Revised November 2004 and again November, 2005
For biking, this is potentially the best destination in the Americas. We’ve biked here four times but for relatively short periods of time. On our trips in November 2004 and November 2005, the security issue had become even more of a problem, value had dropped and traffic, especially around the cities had increased. Actually, the roads, specifically the Pan American Highway, are improved. The route we took in November 2005 avoided Guatemala City and cut down to the coastal town of Monterrico and then on into El Salvador. This is a far better way through Guatemala. These changes resulted in an overall drop in rating from #19 to #25. Our second trip in 1992 took in Holy Week in Antigua. On our first trip in 1988, we were basically passing through on our way to Costa Rica. The highlands offer a cooler climate and the most colorful indigenous culture in the Americas. The problem is the security issue. Crime is widespread and is endemic in not only the cities but also the countryside.
How We Rate This Trip
This was revised from 4 to 6 in 2005. The Pan American Highway is the best highway in Guatemala. By 2005, this main highway had been much improved in the west. It’s wider and often has a shoulder. From Chimaltenango on the Pan American Highway, the road to Antigua and then to the coast is either very quiet or has a good shoulder or both. It’s the same to the border of El Salvador. The other roads are poorer, steeper but quiet. In the Sierra Madre Mountains, there are constant climbs and descents. Around Peten, it’s pretty flat but the quality of the roads is usually very poor, but doable.
This was revised from 6 to 4 in 2005. The best riding is far outside of Guatemala City to the west. It’s amazing that the traffic levels toward any border, Mexico, El Salvador, or Belize are so low. Excellent biking. Around the mountain cities, the traffic has increased substantially by 2005. Around the capital, the traffic is very heavy and should be avoided. The ride from Guatemala City to Antigua in 2004 was hellish. There’s much lighter traffic on our route along the coast to El Salvador.
The wet season is from April to October. The temperatures and humidity are high year-round. In the highlands, these temperatures are ameliorated by the altitudes up to 2000 meters. It’s more spring-like. In November, the end of the rainy season, we still experienced a little rain. Around Flores, it’s just plain hot. Also, it’s tropical along the coast.
This was revised from 7 to 6, 2004. The winds generally are from the northeast. We experienced very little wind, even in the mountains. In November 2005, the winds were more westerly but seemed fluky in the highlands. Much harder to predict from day to day.
Just about every road in the mountain highlands offers climbs, vistas, and volcanoes. This is probably the best scenery in all of Central America. Add the jungle foliage and the pine trees to the beauty factor. Around Flores and Tikal, it’s lush jungle but flat. It’s only ok on the coastal route.
Local information is unreliable for distance and terrain. Maps can be found and the paved road system is limited. It really comes to this: assume many climbs (except around Tikal) and get distance amounts from the maps. “Latin America by Bike” by Walter Sienko (the Mountaineers Publishers) has a chapter on Guatemala. There’s even a suggested circle route out of Guatemala City. This would not be my choice.
Road Safety: 3
From a vehicle standpoint, the roads are reasonably safe. The traffic levels are moderate outside of the capital. But security on the roads is affected by areas where there are risks associated with highway robbers, around Lake Atitlan, for example. Ask before venturing into areas off the main highways.
General Safety: 2
Here is the rub. Not only are the larger cities not secure but the countryside is also risky. That being said, we had no issues of actual robbery in our 4 trips here, but were constantly warned and we found that we modified our activities to avoid exposure to crime.
This was marked down from 8 to 5 in 2005. The cost of living is modest but a dollar can no longer be stretched a long way. Food costs, both in restaurants and stores, are reasonable outside Guatemala City and Antigua in Guatemala. But rooms are no longer cheap although they are abundant. For a descent room in 2005, the price had more than doubled from 92.
This was 3 and moved up in 2005 to 4. Treat all water. Bottled water is now easy to find even outside the main cities and tourist areas. Agua mineral is club soda. Soft drinks are called aguas. The beer is only okay. Guatemalan coffee is special if you find it.
Restaurants are reasonably priced and easy to find but don’t expect a lot of variety. The “Plata del Dia” may be your only choice. Sanitation should be paid attention to especially in the countryside. Any town of size will have a grocery store.
