While the mountain biking in Canada’s Sea to Sky corridor is diverse and amazing, there are times in the year when it's nice to leave the wet coast. For us, fall shoulder season is from Mid October to Mid November, when the rains come and before the snow falls. It's a time when you want to hold onto summer before the colds of winter arrive. Where to go? Guatemala has been mentioned a fair bit as a mountain biking destination. When people like Tom Pro of Gravity Logic
as well as other luminaries like Steve Storey, Justa Jeskova and Mike Gamble
raves about the country you know that a place might be worth visiting for both the experience and for riding.
Based on this knowledge and input from trusted sources we arranged to ride with Backshop Bikes
which is run by Juan Alberto DelaRoca. Juan lives part time in Colorado, USA and part time in Guatemala and grew up in both countries. Juan saw the potential for guided mountain biking in Guatemala and started Backshop Bikes to cater to people who want to come to ride Guatemala's trails and experience what the region has to offer.
Guatemala is an amazing country replete with variety. There are coastal lowlands, the Pacific, the Caribbean, the cities, the countryside and the highlands all in one small but diverse package. The country is densely populated - with 17M people living in an area of 108,000 square km. To compare that's a little bigger than the state of Oregon where 4 million people live. However, since most of the population live in cities, in the rural areas where trails are located there wasn't a huge amount of traffic.
We booked our flights through AeroMexico. If you do so don’t carry on bike tools or anything that can look like it can be used as a weapon as they’ll take it away in the Mexico airport where connections are made from North to Central America. We rented Kona Precepts from Old Town Outfitters (OTO)
so we wouldn’t have to bring our own bikes down. If you're travelling through Mexico airport not having bikes is a good thing since you have to pick up your baggage on your connecting flight and go through security again so be warned about luggage logistics. We found that not being bogged down with bikes made it a lot easier to do other trips including to Tikal, Rio Dulce on the Caribbean coast, and to neighbouring volcanos; as recounted here
. Having said that it's possible to leave bikes with some hotels or outfitters or, of course, a friend.
To give an example of costs (not including airfare), your all inclusive costs for a week of guided riding, comfy accommodations and great food is around $2250 pp USD
. A bike rental will run you more and there will be more options so an email to Backshop for quotes is recommended.Here is a general overview map of some of the places we visited in Guatemala over the course of three weeks.
Antigua backyard rides
Antigua is a small compact city surrounded by volcanoes and about an hour drive from Guatemala City (aka Ciudad) where your plane will land at Guatemala's international airport. Many people will head right to Antigua from Ciudad but we found Ciudad (in particular its street life) interesting and entertaining enough for a couple of days stay
. Transportation is easy from Ciudad to Antigua. If you have bikes it's worthwhile to get a taxi to Antigua and if travelling light any of the many tourist buses from the Airport will serve you well.
Antigua has achieved UNESCO heritage designation and is renowned for its Spanish colonial buildings, many of them restored following a 1773 earthquake that ended Antigua’s 200-year reign as Guatemala’s colonial capital. There are a ton of foreign expats in Antigua many of whom are drawn there by weather (some refer to its mild climate as perpetual sunny spring), its diverse attractions and plentiful food/coffee/bakeries/bars. Yet there are also a lot of local Antiguenos who stay in Antigua itself as well as people from Ciudad who come for the Antigua weekend. Bottom line is that Antigua deserves its reputation for a very people-centric, pedestrian and walking-friendly city that is exceptionally welcoming and relatively safe.
Three of Juan’s friends joined us for our rides with Backshop Bikes. Wes, who is staying here for a time (also from the USA) and two local Guatemalans. Humber is a young ripper while Pablo Jose is another obsessed skilled mountain biker who takes time away from growing Avocados and other vegetables through Good Life Guatemala
, (as well as being a dad to two kids) to ride as much as he can.
Pablo Jose has a pretty cool little Kia Truck common in Guatemala that we used as our shuttle vehicle. While nice on short trips, it would be tough on a longer drive. Juan hires a large van and a dedicated driver for larger groups who come on Backshop Bikes trips.
SANTO TOMAS AND SANTO LUCIA
Our first ride centred around the villages of Sta Tomas and Sta Lucia just 15 minutes drive from Antigua. Our ride was on the Lecheria, La Pinada, and the Labyrinth zones, all areas being scoped out by Pablo Jose. Our last ride via the Labyrinth allowed us to finish up by cruising back into Antigua. PJ and Humber form the core of a group called Team Mountain Raptors
who do a lot of trail clearing and maintenance in the area so consequently know the area exceptionally well.
Lecheria was a classic Latin American trail using old Mayan routes that connect the fields and towns. Characterized by deep trenches that have been bermed and dotted with jumps, these features are unique to ride! Pinada has had more work on it to make it more mountain bike specific including little hits, berms, bridges and lots and lots of clearing. While the trails are still shared by the locals, Pinada has a mountain biking feel to it. The Labyrinth is an area that is aptly named and had the most jungle-like feel to it being the area most apart from rural fields or trails and reclaimed by PJ from the jungle painstakingly by machete.
