Day 253: Strangeness in a Strange place

Tourism, of any kind, destroys a place. I am an hypocrite making that statement, because I am a tourist myself. I suppose there are responsible forms of tourism, being low impact, Not flocking to popular spots, Try to be culturally sensitive, not look for cheap drugs, etc… But The reality is that tourists destroy communities. Terry Pratchett quoted in one of his books, “He calls himself a tourist. I don’t know what it means, but from what I can gather, I think it means an Idiot”

One of the pleasures of bike touring for me is putting myself way off into boring little villages no one ever wants to visit. These are refreshingly beautiful places to be and genuinely interesting people to meet. I do not know what carnage I leave behind in my wake, but I can just hope the community would recover before the next tourist passes by. While I pass thro a tourist infested place, it just reassures me of my preference for staying away from them.

For starters, I loved the small little tree house we had dug out and slept like a baby in my hammock. Some opossums ran around the camp site and wok me up a few times. I had no idea what they were until our resident ecologist, Hannah, mentioned that it was an opossum. I could have easily hung out in the tree house for a few days, but we figured we’d check out the more ‘hippie’ town of San Marcos across the lake and hang out there a bit. Hannah had scouted some walks around there and we figured, if the party town could be quaint, the hippie town must have more such spots.

The best part of being here was bumping into Stephen and Ulli when I got off the boat. I should have taken a picture and sent it to Sergio and Veronica :-)

It was pretty downhill from there on… San Marcos is a town where you cannot talk with anyone without the universe coming in the middle. The moment I got off the boat, there were a few local kids who I thought were cute playing with the horn on my bike until one kid looked at me and asked for some money. To me a place has lost it when the children are reduced to begging.

Walking thro the narrow alleys, we hit a market and walked further looking for a place to stay. We spotted a fancy place which after scouting we decided to stay in, simply because the views were lovely. It was expensive, very expensive, but we figured it’d be fine to hang out with good views of the lake.

Turned out this spot was choke full of people loaded with Indian Kool Aid. Like Edwin pointed out, everyone has the right clothes, the right tattoos and believe themselves to be something they are not. There were circles, chanting, humming, sitting around, and talking about the universe. I Love what the idea of being a hippie stood for. During it’s day it was a movement, a revolution. But now I see posters of Tantra, Kundalini, Shamanism, guiding light and what not advertised, it is just the next yuppie thing to do for people to do and go back to their homes to tell people of their exploits in a pub over a craft beer.

There is nothing Guatemalan about this place. The front desk is filled with young ‘foreigners’ who do not seem to speak a lick of Spanish and the kitchen is staffed by women from the Village around. It just felt completely wrong, everything about this place is a statement for what is wrong with exploitative tourism.

I had a couple of good moments though. I met a Kiwi cyclist, Ben, who is on a short tour of Central America and was nice to hang out with. There was a local market which was selling cheap rubbish, as it always is in most markets. As we walked around there was some sort of masquerade at a school which reminded me of Tintin and the Picaros. I cooked some veggies given we had access to a kitchen but the hostel was super anal and did not let me use their blender.

The hostel was Anal, Period. Their clientele seemed to be the recreational druggie, drunk, spirituality seeker who need a space for meeting like minded loonies and not really for the grungy bargain hunting, baseline service seeking cyclist. Teh place is called Del lago, and I suppose depending on what one prefers, this place might be a paradise or a shithole.

Hannah said it best, “My spirituality is out there in the mountains”, and I agree with her. So we pack up our stuff and head back to our treehouse today.

Route: San Marcos (Atitlan)
Distance: 0 km (yay!)
Ascent: 0 m
Descent: 0 m
Expenses: $ 29.57
Comment: Ben called the place the Gestapo Hippie and that’s the best way to describe this spot.

Day 252: Touristing out to Atitlan

It was me and Hannah today and we planned to take a bus to lake Atitlan. There were numerous villages around the lake, each with a different reputation. Panajachel was the rich tourist hangout, Santiago Atitlan was for the culture hunter, San Pedro was for party people, San Marco was the hippie spot etc… I have heard it’s a beautiful place though infested by tourism. So the plan was to go there, hangout with the guys for a few days and travel on.

