Volcanarchy: Ixchiguan pt. 3
The Kindness of Strangers
Sick, desperate, and out of options, Brendan and I stood in the center of Ixchiguan in the dark. We had one card left to play. The kind pharmacist Ramirez who gave us medicine also gave his phone number. Brendan called and asked if we could pitch our tent behind the pharmacy.
Ramirez said that he owned another pharmacy in town which had a small room with beds above it, and we were welcome to stay there. His family lived just down the hill.
He met us with his pickup truck and took us to the room. “Stay here as long as you like,” he told us in clear, slow Spanish to make sure we understood. “It is peaceful here and you will be safe and warm. I am right down the hill if you need anything.” The room was well ventilated, with small and comfortable beds we were happy to crawl into, shivering after getting out of our soaking wet clothes.
The room above Ramirez’s pharmacy where we recovered from sickness.
Ramirez returned with hot tea and fresh bread that his wife had made, along with more of the medicine for us to take over the next two days. “Tomorrow, when you are better, you will meet my family. Do not hurry, this is your home for as long as you like.” It did not take long for me to fall into a deep sleep, only waking up to run to the bathroom a few times.
The next day, we slept and recovered. One at a time, Ramirez brought each of his many family members up to meet us, including his 95 year old father. He presented each of them proudly to us like he was introducing the President.
Latin cultures are very community oriented, and the extended family is revered above all else. Each had the same look: stoic and resilient, yet very kind. All of them welcomed us to their home and village. Throughout the day, Ramirez and his wife Dora brought us bread and tea.
Back on the bikes!
Exploring Piedras Partidas
The next day, Brendan and I felt good enough for a short ride. We wouldn’t be able to attempt Tacana, but we didn’t want to lose the opportunity to explore this beautiful, remote area of Guatemala that most people never see.
We headed very slowly up the hill about 5 kilometers to a local landmark, Piedras Partidas: an extinct volcanic cone that is the highest point in the San Marcos region.
Piedras Partidas is a popular place for people of the area to come and enjoy with their families. It was Semana Santa (Easter) weekend, the biggest holiday of the year in Guatemala. There were many people picnicking, hiking around, and scrambling on the rocks.
We saw some very old Mayan ladies in their traditional dress climbing up the steep faces with remarkable agility. Young children were frolicking around alone on the rocks, their parents unconcerned. Kids learn self-reliance and self-preservation at a very young age in Guatemala.
Some of the families were doing Catholic religious ceremonies, where they would chant, sing, and wail while lighting glass candles with pictures of Christ and the Virgin Mary painted on them. Eventually they would hurl these candles, glass and all, off the top of the rocks into the cirque below, and they would shatter on the rocks.
I found this an interesting practice, which left the beautiful rock formations littered with broken glass, but stranger things have happened in the name of religion.
The riding at Piedras Partidas was like nothing I had ever ridden before. It was conglomerate rock, globs of round stones melded together by solidified grey lava, cascading steeply down the extinct cone in couloir-like formations. Using what little energy we had, we hiked up and down the rock lines, linking together longer and longer segments of the tricky terrain until we couldn’t take another upward step.
Quite a spectacle
The Mayans watched us from above, cheering us on when we would skid down the steep rock chutes on our bikes. I was a little nervous that they might not like us riding our bikes all over the place they were doing their religious ceremonies, but in typical Guatemalan fashion — as long as we weren’t camping without permission on private land — anything goes, and no one cared what we were doing aside from finding us entertaining and hilarious.
Brendan shreds a steep line as some locals cheer from above.
Mayans of all ages come to Piedras Partidas to enjoy the beautiful area with their families, scramble on the rocks, and perform religious ceremonies.
At the end of the day, we rode back down the hill into another stunning sunset towards Ixchiguan. Ramirez was waiting for us, and told us we were invited to have dinner with his family in their home. As we changed clothes and went down the hill, the aroma of fresh bread wafted out the windows. For once in what felt like a long time, I was actually hungry.
Ramirez of Ixchiguan
As Dora made stew over the wood fire, Ramirez regaled us with stories of his family and his life in remote northern Guatemala.
He told us of his years spent working for the DEA in the United States, flying around in helicopters busting narcotraficantes trying to get across the border.
A helicopter crash that left him needing back surgery ended his career, and he returned to his community and became a pharmacist.
With the money earned from his time with the DEA, Ramirez is ensuring that his family is well taken care of and his children get a good education. His daughter is becoming a kindergarten teacher; and his son is in medical school, and returns home to work at the pharmacy on the weekends.
The whole family had gathered for Semana Santa, and they were taking part in the community celebration which included dancing with elaborate masks and costumes, decorating the streets, and horses trained to do all sorts of tricks.
It was an unforgettable evening spent with this warm and welcoming family, whose lives were so different than ours, but who shared many of the same values and aspirations.
The next morning, despite many invitations to stay and join the family for the Semana Santa festivities, we packed up our bikes to get back on the road. We had only a week left, and one more objective to complete. We were determined to get to the top of the next volcano, and we needed to make our way back across the country.
We said our goodbyes with gratitude, pointed our loaded bikes back towards the south, and rode away from Ixchiguan — with the elusive Tacana, still untouched, growing ever smaller over our shoulders.