México/Guatemala: Lagos de Montebello to Huehuetenango – via Gracias a Dios and San Mateo Ixtatan

After leaving Tziscao we did some lake-hopping through the rest of the Lagos de Montebello before heading for the border crossing we’d chosen at Gracia a Dios (the name of the town on the Guatemalan side of the border). Running up to this there’d been considerable confusion as to when or if it was open and whether we’d be shaken down for a bribe. One thing we had heard was that it was only open during business hours and weekdays. So when we eventually rocked up at the immigration building on the mexican side at after 5pm we weren’t hopeful. The whole thing turned out to be the most relaxed, and uncomplicated border crossing either of us have every done! The mexican office is open until 10pm (we didn’t notice whether this was just weekdays, we were so happy) and the rather rotund Guatemalan official seemed more concerned about finding the correct stamp at the bottom of a desk drawer than making us feel anything other than comfortable. Changing our pesos to quetzales was slightly more murky, but involved responding to one of a crowd of men with fists of cash and calculators standing on the road down from the Guatemalan immigration office.

After much reckoning and nervousness about getting into Guatemala by a non-main route, the Gracia a Dios experience was incredibly benign. The Mexican side was open 'til 10pm weekedays, and after a steep climb to the top of a hill, we were greeted by the Guatemalan side. There a pleasant rolly-polly man rumaged around in a drawer for a few minutes, produced the correct stamp, tested it a few times, then very carefully marked our passports. No hassling for money, no checking of luggage - bliss!

The ‘low-lands’ proved to be pretty hilly with the road winding up and around some fine looking limestone cliffs. We hauled ourselves a few km along these before nipping off the road and camping behind a jumbled wall. This part of Guatemala (at least) has pretty impressive mobile phone reception with red and white masts dotting the hill-tops.

8km after the junction with the southbound Nenton road, the pavement stopped. We enjoyed the well-built paved road complete with shoulder; but later realised that it was only being built to allow mining access to the remote areas along the Guatemalan side of the border. Mining that the local people are very unhappy about.

We had a few choices of route to get to Huehuetenango (known as “way-way”) all of which involved a tough climb up into the Cuchumatan Mountains. We ended up opting to go via San Mateo Ixtatan and San Pedro Soloma.

After turning right at what we think might have been Yuxquén, the really hard work began. Not that the swooping undulations of the roads around the Cuchumatán range are easy; it's just that everything is relative. The climb, which took us a day and a half, was as hard as getting out of the Copper Canyon, maybe harder as we didn't know how far it went on.
It's not that we spent all our time pushing... We turned many corners hoping they'd be the top or at least some respite only to be faced with more, and more and more. In the space of a few km we'd climbed from 1500m to over 3200m on rocky roads that allowed little concentration for admiring the view.
San Mateo Ixtatan, the town we'd been aiming for, snuggled in a mountain valley. There was still more climbing for 10km after this before blessed, welcome downhill and friendly undulating terrain. Not much later the paved road started allowing us time to bask in our surroundings and curse our weak legs.

Having done 25km days getting up into the highlands it was lovely to be able to free-wheel, and even better when the road surface became paved just short of San Eulalia. The effort had been worth it though. The little villages clinging to the mountainsides that we passed before we got to San Mateo can’t see many, if any, white people. Even sending Sarah in to buy food supplies from the little shops provoked a mass scrambling of children and women into closed houses. It was saddening that we scared them that much. In amongst this we had some incredible smiles and hand-waving when we greeted people. It was quite a shock to realise that we were often more familiar with our shared language (Spanish) than some of the shop-owners.

One thing that we both enjoyed mightily was the cooler temperatures – we even cracked out our down jackets. It made for much less of a mad rush to get into the insect-free safety of the tent at dusk and we felt we were truly back in our chosen environment.

I fix my first puncture since Oaxaca on the hill out of San Juan Ixcoy. The shirt has now been binned as I was getting sunburned through the holes!
After a "top" of about 3200m shortly after San Mateo, the road plunges down to the towns and grinds back out and down to the next. The climb up from San Juan Ixcoy goes back up to 3800m (higher than we'd been on the whole USA/Canada section of our route). Sarah basking in glorious sunshine :-)
The plateau approaching the Todos Santos turn-off is a sparse, limestone strewn area and a marked contrast to the thick pine woods and near-vertical fields of the climb. As well as this lion there is also a purple dragon and a brown rodent to liven things up.
Nearing Todos Santos, the landscape is marked by cacti similar to the Maguey of Mexico lining the tops of dry-stone walls. The fields litter with limestone boulders

Now we’re heading on to Lago Atitlan via a cunning (and probably arduous – will we ever learn) back road from Totonicapan off the Xela road.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s