The bus showed up around 9 and I got my bike packed up on the roof and hit the road. Having a bike is not a good recipe for destination tourism, but I suppose I can make exceptions for special cases. It was a 3+ hour ride up to the town of San Pedro, which was the only bus available to us that could take the bike. We figured we could get into town and find a better spot to stay in.

The roads were super steep going into the lake and I was not sure I’d want to ride up these hills to go out. But that’s a decision for another day. We eventually got into town and numerous touts showed up and offered to find hostels. It was pretty off putting for me to be in a spot with so much touting. Ah well, take it as it comes I reckon.

While in the route, the Bus driver rode under a low gantry and I heard the bike get bashed. On inspection I found that the handlebar took the beating (luckily the wheels were good) and brake levers were out of place. I complained to the driver who seemed to feel annoyed by that. I figured there was no point confronting given the bike wasn’t too damaged and just asked him to be careful in the future.

We walked around the main tourist drag, which was pretty shitty, and akin to any sleazy 3rd world party town anywhere in the world. Just makes me want to puke watching the way people go on about in these places. We tried to walk out of this street and as we turned a few corners, we were in quiet roads with some vegetable farms and some local homes. We ended up finding a small bamboo grove and upon inspection, found that the guy had built a couple of tree houses and we could actually stay there. I negotiated the price down to 20Q per person, which was pretty sweet indeed.

We caught up with Alex and Julia in the evening and they had a bit of a tourism rip-off story of their own. Guess this place is a trap after all. We walked around the town, the proper one up in the hills which was a quaint place. I enjoyed watching the people go about their jobs and children playing around in the park. I grabbed a few tostadas along the street which was priced nominally at 3q each. Felt like I was in real Guatemala.

There are mountains all around and I guess I might take in a hike or two. The legs been sore from the hike and I suppose a bit of rest would help too.

Route: Antigua to San Pedro (Atitlan)
Distance: 0 km (yay!)
Ascent: 0 m
Descent: 0 m
Expenses: $ 16.06
Comment: What are the chances of finding a Tree house in a party town. Hmmm.

Day 251: Rest day in Antigua

I woke up with some sore legs, funny how a little different use of the legs puts the body into over drive. So I figured it might be a good idea to give the legs a rest. Further, I hadn’t really looked around Antigua, it’s a pretty town, though over touristed. I wanted to walk around and see some bits and pieces. Hannah had some work to do and I figured we might get together to get up to Lagos atitlan and take the riding from there.

On the bike front, I had picked up some loose spokes on my rear wheel and given there was this great bike shop, the Antigua bike co-op, I decided to get my wheel tuned. I got my bike back in the evening with the spokes tightened evenly and wheel trued. Awesome.

I walked around atitlan, did some bike stuff thro the day, got some food at the market, some awesome coffee at a local roasters and generally chilled out thro the day.

After a bit of internal debate, I decided to take a bus to Atitlan and catch up with Alex and Julia for a bit before all of us get back on different routes. It was a bit expensive to take my bike on the shuttle, but I figured a few days more of hanging out with good friends was worth it and that’s that. A couple more days of tourism and back on the bike again! Whoopie!

Route: Aitilan
Distance: 0 km (yay!)
Ascent: 0 m
Descent: 0 m
Expenses: $ 108.94
Comment: A good rest day is part of a good bike tour!

Days 249-250: Climbing Volcan Acatenango

There was a general consensus among us to hike up one of the ubiquitous volcanoes around. I looked through the maps and discovered that the entire mountain range was choke full of volcanoes and I could climb one in pretty much any town I am in. There was a active volcano here called Fuego, I learnt from Andy’s blog that it erupted when he was passing thro Antigua 3 years ago and I figured it would be nice to climb up some mountain and watch the volcano do its stuff in the night. So we decided it would be the Volcan Aaacatenango that we would climb and camp on top overnight too.

