Monday, September 28, 2009

Guamtemala's Most Beautiful Road!

August 12th and 13th

Another day of 2 halves! All the climbing is undone after 'Uspantan' as we drop back down to the same river we crossed at the very start of yesterday, now some 1300 metres below us. 1300 metres is a lot! The Empire State Buiding in New York is 384m in height and Canary Wharf in London is 235m tall, so one standing atop the other is but half that height! At 'Chixoy' is a bridge across the eponimously named river and then another huge climb back up to Coban. Oh and the bridge marks the end of the tarmac and a return to dirt roads just to add spice to that climb....

But for now, all we can think about is the descent. I just love going down and as always the challenge is to not touch the brakes. They were just made for wimps!

30kms of riding bliss as a distant Susy streaks and blurs down the road folded along a narrow ledge clinging to the mountainside....

And finally the river is back in view as the road angles down, down the hillside, snaking towards a collision point at the bridge that marks the turning point for the day....

A passing coca cola truck sells us a few bottles off the back of his wagon as we load up on sugar for part 2. As we expected, the river crossing does mark the end of smooth running and the black top slowly fizzles out becoming increasingly cracked and pot holed, before giving up entirely. It's back to rock and stone; rough in places, but totally rideable. There's just rather a lot of it as we look back at the climb....

It's super steep in places and Anna is forced to turn pedestrian. The day is thankfully cool and overcast, a boon to us as these loaded bicis were not built for pushing....

A rest break looks more like a crash scene with bikes and people scattered where they fell....

In parts the road is bogged down by the relentless rainy season and Sue takes an expeditionary route to test the depth of the mud. It measures high on the sticky clingy scale and mid calf on the depth-ometer....

We've been at it for nearly 8 hours, when finally, my altimeter and the altitude for Coban are in rough agreement - meaning the climb is all but done. This is welcome news as our legs are leaden and fuel tanks are low as the sun begins to sink lower in the sky. There are maybe 5 miles to go before we hit tarmac and an easy roll into town when this happens....

A picture speaks a 1000 words and Sue's sudden feeling of despondency is clear. This is not good body language! Behind her is a humongous rock slide that has totally wiped out the road. Indeed the entire landscape is scarred and ruined for hundreds of metres below as a gigantic chunk of the mountain broke free and slid en masse into the valley, miles below. We had heard about some rubble on the road, but were told we could probably walk the bikes around it.

Nothing prepared us for this!

Apparently, after unusually persistent rain last December, the land started to slip in a process that lasted over 3 months as torrents of rain deluged the land. On several occasions the mountain found a new equilibrium, only for more rain to tip the uneasy balance causing tons more rock to cascade down the slope. No one is sure how many were killed in the initial slide, but estimates range up to a hundred, mainly passengers in vehicles on the road. Many bodies have not been recovered and probably never will be. It's a tragic reminder of the devastation meted out by the capricious moods of nature.

It's now a horrible sight as we contemplate the temporary track that has been flattened to allow passage though the boulder field. It runs hundreds of metres below and we can see the snail like pace of the wagons as they struggle back up ridiculous inclines. At the very top-left of the photo is the cutting through which the original route passed and marks what would have been the summit of this day's brutal climb.

Now we have to contemplate the new work ahead....

Mustn't miss a photo op though.... Anna and Ali ride ahead and provide nice subjects for a long shot. Teeny tiny ants crawling, oh so slowly over a landscape that dwarfs them....

And this is the view from the track looking at the carnage in the valley below....

This is the steepest ride I've done anywhere - and I've ridden though the Carretera Austral in Chile and the Altiplano in Bolivia where they are not renowned for having a lot of money to blow on road engineering. No one builds roads this steep in real life and it's just an absolute killer right at the end of a tough day. Look at the angle of the truck as it dives off the edge. The next photo is of me slumped over the handlebars worrying which will happen first - a return to normal or the heart attack....

But my girl has spirit - contrast this with the previous photo of her beaten and despairing. Nothing keeps her down for long as she grins maniacally while Anna kills another impossible switchback in the background....

After much grunting and cursing, finally - the view back down onto that sheer 'S' bend and the trail through the blasted land behind.....

We reach the top and unbelievably, that same coke truck we bought cola from on the bridge this morning magically appears; engine roaring and belching fumes as it snarls us up the trail behind us. It's just like the adverts - all giddy, smiling faces and big teeth as he takes our empties off us and we set about creating more for him.

The team, enjoying a well deserved break - sugared up and victorious celebrating a return to more sane roads. That feeling you get when you know you've just beaten the big one.....

The day is over, both physically for us and temporally for the sun - as it casts a final faint reddish glow and is met by the horizon. Fortunately there is a town and a hotel before Coban in San Christobal Verapaz which saves us riding the last 10 miles in the dark. Even a puncture for Sue within sight of the hotel cannot dampen our spirits now as we contemplate showers and soft beds.

The next day is just a breeze by comparison. A return to tarmac and a cruise into Coban, a town renowned for it's coffee, it's chocolate and it's fine cakes. That and the ride to get there sound like fine excuses for a day off the bicis....


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