The Antigua half-marathon made for an inspirational delay in our journey to the Pacaya Volcano - Click for Hi-Res Image

CATour guide, Chris Gwinner, JR Rhoades and Andy Tiegs taking a scenery break as they hike the Pacaya Volcano - Click for Hi-Res Image 1 and 2

JR enjoying the view from the top of the Pacaya Volcano - Click for Hi-Res Image

We road through the pueblo of Tecpán before popping out the other side through the fields of corn - Click for Hi-Res Images 1 and 2

Andy asking for directions in Tecpán Guatemala to get to the Habitat for Humanity house he helped construct a few years back - Click for Hi-Res Image

Andy stopped across a valley from a hilltop stand alone church we spotted on our dirt-cut to Chi-Chi  - Click for Hi-Res Image

Our motorcycles parked in front of our Chi-Chi hotel and a pineapple farmer unloading his harvest at the town market - Click for Hi-Res Images 1 and 2

Waiting on our motorcycles for the rainy season landslide to be cleared as a few local women walked on through - Click for Hi-Res Image

Random police check in Nebaj. Our paperwork was on hand and he let us roll – unlike a few past corrupt-o-cops I’ve encountered in other Latin American countries. - Click for Hi-Res Image

Twisty wet roads with cement tracks to help climb the steep inclines on our way from Nebaj to the Acul cheese farm - Click for Hi-Res Images 1 and 2

Lunch at the Hacienda Mil Amores, meaning "Ranch of a Tounsand Loves," cheese farm in Acul - Click for Hi-Res Image

The Austrian-esque green rolling hills on the way from Nebaj to the cheese farm in the tiny pueblo of Acul - Click for Hi-Res Image

Andy and JR waiting outside a Nebaj gas station when a gallon of super is $4.77 USD – compare that to the $2,630 USD average annual income in Guatemala  - Click for Hi-Res Image

Riding through a street side market in between Nebaj and Huehuetenango - Click for Hi-Res Image

Andy, JR and Chris relaxing in the Fuentes Georginas hot springs that lay just east of Guatemala’s second largest city, Quetzaltenango - Click for Hi-Res Image

Descending from the Fuentes Georginas hot springs amidst the volcanic cut horizon - Click for Hi-Res Image

Group guide, Chris Gwinner, twisting down the steep switchbacks to Lago de Atitlán - Click for Hi-Res Image

Waiting for the police escort for some bandit protection in between San Pedro la Laguna and Santiago Atitlán - Click for Hi-Res Image

Road collapse on the way back from Lago de Atitlán to Antigua - Click for Hi-Res Image

The way around the road collapse from Lago de Atitlán to Antigua - Click for Hi-Res Image

Andy rolling through the switchback twisties of the Guatemalan highlands - Click for Hi-Res Image

The Guatemalan Grip

“Why Guatemala?” I asked Andy Tiegs, an avid adventure rider from San Antonio, Texas who’s already KLRed through the Americas to the Tierra del Fuego tip. His answer, unsurprisingly, pointed out three facets of Guatemala that make it virtually ideal for the North American adventure rider; the terrain, the culture and the location.

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The terrain being moto-inspirational is basically indisputable ... and so breathtaking, almost indescribable. The Guatemalan “highlands” are so aptly named due to the underlying tectonic plates that clashed into jagged peaks and run the length of the country. And, as part of the Central American Volcanic Arch, Guatemala has both the tallest volcanoes and the most, resulting in undulating roads that wind through the flat-free landscape. 

“That’s why they use so many helicopters instead of planes,” pointed out Chris Gwinner, a guide from CATours, Guatemala’s only dual-sport operation headquartered in Antigua.

The Mayan culture is another Guatemalan moto-vator and, as compared to other Central American countries, is alive with tradition; from vibrant textiles to antiquated methods of manual labor to an eclectic fusion of rituals combining the Mayan shamanistic beliefs and Catholicism that the Spaniards imposed during their 16th-century conquests.

The key benefit of the location for iron butt riders heading south is that Guatemala is north of the Darien Gap; the virtually impenetrable swamplands between Panama and Colombia that have no connecting roads and force motorcycles to be flown or floated into South America. And for those who want to two-wheel-tour post plane flight, the proximity, being north of the South American continental division, also means that the cost of airline tickets will give moto-venturers room to afford the rental as well as the flight.

This was the case with a couple of Guatemalan facet-motivated motorcyclists, the aforementioned Andy and his fellow Dirt Bike Club of San Antonio cohort JR Rhoades, who met up with CATours for a 7-day Highland Tour. The provided cycles were knobby-mounted Honda 200 CTX four-strokes – small for U.S. standards, but 150-pounds lighter and a ton more versatile than the KLR 650 I was plowing through the narrow, rutted, rainy-season roads.

As a third world country, a lot of Guatemala is unpaved and unmapped. And even when something is mapped and called Highway 1, for example, it can be rutted, rocky and require some serious suspension. This Highway 1 out of Antigua to the Pacaya Volcano was our first-day introduction to what would make this trip an awesome dual-sporting adventure.

Just a few kilometers out of the wealthy historical district of Antigua we came upon smaller pueblos that seemed to time-warp us into days past; women dressed in traditional hand-woven Mayan garb washing their clothes in communal basins amongst men carrying wood harvests on the backs of their donkeys, if not on their own. It was quite a contrast to the tourist-enclave of Antigua and would only get more interesting as we twisted through the cliff-side perched pueblos to the north.

