The entire Atitlan area has a storied history and an ugly past. Many Mayans died during the Guatemalan Civil war as part of a Government-led campaign to quell insurgencies in the countryside. Atitlan and its villages are coming back, but robberies are still prevalent in rural areas so it's best to get a read on local conditions before heading out.
Urban areas are relatively safe; Santiago Atitlan and Panajachel (aka Pana aka Gringotenango) are the largest towns in the area. Pana is the main tourist town with the largest market and an amazing variety of tourist goods and handicrafts for sale. Pana is the primary stopping point to the Atitlan and via a fleet of boat-taxis provides access to some of the towns surrounding the lake.
The second leg of our ride after the sag-wagon provided lunch was the popular Santa Catarina Palapo “Precipicio” trail which starts at Mirador San Antonio. It descends the wonderfully narrow streets of Santa Catarina and eventually ends in Panajachel. The Sta Catarina urban downhill was superbly technical and narrow. Its urban feel is among the most unique cultural experiences we've ever had the pleasure of experiencing via bike.
You better believe we made a racket making sure people knew we were coming through. Curious heads poked out of doors and windows behind us but no one was annoyed. We were told that bikers are viewed as amusement to local Catarina's. People don't at all seem surprised by bikes (apparently a good number of people also rather enjoy the ride through town). Visitors! Don't mess things up, be courteous and don't hit anyone!
In the vicinity of Antigua, three Volcanoes dominate the landscape. Volcán de Agua at 3,766m, Acatenango, the third highest in Guatemala, which last erupted in 1972, at 3,976m and Volcán de Fuego or “Volcano of Fire”, at 3,763m. The complex of Acatenango and Volcán de Fuego is known as La Horqueta. Volcán de Agua has many trails that can be used for mountain biking. Other volcanoes such as Pachaya and Acatenango
have also been ridden but by no means is riding Acatenango a frequent occurrence.
Instead, Volcan Acatenango is a popular hiking and mountaineering destination. It’s often done in one day as an early morning/midnight push to get to the peak as the sun rises. However, it is also recommended by those who have a bit more time to do the trip over two days. This allows you to take in the full experience of the views. Because the volcano is fairly high Acatenango gets cold and we weren’t terribly interested in bringing warm weather clothing to Guatemala for such a small window of time. Having OTO take care of logistics seemed like a good idea.
Note that whether one goes solo or through an outfitter a permit and a guide is required to climb Acatenango; both measures put into place to keep numbers of visitors reasonable and to help with safety. Both of these arrangements can be made in Antigua or in the base village of La Soledad. Some visitors might pooh-pooh these measures as a cash grab for gringos but recent deaths on the high flanks of Acatenango of unprepared trekkers caught out in a cold snap and storm
might lend some veracity to the Guatemalan safety concerns.
Promo video by OTO of their 4x4 assisted Acatenango bike and hike
To be clear, we hiked up Acatenango but there were many many times I thought we should have had bikes. It turns out that OTO has a permit and the permission to use a private 4x4 road to facilitate biking on Acatenango. This trip is not a standard one as there is a lot of hike-a-bike involved at altitude (despite the 4x4 assist) and the volcano riding is very exposed. Only competent, fit riders with good tolerance for high elevation should think about doing Acatenango as a ride
Whether you hike or bike Acatenango you are going to be on foot a lot. Ever climb a Volcano before? At 3976m Acatenango is probably one of the easier “tall” ones to tackle being in the tropics. However, even so, you should be thinking of these things
– If you're overnighting you can hire a local cargadore/porter from La Soledad to carry your gear. Literally, 20 USD per day takes care of the bulk of your gear and makes a big difference to their living wage (more on that below)
– Bringing lots of water and taking your time on the climb (especially for sea-level dwellers who have to be reminded they are at elevation) so you don’t get dizzy or sick if you exert too much
– Bringing warm clothes; toque, gloves, down jacket, long underwear, windbreaker, a headlamp for the overnight. It gets windy up there
– Bring a headlamp for the climb up to the summit to time the sunrise
– Wearing good hiking boots, or light hikers with good tread plus extra footwear and warm socks if you plan to hang out at all. Volcanic pumice dust doesn't play well with clipless pedals
– Check your brake pads before you go
If you hike the route you will start in La Soledad (2400m) which is approximately 40-min drive from Antigua and which is at an elevation which is usually glaciated in Canada. Even in the tropics, it can be cool when you start that high. Initially, you wind through local cornfields owned by the local patron, Don Martin (used by permission) then into the tropical rainforest. On our first day, we climb to 3566m in 6km. The following morning is when you can hike to the summit at 3976m, a 2.8km hike. The rest of the day is spent descending 1675m back to La Soledad. If you ride you take a 4x4 road which goes through private property until about 2900m. You then ride and hike your bike to the 3566m viewpoint and then repeat the exercise of hiking your bike to the summit and then descend back to La Soledad. Whether by hike or by bike you will have a good workout!.
