A hub of activity, dodgy tummies and a taste of the good life!

Posted by Gordon Dunlop on May 15, 2016

After the serenity of Chiapas, Guatemala hit us full in the face! The border town of La Mesilla was alive and we were met with a barrage of street vendors and the smells of street food, all mixed with the shouts and cries of the traders. Once we had negotiated the border town, however, we returned to the tranquillity of the cloud forest. And it was beautiful! Our introduction to Guatemala was spectacular. Imposing, tree-covered mountains surrounded us on either side and the heat remained intense. Thankfully, the sprinklers from the surrounding coffee plantations would offer a welcome shower! The previous night, part of the frame on Meg’s bike had broken and we had to use some cable ties as a temporary fix. Knowing they would not hold too long, we were keen to get to the city of Huehuetenango to find a welder. About half-way to Huehuetenango, I suffered a puncture and as I stopped to look for a safe place to repair it, I couldn’t believe my eyes when they came across a sign, “soldadura” (welding). We were in the middle of nowhere and yet here was just what we were looking for. The team at the welders were just as incredulous at the two gringo cyclists who rolled in requiring their services! The cheery welders fixed Meg’s bike in around half the time it took me to repair my tyre and, despite our insistence, they wouldn’t accept any payment for their services. Huehuetenango was an unspectacular city, though one neither of us are likely to forget in a hurry. It was here we both suffered from a nasty bout of food poisoning. Cue an impromptu rest day spent within easy reach of a bathroom! Thankfully we were feeling slightly better the next day and managed to clock up 30km which allowed us to clear the city and to get within a day’s cycle of our next rest stop, the Operation Groundswell ‘Hub’ on the banks of beautiful Lake Atitlan. When I say a day, what I really mean is an epic day’s cycling comprising 85km, the majority of which was uphill, reaching our highest altitude so far, of 3,800m and all a mere 24 hours after being bed-ridden with food poisoning! The journey to Lago Atitlan really was a fantastic day and we both felt a great sense of achievement as we reached the lake and were greeted by some friendly faces! The Operation Groundswell ‘Hub’ is the “physical embodiment” of the organisation we have been working for in Peru for the past few years. Operation Groundswell’s mission is to create a global network of ‘Backpacktivists’ engaged in ethical travel by developing relationships with local partner organisations involved in all things from youth empowerment to environmental sustainability. Guatemala is alive with such initiatives and, such is the extent of the relationships that have been built over the past 7 years, we have been able to build the ‘Hub’ which, as well as providing a space for many of these projects to take root, also houses two full-time staff who manage these relationships and projects year round. Meg and I spent a great week finding out about the workings of the hub as well as relaxing on the shores of Lago Atitlan with permanent residents Kate and Christine and their new-born puppies! Just for good measure, we also managed to work some different muscles by climbing the spectacular, San Pedro volcano. It was such a beautiful and relaxing place to recharge the batteries for the humidity that awaited us as we headed south through Central America. From the lake, we then had the short hop through the mountains to the beautiful colonial town of Antigua. Antigua Guatemala is the country’s former capital, much of the city having been destroyed by an earthquake since when the capital move to nearby, Guatemala City. What remains of the old city is a collection of brightly coloured colonial style buildings and cobbled streets set against a spectacular backdrop of imposing volcanoes. While soaking up the city, not to mention gorging on a burrito (now that our appetites were back to normal!) we became aware of a couple inspecting our bikes from across the street. Intrigued, they came over for a chat. Ed, from the US and Edda, from Switzerland, had been travelling together for a few years, since meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina. They certainly had a few travelling stories of their own but were equally fascinated by ours. After sharing stories they left us to finish our meal. We hadn’t even finished before Ed had arrived back and invited us to stay in their homestay. While we had been anticipating spending the night in a backpacker’s hostel (luxury for our standards compared to camping by the roadside) we were ushered into a beautiful townhouse where we had meals cooked for us, among great company, and all courtesy of Ed and Edda. We enjoyed great chats with our host, Ed and Edda as well as Bill from Belfast with whom we spoke at length about all manner of subjects and he gave us some great new ideas for our reading list! After a surprise taste of luxury living, it was back on the road to attack the remaining stretch of Guatemala. The mountains and volcanoes gave way to cloud forest and humidity. The scenery was beautiful and we enjoyed some nice easy riding towards the border with El Salvador. Guatemala had been memorable for its outstanding scenery, friendly people, less cycle-friendly roads and, of course, for our week long stay at the fantastic OG Hub on Lago Atitlan. Having spent less than two weeks in a country so diverse and rich in history, it’s safe to say, I’m sure we’ll both be back!