Guatemala Lite - A Desk Monkey's adventure

Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Epic Rides' started by Mr Farkle, Mar 6, 2009.

  1. Mr Farkle

    Mr Farkle Been here awhile

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    I'm 45 with two young boys and a 70 hour per week job. Reading the ride reports of other ADVrider's trips south of the US border has helped me get through some long winters. StickFigure , Jean Luc , Trevor & Nina , Bananaman , and Flying Avanti are all inspiring adventurers. It has been a goal for the past several years to be able to ride from the US to Mexico, Panama, or Ushuaia (Tierra del Fuego) but work, family, and the long ride from Chicago make that a very difficult prospect.

    Still, there is an option that I rarely see being covered but has now sated my "need" several times. I pick a destination, find someone that rents motorcycles, fly down with a friend or two, and have a mini-adventure. After two trips to Costa Rica and one to Panama that included staying with Embera natives in the Darien, I was ready to head back for something different. Nicaragua was my first choice but no bikes could be found. Another country that has appealed to me is Guatemala. The terrain is very mountainous and lush, the country is rich in history, and outside of a few cities, it's largely rural and devoid of tourists. This is not a hard core, on my own, full-scale adventure but it's no luxury cruise either. I'll take what I can get and love every minute of it.

    The one different component about this trip though was that (don't bail on me now!) we would be accompanied by a rider from the rental place. This is not my first choice because much of the adventure of the unknown flies out the window but it was our only option. Looking back, the only negative was that nothing went terribly wrong but there were some big advantages in the form great roads and meeting some cool people. The trip is now over and I'm recounting this from my notes so let's get started.

    In searching the Intertube, I came across Antigua-based CA Tours (www.catours.co.uk ). A few e-mails convinced me that I would play a big role in how the trip would come together. The rental place seemed legitimate, the price was reasonable (less than a 3-day ski trip), and a cheap, direct four-hour flight on Taca Airlines sealed the deal.

    At 2am on Feb 14, long time friend Dave and I headed off to Guatemala City. The immigration process was painless and though we could have easily grabbed one of many shuttles to Antigua, we had a ride waiting for us. The rental place is based out of a "Moto cafe" and we met our contact, Dave Drudge, our Dutch rider Taz, and Milvia, a friendly employee of the Cafe.
    After a quick Tuk-Tuk ride to the Black Cat Hostel we headed back to the Moto cafe to do some ridin'.

    Dave in the tuk-tuk. It was a bit cramped.
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    We were pretty tired from the flight and had planned on taking it easy, walking around Antigua the first day but ended up going for a three hour, round-trip ride that afternoon.
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    Having no recent opportunities to ride in Chicago's nasty winter, it felt great to be on a bike and heading up a dirt and gravel road into the mountains. At home, I ride an R1200GS and a KTM 950 Adventure so I was more than a little concerned about spending nine days on a small, low powered Honda 200 dual-sport. Other than the limited power for passing, however, it turned out fine. We spent the remainder of the day walking around Antigua.
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    #1
  2. Mr Farkle

    Mr Farkle Been here awhile

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    This breakfast was included in our $18 private room. (Yes, $9 each for lodging and breakfast)
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    It was overcast when we left Antigua and once we hit some elevation, it started to rain lightly. We were on tarmac for the first few hours and having a great time on the twisty roads in the mountains so it was no big deal. There were a few interesting sites on the road. We came across a pickup truck with a man driving and no one was next to him. In the bed of the truck were his kids and his wife. The wife was holding an umbrella as best she could at the 50km speeds. There were a lot of other motorcycles on the roads, almost all of the bikes we saw were 150cc or less. Very few riders wore helmets but many had cowboy hats - how the heck did those things stay on?

    After a few hours of riding on pavement we hit dirt and the amount of traffic dropped to almost nothing. Being in the mountains, the roads were never straight for more than a hundred yards. There was a lot to look at as we passed hundreds, maybe thousands, of people walking along the road. We came across pigs, donkeys, horses, cows, dogs, and chickens. But no cats. At one point we came across some construction that had the road shut down for about a half hour.


    We wait...
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    It was hot so we went back to a nearby tienda for a soda and to take in the local scene. This was our first major stop outside of the urban area and it was quite a change. There were about 20-25 teens and a few adults hanging out in the area. We were the center of attention and a few people, including a crazy woman, came up to talk or simply stare at the pale, shaved head, blue-eyed gringo. Blast my lousy Spanish!