The cost of a room is reasonable, so you don’t have to settle for the first room you see. Search and compare. For a price, you can get very good places to stay especially in the capital and Antigua where many tourists come. By 2005, prices had more than doubled.
The Indians are very provincial and shy. They are impossible to engage in conversation. But, as for color, they are as interesting as any indigenous people in the Americas. The people maintain a strong sense of culture and tradition. The middle class Guatemalans are very helpful and friendly.
The European culture has barely touched the traditions of the highland Indians. Their colorful clothes, their traditional way of life from farming to the markets, their art and their music are untouched by the modern ways. Add to this, the colonial centers and the ancient Maya culture.
It’s almost a living history in the highlands. On another level, you have the Mayan ruins especially in Tekal. These are not quite up to the Mexican standard. Antigua is a museum of the colonial time. The Holy Week in Antigua is culturally and historically an extravaganza.
TOTAL SCORE 80
Route Descriptions and Maps
Antigua to Iztapa 99Ks
From Antigua take the highway toward Ciudad Vieja. At 3Ks, turn right on dirt road and over a small bridge to New Highway 4Ks. Cross winds from the west. Skirt around Ciudad Viejo ( 7Ks) and at 9Ks back to the Highway, turn right. At 13Ks, the road to Alotenango. It’s equal distance to go thru the city or around. At 15Ks, the road out of Alotenango. Good scenery, New Highway with wide shoulder, quiet. Almost all down hill. At 36Ks, Sarita Restaurant at junction with the road to Guatemala City. At 40Ks, into Esquintla then out to the Auto Pista. 43Ks, Auto Pista, 4 lanes, shoulder, fast traffic, uninteresting scenery, slightly down. This is the fastest way through a boring area. At 87Ks is the junction to Iztapa. At 89Ks there is a bike path on the left side of the narrow road. At 94Ks the bike path switches to the right side of the road. At 97Ks the Bike Path ends but the narrow road is quiet. Iztapa at 99Ks.
Iztapa to Monterrico 28Ks
Down a dirt road 1K to the 3 minute ferry. (inland from town up the river). Good , narrow and quiet road through rural countryside. Very enjoyable, no views of the ocean. The road is inland. 28Ks, Monterrico. Right to the beaches and hotels, left to the 20 Minute ferry to La Avellana.
Monterrico to Chiquimulilla 32Ks
20 Minute Ferry to La Avellana. Then the road is a quiet country lane, nice rural scenery. Gradual climb then moderate then steeper climbing after 15Ks. Cross (west) winds. Good riding. At 18Ks over the highway then into Taxisco at 19Ks. Right (east) for 1 K to Highway which is a somewhat rough road to be repaired (2006) hills. At 24Ks, newer, wider highway. Moderate traffic but many trucks. Occasional views to the coast. At 29Ks , left 3K climb into the Centro ( Chiquimulilla).
Chiquimulilla, Guatemala to El Salvador Border 52Ks
3Ks back down to the Highway. Left, excellent wide 2-lane road with a shoulder (new 2005). Light traffic, gradual descent then mostly flat. Some trucks. Nice scenery. Tail (west) winds. Good riding. At 20Ks small and moderate hills. At 31Ks, turn off for Las Lisas. At 36Ks, start a 2 K moderate climb then down and slight hills to border at 52Ks. Winds changed to side or head winds (north-easterly).
Guatemala November 2004
This trip started and ended in Guatemala City. We went west into Chiapas, Mexico and rode almost the same route on return.
Guatemala City to Antigua 45Ks
Climb on a busy 8 and 6 lane highway. After 16Ks, views back to the city. Dangerous (better in bus). 25K climb. At top it becomes 4-lanes. Gradual descent to San Lucas, 29Ks. At 30 Ks, turn on Hwy 10 to Antigua. 2-lanes each way but narrow. Mostly down. After 34Ks, its steep down (10%) with shoulder. In Antigua, all streets are cobblestone. This is a poor ride on busy highways.
