Sunday, February 7, 2010

(Un)Easy Beginnings

January 31st to February 1st

We're going to be on telly....

There's a choice of two roads out of Antigua; East through the stinking car choked mess that is Guatemala City, or South through the deep valley between the monster peaks of Volcanoes Fuego, Agua and Acatenango (fire, water and errr.... Acatenango).
No contest really and we finally get this cycle tour on the road and ride South!

Separated by just 15kms (10 miles) these mighty peaks stand well over 3700m (12,500ft) and they're a neck craning spectacle from the valley floor 2500m below. 'Dramatic' was a word invented for such scenery.

Unfortunately their summits are shrouded in cloud, and whilst we wait for a gap in the grey, two other cyclists join us. Alex and Fin, are two British cyclists accompanied by their Dutch film crew who just happen to be passing by. They're on a mission charting the effects of climate change whilst filming a 13 part documentary for Dutch television....


We've been chatting for 10 minutes – just the normal exchange of routes, stories and experiences when we realise the whole thing is being filmed. The main camera crew only joins the guys three times for a total of 9 days in their eight month ride from Alaska to Panama – the rest of the tour is filmed by Fin and Alex on a hand held camera. As our interview is completely spontaneous and was filmed by the crew, we are told there's a good chance it will be included. We sign release forms to allow use of the footage – I particularly like the bit of the form that says 'Name Of Talent'.

This is Fin and Alex's first tour and another couple is being filmed riding simultaneously from Colombia to Tierra del Fuego to chart a bicycle tourist's perspective from the extreme north to the southern tip of the planet. It should make for an interesting documentary and I hope it is made available outside of Holland. It's a bold undertaking for two guys who have never done anything like this before and we wish them well....

Unfortunately the clouds remain and sadly it's a grey day to be riding such a fantastic route. Volcano Fuego is still active and every few minutes it rumbles and spits grey fire high into the sky. It's just a little unnerving to be this close to the slumbering beast....


The ride is a nice way to get our lazy legs turning once again now they have gone so soft and pudgy after such an extended lay off. We race out of the highlands and down to the coastal plains, dropping 1100m in the day, before stopping in the dusty town of Esquintla.

The next day dawns clear and bright and suddenly the temperature is noticeably higher. The cool mountain breezes have been replaced by still muggy air so hot and languid, it's almost chewy. We ride and feel the heavy reluctance of the air as it parts to go around us. 15 miles to the East another active cone (Vulcan Pacaya that we climbed before Christmas) smoulders and creates it's own localised cloud cover in an otherwise pristine sky....


We ride across a thin wedge of flat coastal plain lying just a few metres above sea level and narrowing from around 40 miles in Western Guatemala to just a few miles at the El Salvador border. It's fertile land and Esquintla and it's surrounds are home to sugar processing plants. Huge 34 wheel wagons carry what at first looks like ordinary tree branches, but on closer inspection turn out to be raw sugar cane....


The terrain is relatively easy riding over a series of undulations, however it's not just in the legs where we have lost conditioning and the heat begins to take it's toll. Drink and cool-down breaks are frequent and progress is slow, which is no bad thing as it would be a shame to rush....


We cross a series of small rivers as mountain rainfall drains south towards the sea. Above is spectacular colour as the trees are in bloom, their flowers aglow against a deep azure sky.


Below, sections of the road seem to crawl and move under our wheels as hundreds upon thousands of flying insects come together in an orgy of procreation...


The heat does take a heavy toll and we roll wearily into a dangerous looking town Taxisco still 10 miles short of our intended stop for the night. This is not a place we would choose to rest up for the night. Men stare emptily at the midday day sun, sitting dejectedly on pavements. Drunks shuffle by bar stool gamblers mumbling incoherently. A few sport holstered pistols on their hips and the banks are guarded by hired shotguns. Communication with shop owners is met with indifferent silence or a slurred version of Spanish so rapid neither of us can even catch single words.

None of this matters though; we are spent for the day and find a room in a hotel showing signs of former glory. Chickens are the only ones interested in the empty swimming pool - it's faded paint peeling and chipped....


We put the bikes in the room, lock our door and settle in for a hot sticky night...

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