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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Zihuatanejo, Mexico to Antigua, Guatemala

We had not yet properly explored the nightlife in the Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa area so we were not sure what to expect for New Year's Eve. We figured we should catch a cab and check out Ixtapa first, as that is where the majority of the resorts and people were staying on vacation. To our dismay, there was not much going on in Ixtapa except an empty club charging a 800 peso cover charge. We made an immediate decision to turn around and head right back to Zihuatanejo. This turned out to be a good idea as we ended up having a great time at some of the small local bars. The next day we all took it pretty light as this was our first night out in a long time and we needed our rest to prepare for the arrival of Mr. Jeff Urton. Jeff, and his entire family, was coming in by way of San Diego via a Carnival cruise ship the following day. Coincidentally the cruise ships drop anchor directly in front of the bungalow we had rented and would run constant shuttles to the fishing pier. This made it very easy to find Jeff on the morning of January 2 and rapidly begin an action packed day of sightseeing and cerveza tasting which we completed by 6PM so Jeff could catch the last shuttle back to the ship and not get stuck in Mexico.
With Jeff gone and only a couple days left in Zihuatanejo we began packing up our stuff and reorganizing all of our gear to incorporate all of the items that Eliza had muled down for us from the US. The night before we left we found a local theatre that was playing the new movie, Avatar, which we had heard so much about. It appeared that the theatre had seen better days but we were pretty excited to see a movie. While buying my ticket I was astounded that they could even make a profit by selling admission for only $2. This mystery was easily solved. The first seat that Seth tried to sit in disintegrated under him and he blasted through the bottom of the chair and hit the floor. Once we finally found seats that appeared to be structurally sound the movie flashed on without any advertisements, previews or even opening credits. Actually, it appeared that their copy of Avatar did not include the first 10-15 minutes of the movie. It also became apparent that the movie was a very poorly made bootleg version with indecipherable audio. All and all it was still pretty good, even though we had to read the Spanish subtitles to understand anything the characters were saying.
The next day we were sad to say goodbye to Eliza but really looking forward to getting back on the road after a very long and relaxing break. However, before we could go anywhere we had to clear up a few things with Mexican immigration. Ironically, Seth and I had been traveling as illegal aliens for the last 2 months and were at risk of being deported if we continued south without the proper documentation. We had not intentionally been traveling illegally, we had just never been checked or stopped at any of the military checkpoints including the US/Mexico border in TJ. After hearing a story in Zihuatanejo of a couple of Americans that were deported in Acapulco, we decided we should get our Visas. We arrived at the immigration office at 10AM when it opened and did not leave until 2PM. The immigration office is like a Mexican version of the DMV that does not have the authority to accept the fees that they charge to obtain a Visa. Instead, they require that all payments be made directly to a bank and then return with multiple copies of the receipts along with copies of every page of your passport and other documents. We completed all of the necessary paperwork, found a bank to pay the fees and fines of traveling illegally for the last 2 months, found a copy store, got our Visas and were finally on our way. Even with our extremely late start we were able to make it to the beach we had hoped to camp at that night, Playa Pompanoa. Pompanoa is a very relaxed and authentic little beach that has a couple palapa seafood restaurants located right on the edge of the water. We decided we would treat ourselves to a dinner at the nicer looking and more crowded of the two establishments. After talking to the owner for a while he insisted that we stay the night in his restaurant where he had a number of large and very inviting looking hammocks. We accepted his offer and got an excellent night of sleep on the beach. The following day it soon became apparent that the terrain was changing for the worse which included some tough riding and limited options for camping.
The entire stretch from Zihua to Puerto Escondido was relatively uneventful with very little interesting scenery and not much to look forward to at the end of the day. Two or three times during this stretch we found ourselves camping in what we call “roadside ditches”. Being fairly self-explanatory, these spots are characterized by their close proximity to the highway and their popularity as both a roadside garbage dump and roadside toilet. Of course we never plan to end up in these spots but sometimes we simply run out of daylight and have no other option. The bright side here is that these less than glorious nights make the nights we spend on pristine white sand beaches all the more enjoyable.

