A mountain drive to Chichicastenango

Having visited Semuc Champey, our next major stop was going to be Lake Atitlan in the south of the country. This is a fair drive on slow roads, so once back in Coban we stopped off at Orquigonia for the remainder of the day. We were there mid morning having left Laquin early, but we were happy to have a relaxing day after two sleepless nights in the petrol station. The cats too, were happy for freedom after two days cooped up.

The owner Panchete is a VW enthusiast and we chatted for a bit, showing him the camper. When he learned about the repeatedly snapping suspension arm, he spoke to a contact he had in the capital city and found us a new one we could pick up when we got closer. The VW community comes to the rescue once again. We were happy to have something actually ordered ahead for once, especially considering the angle of the back wheel didn’t look quite right.

In the afternoon we went for a tour of the orchids. Our tour guide spoke incredibly fast spanish and pointed out hundreds of orchids to us using a walking stick with a small bird mounted on the end. He supplied us with a magnifying glass, explaining that a lot of the varieties of orchids here were miniatures, and you really did need a magnifying to see them in full. 

He was clearly very knowledgeable, although we didn’t understand a lot of what he was trying to impart to us. We continued on amongst the trees. 

Having learnt during the tour that nearly all orchids prefer to grow on tree rather than in pots, I decided to rearrange mine. I had managed to keep it alive for some time now, the longest surviving plant following a long list of murdered cacti and airplants.

After a cool quiet night, we set off the following morning, heading south. The road was questionable at points and took significantly longer than maps.me predicted.

There was only really one spot that looked nice to stay at, and when we arrived it turned out that they had turn the riverside area into a ford. Locals bathed in the middle of the road. Two boys walked their cow across and then nearly lost it when the cow made a bid for freedom. 

There was still space to park up on the side of the river and we decided to give it a go. It would be our first free camp-spot in Guatemala, and about time. 

Another family arrived while we were swimming and we got chatting. She asked if were were going to stay the night. We said we wanted to if it was ok, which apparently it definitely was. She also offered us to go and camp at her house if we wanted. The locals on the whole were very friendly. She explained that the ford had been created as the construction traffic to rebuild the road that we had driven in on was too heavy for the bridge. We had a quiet night, despite being near the road it wasn’t a busy one. We discussed jumping into the river, scantily clad for an ‘Instagram’ photo, but decided that we would leave it to the ‘professionals’.

The morning brought another lengthy drive on some very steep and winding roads to reach Chichicastenango.

We stopped off at a rather scenic viewpoint not only to admire the view, but mainly to bleed the brakes, having boiled the brake fluid on our route. The roads were putting Ruby through her paces.

Chichicastenango has the largest market in Central America on Thursdays and a Sundays. We had arrived on Friday, so we decided to stay two nights in order to visit the market Sunday morning. 

There’s only really one spot to camp if you don’t want to stay roadside here, and the owner clearly knew it. Having read two very different reviews, the one thing we knew was the price. We were a little disappointed when we arrived and saw that it was just a busy car park not really a campsite. This was made worse when he then asked us for 100Q per night. That’s pretty steep. We negotiated it to 75Q and then squeezed through a small archway and drove further into the woods behind. At least now we weren’t in a car park and the cats could go out, but after a 6 hour drive, Lizzie wasn’t interested.

The downside of the woods was no sun, and our batteries were pretty low. We decided it wouldn’t be a bad idea to run the generator, it had been sitting a while after all. When that didn’t work we turned the fridge off instead. It seemed tomorrow was a generator fixing day then. 

Our host was lovely, despite wanting a lot of money. He clearly took his role seriously. He came and brought us some persimmons and showed us where the facilities were. He enthusiastically pointed out a trail leading off through the trees and said you could go hiking if you liked nature. 

With a day to wait, we decided to check it out. The trail zig zags down hill for about 5minutes before it stops at a dead end with a horse.

So much for ‘hiking’. I decided to get the generator running again. This turned into a project. The carb needed cleaning and wouldn’t come off due to a seized bolt. 

We decided to go into town to find a clamp to help get the carb off, and have a wander around too. It was about lunchtime so maybe some street food would at least make the trip a little more interesting.

We wandered around the permanent market, wondering how much bigger it would be tomorrow. The local chicken buses blasted down the road past us, engulfing us in a cloud of black diesel smoke. A guy on the street corner was selling tortas. We asked for two with beans and cheese and he began to prepare them in his little bicycle food truck. With our food we wandered around for a place to sit and eat it. It turns out that it heavily featured ham and sausage and that wasn’t really what I was after so the street dogs did well that day. 

