Guatemala Finally Delivers – Violently

Sitting at 3700mt, 300mt from the summit of Volcan Acatenango. Two km across a saddle is the summit of Volcan De Fuego…and it’s going off like a frog in a sock. When I say going off I mean every few minutes there’s an explosion and molten rock and ash is thrown hundreds of meters in the air. It’s amazing how much time difference there is between seeing the explosion and then about five seconds later hearing it.

At the moment it’s daylight and the molten rock doesn’t really stand out too much. We’re waiting for dark to see the real spectacle. But are we going to be foiled by the weather. Just as the sun starts going down the cloud rolls in and blocks the view. Being at this altitude in the wind and cloud means it’s cold, even in the tropics, so we retreat to the tent to read, do our Spanish lessons and rest our weary bodies. Every time we hear an explosion we’re poking our noses out to look into the gloomy clouds….But our patience is rewarded. After an impressively loud explosion late in the evening the clouds have finally cleared so we’re heading outside to our deck chairs (yes we hauled these up here as well) for front row seats. It’s freezing, we’re wrapped up in everything we’ve carried up this hill, and our sleeping bags over that. Don’t let anything go though because the wind will grab it and it will be the last you see of it.

So was it worth the 1600mt climb over the summit, the camp without a cooker and freezing our asses off. HELL YES. This is by far one of the most unique experiences we’ve had in our lives, let alone this trip. De Fuego delivered big time. In the dark molten rock could be seen being thrown all over the show. The experience made us realise how small and insignificant we really are when Mother Nature wants to have her way.

Nearing the summit of Volcán Acatenango.

And the decent to the camping area.

A room with a view and front row seats. Yes we took our chairs up there too.

And for the action shot…

Nighttime photos just don’t do it justice but you get the idea.

So how did we end up here. This hike was suggested by a couple we met in Mexico. After some perving at the map and study of the Lonely Planet we came up with a route that we thought would run through some of the best of what Guatemala had to offer. It has to be said that our sole knowledge of Guatemala was one line, “You’re not in Guatemala now Dr Ropata.” (The only famous line from a NZ soap opera circa 1990s). So off we set.

From Tziscao we rode a dirt track around a lake and into Guatemala. No offical in sight, no control whatsoever.

Thinking it would probably be in our interest to get an exit stamp for Mexico and entry stamp for Guatemala we headed to the nearest controlled border. Turns out controlled is a loose term. We had to leave Guatemala again to find the Mexican immigration office tucked away off the road about a km down the hill. No checkpoint, no roadblock, nothing. The offical didn’t even know which way we were going, but we got our stamp and headed back up the hill to repeat the process by interrupting the Guatemalan offical from reading his paper and getting our entry stamp. It was all so easy it just seemed wrong, but oh so right.

So day one saw us riding some really nice rural roads but they were steep, like 20% grades, and our total climbing was over 2000mt, and we were only half way up a 1900mt climb. There were no wild camping opportunities so when we passed through a town that had hotels up the gunga we took the opportunity to stop. Hotels a loose term but for $8NZ dollars we got a bed, cold shower and shared toilets….not sure what they were thinking.

Big steep hills are the order of the day.

After day one the roads got busier, the hills didn’t get any smaller, camping opportunities were non existent and everything seems to get more expensive. On the expense front it felt like we were being overcharged at every opportunity. This trend continued for the duration of our time in Guatemala so after nine days we just wanted to get out of the country and move on with our adventure. We were sitting in Antigua at this stage enjoying a day off on legs that just didn’t want to work after running down Volcan Acatenango the day before.

Our original plan was to go north into Belize then up to Cancun. But it just didn’t appeal now so we changed plans again and decided to head to El Salvador, a meet 180km to the east. So two days later we crossed the boarder…and straight into another 1200mt climb with some hike a bike…Is this a sign of things to come maybe?

