Guatemala: Panajachel to San Andrés Itzapa – Mayapedal

We’re following a bit of a “standard route” at the moment; at least for cycle tourist passing through Guatemala.

Panajachel has been renamed “Gringotenango” by some – a take on the high percentage of caucasians who live here and visit for varying lengths of time. We enjoyed some of the benefits – specialty grocery stores selling a variety of deli-type foods that wouldn’t be out of place in some of the more well stocked towns we passed through in the USA. The textile stalls dazzle the eyes; and hidden in the back streets there is some fantastic coffee to be found. Needless to say we indulged :-) We stayed with Matthew and Nancy who came here by bicycle themselves just over a year ago, stayed for a couple of weeks to do a spanish language course, and got stuck. They have a nice set-up, complete with chooks and dogs, and made us very welcome.

Dragging ourselves away after a couple of days, we worked our way back up the hill we’d dived down. Nancy met us part of the way up on her way back from a Saturday constitutional. We’d missed her on the way up as we were stocking up in the “Yummy Doughnut Shop” – a very, very well named spot to fuel-up! Life was progressing nicely, then we had yet another trailer linkage rod break. After trying to find a replacement in the village we’d just gone through, we hitched a lift to the next town. There, we managed to get the broken part welded, along with a spare without losing any time in our usual manner. The leap we’d made allowed us to get to San Andrés Itzapa and Mayapedal that evening – 10 minutes after Javier and Sylvia arrived!

After repeatedly mending an increasingly aged and worn-out trailer we’ve decided to swap Sarah’s load-carrying system to rear pannier bags with a rack. This also has the advantage of taking about 5kg off her load and makes getting around in towns easier (no worries of having the trailer run over and tight quarters turning is improved). Robin and the guys at the BikeBagShop in Flagstaff Arizona have been amazing as they’ve agreed to ship some other bits and pieces we need with the order despite having to get them in from Amazon themselves. All we have to do is wait for it all to turn up here. Waiting for things outside our control is never something we’re much good at; and with the rainy season imminent we’re getting seriously itchy feet to be on the road again.

Mayapedal is a good place to hang-out and work, and though San Andrés isn’t the most inspiring place it has a great sense of community. Mayapedal is a not-for-profit organisation that primarily exists to manufacture, design and distribute pedal-powered machines for the local indigenous communities. It was founded in the aftermath of the civil war in the 1990’s. It is staffed by a constantly evolving stream of volunteers from all over the world, though mainly from USA/Canada, UK, Australia/NZ and Europe. The volunteers are often cycle tourists like us who stop-off for anywhere from a couple of days to several weeks. Mayapedal currently has a major parts supply problem meaning that the workshop’s other function, namely reconditioning or building up new bikes from donated frames and parts is frustratingly difficult. We’ve been constructing a mountain bike, and it takes hours to find each functional part. Sometimes you have to dissect parts of parts from up to 5 different non-functional units… The rear derailler ended up being a chimera of 4 different ones! Having said that, it does mean that we can now make what we thought were complex parts from scratch, and even build wheels from a rim, a hub and a pile of spokes. I made a wheel dishing tool because there wasn’t one here, a 3rd workstand and used my rock-climbing skills to fix the roof. Sarah waxed creative with lots of bici-maquina (bicycle-machine) painting and got onto labelling the countless buckets or boxes of different parts in better style along with lots of other things.

Our campspot on the roof at Mayapedal. Nice to have a bit of multicoloured space, but the full-volume music that the guy across the road plays at 4am is less fantastic...
An array of Bicimaquinas (Bike Machines) lined up for final painting touches...
Having fun with an angle-grinder cutting up a steel drum to make a bike-powered washing machine
Mayapedal (re)constructs bikes for people who have particular requests. Ronan wants to cycle to Colombia, so he got the biggest frame we had and we all scrabbled round trying to find the best parts. All difficult given that Mayapedal hasn't had a shipment of bikes for 14 months now. The drought is ending in mid-June though, when a container from BikesNotBombs will arrive - with about 450 bikes to sort and organise!
Dawn from our perch on the top of Mayapedal

Semana Santa (Holy week) is a big thing here. Others explain it better (see, but broadly following Christ’s crucification etc, large biers are moved around the town or city carried by lots of people accompanied by much pomp. A particular part of this is the making of extremely beautiful, but very temporary carpets over which the procession passes. We got fully involved with carpet making and design as one of the processions passed Mayapedal on the way to the cemetary and back. It struck us as a far more community-involving and meaniful event than the consumption of extraordinary amounts of chocolate.

