A long time ago we discovered a crucial coping mechanism for dealing with our northern city's best attempt at crushing even the most positive of motorcyclists souls. When February comes and winter shows no signs of leaving, travel somewhere else. Decide where you will be months in advance so you have something to look forward to and try to convince as many people as possible to join you. If successful, your entire tribe will look healthier (tanned), be happier (relaxed), and overall more fun to be around until our real time to do what we love comes back in the spring.
Due to a myriad of the usual major life shifts: babies, weddings, new homes and new jobs, we found a much smaller team committing to the trip than in the past. Although we were sad to not have the usual suspects with us, this meant that we could plan a more intimate and adventurous trip than previous years.
In researching for past trips I had come across MAG Tours in Guatemala. They had a great website, which is surprisingly uncommon, and their pitch seemed perfectly aimed at exactly what we wanted. We booked bikes, booked a route, booked the hotels, asked the internet the dumb questions: "Can you drink the water?" No. "Can you pay in American Dollars?" No.
We arrived in Guatemala City and hopped a ride from the airport to Antigua with friends who would be doing the journey in a rental car. I would love to say that our combined experience of driving in crazy cities, plus GPS got us out smoothly, but it is here, on day one where we got lost for the first of what would become many times over the trip. Guatemala is not a country of signs. Cities, speed bumps, speed limits... there will be no help to the driver from the sidelines. This was our first realization that the road less travelled, in this case, is the wrong one, and that 96% fluency on a Spanish iPhone app in Toronto does not mean you speak spanish in Guatemala. It is this experience which made us vow that next time we go somewhere new and without a grid system we at minimum buy a road map.
We did succeed in driving the less than 40kms in 4 hours and arriving in Antigua for sunset. Antigua, although big as a tourist destination by Guatemalan standards, is quite small, especially in the shadow of the active Volcano it sits under. We were not ready for it's beauty and checked in feeling good about what would come. Our hotel, Casa Santo Domingo was one of the nicest we have stayed in. It's grounds on a colonial monument complete with museum pieces and separate accommodations with hot tubs and bonfires in the hills.
The next day we picked up our bikes from MAG Tours. Our bikes would be a Yamaha XT250 and matching Honda Tornado 250s in great condition, with spare tubes, a tool kit, first aid, and a local phone in the paniers. We quickly went over if there were any laws we should know about - there weren't any. Got told an essential tip: "Biggest on the road wins" and picked up some suggestions on how to bypass any city centers we were traveling through. Gear on, we headed out!
We had just over 200kms to cover day one, which doesn't seem like a lot until you realize you have been averaging speeds of 50km/hour, getting down to 1st gear in the switchbacks (which are many) and hitting gravel on and off. But it's only 10am, how long can it take? Well if you get lost twice, stop for food once, almost follow the GPS off a cliff, and end up riding into a cloud that cuts visibility down to inches at night, It can take 9 hours. Long enough for the hotel to have locked the gate and send chills that you will be sleeping outside in the 12 degree misty wet weather.
Lucky for us, the Guatemalan people are very kind hearted and not only let us in, but also made us dinner after closing down for the night.
The next day we woke up to try to catch the sunrise and got to see where we actually ended up now that the world around us wasn't pitch black. Staying in modest accommodations at a bird and orchid sanctuary at Ranchitos del Quetzal paid off with a view of the national bird, a Queztal. We got back on the bikes, and headed for Lanquin. This day would prove itself to be one of my favourites as we really started to see how diverse riding in Guatemala could be. It was nice to have bikes that could handle the diversity of terrain.
The weather, would start off cool enough to wear full gear and warm up to mid twenties by noon, you would ride up into a cool mountain top and feel the heat coming down the opposite side.