So by the numbers…Eleven days in Guatemala. Two rest days, two days hiking up and down a volcano, and eight days on the bike (we rode the day we came down Volcan Acatenango). 610km with 20900mt of climbing, or an average of 2322mt a day… I must start looking at the profile more closely before I say, “let’s go this way, it looks cool.”

So the general impression of Guatemala wasn’t that good, but there was some pretty cool stuff.

The mountain villages that are still clinging to their traditional Mayan roots through their dress and culture is cool to see. They have progressed though, it wasn’t that unusual to see a woman in traditional dress carrying a water jar on her head talking on her smart phone. And there’s money to be made, the markets were bustling with all sorts of traditional wear, textiles and food. Oh that delicious food…

The market at Chichihualtepec.

But it has to be said that the Guatemalan people are hard doers. Those in the mountains scratch out a subsistence living by working the land collectively as a community. Others were in groups making mud blocks for the next village house. Then there were those in the quarries. In the mountains this meant chipping the limestone off the bluffs by hand, in the low lands there were in the streams digging out the gravel and shovelling it through a grading screen. The bigger rocks got carted up the bank in a bucket and dumped. A hard days work by anyone’s standards.

These guys are waist deep in water shovelling rocks all day.

Antigua was a pretty cool little city to visit. Very colonial but with a very hip modern vibe. It felt like the place that all the well to do Guatemalans gravitate to with hip bars and cafes on every corner.

Check out Mike Kings brother from another mother in this 70s and 80s rock band we found in Antigua. They were pretty good to.

Antigua is clearly a tourist hub too and there were a lot of stiff looking Gringos getting around after a day on nearby Volcan Acatenango. This place has seen its heartache though. Many of the really old mission and colonial buildings had been reduced to rubble by historic earthquakes and eruptions. They are working on the restoration of these, though. It seems a mammoth task, especially when they are cutting bricks by hand.

On our last night in Guatemala we got to experience an auto-hotel. Thinking this was just a hotel that had secure parking under each unit we were a bit surprised by the setup. Money was passed through a slot in a steal door. Once the right payment was made that door was opened to reveal the door to our room, complete with a cold water ( what are they thinking) jacuzzi. The room service menu had beer, meals, protection and lubricant…we just stuck to the beer. So we get the bikes in the garage, shut the garage door and get into our room, ring to order a couple of beers and settle down. The beers are passed through a slider in the steal door once payment has been made through the other slot. In the morning we are rung saying it’s time to go or pay more money, so we rush to pack up, but we can’t get out of the garage. Karen heads upstairs to use the phone but the steal door is closed, blocking our access. I guess once they have checked that we haven’t stolen or stained the jacuzzi they unlock the garage door because next minute it’s opening and we are free to leave this place…and this bloody country.

But there’s still the boarder to cross. As it turns out this border is quite organised and controlled, unlike when we came into the country. But first there is the circling vultures to get through. When we arrive at the border we’re flagged down by a very large man waving a very large wad of US dollars. Along with him are a gaggle of other shifty looking characters trying to entice us with their equally large bundles of cash. We were wondering where we were going to get rid of our Guatemala Quetzal so this seemed the perfect opportunity. The rate they quoted was surprisingly as good but that lucky large man must have been mightily disappointed when I handed over all of our our remaining cash and relieved him of 24 of those US dollars.

So Guatemala is done and dusted. We did some really cool things, but the riding didn’t really spin our wheels as we were hoping.

From here we’ve decided to head south through El Salvador, Honduras ect and try and get to Panama City by the 8th May to fly to Cuba.

After Cuba Karen is going to head home and I’m heading back to Canada to race the Tour Divide. It’s probably a very silly idea, it won’t be fun and it will hurt, but we’re here and I figure a 28000km training ride probably isn’t to bad a way to get ready for it.

Our journey through Guatemala

Author:

Two solemates sharing bikepacking adventures that are off the beaten track.

2 thoughts on “Guatemala Finally Delivers – Violently

  1. Incredible trip love following your story
    Is there anything we can do for you back in Canada
    We can get you a place to stay in Calgary if that is where you are flying into

    Liked by 1 person

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