Maps Paint Poor Pictures

What could be described as an adventurous looking line across Guatemala on our maps has turned out to be a full blown leg-burning, bike-pushing, cross-section of this diverse country. Starting near sea level in Rio Dulce and finding ourselves now at 8,000 ft in Xela we were anticipating some of the hard work that would be involved, but the way it unfolded caught us a bit by surprise. Neither of us were very eager to pound out some miles after leaving Rio Dulce, so we committed to a mellow day along easy paved roads to the lakeside settlement of El Estor, and along the way we took in the delights of a nearby boiling river. This was soon a good decision, as shorter days became the norm as we made our way across the country and up into the highlands.

Agua Caliente, Finca El Paraiso, GuatemalaAgua Caliente, Finca El Paraiso, Guatemala


Agua Caliente, Finca El Paraiso, Guatemala


Paved roads kept cropping up in our path, and eventually contributed to over half our 270 miles from Rio Dulce to Xela; something we had thought our route would avoid. If all that were dirt we would not have made it to Xela in time for Xmas. Our chosen side roads often turned out to be the direct paved route to our next destination, and a long stretch of road up to Santa Cruz del Quiche that we had assumed was dirt, was in fact all decently paved – perhaps for the better, as some of the descents and ascents at river crossing were insanely steep. But, when we did find ourselves bouncing along some dirt and gravel track it was pure magic.

La Tinta to TacticLa Tinta to Tactic


La Tinta to Tactic


Going from low farmland slowly, very slowly, up into the ever increasing heights of the western highlands near Tactic was a ride through many ecosystems. The first few hours of climbing to Tactic were a pleasure and had me relishing in the smallness of life amongst the vast mountains. It feels much better and more appropriate to be moving so slowly amongst such a huge landscape of dominant peaks, ridges and valleys. However, when the steep climbing continued after a late roadside lunch, it was beginning to show its effects on my weary body. 5,800 ft of climbing in the day and we were deposited in Tactic at 6,800 ft of elevation. It had been a drizzly day on squirmy clay climbs and the drop in temperature had us chilled to the core for the first time in a while. Tactic was also where we began to see the Christmas markets in full swing. With the cold weather and the holiday atmosphere it was quite intoxicating. This festive vibe has followed us through the mountains with each city packed for blocks and blocks with vendors selling holiday goods and all assortment of fried foods. We wonder what rural Guatemala will feel like when we leave Xela in a month and the holiday festivities are a distant memory.

Fun roads and river crossings, Tactic to Salama, GuatemalaFun roads and river crossings, Tactic to Salama, Guatemala


Fun roads and river crossings, Tactic to Salama, Guatemala


Our route south of Tactic deviated from the main highway following dirt roads to the west of the Quetzal Sanctuary up and over a few mountains and across a few rivers along the way. As we were settled into a nice climbing rhythm on a mellow grade, Nathan suffered a flat. First inspection also revealed a broken spoke, his first of the trip. While the repair process was underway there was a bit of concern over our water supply and the distance left to Salama. With the bike back together we rolled the final bit to the summit of the climb and were stunned by the expansive views of the Salama valley that opened up before us. Neither of us expected to be this near the city, or to have such and awe-inspiring view from such heights. It certainly lifted any dour spirits that may have lingered from the mechanical issues.

Salama valleySalama valley


Salama valley


We left Salama with the intent of riding west until we reached Cubulco and the end of pavement, at which point we would make a gamble at tackling any local track that would get us up and over the mountains south of town. It would be a short cut of sorts, in distance but not effort, and one that would surely thrust us into the bowels of Guatemalan mountain living and the limits of our own abilities. No sooner had we left the hotel in Salama than Nathan suffered another flat, fortunately this time it was a front tire. Quickly patched up and praying that two flats and a broken spoke would suffice for problems coming in sets of three we rode west only to have another broken spoke as we ascended into San Miguel Chicaj. It was possibly a result of the broken spoke the day before and so extra care was put into properly sorting through the wheel rebuild. Consequently, we rolled into Cubulco late in the day and with little knowledge of our outgoing route. We spent a bit of time inquiring about paths over the mountains and felt confident that one existed, so we retired to the local hotel. In reality, it would best be described as what most people envision the inside of a Central American prison to look like; little more than a Cockroach infested cement bunker with a gracious host. Neither of us take much notice of these places any more, as they have become somewhat frequent, but they still do inspire amusement and laughs.

More proofMore proof


More proof


We got an early jump on our day as we anticipated lots of grueling bike pushing to get up and over the 6,500 foot mountains (starting at 3,200 ft) in less than 8 miles. It did not disappoint. We perhaps rode 4 miles of the ascent of rough jeep track that is frequented only by locals hauling firewood and 4-wheel drive Toyotas hauling people. The rest of the climb was a push-the-bike effort, and at times a you-help-me-push-the-bike and I will help you push yours. Sure there was a route out and around these mountains, but what is a bike adventure if you don’t thrust yourself upon crazy, possibly unmanageable, roads? We endured, laughed, and more-or-less enjoyed the struggle. Again it provided a good laugh to all the locals that saw some crazy gringos pushing their loaded bikes up to the top of a mountain, and then flying down the other side. It wasn’t uncommon to see the grades climb into the high teens, all on dirt or sand (an exception occurred when it was too steep and they paved the brief hill climb). The short 17 miles in 10 hours of effort left us a bit worse for wear as we hit pavement at the valley bottom on the other side. We ducked up alongside a river at the approval of the nearby home-owner and pitched a camp to rest our weary bodies.

