Guatemala turned out to be our favourite country within Central America. There was something very familiar about it. It had echoes of the Andean culture and way of life that we loved in Peru and we were immediately drawn to the country.
We passed our first night in Guatemala in a town called Escuintla. The noise, chaos, tuc tucs and market vendors again reminded us of Peru. The town had a certain craziness about it. As we walked through the market we saw chicks that had been dyed various colours, Evangelists preached to the masses via loud speakers, a half naked women was causing a scene and providing much entertainment to the local stalls sellers before she was carted off by the police. It certainly was not on the "Gringo Trail" but perhaps it should have been. Dave and I installed ourselves in a little cafe for a few hours and enjoyed soaking up the scene, watching all the goings on of the market and the characters that it held.
The entertainment value went both ways and the following morning we found ourselves at the centre of amusement and intrigue. We decided to have breakfast in a little cafe next door to our hostel. At least, we presumed it to be a cafe as it had tables, chairs and a bar. As soon as we sat ourselves down, the music went off and the five girls working there could not contain their laughter that we had entered their premises. This was further heightened when the owner arrived, took one look at us and announced to all in the cafe, "Oh my god! I have gringos in my place!"
We were not too sure at first whether they were surprised that two "gringos" were in their cafe, or the fact that we actually wanted to eat. We surveyed the room and noticed that although it was only 8.30 am, all the local men were well into polishing off their second bottle of local fire water. Some were struggling not to pass out on the table whilst others had clearly failed miserably and were sprawled out either on the floor or slumped over a few tables. We were quite impressed by the locals dress, and decided that they must be sporting the latest fashion - a contemporary cowboy look. Most of the clientele had cowboy hats on, sweat bands, skinny punk jeans and boy band haircuts. We couldn't work out if they had only just come into the cafe or had been here all night. Eventually one of the girls ran out to buy food for our breakfast, cranked up the music and let the festivities in the bar continue.
After we politely excused ourselves after breakfast, we made our way up to Antigua. Although we were faced with hills again, we really enjoyed the scenery - rolling hills, women weaving beside the road in their indigenous dress and a cooler climate.
We were really taken with the old colonial capital of Antigua, a town that has been designated a UNESCO heritage site due to its beautiful buildings. Although we have seen many colonial towns along our journey, this was one of our favourites. Antigua is nestled between three volcanoes and set within picturesque foothills. We were charmed by the town and spent a day leisurely strolling through the cobbled streets and taking photographs of the colourful architecture.
We could have easily spent a few more days in Antigua, but we were excited to have the opportunity to visit Maya Pedal (www.mayapedal.org), in San Andreas Itzapa, an NGO situated about 20km from Antigua. Maya Pedal recycle used bicycles to build pedal-powered machines, which support and help facilitate the work of small-scale, self-sustainable projects. Through this work they hope to contribute to the conservation of the environment, the health or the Guatemalan people, and the productivity of the local economy.
Unfortunately, the week that we went up to visit the organisation, they were in full throws of getting ready for the week long celebrations for Independence Day and so no "official" work was in progress. Despite this, we were able to visit a local house to see a bicycle pump in action. We were impressed to see that the bicycle machine pumps water at 5-10 gallons per minute from depths of up to 30 meters (compared to an electric pump that only pumps up to 12 metres deep).
We also tried to make ourselves useful and assisted in fixing up a few machines, the pedal powered blender, washing machine and the macadamia nut de-husker.
Trying out the blender
Testing the washing machine
Through out the week of the Independence Day celebrations, every evening a different group from the local community would deliver a torch into the main town plaza. Maya Pedal had the honour of being asked to bring in a torch for the occasion. To make an impression they created a few crazy style bicycles to entertain the town folk.
The day of Independence brought much excitement to the town and hundreds of people from the outlying communities descended upon the town. Women and children wore their indigenous dresses, the school band - which had been practising for this occasion for the past month finally had their moment. We enjoyed watching the horse racing through the streets and it was a great day for people watching. In between the events we used as much time as we could to sample all the street stall food, from tacos and tostadas to fried bananas and frozen fruit dipped in hot chocolate.
After a week, we decided that it was time to leave, studying the map, Mexico did not look too far away. It was certainly easier to plan the route than cycle it. Dave and I had managed to overlook a 3600m pass. After being used to cycling on the flat though Central America, our legs protested at the continuous hill climbs. Despite the aches and pains, we were rewarded with a fresher climate (it was nice to be able to put on a jumper and sleep with a blanket on us) and really enjoyed meeting the people that live in the mountain areas. We were pleasantly surprised to see the men in their traditional brightly coloured woven clothes and the scenery was beautiful.
Finally Mexico was calling...