We bought a clamp and returned to the van. Finally I got the carb off and cleaned a mixture of oil water and petrol out of the float chamber. No wonder it didn’t work. It was an easy fix though, and we left it running with our batteries on charge. 

We figured that even with the very optimistic journey times the sat nav provided, we still would have plenty of time to do the market and make it to Atitlan, a journey I was not looking forward too.

Firstly though, the market would be a welcome distraction to our potential oncoming doom

It was definitely much bigger than yesterday. We found some maize tamales which made us very happy as we wandered through the endless stalls.

A lot of stalls sold the same things for wildly varying prices. Lee wanted new trousers. One stall wanted 60Q for them, the one just next to him wanted 200Q.

“Quetzlaes not dollar!” He assured us when met with our disbelieving looks. Some haggling later, we left victorious but with the knowledge we probably still could have got them cheaper. They were more preferable to Lee’s hippy trouser requirements.

After a little more wandering past all the brights stalls, we were content to leave and head for the lake. 

Lake Atitlan has several lakeside towns, the largest of which is Panajchel. This is on the east side and has an easy access road. There was a lack of places to camp though. The other towns which are far nicer, are on the other side. It seemed that San Pedro or San Marcos was the place to be. San Marcos seemed to be home to the only actual decent campsite and San Pedro was the common place to take Spanish lessons, something we both wanted to do. This meant braving a worse road. Several warnings about overheating brakes had already been published on iOverlander, and we had boiled ours on the way to Chichicastenango. Back in Lago Peten, Lousia had warned us that it was common for people to get down and then not be able to get out again. She said there was an alternative road, but there were bandits and you needed a police escort. Several other people warned us against driving the road, however the only other choice would be to camp in Panajchel and take the boat every day which is quite expensive. Pasajcap campsot in San Marcos looked like a beautiful spot too, so we decided to risk the road and take it slow.

Lee drove. The first part of the drive leaving Chichicastenango was tough enough. It’s a constant balancing act between overheating brakes or overheating engine. Having just done both and not even got near Atitlan yet we were a little apprehensive.  The remainder of the journey is nondescript until the final 15km. Turning off the main road, you slowly descend on a fast dual carriageway until you reach a few more small towns. We ignored the sounds of smashing glass from the front of the van and sped onwards. After leaving the towns you get the sense of the edge of the crater, although you can’t see anything in the trees on the edge of the park. Then you descend. The route below descends over 1,100m in 18.5km. Most of this descent is covered however in around 10km.

The town of Santa Clara is a mid-point on this final section and we had already decided we would stop and let the brakes cool there. The road is steep and twisting, it constantly descends at rate that is too much for our engine to hold. We discussed how high we were willing to let the revs go, 5k at a push. We have braking tactics for steep descents. It’s better to brake hard, nearly stopping and then let speed pick up again. The worst thing you can do is brake a little, constantly. The brakes never get a chance to cool, better to try and give them a little time in-between. It was barely possible on this descent. The engine screamed at us, picking up speed every second. I could smell the brakes. Lee told me the pedal was starting to go. This gives us a very small time window, maybe you can use it another two times before they’re gone. There’s nowhere to pull over and the hill keeps going. According to the sat nav we’re nearly at the town. 

Then we spotted a small lay-by on the opposite side. Just in time. We pull in on the remnants of the brake pedal and as you open the door you can feel the heat radiating off the wheels and smell the burning of the brake pads. We waited a good 45 minutes for them to cool, before risking the final section to the town. Halfway there. We stopped for groceries and to really let them cool. We needed to descend the equivalent height again, this time on some crazy hairpins, to reach the lake. 

The wheels were now only warm to the touch, so we set off. In actual fact the hairpins weren’t so bad. They are very steep and tight, but the stretches in-between more level, meaning the engine could hold us most of the time. We reached the bottom without any problems, now we just had a short drive around, though San Marcos and to Pasajcap. 

We though the worst was over, but the road from San Juan to San Marcos is in a terrible condition so we bumped along huge potholes and steep hills until we reached the final town with only a matter of a few kilometres to go. A friendly policeman stopped us and asked us where we were going, he gave some kind of helpful sounding instructions we didn’t fully get. It seemed they had closed the main road to put in new speed bumps. Google confidently diverted us to a small bridge. We looked at it dubiously, it was pretty narrow and the road ahead steep. I walked on ahead and that’s when it became apparent that google was adamant that we needed to drive up a full flight of steps. We shuffled back over the tiny footbridge to the amusement of the locals before continuing on an actual road.

Finally, we reached the gates of Pasajcap. Pierre the owner showed us a spot to camp and we pulled up. Finally we had arrived, it had been stressful but nothing was broken and we still alive. We looked for to spending a peaceful couple of weeks here and improving our Spanish, before braving that road again. 

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