A wall stencil we helped create. The masked indigenous woman (or man) is a well known device signifying the ability to speak out and help create change, free from fear of reprisal. This particular design was created by Gavin, one of the volunteers for a 'carpeta' as part of the Semana Santa procession - hence the crosses and her chain-ring halo.
The 'carpeta' outside Mayapedal, created for one of the Semana Santa (Holy Week) parades. These processions carry a casket with Christ up to the Cemetary on Good Friday, and down again on Saturday (not Sunday, somewhat confusingly). It's an amazing, all-inclusive community creative effort and is somewhat more meaningful than copious chocolate....
The carpeta is made from various things - ours was using an un-coloured sawdust base with coloured sawdust in patterns using stencils. Others used lime to whiten the base or a pine-needle base with flowers.
Sarah made some friends while photographing the whole process, and it's just as well that you can delete the multitude of un-needed photos they take on your camera. They loved the process :-)
The procession itself come in two parts - Christ in his casket carried on a huge bier by the men with his own band providing music. The Virgin Mary follows a bit behind on a smaller bier carried by the women and another band. All shrouded in smoke.
Within 20 minutes of the procession, the whole carpeta is swept up and loaded onto carts - we couldn't help wondering what would happen if they put a similar effort into keeping the place clean the rest of the year...

The weekend after Easter Sarah and number of other Mayapedal voluntarios did an overnight hike up a couple of the nearby volcanos. Acatenango and Fuego are nearly 4000m high, and are consistently steep. Fuego is aptly named as it throws out glowing embers and smoking on a continual basis. I managed to time a stomach bug to perfection and so was frustratingly unable to come along. The photos Sarah took didn’t help my annoyance, but I couldn’t have made it up and down, the way I was.

Heading for Volcanes Acatenango and Fuego near San Andrés and after climbing for 6 hours, the group got to this precarious bivi-spot at midnight. Sadly no-one managed to successfully capture the showers of glowing embers that shot from Volcan Fuego.
Not a bad view for a night's work...
Acatenango is in the background, with the saddle and bivi-spot in between. Not a place to roll over in bed!
Fuego in action in the post-dawn light. Sadly, although this was pretty specky, the un-photographed detonations and spewed glowing missiles of the night before were more so.
Given the altitude it's also pretty cold up there. Jen was understandably reluctant to abandon any available warmth

Living at Mayapedal is a pretty intense experience. There were between 3 and 15 people in a relatively small space at points during our stay. We took the opportunity to escape at weekends. The last weekend before we left we cycled the 18km to Antigua Guatemala to hang-out and relax. There is free camping in the mostly empty city block where the tourist police are based (there to protect the tourists). A small trickle of the more independant travellers stay there, including all the cycle tourists we’ve met recently and a few others. Antigua used to be Guatemala’s capital, until after a string of earthquakes, it was abandoned for the current site in Guatemala City. Consequently there are lots of spanish colonial buildings and lots and lots of tourists. It’s also a lot more expensive than San Andres. We enjoyed pottering around, but having been through a few colonial towns and cities now, we preferred places like Oaxaca that aren’t primarily about catering for the tourists.

The classic Antigua view with colonial buildings and the looming bulk of Volcan Agua
There are 300 cafes and eateries in Antigua catering to the tourist masses. The Rainbow Cafe has one of the Mayapedal BiciLiquadores, but other than hosting monthly expositions of what we make, doesn't seem to use it much!
Mothers Day in San Andres has been extended to become a day for women. In the local schools all the female teachers have the day off, and the male teachers have to do all the work. As Sarah was the only woman at Mayapedal, she had a cake bought for her!

Now the plan is to skirt round the south of Guatemala City, then heading cross-country via Jalapa to the Honduran border at Cópan Ruinas.

Sarah's beloved trailer, now a glorious orange colour, goes to a loving new home. Anita and Mario are cycling as far as Costa Rica then flying back to Germany to be reunited with her much-missed dog for a tour towards Egypt. The dog'll be travelling in style now!

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