We sampled three trails all by vehicle assist where PJ's uncle (who took the day off to drive us around) drove us up to the trailhead. Consequently, while all the trails had more descent than ascent there was still climbing involved. Daytime temps were very civilized hovering around the mid-20s so physical effort isn't punished by massive heat stroke. Juan and PJ also knew how to link rides so that they would end up close to local food stalls and eating places. Consequently, any wait time for the truck was well-spent. The trails have reddish dirt characteristic of volcanic soil deposits from neighbouring active historical flows and are mixed with clay so can be a handful when wet - you have been warned.
PJ tells us that he knows of over thirty trails in the area so the potential is fairly substantial! Particularly when riding with locals who know ever nook and cranny, all three trails were blasts to ride and a good introduction to Guatemala trails.
VOLCAN AGUA TRAILS
Day two of our trip with BackShop Bikes
had us ride on trails on the flanks of Volcan Agua. Keep in mind that Antigua itself is at an elevation of 1530m. Volcan Agua is almost 2 vertical kms above Antigua at an elevation of 3760m but we didn't start from its peak. Instead, our rides started in the village of Santa Maria de Jesus about 20 minutes drive south of Antigua on a steep paved road and ended in the village of San Juan del Obispo, riding through agricultural areas, farmers fields, and jungle. The villages are not in a region quite as densely populated as the previous days ride closer to Antigua and consequently these trails were not as old and trenched. There are a high proportion of ethnic Mayans in this area many of whom live in areas without power or electricity especially at higher elevations.
Due to the nature of its location on a volcano's flank, the soil on the trails and countryside is extraordinarily fertile and vegetation fecund. The sheer amount of tropical jungle flowers and colours in the area is very distracting and the views are exceptional. Combined with the street life and business of Sta Maria (it is a regional trading hub), the rides today were a cultural and bio-geo-climatic sensory experience as well as really fun high-quality mountain biking.
Each of these rides was 5-6km long with an elevation drop of 500m and with about 100 to 150m of climbIng so yet again the moderate comfortable "eternal spring-like" temperatures were welcome. The shuttle retrieval was about as fast as the ride, with only a 10 minute or so wait. You can certainly bang out an impressive number of very fast laps here and we did. Cultural distractions could include the regional market, coffee plantations, ice-cream shops, lots and lots of bakeries and again; lots of good inexpensive food.
The last trail was technical rock crawling and where I ate it hard - almost destroying a camera and getting a beauty of a hip pointer. Volcanic rock is not forgiving. It did showcase the diversity of the riding in a very upfront and personal way.
AN ABORTIVE RIDE TO STA CATARINA AND A CULTURAL INTERLUDE WITH MAYA PEDAL
One of our rides was a case-study in route finding and a good lesson in the importance of scouting routes beforehand. It turns out that Guatemala (and the Antigua area in particular) is under tremendous population pressure. Deforestation is an endemic problem in many tropical/equatorial countries but moreso in a Guatemala
, a country where the population is expanding so greatly. Especially in the surrounding cities of Sta Catarina de Baharona, San Lorenzo del Cubo and Ciudad Vieja what were once singletrack trails can become impassable clear cuts and/or jungles as trails are taken out by deliberately set burns, by gates set up by communities or simply by nature taking back the forest.
What was supposed to be a massive descent from the highland town of Parramos to Sta Catarina de Baharona turned out to be an ignominious retreat and then a road ride back to Antigua. Fortunately the day was not wasted as the road ride itself was through interesting country.
We had started the day out strong by visiting and experiencing a fairly unique not-for-profit. Poverty is widespread in Guatemala and non-renewable power can be out of reach for many people. As such many NGO’s exist to help them out. Maya Peda
l is one that started in 1997 with the Canadian group PEDAL
. They recycle old bikes and give them to needy people, as well they repurpose bikes and parts to do other human powered mechanical jobs like husk peanuts, make smoothies and perform other tasks.
Maya Pedal is situated in the town of San Andres Itzapa and well worth checking out. Of note - they accept volunteers to come and work in the shop to help build and create new human powered machines providing lodging and food. Perhaps another way to check the country out for yourself.
Where to Stay
Stay at Casa Del Sol
if you are more on budget and like communal hostel-style living. It has a kitchen, open concept living area and is a great place to socialize and meet others who stay in Antigua. If Backshop Bikes has a big group, Juan will book the complete hostel which would be an awesome experience. As we were only two there were people from many different places staying here, a Venezuelan, Germans, Swiss, Americans etc. Antigua is small but even so it's fair to say that Casa Del Sol's location is very convenient. Just down the street are all mod cons and it's just a short 10-minute walk to the Central Square.
