After starting my bicycle touring career in Cancún and cycling through the Yucatán peninsula as well as a few days through Belize I was cyling into the mountains of Guatemala. Not knowing what steep hills and challenging roads were waiting for me I enjoyed the difference of being in another country right after the border crossing.
In “Bicycle Touring Guatemala” I want to share my experiences aka blood, sweat and tears – and give some information for other touring cyclist who might be interested in bicycle touring through guatemala and its highlands.
Bicycle Touring Guatemala – The roads
The shoulder of the roads
The paved roads of Guatemala are in a good shape and you will learn to appreciate them! On most of the paved roads there is usually a shoulder big enough same as on the Yucatán peninsula. The shoulders of Guatemalan roads have only one difference that you should be aware of: There was basically an old road that has been wider than the new one. The remains of this old road are the shoulder you will cycle on. Usually when the road makes a curve the new road gets wider and includes the shoulder. For you as a cyclist this means that you have to go up and down a “bitumen-step” fairly regularly. It can be annoying sometimes and you should be good at doing it without falling – especially when a truck comes from behind.
Talking about trucks…. The Guatemalan traffic is very mixed from mopeds up to big tourist buses depending on the route you choose to cycle. So far all the drivers have been very friendly and even the buses (especially the local chicken buses) are aware of the fact that they have to share the road with other vehicles. That was a frightening different story in Belize!
Once you get more onto the backroads it’s perfectly fine to change the side of the road or even cycle in the middle to find the best way. That’s what everybody does, so don’t be surprised if a car is driving on the left side!
Main roads or backroads?!
It is hard to distinguish betweeen main roads and backroads in Guatemala. Especially as our hardest stretch was on main highway no. 5!
Short after the town Fray Bartolome de las casas the road turned into what you can see on the following photos. We pushed up our bicycles on roads well beyond 15 % grade with big boulders and slippery soft sand. Sometimes one push forward meant gliding one meter to the side. My right leg was aching and blue afterwards. (Remeber what I wrote after the Yucatán peninsula about the pedals? Yes, it hurts!)
Bicycle Touring Guatemala – The danger of Tumulos
Speed bumps as I already encountered them in Mexico are in Guatemala called Tumulos. But let’s start at the beginning…. It was one of those days when I was thankful for every little bit of downhill after all that climbing. We should have a nice long downhill ride and so I got comfortable on my bike with around 45 to 50 km/h downhill speed. As always I watched the road carefully for any obstacles but it looked like a good road and so I relaxed a little bit leaning to the left in a curve and to the right in another. My bike accelerated down the mountain.
It felt like flying!
No town or village was in sight, just two local guys on the left side of the road sitting under an umbrella selling…. There! A speedbump! I had literally no time to react. I saw the speedbump maybe two seconds before I hit. No time for any kind of fear! A quick and strong break and then I grabbed the handles of my bicycle harder and hoped for the best. For a second my bike and I were flying! I heard all at once: the local men shouted at me and Brad yelled out from the back. Touchdown! I immediately reduced speed and looked over my left shoulder. My pannier had half fallen off the bike and was now dragged over the road. I stopped at the side of the road.
“You went airborne, you went airborne!” Brad shouted. I was very calm. Everything happened so quick that my body couldn’t even produce adrenaline. We looked at the damage: The mounting of my left pannier had broken, no spareparts. Brad fixed it and attached the pannier with some duck tape and we took weight out of the affected pannier.
After a short rest break we cycled on – happy that nothing else happened. It could have been much worse!
Bicycle Touring Guatemala – Towns & villages
Bicycle touring Guatemala will definitely give you the unique chance of seeing remote Mayan villages. While cycling on some of Guatemala’s worst backroads we passed through countless of these villages and got in touch with the locals. One of the villages on our way was so remote that the kids might have never seen a “gringo” before. With my blonde hair I turned out to be an attraction for the local women and they wanted to get a photo from and with me!
Another time a man came out of his house and offered us a couple of bananas each. Thankfully we enjoyed the taste of fresh fruits and asked him for the last tourists who came through: “About one year ago” he answered.
Bicycle Touring Guatemala – What to see?
Apart from loosing lots of sweat and cycling through remote Mayan villages we visited some stunning Mayan ruins and we’ve seen some awesome nature along the road!
