An elevated 80 miles saw our sorry excuses for bodies, sore muscles that’d ache for some time to come and seized legs—on a less than welcomed ride—taking leave of Antigua’s stunning architecture up through the nippy Guatemalan Highlands and into the Sierra Madre mountain range. Ordinarily happy to earn the magic moments that often ensue post a slog of some sort, I just hurt, throbbed even and yearned for timeout. Gingerly negotiating steep switchbacks on a broken road peppered with gaping potholes was about the least desirable endeavour on my radar, or on Pearl’s suspension—the pair of us far from fresh. Still, it featured heavily on our agenda the morning after the day before our closure with Acatenango.
Landing at Pierre’s place—Pasaj cap at the top of a rocky track in San Marcos La Laguna not only afforded one of the best vantage points of the volcano-ringed Lake Atitlán, but simultaneously bestowed one of the prettiest campgrounds in Guatemala upon us. It was glorious. The sky seemed a deeper blue, as if it pressed more closely to the ground. Supremely situated, we descended upon a tiered set of manicured lawns—sprinkled with hummingbirds, lush colour and seclusion, amongst a neat number of spaces for us and our two wheels and a smattering of other folks and their four-wheeled rigs.
Privacy on the landscaped grounds could only be interrupted if you so wished; there were three intimate yet sociable open lounge areas complete with thatched, palm-leaf roofs, lose-me-forever hammocks, cotton soft spongy lounge chairs and a barbeque. Pierre just happened to offer an appetising choice of the best cuts, red wine and fresh snapper. Dining on such culinary marriages overlooking the pale blue glints dancing on the lake, and even Fuego puffing smoke, twining up to the sky in sinuous grey mushroom clouds on a clear day was well, wonderful. As was snoozing in the late afternoon—a luxury I’ll never take for granted—until the sun sunk to within a hand’s breadth of the western horizon.
Our recuperation period at the lake—benign one minute, boisterous the next when wind roared off the whitecaps—was spectacularly interrupted by Paula and John, alongside their new acquaintances Janice and Gregor. Hah! An anticipated overnight stay viably oozed into six days of brain rest and body relaxation. I would have relished another week where nights spent in their fabulous company overflowed with merriment. Sometimes you just gel with folk, and that was one of those adhesive occasions where we made a few more fast friends.
An invigorating quick dip in Lake Atitlán and basking my bones on the sun-bleached jetty comprised a body-reviving remedy post my Fandango with Acatenango. That, and letting our heads swim in the buzz of beer thanks to Paula and John, who plied us with drinks throughout a few nights of story swopping and hysterics. The routine made whole by breaking our fast and taking evening meals at Hostel del Lago, ten minutes hobbling down the hill from camp. Their food was nourishing, prices not too shabby and portions top notch.
San Marcos La Laguna is all boho chic—a magnet for deep-breathing yogis, lovers of body spaces bigger than MC Hammer’s pants, the most harmless of hippies whose primary aspiration is to plug into the lake’s cosmic energy and wandering dog-on-a-string dreadlocked types. I could’ve people watched all day long. Laughably, Jason’s subtle indifference was noticed—a young slip of a girl around 18 or 19 strummed away on the guitar rapturously singing her song—when she broke off. A sweet thing, clad in homespun panelled clothing, pretty bows, and a floaty skirt with jagged edges and what not.
Looking up at Jason with a hopeful brightness behind her blue eyes, she gestured in a bubbly way, “Hey there, would you like to come join our Sing Song Circle?” to which Jason, caught off guard, faltered slightly. Smiling apologetically, responded, “Sorry love, I’ve got a voice like a goose farting in the fog.” Spurred on by the evident need for encouragement—to her mind, Jason was clearly playing ‘hard to get’—she ignored the rebuff and went headlong in for second time lucky, “Okaaaaaay, but it’s gonna be fun! You sure? Come ooon, it’s not baaad, it’s fun!” Too bad you didn’t join in, Jase, too bad.
Walking a small section around the crystal-blue waters of Lake Atitlán each night was the first time in a long time I’d seen fireflies. Out they came after twilight, where nights here were particularly black; glittering through the grass into the bushes and climbing into the tops of trees like a brilliant net of fallen stars. As visuals go last thing before pushing up zzZs, my head hit the pillow having conjured an enchanting fantasy in which to embed these dazzling little creatures and slept hard.
Predominantly, I had Paula to thank for that—to my dream-world and back. Within two minutes of meeting this complete stranger, Paula had loaned me a regular-sized pillow. What a lamb. My neck would cherish that pillow time forever. Jason and I nodded off to the staccato of drops on the tent and the whisper of rain on the waters. Vivid dreams twined easily around my soul after letting myself unto the last carnelian rays of sunlight, which bathed the trees that grew so thickly here.
