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As soon as my bike is back together, I set off from Panajachel towards Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second biggest city – more commonly known as Xela, its name in the local indigenous language. Nancy and Matthew have given me information about a dirt road that goes over the mountains to Totonicapan and as the alternative route to Xela is the Pan American Highway this seems like the sensible choice.

I meet up again with Silke, who is heading in the same direction, and we start to climb from the shores of the lake to Sololoa.

Lake Atitlan sits, at just over 1500 metres, in a deep basin surrounded by steep volcanic mountains - you can't go anywhere from Panajachel without going uphill.

My skills as a bike mechanic are still developing and it isn't long before I need to perform a few roadside adjustments to my new drive train. (Photo: Silke Moeckel)

We ride on pavement until we reach Los Encuentros, where we turn off onto a gravel road that continues to climb. Silke has a cycle computer and, amongst its various functions, it provide information on altitude. By late afternoon we are riding at over 3000 metres and, consequently, I am feeling a little weak and breathless.

Night falls in the mountains - our camp is at over 3000 metres, not spectacularly high but high enough for me to feel somewhat breathless when I exert myself. As soon as the sun sets the temperature plummets and I put on every single item of clothing I own. Note the shorts worn over the trousers, which are are light linen - bought with July on the Yucatan Peninsula and not February in the Guatemalan highlands in mind. (Photo: Silke Moeckel)

In the morning, Santa Maria appears behind the next ridge.

Our road winds over the mountains. Typically, people we stop and ask for directions say, "Straight ahead. Just go straight ahead!" (Photo: Silke Moeckel)

This advice offers us little insight when we are confronted with various forks in the road and our strategy of following what appears to be way that gets the most traffic sometimes leads us astray. We are in a mountain-top meadow uncertainly studying our maps with the guidance of a compass when...

... a posse of men, some of which have already questioned us as we passed earlier them in the day, rattle up to us in a four wheel drive pick-up. The men are deeply suspicious of our reasons for being here and questions us extensively as to whether or not we might be prospecting for minerals. They ask to see our passports and examine my map to see if it sheds any additional light on our motives or contradicts any of our statements. Finally, they allow us to go on our way after issuing the usual ominous warnings about what might happen to women foolish enough to venture outside without the protection and guidance of male company.

The cobbles attest to the fact that this was once the main route to Totonicapan...

... but the current condition of the road... (Photo: Silke Moeckel)

...with its exposed bedrock...

... and massive wash outs...

... means that we don't see much other traffic apart from the odd group of people driving mules burdened by massive bundles of firewood.

A roadside shrine... graffiti covered and abandoned.

The relatively open woods on the ridge... way to a denser forest as the road descents steeply and there is little level clear ground where we can pitch our tents. Eventually, where several roads meet, we come across a flat area and set up camp but the sound of a nearby chain saw throughout the night, in the supposedly protected forest, is disconcerting and makes for a restless night. In the morning, we emerge from the forest and onto paved road for a rapid descent into Totonicapan and from there...

... to the highway into Xela. This is a scene I do my best to avoid.

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