Antigua – day ride to Escuintla and back 80Ks
To Ciudad Vieja then to Alotenango, 14Ks. Narrow and busy to Ciudad Vieja then a new quiet highway with shoulder. Almost all down to Escuintla. Alternative: Just past the road sign to Guatemala City on the road to Ciudad Vieja, go right on a dirt road for 1K to a wide, new, paved highway around Ciudad Vieja. Little traffic. At junction for Alotenango go left through town for 3 Ks then continue back to highway. Going through town adds no distance and is more interesting.
Antigua to Panajachel 109Ks
**Described in reverse.** From Panajachel to the Highway its 18Ks up with very steep climbs (most bikers take the bus but you have to change busses in Solola). Go right and climb 4Ks to Los Encuentros (marker 127K). Two-lanes with shoulder. Moderate traffic with some trucks and busses. Great views including of Lake Atitlan. Rolling, then down long gradual descent to K marker 106 then climb to K marker 100 then undulating. Start down at K marker 93. At K89, a new wider highway. Mostly headwinds (in November). Continue down through and past Tecpan. Just before Patzicia, the busy road narrows. You are forced to ride the gravel shoulder. You’d be better off to cut into Patzicia to avoid some of this narrow Highway. Its a hilly 4Ks back to the Highway. Its still mostly narrow, old and busy (tough). Up and down then at K62 down to Chimaltenango at K54. Right 17Ks to Antigua, on a two-lane road. No shoulder but light traffic. Two steep down and ups and then a long descent into Antigua. Cobblestone streets.
Panajachel to Quetzaltanago (Xela) 89Ks
**Described in reverse.** From Xela, its 15Ks to the Highway on a narrow, flat and busy road. The junction is called Cuatro Caminos mile marker K189. Turn left and climb out on a older two-lane road with shoulder. Moderate traffic. 1st top: 182K. A respite then climb to 176K. A respite then climb to 171K. Winds are fluky (front, back or calm). More gradual as you go. At K171, the top at the radio tower. 2950 meters. Its called “Alaska”. Great vistas. Down to 161k then up and down. At 148K, down gradually to K141 then mostly climb to K131. Turn for Panajachel on a narrow, two-lane road. Light traffic but fast. Hilly then gradual down then very steep down. Lake Atitlan views, beautiful vistas. 18 Ks to Panajachel.
Quetaltenago (Xela) 2335 meters to Huehuetenango 1902 meters 92Ks
Xela 15Ks on a narrow, flat and busy road to the highway junction know as Cuatro Caminos (from Cuatro Caminos to Huehue is 77Ks). 5Ks up to the highway to San Francisco El Atlo then mostly climbing to K203 or 18Ks from Cuatro Caminos. Now mostly descending for 42Ks. Bottom at K245. New wider road. Great vistas. Moderate to light traffic. Head winds mostly(in November). Then a 6K climb and a 6K descent. Then off highway 4 Ks to Centro (Huehue) on a four-lane road.
Huehuetenango to La Mesilla the border with Mexico 94Ks
4Ks back to Highway 1, turn right, start at K220, rolling, easy hills. Good highway with shoulder. Start with tailwinds in November. 8Ks down to the river at 23Ks (K marker 274) At marker K280, road narrows, no shoulder but light traffic. At 295K, a new wide road through the gorge. Beautiful. At K300, in November, the wind switched to head winds. At K312, narrow, older road. Finally, up 5Ks then down 5Ks to border, K marker 340. (4Ks from the border down to Mexico immigration).
Guatemala April 1988
Mexican Border (on Pan American Highway) to Huehuetenango (or Huehue) (April 1988 description) 84Ks
From Mexican border to Guatemala customs, it’s a few Ks uphill. We had to pay to take our bikes into Guatemala. After customs, start up, then rolling hills while going up a river valley. Strong tailwind. Road a little rough in parts. Very little traffic. Hot. Colorful culture. Off the Pan Am Highway into Huehue 5Ks
Huehue to Quezaltenango (April 1988 description) 88Ks
Rolling hills, then a long climb. Very interesting views of the Indian life and culture. Light to moderate traffic, good scenery. Off the main road 13Ks to Quezaltenango. Some Indians don’t speak Spanish.