We were headed to Lanquin through Coban. Google maps predicted 115kms and 3 hours, but we had started questioning if Google had actually ever been to Guatemala. MAG Tours had given us advice about a detour to bypass the city centre, and for the first time we actually went the right way! Maybe it was the confidence in the route, or just the scenery, but this was one of my favourite rides of the trip. With Guatemala's indigenous people making up for 60% of its population, it was pretty incredible to see so many traditional communities and their people from the road. Each village has their own costume, and we would catch a glimpse of their daily life as we passed through. Nothing makes you feel spoiled like watching a woman carrying a refrigerator sized item on her head unassisted, walking up a hill you are struggling to ride on a motorized vehicle up, while she is breastfeeding.
To get to Lanquin, you turn off a very paved scenic route down a very steep dirt road one vehicle wide. This is the main road even though nothing about it suggests it to be except the truck that passes you at full speed. It was definitely one of the most challenging parts of the trip and we were grateful to be taking it on a dry day. Today's destination would host us for two days while we checked out Sumac Champey. The crux of the trip, I had seen a photo online, of a series of blue lagoons cutting through a forrest and I knew I wanted to know what it felt like to swim in those pools for myself, not just double tap it on someone else's experience. Through our hotel El Retiro Lodge we booked a tour for the next day, walked around the town and swam by the river that ran through the hotel grounds.
The tour included a candlelight cave walk, a lazy river tube ride, and time at the lagoons themselves. They did not mention the half hour ride in the back of the pick up truck, but I feel like they should have as it was one of the best parts. Being able to watch someone else navigate the treacherous road and take in the views without looking ahead for the next 90 degree curve or bus coming at you was really fun. This day was worth the effort it took to arrive here. It was telling that although we had booked a tour, we were only sharing this experience with maybe 30 other people and due to the nature of the location not very intimately. You forget something so beautiful can still be so under discovered. On the ride back, a few local kids hitched on the truck, latching themselves onto the outside, and we spoke back and forth in animal noises and funny faces and we vowed to learn more Spanish for these exact moments.
There is no easy way to get from one destination to another in this country. It is big, full of mountains and it takes a long time to get from one end to the other, or even one end to the middle. We would need to split the next destination into two days of riding to keep from riding at night, so we settled on a fancy resort as I had wrongly assumed that Lanquin's accommodation of $15 a night would have left us wanting more.
Hotel Paniste was 85kms away and in 3 hours we arrived to cool towels and glasses of water. The customer service was over the top and the grounds were expansive. We were the only ones there which made it feel a bit like the movie the Shinning but it also meant we had the Myan Spa to ourselves. The Myan spa is a dome shaped hut, with a wood fire that is fed from the outside. The rocks on the inside are covered in foliage and you water it like a wet sauna which creates hot steam so thick you can't see your own hands in front of you. It bonked us for the night and so we ate at the hotel and didn't venture into the nearby lakefront town. Next time.
We left early the next day as this would be the most distance we would have to cover in one day. We estimated the 205kms would take 8 hours. We were headed toward lake Atitilan, arguably Guatemala's most popular destination other than the Ruins further north. When you know you have so much distance to cover, you don't tend to stop as much as you should and we booked it through some amazing views. Immediately out of the gate, the vegetation was unlike what the country had shown us in the days before, The route was windy but not aggressive and it was nice to get into a rhythm between accelerating out of the switchbacks and engine braking.
By this time we were used to main roads giving way to crazy 90 degree turns up and down the mountains, but then we hit the town Solola. Cobblestone took our tires up and down some of the steepest streets I have ever ridden. It is here we were all thankful to have bikes that were forgiving in their size and power. At some points we would have to over take the stopped traffic in front of us to keep from having to stop on an incline that was steep enough to doubt our ability to keep the bikes actually stopped. This, plus fearing the cab in front of us with the open trunk carrying two small children zapped most of what was left of our energy. When we rose out of Solola to catch a glimpse of the lake that our destination was on, I could feel a wave of enthusiasm come over the group and everyone's riding perked back up.
The nice part about riding through stressful situation is in comparison anything that comes next doesn't feel as hard and the ride from here to the house, minus the now inevitable getting lost once, flew by.