A historical interlude because part of traveling is learning and the village/pueblo of La Soledad is worth a mention. It had a sad story which is now slowly turning around. La Soledad roughly translates to “the Loneliness”. During the long dark times of the Guatemalan civil war, the village was at the confluence of many military actions resulting in civilian deaths. Many of the villages’ men left during this period as the war’s effects and aftermath meant that traditional farming and other means of supporting their families was impossible. Many went to the US to work and support those left behind (the lonely) via remittances. The menfolk have returned as rural Guatemala takes steps to recovery
It’s worth mentioning that Old Town Outfitters takes deliberate steps to support La Soledad and its people. The porters are paid and hired directly by clients with every penny going right to these very able, fit and appreciative cargadores. Old Town Outfitters also pays the cargadores and people of La Soledad for trail work and cleanups of the interminable garbage sadly left behind by many trekkers and hikers. Speaking for ourselves, personally, it was an easy choice for us to hire such deserving people not just from the point of view of some more personal comfort but also as a tangible means of giving back. OTO's work to be involved with the people of La Soledad means also that they've had permission to use many of the local byways such as the private 4x4 road for Acatenango bike access.
The rainforest section is rooty. Since the cloud and tropical forest portions are almost always humid and wet it can be quite slippery whether on foot or bike. There are two main stops where the locals have small tables where you can buy snacks or tea or just take a break. These stops are accessed also by 4WD road so if you're being ferried by bike or descending the trails and if you get sick or feel the altitude or your bike breaks they do serve as bail out points. Going through so much elevation you can certainly notice the bio-geo-climatic change as you cross first farmed lands, then a tropical rain forest then a cloud forest as you continue on the steep direct ascent towards the subalpine.
It is advised to take many breaks and take your time – something the OTO guides constantly reminded us to do. With a two day trip, you have lots of time to get to the first camp spot. After about 3.7km at an elevation of 3460m, the trail leaves the tropical forest and enters the cloud forest which then transitions to a pine forest. At a little way above 3000m the 4x4 road will peter out and the truck will disgorge you and your bike to hike and bike fortunately at a point where the trail is less steep and traverses Acatenango’s flank. From here it is an easier push to the campsite and where you will probably be able to pedal your bike. But you are at elevation so if you feel like everything is a granny gear that is understandable
If you are on foot and hiked up the cloud forest, the porters are ahead of you at this point to ensure your camping area is available and your gear is also available to you. On your bike, the guides are setting up the camp while you rest. While there are no ‘reserved spots’ in this area, many of the companies have built areas for their clients. Common courtesy and understanding are that if a touring company has built and prepared a spot and is scheduled to be there then that spot is for the company and its clients. It’s yet another reason to go with an organization like Old Town Outfitters who are well established in this area.