St. Cruz del Quiche, GuatemalaSt. Cruz del Quiche, Guatemala


St. Cruz del Quiche, Guatemala


We climbed a total of 5,500 ft the following day as we made our way along the highway to Santa Cruz del Quiche. With our previous day’s exploits and the climbs often pushing grades in the low teens, it was a punishing day that caught us very much by surprise. We were also starting to deal with the effects of higher altitude; less oxygen for those legs, and a hot-hot sun. Quiche, as it is known locally, was awash in Christmas spirit and the cooler mountain air made the proximity to the holiday suddenly very real. We left town following my maps backroad route, but in reality it was the main highway to Xela. It also included a climb over a 9,500 ft pass, and another flat rear tire for Nathan, before dropping us into the Totonicapan valley for another nights rest.

last of 3 rear flats, one front flat, and two rear broken spokeslast of 3 rear flats, one front flat, and two rear broken spokes


last of 3 rear flats, one front flat, and two rear broken spokes


Just for the thrill of the roadside repair, he had an additional rear flat tire on our way into Xela yesterday as we approached the junction with the Pan-Am highway. Once we made it to Xela and somehow found our way through the bustling city and into a hostel, we spent some time dissecting mechanical issues and gear choices over coffee; our favorite past-time.

There is something in the thin air that makes people all the more friendly; the world is full of joksters. I am sure I adhere to this change as much as everyone else, so maybe it is just a perception that attitudes have changed since the oppressive lowlands. For a brief while on our dirt road route west of Lago de Izabel and Rio Dulce we sensed a bit of oddness to the air, and perceived a bit of danger around the corner. Actually, Nathan sensed it, worried about it, informed me to worry, and then we hatched battle plans (I would inform them I was American and trained by Chuck Norris, no fighting would even be necessary). I doubt there was ever malice in the air, but once the thought is lodged in your head it is hard to shake. Which, is all the more reason why it feels so damn friendly up here.

The Black Cat Hostel, xmas home in XelaThe Black Cat Hostel, xmas home in Xela


The Black Cat Hostel, xmas home in Xela


Following unknown festivities this holiday weekend (maybe just movies at the hostel) we are picking up a month of intensive Spanish lessons and staying with local families. I am thrilled with the ride we just had, the strength that I found in my legs, the blissfully cooler mountain air to breath and sleep in; all of it makes me just feel pretty damn good. And, I can only imagine that riding away from here in a month with some ability to carry on a conversation with a local will only add to the thrill. Happy Holidays to All!

Route Info

East to West:
Rio Dulce to El Estor (30 miles) – easy paved road along the lake with a worthwhile stop at the hot water fall at Finca El Paraiso. Hotels and food in both towns.
El Estor to La Tinta (46 miles, 2200 ft) – decent dirt road riding with sections that were very dusty, last section into La Tinta is being paved. Hotels and food in both towns.
La Tinta to Tactic (37 miles, 5800 ft) – steady climbing on decent dirt roads. Initial climb was followed by a bit of valley riding before the real push began. Sections of steep grades (potentially difficult if wet). Easy downhill highway into Tactic with all services.
Tactic to Salama via Hwy 5 (25 miles, 2400 ft) – steep ascents and descents on dirt road that begins about 9 miles from Tactic. Pushing was required for brief stretches. A few different river crossings. Last long and gentle climb to Salama leads to a steeper and more challenging rocky road descent into the Salama valley.
Salama to Cubulco (29 miles, 3000 ft) – all on paved roads, all services in Salama and Rabinal with limited services in Cubulco (one hotel and some tiendas).
Cubulco to river camp 4 miles east of Joyabaj (17.66 miles, 3800 ft)- two routes seems to climb south out of Cubulco, one appears to follow the ridge west of town following the road straight past the gas station. The other one we took goes south from the church and 8 hard, steep, dirt track miles later joins a better road (take a left at junction) along the ridge to Tres Cruces (water source 5 miles in, coke source at tienda a few miles in – we followed dirt road to the right at junction, left climbed a paved hill, shortly above the tienda). In Tres Cruces you can venture straight down to Pachalum, or take a right and meet up with the highway 8 miles east of Joyabaj. Lots of climbing to be done along the highway to Joyabaj making it hard to reach in a day.
Camp to Santa Cruz del Quiche (38 miles, 5400 ft) – All on paved roads with steep grades to and from river crossings. Plenty of services along route.
Quiche to Totonicapan (26 miles, 3800 ft) – All on newly paved highway. Summit of pass at mile 22.5 going south (9,500 ft).
Totonicapan to Xela (19 miles, 900 ft) – Easy ride into Xela. Without mechanical problems we would have made Xela from Quiche in a day.

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