    I have Rosetta Stone, which is a great tool, but I had not made the time to get past the first few lessons. I know a few basic phrases and can read enough to get the gist of the message but my proficiency is shameful.
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    We made it through the construction and spent the next several hours on some great, twisty, narrow, dirt mountain roads. Every so often we would encounter a pickup or a bus and there were always people walking or animals to navigate around. Coming from a frigid winter of nothing but working, working out, and sleeping, this was great! It was warm, the view was insane, and the roads were challenging, often blind, and we were traveling at a pretty decent clip. Riding these roads requires your full attention but I wasn't ready for what was just over the next hill...

    Truck! :yikes
    #2
  3. undersea4x2

    undersea4x2 Big Bore wanna' be

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    So far so good Mr farckle.................................
    I supprised my self when i got to the last photo and................saw I'm the 1st reply......

    Keep it coming and can you put a summary of the prices for hire and living please as I'm always interested in that part of the world but have no idea how much it costs to get around.
    I live on a BIG island, Australia and as such we cant nick over a boarder and have a cheap holiday. Its airfares and hireing and licences and insurance..............You see what I mean???

    Cheers

    Under
    #3
  4. picoda

    picoda Dalmatia

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    :lurk :lurk :lurk
    #4
  5. Mr Farkle

    Mr Farkle Been here awhile

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    I crested the hill going about 30-35mph and there he was, a white Toyota, in the middle of the road, coming at me! The road was 1 1/2 car widths wide, the mountain was on my left, a cliff on the right. There was really no room on either side and, besides, I was going too fast to change my direction in time. I knew that I was going to hit this truck. Having road raced cars for several years I've learned not to panic and this was no exception. At our closing speeds, I had about 1 1/2 to 2 seconds to react and knew to brake hard but DO NOT go down. I did not want to end up underneath that truck! Fortunately, we both braked hard and when I hit the center of his bumper, the speed was low enough that the impact only tossed me onto his hood.

    Nothing happened for a few seconds. I then quickly assessed my condition; everything seemed okay. At this point I looked up. The driver was still in his seat, frozen, with eyes as wide as saucers. Above him were several people in the back, all standing there staring at me. I tried to move the bike but it was sideways and there was no place to go. I tried to start it but got nothing. Finally, Taz came back (he had been a few hundred meters in front) and he started yelling at the driver.

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    The people in the back of the pickup all jumped out and ran up the road about a hundred meters. Once I got the bike moved, the driver took off, stopped for his riders, and was gone.

    Hey! Come back!
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    The bike needed some work. The wheel was bent and the forks were bent back and twisted. But hey, this thread is going under Ride Reports rather than Face Plant so I guess it could have been a bit worse.

    We were able to ride slowly into the next town, Rabinal, where we stopped at a bicycle shop and pounded out the wheel (it wasn't pretty) so that it was round again and would hold the tire. Taz managed to finagle the forks and handle bars so that they mostly pointed straight. I felt okay and it was time to put this behind us though I gotta admit that I played that scene over and over in my head a lot that night.

    We spent some time in Rabinal and grabbed some lunch. I checked out the local market. Few gringos come here and, being IT-pale, somewhat taller than everyone, and wearing motorcycle gear, I stuck out. It was great fun to look at the locals and, in return, be stared at by pretty much everyone.

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    From Rabinal to Salama, we were back on tarmac and spent the rest of afternoon on incredible twisty, fast mountain roads. I've ridden a lot of great roads: PCH, The Dragon, Hwy 128, the Cherahola, and the Cabot Trail. Today's roads were comparable but with no traffic.

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    In Salama, we began what would be our daily ritual of having a cerveza or two, or more, kicking back, and walking around the local area. After a good meal, this day was over. What a day.
    #5
  6. Mr Farkle

    Mr Farkle Been here awhile

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    If you've never ridden in Central America, you soon learn that nearly every rule you've been taught in the states is different.

    Speed limit signs are pointless and ignored. Octagonal "Alto" signs translate to "you may be liable if you run into someone". Slowing is optional as is looking both ways.

    Tumulos (aka topes / speed bumps) are used liberally to slow traffic. For motorcycles, they mean "passing zone" though we are careful around people. This means that the easiest passing is in town, in school zones and market areas. Usually you give the horn a quick beep to let them know you're there. They're the most fun when you can catch air and nearby children cheer. It's an odd feeling to pass a cop, hitting your horn, in a no passing zone, and having nothing come of it. You get over it though.

    Within 30 minutes of riding in Central America, I would bet that most foreigners have figured out traffic. You become completely accustomed to passing in no-pass zones, around blind corners, up hills, wherever. Is there a bus coming at you? No big deal. Everyone makes room. Usually.

