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0050: The C-4 Problem

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There is one specific reason I have called my blog 'The road of little miracles' and while a few people already know that reason, it will eventually be revealed at a future point in my journey. It is a part of the journey.
In reality though there are many reasons. Some I have detailed before others I am still discovering myself.
During my research, before I began, I investigated all the various permissions and Visas I needed for travelling such an immense journey.

If you have been following my blog, you will already know what happened in the USA and how difficult it was travelling across such a vast country in a mere 2 months.
Since then I have been travelling at a more leisurely pace and had a great time so far in Guatemala. I have already been here a month and had expected to stay a little longer.
Except I just found out about the C4 problem
It seems, I overlooked this fundamental issue and now I am on a time limit again. Albeit with less pressure than the USA
Simply put Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua all share an open border and trade agreement.
Much like that in Europe.
The 90 Day Visa I was issued on the border at Melchor de Mencos, covers all 4 countries.
So basically at time of writing I have 60 days left to exit Nicaragua into Costa Rica (Which has its own 90 visa, I already checked!)

I found out this potentially devastating news from an American traveller at the El Retiro hostel in Lanquin.
A small mountain valley town.
I cycled from Coban west, along the mountain ridges.
More or less immediately I entered Coffee country.
Hectare upon Hectare of these spindly low cut bushes with deep green, shiny leaves crawled up the steep rocky mountainsides
I missed the harvesting by a month or so.
The bushes fruit between november and the early March.
A few deep cherry red berries clung to some branches.
Either late fruiting or maybe rejected for quality.
I have no doubt some local will come and harvest them for their early morning brew.
As I passed from one ridge peak to another, the countryside opened up dramatically, to show me the vast extent of the hills. Deep gorges with fast flowing rivers, steep mountainsides with terraced farms, coffee and cocoa plantations.
And maize fields. Milpas as they are known locally.
The road was very good to the Pajal junctions where is dropped steeply into the valley below. And immediately turned into a dirt track.

I wondered where I was going as I went deeper and further into the Valley.
After falling off once on the sandy dirt, I eventually arrived in the small town of Lanquin in the bottom of the valley.
Had it not been for the famous pools at Semuc Champey a few more kilometres along the steep dirt road, there would probably be no reason to visit.
It is a pretty average small Guatemalan town made famous as a base for the various trips that they offer.

I settled in to the Hostel and signed up for the Semuc Champey tour the following day.
I only planned on staying 2 nights, then returning to Coban, but I was given an extra night free for booking the tour and because I had arrived by bicycle!
I wandered around the town kept prosperous by hordes of international tourists and travellers arriving daily and keen on the various adventures that begin here.

The following morning, I and 4 Germans and and an Australian girl climbed onto a pickup truck for the hour journey to Semuc Champey along steep sided mountain roads. We arrived to a tiny little riverside resort where the local children tried to sell up home made chocolate discs and cans of luke warm beer.
"Take now pay later, pay later" they all shouted. "Only buy from me, my name is... [Insert cute Guatamalan kids name here]"

Because of the very watery nature of the day, I don't have many pictures of the caving, tubing, giant river swing, and swimming in the famous pools.
The day was great fun and nice to do something completely different for a change.
However, I do have memories of slipping on wet rocks in one of the caves, and smashing both elbows and my left knee quite hard and leaving a trail of blood.

The next morning, I arranged to vist a local family, who grow cocoa and make their own choclate.
Of course, I had to have a go helping to make it.

This is Criollo chocolate, and crudely fermented and roasted.
It was nice but roughly ground, both burned and raw.
It had a mild bitter taste and quite a smooth texture.
Processed with more time and patience would have made a fantastic hot chocolate drink.

The return trip started out tough.
I was not looking forward to 11 km's of steep mountain dirt road. I planned on hitchhiking to the Pajel junction and riding the rest.
After an hour of pushing my bike through sand and dirt, I came to some roadworks.
There was evidence of it on my arrival, but this time they were actually working. A Bulldozer smoothing rocks into the road blocked the way for 20 minute or so.
As I waited for the road to open again, a truck pulled up, and I signalled the driver for a lift.
Fortunately he agreed and I loaded my bike into the back.
30 minutes later, I am glad I did it, as the road was longer and steeper than I remembered. I estimated 2 hours to reach the top by pushing, but I think it would have been closer to 4!

