Time it took to cycle from San Francisco to San Salvador: Eight months
Time it took to fly from San Salvador back to San Francisco: Three hours and forty-five minutes
Our team consisted of Robert B, Christoph the German and myself. We had two days’ worth of supplies, a reasonable morsel of intelligence and hiking experience between us, camping gear and a happy disregard for warnings from tour operators. Our mission was to climb and camp on Acatenango, the largest of several volcanoes littered around Antigua, Guatemala, without forking out for an expensive tour. We spent the afternoon before we set off performing reconnaissance at the local bus terminal. Somewhat predictably, we learned we should simply arrive as early as possible and pester people until we found a bus that would take us where we wanted to go.
Antigua’s bus terminal is a dusty lot behind the municipal market, filled with old American school buses whose drab black and yellow has been painted over with flame motifs, pleas for divine blessing and Barcelona FC stickers. Lazy and somewhat empty in the afternoon, we were unprepared for the 6am frenzy next morning. Buses from the countryside slide to a halt in the dust, and boys vault onto the roof to hand baskets of produce down to the arms of passengers who will sell them at the market nearby. New passengers, who seem to know exactly where to wait despite a total lack of organisation or system, board the now-empty bus just as quickly and off it goes before the hapless gringo has the chance to tap someone on the shoulder and stutter “Disculpe…”
Eventually we caught a ride to Parramos and waited an hour until a packed minivan pulled up. No room inside, so instead we sat on the roof with our packs and a couple of grinning teenagers. I’d never ridden on the roof of public transport before, but for short rides on Guatemalan mountain roads they definitely are the best seat. You get a 360-degree view of the valleys and volcanoes and any farts or burps or cries of unhappy children are lost in the wind. Just hold onto something and don’t let go for a single moment.
Pre-hike team photo
Christoph near the saddle back
The track took us up through a mossy cloud forest that gradually thinned out and then disappeared altogether as we reached a saddle back between Acatenango and its lesser neighbour whose name escapes me. Earlier we’d run into a large tour group, who were each paying US$89 for the same experience, and a guide from New Zealand told us we’d find sheltered campsite in the saddle back. Now, part of the allure of camping on Acatenango is that there is another volcano, Fuego, that remains active to the south. At night, from certain parts of Acatenango, you can supposedly see molten lava spewing out of Fuego. However, after arriving at the fogged-in saddle back and consulting a map, we realised that from this site we’d have no such view even if the fog disappeared.
“Bullshit,” we declared and were about to start off towards the campsite supposedly “reserved” for tour groups when an icy downpour collapsed around us with nary a drop or a rumble to announce itself. With a bit of cursing and shivering Christoph erected his tent and Rob and I made his. We used a t-shirt to dry the inside and shared blankets and a sleeping mat to keep warm. The rain didn’t relent and there was nothing to do but sleep.
A couple of hours later Christoph’s cheery voice came to us over the rain.
“Hey guys how are you going?” He didn’t wait for us to answer. “I’m really cold in here and I think in the night time it’s becoming colder and it could be dangerous!” Somehow he still sounded excited. He abandoned his tent and squished in and we were three wet, frozen grown men making a Robbie Sandwich in a tent that’s generously described as “two person”. We climbed out once, in the afternoon when the rain slowed a little, to adjust the tent but aside from that we didn’t move between 1pm and 4:30 the next morning. Wind flapped and whipped at the wet tent and sent the fog tumbling over us, and thunder cracked so close it could’ve been a giant playing bocce with the boulders outside. By 11pm I’d slept all I could, and spent the rest of the night wedged awkwardly between Rob, who would happily snuggle a porcupine if it crawled into bed with him, and the tent wall. Arms, usually such useful things, become awful in these situations. Where do you put them that isn’t in the way of you or someone else? I never figured it out.
In the morning each of us were convinced he had had the worst night of the three, but happily we had little opportunity to talk about it once we crawled out and into the dark fog that raced over us in the wind. Red-painted rocks signaled the path to the volcano’s summit, and by the light of head torches that struggled to light anything but the fog in our faces we stumbled upward. On the slope we could see nothing but dark, jumbled rocks reaching ten metres before us into the clouds, or ten metres behind us down into the same grey nothing. Watching the other two hooded figures ahead, heads bent, struggling in a slow-motion stumble uphill in the immense noise of the wind battering at the mountain, I imagined a nuclear winter.