    Then there are the non-traffic hazards. The thousands of kids that you see along the road know to look out. Cows are idiots.:topes Not only do they take up half a lane but they turn their heads to see what is passing them. Potholes, gravel patches, mud slides, washouts, tumulos, etc can be anywhere. Be alert and don't ride at night.
    #6
  7. Mr Farkle

    Mr Farkle Been here awhile

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    We woke to a caged toucan. Sadly, they had no Froot Loops.

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    By the time we got going, the sky was overcast and it soon started raining. Hard.

    One of the disadvantages of not riding alone is that you must occasionally compromise. I could ride all day. I'm usually awake by 5am and am ready to go. Today, I could have missed the rain completely. I'm sure that my travel buddies have their own lists of things that would rather not have to deal with - my snoring, boring stories (over and over), etc. Fortunately, we get along great and it's no big deal

    We stopped for awhile to wait out the rain, rode for awhile, then stopped again. Given that we were at a high altitude in the mountains, this thing could stall over us all day so we got going again and, sure enough, it wasn't long before the skies cleared and we were tearing it up once again. After a lunch break ($2.00) in the city of Coban, we headed off to Lanquin. The riding was terrific and the pictures hardly portray how beautiful it was.

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    The road to Lanquin was 11km of some of the worst pot holed and washboard gravel that I'd ridden in a long time and it was good to park the bike and walk around town for a bit. We checked out the village square.

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    All of the towns seem to have a village square or central meeting place. This is pretty cool. There are usually kids playing, a small market, and at least one or two vendors selling food. We ended up spending two nights in Lanquin and on the first night, it seemed that everyone was at the same festival. The next night, a Tuesday, was church night. By the end of the night, there was litter throughout the area but by morning, many people would pitch in and the streets would be clean. We saw this in all of the towns where we stopped.

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    This is the bathroom door in our room. It's closed. No frame and it is "shut" in the middle of a window.

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    #7
  8. Mr Farkle

    Mr Farkle Been here awhile

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    Early that evening before dark, we headed over to Parque Nacional Grutas De Lanquin - the local Caverns. Thanks to "StickFigure's" ride report, I knew what to expect for Lanquin and Semuc Champey. The caverns did not disappoint. We joined about a dozen other tourists. We knew there would be bats. We waited. After awhile we began to hear their chirps and see a few flitter by. All the lights were shut off for a few moments and when we started firing our cameras, you could see the bats. Thousands of them. Flying within inches of our heads.

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    Dinner that evening: Fried chicken, salad, tortillas, and fries, cost 30Q ($4.20) . At least I think it was chicken, it may have been bat.
    #8
  9. pilot

    pilot Slacker Moderator Super Moderator

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    Interesting report. :thumb I think I did your route backwards a few years ago. Salama - Rabinal - Antigua. :D
    #9
  10. bananaman

    bananaman transcontimental

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    :clap

    YOU HIT A TRUCK?!

    :clap
    #10
  11. Mr Farkle

    Mr Farkle Been here awhile

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    The nearest rooster started at 3:30 am. and did not shut up. I say nearest because every town has multiple roosters. Since we would be spending another night in Lanquin, Dave joked that we should buy the rooster and have him roasted.

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    Needless to say, I got up early and walked around the town. Hundreds of children walked by, most starting at me. What? Is my nose on fire? I'm more than 4 feel taller than some of the children. The little girls are cute as kittens in their school dresses. Some young men are wearing rubber boots and carry machetes - just like we'd seen in Panama. The house on the right of this picture was burning garbage, inside. You can kind of see some of the smoke. There was no chimney.

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    Today there would be no riding. We decided to leave the gear and the bikes at the hotel and catch a local van for the 9km ride. The large van had seats for about 20 people. By the time we left town, there were about 40 plus two riders hanging off the side. The hills were so steep that some riders had to get out and run to the top of the hill; the van simply didn't have enough power.


    There's still room for a few more. That's Dave in front.
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    The roads were very steep and bumpy. Being packed in the bus so tight, my leg cramped up in minutes and the lady had to get off my lap so that I could stretch.

    Semuc Champey is very cool. My pictures don't do the place justice but you get the idea.