Quezaltenango to Panajachel (on Lake Atitlan)(April 1988 description) 92Ks
Back to Pan American Highway, then climb initially, then up and down. The highlands have a cool climate and pine trees but the air is fouled by black exhaust from the trucks and even cars. Also burning fields so it’s hazy. Volcanoes loom in the distance. 72Ks to turn off for Solola (and Panajachel). A steep descent on a road in bad condition. Fog and haze, so no views of the lake. After Solola, 12 Ks from junction, another 8Ks to Panajachel. Poor downhill.
Panajachel to Antigua (April 1988 description) 109Ks
Much clearer day especially in the A.M. Back up. Great views. Blue lake surrounded by volcanoes. To highway at Encuentros. Fabulous views while riding along a ridge. Even some lake views. Road was wide and well graded. More pine forests. Furniture makers. Through an area of vegetable farms. Up around a mountain. Then into Chimaltenango. Junction 72Ks from Encuentros. Right. Two big climbs and descents for 17Ks to Antigua. Cobblestone streets.
Antigua to Guatemala City (April 1988 description) 45Ks
Hilly and busy. More population. It’s 13Ks to San Lucas Sacatepequez, moderate traffic till the junction.
We flew to Flories from Guatemala City and then rode to Cancun.
Flores to Tikal 63Ks
All relatively easy riding. 8Ks to Santa Elena. 20Ks to El Cruce , then north to Tikal 35Ks.
Tikal to Belize Border 100Ks
Back to El Cruce 35Ks. Then 65Ks on a poor road of dirt and rocks. Needed a mountain bike but we had our road bikes. Pretty flat and desolate. Just like getting into Guatemala, we had to pay customs to get our bikes out of Guatemala.
Guatemala, April, 1992
International Airport in Guatemala City to Avenida Reforma 2Ks
The airport is very close to the main drag, Reforma. Very convenient on a bike. There’s traffic around the traffic circle. Reforma has a side road to avoid the traffic. Easy.
Guatemala City to El Salvador Border (April 1992 description) 121Ks
Reforma to Highway CA1 (under construction). Okay for bikes, four lane boulevard. Climb 15Ks at a doable 6% grade. Then two lanes, no shoulder with traffic. Down 25Ks, gradual, no shoulder. Then rolling hills to Barbarena. Then Highway 1 has shoulder for 20Ks. Narrow again before Cuilapa, 62Ks from Guatemala City. Another 11Ks up to Highway 8 which is narrow, rougher, but has little traffic. Highway 8 diminishes down toward the border. Occasionally, the road is wider and better to Highway 8. Junction to border 48Ks.
We started our trip in Guatemala City in ¨Zona Viva¨. Arriving at 10P we headed for La Cantinista where we know Cbert ¨Rasta man¨ Johnson, a Jamaican Troubadour entertains with Bob Marley songs – since 1980 – a fixture. The next day in Antigua, the workers at the hotel where we left our bikes a year ago stonewalled us. They said you must see La Duena. We had to see La Duena because, her words ¨Your bikes are fine -BUT- my mother says you must pay $200 for storage.¨ Peter negotiated it to $50. From Antigua, it’s a beautiful ride down to the coast via coffee plantations with volcano backdrops. Then on to El Salvador, where in Sonsonate I fell off…….my feet while walking home from dinner. My arms crossed so I was not able to break my fall. I took a full frontal and was bruises from nose to knees. Therefore, I took the bus for the next 3 days while Peter rode mountains. Then we both rode to La Liberdad which is on the coast and near the airport. This was a rollercoaster ride on an excellent road with dramatic ocean views. We have met our usual caste of characters. Some real stand outs are: Sheldon – a sweet old guy who is an ex wild horse rodeo rider and now retired, is a horse whisper in New Mexico. Then there was 27 year old, tall, dark and handsome Todd, a hedge fund trader from SFO. Todd and his 5 friends think there is too much certainty in their lives so they try and create uncertainty. They play ¨Last flight out¨ at SFO airport with rules like flight must be minimum 2 states away. Random Zip Code – numbers from 0 to 9 in a hat and the zip code they pick is where they go. He regaled us with the ultimate rip-off story. Todd was in Santiago Chile and need to change money. He went early in the morning to The Bank of Boston (he’s originally from Boston). There was a man smoking next to the front door wearing a suite and tie. Todd wasn’t sure the bank was open so he peered in the glass door. The man spoke perfect English “It’s open.¨ He tossed his cigarette and opened the door for Todd. They walked in together. In the bank the man said ¨How can we help you today?¨ Todd told him and he replied Ï can do that for you.¨ They walked into a dark office, ¨the man turned the lights on, introduced himself and invited Todd to have a seat. He sat at the desk and asked ¨How much do you need to change?¨ Todd handed over $300 Cash. The man took an envelope out of the desk, placed the money inside, stoop up and said ¨wait here, I’ll be right back with your money.¨ Todd waited, and waited and finally a new man came in the office, smiling ¨How may I help you today?¨ The bank of Boston in Chile is only commercial, they don’t change money.