The summit, when we reached it, was underwhelming:
They’re crouched behind those rocks to keep out of the wind
For 18 hours our world had been the inside of a cramped tent and then a sloping, lifeless 20 metre-wide platform of rocks and scree floating in a grey ether, and when the fog lightened and then disappeared completely for a couple of seconds our horizons shot out over Antigua and to the sentinel cone of Agua Volcano beyond. Then all was grey again. We hooted and danced and in that very human way of rationalising suffering, decided that one glimpse had made the whole thing worth it.
We stuck around and the cloud granted a few more chances to look at the world outside.
Fuego Volcano, whose spectacular eruptions one can watch on a clear night from a better campsite
More volcanoes to the west as we climbed down from the summit
Return to the campsite.
Breakfast on the way down
Tour groups were already milling by the road when we reached the end of the path. We passed another headed up the mountain that included several older American couples and two armed policemen. We’d heard that thieves occasionally cause problems for hikers on the track, but sending policemen along seems a little extreme. It’s fun to imagine the scene in the station the day before: “Ok men, tomorrow we’re going rolling out into one of Guatemala City’s poorest ghettos to bust up a cocaine-smuggling gang that’s been terrorizing the local people for too long. We have all the intel we need after months of surveillance, and it’s time to put these suckers in a courtroom. Everybody suit up! Oh, everyone except you Officers Sanchez and Lopez. You’re going hiking with some American tourists.”
“Naw chief. I wanted to bust drug smugglers. Are these tourists young and attractive at least?”
“The group leader is one Dolly Jones, age 68 from Houston, and her party of four. Have fun lads!”
Riding the roof and drinking rum on the road back to Antigua
We bid Christoph goodbye and good luck that night and rode out of Antigua the next day. The road took us through the valley between volcanoes Aguas and Acatenango – “titty-f**cking volcanoes!” as Rob eloquently put it – and then into a long, leisurely downhill into Escuintla. The shouts of “Gringo!”, “Hey joo!” and “Oh may gad!” told us we were no longer in a tourist town, and we took refuge at a shop just outside the city for lunch. Rain followed us across the flatlands and up onto the feet of big Tecuamburro, a volcano with her head in the clouds and steam rising from the jungle nestled in the folds at her base.
That night we had an even more interesting round of “Where Are We Going to Sleep Tonight?” than usual. A sign advertised an “aquatic park”, and we followed it off the highway. A family lived at the gate and the stern father, who was reading the bible to his family, seemed slightly put out that we’d interrupted him. He drove off to ask some higher-up and in his absence, the kids turned off his religious chanting music and switched on cartoons. He ran over a chicken in the process of parking on his return, and didn’t bat an eyelid as it writhed on the ground. Eventually one of his daughters took it away while Rob and I exchanged nervous glances.
A kid named Henry and a shotgun-toting offsider turned up and after much deliberation and a couple of phone calls, they asked for our passports and then invited us in. Inside it looked like this:
Henry and Shotgun Man and seemingly everyone else on the block gave us a tour of this deeply strange place. After the tense initial confrontation, everyone except Shotgun Man was pretty easygoing and eager to show us their little world, which is called the “Eden Aquatic Park”.
“So if you go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and you freak out because you think you’ve seen an elephant, don’t worry because it’s just a statue,” said Henry and we all guffawed. There were water slides, picnic tables, dunking barrels, a small zoo full of traumatised-looking monkeys, foxes and racoons, swing sets and a special pool for baptisms, the latter complete with a statue of a portly frog.
Shotgun Man was all dressed up the next morning as people would be arriving at nine for a fresh round of baptisms. In addition to his usual black shotgun and big black cowboy hat, he wore a checked shirt tucked into tight jeans held up by a leather belt with a huge buckle. He wore heeled boots and a pistol tucked into his belt with an extended magazine. I never once saw him unarmed.
Once I asked if he’d ever fired the shotgun in anger. “It gets used,” he replied, staring into the distance. What a badarse. But whether all the weaponry really was necessary on a sunny Tuesday morning is debatable. How would he envision his perfect work day, I wonder?
A beautiful baby boy is being bathed in the cleansing waters of the baptismal pool, the frog looking over the scene with a serene grin. The family stands watching on as the priest utters his prayers when suddenly swarms of thieves appear, leaping over the fences and scurrying off in search of the establishment’s safe. They aim weapons at the screaming parishioners, who dive for cover, and then here comes Shotgun Man, clopping along in his boots and plugging away at the intruders from the waist.