    This shot is taken from high above the pools.
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    Here's Taz, Dave, me, and another tourista.
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    Time to go swimming.
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    Geronimo!
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    Again!! (7 meters)

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    Hmmm, this one is kinda scary. (10 meters)
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    Oh well, when will I be here again?
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    In the area where we were, approximately 85% of the population is Mayan. They speak a different version of Spanish. Most everyone greets you but I could never figure out to say "Buenos Dias", "Hola", "Bueno", or simply "Dias". I heard them all. Cafe (coffee) is pronounced Ka-fee-ta,



    As we were walking to the park, this little girl ran up to us to sell some chocolate. I'd seen cocoa powder in the markets and this stuff was great. Just cocoa and sugar. By local standards, it was pretty expensive at 5 quetzals (about $0.70). Still, you cannot resist this cutie and I went back for more.
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    I also purchased chocolate from this girl. Even though the image quality is bad, it's a keeper.
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    Dave chose not to swim with me and Taz so we put him in charge of our shoes. When it was time to get out of the water, we couldn't find Dave. After awhile, we gave up and started the long walk back to our meeting place. The rocks were sharp and hurt like crazy. We tried tying large leaves to our feet to escape the pain. I almost started crying. By the time we found Dave, both my feet were bleeding. (It wasn't Dave's fault; he had no way of knowing where we'd end up)



    We had a few cervezas and waited for the bus back to Lanquin. 4:30 rolled around and a half-empty bus pulled up to us but he didn't stop. Oh, crap! We started to walk the 9 km back to town. Up and down the steep hills, hoping to not have to spend too much time in the dark. A man from Belgium on a motorcycle stopped and gave Taz a ride back to Lanquin. Taz would then come back and pick us up, one at a time. Fortunately, about at the half way mark, an American driving a truck stopped and gave us a ride. Phew!


    At least the walk back was scenic.
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    #11
  12. Mr Farkle

    Mr Farkle Been here awhile

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    Today we retraced our route back to Rabinal, the town where we previously stopped to fix my bike after the accident.



    The lodging, as was typical, was sparse but adequate. What's a trip without a few widow makers?
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    Early morning in Rabinal
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    #12
  13. Mr Farkle

    Mr Farkle Been here awhile

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    Here's Dave coming off my favorite kind of road. Some dirt, some stones, and very little traffic.

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    Rabinal to Antigua

    We once again covered much of the same roads that we had hit on the way to Lanquin. No problem though because they're terrific. Hopefully, this time we won't be seeing any bumpers up close.


    We took a side trip to the Mayan ruins of Mixco Viejo. It was hot and we were the only tourists there. Everyone else was probably headed for the more spectacular site at Tikal in the northeast part of the country.
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    After hitting the ruins, we had one final stop before Antigua; the local taco stand. If I lived nearby, I'd probably be eating here every week. Three tacos including six tortillas for 10Q ($1.40)
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    #13
  14. schismatic

    schismatic Been here awhile

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    fantastic report. i can't wait to read more. sounds like you are having a grand adventure!
    #14
  15. redpillar

    redpillar Been here awhile

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    Guati is my most favourite country!! I will lookup the bike rental in Antigua nest time I am there!! Good report!!!
    #15
  16. dtysdalx2

    dtysdalx2 PITA but useful

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    Nice report!

    I spose itd be nice to have your KTM there instead..
    #16
  17. Mr Farkle

    Mr Farkle Been here awhile

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    Thanks for the feedback. I haven't been to a lot of countries but this place really appeals to me. Lots of freedom, the people are polite and friendly, and the scenery is great. Outside of about four places (Tikal, Guatemala City, Antigua, and Lake Atitlan), there were no tourists, no cell phones, no fast food, no tvs, no mini-vans, and no traffic lights. I hate traffic lights.
    #17
  18. Mr Farkle

    Mr Farkle Been here awhile

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    Here's a shot from Antigua, of the sun setting over Volcan Fuego. This volcano is active and even though we didn't see any lava, we did see an occasional poof of smoke.

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    In the evening, Taz and Dave joined us at a local nightclub "Another drink in the Wall" where we ate Argentinian food from a restaurant next door. The club, as you might guess, had a Pink Floyd theme but when we'd been there for an hour and I'd still not heard any, I asked the owner to play a song or two and for the next 90 minutes, he played nothing but Pink Floyd, from the popular to the obscure. Great stuff. Taz introduced us to an American writer, Mike, from New York. Taz referred to us a "Lefties" because of our disagreement about some of the recent policies of our government. (I'm politically agnostic) We had a pretty good conversation with Mike challenging us on our opinions of what should or should not be done with those responsible for the Iraq war.