The next major city we passed through was Acapulco which I would rate just a small step above a “roadside ditch”. We were thoroughly prepared and warned about Acapulco so we did our best to pass through as quickly as possible which turned out to be painfully slow. There is a very steep and long climb on the southern side of the city that we ascended during the hottest part of the day. This turned out to be a terrible decision as it also turned out to be the busiest time of the day and we found ourselves maneuvering through traffic in a thick cloud of smog as we climbed for over an hour. It also didn't help that we had each inhaled an enormous portion of fried chicken just moments before the climb. When we finally reached the summit of this urban pass we agreed that all things considered this was one of the hardest climbs to date. For the remainder of the day we pushed as far away from Acapulco as possible and called it quits in San Marcos. We got a much needed hotel room which boasted two beds and what can best be described as a shower/toilet/sink. The benefit of a shower/toilet/sink is that you can take a shower while shaving and sitting on the toilet. Similarly, the consequence of this arrangement is that you must sit on the toilet while taking a shower. The hotel even had a pool in the courtyard so we were happy to throw down the $15 for the room.
The next night we made it to Playa Ventura which we found to be very similar to Maruata. As we loved our time in Maruata we also became very big fans of Playa Ventura. We stayed for one night at a very mellow little seafood restaurant on the beach that allowed us to camp under their palapa after purchasing an early dinner. The food was excellent and the shelter was greatly appreciated as it lightly rained for most of the night.
The next day we pushed another big day to Pinotepa Nacional and paid for yet another hotel room. Pinotepa was a pretty rough town and our hotel room conveniently came with an armed guard that stood outside our door all night holding a shotgun. The following day and last night before reaching Puerto Escondido, we stayed in a small co-op fishing village on a lagoon about 8km off the highway. In addition to fishing, many of the pongeros subsidize their income by running tours to Chacahua and a few nearby beaches only accessible by boat. The fisherman allowed us to camp under the palapa they built at the beginning of the pier. It was a beautiful place to camp and if it wasn't for the intense dog fighting taking place all around our tents it would have been perfect.
We finally arrived in Puerto Escondido the following day and set out to find a place to stay for the next day or two. We knew there were a few inexpensive hostels in town but we wanted to try our luck at one of the nicer establishments before settling. This decision turned out to be quite rewarding as it resulted in meeting Dan, owner of Hotel Dan. Dan saw us riding past his spot and immediately stopped us to see if we needed any directions or information. We inquired about a room at his hotel which was actually made up of extremely nice cabanas but he had no vacancy.
After suggesting that we try a couple other spots Dan offered to buy us lunch at his cafe before we moved on. Before we even finished our meals Dan hurried back into the restaurant to suggest that we just camp next to his pool. He informed us that all of the people that stay at his spot are of the adventurous type and would have no problem sharing the pool area with a couple of touring cyclist. We soon found that this could not be closer to the truth. Everyone staying at Dan's place had been coming to Puerto Escondido for years (some of them for over 20 years in a row). Before Dan's place existed they had come to PE and camped near the beach.


Living poolside, we had the privilege of meeting almost every guest staying at the hotel. There was Danny, a former smoke jumper from Idaho. David, an avid cyclist who had biked all over the state of Oaxaca, Jerry from Minnesota, Pedro, and our good buddy Mitch, a professional photographer from Chicago. Mitch even dragged us out of our tents at 6:30AM to take some shots of us with our bikes down on the beach. We want to thank Mitch again for giving us these photos as it is very rare that we get any good photos with both us present in the shot.

All of these guys love to have a good time to say the least, and we accompanied a few of them to their favorite bar called the Rockaway. This is a small spot that this group and their friends have effectively taken over. They play loud American music and the bartenders drink more than the patrons if that is even possible. They introduced us to the local favorite of coffee infused mezcal and insisted that we try the drink every possible way that they serve it so we could fully appreciate the moonshine-like drink.