Here are my favourite places that should definitely be on your list if you cycle through the highlands and lowlands of Guatemala:
- Tikal – Close to the Mexican border the Mayan ruins of Tikal are a great place to explore, nestled into some dense jungle.
- Flores – a nice little island-town that had some high-water when we visited. Nevertheless a great place to rest. If you go there, definitely try the local food markets! Local women sold some of the best and cheapest food I had on this trip!
- Finca Ixobel – Camping somewhere in the large garden of this Finca is awesome! Have some tasty food at the main house or get on a horse for a few hours – just like I did!
- Highway No. 5 – a doubtful experience for the experienced cyclist! Maybe not recommended in heavy rainfall!
- Semuc Champey – Natural limestone pools near the rown of Lanquin will provide a relaxing swim!
- Biotopo del Quetzal – A wonderful natural reserve for protecting Guatemala’s cloud forest with great camping options and the chance to see – yes, a Quetzal!
- Antigua – Maybe one of the main tourist spots of Guatemala and a good base to climb nearby volcanos, some of them are even active!
Bicycle Touring Guatemala – Where to stay?
Cycling through the highlands of Guatemala it is often difficult to find a campsite. The population is dense and nearly everywhere along the road is either a village or fenced-farmland. Anyway, apart from staying in cheap hotels more often we found some nice reserves providing camping and also some special places along the roads! (Prices from March 2018):
- In the town of El Ramate is a very nice and clean hotel called “Amaru” or something similar. We stayed there and turned into all-time guests at the hotel restaurant!
- Camping at Tikal – You have to decide beforehand how many nights you want to stay, as you can only pay (50 Quetzales/person/night) at the National Park entrance. We had to learn that the hard way!
- Paid camping at Finca Ixobel: 40 Quetzales for both of us
- Camping at Lanquin caves – For 35 Quetzales for both of us we camped at the Lanquin caves. Okay but not a very quiet place. No showers but therefore you could take a bath in the river!
- Hostel Vista Verde in Lanquin was a nice place to stay. We paid 150 Quetzales per night in a private room with shared bathroom. Nice and reasonably priced food!
- Camping at the Quetzal Reserve: 20 Quetzales per person bought us a nice little campsite with our own sitting area under a Palapa in this wonderful nature reserve.
- AirBnb in Antigua: We stayed for a few weeks at Casa Panivino, a wonderful AirBnb about 4 kilometers from Antigua. If you want a nice and clean room, a great breakfast and you don’t mind taking the cheap (3Q) chicken bus to the center then this is the right place for you!
Bicycle Touring Guatemala – Safety
In general my feelings in regards to safety haven’t been much different cycling through Guatemala than when cycling through the Yucatán peninsula. Friendly police officers were often present and wherever we cycled the locals were all very friendly and helpful.
One safety incident
Nevertheless I need to mention our one and only safety incident we had so far. It was on main highway no. 5 somewhere between Fray Bartolome de las casas and the turn-off to Lanquin. We cycled uphill on a bumpy road when two men – pretending to do some roadworks – asked us for money to get through. Brad immediately started to negotiate and pointed out that we were just poor cyclists and didn’t have much money. It worked and we were allowed through without paying. The same thing happened again after a few kilometers. We also passed without paying.
I never felt threatened by the local men though it seemed to be a sketchy situation especially the first time with a bumpy uphill road and not really a fast possible escape. Afterwards in Lanquin we met another couple who traveled by car. They were threatened with machetes and had no chance but paying the money, maybe by the same men. Sometimes it seems to make all the difference if you travel by bicycle!
Bicycle Touring Guatemala – What I learned about the bike
- Cycling uphill with a bicycle seems to be much harder for me than hiking. I think it’s because the bicycle demands a certain amount of power to keep the wheels turning.
- Sometimes it’s a little bit easier to push than to cycle. I like to push sometimes even if I could cycle just to have a change.
- Pushing my bicycle up the steep hills of the Guatemalan highlands is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done! (And yes, I wanted to quit a few times!)
- My bicycle and gear isn’t buildt for flying – well, maybe it is but landing is definitely not on the list!
- Ortlieb has a great customer service! Got the spares for free in no time!
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