Crossing the border from Mexico to Guatemala happened without a hitch. People and even taxis were crossing back and forth constantly and like most country to country borders this one was fairly hectic. Of course, being the four long haired, long bearded gringos with bikes that have huge bags on them, we stood out. The locals immediately picked us out and decided they should “help us” with the crossing. Luckily we didn’t have too much trouble picking out which people were helpful and which were not. Having eight eyes to watch all of the gear was a major plus as we took turns going into the office to get a new stamp in our passports.
After changing our remaining pesos for quetzals (Guatemalan currency), we began our first official day of biking in Central America. The change of landscape from Mexico to Guatemala was immediately apparent. We were greeted with intensely steep hills that seemed never ending. After only moving about 25 kilometers to San Rafael, we decided to call it a day. We were slightly confused when multiple people told us it would take 3+ hours to reach the next town San Marcos since it was only 25 kilometers away, but we decided to listen to their advice. Looking back on the situation, we should have realized we were being told the truth, since our strenuous day of biking landed us in San Rafael Pie de la Cuesta (foot of the hill). Since there are very few areas near the road without people, we chose to ask the local bomberos (firefighters) if we could stay for the night. We were given a large room to safely store our things and enjoyed visiting with the characters at the station.
In the morning we confirmed what everyone had told us the previous day- the hill leading to San Marcos is very long and very steep. It ended up easily being the longest and steepest continuous hill of the trip with no flats or down-hills. It took us 3 hours of non-stop climbing to go 15 kilometers. Finally, we reached an altitude of 7500 feet and were rewarded with a big descent into San Marcos. However, the real prize from the two grueling days of climbing was the refreshingly cool climate. Finally after two months on the hot, humid coast of Mexico we were able to don pants and long-sleeve shirts – and these four Alaskan boys couldn’t have been happier. Our first mission was to find the bomberos station where we would store our things and get some rest.
Leaving the station the following morning, we stopped for a quick picture and within minutes had several cameras pointed at us. Three separate news crews filmed, photographed, and interviewed us for about 30 minutes. After giving them our story, we were on our way again. We had almost left the city, when two motorcyclists waved us down – can you guess who? Two more reporters! Another 15 minutes and we had our 4th and 5th interview of the day done. Free of the city, we started climbing out of the San Marcos valley up and up. And then another motorcycle pulled up and waved us down – interview number 6! It was an unreal way to start a day and we couldn’t stop laughing at how wild the experience was. We haven’t seen any of the interviews published, but if you hear about some bearded bikers in Guatemala, that’s us!
That day, post-interviews, we rode to Guatemala’s second largest city: Quetzaltenango, or its commonly known indigenous name: Xela. With the triumph of the previous day’s climb, what would probably be our 2nd hardest day of biking didn’t seem that bad. The summit of the day put us above the clouds, near 8,000 feet, making it our highest day of riding yet. We spent our time there checking out the town and attempting to update the website with the free-wifi of Mcdonalds.
Leaving Xela, by chance, we stopped our bikes right next to a huge market that ran perpendicular to the road we were riding on. We struggled to walk through the massive crowd of people wearing traditional clothing. Taller than the majority of people there, we had an almost bird’s eye view of all that was happening. There were all kinds of fruits, vegetables, unknown animal parts, CDs, shoes, fish, traditional clothing, and so much more. Our ears, which have now been roughly tuned to pick-up Spanish conversations, could make little sense of the bartering chatter we were engulfed in. We quickly realized that little Spanish was actually being spoken; the people were all speaking their indigenous language of q’eqchi’.
Stopping in the right spot on the right day was a coincidence. We felt lucky to have been able to enjoy the market before a day of riding. Of course, there were more hills ahead. However, the hills weren’t insanely steep and we were able to ride them at a comfortable pace. We also enjoyed one of the most incredible downhill sections of the trip; a long, smooth, double-lane highway that dropped us through the ceiling of the sky and seemed to go on forever. It was a good day of riding to arrive at Solola, about 8 kilometers from Lake Atitlan. Of course, we timed our arrival perfectly for school to get out. This might be the most any of us have ever been laughed at. Luckily we’ve learned to accept the laughs, stares, and other behavior that had previously confused us. So we continued biking into town and had another good night at the bomberos station.
Leaving the next day we could see the lake in the backdrop. We were thousands of feet above it but there wasn’t much horizontal distance between us and the water. This meant riding down what could be considered more of a wall than a hill. When we hit the town we sat off to the side of the road to group up and let our rims cool off (from the nonstop squeezing of our brakes). Obviously, being away from the water for almost two weeks, the lake was our first mission. A refreshing reward for our first few days in Guatemala.