Blood splatters on the smiling face of a giant watermelon and more stains the swimming pools. The shotgun runs out of shells and Shotgun Man tosses it aside, drawing his pistol in the same swift motion. As he does so a stray bullet catches him in the shoulder and he ducks to one side, shooting down three more thieves from behind a statue giraffe’s long legs. Once more he finds himself out of ammunition but lo, a fallen thief lies beside the pelican in a top hat with an Uzi in each still-warm hand. He cops another two rounds in the side as he clops over to the pelican and with a dive and a roll he has the Uzis. He stands to face the remaining thieves, who number fifteen at least and are rallying for one last charge at this madman in the dashing hat. Shotgun Man lifts an Uzi in each hand and holds the triggers down, spraying from the waist. An almighty bellow escapes his lips as enemy fire tears bloody holes in his checkered shirt and then *click-click-click* go the Uzis and he falls to his knees, a faraway look in his eyes. His hands, still clutching the guns, drop to his sides.
There is a still moment of silence, and then the boss from Guatemala City appears, calling his name as he sprints in slow-motion over the bodies of lifeless thieves. “Shotgun Man,” he screams. “Shotgun Man,” he whispers again as he reaches our hero, “you killed them all. You saved us.”
“I know,” replies Shotgun Man.
Suddenly Penelope Cruz appears and cradles Shotgun Man’s head in one arm, the newly baptized boy in the other. He looks on with confusion. “You were the best lay I ever had in my life,” Penelope whimpers through the tears.
“I know,” replies Shotgun Man again and with a final bloody cough, he keels over and lies still. Penelope, poor Penelope, she throws her head back and screams “Nooooooooo”.
Apologies for that lengthy indulgence, I was having too much fun there.
Later that day we crossed into country number six of this bike ride, tiny El Salvador. With six million inhabitants packed into a nation just 270 kilometres wide, El Salvador is apparently Central America’s most densely populated country and it shows. For our whole first day the highway’s ample shoulder was full of strolling ladies, cycling workers with machetes, giggling teenagers and kids. The highway is lined with homes of the cement mansion and wooden hut variety, and lots of shops. This the most “americanised” country I’d seen so far in Central America, with malls and lots of firms specialising in visas. In the aptly named Cara Sucia (“dirty face”) there’s a mural that depicts a boy with his back to the viewer, his shoulders slumped, staring at a high concrete wall. Around him are bones in the dirt. On the green hills beyond the wall is a white city with airplanes and cars and big houses. Below it reads “The North American dream is the grave of many migrants”.
Speaking of which, El Salvador uses the US dollar as its currency. The US dollar is, without doubt, the worst currency I’ve ever come across in my travels. Why? I have dot points ready:
- All the notes are the same colour and look basically the same – an old white bloke on a background of green. So if you’re in a dark, crowded bar trying to find a suitable denomination to pay for your beer, it’s doubly hard to differentiate between a $5 and a $50.
You’re a little drunk, it’s dark and crowded and the bar lady wants her money already, but you’re still playing spot the difference with Grant and Lincoln.
Australian pineapples and prawns: easy peesy.
- The notes are made of paper, so they tear and deteriorate over time. Virtually every other developed country in the world has moved to plastic by now. With US dollars you occasionally have the ludicrous situation of a shopkeeper refusing to accept your perfectly valid money because it’s ancient, soggy and dirty.
- Finally, there aren’t any numbers on the coins! I suppose it only takes basic mathematical skills to work out the value of a “quarter dollar”, but what the hell is “one dime”?!? Nowhere on the ten cent coin does it actually say “10 cents” or even “ten cents”, just this weird word we’ve heard in movies but don’t actually know what it means. Panicking, you figure that the coins’ value must follow the order of size but no, the five cent coin – whose value you’ve only ascertained by squinting really, really hard to read the “five cents” text – is far bigger than the dime. Even Iran, which doesn’t use the same numbers as us, puts western style numbers on its money to help out foreigners. The US just say’s “bugger it” and takes up all the room that should be reserved for nice clear numbers with vague pictures of old-timey people and boats.
My apologies again. This is my last cycling blog post and I’m getting liberal with my tangents.
We saw fellow cycle tourists all over El Salvador. They’re locals who ride rusty old mountain bikes and instead of baggage, they take family members on trips with them, sitting on a rear rack or on the top bar between the seat and handlebars. Our record was a whole family of five on one bicycle: dad on the seat to pedal and steer, mum on the top bar between his arms, a pair of sons seated on the rear rack and a baby daughter on the handlebars.
Rob and I have talked a lot about picking up a baby chicken, goat or pig and taking it along as a travel companion until it’s grown and we can either slaughter it for meat or trade it for another baby. Christoph told us he’d met a cyclist who was travelling with a chicken in a trailer. “One egg per day, usually,” he’d said.
