steep switchback road to the shore of Lago Atitlán to catch a ferry ride across the lake to meet up with Peter and Alyssa in San Pedro la Laguna. The ferry speeds across the lake, the bow of the boat slamming down with a mighty slap each time it crests another wave.
Meanwhile, Alyssa and Peter navigate their way to the turn-off from the Pan-American Highway that will lead them to our lakeside destination. After about 30 kilometers, they begin their steep descent to Lago Atitlán. Clutching their brake handles for dear life, Peter and Alyssa wind their way down hairpin turns, down a poorly paved road with a something percent grade. Feeling the impending force of gravity potentially launching them over their handlebars, they lean back a bit more in their bike saddles and pray that their brake pads hold out. After hearing the squeal of metal on metal from the lack of brake pads scraping along their wheel rims, Alyssa and Peter decide to walk their bikes. They hitch a ride with a bus, and then a flatbed truck. But, about one kilometer before reaching San Pedro, they encounter the aftermath of a landslide blocking the way for vehicular traffic. Although their bikes can easily sneak across the muddy debris, a gruff and grumpy policeman forbids their passage. After a half hour of waiting for permission, Alyssa and Peter lose patience and take off without the stern policeman’s blessing.
Just before dark, Peter and Alyssa reunite with the others and everyone is relieved to be together again. We feast on monster burritos and beer and are all amazed when Peter finishes his burrito, which, before consumed, dwarfed the size of his forearm.
Wednesday the girls take kayaks out on the lake—a perfect way to appreciate the majestic scenery of the location. A sizeable body of water, Lago Atitlán is visually stunning, with towering volcanoes shooting up from the shore, which are often enshrouded in clouds, producing a magnificently ethereal effect. Paddling parallel to the shoreline, the girls observe multi-tiered garden plots situated on almost vertical hillsides. Some locals are out in their gardens, hoeing and weeding, while others stand knee-deep in water washing clothes in the lake.
The rest of the afternoon is relaxed and relatively uneventful. By evening, most everyone is desperately hungry. All day the girls have had their hearts set on green curry and brownie sundaes for dinner at a certain restaurant that advertises these dishes. But after sitting down to order, the waiter breaks the news that brownie sundaes are not an option on this particular evening. The group the proceeds to wait for their food to be served for well over an hour, only to discover that the green curry tastes more like brothy vegetable soup.
But, the Cycles of Change gang is not easily defeated, and we plan our grand send-off ceremony for Peter. We decide that the evening’s activity will focus on a small, aluminum ring. The ring was gifted to Devon by a little boy named Brandon, who she met under a bridge during a downpour several days prior. Although the ring fits perfectly on her wedding finger, Devon decides not to give her heart away so easily and instead announces that this small object should serve an entirely different purpose.
Thus, for Wednesday night’s festivities, each member of the group is re-christened with Lord of the Rings character names. We solemnly assume our new identities, acutely aware of the grave importance of the task that lies ahead. We purposefully make our way down to the ferry dock under the cloak of darkness and proceed to take a bunch of very authentic character photos: Frodevon with Meldolf; Legalyssa with Jimli; Smeter with Frodevon and Katewise. Then, after a desperate struggle over the fate of The Ring, Frodevon and Smeter decide to make amends and toss the sacred object into the murky depths of Mordor together.
And then it’s time to face reality. Peter is leaving us the next day, and spirits are noticeably low. The series of events the following morning doesn’t improve the situation. The girls realize that their bus up the Hairpin Road of Ill-Fated Bike Rides is leaving much sooner than anticipated and rushed goodbyes are made. We’re sorry, Peter! Our farewell was much too hurried! We wish you well on your tour up the West Coast in the states! We miss you, Pedro. Stay safe and have fun.
And now, Cycles of Change is down to five…
**Special thanks to Kay for the marvelous assortment of snacks! We enjoyed them thoroughly and devoured them much too quickly.