Guatemala? I hardly know her!
Oaxaca to Xela via cruisey Veracruz, sweaty Chiapas and Guate’s gradients
Hello friends, family and those we've met on the road! Welcome to the thirteenth edition of our newsletter, this time penned from Antigua, Guatemala.
Let's start with the bad news: when we last spoke we were sick in a roadside hotel. The medication we took there gave us enough good health to ride to San Cristóbal de las Casas, but sadly when we arrived we were once again struck down. After a quick trip to the doctor we were prescribed more drugs, and after a not-too-pleasant week cooped up in an Airbnb, we hope we have finally kicked whatever it was to the kerb. Again, we've been fortunate in our misfortune: accomodation was cheap in San Cris, we had our own bathroom, and it was relatively easy to take some buses to Guatemala, in order to make up a little time on the route and give ourselves a chance to recover while still feeling like we were making progress. Thank you so much to everyone that supported us during this period with a kind text, medical advice and everything inbetween. Hopefully things are looking up from here!
So with that out of the way, we can talk about the amazing riding we've done in the past few weeks. After finally leaving Oaxaca state, we spent 200km in the relative lowlands of Veracruz, where the hills were a little less demanding and the road surface consisted of largely dreamy gravel. We cruised through rolling pastoral scenes, teeming with beautiful cows and lush lawns, while the sounds of tropical birds filled the air. It was here we saw our first toucan, truly signalling our arrival into Central America. We camped in rubber tree forests and next to idyllic streams, and we felt strong on the bikes.
The Trans-Mexico route then led us into the state of Chiapas, where more mountainous typography returned and we continued to encounter small pueblos full of kind and interested locals. It was interesting to see the influence of Catholicism wane here, as we reached a part of Mexico dominated by Seventh Day Adventists. It was a little surprising not to be able to buy tacos on a Saturday (the rest of Mexico is very much open on Sundays), but we benefitted considerably from the hospitality of those whose faith obviously guided them to treat travellers with generosity. Once, as we made lunch in a park, we were continuously approached by adults and children with gifts of food. Our almuerzo of veggies and pasta definitley benefitted from the addition of pancakes.
After a speedboat ride and an interesting camp in a hotel carpark, we started the long, 1250m ascent to San Cristóbal de las Casas, via a mixture of dirt backroads and vertiginous paved climbs. A river dip helped us cool off and the promise of services in the city ahead kept our spirits high. When we finally descended into San Cris, rolling into a gigantic Walmart for supplies, we realised this was the first supermarket we'd seen since Christmas, underlining just how rural our recent adventures had been. We're so thankful that the route we followed, created by cyclists Hanna and Mark and freely available on bikepacking.com, gave us the opportunity to explore a side of Mexico not often encountered by bus-bound travellers.
Our time in the city was mostly spent feeling unwell, but we did get to share a pastry with Greg before he continued towards Guatemala, and on our first day of feeling a little brighter we fortuitously bumped into two touring cyclists - Brit Matt and and USer Brian - on one of San Cris's cobbled streets. We enjoyed hearing about their different routes across Mexico, and Brian's love for McDonalds, over a breakfast-time coffee.
As for our own journey, we decided that if there was any time to avail of the cheap and plentiful buses in the region, it was while recovering from illness. And so began a three-day, four-bus traverse to the Guatemalan city of Quetzaltenango, via the town of Comitán, the border and two exhilarating 'chicken buses' - old US schoolbuses repurposed for the roads of Guate, normally blinged out and featuring acrobatic conductors who throw punters' luggage (including our bikes) onto the roof with minimal effort. When we arrived in 'Xela', as the city is more commonly known, we and our bikes were thankfully still in one piece, and we were welcomed by a smiling Greg to our beautiful, relaxed hostel. It was lovely to be able to celebrate the fact he'd just ridden the section we'd skipped, and his 28th birthday, with a veggie burger and fries in the company of Simon and Lizzie, who we'd last met in Oaxaca at Christmas. Two days in the city really improved our mood after what had been a hard couple of weeks, as we enjoyed an inexpensive yoga class, tempeh salads and walks around the town's German-influenced architecture.
We then finally got on the bikes, this time back in our gang of three with Greg, and pedalled towards Lake Atitlan - one of Guatemala's most famous beauty spots. The lake is surrounded by volcanos, and from the moment we first caught sight of the water, it was three days of breathtaking views. The descent down to the lakeside towns certainly destroyed plenty of brakepad matter, but the vistas made the hours of up and down fly by. Hopping on a lancha (speedboat) across the lake, we arrived at a hotel that invites campers to use their lawn. The three of us enjoyed a rest day taking dips in the lake and photographing the volcanoes in the changing light.
The stretch from Xela to Atitlan also saw our first interactions with Guatemalans, who were impossibly welcoming. Locals are either truly delighted to have visitors or very good at pretending they're not bored by the constant stream of tourists. Many have a few words of English and are keen to practice, or are incredibly patient with our still-stunted Spanish. And a cheeky smile seems to never be far from the lips of anyone we encounter (although this could just be because I look a bit stupid in my hat).
So far the most visible change from Mexico is in the colourful outfits worn by the women here: many do don modern dress, but highly decorative, embrodiered blouses and mid-length skirts are very common, with the señoras in comedors often serving us eggs, plaintain and frijoles while wearing these traditional ensembles. It is, for a tourist, relentlessly charming, and means day-to-day interactions feel just a little bit brighter.
After Atitlan we ascended towards the beautiful Maya ruins of Iximche and the town of Tecpan, from where we took a short bikepacking loop that proved incredibly challenging. Here, Greg's mountain biking experience was apparent, and he had a fair few hours waiting for us at camp. The offroad sections and the sheer steepness of the climbs meant we spent more time walking than riding, but it was still a very scenic section, with more volanco views, and we've decided it's always useful to discover more about where your limits are. Guatemala's dirt tracks feel like the first true nemesis of the trip!
A downhill day into the old colonial capital of Antigua followed, and since then we have been camping in a hostel garden, readying ourselves for the ride towards El Salvador - our fifth country of the trip. Considering how much we've enjoyed experiencing Guatemala's culture after such an extended period in Mexico, we are looking forward to all the surprises ahead. And maybe... hopefully... some slightly flatter cycling.
Toot or boot
Getting sick again BOOT
Easy access to delicious and tummy-friendly tofu in San Cris TOOT
Steepest ascents of the tour so far BOOT
Steepest descents of the tour so far TOOT
Nearly missing the bus to Xela BOOT
Boarding said bus while it was already moving TOOT
Saying goodbye to the grocery stores we've spent four months learning to navigate BOOT
Chocobananas (frozen bananas dipped in chocolate) available everywhere TOOT
Thanks and shoutouts
Simon and Lizzie
Both of my aunts, who are sadly very experienced in travellers' illnesses!
Denny and Raul
Chris for all the route info
We are Edwin Foote and Suzie McCracken - thanks for signing up for our newsletter! Edwin is from England and Suzie is from Northern Ireland and normally we live together in Deptford, south-east London. We arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska, in May 2022 and are attempting to ride our bicycles the length of the Americas, hoping to finish in Argentina in 2024. If you have any recommendations of things we should do, people we should meet or places we should stay, we'd love to hear from you! Please reply to this email, or follow us on Instagram (ed_win or _suziemccracken).