“¡Pura subida!” two boys in a rusty pickup yelled, grinning at my craziness, when I told them where I was headed. I didn’t know for sure what it meant at the time, but it wasn’t hard to guess it right. That day, between the towns of San Pablo and San Marcos, I crawled into the sky by way of 40 kilometers of non-stop, merciless, unrelenting uphill. There was not one flat meter, not one coasting moment. I was in my granny gear from morning to late afternoon with salty sweat pooling in my eyebrows and raining off my arms, glittering in the jungle sun. As if Mexico were heavier, as if gravity had been stronger there and the erosive forces more intense, or as if the height of mountains were controlled by nationalistic sentiments or cultural flavor, I crossed the border straight into a world of pure slope. Most every place I have seen in this country has been on the edge of some cliff, overlooking an abyss of blue sky and churning white clouds.
Today me and three other guys decided to seek out the hot springs that sit high up on one of the neighboring volcanic peaks. The bus ride to the town at the foot of that mountain was an adrenaline-splashed roller coaster in its own right — but the way up to the spring itself was less like riding in the back of a pickup truck than like clinging to the wing of a small aircraft that is executing stunt maneuvers high above a landscape so verdant and vertical that it looks like some imaginary planet. Surely not the Earth I thought I knew.
In three days of riding I’ve only managed to dig myself 120 km into Guatemala, but aside from the punishing ascents it’s been beautiful. The landscape inspires awe at every turn, and the people seem much friendlier here than they were through most of Oaxaca and Chiapas. I am as weird to them as ever, but they seem slightly more amused by it and slightly less disturbed. My Spanish seems to work much better here too. People speak loudly and clearly — perhaps because they must always be talking up and down such steep cliffsides.
- The banana has switched gender from female to male. It is now El Banano. What it was ever doing being female, I don’t know.
- The churches are seldom anything as grand and elaborate as their kin to the north — sometimes they’re just concrete bunkers — but on Sunday they ring with music and singing.
- The buses here are repurposed American school buses, but they’re all painted with the wildest and most beautiful color schemes: feather patterns in red/orange/green, flames lining the windows, big chrome side panels. They are glorious.