At that same bar we met a number of Americans that were in PE on vacation. We met Sarah, Matt and his girlfriend from Chicago and a girl named Dana from Boston. We hung out with these guys for the remainder of the night and further explored the infamous nightlife of Puerto Escondido. We learned that Dana had already postponed her flight 3 times to extend her vacation in Mexico. This place certainly seems to have that affect on people. It also turned out that Dana had a beautiful home in a nature preserve on the point overlooking the beach and town. She invited us to stay at her place for the remainder of the trip and we could not be happier that she did. Much thanks to Dana for her hospitality.

After postponing our own departure date twice we eventually got back on the road and headed to our next destination, San Augustanillo. The ride was tough but we arrived early in the day and found an incredible beach side palapa to camp under for the night. The remainder of the day we spent exploring the town and beach and even got to take a few casts off the rocks in the evening.

There was a big festival going on in the neighboring town of Mazunte so all of the shops and restaurants were closed. We decided to pass on the festival as we were still recovering from our 4 days off in Puerto Escondido. With a great night of sleep we exited San Augustanillo early in the morning and headed for Barra de la Cruz.

About 20 miles short of our destination we were very surprised to see a familiar orange VW bus pass us with Amelia hanging out the window yelling at us. They pulled over at the next pullout and we were very happy to be reacquainted with our Australian (and American) friends from Barra de Nexpa. After a brief conversation we found out that we were headed for the same spot and planned to meet up at the beach. Barra de la Cruz turned out to be a beautiful white sand beach that was almost completely deserted save one small restaurant. There was a good looking point break that was a relatively well kept secret even though it attracted the annual “Secret Spot Surf Contest” four years ago. Camping on the beach in La Cruz is prohibited so we all stayed at a nearby bungalow/hotel. Seth and I camped under a palapa while everyone else stayed in the bungalows. That night we met Jim who was returning from Panama on his motorcycle. Jim's time line was just slightly different from ours as he was on track to complete his journey which started in Detroit down to Panama and back to his home in Detroit in just 6 weeks. Just that morning he had come from the middle of Guatemala.

The next morning we said goodbye to Amelia, Jimmy, and Dillon once again and headed south to face the infamous isthmus of Southern Mexico. We had been warned by many people in PE of the ferocious winds in this stretch and heard stories of semi-trucks getting blown off the road. Sure enough we were not disappointed as we battled some extreme cross and head winds for the next three days. However, I think that we ultimately lucked out as we later heard from a cyclist that was a couple days behind us that he was ejected off his bike multiple times while trying to traverse the isthmus. He said that the winds were so strong that he was forced to walk in certain areas and even watched as his fully loaded bike was ripped out of his hands and cartwheeled down the road. It is never a good sign while cycling to see windmills scattered across the landscape as far as one can see in every direction.
Leaving the windy isthmus was a bit bitter-sweet as it meant that we had approached the long climb to Tuxtla Gutierrez and San Cristobal. However, we found that entering the state of Chiapas was a very welcome change in scenery and climate from Oaxaca. Before we got very far we approached a bridge that had been blocked by protesters. They were not allowing any vehicles to pass and it did not look like they were going to be leaving any time soon. Trucks and cars were backed up for miles in either direction so Seth and I decided to get some lunch and discuss our options. After lunch we decided our best and only option was to approach the roadblock of protesters and ask if they would allow us to pass. We told them that we supported their cause but that we must push on to the next town before the end of the day. To our surprise they were happy to let us pass but not before drilling us with a thousand questions of which we did our best to answer. They even let us take some photos and video and wished us luck before sending us on our way. As we passed the long line of cars and trucks on the other side of the bridge we did not receive the same support as the drivers yelled at us for being allowed to pass while they were forced to wait. We later learned that this blockade and protest went on for days with no vehicles being allowed to pass the bridge.
The climb to Tuxtla Gutierrez took us two and a half days of climbing through incredibly beautiful scenery. It was amazing to go from tropical beach weather to an arid mountain climate so quickly. In just a couple days we were surrounded by pine trees and below freezing temperatures at night. We did find some very good camp spots during this stretch including camping on the top of a highway embankment which had an incredible view of the mountains. We also found out that our friend Chris that we met and stayed with in Fairbanks, Alaska was flying into to Tuxtla to cycle with us for an undetermined amount of time. When we were staying with him in Alaska we told him that he should try to meet up with us somewhere along the trip. His response was to warn us not to tempt him as he always takes a trip south in the winter to escape the dark days and minus 60 degree temperatures in Alaska. About a week earlier I had sent him an email informing him where we would be and our plans moving forward. Sure enough I got a message from him about two days prior to arriving in Tuxtla that he would be flying in on January 21. We found the name of a hotel in a guidebook and planned to meet there at 9:30PM. To our and Chris's surprise we both made it to the hotel on time without any problems whatsoever.