Once at the camp a chill can be felt in the air. Before being mesmerized by Fuego, take some time to remove sweaty clothes and put on warm layers. Old Town Outfitters at this time had snacks and wine available as replenishment. Before dark, a nice dinner of soup, pasta, and a salad was also prepared. The rest of the evening is spent chatting by the campfire made by the porters, and enjoying the sunset and Fuego fire show.
We then sat back and enjoyed the evening show. Fuego was in fine form. The first time it erupts it sounds like a thunderstorm rolling in. Porters and guides were unfazed but us newbies were looking around for incoming weather.
Fuego isn’t always so spectacularly active but we were fortunate to be in a showroom cycle. Almost every 15 minutes the volcano showed the world who’s boss by blowing its top, sending lava streaming down its face and ash/rock/clouds rocketing 100 of metres into the sky. It has to be seen in person to be believed and is highly recommended as a way to put perspective on one’s place in the universe.
Then it was time for bed. Old Town Outfitters had ridge rests and heavy 0 degrees sleeping bags and Mountain Hardware three season tents. On this November evening, night time temperatures were 7 degrees C with strong winds. The gear provided a restful night with periodically unavoidable reminders that Fuego was active as it continually erupted. It was worthwhile to wake up early to get night time pictures as the Supermoon set at 2:30 am to continued shooting until the rest of the group woke at 4:00 am wake up. The porters were already up hustling/bustling and prepping camp for our early morning hike. This 4 am start is necessary to give you time to hike the 1.4km and 500m to the summit in the dark and arrive at sunrise; a hike which takes about an hour and a half.
The view from the summit was spectacular and Fuego continued to give a show. The wind was fierce and temperatures cooler, probably just around freezing. A nice ramble around the summit reveals Lake Atitlan and other volcanoes in the distance. We were also shown a pit with warm soil right at the summit; a reminder that Acatenengo itself is an active volcano. The journey down itself is uncomplicated and the effects of high elevation rapidly dissipate as you descend. The hiking route is via the 4x4 road. The biking route down can be via the upper volcano flanks of Acatenango, the 4x4 road or if you're really good at tech slippery routes – the hiking ascent trail (just watch out for all the uphill traffic)
Where to stay in AtitlanCasa del Mundo
is a joy to behold. We spent a night there and wish we had taken more time. It's a hotel in Jaibalito that took 20 years to build. It’s owned by an American out of Alaska and a Guatemalan who raised their family there. You can tell this was a dream project for them as the hotel was finely built with intricate obsessive attention to detail. It’s a worthy place to stay accessible only by boat.
Each room has hot water heated by Solar panels and spectacular views. Dinner is provided at the hotel and is delicious as are the super thick fruit smoothies. Hiking trails and sea kayaks are also at the hotel so there are lots of ways to kill a day at this wonderful location
Guatemala life and living
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 17 million 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.
However, there were a few things common to Guatemala that we enjoyed experiencing. The people and the food certainly spring to mind. Here’s a bit more about Guatemala and generally living in Guatemala. Look at the photo descriptions for more colour and contextComida Tipica and avocados
Avocados in Canada aren’t cheap. Guatemalan Avocados are inexpensive and just lie on the ground or on trees waiting to be picked (five avocados for 10Q. 5Q to $1 CAD). To a northerner, it’s a miracle! Comida Tipica roughly translates to “Typical food” and is extraordinarily good. Restaurants are also inexpensive and the food is good (sizeable comida tipica dinner for 20–30Q). Also if you get a chance to have a home-cooked meal by an Antigueno (local resident of Antigua) do not pass up the chance
Below is a selection of dishes from Antigua and Ciudad. It is really, really, really hard to go wrong with comida tipica.Local Markets and Streetlife
You are missing out a lot if you don’t experience this part of Guatemala. The markets are busier on the weekends but they go all week including on weekdays. Street food in particular at markets are delicious and cheap (try three tacos for 5Q) and is cooked right in front of you by some local who’s happy that you’re happy and loving her/his food! Wander around and see what there is for sale. Even in Ciudad the vendors weren’t pushy and were happy to talk about what they have for sale whether in Espanol or our lamentable Spanglish.Transportation
