We decided to ride from Lanquin to Lake Atitlan's Panajachel via the most direct route, through Cobán and Uspantán. Here's a map.
The portion from Lanquin to Cobán begins with 10km of single-lane bad road, loose rocks and deep ruts and smoky, slow buses, but the reward is the remainder: paved two-lane highway that winds through the Guatemalan mountains, offering view after view of valleys and lush canyons, presenting peak after peak receding into the distance.
It was our most beautiful ride yet and was just one more instance of the challenge/reward dynamic that seems to manifest throughout this trip.
Our stay in Cobán was short and memorable mostly for the strange-looking electrodouche, a hot-water heater attached directly to the end of a shower nozzle with sketchy wiring. I've been shocked by a few of them already, but this one appeared to be straight-up homemade.
We then moved on to Panajachel, but first there would be a challenge: the Uspantán-Cobán section has been ravaged by landslides. Lonely Planet on this mountainous Guatemalan road says, in summary: "a mountain collapsed atop the road"; "Federal authorities have made no attempt to rebuild the road, considering the volatility of the fault zone"; "local communities chose to bridge the gap themselves, however makeshift their efforts"; and "the hastily constructed detour is considered unsafe, and the government has posted signs warning of the perils of attempting the journey". Landslides, you say? Sounds like fun!
Okay, so really I was scared. We've had some tough roads before and they take time and are hard on the bikes, and if it should rain while we're on the road who knows what kind of thick, muddy morass we might find ourselves in? But we didn't bring adventure motorcycles six thousand miles for nothing. I've read that anxiety equals excitement plus fear, and fear is the inverse of confidence, and I knew I could do this, so all I had to do was remind myself of that fact and see the road as a challenge.
Then we got to the road.
A narrow road hugging the side of a loose mountain. Halfway through, locals with heavy equipment collected a toll, I presume for their salaries and fuel but quite possibly for rum. Cost: eight quetzales, or sixty cents American.
But the road wasn't just one landslide, it was many. Some were enormous and the road turned to single-lane dirt with two-way traffic, vehicles moving at 10mph and maneuvering all over to pick their line.
But we were practiced and nimble and we found ourselves passing everyone we came across. The reward was the awesome view, more mountains and valleys in these highlands, perfect weather, and a great twisty tarmac all the way west of Uspantán. It was easily the best road yet.
With time we ended up at San Pedro, across the lake from Panajachel, and we stayed at Zoola, a hostel frequented by young Israelis. This fact was unknown to me beforehand.
At some point I accidentally squirted 100%-concentrated mosquito repellant on my computer and melted some of the keys.
And I made some Israeli friends...
...who were associated with a local Jewish org called Bet Chabad...
...and we ended up taking a boat across the lake to a picnic spot, the launch overloaded with three dozen of us and water nearly coming over the gunwales. I sat in the middle of the boat and had visions of disaster.
At the BBQ I met a number of lovely people who were all speaking Hebrew, and I sat pretending to listen until Mendi...
...spoke English and offered me rum and asked about me and I told him all the usual details, plus that I'm Jewish but I wasn't raised with the traditions, and he asked if I celebrated the holidays and I said "Not really" and he asked if I had even had a Bar Mitzvah and I said "No but my penis is Jewish" and he asked if I'd like a Bar Mitzvah and I said yes, and suddenly he stood up. He called everyone to silence, and he shouted: "Great news, everyone! Let us celebrate, for tomorrow we will have a Bar Mitzvah for Erik!" And everyone cheered, and I wondered what just happened, and Mendi told me he liked me because I was the only person who could keep up with him drinking, and I knew in my heart this wasn't true because sober people don't accidentally have Bar Mitzvahs.
On the boat ride back I sat in the bow with my head on the prow and I watched the heat lightning against the volcanoes and the lights of San Pedro softly growing closer, behind me there was the drone of the motor and the glottal chatting, and staring into the inky water I looked forward to becoming a Mensch.
The next morning I was in a haze when Darren said that a gang dudes had come looking for me the night before. "They said they're gonna come find you at 3pm so you better be ready. For your Bar Mitzvah." Oy vey, it was really happening. But when the time came, my new friends from Bet Chabad showed up with a decorated tuk-tuk with lights and music like a nightclub, and seven people rode in or on it.
At the Bar Mitzvah I got wildly drunk, I recited prayers that I didn't understand, I promised God to have three boys and to give them Bar Mitzvahs, I passed through a shawl and wore teffelin, I began to make cowboy face and spent two hours vomiting and I found that God really is everywhere but I tend to encounter him most often in the toilet bowl. Also, I became a Man.
The tuk-tuk ride home felt like a roller coaster and I passed out at 8:30pm and the rest of Zoola and San Pedro was a blur. Later we made our way to Antigua, a lovely colonial town nestled among volcanoes and the next stop on the Gringo Trail. At a hostel staffed by the marginally sober, we rented a room missing a key.
We then hiked a volcano where locals tormented us by following us with horses, giving the wheezy gringoes a perpetual easy-out.
One horse stepped on my foot but the stiff leather of my Wescos protected me. The sharp, loose rocks threatened many an ankle but my tight laces kept up the support. The steam vents melted a sole or two, but my Vibrams held up fine. Overall, I'd have to rate my boots as offering strong volcano-resistance with significant equine protection.
We then rode to El Salvador, but not before getting lost in Guatemala City and then stopping for heart-stopping chicharrones. Chicharrones are deep-fried pigskin, fat that's been enfattened and turned crunchy, and its consumption left me feeling rather unjewed. I have no photos of this sin.
Next time, men with shotguns pump our gas.