Situated on the north-eastern edge of Guatemala’s Central Highlands—and therefore much warmer because of its location in the deep valleys between the mountains—was Lanquín. Incurring a stark contrast of the bikes ‘Tarmac surfing’ on smooth roads to bobbling over lively dirt roads took us past an eclectic mix of: armed police officers with the capitals ‘PMT’ heavily embroidered on their backs—I feel your pain sisters; two tiny little girls engaged in a fingernail-charged scrap and a bored-out-of-his-box boy doing his utmost to throw sizable rocks at a stray dog upon reaching an impressively large landslide. If your gut in Guatemala tells you something isn’t quite right, chances are it is but then again…
Distracting me from the unsavoury corners of Guatemala, El Retiro Lodge on the outskirts of the village Lanquín gave us a private room without en suite at half the tourist-duped rate and all night security for the bikes. Dumping our bags, we wasted not a moment to jump on the local collectivo (a huge truck to transport the locals and gringos packed in the back like livestock), and make our way to Semuc Champey.
Post a painstakingly slow, rough road up and down steep hills led us into a jungle-lush oasis; home to thunderous water of raging rapids from Río Cahabón—tempered by a natural 300-metre long limestone bridge—on top of which bore a natural system of cascading limestone pools. What is it about the sound of roaring water, gushing at an intense rush that makes you want to plunge down next to the violent rocks below? A morbid curiosity nibbled at my soul.
When it comes to swimming holes, a stepped series of clear emerald green, jade, teal and turquoise blue created just about the most idyllic watery setting imaginable. Each pool boasted perfect clarity, some deep and dark, others shallow and inviting—all possessed of a power effortlessly luring me in. The resident fish even gave us an unexpected pedicure, nibbling at our toes like a ravenous beaver gnawing at a log.
The shafts of green-tinged sunshine gleamed golden on the expanse of water that stretched over its sparkling sequence to the western horizon. For me, it was rural Guatemala at its finest. Expecting the cold insult of fresh water, instead we dived into an energising pool that allowed us to cool the clammy limbs ensconced in a verdant spot; a kind, gentle experience on the mind and body. The ability to dive and swim all afternoon sent a burst of sheer bliss to charge my muscles; after which it left me panting and exhausted. I smiled, letting my soul travel out over the water.
The tropical sounds of the forest in competition with the boom of the river, the brilliant colours of butterflies and flowers—were all amplified in the senses. Everywhere I looked, a warm grin played about everyone’s lips. But with such a roiling river nearby, the crashing white water rapids were frightening—while the pristine pools buoyed me up, reassuringly—it was country so wild.
Catapulted out of our state of chillaxed serenity took us totally unawares, dumbstruck to the rurality of the roads ahead. Through the boles of trees and back on our bikes, I could see the undulations and pits, some of them much deeper than others, that had been hacked out of the earth. Around us, I gave the land a lumpy look, piles of broken limestone, loose rocks and lashings of stones.
Taking a physically shorter but the half-day longer route over ruta 6 and then ruta 5 from Chipam, we wended our way around the picturesque Parque Nacional Grutas de Lanquín. And traversed our bikes over miles of gnarly tracks, broken up by the odd kid or workman cruelly hindering one’s momentum with a stretched line of near invisible string in order to drum up cash, down gritty dirt roads and up mere suggestions of rutty road. In the fierce heat of the day against the brute force of the terrain, I strained muscle, back and bone to delicately pull it off; namely keep Pearl upright and me into the bargain.
It took us the best part of three hours to ride a measly 30 miles. What a proud, gushing momma I became knowing I had to constantly strike a perfect harmony in keeping Pearl happy. I clung frantically to the balder patches but couldn’t afford for her to overheat—ideally maintaining second gear with enough thrust at which to keep air cooling over her engine—but not at too high a speed so as to lose control over the furiously fun lumps and bumps. Be that as it may, first gear is usually my best friend on the loose stuff. Although I’ve learned enough to know that it usually looks more difficult from afar than close up.
Unlike making it through the Cordillera Blanca by the skin of Pearl’s teeth in terms of my riding ability, the pair of us beamed the whole way. Slow but quietly satisfied that for once, I could cope. Captain Slow? Okay that still applied but ‘Good girl gone biker’ sounded much more befitting if not appealing now. And Pearl, you little minx for whipping us up both up into a storm. And because we stayed well off the asphalt all morning, we saw an untouched side of Guatemala meant only for the locals.
Children screaming in ecstatic delight made me feel like I was winning some slow-race Paris-Dakar. They were endearingly keen! Thumbs up, shouts of wonderment rose in high splendour and a crowd’s worth of clapping with happy abandon—left the biggest coat hanger in my mouth. Grinning like a Cheshire cat, there’s no feeling like it when you ride through a backwater village and make a strong connection with the kids, just like that. Two wheels, one rider and the ability to form friendship with no linguistic barriers.
By the end of our two-wheeled slog, specks of dust pirouetted through the air. Pulling over to capture the moment amid the vast mountainous valley, I gasped happily and rested on my stomach, grubby chin propped in grimy hands. From the flush in my cheeks to every muscle, which knotted with a fiery exhaustion, my blood pumped with the living thrill of the day. I was spent but that was an admission of the flesh not the soul, which was beyond content. It was a feeling of getting to something that I can never quite name but that I knew I had to have more of; Pearl seemed even more pleased with herself. I finally chalked it up to the fact of being free. Motorcycling will do that to you time and time again.