Night Lava – Atitlán to Acatenango

19 fuego spew

June 5, 2016 | Posted in Guatemala | By

April 7, 2016

Our next folly after the kayaking jubilee was Volcán Acatenango. Acatenango, at 13,041 ft (3,975 m) is the third highest mountain in Central America. Its great views and proximity to Antigua has long made it a popular hiking destination, but it is especially attractive now because its sister volcano, Fuego, is extremely active and hikers can get great views of the action from the summit.

The topography in the Guatemala highlands is ludicrous. It’s really beautiful, but all the land seems to be at a 45-degree angle. We entered the country on the Panamericana Highway, so the grades weren’t too bad, just a few sustained 8% ers, but once we got onto the back roads, whew! We thought the climb out of the lake would be tough because it’s a huge caldera, so entirely surrounded by huge cliffs and mountains, but that was actually one of the easier parts, just under 10 miles of consistent climbing.

We found a nice little platform to relax and view the lake as we climbed out

We found a nice little platform to relax and view the lake as we climbed out

Lunch on top

Lunch on top

03 yellow house

Shortly after clearing the rim of the caldera we dropped into a deep gorge to a river where some women were washing clothes and then had to climb right back out of it on roads with grades often far exceeding 10%. This could have been ok but the pavement was crumbling with huge sand and dust pits everywhere. Our heavy loads make riding this kind of surface almost impossible, so we ended up pushing a lot. Our energy was totally sapped and we had to take several breaks and even considered hitchhiking. We kept going up and down and started looking for a place to camp, but of course any bit of flat land in these parts is in use. We kept at it but then started up a long climb and when we rounded a corner and saw a road cut way above us with tiny little trucks that looked like Matchbox cars, we knew we were done, even though we were only a couple miles from the next town. Luckily this gorge was completely uninhabited and the only sign of use was some woodcutting of the pine forest and a few small coffee groves. We managed to find a very nice little spot on an overgrown and unused footpath that was completely hidden from the road. It was wonderful and we were in bed by 8:30.

We briefly considered camping in one of the informal calcium mines that we sometimes see dug into the sides of road cuts, but a brief exploration of one sketched us out way too much.

We briefly considered camping in one of the informal calcium mines that we sometimes see dug into the sides of road cuts, but a brief exploration of one sketched us out way too much.

Caution bridge destroyed

Caution bridge destroyed

April 8, 2016

Glad we didn't do this climb yesterday

Glad we didn’t do this climb yesterday

A nice breakfast waited for us at the top despite the inedible processed meat that came even though I asked for no meat.

A nice breakfast waited for us at the top despite the inedible processed meat that came even though I asked for no meat.

We were hoping this day would be easier, and yes, we were quickly able to make the climb out to the town of Patzún and sudden civilization and quaint farm lanes, but immediately after town we dropped into yet another gorge for more climbing. We weren’t really expecting this little gorge and the climb out was tough on the hurting legs before we got to enjoy the nice flat, straight road into Patzicia. The cosmos must have misread my thoughts as saying, ‘too flat, fire up the wind!’ because any time we were on a flat stretch, we had a fierce headwind. We had our first view of the twin volcanoes Acatenango through a gap in the terrain as we approached town, and they were beautiful. We stopped in Patzicia and started thinking that maybe we should find a hotel so that we could rest the legs. Unfortunately the only places in town were a couple of sleazy auto-hotels on the nearby Interamericana. Auto-hotels are the kind of place where you rent by the hour and each room has its own garage so nobody can see your car there. We checked them out nonetheless, but we weren’t about to pay 100Q for a windowless dungeon, so we went back to the center of town and took a good break in the central plaza.

Women around here are experts at carrying things on their heads.

Women around here are experts at carrying things on their heads.

We had another solid climb out of town, albeit only for a couple miles, and then it was a brake roasting descent down the side of a steep mountain. We were barreling down and around a corner and boom! there was Acatenango looming massively in front of us. It looked unbelievably huge, like a wall of land filling the entire sky. We both gasped. When we stopped a little later the view became proportionally more believable and we realized that it must have been the ridiculous grade we were descending that had made it appear to belong in some sci-fi story like Ringworld. At the bottom we hit a couple more outrageously steep, but brief climbs that tested our limits. You know you’re about done when you stop three times on a quarter-mile climb. We stopped at a large coffee finca to ask if we could camp. The manager agreed, but the spot she offered was a bit too rustic for even our tastes. She then verified that there was a hotel in Acatenango and that it was only 2 km away! and that it was mostly flat. We know not to trust locals with distances, hills, etc, but we’ve realized that we choose to believe them when they tell us what we want to hear. Luckily this was the rare piece of accurate info we’ve received and we arrived in no time. The hotel was cheap (80Q / $11) and lovely, so we decided to take a day off to rest the legs before hitting the volcano. The owner is this really charismatic 70 year-old gringo, known locally as the Gringo Loco, and we spent the evening hanging out with him and a couple doctors from Antigua drinking beer, watching Fuego erupt and listening to Phish. We’ve found people down here to be more receptive to Phish. They don’t have any silly preconceived notions and are simply excited for someone to share their favorite band with them and most people really enjoy it. Karl Denson and Galactic have also been very well received.

April 9, 2016

We used our day off to ride out with the Gringo Loco to some volcanic hot spring baths and tenderize the poor muscles and chill out about town. We also discovered something that we feel like fools for not having before – choco-bananas! They take frozen bananas on a stick and dip them in chocolate sauce. F##k quinoa, they’re the perfect food! They are phenomenal and cost only 1 quetzal (~12 cents). We will eat them every day until we cannot find them again.

The hill down to the thermal baths was insane and we weren't about to undo all the relaxation. The astute observer will notice the absence of a door.

The hill down to the thermal baths was insane and we weren’t about to undo all the relaxation. The astute observer will notice the absence of a door.

The Gringo Loco

The Gringo Loco

April 10, 2016

We chose to give our legs a rest and catch a chicken bus up to the trailhead. Gringo Loco gave us directions to find a lovely family who would hold on to our stuff and although they never got his message that we were coming, they took us in with a huge smile and made us feel very welcome.