Many people use motorcycles in Guatemala to get around. Many use taxis and pack them full. There are lots of private cars too but they tend to be small. Bottom line is that the income level in Guatemala isn’t high so people will use what they can to get around. On bikes, we found that people were really respectful and gave us a wide berth and it wasn’t just because we were 'tourista gringos' but just because Guatemalan drivers don’t appear to be stressed out – something which isn’t true for all countries in Central or South America (or for that matter in North America)
Some things are worth repeating. The Green bus lines in Ciudad are awesome – clean, cheap and reliable. The red buses are unfortunately run by gangs and you can expect a high degree of probability of being robbed when taking one. For intercity transport, the tourist air-conditioned buses are more expensive as are taxis but are direct and more comfortable. The La Camioneta (chicken buses) are a cultural experience in themselves and a lot less expensive (a third to a tenth of the cost of the tourist buses and taxis) but schedules are optimistic and variable and can be packed. Good luck with them if you have lots of luggage as they get crammed full of peopleKids and bikes and stoke
Kids are the future of Guatemala. While that’s true of many other countries there’s general optimism for the future of the country which was so very recently war-torn and still recovering from a 36 year long brutal civil war. While the kids don’t remember the war their parents certainly do and it's perhaps why the kids are so cherished, loved and so stoked. Kids love bikes in particular and if you’re riding a bike they might ask to take it for a spin. The joy on their faces pedaling around is contagious and one hopes it catches.Panaderia ie Bakeries
Having talked about a bit (a lot) about Guatemalan food let's delve further into a subset of the food – to whit their panaderia or bakeries. Guatemalan baked goods are fine stuff. Inexpensive, fresh and there are literally bakeries everywhere. There are literally too many to count but to give one an idea when on our first day in Antigua we walked and did a mini Tour de Panaderia and marked over 20 bakeries on the walking tour.
There are too many to mention. The finest bakery in the world I have ever had occasion to visit in Panaderia Se Llama Betty
. It’s five minutes drive off the highway from Antigua to Ciudad literally 15 minutes out of town. Literally giving away huge Pain au Chocolat (three huge
pieces of fresh chocolate bread for 10Q for example). Another fine candidate is a small Panaderia in the main square of the town of Parramos just north of Antigua. Pan Dulce that melts in your mouth – we cleaned them out.
Also not to be missed and with discounted items once you get to the last hour of closing is Panaderia Dona Luisa
in the heart of Antigua. Another in the running for amazing baked goods (but watch for it to be cleaned out late in the day) is Panaderia San Antonio
in Antigua in the west part of townTraditional Dress
One other item of note was how well Guatemalan women (in particular) dressed. Traditional dress is used as part of everyday life; is colourful, practical, and worn with style and pride. By contrast, the men are dressed in jeans and shirts.
WHEN TO VISIT
As a practical weather note, most of the pictures depicted here are from the Highlands as the bulk of the bikeable trails are located there. Guatemala's weather is variable depending on region
and we timed the Highlands visits so we would be in the shoulder season (Oct–Nov) when the number of tourists drops off and any rain events are short and less frequent. The height of the Highlands season is Sept–April.
Note that the northern and eastern Peten regions are affected by Caribbean storms and low-lying so the rainy season (May to July) makes visits unpleasant. Anyone who's been caught in a tropical monsoon torrential downpour can testify to that. Our Highlands shoulder season visit timing also coincided with the dry season in the Peten meaning that we had pretty good weather in the Tikal and Caribbean coast.
In summary, Guatemala is well worth a visit. The country is beautiful, the people friendly and the culture inviting and last but not least, they have badass trails. If you are the kind of person who wants to go to a place not just to mountain bike, but to also experience a country, a people and a culture then Guatemala should be on your list. If you are looking for adventures in spectacular settings then Guatemala has no shortage of choices. With judicious timing and a little bit of planning, you will be hard-pressed to not have a good time in Guatemala.