Riding from Lake Atitlan to the border of El Salvador in the second half of Guatemala.

map of guatemala from atitlan to ciudad pedroThe ride out of Lake Atitlan was definitely the adventure route. We took the ferry from San Pedro across to the Panajachel, the biggest town on Lake Atitlan. As I was loading my last bag onto the boat, they had already had the boat untied from the dock and we left just after I jumped on. The ride was scenic as we sped away from San Pedro perched on the slopes of the volcano of the same name. As we sped away, the other two volcanos, the towering Toliman and Atitlan, come into view. Lake Atitlan is a gigantic caldera, where the land collapses after a ancient massive volcanic eruption. There are steep escarpments with the ridgeline high above us on the water like we are in a giant bowl. Lake Atitlan is a surreal place with little villages clinging onto the steep mountainsides with patches of farm fields defying gravity working right up the cliffs, where the main mode of transportation are boats that zip from village to village, where local indigenous people still dress in their colourful woven traditional clothes and where the local dialect of Mayan language can still be heard in the streets more than Spanish – all in the belly of an ancient volcano.

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The ride from Panajachel to Chimaltenango on the way to Antigua was a beautiful but challenging ride on a backcountry highway that winded through remote mountain villages. We followed a river valley for a bit lined with terraced fields out of Panajachel. The grade was quite gradual as it worked back into the mountains with the river valley and then the road turned and ascended steeply up the escarpment. My breath was taken away both by the stunning views and the steep climb. I realized that we were riding through those gravity defying steep fields and villages I had admired earlier from much farther below. In addition to the steep climbs where it was over 10% grade at times, we had to ride over a pothole landmine dotted road for some sections with patchwork pavement covering it like a bumpy quilt and the pavement was often cracked like a shattered shell of a dropped hardboiled egg. The road was sometimes narrowed to a single lane for both directions of traffic by landslides and we even had to ford a river at one point where the bridge was washed out. Adding to the challenges, my back tire kept on going flat as I couldn’t find what was causing the puncture.

However, we made it through the industrial sprawl of Chimaltenango and got to the Burger King where we were meeting up with our couchsurfing host, Christian and Ana, who were very nice and hospitable. We were tired and our muscles were a bit sore but we did it! At 1651m in elevation climbed in one day, it was basically the same amount of climbing to get out of Lake Atitlan as there is to get in! You know the old saying, “Back when I was young, I walked to school uphill both ways!” Well I think I know where that school was… in Lake Atitlan!!

The next morning, we took apart my back tire once again in the comfort of Christian’s apartment. From logic, we had narrowed it down to one spot. It was only because we knew exactly where to look that we finally found it. It was a piece of metal from a blown tire which litter the PanAmerican highway. It was so small that it resembled a piece of dental floss less than 1mm long, smaller than the thickness of my tire. We were overjoyed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMuch more confident in my tire now, we jumped back on our bikes and rode about 20km to Antigua through the hills. Our road winded through little indigenous villages, coffee plantations and other farms until we got to Antigua – a beautiful colonial city in a valley surrounded by three huge volcanoes, Volcan de Agua, Acetenango, and Fuego which is still active letting off a little gas and steam. It is a beautiful, well preserved piece of history but a cobblestone nightmare for cyclists (at least those on road/touring bikes…plently of mountain bikers here!). We are staying with Victor, our awesome couchsurfing host who also runs a very successful adventure tour company here in Antigua.

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Interesting fountain in the centro

Interesting fountain in the centro

Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded in the early 16th century, the Spanish colonial powers ruled Central America from Antigua for about three centuries until the massive earthquake of 1773 when the capital was moved to present-day Guatemala City and the city’s principal monuments are ironically preserved as ruins. Antigua is beautiful, full of friendly people and delicious international OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERArestaurants and I can see how many visitors end up living here. You can loose yourself in your imagination walking down the rough cobblestone roads by colourful buildings in old Spanish Baroque style with tiled
roofs, large hanging metal street lamps and imposing wooden doors.
You can gaze at the impressive facade of the Cathedral de Santiago with graceful columns and niches OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwith the carvings of saints, walk under the sunshine yellow Arco de Santa Catalina where 17th century nuns would pass under unseen by the rest of the city and admire the
roofless ruins of old cathedrals destroyed by earthquakes. However, it romanticizes the colonial past without any of the tragic legacy of colonialism and holds the idea of Antigua Guatemala, the name itself meaning “Old Guatemala”, somewhere in the golden mythic past that somehow seems disconnected from present day Guatemala and Guatemalans.
The idea is sold and reproduced in tourist services from vendors on the street selling Mayan handicrafts beside crumbling 17th century ruins, cultural tours and hotels and restaurants in beautifully restored courtyard buildings where history is experienced in a sanitized way. In reality, celebrating both the Mayan indigenous cultures and the colonial city is a little schizophrenic since colonialism brutally oppressed indigenous peoples and its legacy is still vividly suffered today.

