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.
Along this stretch there were some amazing downhill rides, as well as a rather wet river crossing where the bridge had been destroyed by who knows what. Yet, in our case, what goes down must come up. After the river crossing it was lots of serious climbing, and all the up and down of the day was taking its toll. With darkness descending on the horizon, a nice guy in a truck offered to give us a ride, which we gladly accepted. It turned out that we had more than 1,000 feet of climbing to go between where we were and the exit to the lake, so it’s a good thing we took him up on his offer. (Note from Alex: His marriage proposal and insistent questions about whether I was really, truly happy in my relationship were but a small price to pay.)
Once we were at the top, our friendly driver cheerfully kicked me out of the back of the truck and ruefully watched as Alex made a quick exit from his cab. We only had to roll another ten miles down to the lakeside pueblo of Panajachel. Called Pana by the locals, it is the hub for all the action that goes down around the lake. But before we would indulge in any of that, we simply laid back and enjoyed a landscape that can only be described as majestic. Surrounded by cliffs and not just one but three volcanoes, it is easy to see why the lake has such a renowned reputation.
What made us even more excited than the view, though, was the prospect of great, affordable street food. Having fallen in love with atole back in Mexico’s Jalpan de Serra, we got to try the Guatemalan version: atol. To remind any of our readers who aren’t lucky enough to be sipping a warm atol right now (you’re really missing out), atol is a thick, filling warm drink made from corn or rice. Absolutely delicious. While I like to go with the classic atol de maiz, peppered with some whole corn kernels on top, Alex is a fan of the rice variety, enhanced with chocolate. And yes, it is just as mouthwateringly amazing as it sounds.
Guatemala is a country where each day of biking requires at least two days of rest. So, after resting our knees in Pana for two days we decided it was time to become a little more active. We left our bikes behind and hopped on one of the many lanchas – little commuter boats – that criss cross the lake. After a very bumpy and butt-jarring ride we arrived in San Pedro, the hippie hangout located right at the foot of the mighty Volcán San Pedro. We made a wide arc around the barefoot gringos hawking dreamcatchers and crystals (Note from Alex: Yes, unfortunately they’re back…) and hiked our sore butts up the hill in search of a place to snooze. We checked into the cheapest place we could find, and settled in for an early sleep once we’d organized a guide to lead us up the mighty volcano. Starting time: 4:00AM the next morning.
At 3:45AM the alarm sounded and, bleary-eyed, we stumbled out of our room to meet our guide. He was a 73 year old farmer named Pedro, living in San Pedro and guiding us up Volcan San Pedro. Easy to remember! While the rest of the world seemed to be deep asleep, we tried to match Pedro’s pace as he marched us up the steep sides of the volcano in total darkness, our sweat pouring even at this ungodly hour. His canine buddy joined us, a friendly street mutt who reportedly accompanies Pedro on most of his hikes. (Note from Alex: According to Pedro, all of the other dogs are lazy. I think it’s more like this dog has figured out that tourists bring snacks to the top of the volcano.) We reached the summit at around 7:00AM, climbing to 3,020 meters above sea level. Pedro beat us to the top and greeted us there with a handshake for me, a kiss for Alex, and a hearty “Bienvenidos a Volcán San Pedro! Felicidades!” And what an incredible view it was.
The way down was a little more painful than the way up. Our old bike knees were a-trembling and sent us sliding down the loose slopes more than once, not used to this kind of pressure after so many months of pedaling. Naturally, old Pedro kicked our butts. After nearly 30 years as a volcano guide, he proudly informed us that he has never felt any pain in his knees and plans to keep guiding until he’s at least 90. With a smile and a shake of his machete, he bid us farewell and got ready to lead his next tour group uphill. Yep, again. The dog had already decamped with another group in pursuit of more summit snacks. I guess we can only hope to be as physically fit as Pedro when we reach old age!
Completely exhausted, we dragged ourselves back to the dock and hopped another lancha back to Pana. We spent yet another much-needed rest day pretty much just looking at the view. (Note from Alex: See below for resultant volcano porn.) During this time we had our second encounter with the mysterious Scarfman, whom we had first spotted in Cobán. He was still dressed all in black, with a red checkered scarf elaborately twisted around his neck. This time around he was staying at the same hotel we were, and when I overheard a conversation he was having with his wife I realized that they were German. While I was fixing up the bikes he came over and started a little chat with me. Like many other people we’ve met, he voiced his concern about the big, fat ding I have in my bike frame and we talked a little more about our travels. Even though I didn’t know it yet, this wouldn’t be the last we would see of Scarfman and his wife, so stay tuned for part three.
After five days in this lakeside paradise, we reluctantly bid farewell to Lago Atitlán. This time around we were headed via lancha to Santiago Atitlán, our boat ride made slightly more complicated by the fact that our bikes were coming with us. Packing our bikes on the small boat and stowing away all our panniers and bags left me a little worried that something might go overboard, but the ride over ended up being just fine. From Santiago we went east to San Lucas Toliman, also located at the lake and from there south and away from Lago Atitlán. Goodbye for now, oh mighty lake!
