Guest Author: Mike Brcic
Mountain Biking in Guatemala
Two of the most beautiful places I have ever seen are in Guatemala, and both involve my favourite molecules hydrogen and oxygen (clue: in the right proportion, they make water). The first, Lake Atitlan, is relatively easy to get to. The second, Semuc Champey, involves a little more adventure, a la Romancing The Stone, but is worth every ounce of effort.
I first visited Guatemala last March, on a scouting trip for my adventure company Sacred Rides Mountain Bike Holidays. I was there to do a trial run of a new trip we’d set up with the help of some local guides; my wife and I decided to extend our trip with a couple of weeks on our own. We were not disappointed.
Guatemala is a country with a long, storied, and often tragic history. Most recently, the country was mired in a brutal civil war that lasted 36 years and ended only in 1996. Today, the country enjoys peace, yet poverty still affects a majority of its citizens, of whom almost 70% are indigenous Maya. Despite its tragic history and poverty, the people of Guatemala are among the friendliest and most beautiful people I have ever met.
Rarely have we passed through a Guatemalan village (seeing the country from the seat of a bike you pass through many communities) without the residents waving as we pass by, a friendly ‘buenos dias’ or ‘buenas tardes’ sending us on our way, or perhaps ‘que le vaya bien’ (‘may it go well for you’, or ‘good luck’) delivered with a wide grin. Children often race alongside us, laughing and screaming, amused at our bicycles and strange hats (our helmets).
I cannot claim to have seen every lake in the world, but Lake Atitlan must surely rank among the most spectacular in the world, if not the most spectacular. Its crystal-clear blue waters are ringed with 3 volcanoes: San Pedro, Toliman and Atitlan. These towering sentinels loom thousands of metres above the lake, providing postcard-perfect vistas from almost any viewpoint. Surrounding the lake are dozens of Mayan villages, ranging from a few dozen to a few thousand inhabitants. A walking trail connects them all.
Traditional Mayan life still reigns supreme in many of the villages; the local saint is a fellow by the name of Maximón, represented in effigy in a different residence every year. The origins of his cult are not very well understood by outsiders to the different Mayan religions, but Maximón is believed to be a form of the pre-Columbian Maya god Mam, blended with influences from Catholicism.
One of the best places to enjoy Lake Atitlan is a spectacular hotel called Casa Del Mundo. The hotel is built into the side of a steep cliff, with 16 reasonably priced rooms and suites scattered across its steep property. Every residence comes with jaw-dropping views of the lake and volcanoes, and the food is excellent. A walking trail passes behind the property, connecting it to nearby Santa Cruz (20 minutes) and Jaibalito (30 minutes). The hotel supports the local library at Santa Cruz with donations, and has a sustainability mandate that employs local people, heats water through a state-of-the-art solar hot water system, and reaches ever further with each passing year.
The trail from the highway above Lake Atitlan to the town of Santa Catarina de Palopo is one of the most beautiful pieces of mountain biking I have ever done, with stunning views of the lake at every turn, challenging steeps, and a descent into town through narrow alleyways and staircases that will stay with me forever. If you are a serious mountain biker, put this ride on the top of your to-do list!
Lake Atitlan is an easy 2-hour drive from Antigua (the main tourist centre of Guatemala and a beautiful place to visit in its own right), and shuttles depart hourly from various points around the city.
Semuc Champey, on the other hand, involves a few more logistics and a lot more time to get to. But it is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful bodies of water I have ever seen. The trip to Semuc Champey involves an all-day bus ride from Antigua to Coban, another bus or minivan ride to Lanquin, followed by a bumpy 1-hour ride in the back of a pickup truck through the jungle.
It’s not a journey for the squeamish, but the reward at the end of it is a place so perfectly picturesque it defies description. Semuc Champey is a series of cascading pools deep in the jungle, whose colour is so bright emerald green one can scarcely believe ones eyes. The pools are each about the size of half a football field, and water drops anywhere from 1 to 5 feet between each pool before ending in a 50-foot waterfall to the river. Underneath the pools, an underwater river thunders through the earth, emerging from behind the waterfall. If you’re unlucky, your guide will offer to rappel you down behind the waterfall – not an endeavour for the faint of heart.
It’s easy to see why the Maya revere Semuc Champey – it’s a place of such staggering beauty one immediately feels a sense of reverence and awe that is deeply religious, as if a place like this can only have been built by the hand of whatever God you believe in. Upon first climbing the trail above Semuc Champey and gazing upon the pools below, I was struck by a feeling of loss, as if a place this perfect should exist only in the absence of humans. It is, thankfully, well managed by the locals and its remoteness will ensure that it is not overrun by tourists.
If you go to Guatemala, please go in a spirit of respect and reverence. It is a country of great natural beauty populated with quiet yet friendly and wonderful people, and a country deserving of the best kind of tourism – sustainable and involving the input of its communities. There are also many NGO projects in Guatemala assisting its people – consider donating to one as a gift to Guatemala’s people before you leave.
Thank you so much to my guest host, Mike Brcic. Mike is the owner and president of Sacred Rides Mountain Bike Holidays. Sacred Rides offers challenging small-group singletrack adventures around the world, with a focus on sustainable and responsible tourism. Visit the Sacred Rides website for more information, or check out their cycling blog for more posts from Guatemala. Also check out their non-profit organization Bikes Without Borders, an NGO that uses bikes as a tool for development around the world.
Things to do in Guatemala
La Casa del Mundo
El Jaibalito, Guatemala