Uhm... climbing, heat, traffic, hustle, bustle, climbing, heat, traffic, hustle, bustle? Oh wait a second, gotta cut out the traffic, hustle and bustle, today. Actually also cut the heat, as we are high up this morning. So we are left with climbing, I guess. I finally leave the PanAm and take some gravel sections to reach the road down to Lake Atitlan. It is strenous but nice to be finally away from traffic and heat. The villages get smaller, poorer but also somewhat more maintained. People washing their clothes at public sinks, agriculture at any place possible... As always the friendliness of people increases in inverse proportion to the size of the road. I also see quite a few professional looking road cyclist that blast up the mountains with an incredible speed. I guess, perfect training conditions for them.
As I turn on a tiny road towards Nahuala a guy named Juan stops me. He is cutting down some of the few left trees [which is a huge issue here] and pulls me into a nice chat. He tells me that he is actually a "maestro" but enjoys working on the field. I don´t really understand what caracterizes a maestro, but they apparently don´t work on fields!? He [un]fortunately insists not continuing on a specific part of the road ahead and take a detour instead as it crosses a village where people would rob me. As said in the past, you have to take advices like this with a grain of salt sometimes. But he says it in such a worried way that I fully trust him. It also reassures me, that things can be a bit rougher here in Guatemala. However, I think there is still a huge difference between crime statistics and the need for more awareness and chances to actually end up in a dangerous situation. I leave him not overly concerned but alter my route accordingly.
After a gnarly downhill I reach Nahuala and have some chicken with fries. It´s a bustling small market town. I try to buy cigarettes. Even though almost every second shop is a kiosk it provides me with a proper challenge. I ask one of the shop owners why it is so difficult to find smokes. Apparently smoking is not very popular in Guatemala. I later look it up and it turns out that Guatemala is on place 160 from 167 countries by average cigarette consumption [about 100 cigarettes per year/person, in Germany it is about 1600]. Excellent! So maybe finally the country to stop this stupidity of mine.
After a quick intersection with the PanAm I make my way down to Lake Atitlan. Wow, what a downhill. It´s very nicely paved but a serious brake burner. More than 1000m drop to the lake, countless narrow switch backs. Many cars crawling down in their lowest gear to safeguard their brakes. As I don´t have engine brakes obviously, I overtake them all and heavily brake down before every switchback. It is fun but also a bit scary.
Lake Atitlan is my first real destination in Guatemala. I decided to take more or less the "easiest" and "fastest" route through the country and avoid too much zic-zagging. After a very nice slow-down through Mexico, I feel like I would enjoy some faster progress. Believe me, easy and fast is still certainly something different. Guatemala is physically the most challenging country thus far.
As I reach the beautiful lake, the vulcanos surrounding it are already covered in the clouds. What a bummer! It would have been a nice view from the top. Instead I have to drop down to reach a campspot that I was checking out beforehand. On the flip-side: it looks a bit like I arrived at an ocean. As the clouds and mist are so thick that I cannot see the other side of the lake and the wind pitches up some very decent waves.
As I arrive in the little town San Marcos, it catches me completely off-guard. After spending three days in rural Guatemala without seeing a single white face, I am almost overwhelmed by the amount in San Marcos. All dressed in their hippie/hipster uniform, far underdressed for local culture... The northern side of the lake was supposed to be less touristic. This might be true but I later learn that this used to be a hippie center back in the days and now turned into a hip place to go. It´s a bit of a cultural shock that reminds me popping out in Whistler, Canada after 10 days in the forest. But who am I? I am here, too... And who says, that all these people did not travel rural Guatemala before and understood how this country really looks like away from the tourist spots? And nobody has to this in their holidays anyway. To be honest with you, it´s a bit of an arrogance you [I?] develop when travelling by bicycle, having these completely untouristy transition between places and physically working for it. I quickly realize that my initial thoughts are completely misplaced and instead appreciate the privilage to travel, how I travel.
I reach the beautiful campground of Pierre outside of the village. For a campsite I find it pricy but it is a super beautiful place, own lake access, superb view. First things first, I go for a swim! The sun is setting. It´s already fresh outside but the water has a good temperature and shivers red. Good swim! Not being bothered to go back to the village today, I cook myself... "drum roll"... potatoe mash with tuna. Has been a while so it is very, very tasty. It is my last original Idaho potatoe mash that I was still carrying from Arizona. Tough call, no emergency potatoe mash left. Now, you should get concerned!