We rolled up on a gate as pictured in the airbnb listing The house was right on the lake, you just had to walk 260 steps down to reach it first (another advantage to packing light!). It had covered secure parking, so we left the bikes at the top and raced down getting into the water as quickly as possible. Floating in a calm lake of clear blue surrounded by numerous volcanos is surreal to say the least. It is the kind of moment that is impossible to not appreciate. I felt gratitude for the decisions in our lives that have lead us to here, and lucky to experience them with old and new friends. I feel so strongly that motorcycling has a way of leading to these moments. We watched the sunset and walked 260 steps up in search of dinner.
Panajanchel is written about on the internet extensively, but from our experience, everything you read is wrong. Nightime felt a bit like the Niagra Falls strip, with pictures of the food on the menus and most patios having a Hard Rock Cafe vibe. This was much different than what we had experienced so far on this trip. Needless to say the "best" reviewed restaurant online was our worst meal of the trip and we all felt a bit foolish for trusting the internet instead of our common sense. The next day we would maximize the time at the house. Cliff jumping from the property, kayaking into the lake and watching the stars from the hot tub.
Riding out from Panachel back to Antigua we got one last view of where we had come from and kept on our way. We didn't have high hopes for the ride as we knew we would be forced to take the main highway at a certain point. As always we were wrong, smooth rural switchbacks wove until abruptly turning into a river. The product of a recent mudslide, the only warning was a single kid and a wheelbarrow looking at us like we were dummies for taking a minute to figure out if the compact sedan would cross without bottoming out. There is always a vehicle in worse shape than yours, with a rider wearing less gear than you, that will do something you think is impossible with ease and reassure you your vulnerabilities are unfounded.
Unfortunately we hit pretty bad traffic getting into Antigua. The "highway" is also the route of choice for the school busses and every block or so a stop is being made which brings everything to a snail's pace. If we were only motorcycles in our caravan we could have bypassed the jams via the sidewalk as the locals do, but the crew kept together and waited it out as one. The 100kms ride included only one wrong turn and we arrived in a speedy 4 hours.
Once back in Antigua we returned the bikes with ease, checked into our final hotel and had enough time to walk around. Travelling by motorcycle always limits your ability to buy anything significant, it can be one of my favourite reasons to travel by bike, forcing you to travel light and spend money on the experience, but in Guatemala the prevalence of their unique textiles is hard to pass up. We lost quite a bit of the afternoon in the Nim Po't, a consignment style market that showcases handcrafted items from all over the country. Everything is priced and marked with the place of origin, which makes for a more relaxing shopping experience than in the markets, especially with limited Spanish to rely on for bartering. It was great to recognize so many different designs and patterns from our journey, having see them first hand on the Indigenous people we had passed along the way.
A 9am flight back meant we were leaving Antigua by 5am. Of course we couldn't leave the place without getting lost one last time. Tourism hasn't hit Guatemala like some of it's countries to the north and so the limited infrastructure means most people are on the road early and therefore you can be in stopped traffic by 6am.
We didn't know a lot about Guatemala before we arrived, and after this trip I don't know that we can confidently say we know much more, but with everything available to your eyes at the click of a button the element of the unknown becomes a welcoming sentiment. In our experience Guatemala was very safe to travel in, the motorcycles were easy to rent and reliable, and we barely spent more than $20 a day outside accommodations. We are lucky to be able to travel so much, having a thirst to see all of the things first hand means that it takes a lot to want to go back someplace you have been before. But Guatemala is that place we want to return to. It is not easy, you will have to put effort into your travel experience, the awards are not always immediate, but that is what makes the adventure more memorable. Let us know if you are interested in planning your own trip to Guatemala and we will definitely help with any questions!
- Knolling Shot? I can pull everything for sid to shoot.
Held Windproof neck guard
Gezel Gloves oxblood
Matador Packable backpack
100% Goggles Leopard
Chippewa Lacer Boots
Rev'it Waterproof gloves
Maven Leather Jacket
Ugly Bros Twiggy