I have joined a mad Irishman on a cycling trip around the world.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Hills...

I wish I knew how. It seems we've spent an age in the mountains, it has been about four weeks through Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. We've been up long slow climbs into the clouds, short steep off road climbs through forests and rocky terrain (which included some prat falls in the gravel), and down roads so steep and rough that it was almost as slow as going up. I learnt there is no shame in getting off and pushing but that it's even harder than pedalling. Quite a few hills made me ask myself who's bloody idea of fun is this, because it certainly isn't mine.

Bumpy descent in Honduras

A massive landslide in Guatemala

Endless hills

Our sojourn in the mountains peaked in the highlands of Guatemala. Road builders in Guatemala seem to advocate the "use as little tarmac as possible and build the road straight up the mountain" technique. The roads were impossibly steep, trucks chugged up and down almost as slowly as we did. After two weeks or so we were faced with a difficult decision, we could do two day's ride up the Pan American Highway to the Mexican border or a week's ride through the mountains to a crossing 100km further North. Julian promised two weeks clothes and bike washing and we set off up hill again.

We were headed to Todos Santos, a small town in a valley, popular among travellers. We knew we would have to climb another 1000 metres up a mountain and down the other side. We didn't know it would be as steep as the steepest mountains in the Andes. We gained 1200 metres in 12 km, one meter up for every ten meters along. It took me five hours, two and a half on the bike and two and a half sitting by the side of the road wondering what the hell I thought I was doing. Four km from the top I sat down and cried. If a truck had offered me a lift then I would have taken it. But no one did so I soldiered on, a few hundred meters at a time. Nick Cave, Alice in Chains and some Proverbial Reggae got me up the last bit. At the top, at 3300 metres, was a plateau, much like the anti-plano in Bolivia. We stopped for arroz con leche, steaming hot rice pudding in a cup, which is the greatest recent addition to street food in Central America. It was the best thing ever.

A flat road at 3300mts

Cloudy descent
After a flat 10 km or so we started our descent on a rough track, just as the clouds piled in, enveloping us in a clammy freezing fog and completely obscuring the apparently stunning views. We arrived in Todos Santos cold but pleased with ourselves to find everyone wore the same outfit.

The local dress at Todos Santos

Market day

Busy streers
In El Salvador in the small town of Perquin we visited a museum of the FMLN, a left wing guerilla party in the eighties which is now one of the major political parties in El Salvador. They were fighting against the  dictatorship military government and took control of large sections of the country, including part of San Salvador, the capital. The US funded the bombing of rural El Salvador and trained the troops who massacred an entire village at El Mozote. The revolutionaries were old and young men and women who were trained in camps in the jungle. In the museum we could see the home-made guns, including anti-aircraft guns, and the radio studio where they broadcast news of the revolution to the supporters. In 1992, peace was reached. The leaders of the FMLN were used to re-establish the police force and the FMLN became a legal political party, it was the end of the dictatorship.

Bits of planes shot down by the FMLN
A mural of before and after the civil war

We stopped off in Honduras to visit the Copan Ruins, a great Mayan City. At the entrance to the park were about 20 scarlet mackaws, squabbling and fighting in the air. The ruins were great temples holding tombs within tombs dating back to around 400AD. The Mayan Empire only lasted a few hundred years.

Hieroglyphic staircase depecting the history of the city


Stella carvings

We also visited Palenque in Mexico, just over the border, another Mayan City which dates back to 100BC. Artefacts and buildings are still being discovered all around the site which is still largely unexplored.

Evil rabbit skull
Palenque ruins
Incense and human blood holder
More ruins
Crossing into Mexico felt like the end of chapter one in the cycling journey. It will be another 4000 km or so up to the US border, the same amount we've done from Colombia again. I think I can almost say I'm a proper cyclist now, I've got the scabby grazed knees, the silly tan lines and the muscly legs. And we're on to chapter two. Mexico is exciting! As long as it isn't still minus 18 degrees when we reach the Northern parts.

Distance cycled: 3893km