The next two days we were just back in the grind, and back in the dirt. The refreshing chill we enjoyed at the lake gave way to dusty heat when we dropped back down to sub-1,000 foot elevations. And it wasn’t just the heat that was rising but also the traffic density, with buses and big trucks just zipping by and missing us by inches. Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa and Taxisco marked our last two stops before exiting Guatemala, and those towns couldn’t have been more unremarkable given what we’d experienced in this beautiful country up to that point. Our bellies filled by a giant border lunch, we crossed over into El Salvador on February 1. Ready for a new country?
Shortly after crossing the border, we rolled into a grungy little town called Cara Sucia. If you translate the town’s name it means “dirty face,” and honestly nothing could have been more appropriate. With no daylight left we had to spent our first Salvadoran night there, in the confines of yet another sex hotel. (Note from Alex: The horizontal mirror next to the bed and the hourly prices on the wall kinda sorta gave it away.) Luckily it seemed to be a slow night, so at least we got some sleep. We even got lucky: our Central American TV was broadcasting the Super Bowl that night, which we admittedly had both completely forgotten about, so we could witness firsthand how Seattle botched it. Go Hawks!
The following morning we made one of the more disconcerting discoveries on our trip so far: El Salvador doesn’t really do Mastercard. Whoops. Up until this point we hadn’t had any problems getting money, since every ATM accepted both Visa and Mastercard. Not so in El Salvador – only the big international banks accept both, and we wouldn’t be hitting one of those for a few days. True to form, we had spent every last Guatemalan quetzal and had only about $7USD that we were able to scrounge from our bags. So after a hearty pupusa dinner, we were more or less stranded in terms of cash. Believe me, nothing makes you feel more helpless than being reliant on cash, knowing that you have the funds but being completely unable to access it when you need it.
From Cara Sucia we kept going east, fighting brutal headwinds and making mind-numbingly slow progress. That’s how we found ourselves at a gas station just outside the industrial port town of Acajutla, ready to throw in the towel and praying that they took a frickin’ credit card so we could buy a juice. We thought after “dirty face” we might be able to catch a break and relax a little. But it was not to be. The one clean-ish hotel in town claimed to not be renting rooms that day, which meant we had to go for the second (and much more horrid) option. To reinforce utter lack of charm, the owners decided to get hammered and blast music until four in the morning. Just what you need after five long days of continuous riding!
With the first light we got out of that hell hole as fast as we could, never looking back. But it must have been our bad luck week, because ahead of us waited the godforsaken Panamerican Highway. Riding this monster is never fun, but it was made extra-unenjoyable that day by twenty kilometers of road construction that had reduced the highway to one lane of traffic. The few hours that we spent playing chicken with semi-trucks felt like an eternity. Frazzled and completely beyond ourselves, we pushed past the gang hub of Sonsonate and ended our day in the much more pleasant town of Izalco. Alex collapsed on a park bench, and I went in search of ice cream.
Once we regained consciousness, we realized that we had it pretty good. This was exactly what we were looking for, a friendly town with a laid back vibe, not another tourist in sight, right up our alley. Two nights there helped us recharge our depleted batteries and we savored every second of it. And sure, cheap pupusas at the market stands definitely helped us with our recovery. Pupusas are for El Salvador what tacos are for Mexico: little hot pockets of corn and love filled with beans, cheese and meat. And at $0.25 each, those pupusas really were a godsend. Mhmmmm. Since everybody eats them and every place offers them, you can seriously cut down on your food spending by committing to a breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu of all pupusas, all the time.
In a way you could say that Izalco was the real beginning of our time in El Salvador, as the first town that we didn’t flee at first sight. And it looked like luck was finally on our side again. From Izalco we took a backroads route up north to Santa Ana, along the incredibly scenic Lago Coatepeque. That’s really what this trip is about, seeing the best parts of a region from our bikes at our own speed, not driven insane by traffic or anything else, just taking in the surroundings. That day more than lived up to those expectations, and made it a breeze to get to Santa Ana.
Santa Ana itself turned out to be a perfectly fine mid-sized, down-to-earth town. We got to stay at Casa Verde, a hostel that our reliably unreliable guidebook praised beyond belief. At least this time around the book was right! Mostly because of the pool. On top of that, guess who we met, AGAIN. Of course, the inescapable Scarfman. Scarfman, who we finally found out is named Christian, and his wife Sybille (not Scarfwoman, surprisingly), also showed up at Casa Verde. After a couple of beers, we fell into a long discussion about FIFA, the ongoing socioeconomic discrepancies between East and West Germany, and other appropriate topics for small talk.
At Casa Verde Alex and I also befriended another German couple, Niels and Mariyana, who have been on the road for more than a year now after travelling through Southeast Asia and Australia. If you’re interested, and if you speak German or Bulgarian or both, you can read about their travels on their website: http://www.dierutzels.blogspot.com. And wouldn’t you know it, just like with Scarfman, this wouldn’t be the last we would see of Niels and Mariyana either. Stay tuned for more!