We took the following day off to take a guided boat trip up the Sumidero Canyon. We had gotten the heads up on this trip from Seth's friend, Justin Dodd, and we were happy that we did as it turned out to be a worthwhile experience. In addition to seeing monkeys, crocodiles and some exotic birds the canyon walls were over 1000 meters high in some areas.

The next day which was also Chris's first day on his bike in months was one of the more notorious climbs of this entire trip. The climb from Tuxtla to San Cristobal is a constant grueling 70km of which 45km is a hill with absolutely no level or down hill terrain whatsoever.
Seth and I finished the climb around 4 in the afternoon and Seth decided to wait in the town center in front of the Cathedral for Chris while I found us a room for the night. While I was searching for a room I once again ran into Amelia and Dillon and decided to get a room at the hostel they were staying at.
I went back to find Seth and learned that Chris had still not arrived. When it got dark we decided we would find an internet cafe and just leave Chris an email and hope that he would check it when he arrived.
As it was my birthday that night we all decided to go out and see what San Cristobal had to offer. We had a phenomenal time and even found Chris back in the room when we got back early in the morning. We spent one additional day in San Cristobal exploring the town and visited the large market where we stocked up on food and supplies.
The ride out of San Cristobal included a long descent and good push to Comitan where we would spend our last night in Mexico. We found this very cute little hotel with beautiful little jail-cell like rooms and freezing cold communal showers. Seth and I both had to put down our Therma-Rests on top of the mattresses because they were harder than most of the grounds we have slept on. But we were happy to have a place to stay as it was very cold and windy and all things considered we got a good night of sleep before hitting the Guatemala border.

After a very long and very hot 80km ride to La Mesilla, we finally reached the gates of the Guatemalan border crossing. When we entered the immigration office we were immediately turned around and told to go back down the 4km hill we had just climbed to get our exit stamps at the Mexican border. When Chris arrived I told him that we had to go back down the hill he just finished and I think I actually saw a tear roll down his cheek. Luckily, Ed, a British cyclist we had met the day before, had just gone through the same hassle and said he would look after our gear while we took a taxi back to Mexican immigration. The process was fast and painless and within 20 minutes we said farewell to Ed and pushed another 15km into Guatemala to the town of Camoja Grande.