Lago de Atitlan is a mile-high lake surrounded by 3 massive volcanoes and many small towns, all with different qualities to draw you in. Each town is easily accessible by cheap and quick water taxi rides. We paid 20 quetzales each ($2.50 usd) for our 30 minute ride from Panajachel to Santiago de Atitlan. Our good friend Colin Flynn had told us all about his brother-in-law’s childhood home right on the lake. Jake has now lived in California for several years but we were told we’d be welcomed at La Posada de Santiago by his father when we arrived. We were more than welcome!
Within 5 minutes we were enjoying the relaxed vibes and a round of cervezas on the house. As David, Jake’s father, was about to show us where we would be sleeping, a gentleman from a couple tables away stopped us to say he had ordered another round or beers for us and wanted a picture with everyone. We were still milking our first drink but were happy to make some new friends. As we walked with David up to his house, where we would be sleeping, we were given a tour of the property. The structures and large paths were all made with broken down rocks from the land. After we took full advantage of the pool, hot tub, and sauna, (all located about ten feet from the lake with a great view across to see one of the majestic volcanoes surrounding the area) we went back to the dining area for the steak dinner David informed us we would be having. Definitely one of the better steaks we’ve had and after finishing the entrée came a desert called ‘cardiac arrest’. A fudge covered macadamia nut brownie with homemade vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, and cherries on top with a banana split in half leaning up two of the walls. Needless to say, our time at La Posada was incredible! A big ‘thank you’ goes out to David, Jake, and Colin.
San Marcos was the next destination on our tour of lake-side towns. It took us two water taxis separated by a short walk through San Pedro to get there. On the second taxi we met a couple that said they saw us riding our bikes in the redwood forests of California. Even without bikes it seems that four bearded Alaskans are pretty recognizable. When we landed at San Marcos our objective was to find Kanaan’s friend, Alana, from Quest University. It’s a small enough town, so it didn’t take long to locate her. She was accompanied by her friend Dani, who we had met 6-7 months ago during the kayak trip when we visited Strathcona Park Lodge on Vancouver Island. Small world!
Food is the one thing that’s always on our minds. When we heard that a local restaurant was serving all-you-can-eat sushi, we knew our night’s plan. We arrived at the perfect time to get a seat as hungry people began flooding in. A very relaxed jam session began on stage with everyone welcome. Often, mid song, someone would head to the stage with their instrument and join in. This amorphous band of 8-10 people played throughout the night. The music quickly got us out of our seats and in front dancing. After getting funky on the dance floor we took a quick dip into the lake and called it a night. The next morning was started with a delicious pancake breakfast topped with a papaya, pineapple, and banana medley. From there it was decided we should pick up where we left off the previous night and go swimming in the lake. The water was the perfect temperature and combined with being surrounded by amazing volcanoes it was hard to get ourselves out of the water. But after being on the road for this long, we knew there was more to see.
We had been told by several people that the “Yoga Forest” was something we needed to explore. The name comes from the daily practice of yoga that is preformed on this quiet hillside overlooking the lake each morning. Just a short 15-20 minute mellow hike and you’re there. As we were relaxing and looking at the lake with the volcano in the background we were happy to feel rain begin to fall on us. With smiles on our faces we sat in silence listening to the thunder roll and watching the lightning strikes. We had two choices: stay and enjoy the view, or return to lake level for a comedy improv show. After soaking up the rain as long as we could before it got too dark, we chose to go find the show. Due to the rain, the power was out when we reached flat land. This delayed the improv show, but only for a short time. Soon enough we were getting our giggle on and having a grand time.
Early the next morning Andrew, Chris, and Max caught the first boat back to Panajachel to retrieve their bikes and catch a series of “chicken buses” to Antigua to see Max’s aunt Ede and experience the first day of Semana Santa. Antigua has a world renowned Semana Santa celebration that commences with a magnificent procession which parades through the entire town until dusk. On the first day of the celebration the streets are covered in sawdust “carpets” that have been dyed in several different colors and intricately arranged into many unique patterns.
When it’s time, hundreds of people dressed in purple robes line up and carry colossal floats in the streets through the sawdust creations. The whole thing is very elaborate and thousands of people come from all over to participate. We were very excited when we realized our timing lined up perfectly to witness the massive procession, but we missed it. In the haste of grabbing our things from inside the last chicken bus, unloading bikes from the roof and being thrown our bags faster than we could possibly catch them, we had an accident. A film equipment bag was left on board, and by the time we realized it, the bus was well on its way to Guatemala City.
After an ‘oh crap’ moment, we found out every bus was on a set route. As we had hustled to catch our bus we only entered and exited from the back, so we were not familiar with its exterior appearance. We knew ‘Santa Cruz’ was painted above the windshield, next to a TV that was playing nonstop, horrible music by Fransisco something-or-other. After speaking with fruit vendors and a traffic cop we found out our bus was on a loop through Guatemala City and supposedly it would take about two hours to return. 6 hours later, after looking through hundreds of buses as they drove by to see if they were one of the few with a TV and one of the fewer with the words ‘Santa Cruz’, we located our bus just before it made its regular stop. Chris and Andrew entered through the front and back of the bus and began crawling over people, looking through every inch of overhead space for a small black bag. It felt like we were in the movie ‘Rat Race’ looking for the briefcase with a million dollars in it. But it was gone. Andrew sullenly jumped out the back and Chris began fighting his way back to the front exit. Just before stepping out of the now moving bus, he noticed some black cloth in the storage above the drivers’ head. OUR BAG! Instant happiness and relief ensued!
