The road from Palenque to Frontera Corozal, the border town on the Rio Usimacinta, was lovely. Few hills, just gentle rises and falls. With hills to our right and savannah-like fields on our left in the valley. Some cattle grazed among the thick grass and scatterred trees.
At the end of the day, we camped off the road, out of sight. Undisturbed by sounds of the village, the night was interrupted instead by howler monkeys, just yards away from us. For a small mammal, they make an unearthly hoarse roar. At first like a cow giving birth, it builds into a lion’s roar which resonates through the thick forest, where more howler’s join in this bass growl. Impossible to sleep through. Worse even than cockerels at dawn. It is fear-inducing, terrorizing. And had I not known what made the noise, I should not have slept at all.
To cross into Guatemala you must take a lancha across the river. We opted for the shorter, cheaper crossing to La Tecnica. From there it was only 13km to Bethel. But 13km on rocky dirt road that goes the steepest route over the hills is hard work. It was here that I plummeted from the bike, for my first fall of the trip. Bruised and grazed, on both my arm, hip and ego. But nothing serious and we continued on towards Flores in the heart of El Peten region in the north.
Our first night in Guatemala, with few options for wild camping, as dusk came we asked a local. Alvaro and his son spoke English, having lived in California many years. We could camp on their property, perfectly safe. Excellent!
It has been difficult finding places to wild camp in central America. Fences of wooden uprights and barbed wire line the roads. Instead we have taken to asking locals to camp on their farm. ‘Of course’, is the common answer. No questions about who we are or what we are doing. ‘Camp anywhere you like’. Sometimes we find a spot away in a field where we hope for some quiet. Other times we are next to the house. Either way, morning begins early. Pre-dawn. With the cockerels crowing and dogs barking. It is a long time now that I have slept through this 5am hullaballoo.
An afternoon of gradually improving dirt roads and then back to tarmac. The roads through El Peten region are relatively flat and cycling became enjoyable again. Just keep up the rhythmic pedalling and watch the world go by. Let your thoughts drift and ponder why Guatemalans seem so friendly, laidback people, why the food varies beyond tacos, as in Mexico, and how long it will be before the remaining forest is under threat from encroaching farmland.
With population growth and the preferred farming method of slash and burn forest to provide cattle grazing land, farmers are gradually moving northward into El Peten and the forest is disappearing. This is unsustainable, and once the forest is gone, well that’s it.
For now though, the forest around the ancient Maya ruins of Tikal is protected. And here, wildlife thrives below the forest canopy, among the vines and undergrowth. In just one day at Tikal, we saw spider monkeys, heard the howlers, saw coatimundis, a baby snake, wild turkeys and numerous birds too of course, whose dawn chorus is less a tuneful melody than an ill-tempered child let loose on a piano or violin.
From Flores to Rio Dulce we passed near the Belize border. Cycling through a mix of landscapes. From pine trees, to expansive hilly views of dry grass and palm trees. Winding round green grassy hillocks and along steep sided walls of thick forest, liana vines hanging to the floor and mosses covering rocks.
And it rained. At first just a few drops, but then the torrential tropical downpour commenced with a vengeance, soaking anyone caught under the waterfall. Drenched, we took shelter beside a house. Watching in silence because the rain drowned out all sound as it pelted the highway and rebounded. Getting wet wasn’t the problem. Visibility was minimal and still the trucks thundered past.
It was the same in Rio Dulce. Situated on the river the town is named after. Named so at least since a bridge was built joining the north and south banks. Before that, the town was known as Frontera. Because the river acted as a natural border to all traffic, who would have to wait to cross by boat.
Rain in the afternoon and evening. Every day. The rainy season I didn’t think had started, but here, it has it’s own micro-climate and rain at this time of year is not unusual.
El Salvador, being on the Pacific coast, we were guaranteed would be dry. So that is where we headed on our journey south. But first a detour to Livingston.
Livingston is situated on the coast at the mouth of the Rio Dulce. The Garifuna community create a carefree atmosphere more akin to a Caribbean island. But then again, Livingston is isolated like an island. With no roads connecting it to the rest of Guatemala, the only way there is by boat.
We took the morning tourist boat (the only boat used as public transport), which includes detours to the castle and other ‘attractions’. But of most intrigue was seeing the floating dentist surgery. This mobile service may be the only option for those living along the banks of the Rio Dulce, among the mangroves, on houses raised on stilts. But I would have second thoughts before laying back in the dentists chair and opening wide, as the room gently rose and fell with the blue waters. Doesn’t matter how steady the hand holding the drill is, you wouldn’t get it near my mouth!
Throughout central America there are pharmacys in most villages. Numerous doctors services are offered privately in towns. On one pharmacy a picture of Che Guevara on the white-washed wall. Pictures of Che are prominent throughout central America. He was of course influential here and I wonder whether he contributed to a good health system here, as he successfully did in Cuba.
It was just a day’s cycle until we were far from the lush green tropical abundance of the Caribbean and back in hot, dry hills and cloudless skies.
We turned off onto the last road to the El Salvador border. Now high up among hills reminiscent of Guinea’s beautiful Fouta Djalon. But with trees in full blossom, coated in tiny pale pink flowers. So delicate in the glaring sun and deep blue sky.
Up the last hill in Guatemala and across the border late in the afternoon. We had just enough time to buy food for dinner before free-wheeling downhill, admiring the magnificent endless views, looking for a place to camp…
‘Oh no!’ I exclaimed. ‘What?’ shouts Lars. And I make an emergency stop, and begin turning my bike around. ‘We forgot to buy beer’, I reply as I make my way back to a little shop for this last minute purchase.
Still, we had time enough to find a field, ask the locals if we could camp there, drag our bikes through the barbed wire fence to be among the cattle, put down our gear and stand admiring the scenery in the setting sun, with a thirst-quenching (and still cold) beer.
It was the perfect start to this new country I knew little about.