A True Hero
It’s not so dangerous in Guatemala after all. Well, not for us. We met Mark Wakefield, a 28-year-old American who grew up in Mexico and now lives in Ft. Worth TX. He is head of Zona Juvenil International in Guatemala. He explained the problem here is gangs of young people from cities and even small villages who can’t find work. They form gangs to get the stuff they need to survive. We – on Bikes – are considered hippies. So they leave us alone. Why steal a bike when you can steal a car? Mark is working on a prototype in Huehuetenango that is potentially working and they hope to start it in other Guatemalan cities. He said he had met very few hardened criminals. A major problem is that El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua are all simply arresting any youth with a tattoo, body piercing or mask and tossing them in jail. So many of the young people from these other countries are coming to Guatemala. For now, the Guatemalan Government is attempting a more long-term solution. Peter was so impressed with Mark, he shook his hand and said “Every once in a while you meet a real hero.”
People we meet on the road in Guatemala
Don’t think we are the only bikers in Guatemala. We were rounding a curve, saw the beautiful view of Lake Atitlan and the volcano then spotted two packed bikes lying on their sides off the road and next to them two young men in their early 20s hovering over a camp stove with a large pot on top.
”Where are you from?” we called.
OReilly, a physics major and Will with nose ring and tattoos were from Stevens Point. They started their trip in Alaska and are headed to Patagonia, Argentina. They have been on the road 5 months and each has spent a measly $2000. They bragged that they had spent last night – it rained – under a bridge. After we left them, we harkened back to 1970 – when the dollar was very strong – and we spent a year traveling around the world for a total of $4000.
We were stopped enjoying the views when 3 girls on heavily loaded mountain bikes crossed the road to us. They were fit, pretty and with smiles like sunrises.
“Where are you from?”
One smile said, ”I lived in Milwaukee when I was with the Milwaukee Ballet.”
Peter “Then I must have seen you in a tutu” (looks better in spandex)
“We are teachers and stay in touch with our class room on our website. www.teachersonbikes.org“
They started in Panama and we talked and talked. We had all sorts of suggestions on their route. They took notes. We mentioned the American Embassy in Guatemala website. They said,” We would never read that but we took a bus from San Salvador to Guatemala City because the locals told us it was too dangerous to ride.”
Peter asked “What was the highlight so far?”
“Panama” (Panama???? That’s a new one.) We were going to end up in Costa Rica but plans change. We had to tear ourselves away from these California girls.
Then we met Hans, an Austrian.
Peter was full of information for him. Hans was all business. “Ahead there are beautiful views and a steep downhill to Lake Atitlan. It’s so steep everybody takes the bus back up to the highway.”
Hans ” I have peddled every meter of the way. I will ride up.”
Peter “It’s so steep you will probably have to walk parts.”
Hans “I will ride.”
Peter, “When the highway narrows I jump off for the large traffic to pass.”
Hans, “I go to the edge and hold my line.”
Peter, ”Are you going to go to Palenque?
Peter, ”That is a great ride, good road, great views and little traffic.”
Hans, “I will take the bus round-trip, it is not on my route.” Peter, “Good luck, have a nice trip.”
After we rode for five minutes Peter turned to me, “How Teutonic can you get?”