After a bit of research (walking around town), I got a contact to the local guides in the town where the hike starts. There were numerous agencies in town that charge upwards of 90 USD per person for the hike. Julia talked to the association in the village and we figured it would be 350Q (50 USD) to hire a guide for a group. Split between 4 of us, it was super reasonable and it’s crazy that the middle men charge so much more. Tourism is a bitch.

Here’s a bit of info for anyone interested in bypassing the touts and support the village guides directly.

Phone: 5706-6431, 3188-3158, 4931-3674, 4986-6652
Contact person: Don Victor Hugo
Our guide: Nelson, was a quiet chap, but really friendly and awesome.
Directions:

  1. Call the association and schedule a date / time to climb, they would give you instructions of reaching the village.
  2. Take a local bus from the Antigua bus station to Parramos. Costs 3Q. About 20 mins. Leaves every 10 mins.
  3. From Parramos, take a bus to La Soledad. Costs 7Q. About 20 mins. These buses are infrequent and ask for advice with the association in the timings. We took the 0830 bus. And returned on the 1400 bus.
  4. Once at La Soledad, you meet the guide and start climbing.

It’s possible to climb without a guide, it some of the paths are a little confusing, you can snag my gps tracks and follow them. But I’d say catch a local guide, it’s good for the community and lot better than taking services from a bigger city.

We did some food shopping, enough for an overnight hike and I packed up my bags with essentials. It was supposed to get cold in the morning and I picked up my layers needed for staying warm. Being a volcano, I was going to be out of options with my hammock, but Hannah offered for me to sleep in hers. Sweet. Though, I think there are lots of spots along the way where one could put up a hammock. Even on the campsite, there are options to hammock.

We started the day early and got to La Soledad by 9 am and met our guide Nelson. He was a quiet chap and curious to learn a bit more English and informed us on pretty much everything we asked about. The climb started straight up and I should say one has to be in good shape to go up this hike. The path is mostly loose soil and pretty hard to get traction on. We were all slipping and sliding as we climbed up the 30% slopes and it being a nice proper conical volcano, we just went straight up and down. At some point there were switchbacks, but that was to get the grade back to 30% on near vertical walls.

I kept a gentle steady pace, guess legs don’t forget to walk that soon, and climbed up. Behind, Alex had a super heavy pack and had a bit of a struggle in the slippery slope. Hannah had a pretty good climbing form and got up without too much incidents. Julia on the other hand had a bit of a struggle with her tied-on luggage that was super unwieldy. But what mattered was that everyone was excited about the climb and made it to the camp site in good time.

This was pretty cool mountain to climb, the vegetation changed dramatically. We started with corn fields which let into a pretty beautiful tropical forest. Up a bit, it turned to pine forest and tussock by the time we hit the camp site. Above the tussock the treelike would stop and we’d have just scree slopes to go on. Amazing to see so much change in such a short hike.

It took us about 5 hrs to get up to the camp site and we pitched tent and watched Volcan Fiego spit out every half an hour or so. It was a nice sight and I scouted a route up on that volcano too, but going there would be too close for comfort, heh. The wind was chilly up here and I got on all my layers and Nelson gathered some wood and set up a camp fire. Good idea up here in the cold and we watched the clouds move in and out and watch Fuego bellow out smoke every once in a while. It would have been awesome to shoot the volcano at night, but as luck would have it, it got too cloudy and we didn’t manage to see much lava flows. Ah well, nature giveth and also taketh away.

The morning hike was to start at 5 am so we get to the top for sunrise. We had a bit of delay starting and we caught the sunrise as we were still on our way up. Alex had a hard time in the elevation and after a while Julia had a bit of nausea, likely induced by altitude. We figured we’d rest and take it easy up this last bit and eventually all of us got to the summit. The views of looking down on Fuego as it spit our fumes was surreal. I had my stove and made some coffee on the windy summit. There are a few things as pleasurable as drinking coffee on top of mountains, heh.

