Ride South – Antigua Guatemala

San Pedro de Atitlan has two roads going out of it: one that goes back the way we came, through the hairpin fun-zone, and one that was repeatedly (even on ADVRider) marked as too dangerous too cross. It was unpaved and ran the periphery of the lake, right unit it hits one of the volcanoes and tickles its back, carving a route south of the slope and then looping back to the lake to Santiago Atitlan until finally meeting a road south at San Lucas Tolmán.

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Well, this sounds fun…

We did ask the lone police guy we’d been seeing in town and he didn’t really seem to have an opinion on the road. “¿Es peligroso, el camino?”, we’d ask, and he’d just shrug. Good enough for us. An American told us not to do it. Lots of robberies.

The thing is, we have fast bikes. And not that much to lose. And we love scenic byways. So in the morning, after having gotten some fruity breakfast by the lake — fresh fruit and vegetables are everywhere in Guatemala, and incredibly cheap at that! — we set off to ride this mysterious and supposedly dangerous road.

Breakfast first! It was a sunny day today, none of the clouds from yesterday (yet):

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This girl was just riding her horse through town, alone. She can’t have been older than 8 or 9.

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A funny syndrome of riding the Americas so far has been something I like to refer to as Relative Southern Danger. Wherever you are, whether it’s the US, a Mexican state or any South-American country, up until Costa Rica you’ll encounter a particular conversation with the locals.

You’ll first tell them others have told you it can be dangerous around here. “Ahh, no!”, they will exclaim. “The [area South of wherever you are] is the dangerous part. Around here, it’s quite safe.” The area in question can be the next country over, the next Mexican town or state south of you, or even something like a road. This will continue for some time until you reach Costa Rica, where it’s hard to claim things are less safe than Nicaragua.

It’s almost always an exaggeration. By all means, follow common sense, but also take things with a grain of salt. And a grain of recklessness.

The loop out of San Pedro is gorgeous, and quickly climbs to beautiful fields and farms.

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Farmers were out here and looked surprised to see us, and all waved us hello. That was nice. We waved back.

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Eventually the paved section ends and you drop rather precipitously (seriously, I think the drop was almost a foot, as if someone had just… disappeared the road) into a sandy wash and the fun dirt road begins. I suspect they were building more pavement here; lots of men were working on the road and they were all in a great mood. And again, rather surprised to see us. We said hi and chatted for a bit before blasting down the dirt.

It was definitely a rough dirt road. The constant water from the slopes carves channels and rocks out of the road and at times it was kind of a shit-show, with riverbed rocks and ruts all over the place.

It didn’t help that at times, an astonishingly stunning vista of the lake and its volcanic rim would come into view, momentarily distract you, and then lure your bike’s front wheel into a massive rock. All part of the game around Atitlan… Ah, Atitlan, you beautiful devil. Distracting, yet so demanding.

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After about an hour or so, we’d rounded the ‘terrible’ road and were on a beautiful sinuous paved road towards Santiago. Little farms and buildings dotted the route, the sun played through the leaves overhead and we soon found ourselves in San Lucas.

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Here, I’d say goodbye to Stu. It didn’t make any sense for him to follow me at my breakneck pace to Costa Rica, so he’d stay down here and explore Guatemala before also riding at a gentle pace to Costa Rica to sell his bike there. We’ll resume the ride at a later point, when we’re ready for it.

For now, it was goodbye. The town square was as great a place as any to say bye, and I felt a strong tug at my heart as he left. You get very close to a friend as you ride the Earth with them; you share hotel rooms with your stinky gear, brave what might be mortal danger with them and push yourself to and perhaps through limits you never knew you had. And now, I’d be alone. It felt weird.

RIDEEARTH-1004096He’s a great dude. I wished him the best, we pointed bikes in opposite directions, and off I went.

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The road out of Santiago quickly meets up with the Guatemala highway 11, which blasts straight south between some volcanoes on a gentle jungle-y downslope. After I rolled through this scenic route, there was a sort of intersection of four roads where I grabbed some quick food, a fresh coconut, and set off for Antigua.

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Antigua is a gorgeous town. According to my admittedly limited understanding of Spanish, ‘Antigua’ stands for ‘Antique’ or ‘Old’; as in, it’s the old city. The tiny city is a great example of gorgeous colonial architecture, and its set right between imposing volcanoes, which is kind of the Guatemalan thing to do.

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I rolled in to El Hostal and rolled my bike into the lobby as was customary. This is always a great conversation starter with fellow hostel-mates and I made friends in no time.

While my time in Antigua was going to be brief (sadly — if you go here, stay a few days and hike the volcanoes, seriously) I made sure to hit some places. CA Moto Tours and Cafe is a motorcycle rental joint in Antigua and I dropped by to chat a bit about bikes and life. Super fun people, those! They talked a bit about Tolga (known as ‘Ride Must Go On’ or just ‘Ride Must’ on Instagram) who’d been through earlier. It’s a small adventure-motorcycle world!