There is not much to say about the hike except that it was four and a half hours trudging up the side of a friggin’ volcano on a surface that alternated between six-inch deep volcanic powder and hard-packed dirt with a nice thin layer small loose stones. Regardless of the surface, dust was constantly blowing in our faces. It was tiring, but really beautiful as we passed through the milpa (corn fields) on the shoulders, through the dense cloud forest and then into the thin pine forest above the clouds. Near the end of the hike as we were traversing Acatenango below the summit we began hearing the booms and feeling the shaking from Fuegos eruptions. Suddenly we rounded a corner and there it was, spewing volumes of smoke and giant boulders into the air.

Milpa

Milpa

Above the clouds

Above the clouds

The last half hour of hiking was relatively flat across the side of the mountain.

The last half hour of hiking was relatively flat across the side of the mountain.

Fuego!

Fuego!

Boom!

Boom!

Check out those boulders shooting out. They must be flying at least a hundred feet in the air.

Check out those boulders shooting out. They must be flying at least a hundred feet in the air.

When we got to the campsites on the back of the mountain there was one other group set up. The guide, Oscar, tried to tell us that the campsites were private, but that we could camp with them. Obviously the campsites in the national park are not private, as any local will tell you, but we figured it would be nice to hang out with some others and not build our own fire. Oscar was friendly and shared hot chocolate and tortillas with us and offered to help set up our tent, which we declined. Of course we later discovered that his interest in our tent was so that he could rob us while we were hanging out at the fire with the others. Luckily we hadn’t left anything really valuable in there and he only got Brandy’s sunglasses, but it was quite disheartening so soon after the previous robbery.

Sunset at camp

Sunset at camp

Camp

Camp

We didn’t discover the missing glasses until the morning, so our evening was unmarred as we sat around the fire chatting with our new friends watching Fuego erupting every few minutes. It was even more impressive at night. We couldn’t tell during the day, but those massive stones were glowing hot when they shot out. At night we were treated to geysers of bright orange blasting out the top and showering down the mountainside. Each eruption shook the ground under our butts and rumbled like thunder.

Fuego at night

Fuego at night

These photos obviously are not nearly as impressive as the real thing.

These photos obviously are not nearly as impressive as the real thing.

19 fuego spew

April 11, 2016 etc.

We stayed up “late” chatting with one of the other travelers and elected to skip the sunrise at the summit which would have required packing up at 3:00 AM and hiking an hour up steep, loose sand. We enjoyed a beautiful sunrise out the front door of our tent from the warmth of our sleeping bags and indulged in a couple more hours of sleep. When we finally got up and discovered the missing sunglasses we became paranoid that Oscar had called his buddies to mug us on the trail, so I spent the slog to the top looking ahead for people peeping out from rocks and trees. It was a hump up there, but definitely worth it for the great views.

This was good enough for us.

This was good enough for us.

Not bad for zero effort

Not bad for zero effort

Looking down on the smaller summit of Acatenango. The views of Antigua and Volcán Agua were also impressive, but the photos, ehh...

Looking down on the smaller summit of Acatenango. The views of Antigua and Volcán Agua were also impressive, but the photos, ehh…

Heading down the mountain

Heading down the mountain

We were pleased to not get mugged on the hike down, but it was slow going on the loose gravel that was even more treacherous in that direction. It was too late to ride by the time we got down, but the family who was holding on to our bikes let us sleep in an empty storage room they had. The next day we had a beautiful, mostly downhill ride to Maya Pedal, a non-profit that makes bike-powered machines and hosts cycle tourists, where we nursed our tattered legs for several days.

The trail is pretty much a straight shot right down there. We'll cross that little ridge in the middle on our bikes tomorrow.

The trail is pretty much a straight shot right down there. We’ll cross that little ridge in the middle on our bikes tomorrow.

The clouds came in on the milpa for us.

The clouds came in on the milpa for us.

The soil consists of several feet of volcanic ash that erodes quickly under the heavy traffic of hikers and farm workers on the trail through the milpa.

The soil consists of several feet of volcanic ash that erodes quickly under the heavy traffic of hikers and farm workers on the trail through the milpa.

Brandy's rendition of the home where we stayed. They had amazing views of Acatenango summit up and the deep valley down.

Brandy’s rendition of the home where we stayed. They had amazing views of Acatenango summit up and the deep valley down.

This is the top of that ridge from the earlier photo. The climb wasn't much of a challenge.

This is the top of that ridge from the earlier photo. The climb wasn’t much of a challenge.

Maya Pedal is a non-profit and kind of a pilgrimage site for cycle tourists. They make bike-powered machines such as blenders, water pumps and macadamia nut shellers for locals and are very hospitable to cyclists and other travelers. We spent far longer than we'd expected there because of how welcoming Mario, the dueño, and his family were. We worked on a few of our own projects and Brandy took advantage of the sewing machine and made some curtains, aprons and patches for them in return. I got to help them write a grant proposal, which was interesting.

Maya Pedal is a non-profit and kind of a pilgrimage site for cycle tourists. They make bike-powered machines such as blenders, water pumps and macadamia nut shellers for locals and are very hospitable to cyclists and other travelers. We spent far longer than we’d expected there because of how welcoming Mario, the dueño, and his family were. We worked on a few of our own projects and Brandy took advantage of the sewing machine and made some curtains, aprons and patches for them in return. I got to help them write a grant proposal, which was interesting.

30 trying machina

Our favorite new fruit, the red one is called jocote. They are cheap and delicious but have a massive pit in the middle. We were excited to see jocotes in El Salvador, but it seems that the countries south of Guatemala eat them green, which is way less delicious.

Our favorite new fruit, the red one is called jocote. They are cheap and delicious but have a massive pit in the middle. We were excited to see jocotes in El Salvador, but it seems that the countries south of Guatemala eat them green, which is way less delicious.

