Biking in Guatemala.
When I’m Sixty-Four.
How amazing it is to cross the Mexican to the Guatemalan border on your birthday, on your bike, as part of biking from Canada to Argentina, when you turn 64? Yes, my hubby, partner in crime, turned 64 today. How blessed we are that we can do this together!
Leaving the worst hotel we have had in Mexico and heading off on a good road which even before the border turns really bad, lots of potholes and at one moment even half of the road disappeared without a warning. Luckily not much traffic and we were not biking too fast as it was going uphill. Checking out from Mexico was a bummer as it seemed that I was missing my entry paper, which cost you money to leave without it. This lady was the border official with the worst mood by far we have met.
Entering Guatemala was easy and they charged us the 2.5 Euro entry tax which we know does not officially exist but we do not feel like arguing and then are in our second Central American country!
Money (it’s a drag)
Trying to buy a SIM card was a challenge as they only accept cash, so trying to get more cash from an ATM, it took us 5 banks and 10 km before we finally could retrieve money. What a scam, as you can only retrieve max 100 Euro but they will charge you at the ATM and your own bank will charge you again for each transaction no matter how much you retrieve. And of course no SIM card provider close-by, something on our wish list when we see one.
We enter a totally different country. Not only the dresses from the hill tribe people change, they are weaving in their houses next to the road and let you visit them but again no photo’s. Main difference is the sudden, steep, smaller roads winding through a spectacular gorge. The “he, gringo” greetings, but also the warm welcome of people.
Guatemala is 2.9x the Netherlands and has the same number of inhabitants. But GDP/capita is $300/month ☹
Also here we will not wild camping but only camp if we find secure places. We aim for a B&B but it has been converted to a private clinic and the local shop sends us back down the road to a turicentro San Fernando:
open air swimming pool which lets us set up our tent in the back. We have great contact with one of the local kids and even have teenagers and other locals come to us when we set up our tent to check what we are doing.
How fun it is to camp on your birthday!
Best coffee in the world (or so they say)
Leaving the campsite next morning we have to push as it is + 20% uphill, prediction of what will follow?We continue between super steep mountain walls where every flat inch is used to build a house or to grow seedlings of coffee plants.
First encounter with chicken buses, pay respect to them, as they will not stop for anything!
Why wood we care
What also is remarkable is the amount of deforestation and wood for sale next to the road. All of it is used for cooking as in Guatemala and in most of developing countries 77% still uses wood = cheaper, they think safer than gas (as one local pointed out) and available. What a harm for the environment and health. Not only the deforestation but the pollution is terrible. In Guatemala deforestation is estimated to 2% per year, so if nothing is done about it there will not be much forest left within one generation.
Think how well organised we our in our countries, how clean our air even living next to one of the biggest airports. If you look here and see the smog covering the valley caused by cooking on wood and old, bad car,bus and truck engines. Interesting read on deforestation and impact of wood cooking on health
The fact we see 4 different gasoline brands within 10 km shows also confirms we have left Mexico where Pemex has 99% of the market. We follow the main road with a small shoulder which we only use when there is traffic. At one of the bumps I suddenly feel a crack and sit several centimetres lower. One of the saddle bolts broke off. We are at an intersection and quite some people want to help. Not that they know anything about modern bike technology 😊
After 13,000 km this is the first “damage”, amazing how strong our bikes are! At the same time Arkadiusz, from Poland 28 years old, walks by. Hiking from South to North America, with all his stuff in a buggy. What an adventure! Especially because he is bringing back stones from friends to the mountains where they original have found them. See FB: Stones on travel. The person who takes our picture is called Jacinto 😊
After a challenging bike day we stop at La Puerta del Cielo in Huehuetenango. Never received such a warm welcome at a basic hotel and we can sleep for 15 euro in a new bed, new sheets, perfect. Photoshoot before we leave the next day, on their request! (Will be the cheapest and cleanest hotel in our whole stay in Guatemala).
Lots of heavy traffic, pothole road and several stretches of 6-8% incline makes it a day which is just too long. Especially entering the textile town San Fransisco Alto is the killer with 15% incline to get to the centre. We check a few hotels before we find a place with a ground floor room, where we can also put the bikes inside.
Renovated room but with such scalding hot water you almost cant shower. Always something to complain 😊.
Strange city where we leave early the next morning. No textile shopping time!
Few miles down the road it is one big chaos of trucks, busses, old cars as this is the major intersection West-East, South-North. Traffic lights and police seems to cause more delay. We observe it for a while and are happy we go straight ahead as this seems to be the quietest road. And after the rough pothole part it is also the widest, perfectly paved road. So good we see several professional speed bikers practising on “climbing” this mountain. It is no wonder we see so many bikers as it is quite some hill and there is sufficient space for busses/trucks/cars and bikes.
At 3,000m we have an amazing view of the surrounding, just above the clouds. Previous pine-covered hills are now converted to corn fields. What will happen in the rain season?