    My original opinion of Antigua was not good. The area where we initially went had many tourists and, while I am one, I don't like to be around them. Dave and I had some time so we walked off the beaten paths. We found streets with great restaurants, friendly people, and few tourists. We wandered over to their big market and discovered that we were the only Caucasians in site; this in a town full of tourists. The markets were very cool. Packed with people, there was lots of yelling and selling of anything you could carry including food, clothing, pirated music and DVDs, and pharmaceuticals. Antigua has definitely grown on me.

    Antigua to Panajachel (Lago Atitlan)



    Following our second night at the Black Cat Hostel we took off for another popular tourist destination, Lake Atitlan. The ride would take us past the local volcanoes and up into the mountains to this lake, described by Antiguans as the most beautiful on the planet. The paved portion of the ride had a bit more traffic than what we become accustomed to but the riding was terrific. We hit a few hours of dirt early on then smooth switchbacks until we had the lake in site. What a view.

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    We're heading to the volcano off in the distance.

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    A typical, rural home. I was trying to get a shot of the kids.

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    Lake Atitlan - it was very hazy from several fires in the valley. We probably sat at this site for a half hour just soaking in the sun and the great views.

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    #18
  19. Mr Farkle

    Mr Farkle Been here awhile

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    Our destination for the day was Panajachel. Almost immediately, I did not like the town. The main strip that we walked along was all targeted to tourists, with mostly tourist prices. There were some exceptions, like my new favorite ice cream bar (5Q).

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    We sat by the lake for awhile and had an early dinner. One of Taz's friends stopped by and joined us for awhile. Milton was from El Salvador but had moved to Antigua. He had a great accent as, if I understand correctly, he learned how to speak English from a Brit. After a few hours we were off to a cantina before retiring for the night.


    I awoke in the middle of the night in a panic. Where was my camera? I had been carrying it with me but had not remembered putting it away. I was devastated. All of the pictures that I was looking forward to showing to my wife, Laura, were now gone. As we were heading out of town, we checked at the restaurant and then the cantina. Amazingly, Taz came out with the camera in his hand. I had left it behind and an honest businessman had recovered it. I gave him a small reward and big hug. What luck!
    I understand from some locals that Panajachel has a bad reputation as a tourist trap. That morning, as we stopped for coffee, I did see a more normal side of this village. It's not fair to label it as I have without checking out the entire area so, my opinion is not set.


    Panajachel to Antigua


    Leaving Panajachel, we had planned to ride along some dirt roads surrounding the lake but our plans were nearly cut short by road construction. We found an alternate route and ended up on the steepest set of gravel covered switchbacks that I've ever encountered.
    For some reason, the remaining images are all terribly over-exposed. The camera was dead by the time I got home and is now at the repair shop.

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    This road is much steeper than it appears. The grassy area to the right of Dave is actually flat. At one point, Dave's bike died and he actually started sliding backwards, even with his wheels locked. The challenge was a rush. :-)

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    Our third and final night in Antigua


    We got back around mid-afternoon and had a great lunch at a Mediterranean restaruant owned by one of Taz's friends. Great food - another place I could easily go to each week. Tonight we stayed in a different Hostel called Umma Gumma - Hmmm, what's the deal with the Pink Floyd references? This was another interesting hostel with a lot of simple amenities for a decent price - 150Q for both of us, for a private room (about $20).

    Sunday - the trip is almost over!


    But not quite. While Dave stayed in Antigua, I joined Taz and another rider, Bill, from Knoxville for a day in the dirt. What a blast! After leaving town we headed off into some lowlands that challenged us with something like 18 river crossings, racing through some sugar cane fields, past a rubber plantation, and up a volcano where we topped out at over 2700 meters. We'd gone from sweltering heat to downright chilly in under an hour.

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    Too deep to ride through.

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    #19
  20. Mr Farkle

    Mr Farkle Been here awhile

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    Summary

    I'm lucky to have a wife that encourages me to go on these trips. She rarely gets a break but tolerates the time away and expense. My hope is that we'll some day be able to travel together.


    For riders that have never traveled outside of the US, this is an easy approach to testing the waters. The riding is only as difficult as you request and the language difference is not a barrier unless you don't try. I recommend CATours for anyone wanting to travel to a country not overrun with tourists. Several years ago, Costa Rica was great but by our second trip, people were greeting us in English. In Guatemala, it was nearly all Spanish or Mayan. The cost is not bad either. The 9-day trip cost less than what I would spend flying west for a 3-4 day ski trip.


    TACA Airlines was great! A lot of leg room, meals both ways, and under four hour each way from Chicago. The flights took off at 2am and 8:30pm but we benefited by quickly getting through customs and getting almost an entire extra day in Guatemala.
    #20