Indigenous culture is strong in Guatemala, much more so than the countries to the south where we have yet to see anyone in traditional dress. The local mercado is open every day, but Sunday and Tuesday are the real market days when it is packed and the vendors spill out onto the roof, the balcony walkways around the second floor of the building and even onto the stairways.

Indigenous culture is strong in Guatemala, much more so than the countries to the south where we have yet to see anyone in traditional dress. The local mercado is open every day, but Sunday and Tuesday are the real market days when it is packed and the vendors spill out onto the roof, the balcony walkways around the second floor of the building and even onto the stairways.

We bought honey from one of these old ladies. We got the gringo price, which has been annoyingly much more common here than in Mexico. We've found Guatemala to not be any cheaper than Mexico. In fact, many things are more expensive.

We bought honey from one of these old ladies. We got the gringo price, which has been annoyingly much more common here than in Mexico. We’ve found Guatemala to not be any cheaper than Mexico. In fact, many things are more expensive.

Roman and Katerina from Prague were traveling and randomly chose to pick up bikes and start touring. They don't have the best bike and their kit is a bit rough, but they're making it. I love the people who just decide to jump into bike touring without thinking about it.

Roman and Katerina from Prague were traveling and randomly chose to pick up bikes and start touring. They don’t have the best bike and their kit is a bit rough, but they’re making it. I love the people who just decide to jump into bike touring without thinking about it.

Justin is the same cyclist who found us in the market near Xela and connected us with the Warm Showers host there. My next tour might be more like Justin's. He's sticking mostly to dirt with his fat bike. Guatemala was brutal for him as he has been pushing much more than riding. He rode the same road that demolished us out of Atitlán and said it was the first "easy" cycling he's had in Guatemala.

Justin is the same cyclist who found us in the market near Xela and connected us with the Warm Showers host there. My next tour might be more like Justin’s. He’s sticking mostly to dirt with his fat bike. Guatemala was brutal for him as he has been pushing much more than riding. He rode the same road that demolished us out of Atitlán and said it was the first “easy” cycling he’s had in Guatemala.

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Paddling Atitlán

21 exploring wetlands

April 21, 2016 | Posted in Guatemala, Places | By

As I mentioned in my previous post, I wanted to get some more time with the lake. Brandy had been in San Pedro for two weeks studying Spanish, but I’d been away for ten days at a silent meditation course. So I can admit that this folly was entirely my doing. Somewhere in those ten days I came up with the silly idea of kayaking around the lake, so when I got back to San Pedro, I immediately set to finding someone who’d rent legit kayaks and stumbled upon Kayak Guatemala. Lee, the owner sent me a bunch of info about paddle times and lodging around the lake. With his advice we plotted a three-day course around about 2/3 of the lake.

*See end of post for logistical info

How could you not want more of that?

How could you not want more of that?

April 3, 2016

This was to be a tough trip. Aside from being cyclists whose upper bodies muscles have atrophied into withered, prune-like farces, the weather made some odd decisions to our detriment. The lake generally has rather consistent weather patterns. Usually it’s very calm in the morning with winds pouring in from the coast roughing it up in the afternoon. We camped at the kayak rental place and awoke at the crack of dawn on the first day to wind rustling the tent. We tried to delude ourselves into believing that it was just some inconsequential breeze that would have no effect on the lake, but when we got up we could see the water was extremely choppy. We used it as an excuse to sleep in a bit and take our time getting going. If afternoon conditions were already happening, there was no reason to rush to beat the afternoon. We were a bit concerned because we were crossing open water through the middle of the lake with 1.5-foot swells running crossways. Our kayaking experience was rather negligible and I wasn’t too excited about having to upright in those conditions if one of us dumped. We crossed in about two hours, and it was actually kind of fun, albeit a lot of work. The afternoon winds usually bring in lots of fog and clouds, but this morning seemed to be the opposite and we were given the consolation of the clearest day we’d seen yet, which meant we had views all around and were even able to see Fuego erupting in the distance.

Little bits of cloud around Tolimán with Volcán Atitlán behind

Little bits of cloud around Tolimán with Volcán Atitlán behind

Lewis paddling out towards Volcán San Pedro. The water is choppy, but hasn't really gotten going just yet.

Lewis paddling out towards Volcán San Pedro. The water is choppy, but hasn’t really gotten going just yet.

Fuego puffing in the distance. The water is rougher than it looks. I can't believe Brandy pulled her camera out at this point with all the splashing.

Fuego puffing in the distance. The water is rougher than it looks. I can’t believe Brandy pulled her camera out at this point with all the splashing.

We landed on a windward rocky beach and Brandy foundered as huge waves filled her boat and battered her as we struggled to pull the laden craft out and dump it. After a long break we struggled into a large bay where we were planning to go to a city called Santiago de Atitlán. We were just about to cross when we noticed a beautiful posada and decided to check out the price. The price was good enough, the place was beautiful and it saved us 20 minutes of choppy water. It was only about 12:30, but we were done. Luckily they had really awesome and reasonably priced food because we didn’t have any supplies, having planned on going to the mercado in Santiago. They even made us egg sandwiches for the morning, which was a lifesaver because there were no places to stop the following day. We spent most of the rest of the day napping or eating.

Yes! Dry land!

Yes! Dry land!

Not much further now

Not much further now

Santiago de Atitlán in the afternoon

Santiago de Atitlán in the afternoon

A fisherman plies the waters of the bay in front of Santiago. The local fisherman paddle wooden canoes and put out nets around the lake. I never saw any of them pull in a single fish, despite seeing several huge fish jumping in front of me.

A fisherman plies the waters of the bay in front of Santiago. The local fisherman paddle wooden canoes and put out nets around the lake. I never saw any of them pull in a single fish, despite seeing several huge fish jumping in front of me.

April 4, 2016

The second day out was a big one. Our destination was San Lucas at the very southeast end of the lake and almost exactly on the opposite side of the massive Volcán Tolimán. It is only about nine miles of paddling, but the afternoon winds come from behind San Lucas, so we needed to be off the water by noon in order to avoid fighting headwinds. This shore is also where all the Guatemalan “elite” built their fancy-pants lake homes, which means that pullout places without armed guards are scarce for the 5-6 hour paddle and there is absolutely nowhere to get supplies. When we put in we were disappointed with the lack of glass water as it was already a bit choppy at 6:00 AM, but it was way better than the previous day, and in reality it wasn’t that bad.