Happy we have our yellow rain jackets because a severe cold wind is too chilly especially when we start going downhill. At the top I suddenly hear a strange sound, a rusty piece of wire has pinched my tire. At Instagram @spinningsouth you can see and hear what happens when we pull out this wire. Yes a flat! When Frank is fixing the flat I prepare lunch and am happy to offer one of our sandwiches to a shepherd walking by.
La Encantada and nurses talk
When we pass Hotel La Encantada we decide to call it a day. It is anyhow already 16:00 and there would not be sufficient time to reach the next city. Great old place, with only 4 rooms. And Enrico cooks for us and the 4 other customers staying here. Juan Pablo speaks very well English and is a terrific host. It is more a B&B as we sit all together at the big dinner table. As the principal powerline has been cut by wood harvesters the whole region is without electricity. Dinner by candlelight. During dinner everybody is quiet, even introducing ourselves does not start any conversation but afterwards we have slow but interesting exchanges as it seems that they are 4 nurses, specialized in training, already retired but now working on a contract base. To visit remote villages and check with the local nurses on her training level and practices. Seems there is still a very high mortality rate not only with newborns, but also with the mothers as most still deliver their baby at home, without a professional midwife, most of the time their mother-in-law. Hospitals are often more than a day away. Would love to go with them and see how they train people and create awareness.
In the morning still no electricity, hence a refreshing cold shower 😊.
Easy ride to the turnoff of Panajachel. The city we had to visit as during our Spanish course in the Netherlands we spend several hours talking about this city, nested at Lake Atitlan. Such steep downhills we have to stop several times to cool off the rims/brakes and relax our hands.
At Sololá we enjoy a breath-taking view of the ugly city and the lower lake with an excellent coffee and omelette. We are spoiled!
At the square we meet the only holiday/long distance biker during our whole trip in Guatemala. Katherine from Germany on a 6 weeks solo bike tour in Central America. We will try to catch-up during dinner!
In Panajachel it takes a visit to the tourist office and some checking of several locations before we find something clean, calm and affordable. We have to say Guatemala is more expensive than Mexico, and as we want to visit some of the villages tomorrow we have to have a secured place to leave our stuff (how do others do this if you don’t have any budget?)
Katherine is so sweet to walk down to the area we are in and we find a perfect pizza place. Interesting evening as Katherine also has lived in Indonesia, 10 years later than us as she is also much younger. Never did any long distanced biking and started in Central America, whaauw! Tomorrow she is heading home. Great woman with a very warm heart! Made me realize why Frank is hesitating to say yes to a slower voyage.
Next day we take the local ferries to cross first to Santiago de Atitlan, recommended by the tourist office to do this first.
Happy we did as it is still a more authentic village. We take a local guide with a tuk tuk to bring us to an older lady who shows the local “hairdressing” which is also pictured on the 25 cents coin.
Two beautiful views of the lake and we see a Shamaan worshipping Maximon (Ma-shi-mon), local Maya god . The men in this village wear amazingly embroidered short trousers, made by their wifes, but we don’t see them for sale.
We see how the locals still wash their laundry in the lake, even when a central washing place is provided, a traditional part of the locals only want to wash standing in the lake. Washing machines are only for the rich and mainly for larger hotels. All others still do this by hand and of course no dryers! We also visit the peace park, erected after the civil war of 1980-1999, where even here they had 13 casualties of which several children. Final visit is a catholic church with 22 steps in front (representing the Maya calendar).
We stroll on our own over the market and even if I try to talk with locals and give them compliments before I ask if I can take a photo, they still refuse.
Some white people but not so many as in Panajachel where we had seen quite some strange onces.
Quick lunch and just in time to cross to San Pedro. So many people raved positively about it but for us it is a deception. Too gringo-like. Even if we walked quite some of the city we did not discover one nice area and looking at the shops you know gringos have taken over.Few minutes enjoying the sun on one of the few terraces and a rough return to Panajachel.
As the past days have been overcast and I am dreading the climb out of the crater we decide to leave the next day.
As the tourist office was not really positive about the route we initially wanted to take and iOverlander also indicated a 4×4 was recommended and less security, and as we heard of biker who was robbed on a more remote part of the road, we decide to bike out at the right side of the crater. Several people cheer us on biking this +15-20% steep climb.
But we know it will only be the first 10km, then some downhill and topped off with one more steep climb but only 30 km in total. We take it slow, 30 pedals strokes, some standing and take a little rest. We wished it was only 30km. After 2/3 of the trip we face a roadblock with detour.
Top of the hill
Steeper than steep. And at one moment around 15:00, I have had it as I see we will never ever be able to make it before dark, longer road and more ascend. Frank is also not reluctant to try to get a ride. Of course almost no traffic but after 15 minutes a local who has already 10 people onboard, who played football, stops and squeezes us in the back of his pickup together with 6 others and the bikes.
I don’t complain as even the van has problems getting up on some of these hills. Arriving in Patzun with just enough time to stroll over the local market and buy some vegetables to make a macaroni salad.
One of the most authentic places we have been with no other tourist and 90% still dressed in authentic dresses. Amazing and very emotional. What a day.
So different from Mexico and such friendly people.
What will next week bring?
Colours of Guatemala.