Well, we saw lots of Salvadoran cycle tourists who collect baby humans. Usually they sit on the handlebars or on the racks, and we saw one bloke who had four of them crowded onto his steed. One afternoon a teenager rode by with an ancient man with sunken cheeks and toothless gums riding on the top bar. Rob looked at me. “He got too attached,” he said. “Let his baby get too old.”
Traffic and the concentration of humans thinned out once we properly hit the coast, just in time for the scenery to get pretty spectacular.
Shagrat and Dougal getting keen for a swim
This part of the ride was beautiful, with the road constantly climbing toward the coast to skirt clifftops before diving back to the jungle into some nook where a river or creek would emerge. The jungle was quiet there, save for the odd family sitting by the roadside with piles of watermelons for sale.
I mentioned in my last post that I’d altered my final destination, bringing it from Ushuaia to the considerably nearer San Salvador, and by now we were getting mighty close. Rob asked me one morning if I was glad I’d put in another month of riding, rather than bailing straight to San Francisco to chase a girl after the Cuba trip. I am glad I kept going for a little longer, even though knowing that I had a beautiful woman and a new life waiting made me much less tolerant of the shittier aspects of cycle touring. I spent a lot of time in Belize, Guatemala and El Salvador thinking about her and life on the other end of that plane ride, and suddenly here I was on the eve of actually going.
We found a place to stay with some Salvadoran expats who now live, of course, in San Francisco and one bloke, named Tito, lives in San Mateo which is just up the road from where I’m writing this now. They brought out freshly caught and fried fish with homemade salsa for dinner and seemed unable to get over having met Australians in El Salvador. “You’re so far from home,” Tito said over and over.
Rob and I sat that night on the beach, looking at the ocean reflecting the crescent moon and drinking beer. Quiet, mostly. We talked about his plans for the next few days and the menial tasks I’d have to do once I reached San Francisco. It’s times like these you want to say something but when you’ve been mostly alone with someone 24 hours a day for seven months, the other person already knows what you’re going to say before the first word comes out.
In the morning we rode a quaint little country lane through farmland, with the only sounds coming from the slapping of tortillas on women’s hands and the hum of our wheels on the road. We hit the airport far quicker than I thought we would and after an airport lunch, a photo and a few words that felt too formal and scripted, he was off. I was smiling as I watched him go.
Rob’s cycling adventure is continuing and you should definitely follow it here on his blog
So I’m writing this in the basement I now live in in Burlingame, a wealthy suburb south of San Francisco. That North American dream from the mural in Cara Sucia is alive and well here, with the surrounding streets full of beautiful big homes shaded by leafy trees, and front lawns far too green than they should be in drought-stricken California. I still ride Baxter. He comes to the supermarket or the post office or the DMV or the job I found at a bike shop, assembling children’s bicycles. I work there with guys from Sinaloa, Baja California and Zacatecas and all day I’m speaking Spanish and listening to banda and cumbia on one of the many local Spanish-language radio stations. Every day the guys bring enchiladas or tamales or aguachile and they usually have a little to spare for Pancho Villa, which is a nickname they’ve given me. Occasionally they ask about my cycling trip and where I went in Mexico, and they smile and nudge one another while I talk about places I visited or things I ate in their country. Sometimes I feel more at ease with them than outside among the “americanos”. Next week I start work as a “content manager” for a food, wine and travel website, which sounds like loads of fun and, dare I say it, the start of something resembling a “career”.
And then in the evenings I come home to our basement and at some point a curly-headed girl shows up and we cook dinner and watch movies and go for runs and bike rides. On the weekends we go hiking or work in the backyard or look for furniture in second-hand shops and Ikea. A couple of weeks ago we went to Seattle and I met her family. This weekend we’re going camping in Lassen National Park with a bunch of her mates.
I’m aware that all this mightn’t be near as interesting to you, dear reader, as my adventures with Baxter and Rob and Jamie and Simon and cockfighters and crazy Spaniards and all the rest. For that I’m leaving off writing on the blog until my – our? – spell with a 9 to 5 life inevitably gets put on hold for a while. But you should know that all this – the routine, the growing responsibility, the sleeping in the same bed each night, the kitchen, the weird familiarity and, most of all, the girl – are soothing my soul in a way that I never expected. I didn’t go to Argentina as planned but this, right here, sitting in the backyard on a warm autumn afternoon with breeze in the yellowing trees, is exactly where I want to be.
Alright, that’s all we have time for. Time to grab Baxter and her steed, Bang, and head for the supermarket. I think we’re doing noodles for dinner.