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After exploring old ruins and churches, a highlight of Antigua was seeing some Semana Santa festivities when the city really comes alive. Antigua is known for its grand Semana Santa celebrations and celebrates not just during Easter week but also in the weeks leading up to Easter during Lent.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPeople decorated the streets with sawdust art decorating with green grasses, yellow grains and purple and white flowers to beautify the road for the processions. The temporary art of crosses and flowers is made just before the procession and trampled by the feet of people in the parade. The procession that winded through the old colonial core of the city. Men and boys in brilliant OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERApurple robes and head-coverings that appeared like flamboyant shepherds from nativity scenes marched along the road. Hundreds of purple garbed men walked in a single file on one side of the road while black robed men in the style of solemn monks with thick silver crosses hanging from their necks walked in a line on the other side of the road leading in the main procession. The floats are OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAhuge with religious scenes acted out by statues. They look incredibly heavy made from wood and they are carried by the devoted through the street. The first float with Jesus carrying the cross is carried by over 50 men and boys in purple robes, which is followed by another float with a heartbroken Mary with daggers in their heart resplendent in her glory as a queen with a devout priest kneeling in front offering his heart. The Mary float is led by hundreds of women dressed in black and covering their heads with black lace for mourning. The heavy Mary float is carried by the women though they sometimes trade off with purple robed men for a quick rest. Incense is burned and a brass marching band follows each of the floats. The procession tramples the flower art under their feet and people following the procession pick up the blessed flowers to take home. In the crowds are Mayan women and men in their colourful traditional clothes and other Guatemalans as well as tourists darting about trying to get a good photo of the awe-inspiring scene unfolding in front of them. It is quite the experience.

The road from Antigua to Escuintla was stunning to ride. It was well paved with a wide shoulder, gradual downhill that was not too steep and beautifully located between the volcanoes Agua on one side and Acetenango and Fuego on the other side of us. The tops of the giant volcanoes were hidden in the clouds but it was overall a beautifully mostly sunny day as we descended through the little villages and farms on the slopes of these volcanoes. I looked down at my bike computer at one point and realized I was cruising at 47km/hr! The mountains dropped away and then we were on the Pacific slope covered with sugar cane plantations once again. After being in the mountains for a bit, it is a bit unreal to see all that open space without mountains! I love cycling because it is a full sensory experience – you feel the change in elevation as heat and humidity on your skin, you can smell the sticky sweet smell of just harvested sugarcane and the fruity smell of tamarind as we ride under its tall trees that frequently line the highway. You can see the vast plain sprawled out onto the horizon, a patchwork quilt of farms and ranches in thousand shades of green. On a less positive note, you can also smell the black smoke from the exhaust pipes of chicken buses, old decommissioned North American school buses sold to Latin America which have been colourfully painted and make the backbone of the bus system here in Guatemala, and feel the bugs hit your face and maybe even splatter on your (sun)glasses.

After reaching Escuitla, we changed direction 90 degrees from heading west towards the ocean to south towards the El Salvador border. We were back on the busy Pan-American highway full of trailer trucks and buses only 50km past where we turned off at Cocales to go up to Lake Atitlan. We made it to Taxisco and its main street of Taxisco has a bit of a Wild West feel with every other business a cantina or bar. The bars are dark with men sit around tables drinking. Drinking seems to be local hobby here as the bars are full and there are many drunk people stumbling or sleeping on the street. The little stores have their wares behind the desk and the store clerks get your item for you when you ask them. There doesn’t seem to be any restaurants or cafes open at night; instead street food lines the lanes. At sunset, thousands of swallows filled the skies and settled on the tangled mess of powerlines running through the town. These birds were obviously used to people as chicken buses honking their horns under them did not make any birds fly away. The next day, we continued to ride across the lush, green landscape under tall trees and over rivers and made it to the border with El Salvador with one last night in Guatemala at the sleepy border town of Ciudad Pedro de Alvarado

GUATEMALA STATS

Tecum Uman to Cuidad Pedro de Alvarado via Mazatenango, Lake Atitlan and Antigua
March 1, 2014 to March 18, 2014

Crossed into Guatemala on March 1 at Tecum Uman
Spent 3 nights in Mazate for Carnaval, 7 nights in San Pedro de la Laguna on Lake Atitlan, and 3 nights in Antigua
Last night in Guatemala at Ciudad Pedro de Alvardo on March 18
This section consisted of 18 days
Day 181 to 198 (of overall trip) – 2 and half week of month 7 in the trip

Total km travelled – 475.4 km
Daily average – 59.4 km per riding day (8 out of 18 were riding days)
Number of rest days – 10 days

Route – CA-2 Pan-American Highway at the crossing from Mexico to Tecum Uman in Guatemala
and we rode on the busy CA-2 though Coatepeque and Mazatenango until the junction
at Cocales. There we jumped onto route 11 up to San Lucas Toliman on Lake Atitlan. We
rode from San Lucas to Santiago Atitlan where we took the ferry to San Pedro de la
Laguna since the road becomes challenged by robbers and dirt portions on San Pedro
Volcano. From San Pedro, we took the ferry to Panajachel where we climbed out of Lake
Atitlan on route 1 out of Pana, which turned into route 11 at La Cruces then back into
route 1 at Godinez. At Patzicia, we jumped onto CA-1 Pan-American until
Chimaltenango. Route 14 from Chimaltenango to Esquintla via Antigua then back onto
CA-2 Pan-American for the rest of the ride to the border with El Salvador at Cuidad
Pedro de Alvarado

Weather – 10days sunny morning and rain in the afternoon, 2 days cloudy, 3 days partly cloudy,
3 days sunny

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