Note that it's possible to book long-term stays at this location but you should reserve beforehand as Casa Del Sol is popular with many parties and there is a good chance that it will fill up - particularly during busy seasons. Hotel San Jorge
is another location which has the upside of a HUGE terrace. It is in a bit of quieter part of Antigua yet still just 10 minutes from the Central Square. The rooms are very private, the breakfasts there are massive and included with the room rate. Also included is a lunch that they will pack for you. Of note for bike travellers, there is actually a courtyard for parking (rare in Antigua where parking is at a premium) with lots of places to stash bikes, bike boxes or random stuff you won't need if you are travelling elsewhere where you won't need a bike. There is no extra charge for such storage.El Carmen Suites
is another worthy alternative with a very close to central plaza location. Perfect if you really want to be just 1-minute walk from where it all happens. Potentially there can be a tad more noise but that comes with the location. El Carmen also had exceptional breakfasts (HUGE BURRITOS the size of one's head) which is a plus for anyone who is a gourmand for tasty filling food.
Where to Eat
Antigua is more expensive than most other Guatemalan towns. Budget 30Qpp for each of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Having said that there is simply too much good food in Antigua to describe. The map above might give you a start but even so the choices are overwhelming. If you want to see some of our personal favourites read this (about comida tipica and panaderia/bakeries
) and this (about Antiguan food
A Google map of places to eat in Antigua is below. If a 20Q breakfast is too much for your taste (that's Cad$4, USD$3) there's always the option to cook for yourself. The hostels and some hotels have means for you to prep your own food and make coffee (or coffee is included). Food is cheap to buy at the La Bodegona grocery store and local groceries at the Antiguan mercado are dirt-cheap (veges for 3 dinners for 20Q; the ubiquitous Pollo for 3 dinners the same). Coffee is insanely good and also well priced.
With all that said here's a small selection of what stood out. Rony's Tacos is a value special. Sure you get three tacos for 35Q but YOU CAN LOAD THEM UP AS MUCH AS YOU WANT!!! Voila.Le Cuevita
has the same MO as Rony's. Pick what you want and load it up.
Breakfast at Cafe Condesa
looks Gucci but is insanely good and inexpensive for being so good. Plus you get to buy baked goods for afterward at reasonable prices.La Gelateria
is the only gelato place in Antigua. Three scoops for 15Q and it's half off if you buy before 12noon. WIN! Unfortunately, I did not have the presence of mind to take a picture while scarfing gelato.Hector's Bistro
is NOT cheap but omnonnom it is soooo good. Gringo prices for sure
Make up for splurging on gringo food by buying 3 pan chocolate the size of your freaking head for 10Q at Panaderia Se Llama Betty. You'll have to hunt for it at this link
. Just ONE of these puppies takes care of lunch.
Save also on libations by picking up some beer at the La Bodegona Grocery store. Hot tip is to see if other competing beer vendors try to crash the party and break the Gallo quasi beer monopoly because Gallo will immediately drop prices to crush competition. I walked in one day to see this 15 pack of Gallo selling for 55Q. Can't beat that. Bought two flats and killed the back bringing them back to the hotel (it was worth it)
Last but not least save a pile of money by buying fresh vegetables, meat, and other groceries at the local markets whether Antigua or Ciudad
. If your hotel allows you to prepare even some basic sandwiches or breakfast you can probably make better food for yourself given how good Guatemalans are at growing agriproduce in such remarkably fertile soil.
Tips and tricks for Guatemala
1. The currency in Guatemala is the Quetzal. When we were there the exchange was 7.5Q to $1.00US. Bring USD if you want to have cash and change to Qs. Many cambios (exchange houses) will change from CAD or EUR to Q but the USD is still the easiest currency to change. But see caveat below.
2. The exchange houses give pretty poor exchange rates. The first cambio you’ll see as enter Guatemala International Airport is actually the worst rate. The cambio in the lower floor as you get to the exits is the best rate. You will get a way better rate at ATM’s.
3. Card skimming is a problem at ATMs. Use an ATM at a place with a security guard in front. Pharmacies tend to have ATMs and security guards.
4. Tourism is so big in Antigua that ATMs tend to run out of cash on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. If you need Qs get it early on Friday.
5. Theft is overhyped in Guatemala City. We didn’t have a problem with thefts, just be normally cautious as you would in any big city. But whatever you do DO NOT use the red buses. Those are renowned for muggings and pickpocketing
6. The temps were 15 deg C to 25 deg C so you don’t need a lot of warm clothes. The exception are the high volcanos which can get chilly with temps approaching freezing at night
7. Drink bottled or filtered water. The major cities have better water but even so filtered water is advisable.
8. Guatemala City gets a bad rap. Street life and people watching in “Ciudad” is pretty fun. However, traffic sucks ass in Ciudad and you will hate life if you’re stuck in one of their interminable traffic jams. If you have to get in or out of Ciudad leave lots of time. For example, if you have to catch a flight you’d be best off to either get there the day before or make sure you leave hours and hours to make your flights. Read more about Ciudad here
If you get a chance to go to Mercado Central do not pass that up
9. Everyone seems to have a cell or smartphone in Guatemala. If you need a phone you can get one from Tigo, Movistar or Claro. Tigo seems to have the best rural coverage. Claro has the best urban coverage and Movistar is a solid meh all around. Air time is cheap and you easily get more minutes at many locations. If you have unlocked phones from your local carrier you can get a SIM card, plug it in and away you go. Check that your handset works with the providers here