We spent just over 4 weeks in beautiful Guatemala, primarily in the colonial city of Antigua, where we took Spanish classes.
We didn’t cycle as much as we would have liked in Guatemala, due to safety concerns, traffic and my ribs (I was still recovering from my rib fracture). The roads that we cycled on were generally very good, with wide shoulders (with the exception of the highway to Guatemala City). We had been warned about the crazy Guatemalan drivers, but we found the drivers to be pretty respectful, similar to Mexico. The people were generally friendly (especially in the South), although in some smaller villages, people were a bit reserved.
We had been expecting Guatemala to be cheap, and certainly in comparison to Canada and the USA, it is. But, we were somewhat disappointed to find that it wasn’t much cheaper than Mexico, and in some respects, it was actually more expensive (e.g. food). No doubt, that was because we mainly stayed in touristy places, where prices were often quoted in USD (especially for tours).
Nevertheless, we enjoyed our time in Guatemala (in particular, Antigua and Lake Atitlan) and would love to have the opportunity to go back again one day.
I have divided the Guatemalan part of our trip into two blog entries. Here is the first part which covers the Trek Stop (5kms from the Guatemalan border in Belize) to Guatemala City.
Wednesday 1st April: Trek Stop (Belize) to Santa Elena
We got up early and were on the road by 7am, as we planned to cycle to Santa Elena (near Flores), which would be a big 100+km day, including a border crossing. However, when we got to the Belizean Border, one of the border officials asked whether we planned to cycle to Flores. We said “yes” and she warned us against it as 2 cyclists had been robbed at gun point on the road only 2 weeks before. We had read that the road from the border to Flores was a bit dodgy, but we had assumed, perhaps a little naively, that the thieves would target buses, not cyclists. We really wanted to cycle to Flores, but we decided that it wasn’t worth the risk.
The border crossing into Guatemala was super easy. There was no queue and the border official didn’t even ask us any questions; she simply stamped our passport with a 90 day visa.
Now that our ride was over for the day, we set about trying to find a collectivo (a public bus) to transport us from the border to Santa Elena. We found the bus terminal easily enough and were hurried onto a collectivo that was about to leave. We watched anxiously as the Guatemalans threw our bikes on top of the collectivo and stashed our numerous panniers under the seats. The bikes were strapped onto the top of the van standing up. We had visions of them toppling off, but the driver drove surprisingly carefully and we all made it to Santa Elena in one piece.
We had booked a room in a share house in Santa Elena over the Easter period, as we had heard that the Good Friday Semana Santa (Easter) parade on the island of Flores was an event not to be missed and we also wanted some time to explore Flores and nearby Tikal. The share house was perfect and it turned out that the other room was vacant, except for a tiny white kitten, nicknamed “Princess” (but who became affectionately known as the “Little White Monster”!) We got settled into our new home and spent the afternoon planning our route from Guatemala through to Panama.
One of the reasons why we chose the share house was because it was managed by a German architect (Dieter), who worked at Tikal studying and restoring many of the ancient structures. He was a super friendly guy and happily agreed to give us an overview of Tikal before we visited to give us some background and save us the cost of a tour. It was absolutely fascinating listening to Dieter talk about Tikal and the amazing alignment between the various temples – thanks again Dieter!!
Thursday 2nd April – Saturday 4th April: Santa Elena
David had been following the progress of two Dutch cycle tourers, Ellen and Elmar, since we were back in Melbourne dreaming about this trip. They were cycling from Argentina up to Alaska and it just so happened that they were in Flores on Thursday. David contacted them on Facebook and we arranged to catch up for “quick” coffee at the Burger King in Santa Elena at 8am. But, our quick 1 hour catch up, quickly became a 2 hour catch up, and then as Ellen and Elmar were about to cycle to start cycling to Tikal, another couple of Czech cycle tourers rolled up that Ellen and Elmar met at the very beginning of their tour in Argentina! All plans for cycling further that day were abandoned, and we decided to have an impromptu dinner party at our place that evening. Ellen and Elmar needed somewhere to stay and as there was a spare room at our place, they took the other room. We had such a brilliant time, swapping stories and advice. The others had all been on the road for much longer than we had and we learnt so much from them. They were really inspirational and we couldn’t wait to start cycling again.
Ellen and Elmar planned to cycle to Tikal on Good Friday and we agreed to meet them at Temple IV around 6.30am on Saturday morning. We spent Good Friday watching the little township of Flores set up for the Semana Santa (Easter) procession through the streets of Flores. I have written a separate blog about this beautiful parade.
