The Guatemalan mountain town of Panajachel is full of steep and technical Mayan footpaths that snake through the mountains surrounding the enormous and picturesque Lago de Atitlán. After spending time chasing newfound Guatemalan amigos around the remote trails, gut-wrenching climbs, technical descents and more than enough hike-a-bike, you quickly realize this country has much more to offer than typical mountain biking. There is some seriously wild terrain here. Guatemala is a land ripe for big adventure.
Enlisting the help of photographer Brendan James and his knowledge of Guatemalan trails, we headed to Colorado where we met our Fatback Rhino bikes complete with Lauf forks. These bikes would carry us and our gear across rugged terrain, while also being thrown into pickup trucks and on top of chicken buses (old souped-up school buses never intended to go the speeds they are driven on these curvy mountain roads). The Fatback Rhino is a versatile combination of agile and rugged, and we counted on them to combine bikepacking, mountaineering, and fat biking on four volcanoes over three weeks: Volcán Santiaguito, Volcán Tajumulco, Volcán Tacaná, and Volcán Acatenango.
Our first adventure was getting the bikes to Guatemala. To get them from Colorado to Guatemala, they were squeezed into cardboard boxes for the long and rough trip South. Once the bikes were back together local testing began, riding on the beaches of Lago de Atitlán and around Panajachel, while waiting for the local sastreria to sew bikepacking bags to be used on the trip. Cycling is part of the culture in Guatemala, but rarely do you see these “bicigordas.” Many were very curious to check them out and excited when they found out the plans for our adventure.
Over the next three weeks we proceeded to get our butts kicked on unforgiving terrain surrounding the volcanoes. This was the most difficult endeavor of our lives. It would be lying to say any part of it was easy. At the same time, it was incredible. The remote mountain villages were full of curious, friendly, and helpful Mayans. The winding roads between the volcanoes revealed awe-inspiring views around every curve and the relative ease of pedaling on pavement and gravel. Green farmland, rocky moonscapes, and alpine tundra surrounded us. We were witness to the country’s extremes: the most desperate poverty and the most beautiful vibrant culture we had ever seen. Our most awful night spent with stomach sickness on a hill high above a Northern border town in the rain was followed by the next two nights recovering in a warm bed of a kind pharmacist and his family, after being welcomed into their home and treated like honored guests.
We pedaled, pushed, and carried our loaded bikes up the steep flanks of the volcanoes high above the clouds, and saw the country spread out below us. We saw a sea of mountains winding down to the coastal plains of both the Atlantic and the Pacific. We watched in awe as the orange glow of sunset broke through the fog to illuminate the rocks, trees, and alpine shrubs that were shrouded on our ascent, and surfed back down through volcanic rubble, deep sand, and ash. We grew comfortable in the loose and rugged soil on our four-inch tires, letting our bikes move playfully beneath us as we floated down the mountain.
On Volcán Acatenango, we met a goal of camping under the stars atop the summit crater right next to the active Volcán Fuego. This was a goal since first coming to Guatemala a year earlier and seeing this volcano in action. It is the closest one can safely get to an active volcano. With over ten hours of climbing behind us, we reached the summit with our 70 pound loaded bikes just before midnight. We stood in awe witnessing a silent explosion in the dark. Bright red magma shooting up into the sky, then fading to black as it rolled down the flanks of the mountain. We were the only humans around at 13,000 feet with nothing between us and the brilliant stars but a sea of black velvet.
In the morning, we had the whole day to play on Acatenango’s slopes. The descent off the summit crater was thrilling, steep and at times scary. One wrong move sends you flying off the bike and bodysurfing down the rubble, and we were thankful for the stability of the fat tires as we balanced on the pedals though fatigued from the previous day’s efforts. At a saddle we dropped our gear and hiked up lines to shred down, finally free of the weight of our gear. We felt light as a feather, and our hoots and laughs echoed off the neighboring mountains as we carved turns through the ash-coated soil.
We made our way down the last 6,000-feet at sunset using the last light to pedal back to the city of Chimaltenango. With the adventure almost over, it was time to ride back to Panajachel and recover from three weeks on the road. In Chimaltenango we hitched a ride on the PanAmerican Highway at midnight, heaving our loaded bikes into the back of a kind stranger’s pickup truck, and sped off through the chilly night towards home. Our last ride was by starlight down the final descent to Lago Atitlán and into Panajachel, with one last stop at a late-night tienda to buy some ice cold beers to toast the end of our great adventure -- the next one already flickering in the back corner of our minds.