Returning to Coban, I spent a night in the same hotel before continuing the following morning to Uspantan.
I thought my GPS had let me down again by taking me along another mountain dirt road, but having seen several taxis, Tuc-tuc's and Collectivos, the public minbus services, I realised this was actually the main road to Uspantan.
Though tough going, I was actually enjoying the mountain scenery, rural villages and peaceful road.
The road descended into a steep sided valley and back up the other side. It was another difficult day.
My bike does not climb well and I seem to be suffering in the heat.
I eventually arrived in Uspantan. Had a very suspicious chinese meal and spent a night in a comfortable hotel.
The next day, a wind pushed me through more steep valleys, and at least kept the temperature down a little. But the road is slow going, grinding up these steep valley sides.
As beautiful as it is, this is some of the toughest riding I have done in a while.
I arrived in Quiché that evening and paid for an extra rest day.
I needed it.
Quiché is a busy, but not too exciting town. Very densly packed narrow streets with a lot of security guards standing with shotguns outside the most innocent of shops. I am not sure why you would want such heavy security protecting childrens shoes or discount t-shirts, but this is how it works here.
Chichicastenango is a very pretty mountain top town.
I arrived on market day and the streets were full of brightly coloured cloths, bags, shoes clothing items, all in a traditionally Guatamaltecan style and very pretty.
Naturally the place was also flooded with tourists and for some reason I did not take a single photo.
Something I have noticed becoming a habit recently, and I am not sure why.

Leaving the town towards Sololá is a VERY steep valley and climb out of the other side. It took me a solid 5 minutes to descend and about 1.5 hours to climb out.
The road continued up to Los Enquentros and a nasty beef meal in a fly filled restaurant. Then a long descent to Sololá and Lake Altitlan.
I arrived in thick fog. The famous lake, volcanos and mountains hidden from view
My host, Esau is an entrepreneur and owns a local coffee shop and hotel.

I was invited to use the penthouse suite in the hotel for a couple of nights and spent time exploring the hill side town.
Esau is also an Architect and showed me around a project he is working in the town. In addition we also travelled back to Chichicastenango to another project.
This time a restaurant restoration using traditional building techniques.

On the Saturday, I loaded my bike onto Esaus car as he offered to show me around his small coffee plantation. A new project for him.

So, off we headed into the mountains. The road is steep and challenging and I was not looking forward to the return journey by bike.
A road is so much harder when you know what to expect.
We shared a final meal in Santiago Atitlan then I took the ferry across the lake to San Pedro.

For no reason at all, I decided to visit and have a couple more days rest.
This really wasn't the best place to do it though.
It has a very busy and vibrant hippy scene.
Half clothed, dredlocked, German, French, American, all making jewellery with rocks and wire on the roadside. And playing bongo drums till the early hours.

It was a little disappointing in some respects, that a very pretty little town like this offers such a non authentic Guatemala experience.
With art galleries showing images of Hindu deities blended with Guatemalan mountain backdrops and Aboriginal folk tales.
You know you are in the wrong place where the only food you can find is Falafels, Israeli bread, Burgers and Pad Thai. And the shops sell Alfalfa sprouts, Patchouli and Hemp wick candles. And Nescafe?! In Guatamala?!
Not a single authentic Guatemalan dish in the restaurants.
Even when I walked out of the tourist zone and into the real town.
If I wanted to eat Burmese food, I would go to Rangoon!
Shame.
I used to wonder what the locals made of all the "ethnic and spirituality" brought by north Americans and European visitors.
So I asked...
The honest truth was not too polite and actually quite funny.
I won't repeat it here, but it cemented my impressions of this odd culture.

Pedalling on, I arrived in Antigua.
I had posted several requests on Couchsurfing but again, received no reply. (They ususally arrive at least 3 weeks after I have left an area!)
Being so close to Easter, I knew it would be difficult to find a cheap hotel. So I put out a public request on Facebook.
Margaret Dodge, an ex New Yorker married to a local Guatamalan man responded and I spent two nights at her home just north of the city. She and her crazy dogs gave me a room and hospitality in her home near the church in San Felipe.

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The fresh cooler days of the high mountains in central Guatemala came to a sudden end as I descended rapidly down to Esquintla, past active volcano's spewing dust and smoke and by 1 pm I had arrived in Chiquimulilla.
101km's completed about 2.5 hours faster than normal.
I love a good downhill, but I will have to pay for it elsewhere, no doubt!
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The hotel here was expensive by Guatemala standards, but it was my last day in the country and it almost felt like I was sneaking out of the back door.
I also feel like I am racing, because of the visa.
In the intense 9 am heat of this coast route, I passed several low volcanos and the border at La Hachadura.
Easter Sunday meant no traffic and no problems at the border.
The polite, friendly staff guided me to my next exit and entry stamps for my next country.
El Salvador, and a shocking change in the appearance of the people.

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Post by Matthew Hopkins

An avid cycle tourer and Bicycle Mechanic, I also enjoy cycling, cooking, camping, cinema, computers, internet and tech.

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