I have found that the days that involve the greatest amount of suffering for us are ones where we underestimate how difficult the riding will be. It is our expectations of the upcoming ride more so than the actual challenge itself that creates our mood. It is in this way that our ride from El Estor to Lanquin presented us with a significant amount of suffering.
“I find my life is a lot easier the lower I keep my expectations.” ― Bill Watterson
No longer riding on a scenic, quiet road!
Morning rush-hour traffic?
It’s very common to see people working while wearing bandanas like this.
Finding that the road leading from El Estor was not nicely paved as it was on the way into town was our first indication that the day was not going to be as straightforward as we had hoped. No, instead of being paved, it was dirt that was filled with deep ruts and traveled by more heavy trucks and transports than we had seen in some time. In addition to the bumpy riding surface, the large construction vehicles were creating such clouds of dust that we needed to wear bandanas over our faces to stop from inhaling all the dirt! Fortunately, we only had to contend with the trucks for 35 km or so! That’s not much, right?
Starting to climb.
As we descended towards this wide river I thought to myself, what if the bridge is out? How close I was! There was a line of traffic on both sides, unable to cross while the men were working on the bridge.
Enjoying a bit of a downhill.
After 35 km we made a right turn and began our climb towards Lanquin. We had, of course, studied the elevation profile and knew that after leaving the truck road, we were in for a significant amount of climbing. When planning the route some days earlier though, we had imagined (hoped?) that the road would be paved. We were not so lucky. In case there is any doubt, climbing on a dirt road is significantly harder than doing so on one that is paved, and as we’d soon find out, it gets still more difficult when the road is slick with mud!
Chicken walking around my feet on the dirt-floor comedor (dining room) where we had breakfast.
Check out that elevation profile!
We began our ride close to sea level and had to climb to just over 1000 meters. That wouldn’t be so bad except that the lion’s share of the climbing was to take place in only 13 km. In other words, the roads were ridiculously steep!
I imagine that many of the villages we rode through seldom see tourists. It alternated between us receiving great smiles and greetings to looks that led us to believe we must appear as if from another planet. That, and calls of gringo and gringa from many of the young children.
A bus stop at the top of the climb. We rested there for about 5 minutes.
More climbing into the clouds.
If we had thought that the day’s challenges would be over once we made it to the peak, we would have been mistaken. Even areas that appeared to be flat on our GPS were, at times, challenging to ride. When we came upon another huge construction project — the building of a large bridge across a wide river — things got even tougher.
Similar to earlier in the day, we once again found ourselves riding amidst a number of large construction vehicles. This time around the trucks had somehow managed to turn the road surface into thick, soupy mud. Mud that caked onto our already-heavy bikes, adding to the challenge. When the mud did dissipate, we were still left with a road as slick as a freshly-zambonied ice hockey rink. This did not make it easy to push our bikes up the steep hills, and push we did!
Building a new bridge. Just about to head back up again.
Carrying a lot of extra weight!
As is SOP, we seldom know exactly where we will spend the night. Sometimes we find a spot in a town and at other times, we camp. As light was fading, things were not looking good on either front. The steep road leading away from the construction area was bordered by barbed wire on one side, and a cliff falling away to a deep valley on the other, leaving no room to pitch our tent. We began to get a bit concerned that we’d end up riding in the dark as we had not so long ago. We even began to consider hitchhiking, that’s how desperate we were becoming.
When we came across a compound where construction workers were spending their nights, we stopped to ask the security guard if we could camp there. He said that we’d have to ask El Hefe, the boss, and directed us to ride on further where, supposedly, he could be found. We never actually located the boss so kept on going. Our next attempt at finding a place to stay was when we asked a couple if we could set up our tent on their property, the first bit of flat ground that we had come across. They seemed very indecisive and may have actually suggested that we pay to do so. Whether or not they had, since we didn’t receive an “of course you can stay here,” we moved on.
Our third attempt at securing a place to stay occurred when we stopped to ask a group of women sitting outside a house if we could camp on their property (the next flat spot). They began calling to “Papa,” presumably to ask his permission, but since he didn’t make himself available after a few moments, and darkness was coming on quickly, we left. We made one final attempt at finding a place to stay by asking a woman at a small tienda (store) if she knew of a suitable place to camp in her village. She said no, and so having then struck out four times in a row, we donned our headlamps and kept on riding. It was not long after that we finally struck gold.
Earlier in the day, while riding through a small village, we struck up a conversation with a group of men, one of whom was named José. A short time after leaving the village, José passed us while riding on the back of a motorcycle, but not long after that, we came across him again, standing on the side of the road. Presumably, he had reached as far as his hitchhiking ride was willing to go. After stopping to talk with him once again, José asked if I could double him on the back of my bike. Now, this is a question that surely seems entirely logical to a Guatemalan. They do that kind of thing all the time. Faced with a huge descent on a very rough road, there was no way I was going to attempt it though! I apologized and we bid him farewell.
It obviously didn’t take José long to secure even better transport as he passed us a final time on another motorcycle. Imagine how surprised we were to find that one of the two men calling us over to speak to them in the dark was our friend José who we had been playing leapfrog with all afternoon? We had found our way to his village, Cahabón, and he generously offered us a place to spend the night, in the building where his two sons slept.
Our digs for the night. We set our tent up inside to protect against mosquitos.
José, just before heading off to work.
The road was very scenic, but still extremely slippery.
We were up early the next day to continue our ride to Lanquin but obviously not up early by village standards. José was off to work in the fields while we were still packing up our bikes. The 40 km ride from Cahabón to Lanquin was again on a rough and slick road. So rough and steep that by the time we reached our destination, we had definitely had enough and were ready for a rest.
A nice VW van. Van or bike, what’s your choice for adventure travel?
Love the contrast of the red flowers against the green foliage.
As the puddles indicate, the road is all mud, and slippery.
The main attraction in Lanquin is Semuc Champey, a park area known for its spectacular limestone bridge. From Wikipedia:
Semuc Champey (where the river hides under the stones) is a natural monument in the department of Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, near the Q’eqchi’ Maya town of Lanquín. It consists of a natural 300m limestone bridge, under which passes the Cahabón River. Atop the bridge is a series of stepped, turquoise pools, a popular swimming attraction. Although it can be difficult to get to, Semuc is becoming more and more popular with travelers.
That last sentence is key. It is both popular, as evidenced by the number of hostels and tours servicing the area, and difficult to get to, as our past couple of days of riding had proven (the road from the other direction is easier, but it’s still rough and out of the way).
We spent two nights at El Retiro hotel/hostel.
Rinsing the mud off the bikes before bringing them inside our room.
Will we be the only two on the tour? Not likely!
We booked ourselves onto a tour and spent the next morning bumping along the rough road to the pools with another Canadian and a couple of Europeans. We had a fun day, exploring not only the pools that the area is renowned for but also making our way through a dark, water-filled cave by candlelight. Super cool, and definitely worth the suffering to get there!
A tightly-packed Guatemalan bus. Makes the ones in Grenada seem luxurious!
Rocking my Mantus headlamp as we explore a cave system by candlelight.
Waiting for some crazy people (Rebecca!) to jump from a high point down into a pool of water.
Our legs still got a workout on our “rest” day.
As spectacular as we had hoped.
The viewpoint looking down towards the bridge and pools.
Can’t wait to get down there to swim!
Only a 700m hike down to the pools!
Literally where the river hides under the stones!
Peligroso = dangerous!
Time for a swim.
So many pools to choose from. We had to test them all.