After a few days in the fanciest hostel we’ve ever stayed in, we saddled up again to head east out of Santa Ana. This time around we got to avoid the highway and instead meandered along beautiful winding back roads, almost completely devoid of traffic. It’s astonishing how much of a difference it makes to not constantly be honked at or passed by cars. At the end of the day we reached the lovely mountain town of Suchitoto, which our reliably unreliable guidebook called out as the go-to retreat for the fancier folks of El Salvador. While there weren’t any particularly thrilling sights from a cultural standpoint, the town’s laid back atmosphere and great street food were more than enough to convince us to hang around for a couple days. We even saw some familiar faces: Niels and Mariyana, the German couple we’d met in Santa Ana! They had passed our sweaty selves on the bus to Suchitoto and we ended up staying hospedaje again. (Guess you can’t complain about $7 per night.) What a very pleasant surprise!
After a few days of lazy sightseeing in Antigua, we bucked up and set our sights on Lago Atitlán. There is a good reason why some call Atitlán the “eighth wonder of the world.” But to get there we had quite a day ahead of us. Leaving Antigua to the north, we yet again fought up Guatemala’s signature steep ascents, accompanied by volcanic vistas, truck traffic, and blistering heat when the wind wasn’t blowing gritty dust directly into our faces. After a few too many hours of this, we finally turned off the main highway and onto the old Antigua-Atitlán road – a welcome respite that brought us right into the hills surrounding the lake.
We rode out of Belize from San Ignacio, entering Guatemala with our spirits soaring. This time around we didn’t have to deal with any official charging us nonsense fees bound for his own pocket. Instead the crossing was quick and painless, and in no time at all we found ourselves on the Guatemalan side of the border. The change of surroundings was astounding. After bumping along Belize’s questionably maintained road system for the past three weeks, we all of a sudden had a freshly paved, nearly car-free road stretched out ahead of us. We were so happy that we could have dropped right off our bikes and kissed the pavement!
After nearly seven months spent cycling all over Mexico, we were rewarded with a final few hours of blissful riding on the way out. For some crazy reason the wind decided to make a complete U-turn and shift from the grim headwind of the past month to a lovely, welcome tailwind. In no time at all we were at the border with Belize, looking forward to an early end to this Christmas Eve’s ride.
After our long detour through the hilly southern reaches of Chiapas, we were eager to reach Palenque and its famed ruins. The ancient city of Palenque is situated high upon a hill, giving it a commanding view of the expansive flatlands of the Yucatan peninsula to the east (modern Palenque town sits in the valley at the foot of that hill and is swelteringly hot – the ancients got it right.) The ruins themselves were well spread out and covered everything from pyramids to the obligatory ball parks. And if you don’t know anything about these ball parks yet, let me tell you. Apparently the ancients used to play some kind of hipball where they tried to maneuver a rubber ball through a vertical ring. Whoever scores first, wins, and the losers get sacrificed. Pretty harsh if you ask me.
Alex decided that she wanted to celebrate her 25th birthday with a hot shower and a good meal, so after Salina Cruz we hopped on a bus headed for Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capitol of Chiapas state. This would also help us avoid the dangerous winds that pummel the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (Mexico’s narrowest point) all through November and December. Our decision was affirmed by the fact that the route between the two cities was lined with hundreds of wind turbines – the first we’ve seen in Mexico. We were glad for the chance to avoid getting blown off the road and make some fast kilometers.
Unfortunately, when we got to Tuxtla Gutiérrez we quickly found out that we should skip town ASAP. Loud, dirty and thoroughly blah, there was really nothing that could make the city worthwile for us. So after just one night in town we packed up and got out of there in favor of the highly anticipated city of San Cristobal de las Casas. That day was pure grind, a steady climb of about 40 kilometers and over 6,000 feet. The most interesting bit came at the beginning, when we passed the toll booths that mark the start of the cuota. Rather than the policemen we usually see stationed there, the place was crowded with civilians wearing sunglasses and bandanas to hide their faces. They brandished sticks as makeshift blockades, carried paper signs with prices written on them, and held out tin cans to passing cars. Drivers deposited money into the tin cans and bypassed the bored-looking toll booth attendants completely.
After a less than inspiring stint in Oaxaca, the way out of town was somewhat of a relief. It has rarely felt better to be back on our Long Haul Truckers with the road rolling away beneath our wheels and a favorable tailwind at our backs. Our departure from Oaxaca signaled a marked change of pace: the colonial heartland of Mexico lay largely behind us, and the rural landscapes and steamy jungles of the coast awaited. The rolling hills and country views were so refreshing, in fact, that we kept on pedaling on until nightfall.
When the time came to look for a campsite, we found ourselves close to an enormous construction area where a new highway was in its early stages. This seemed rather inviting but it was still crawling with construction workers, so we hemmed and hawed for awhile before finally deciding to go ask someone if it was okay to set up camp. For some reason we always expect the worst from these requests, despite the fact that we are rarely met with a no. This time around, the man we asked acted like it was the most normal thing in the world for two dusty güeros on bikes to ask about camping at the construction site. Without further ado, he led us to a secluded spot and reminded us that the next day was Sunday, so there was no need to worry about workers coming in the morning. After setting up our tent, a night watchman named Fernando came over to introduce himself and reiterated that our night would be “muy tranquilo.”