Brandy and a fisherman heading out of the bay in the morning

Brandy and a fisherman heading out of the bay in the morning

The sun about to crest behind Tolimán and Atitlán

The sun about to crest behind Tolimán and Atitlán

Brandy enjoying some early "flat" water

Brandy enjoying some early “flat” water

We had some nice paddling for the first half of the day, but the views were a bit lackluster. Being right under Tolimán, we couldn’t really see it and San Pedro and Atitlán were Blokused from view. One thing that was interesting about riding through ‘the Hamptons’ as the kayak rental guy described it, was that there was quite a bit of submerged wreckage from the tacky vacation properties. The lake has no surface outflow, so it rises and falls depending on rainfall and tectonic shifts. It had dropped quite a bit over the last century, but there were some very heavy and sustained rains a few years ago. The lake supposedly rose about 18 feet within five years, but we’re not finding any good solid info online. All we could find was that it dropped six feet in one month in 1976 after an earthquake. Visually it is obvious that the lake has come up many feet because there are a ton of submerged trees and structures around the edges of the lake, especially in front of rich people houses. It’s pretty neat seeing stairways that go right down into the water. It’s quite clear, so you can see them below you. We had some fun exploring a couple of the more extensive ruin zones.

Exploring ruins

Exploring ruins

Taking a break while it's still calm

Taking a break while it’s still calm

It was a long day for us and it got even longer when the winds came in earlier than usual. Everything was peaceful until we rounded a point and were slammed with powerful winds in the face that we would have to battle all the way into San Lucas. Head winds are bad enough on a bicycle, but at least on a bike you don’t go backwards when you stop to rest! It was horrible and we were utterly destroyed by the time we got to San Lucas. I kept thinking about how much fucking money we’d spent on these damn kayaks just to have a pretty lousy time and how goddammit, I should be doing something easy like hiking a volcano or something! I was quite angry with myself for such a stupid idea. Luckily the hotel was right in front of the beach so we didn’t have to carry the boats very far, and it was a good price to stay in a really cool old stone building. It looked like it had been a castle or something and our room had a nice view of the lake. The town was pleasant and not touristic and we took advantage of the afternoon to get out and have some ice cream, eat some cheap food and chill on the dock taking in the beauty.

There were plenty of people enjoying the waterfront and a few local tourists. We were the only foreigners around.

There were plenty of people enjoying the waterfront and a few local tourists. We were the only foreigners around.

The cemeteries are a bit different here than in Mexico.

The cemeteries are a bit different here than in Mexico.

15 San Lucas sunset

April 5, 2016

After our first two tough days we were looking forward to a calm one, but didn’t get on the water until 7:00 AM because we needed to sleep in and weren’t as concerned about the winds today because they shouldn’t be in our faces. Naturally we were confronted with wind as soon as we started paddling, and of course it was the opposite direction as the day before, so yet again, in our faces. Luckily it wasn’t strong, nor did it last long. This day turned out to be quite different than the previous two and went far to make up for the misery. It was again extremely clear, and this time we were exploring a much less developed coast, such because of the huge, sheer cliffs that drop right into the water. There were still several mansions, but most of them were more beautifully designed, clinging to the cliffs. It was also nicer because we were now across the lake from the volcanoes, so we actually had views of the monsters. We slowly made our way up the coast to the next town, San Antonio and stopped for breakfast at a cute hotel with beautiful views. San Antonio was also impressive from the water. Like most towns around the lake, it’s on a steep hill. The buildable area is in a large bowl surrounded by cliffs and you can see the entire collection of buildings stacked up like blocks filling the bowl. All around and above the village are green terraced farms that make it look even more awesome.

All three volcanoes as seen from near Panajachel in the afternoon. San Pedro is on the right, then Tolimán, with Atitlán in back.

All three volcanoes as seen from near Panajachel in the afternoon. San Pedro is on the right, then Tolimán, with Atitlán in back.

Coming into San Antonio

Coming into San Antonio

All of the towns around the lake have public washing areas where there are large flat rocks place just in the water that the women can use to scrub laundry. We parked next to these ladies. They got a clean place to lay their clothes to dry and we got some more eyes on the boats.

All of the towns around the lake have public washing areas where there are large flat rocks place just in the water that the women can use to scrub laundry. We parked next to these ladies. They got a clean place to lay their clothes to dry and we got some more eyes on the boats.

This guy got surprised by a sudden drop in the lake surface.

This guy got surprised by a sudden drop in the lake surface.

The following town is similarly pretty and our views just kept getting better and better as we rounded the north side of the lake. We paddled much further (~13.5 miles) than the day before, but took our time and had several breaks. We were also stronger and had the technique down, so we felt much better on the water. Oh yeah, we weren’t pounding into the wind either. The views of the three volcanoes and the villages and cliffs around the lake kept changing as we moved on. In the afternoon the clouds started piling up around the volcanoes and we were treated to some great cloud shadows on the cliffs. We also had some nice wetlands areas to explore.

Most of the submerged trees have been cut to stick out of the water, but some of them are just below the surface, which would be quite a hazard for a motorboat.

Most of the submerged trees have been cut to stick out of the water, but some of them are just below the surface, which would be quite a hazard for a motorboat.

21 exploring wetlands

The wetlands abound with these cool black ducks with tiny white bills. I've never seen any like them.

The wetlands abound with these cool black ducks with tiny white bills. I’ve never seen any like them.

Towards the end of the day the winds picked up, as expected, and the water was rough for our last hour or so into Santa Cruz, but this time it was really fun because we were feeling much more confident and strong on the water and the wind was at our backs.

