Although we are two months post-election and one year post the Occupy Wall Street movement, I’m assuming that a majority of those that read our blog are familiar with the percentages sweeping the United States these past few years: the 1% versus the 99%, the 47% versus the 53%. While in Guatemala, we have been introduced to a different percentage, the 65.5% versus the 34.5%. Again, I shall assume that most of our readers have never driven in Guatemala, for those that have, you might have an idea of what I am referring to. According to nationmasters.com (a very reputable source, I know), only 34.5% of Guatemala’s roads are paved, leaving an astounding 65.5% of unpaved roads and making Guatemala 98th out of the random 172 countries listed, superseded by such world powers as Azerbaijan and the Republic of Macedonia. In the three days after we left Lanquin, we drove approximately 150 miles of the 65.5% of unpaved roads. One hundred and fifty miles doesn’t sound like much. Let me assure you, it is at 10 mph. One hundred and fifty miles of the most stunning, remote scenery that we have seen since Alaska. One hundred and fifty miles driving over the highest non-volcanic mountain range in Central America, the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes. One hundred and fifty miles of truck rattling, bone shaking, dirt roads.
Leaving Lanquin, we followed the advice of the Swiss owner of the Zephyr Hostel and pointed north, the completely wrong direction, but towards the reported beautiful Laguna Lachua National Park. Laguna Lachua is nestled close to the Mexican border, a crater lake formed by a meteor and surrounded by pristine jungle. After a night of show and tell with the local family whose field we were camped in and an enjoyable hike to the lake, we were ready to hit the road. Instead of backtracking to Coban to get to Lake Atitlan, we collectively decided to head due west towards Playa Grande and Barrillas, arriving in San Pedro de la Laguna through Huehuetenango. Our host had consulted various amigos and assured us that it was a mere five hours to Barrillas and from there only seven hours to Huehue. We were also told that the calle (road) was malo (bad) at times, but also bueno (good) at times. Regardless, we were ready for an adventure. As we crawled through Barrillas seven hours later, we felt defeated by the 65.5%. The Guatemalan road had again given us a lesson in humility. For seven hours we had taken a beating as we pounded over rough, narrow, dirt roads. Evidently in Guatemala there is no gravel, only dirt held together with large, sharp rocks. Occasionally, on very steep sections, two narrow concrete pads wide enough for the tires had been laid, but those would disappear at the top of the mountain. But, despite the punishment of the road, we couldn’t wipe the huge grins off of our faces. Even though we were in an area that according to our maps should be sparsely populated, we drove through small village after small village. Defying gravity, they clung to the side of the steep mountains. Logically, one would imagine that such villages would be better off placed in a valley or near the bottom of the mountain. Each mountain plunged into the next with steep, narrow, uninhabitable valleys. Along the road trudged tiny Mayan men and women dwarfed by the loads they carried on their backs. In Guatemala, for the poor indigenous population, nothing is easy. Corn crops are planted on vertical slopes, planted and tilled with simple hoes. Corn is husked, by hand, from the cob and laid to dry in the sun. It is then either ground by hand with mortar and pestle or if the village has one, a simple machine run with a motor. Once the corn is ground into cornmeal, tortillas are made and baked over an open hearth. Wood for the hearth is harvested from the vertical slopes of the mountains. Painstakingly chopped down with machete, bundled up and carried on their back using a forehead strap. It was not uncommon to see stooped old men and young children, carrying their weight or more in wood. Exhausted yet ecstatic we settled in for the night in a rock quarry outside of Barrillas, feeling as if this is what overlanding is all about.
As we left Barrillas, Ken heard a new rattling noise coming from the back of the truck. We pulled over in the first spot in the road wide enough to accommodate two trucks (unfortunately also the town dump), and checked the truck over. A bolt holding the suspension airbag in place was gone. If we had ignored the rattling and continued driving, the entire air bag would have been destroyed and we would have been stuck in the middle of no where Guatemala for weeks waiting for a new one.
Luckily, Ken was able to use one of the bolts holding the camper to the truck bed and we were able to safely continue. We kept climbing higher and higher into the mountains and the road did not improve until we topped out in a forest of pine trees and were beyond ecstatic to see smooth, unbroken concrete. After an entire day in low range, cruising at 45 mph felt like light speed. When we checked the Garmin, we saw that we were at well over 9,000 ft in elevation. Surrounded by pine trees, we felt as if we were back in Alaska or Montana. That is until three donkeys trotted by loaded down with wood led by a spry man in shin length white pants, a black vest, black cowboy hat, and sandals: yep, still in Guatemala. Amazingly we continued to climb up windy, narrow, mountain roads, until we were driving through the Cuchumatanes high mountain desert at 11,200 ft. A new record for Suzie and both of us! But, when one goes up, one must go back down and down we plunged towards HueHue.
The hotel in HueHue no longer allowed camping in it’s parking lot, so we decided to push on towards San Pedro, only a 2 hours drive according to the waiter at the restaurant. Lesson number 1,674 of overloading was learned, when asking a local for directions and driving times poll at least three different individuals and add at least 2 hours of driving time to whatever estimate they give you. We made it to the access road to Lake Atitlan just as the sun was setting and navigated down the extremely steep road arriving in San Pedro four hours later.