On Saturday morning, we got up at the crazy hour of 4.30am (yawn) and went to catch our mini bus to Tikal. We stood waiting in the dark for 40 minutes, before a mini bus pulled up. We weren’t sure that it was the mini bus we had booked (as there is apparently a lot of poaching of clients between mini bus companies), but after waiting for 40 min, we were ready to take whichever mini bus was prepared to stop and take us! We arrived in Tikal around 6.15am and after a quick coffee, we headed off in search of Temple IV, where we hoped to meet up with Elmar and Ellen. Thankfully, they were still on top of the temple when we arrived, so we were able to explore Tikal together. It was really nice to wander around the temples with them and afterwards we went had lunch together. We also ran into the Czech couple, who were on a tour of Tikal, so we managed to take a couple of group photos together!
Sunday 5th April: Santa Elena to Finca Ixobel
Our first real day of cycling in Guatemala went very well. After 4 days in and around Flores, we were itching to get back on the bikes, especially after meeting up with the other cycle tourers. Dieter and Eva got up early to say “Good-bye” and it felt like we were saying good-bye to old friends.
We cycled towards El Cruce for approximately 10kms, before we turned onto Highway CA13. We were pleased to see that it “generally” had a nice shoulder, although it cut out every few kilometers (this seemed to be a Guatemalan thing). The road was quite hilly and we ascended, more than we descended. The heat was intense and we were sweating heavily. We had been slightly worried about the traffic, but the drivers seemed to be driving quite carefully and generally gave us a wide berth. Everyone was very friendly and on average, we were getting thumbs up and honks of support from every second car.
I started to relax, but was on guard for dogs, which seemed to be much more active than in Belize. In one town a dog came racing up from behind us. Only when I blew on my whistle repeatedly did it stop chasing me.
We passed through a number of little towns, where we stopped to buy drinks. The villagers were reserved, but not unfriendly. My Spanish teacher in Antigua later explained that the villagers are still wary of white foreigners, after a spate of child kidnappings for adoptions in the USA. She told us to be careful not to pay too much attention to children as we pass through villages in Guatemala.
We arrived at Finca Ixobel (an eco-hotel and campground), 5kms outside of Poptun, late in the afternoon. My ribs were aching after the ride, so we decided to stay in a “tree house”, rather than our tent. The “tree house”, wasn’t really a tree house, but rather a little cabin on the edge of a forest. The real “tree house” appeared to be falling out of the tree (see the picture), so we were happy that we weren’t staying there!
The tree house was Q245 per night (about USD32), which we thought was a bit steep, considering how rustic it was. The “tree house” was full of spiders and creepy crawlies – not for the faint hearted!
We had read that the food at Finca Ixobel was excellent and it did not disappoint. Dinner on Sunday was a huge Asian style buffet – perfect for the hungry cyclist!
KMs travelled: 104km
Monday 6th April: Finca Ixobel
My ribs were hurting when I woke up, so we decided to have a rest day in Finca Ixobel, so that I didn’t overdo my “cycling comeback”. Finca Ixobel was a lovely place to chill for the day. We spent the day at the main house, working on our blog and planning the next phase of our journey. We met another cyclist from Canada, who was touring solo through Guatemala. He had been taking the back roads and had unfortunately been attacked twice by villagers. Fortunately, both times he had been rescued; first by a local family who subsequently tried to rob him(!) and then by a kind, old grandmother, who obviously held sway in the local community. Dirt roads weren’t the best for me at this point, given my ribs, but after hearing his story, we decided to stick to the main road and not venture off road in Guatemala!
Tuesday 7th April: Finca Ixobel to Rio Dulce
This was another big day on the bike, with lots of climbing, although thankfully we descended more than we climbed. The scenery was beautiful – lush jungle, interspersed with farmland. On one particularly steep hill, we had an audience of Guatemalan farmers, who stopped working in the fields to watch us puff and pant our way up. They cheered when we made it to the top, which raised our spirits considerably!
It was incredibly hot and humid while cycling. We stopped frequently to buy drinks. At one of our many drink stops two little girls were standing outside the family shop when we rolled up. They smiled at us and watched transfixed while we bought and drank a coke. As we were getting ready to leave they dragged a huge, rusty bike out from behind the shop. The bike was far too big for the girls, but the oldest started pedaling, with the younger girl sitting on the handle bars. They cycled along with us for a few meters laughing before turning around. It was really touching and wonderful to see! Maybe they will grow up to be cyclists too!
We arrived in Rio Dulce around 4pm. After the small towns that we had passed through, I was surprised at how big and bustling Rio Dulce was. We passed a somewhat dodgy looking hotel and I went into inquire thinking “don’t judge a book by its cover”, while David stood outside to mind our bikes. The friendly manager quoted me 70 quetzals (about 9 USD) for a room with a fan, which sounded great until I saw the room … It was small, moldy and smelly and I had the distinct impression that we would get robbed if we spent the night there!
