I have discovered one of the secrets to happiness… wave, smile, say hello to people you pass. I realized that one of the reasons I am so happy all the time is that I constantly greet, and am greeted by, people. And when kids do it the effect is trifold.
I would say this to any biker riding through any part of the world: do not be just another rich, self-involved tourist. Don’t drive through little towns and villages and not nod or wave to the people. Not only is it customary for them, it will also bring you a little closer, even if you don’t stop and talk – it puts you in their sphere of existence, even if for a moment, instead of just passing through it.
The ride from San Benito to Semuc Champey, though extremely hot, was a welcomed relief from the dull roads of the previous month. Ever since leaving Palenque the roads have been straight and boring. The jungle had been unchanging – flat, a dull green, with only momentary flashes of those solitary trees with yellow leaves which I love so much. But today the road began to undulate, and of the 225 miles a good 50 was gravel. As a result of the ride and the chafing heat my ass was incredibly sore; the pain in my stomach, like cramping, felt like it was coming back; and my joints hurt from the vibrations and the antibiotics.
The jungle began to take shape, hills started growing out of the flatness. Farms brought the familiar bucolic order to the parts of the jungle man has tamed. Giant sand/limestone monoliths floated in a sea of dwarf palms. Trees grow thick, especially if on an angle, no matter how steep, they grow. The only exposed rock I saw was in parts where the wall was 90 degrees, otherwise all was thick and wild. Some hills were covered in homogenous foliage, others had a great variety of trees, with huge, broad-leafed palms growing in the midst of delicate, almost vine-like trees. The haze of humidity, and the ever present smoke from the burning of swaths of forest, made it impossible to take pictures; the few times I could, I was on a bad road with no shoulder (where I find myself more often than not).
The further I go into the country or wilderness the more people wave and smile. Each village is like a little hamlet in the jungle – thatched roof houses, small yards and fields that adjust to the contour of the land. Here, more than at an archeological site, it is possible to see, perhaps, what a Mayan village, where the normal people lived, may have looked like.
Semuc Champey is a gorgeous oasis of cool in the heart of the jungle. The water was crystal clear, the air was warm but not stifling – it is the only way to spend a day in the jungle. The day started poorly with my feeling sick and weak. It was hot and I was drenched in sweat. The hike up to the mirador was more difficult that it should have been for me. The view of this river-made land bridge (the river burrowed through the rock to make a tunnel, the upper part is full of gently flowing turquoise pools and waterfalls), was resplendent, but I was too weak to enjoy it. It wasn’t until I got to the pools, had a bit of a swim and lay in my hammock, did I begin to come back a bit. A few hours later I had something to eat from one of the ladies (who spoke no Spanish, only one of the Mayan dialects), and afterwards finally felt great and alert. Still, this was not the elevation I was looking for, so the next day I was back on the road in search of the Cool.
200km in 8 Hours
I can breathe! At 1900 meters I can finally breathe! On my ride into Nebaj I actually felt some cold – it was amazing! After a month of being drenched in sweat, completely unable to think or write, I finally feel myself coming back to life.
The ride to Nebaj from Semuc Champey, 200km, was a grueling 8 hour affair. My average speed was 25km/h, average moving speed was 31km/h. This means that on average I was riding in 1st or 2nd gear – for 8 hours!
From Semuc Champey back up to Lanquin the road is deeply rutted, with patches of sandy gravel and loose rock. There are plenty of steep grades, some of which are paved on the sides for truck tires, but not in the middle. I can imagine how impossible this road may be, especially for a bike with lots of gear, during the rainy season. The heat is oppressive at this still relatively low altitude. The dust from the road covered me in a cloud every time someone passed, or when I approached a truck ahead of me. Where the road splits off to stay at a higher altitude going toward Coban, it becomes paved and of good quality. Here the landscape instantly changes to mountains and evergreens. The air is crisper, the haze a little lighter. The road winds beautifully along the mountainsides. However, all of this ends at Coban. From Coban to Cunen the road looks like it was shelled by drones. What should be a beautiful mountain ride, is instead a gravel road riddled with rock and landslides. The heavily mined mountains are too old to support a good road, which the mining undermines even more. At this point they are little more than giant piles of scree. Landslides are a yearly event, and sometimes many people die as the roads are walked as much as they are driven. But for some reason the road is not diverted – after all that would cost money, and killing people is free. The dust chokes you as you attempt to pass trucks and mini-buses. Enjoying the view is out of the question because all attention is on the road, and the dust makes it impossible to see much anyway. There are paved patches here and there, and some left over pavement from where the landslides did not destroy the road. By Cunen the road becomes paved and stays so, and as you turn right to go up to Nebaj, it returns to that dreamy twisty which is what a mountain road should be. I arrived in Nabaj happy to be in the mountains, relieved the ride was over, and a little giddy from the thin air I’ve been riding through.
I spent a few lovely days in the middle of the country, surrounded my majestic mountains. Nebaj was another area heavily impacted by the civil war, which was apparent from the first looks of distrust I saw for the first time since starting my journey. And as beautiful as it was, something propelled me to move on, to seek something I was destined to find. And so it was, at Huehuetenango that I fell in love.