When we heard we could bike the last stretch of road to Antigua as fast as a bus would drive there, we didn’t hesitate to exercise our legs.Missing the procession was a huge bummer, but we did get to see a few carpets as we biked through the bumpy, cobblestone streets. Everything bad in the world was immediately forgotten when Max’s aunt, Ede, told us she got us a room for the night and we would each have our own bed! To increase the mood even more, we were informed that she had a friend named Len back home, in New York City, that has been following our journey and wanted us to have a dinner on him. Thank you both so much!
Without a doubt, Antigua is a town worthy of bicycle exploration. Ede was in Guatemala to photograph for an upcoming exhibit, so her and Max took a drive through the surrounding area to see unique things and get some shots. Andrew and Chris spent the day exploring the town’s ornate architecture and local activities. Somehow, the stars lined up one more time and we found out that the owner of the hotel, Daniel, had given us a fillet of grouper for dinner. Excited to have the use of a full kitchen and control of a fish dish, we began preparations. The resulting lime infused grouper with grilled pineapple was a masterpiece (at least to hungry bikers that think everything is delicious).
Antigua is a historic town that deserves more of our time in the future, but for now it was time to say our goodbyes. In no way were we bummed when we left. Before long we were between three large volcanoes: two dormant and one active that was releasing smoke constantly.
The 30 km leaving Antigua was almost entirely downhill and we quickly descended, losing nearly 1500 meters in elevation but noticeably gaining several degrees of heat. Heat is definitely a factor that changes our energy levels in a large way. We decided to call it a day in Taxisco and headed to the local bomberos to see if we could stay for a night. The Jefe (boss) was out on a call but we were welcomed to leave our bikes in the garage until his return when we would find out if we could stay.
Minutes later there was a crowd of approximately 15-20 curious kids wondering who the heck these gringos with enormous bikes were. After a bit of small talk the conversation was led to fútbol and we began a game in the street in front of the station. Of course the home team came out on top, but interacting with the local kids and getting our muscles working in a different way was a great time! After we returned from a quick trip to a food stand, we saw that the bomberos were back. Our stay would be no problem, which was good since night had set in and it would have been difficult to find another spot. We answered the typical questions: where are you from/going? How long have you been traveling? How much longer? Soon out came a camera and we were lined up with one of our bikes to do an interview. Surprisingly, there was a girl that spoke English and a second interview was done entirely in English. At this point we were pretty drained from the sun and our reunion with nonstop heat, so we retired for the night.
One more day of riding put us at Ciudad San Alvaraz where Kanaan reunited with the crew. He had spent the past four days back in San Marcos so that he could spend more time with his Canadian friends, Claire, Dani, and Alana. They shared many great meals together, spent a lot of time swimming in Lake Atitlan, explored the towns of San Marcos and San Pedro, checked out an Earthship (a house built out of recycled materials), sweated out a sauna, and did a lot of relaxing and laughing. Kanaan spent a long day that started at 5:30 a.m. taking a series of water taxis, buses, and biking through the middle of Guatemala City to finally catch up before the border crossing. Somehow, the timing worked out perfectly and within minutes of getting off the bus at the border of El Salvador, the fortunate four were eating pupusas together.
Our last night in Guatemala was spent in the backyard of the local bomberos station, where we enjoyed the company of chickens, roosters, and puppies. Still adjusting to the low elevation heat, a hose shower was a very welcome feature of the bedroom for the night. The next morning we made our crossing into El Salvador and were happy to see that it was much more relaxed than when we entered Guatemala two weeks before. With no apparent thieves or tricksters roaming around to try to take advantage of us, and no visas or passport stamps to pay for, we were in our fifth country of the trip before we could say “check out my fancy green American dollars”. The currency exchange left our wallets feeling a bit thinner, but happy to be holding familiar bills.
Guatemala was hard to leave. For some of us it was the best country of the trip. From our entrance in the west to the eastern exit, each day was jam packed with memorable events. Getting up into the mountains was a real treat, with incredible vistas and comfortable climates as the daily reward for the hard work of climbing. The mountain people of Guatemala beam with character; always presenting their beautiful gold-teethed smiles shining through a mosaic of vibrant traditional clothing. Lake Atitlan is a definite destination for anyone visiting the country. We can confidently agree that it is a gem of Guatemala. But the coast has called us back. If we stayed up in the mountains forever then we would no longer be traveling. Alas, the journey continues.