In the morning, we headed out of Antigua and ascended 3
000-feet up the side of the Acatenango Volcano to an 8187-foot view of the valley below. The dirt roads were fairly technical, showing wear from the rainy season (May-October), but weren’t a question for the Texans on their lightweight 200s.

We descended through the cobblestone roads of the pueblos at the volcano’s base before a windy highway jaunt to an unmapped 15-mile dirt-cut on our way to Chichicastenango, a famous market town. The roads offered solid traction and even cement wheel tracks on the super-steep ups-n-downs.

Our group was certainly distinctive in its juxtaposition with the campesinos, or farm workers, of the rural communities and was given a few smiles from the locals and waves from the kids. Along this cut-through we came upon another two-wheeled traveler plugging along in Guatemalan style; no helmet, no gloves, two-up on a sporty-styled bike with no traction. Fortunately, the roads were clear because the poor soul was weaving back and forth as his rear tire spun him into a barely-balancing speed as he tried to ascend the inclines. And although there is a helmet law for motorcycle drivers, it's not enforced, nor is passenger quantity. I’ve seen five-up with a baby perched on a knee bouncing down a cobblestone roadway.

After a bit of “Chi-Chi” gift shopping for JR's "other half”, we wound down on the plastic stools of a outdoor market vendor and enjoyed pineapple pies and sweet rice milk for just pennies on the dollar which is another tourist enticement of Guatemala. At an exchange rate of about 8 quetzales to 1 dollar, and the ability to buy, for example, a phenomenally detailed hand woven wallet for a buck-fifty, it’s a good thing to save some luggage space for those upcoming birthdays.

On day four we headed 60-miles north curving up the paved switchbacks of Highway 15 and around the derrumbes, or road collapses, to Nebaj. Nebaj was a pueblo greatly affected by the 36-year civil war between campesinos and the government over land rights that ended in 1996. In essence, the old militaristic government began drawing up contracts for farmland that had been passed down from generation to generation by word-of-mouth, claiming ownership for itself and assassinating those who stood their ground. As a result, Nebaj is a mecca for NGOs and “voluntourism” for first-world busy-bodies who want to lend a hand in their time-off. And, along with the best meal since Christmas at momma’s, the Hacienda Mil Amores cheese farm in Acul, about 15-miles north of Nebaj's town center, is a worthwhile trek.

The fifth day was our longest ride at 124-miles, but with the treat of the Fuentes Georginas natural hot springs waiting for us just steps from our cabañas, monkey butt relief was in sight. After finding our way through the unsigned city of Huehuetenango, where the highway just stops and starts on the other side of town, and is found only by GPS or word-of-mouth, we had a smooth ride down the CA-1, aka Pan-American Highway, to the winding single lane ascent to the 8700-foot high pools.

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With such a mountainous terrain, Guatemalan farmers take what they can get. The steep hillsides on the way to the Fuentes are covered with patchworks of fruit and vegetable plots that are hand picked by men, women and even children. Guatemala does have one of the highest child labor rates in the Americas, but with such a vastness between rich and poor – the majority of the population being in the latter category – many of these children have no choice but to shine shoes, sell trinkets or harvest veggies to put food on the table.

From the chilly heights of the Fuentes Georginas we descended, climbed
the Pan-American again up to the highest point of our trip at 9912-feet, before a steep switchback descent to “the most beautiful lake in the world,” as Lago de Atitlán has been described many times over. Andy, Chris and I took advantage of the warm water and clear sky and hopped in the kayaks provided by our hotel and paddled the 45 minutes over to the pueblo of San Marcos to partake in a little cliff-jumping.

Our hotel was right on the water’s edge in San Pedro la Laguna, a major Guatemalan backpackers hub, with Spanish schools, yoga classes and a maze of vegetarian restaurants, coffee houses and drinking holes.

The majority of Lago de Atitlán is surrounded by paved or maintained dirt roads, except for a little five-mile portion in between San Pedro and its neighboring pueblo, Santiago Atitlán. And, since there have been a few cases of bandits robbing the slow moving passersby on this rutted rural stint, we got a “free-with-tip” police escort to be on the safe side.

Our passage around the rest of the postcard perfect lake was, however, delayed, but fortunately not by bandits. It was something that had held us up three times during the duration of our Highland Tour; town events. After one marathon and two parades in our short 7-day journey, you’d think that such common types of events would consist of planning a through route; but no. We watched for about an hour as costumed elementary school class after elementary school class marched down the cobblestone road. When the last band marched by we hopped on the tail end of the parade and got an amazing spectacle of our own; the smiling faces of hundreds of colorfully dressed indigenous locals staring back at us.

With larger-than-life landscapes, roads fit for dual-sporting, friendly people and a vibrant culture, Guatemala is a place that will draw you back. Chris, Andy and I have all come back because once was just not enough. Moto through Guatemala and chances you'll see us in the twisties.

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CATours Highland Spin

Day 1 Arrival in Guatemala City
Day 2 Pacaya Volcano
Day 3 Chichicastenango market
Day 4 Nebaj cheese farm
Day 5 Fuentes Georginas hot springs
Day 6 San Pedro la Laguna and Lago de
Day 7 Back to the historical heart of Antigua

   By Brienne Thomson


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