Would I do it again? Hmm, I’m not sure. It was an incredible experience, and the last day really helped make it, but the extremely high price to rent the kayaks made it a tough pill to swallow. We spent about two weeks worth of budget on a trip that lasted three days. We’re willing to do that from time to time because we have a lot of very cheap or zero days to balance things out, but the expense must be justified by awesomeness and I’m not sure this trip hit the target.

The clouds and lighting were beautiful in the afternoon, but mostly we had to keep our eyes on the water.

The clouds and lighting were beautiful in the afternoon, but mostly we had to keep our eyes on the water.

Finally pulling into Santa Cruz. I would have loved to go explore some of the back valley behind this town.

Finally pulling into Santa Cruz. I would have loved to go explore some of the back valley behind this town.

Another afternoon shot from near Panajachel. I love this lake.

Another afternoon shot from near Panajachel. I love this lake.

Logistical info:

We rented through Kayak Guatemala in Santa Cruz. They were were legit, real kayaks and came with good paddles, dry bags and a bilge pump. Brandy’s had a slight leak though. Most of the kayaks available to rent around the lake are horrific quality and not suitable for more than an hour or two pleasure paddle. We paid $50 per person (regardless if you get two singles or one double), per day, which in retrospect is very high. To compare, I just searched kayak rentals in Tahoe, which is similar to Atitlán in many ways, but way more expensive. I found a place that rents single kayaks for $65 a day and doubles for $85, so Tahoe actually would have been way cheaper for us. We probably could have found a better deal somewhere else, but I didn’t want to spend hours or days searching around the lake to save a few bucks. The owner gave us quite a bit of info about conditions, paddle times and lodging and also let us camp on-site, which was very nice. He told us he normally doesn’t rent per day to people who aren’t doing one of their guided tours, but I’m not sure if that’s just what he says to give him the out to send you packing if you’re a bozo. They normally do pricy guided tours around the entire lake that take about a week and are more relaxed in terms of miles per day. The tours are out of reach for the budget traveler, but could be a great trip for someone who is willing to drop a stack for a beautiful paddle they don’t need to plan.

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Into Guatemala

A little further on we came to the full lake view.

April 13, 2016 | Posted in Guatemala | By

I was finally feeling better after a good night rest in Comitán and we got off to a decently early start at 7:30 AM, despite the fact that the kid keeping “night watch” in the foyer outside our room had his annoying alarm go off every half hour starting at 4:00 AM. The highway out of town was busy and uninspiring, but made for some good speed. After a couple dozen miles we came to a wonderful descent from the high Chiapas plateau down into the hot lowlands into some surprisingly straight, flat riding. The steep mountains of Guatemala suddenly loomed ahead of us and grew in dimensions and beauty as we drew closer to the border. It seems as though the Mexican cartographers reached these insane mountains and upon further discussion decided that this was as good a place as any to end the country. We were sweating pretty well after a couple hours of this when we came over a small hill and rode right into a wall of heat on the other side. The temp must have jumped at least ten degrees over that hill and it felt like riding into a blast furnace.

Seems like a good place to end the country.

Seems like a good place to end the country.

Despite all the heat we were still feeling energetic when we rolled into the nothing border town of Ciudad Cuauhtémoc around 4:00 PM. It was a border crossing on the Interamerican Highway, but it felt more like a sleepy country burg than a dirty, bustling frontier town. It is generally considered to be a good idea to spend the night on the border and cross in the morning, but it looked like nothing was really going on, so I decided to pop into the immigration office to check things out. I left Brandy watching the bikes and chatting with a young Mexican woman who kept warning her to “be caaareful” and moaning about how nice it must be to be rich Americans able to travel. Never mind the fact that she seemed to be doing quite well herself and had all kinds of advice for traveling all over Central and South America. There was almost nobody in the immigration office and I was able to walk right up to the desk. Mexico charges a departure tax to tourists, but because we’d flown into Mexico, we’d already paid our tax and I had the itemized receipt to prove it. The senior border official tried to scam me into paying it again by saying that is only for air travel and that the land border fee is different. When I asked him to show me the documentation he meekly pointed to some sign on the wall that said something unintelligible about tourists coming for 1-7 days or something. I told him he had to show me the law because I wasn’t about to pay again for something I’d already paid. He made me sit down on the horrendous attached row of 30 year-old plastic chairs while he pretended to type things into a computer and make a phone call. He then called me over and asked my name upon which he tried to tell me that my name on the tourist card did not match the name on my airline receipt. My handwriting is not good, but my name was still unmistakably L-E-W-I-S, which I spelled out to him and asked how it could be anything different as he scrutinized it with a magnifying glass. I noted with horror that I had somehow not written the final letter in my last name on the tourist card and hoped he didn’t catch that. Eventually he brusquely demanded the other passport and stamped both in a huff and thrust them back into my palms without so much as a glance. I curtly wished him a good day and strode out, being certain to not shut the door behind me.

Ciudad Cuauhtémoc is not actually on the border, so we had to climb a few miles out of town to reach the true border at La Mesilla, Guatemala. The climb out of CC was by far the most beautiful bit of riding of the day and ranks quite well on the tour. Timing was impeccable as the descending sun was shooting rays down onto the surrounding mountains from behind thick clouds.

View climbing to the border

View climbing to the border

We were starting to question our decision to cross though because the climb was certainly tough at the end of the day and we worried we’d be arriving in some slummy border town in an unfamiliar country after dark. We needn’t have feared though because as we voiced these concerns we came across a suddenly bustling center of storefronts and vendors crushing in on the now narrow roadway. It was the border commerce zone where Guatemalans could buy their Mexican products, or where gringo cyclists could stock up on their favorite snacks, Crackits and CremeQ wafers, before leaving Mexico for good. White concrete markers marched up the side of a steep hillside in the center of a mowed strip, indicating the true border between Mexico and Guatemala. Mexico has a similar relationship with Guatemalans as the US does with Mexicans in that they are a much wealthier country with a huge influx of illegal immigrants, although many of the Guatemalans entering Mexico illegally are only transiting to attempt a crossing to the US. We’ve been told that it costs anywhere from 50,000-75,000 quetzales ($6,700-10,000) to pay for a Guatemala-USA border run, with the higher end including transport and accommodations across Mexico and a coyote who hopefully won’t rob and shoot them in the desert at the border. Our host at the end of our second day in Guatemala told us he’d recently returned from six years in the US. He’d taken a small boat in the night from Guatemala to Salina Cruz in Oaxaca and then made his way across land to Chihuahua where he had to hike through the desert with 250 people for four days and nights. The father of our host family in San Pedro la Laguna told us he is saving up the 75,000Q for the high-end trip to come work in the US, which seems strange for someone his age. He has told us that he jokes around a lot as part of his helping the students practice, so this may have been BS.