It was super windy up top and since we were late, the couple of other groups had come and gone and we were by ourselves for quite a while. The descent, my arch nemesis, was surprisingly fine for me. I guess I just took it easy and avoided falling flat on my arse. I think I had one uncontrolled fall all along and that’s surprising to anyone who’s walked with me. We got down in about 2 he’s or so and had to wait a bit before taking our bus back to Antigua. My legs were a bit sore after the climb, but not too bad for a 5000 ft climb. But I decided to take a day off tomorrow before heading on.

Overall I’d say this was a lovely bit of change of pace. I enjoy hiking so much and must do ire of these when opportunity presents itself. On the flip side, the backpack I have if not great for heavy loads. There are no shoulder stabilisers and the straps bite into my collar bone. It’s a good compromise, as a backpack / rack pack so I guess I just have to live with it.

Route: Acatenango Hike
Distance: 14.6 km
Ascent: 1575 m
Descent: 1646 m
Expenses: $ 61.69
Comment: Watching a Volcano erupt as you get to sleep. Its a good way to rock.

Days 247-248: Meeting Old Friends in Antigua

The mission in Antigua for me was straightforward. Find a way to fix my issue of getting cash. First up, I decided to move from the pricy hostel to s cheaper one and after walking around town, I spotted a place for 40Q and moved there. I spent the entire morning walking around town and trying my luck at every ATM and every one rejected my card. A bit of Google search revealed that there had been numerous occasions of foreign debit cards being rejected by the ATM’s in Guatemala. It was a solace to know that there were probably more people in the same situation, but didn’t really help my matters much.

A couple of banks were open on Sunday but they would not do a cash advance on my master card. The visa I had was expired and the only option I had was to wait for the couple of other banks to open on Monday and try my luck again. Alex offered a better solution of giving me money and I could pay him back on paypal. A very viable solution, but I was keen on trying a local solution first.

So Monday came around and I hopped off to the BAC which was what I was recommended a few times and they finally accepted my Master Card and I got some cash out. Luckily I had made a deal with my bank in Singapore to waive off any cash advance fees so I wouldn’t be screwed on top. So every thing worked out fine. I suppose I have to try to keep my route thro some bigger towns and visit the banks if I needed more. Hoping that The rest of the countries would be more friendly in this regard.

So that ended the bit of uncalled for Adventure.

There were more interesting things that happened in town though. First up, I met a couple of guys on bikes with rear racks on them. In Typical Chris’s fashion, I shouted ‘Cyclist’ got their attention and chatted with them. They were just in town too, and were resourceful enough to find an even cheaper hostel outside of town and were planning to hike up some Volcano in a couple of days. Come to think of it, I might end up climbing a Volcano myself in a couple of days if the price is right.

I saw another guy with orange panniers, on a bus, while I was walking around. Turned out it was Yun, the Korean guy I rode with in Baja. I expected him to be way far South by this time, but seems like he stopped for Learning Spanish at Atitlan. Cool. Might catch up with him while I ride thro there.

Another Traveller Jenifeer, who I met a couple of times in Mexico was headed this way and I informed her about the reasonably priced hostel I was at and in the evening she showed up. She had a funny story to tell about how she had some problems with her ATM card herself and survived a couple of weeks in San Pedro, making and selling small notebooks. Pretty amazing. She gave me one as a souvenir!

The best bit was when Steve, the Kiwi cyclist, sent me a note and we decided to meet up. We caught up at noon and had a good time catching up. He had a really intense tour thro gravel roads and advised me on some missing roads and the quality of others. It was like meeting up with an old friend and we had much to talk about. It’s a bummer that we are headed different directions, once again, but given our riding styles, I am sure to bump into him again, would be definitely a blast.

In town there was a nice bike Shop, the Antigua Co-op which had some really fancy gear, they had a kevlar spoke to boot (which is pretty hard to find) and a super tiny cassette removal tool. Pretty impressed. I might end up picking them up I reckon and in the meantime, I had them look over my rear wheel and got it trued. Never hurts to have a wheel that is properly balanced.