I discovered the American Embassy:

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And just sauntered around a bit to take some photos:

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And found a BBQ joint in town. Don’t get me wrong, I love local food, but sometimes you gotta take a newfound hostel friend (and moto tours office) recommendation and grab something smokey and delicious and wash it down with local beers.

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A big benefit of my pick of lodging, El Hostal, is its proximity to Cafe No Se. I’m a big fan of mezcal — that’s no secret — and this place was the birthplace of Illegal Mezcal, a little-known mezcal at first but now commonly found in the US as an upscale tipple. It’s a great stiff drink and this tiny bar / café matches its character: it’s a raucous place, full of weirdos and dirtbags. 100% my thing.

For once, I enjoyed a bit of solitude at the bar. While it was pretty busy, I walked in at the right time to get a stool at the bar and chatted a bit with the bartender — over some mezcal, natch — before writing a bit. In the smoky, busy ambiance I reflected on my newfound solitude. It was refreshing, different, strange and a bit lonely. You really get used to being so close to someone on the road for months, and the change was kind of profound.

I enjoyed my meditative drinks, internalizing and processing all the sights and experiences of the last weeks, as rowdy bodies crammed into the bar, burning up the last oil of an exotic warm Wednesday night. I caught wisps of stories of selling psychedelics to fuel a trip around the Americas for years, hitchhiking in faraway deserts, how homesickness was the sound of the creek next to the ranch they grew up in. Everyone’s singular, beautiful stories echoing off the walls in a faraway place. I was alone, and yet, I felt a sense of immense belonging.

———

Sunrise came the next day and despite the mezcal I had an easy time getting up and prepping the bike.   After just two brief days I was leaving Guatemala, easily one of my new favorite countries. It was time to ride to Honduras.

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An easygoing breakfast at El Hostal laid a good foundation for a walk around town.  One more photo walk? One more photo walk:

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This place is so stunning. The energy on Antigua is unique, and its people wonderful. A city I’d love to come back to.

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Better leave a sticker to remind myself of that.

I rode around town a bit with a newly made motorcycle friend who was a local, who was hoping to help me find some synthetic oil. Unfortunately we had little success, but he did show me a nice mirador, or viewpoint:

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It’s easy to understand why people felt like this was a place for religious significance and reflection.

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Ah. I love Antigua. I love Guatemala. It was rough to leave. I put a reminder on the bike:

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And started my six-hour ride to the border.

Guatemalan highways were surprisingly well maintained. I had a rough time getting through traffic in Guatemala City and got lost through a few of its confusing road layouts, which sent me through some dodgy barrios and into some even crazier traffic, but I made work of it.

By the time I reached the Honduran border, it was getting dark.

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Darkness seems to tap the will to work out of the Guatemalan border workers, and I found myself almost tempted to use the services of the always-present, always-annoying ‘helpers’ that offer to speed you along the border if you pay them. It almost never actually works, and you end up supporting a rather annoying practice, so I never did.

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But a solid hour of copying paperwork, waiting for computers and general bureaucratic nonsense later, I was allowed to head to Honduras.

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Mr. Hat here did change my Guatemalan quetzals for Honduran currency, which was nice.

After stamping myself out and canceling my import permit, it was time to do the reverse in Honduras. It was pitch black as I walked into the abandoned and large custom’s office.

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Honduras’ border must have been influenced by the Big Copier lobby, as you need 4 copies of everything. I was sent to a small room to do copying of all sorts of documents: my passport, the vehicle registration, my drivers license, the vehicle title… and after getting all that, copies of my stamped documents. It took a while, and then the officer demanded a rather high price for my vehicle entry.

I’m not entirely sure if there is a fixed price to enter Honduras. From what I’ve heard, it is one of the worst countries as far as bizarre border inconsistencies go, with some people being forced to pay tons of cash to get in. I was being asked about $30, which seemed exceptionally high coming from Guatemala.

I ended up calling a friend to ask him to Google the fees. Danny, the friend, picked up the phone terrified, assuming I had been kidnapped and this was finally the call where I asked him to wire tens of thousands of dollars before they started sending a variety of my appendages in registered air mail to my family.

It wasn’t quite that dramatic. Failing to find a definitive answer, I paid the man, which in retrospect seemed to be the legitimate price. Who knows? Forget it Jake, it’s Honduras.

It was late enough at this point anyway, and I wanted to just end the day.

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The last bit of light outside was the green glow of my GPS, which pointed me to a hotel in Copán just a bit down the road. That’d do. Cold air brushed my face as I cautiously but enthusiastically rolled into Honduras, through a curvy road, into unseen unknowns.

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