At the official border we came to a large metal gate that was wide open, although there were Mexican border officials about. We could see the difference in development between the countries as there were official offices on both sides of the street in Mexico with officials working at computers. On the Guatemalan side was only the din of tuk-tuks and money changers crowding the gate. We were surprisingly not hounded when we crossed. The one money changer guy who approached us only smiled and said welcome to Guatemala when we told him we already had quetzales. Nobody else bothered us. The grandfatherly gentlemen in the immigration office were a nice change from the gruff official on the Mexican side and they smiled as they stamped our passports and talked to us about our trip. Then came the scam as they held back the passports and told us it would be 25 pesos per bike, which is a nominal amount, but I’m not about to pay any BS graft if I can help it. I responded in my hesitant Spanish that I was surprised because “my friends in the … bureau? had told me that I wouldn’t need to pay anything.”

“Which bureau?”

“Umm, the uh, the embassy.”

The passports immediately slid across the desk into my hand and the smiling men mumbled something about supporting our trip and that Guatemala is very poor or something and to have a nice day, but go stop at customs about the bikes. At customs I asked if I needed to do anything.

“For bicycles?? HAHAHA! No, go on and have a nice day! Heh!”

And here we were in another country, after close to ten months in Mexico. Finally. It felt good to be somewhere new.

But in reality, things were not so much different on this side. For a town described online as a place with, “a few budget lodgings in case you get stuck here for a night,” La Mesilla was surprisingly bustling and friendly. There didn’t seem to be hustlers running around and nobody tried to lead us to their crappy hotel, although we did end up in a crappy hotel on our own volition. One change I noticed was that the traffic sped through the congested streets passing alarmingly closely at high speeds, which did not bode well for the cycling. The guys hanging around in front of our hotel were jovial and laughed and joked around with us. There were even a couple guys in workout clothes out for an evening jog, something I don’t recall seeing much at all in Mexico. We felt safe. The hotel may have run out of water, but for $6.75 a night… eh. We slept well.

March 11, 2016

We improved upon our morning performance by getting out the door at 6:45 AM. We immediately began a steep ascent out of town and were happy to have a lovely mirador at two miles as an excuse to take a quick break. The highway winds through a narrow gorge all the way from the border to Huehuetenango 50 miles to the southeast. In some places it is tough to see this and there are just hills around, but for much of this day’s ride we were surrounded by stunning views of steep cliffs and jagged mountains covered in jungle, thrusting up hundreds of feet.

DSC00522 Mesilla view

Cycling into a gorge

Cycling into a gorge

This is coffee country and we passed lots of tiny plots of baby coffee bushes and enjoyed riding through the overspray of the sprinklers in the hot afternoon.

This is coffee country and we passed lots of tiny plots of baby coffee bushes and enjoyed riding through the overspray of the sprinklers in the hot afternoon.

The famous Guatemalan chicken buses are old school buses from the USA. The new owners adorn them extravagantly and perform some sort of magic under the hood that allows them to accelerate up steep mountain passes at rates that no American school kid could have even dreamed of while spewing out thick plumes of black soot. Interestingly enough, the locals call them chicken bus as well, at least when talking to gringos. It’s kind of weird to hear someone say, “puedes ir con cheeken bus”.

The famous Guatemalan chicken buses are old school buses from the USA. The new owners adorn them extravagantly and perform some sort of magic under the hood that allows them to accelerate up steep mountain passes at rates that no American school kid could have even dreamed of while spewing out thick plumes of black soot. Interestingly enough, the locals call them chicken bus as well, at least when talking to gringos. It’s kind of weird to hear someone say, “puedes ir con cheeken bus”.

We were up and down throughout most of the morning, but were following a gushing river upstream, so it was obvious that we were climbing. The early morning helped us make great time and we already had 30 miles under our belts by the time we stopped for brunch at a lovely little comedor at 11:00 AM. Aside from a little gruffness early on, the people of Guatemala were exceedingly friendly, even more so than in Mexico where there seems to be a bit more shyness. The children were especially sweet and would come running out to shout “bye-bye”, “adios” or “gringos!” and wave wildly. There were a lot of women weaving with the traditional back strap loom.

Adorable little girls who were running around us while we cooled off with sodas at a roadside tienda. The younger one kept trying to get the toy from her older sister, but could never succeed. The older one is wearing her first traditional huipil. Her sister will just have to wait.

Adorable little girls who were running around us while we cooled off with sodas at a roadside tienda. The younger one kept trying to get the toy from her older sister, but could never succeed. The older one is wearing her first traditional huipil. Her sister will just have to wait.

A dog practicing his “worthless” pose. They need a lot of practice because they are required to hold this pose for most of the day.

A dog practicing his “worthless” pose. They need a lot of practice because they are required to hold this pose for most of the day.

After lunch the climbs began to get a bit more aggressive and the sun was definitely hotter. We’d been told that the town of San Sebastian had a hotel, but alas, it did not. It didn’t even have an ice cream shop! Luckily the tienda where we’d posted up in the shade had some packaged ice creams to rejuvenate us for the last ten miles into Las Vegas where we’d been told there were some hotels. We had a small pass to climb over to get there and were exhausted by the time we arrived so we plopped into the first hotel we found. It was a bit pricey (almost $20!), but it was lovely. We’d managed another 50-mile day, despite lots of climbing.