Within the first 15km of Guatemala a significant change in culture was immediately evident. From our very first night which we knew that we were going to love our time in this country. Everything is extremely inexpensive and the people are very encouraging and friendly. There is a buzz of activity that is not present in much of Mexico as Guatemala is very densely populated. From the chicken busses to the traditional Guatemalan dress everything is vibrant and very colorful. The food is perfect for cycling with generous portions of cheap beef, chicken, and pork served with rice beans and thick tortillas. Our second night in Guatemala was spent in a highway town on the turnoff to Huehuetenango. Our third night we made it to San Francisco Al Alto. San Francisco Al Alto is a incredibly unique little city sitting high in the mountains at about 9000ft of elevation. Needless to say the majority of our time spent in Guatemala thus far had been long days of climbing.
To enter the city proper of San Francisco Al Alto we had to climb a very steep 18-20 percent grade hill to the city which has incredible views of the surrounding valleys and mountains. When we arrived on Thursday night the streets looked like a ghost town and we had a tough time even finding a restaurant that was open and serving dinner. Seth had read in his book that the town was the garment capital of Guatemala and held a huge clothing and furniture market. We thought that the book must have made a mistake but to our absolute astonishment we woke up the next morning to find the city completely transformed. Starting at the bottom of the incredibly steep hill and extending all the way up and through the city was a sea of people, clothing, furniture and street vendors where just hours earlier there had been nothing.
We thought that after 3 days of straight climbing that the ride to Lake Atitlan from San Francisco would be relatively easy as there was a significant overall elevation drop. Instead we started the day with yet another pass which dragged on unmercifully for over 20km. Chris found it very ironic that he had traveled thousands of miles to escape the miserable sub-freezing winter of Fairbanks yet he was now struggling to summit a cold and dark 10,000 foot pass that the Guatemalans call Alaska.

Because of some mechanical problems Chris had with his bike earlier that morning, we all got a very late start and Seth and I barely made it to Panajachel on Lake Atitlan before dark. Unfortunately, Chris was forced to sleep on the floor of a restaurant that he found just before dark about 25km north of the lake. Fortunately, Chris arrived the next morning just before we were heading out to catch a boat to Santa Cruz on the other side of the lake. Before we left we found a bike shop in Panajachel where Chris got some broken spokes replaced and his rear wheel trued. The total cost of the repairs including parts and labor was $2!!

With Chris's bike back in tip top shape we caught a boat to Santa Cruz and checked into the Hostel Iguana. Hostel Iguana is located directly on the lake is comprised of a number of private cabanas and general dorms.

All the cabanas were full so we claimed three bunks in one of the open air elevated dorm rooms. We had gotten the tip on this place from Danish fellow in Panajachel who has lived on the lake for 15 years. He informed us that there was to be a big party at the hostel as it was Saturday night. When we arrived we learned that every Saturday they throw a big bbq and have a cross dressing party. They actually refused to serve people at the bar unless they were dressed in drag. They even dedicated an entire cabana to storing rediculous costumes for everyone to create their outfits. It was hilarious to see travelers from the age of 18 to over 60 years old dressed in drag. Seth looked divine wearing a summer dress while sporting a Tom Selleck magnum PI mustache. Chris had nice little nurse outfit while I went for some daisey dukes with a sequin top. Good times.

Our next stop will be in Antigua followed by Guatemala City then Belize. Times are rough.

6 comments:

Harry Leitner said...

Hey whats up Boys This is Harry from the Corner Bar in Zihuatanejo! I hope you guys are doing well and have a fantastic trip!!!

Lila said...

Hey again, its Lila from Alaska. I'm so glad you guys made it to Puerto Escondido. When I went to Mexico that was one of my favorite places I visited.

I'm jealous you guys got to go to Santa Cruz. I was in Guatemala a couple years volunteering and took a boat from Panajachel to San Pedro la Laguna (which is also on Lake Atitlan).

Hope you guys are doing well!

Mark said...

HI,

Im headed to guatemala next winter. I'll be based out of Antigua. What is the bike shop situation in town...could I purchase a bike there, or is it better to fly one in? What are the road conditions like? do you know anyone else who I could talk to about cycling in Guatemala?

whileoutriding said...

I heard about you guys up north in Alaska, so it's great to read about your adventures. I'm a big Xtracycle fan; I'm envious of your mode of transport too! Great blog - maybe we will meet up on the road some day...

Joanna said...

Most hostels offer accommodation in dormitories, or shared rooms.

Hostels in Santa Fe Argentina

Mallorca yacht charter said...

I loved your article.Really looking forward to read more.

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