We kept cycling and eventually we came to the bridge over Rio Dulce. David had read that there were hotels located under the bridge, so we turned off in the hope that we would find something more suitable. Apparently there was a backpackers on the other side of the bridge, but I was exhausted and didn’t want to cycle across the biggest bridge in Central America, unless it was absolutely necessary. We came across a nice looking Hotel, so I went into inquire. A nice room on the 1st floor with air-conditioning was 300 quezals, or 250 quezals (USD 32.5) without a receipt. Perhaps, we could have found something cheaper if we kept looking, but I was really tired. My Spanish teacher later explained to me that businesses don’t have to pay tax if the customer doesn’t ask for a receipt. So, it’s really important to insist on getting receipts in Guatemala to ensure that businesses pay tax. Unfortunately, at the time we didn’t know that.
KMs travelled: 102km
Wednesday 8th April: Rio Dulce to Guatemala City
We got up early to start our bridge crossing before the traffic built up. The crossing was relatively easy and we paused on top to take in the view and snap a few pics.
We sailed through the town of El Relleno on the opposite side of the bridge. The terrain was reasonably flat for the first 10-15kms and then started undulating. Around the 23km mark, we came across a short, sharp climb. We were both sweating like mad and I was having trouble changing gears on my rohloff grip shift as my gloves where soaking wet. When we made it to the top of the steep hill, we came across stalls selling fresh pineapples – how refreshing! We pulled off the road to share one and I changed my gloves.
After the pineapple stop, we coasted downhill to meet the Jacobo Arbenz Guzman Highway, which would take us to Guatemala City. Turning right onto the highway, the amount of traffic instantly tripled and we were fighting for space on the road. It was awful, with limited or no shoulder. The road was choked with trucks and buses that flew past us at great speed. Neither of us was enjoying the cycling since we turned onto the new highway and we were both sweating like mad in the humid conditions. We came across a gas station, which doubled as the local bus station, and we stopped to buy a drink and have a breather. I had already decided that I didn’t want to cycle through Guatemala City. We had planned to catch a bus closer to Guatemala City, but when a big bus to Guatemala City pulled into the bus station, we decided to call it a day and bus the rest of the way to Guatemala City. We want to cycle the length of the Americas, but we also want to enjoy it, and that was not happening (sorry if you disapprove Paul S ).
Thankfully, we were able to put the bikes and our panniers under the bus without dismantling them. Our plan was to change buses in Guatemala City and take a connecting bus to Antigua the same night, but we hadn’t done our homework and when we arrived in Guatemala City around 5pm, we discovered that there was no central bus station. We were in Zone 1 and buses to Antigua apparently left from Zone 3 or Zone 7. An official from the second bus station that we went to inquire at gave us a rough indication of where we could catch the bus to Antigua from, but we had no address and as we still hadn’t had a chance to buy a Guatemalan sim card, we didn’t have access to Google Maps. David was happy to try our luck and cycle off towards Zone 7, but I was worried that we wouldn’t be able to find it before it got dark and I didn’t want to end up cycling the street of Guatemala City in the dark (the city doesn’t have the best reputation for safety). We made inquiries at one hotel across from the bus station, but they wouldn’t let us put our bikes in the room, so that wasn’t an option. So, we went in search of another hotel. We had the feeling that we weren’t in the best part of town, because ALL of the buildings (including pharmacies, snack shops etc) had heavy duty iron bars on the outside. It kind of looked like a prison district. We past some super dodgy looking hotels, which reminded me of the 70 quetzales place in Rio Dulce and then we came across one that looked a bit like a motel, with rooms on the first floor. I made inquiries and was quoted 150 quezals (USD20) for a decent double room. Perfect. The lady on the front desk was lovely and gave us a recommendation for where to eat dinner nearby.
After dinner, I spent some time researching how to get to Antigua from Guatemala City. According to our travel guide, we were in the dodgiest part of the city. Great. The travel guide recommended that we should take a private shuttle from Guatemala City to Antigua, as robberies are common on the public collectivos that we were planning to take. Fantastic.
Around 1am that night, I awoke to what sounded like a gang trying to break into our hotel!!! People were screaming and yelling and creating a huge amount of noise. Thankfully, our hotel, along with all the other surrounding businesses, had a huge roller door and the security guard on night duty refused to open the door. The gang stayed outside our hotel shaking the roller door and seemingly trying to get in for about an hour. I was somewhat freaking out … while David, with his earplugs in, slept through the whole thing!!!
KMs travelled: 32km