After cleaning up we went out in search of food. We weren’t in a real town, so were stuck with whatever few things were scattered along the highway. There were only two little places and they both served meat or meat with meat, so we shifted focus to finding veggies for making pasta. In Mexico you can often find at least a couple shriveled peppers or something, even at the most miserable tienda, but here we stopped at several shops and none had a scrap of veggies. There were a few dudes BSing in front of one of the tiendas when we asked about veggies. They all sat around scratching their heads for a while and then two of them ran off, returning in a few minutes with huge bags of radishes, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots and an onion. They’d saved the day and turned our bland pasta and oil dinner into a feast chock full of mothafukkin’ nutrients! They refused any recompense, not even letting me buy them a drink. What kindness!

March 12, 2016

We did even better this morning, getting out at 6:15 AM! Luckily we’d filled our water pouches with water sterilized from the tap the night before, because despite being a somewhat fancy hotel, they ran out of water in the morning. The day started out well with a huge, amazing descent. We knew we’d have to make that up later, but enjoyed it while we had it. The day only went uphill from there. At first it was several steep climbs with only brief respite. By late morning all we were doing was climbing. We’ve gotten soft because of so many extended breaks and after four days of riding, we were flagging a bit. It was slow grinding climbing most of the day. The traffic was miserable. We’d have a few moments of calm and then a whole platoon of chicken buses and large trucks would careen past us belching plumes of black soot. Many of the drivers are very courteous and we get a lot of honks and waves from the trucks and buses, but way too many of them blow by disconcertingly close without slowing. It didn’t help that despite all the climbing, the vistas were rather lackluster. They may have been nicer, but the air is so polluted with exhaust and wood smoke that visibility is quite poor.

Relaxing on some rocks claimed by the ‘Afiliate’. The two main parties paint rocks all over the roadsides. So far it seems as though the red team has more paint than the green team. I've been told that the previous president is now in prison for corruption after promising huge changes and then stealing tons of money. The winner of the very recent presidential election was a comedian with no political experience who ran on a new party ticket. It is too soon to tell how he will perform. I suppose if he doesn't pillage the treasury he already has a leg up on his predecessor.

Relaxing on some rocks claimed by the ‘Afiliate’. The two main parties paint rocks all over the roadsides. So far it seems as though the red team has more paint than the green team. I’ve been told that the previous president is now in prison for corruption after promising huge changes and then stealing tons of money. The winner of the very recent presidential election was a comedian with no political experience who ran on a new party ticket. It is too soon to tell how he will perform. I suppose if he doesn’t pillage the treasury he already has a leg up on his predecessor.

We finally got to the pass by late afternoon and were a couple miles outside of a town that seemed to be large enough to have a hotel. We were passing La Tienda del Paso when some cute kids came running out shouting and waving and I decided to go ask dad if there was any lodging ahead, with the hope that he might offer something. He told us that there was no hotel in the next town and we’d need to go all the way to San Francisco, which meant two big climbs. We told him there was no way we could do that and after a bit of thought, he said he could rent us a bed for 30Q ($3.90). We didn’t have to think twice; we were done!

After we’d relaxed a bit, the señor invited me to go watch a soccer game some of the local youths were playing. As he pointed out the houses of his family, it seemed as though the entire village was family. He protested this point by saying that there are more houses on the other side of that hill! He told us about his immigration to the States and complained about the fact that most Guatemalans have way too many kids (10-12). He was done at two.

Our host’s comedor. At least half of the comedores and tiendas we’ve seen have Orange Crush signs. We were told that they paint your business if you put up the sign. Obviously you also get a free sign out of the deal.

Our host’s comedor. At least half of the comedores and tiendas we’ve seen have Orange Crush signs. We were told that they paint your business if you put up the sign. Obviously you also get a free sign out of the deal.

It was a very tough day, but we’d still done about 30 miles. On top of the two big days before, we were looking very good on time and decided that tomorrow we could sleep in and go a much shorter distance. The big climb had kicked our asses and we needed a bit of a break. We later discovered from the elevation profile that we either climbed quite a bit more on our first day in Guatemala, or the same amount (8,000 ft on the first day vs. either 5,300 or 7,700 ft – the same website gave me different numbers when I checked it at different times…), but that first day was much more constant and gentle.

March 13, 2016

It’s tough to leave when you make new friends.

It’s tough to leave when you make new friends.

We had only gone about 30 miles the day before, but our previous big days had given us plenty of breathing room to reach Lake Atitlán in time for Brandy’s Spanish classes to begin. We woke up when we felt like it and had a nice leisurely breakfast next door. There was a huge yellow hotel in the middle of the next town a couple miles down the road. The señor had either totally lied about it so he could keep us there, or he knows absolutely nothing about his area. Neither would be a surprise. Oh well, we surely spent less and had a more interesting time.

There were a couple decent climbs, but generally it was downhill through a tight farmland valley all the way to San Francisco. In our state last night, we would not have fared well on the climbs and the actual town of SF was up an incredibly steep side road. The people were decidedly less friendly today. It was such a drastic change from the previous day, but maybe because it is much more densely populated here. It is the dry season, so the fields were fallow and the grey ashy soil and unfinished concrete structures lent a somewhat post-apocalyptic hue to the barren landscape. Things changed once again in San Francisco, which sits precariously on the edge of a sheer cliff dropping several hundred feet into a beautiful gorge. We stopped at a gas station that had amazing views both back towards San Francisco and the other way into where the gorge opened to the valley that holds the city of Quetzaltenango. This city is commonly referred to as Xela, its ancient name in the local tongue, and holds the distinction of being one of the few cities in Guatemala to retain its ancient name. As we were leaving the gas station, who should be coming up the hill toward us but Julian, a French cyclist who’d ridden from Brazil down to Tierra del Fuego and all the way north to here. Naturally we were excited and turned right back around to return to the gas station to chat. He confirmed what others had said, that Central America is definitely not the highlight of the trip and encouraged us to speed up and save time for South America. Julian rides in flip flops. I have been considering ditching my cycling shoes for sandals since they have begun to break, rendering the cleats ineffective, and his bare feet were an inspiration to move in that direction.

10 Julian

Once we finally left, we were treated to an incredible downhill coast all the way into our destination, Cuatro Caminos. CC is nothing more than a junction of four roads, each leading to a large city – Guatemala, Xela, Huehuetenango, Totonicapan – that has had scruffy comedores, tiendas, talleres and pensiones sprout up to feed off that commerce. I loved the gritty action, but all of the hotels there were rather expensive for our tastes. We decided to go to the nearby town of San Sebastian to have lunch in the centro and ponder our fate. We were directed to a country lane and immediately transported into a better world of tiny farm plots, strolling children and bubbling streams. We wound our way through the tight alleys of the village and hoped there would be someplace to lodge. Unfortunately there was not, but it was market day and I left Brandy watching the bikes while I went to procure some avocados. When I came back I was thrilled to see a gringo with a bike talking to her. Another touring cyclist! Justin is touring on a fat-tire bike and was staying here with a Warm Showers host while going to school in Xela for a week. He brought us over to Carl’s house who agreed to take us in to his round house last-minute and even provided some beautiful organic veggies from his garden farm for our dinner.

Mercado of San Cristóbal Totonicapán

Mercado of San Cristóbal Totonicapán

Scoring some beautiful veggies from Carl’s “garden”

Scoring some beautiful veggies from Carl’s “garden”

March 14, 2016

The day started off great with a massive cone!

The day started off great with a massive cone!

We knew we had a lot of climbing to get to our goal for the day, a park where we could camp in the forest above Lake Atitlán about 30 miles away. Things didn’t look so good for us as we were confronted with some very steep climbs within the first few miles, before we’d even gotten to the huge mountain we could see in front of us. Fortunately the sustained climbing was a more reasonable grade and we were able to slowly progress up the side of the mountain to stunning views of the valley of Xela, random side gorges and highland farming communities. The highway was a very nice four-lane affair with shoulders, so we weren’t affected too much by all the truck and bus traffic.

Overlooking Xela

Overlooking Xela

Hillside farms

Hillside farms

I loved this view

I loved this view

A perfect little wooden shelter appeared just in time for our tuna/avocado sandwich lunch. It was a bit of a surprise because it felt like a piece of rural Wisconsin plopped down in the middle of Guatemala and we haven’t seen anything like it anywhere else in Latin America.

This German couple was passing by and popped in just to say hi.

This German couple was passing by and popped in just to say hi.

We were expecting to summit this climb and then have several miles of ups and downs until our turn off to the lake. We climbed and climbed until about our twelfth mile. As we topped out we had long valley views to the left and thick clouds pouring across the fields and the highway from the right. We kicked back and started coasting down, entering into a thick and chilling fog. I didn’t like the lack of visibility or the cold and decided to stop for lights and coats as soon as we hit the next climb. But the next hill didn’t come. We coasted and coasted, twisting and turning, in and out of wisps of clouds, finally dropping below the cloud level again where a new valley opened wide in front of us and we realized we had a loong way down. There is nothing that can describe the joy of an unexpected eight-mile descent, perhaps only to be countered in magnitude with the despair of the surprise eight-mile climb.

Wispy decent

Wispy decent

We really wished we could see the views in this section.

We really wished we could see the views in this section.

At the bottom of our ride we came into the city of Nahuala and back into the ups and downs. No matter, we’d just made up all the time we’d lost from the long climb and were on track to make our goal easily. We climbed and fell through sparsely populated pine forests for the next seven miles to our turn. The views were probably spectacular, but there was a lot of fog, so we didn’t see anything.

We arrived at the park in the late afternoon only to find that it was closed on Mondays. Luckily we were at the cusp of the screaming, brake-sizzling descent down into the lake and roared our way into the village of Santa Clara la Laguna where we found a cheap, unmarked posada with a beautiful view.

Way steeper than it looks

Way steeper than it looks

It was cool out, but we still had to stop several times to cool Brandy’s rims.

It was cool out, but we still had to stop several times to cool Brandy’s rims.

Checking out the local transport while waiting

Checking out the local transport while waiting

March 15, 2016

We didn’t hurry to get up, but our bodies still made us rise before 8:00 AM. Nothing was open in town when we went searching for breakfast, but after asking at a weird tienda with taxidermy decor, the owner shouted down the street to an old woman who ushered us into an unmarked house and shut the door to prying eyes. We were either about to have our organs harvested or receive an unofficial restaurant meal. Actually, we’d been to a couple places like this before. A lot of villages that are too small for a restaurant will have an old lady who feeds people at a bare table in an empty room in her home.

We were still almost 2,000 feet above the lake so we figured we’d have an easy day burning our brakes down to the water. So when we left town intact of offal, we immediately ran into a climb of unbelievable grade. Well, actually it was quite believable considering what we’d come down the day before. It was the + rather than the – that eluded reason. Never mind, a day of pure descent would have been quite dull and would have atrophied the limbs, so we were overjoyed. The true joy came though at the top, where we had our first glimpse of the lake. We had to pick our way through an informal garbage dump, but it was worth it.

Pretty sweet. Definitely worth braving the trash.

Pretty sweet. Definitely worth braving the trash.

A little further on we came to the full lake view.

A little further on we came to the full lake view.

*A note to other cyclists, the second view above is from what would make a perfect stealth camp. It is the first turn off to the right after the top of the climb out of Santa Clara. There is a pile of trash bags blocking the entrance that you’ll need to get around, but once inside you are hidden from the road and have full lake views.

This is our route down the face of the cliff.

This is our route down the face of the cliff.

We then had a long, steep switchback ride down the face of the cliff, stopping several times to let Brandy’s rims cool off. Once at the bottom we weren’t done with the steep hills as we had two more short, but tough climbs into San Pablo at the edge of the lake. It was then more up and down around the shore all the way into San Pedro where we checked into Brandy’s Spanish school and host family.

I fell in love with the lake upon first sight. Despite all the tourists running around, this place is magical and I intend to spend more time with the lake before we go.

View from the roof of our host family’s home.

View from the roof of our host family’s home.

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