By Brienne Thomson
We were relaxing aroun...
November/December 2011 25
It’s a society where not
claiming one or the other
would leave you without
much of a social life...
26 ADVENTURE RIDER MAGAZINE September/October 2011 27
Just a few kilometers out of the wealthy historical district of Anti...
January/February 2011 29
On day four, we headed 60 miles north to
Nebaj, curving up the paved switchbacks of
Highway 15 an...
Nebaj was a pueblo greatly affected by the 36-year
civil war between campesinos and the ...
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Adventure Rider Magazine: The Guatemalan Grip


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“The Guatemalan Grip,” is about an adventure I took through the Guatemalan Highlands with a small two-wheeling tour group.

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Adventure Rider Magazine: The Guatemalan Grip

  1. 1. By Brienne Thomson 22 ADVENTURE RIDER MAGAZINE22 ADVENTURE RIDER MAGAZINE November/December 2011 23 We were relaxing around the Moto Café conversing about route plans and rental bike set-up for Andy and JR while sipping on some rich, locally grown Guatemalan java. Chris had already confirmed all of the tour reserva- tions and I happened to roll into Antigua on my meandering KLR jour- ney just in time to tag along on the 7-day dual-sport spin through the Guatemalan Highlands. “Why Guatemala?” I asked Andy Tiegs, an avid adventure rider from San Antonio, Texas who’s already KLR’ed 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. The terrain, being moto-inspirational, is basically indisputable ... and so breathtaking, almost indescribable. The Guatemalan “high- lands” 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 helicop- ters instead of planes,” pointed out Chris Gwinner, our guide from CA- Tours, Guatemala’s only dual-sport operation headquartered in Anti- gua. Along with such variation in elevation, including Guatemala’s east and west beachfront borders, comes diversity in temperature, land- scape and life. You can enjoy a fresh fish lunch on a 90-degree palm- lined beach in the Black Garifuna-populated pueblo of Livingston on Guatemala’s Caribbean coast before motoring up a 4,300-foot climb with a 30 degree drop in temperature to sip a fresh cup o’ joe in the central coffee region of Cobán. In a country smaller than Virginia, al- though with practically double the population of almost 15 million, the uniqueness of Guatemala’s people and the practice and mainte- nance of lifestyles so different from our own is an amazing experience just to be in the midst of. Coban Dance Fair: The folkloric Baile del Convite or “Dance of the Banquet” is preserved and performed in the many Guatemalan town fairs. I spotted this one in the pueblo of San Pedro Carchá, just outside of Cobán. January/February 2011 23
  2. 2. November/December 2011 25 It’s a society where not claiming one or the other would leave you without much of a social life, and where someone asking your religious preference is in the same sentence as them asking your name... " " 24 ADVENTURE RIDER MAGAZINE The indigenous Mayan culture, specifically, is another Guate- malan moto-vator and, as compared to other Central American countries, is alive with tradition. It ranges from vibrant textiles to antiquated methods of manual labor to an eclectic fusion of ritu- als combining the Mayan shamanistic beliefs and Catholicism that the Spaniards imposed during their 16th-century conquests. About 60 percent of the population claims Catholicism and 40 percent claims Evangelical Christianity. It’s a society where not claiming one or the other would leave you without much of a so- cial life, and where someone asking your religious preference is in the same sentence as them asking your name – not that there’s any religious prejudice or problems for foreign travelers. The key benefit of the location for iron butt riders heading south is that Guatemala is north of the Darien Gap, which is the virtually impenetrable swampland between Panama and Colom- bia that has no connecting roads and forces motorcycles to be flown or floated into South America (current costs are around $1,000 to ship or fly your body and your bike across the Gap). And for those who want to two-wheel tour post plane flight, the prox- imity, 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 the aforementioned Andy, who has already successfully traversed Central and South America, and his fellow Dirt Bike Club of San Antonio cohort JR Rhoades, who were ready to roll out with CATours for a 7-day Highland Tour. The cy- cles provided 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, rut- ted, 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 rocky, rutted and require some serious suspension. I joined Andy, JR and our guide, Chris, on this harsh highway out of Antigua to the Pacaya Volcano for our first- day introduction to what would make this trip an awesome dual- sporting adventure. The Guatemalan GRIP Andy in front of a hilltop, stand-alone church we spotted on our dirt-cut to Chi-Chi. The Austrian-esque green rolling hills on the way from Nebaj to the cheese farm in the tiny pueblo of Acul. JR enjoying the view from the top of the Pacaya Volcano. Our motorcycles adorning the Hotel Chalet in Chi-Chi.
  3. 3. 26 ADVENTURE RIDER MAGAZINE September/October 2011 27 Just a few kilometers out of the wealthy historical district of Anti- gua en route to Pacaya, we came upon smaller pueblos that seemed to time warp us into days of the past. Women were dressed in traditional hand-woven Mayan garb, washing their clothes in communal basins amongst men who were carrying wood harvests on the backs of their donkeys, if not on their own. It was quite a contrast to the tourist-en- clave 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 AcatenangoVolcano to an 8,187-foot view of the valley below. The dirt roads were fairly technical, showing wear from the rainy season (May-October), but weren’t an issue 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 route, populated by rural towns with family-run corner stores perched on the flattened, narrow crests of the hills, was certainly off the beaten path, as noted by the stares and energetic waves from the kids. Fortunately, the dirt roads, which are never guaranteed in such a rainy climate, offered solid traction and even cement wheel tracks on the super steep ups and downs. 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 slick tires. It was a good thing that the roads were clear because the poor soul was weaving back and forth as his rear tire spun him into a barely-balancing speed.We waited for safe passage to squeak by him, but he still flipped us the ‘I’m an angry man’ digit out of knobby jealousy, or perhaps southern Califor- nia’s contagious road-rage has spread south. And although there is a helmet law for motorcycle drivers, it’s not enforced outside the few towns big enough to be called cities, nor is passenger quantity. I pretty much became detuned to passing 125cc’s loaded with four-up and a baby perched on a knee bouncing down a cobblestone road after the months I spent meandering Guatemala. After setting into our fancy Hotel Chalet and a bit of required “Chi-Chi” gift shopping for JR’s “other half,” we wound down on the plastic stools of a kiosk café under the stars and enjoyed pineapple pies with sweet rice milk for just pennies on the dollar – which is an- other tourist enticement of Guatemala. At an exchange rate of about 8 quetzals to 1 dollar and the ability to buy, for example, a phenomenal- ly detailed, hand woven wallet for a buck-fifty, it’s not a bad a idea to save a little luggage space for those birthdays down the road. The Guatemalan GRIP Waiting for the rainy season landslide to be cleared as a few local women pass the bulldozer on foot. A pineapple farmer unloading his harvest at the Chichicas- tenango Market. Road collapse on the way back from Lago de Atitlan to Antigua. Chichicastenango vendor of vibrant hand-woven goods, from belts, to purses, to oven mitts.
  4. 4. January/February 2011 29 On day four, we headed 60 miles north to Nebaj, curving up the paved switchbacks of Highway 15 and around the derrumbes, or“road collapses.” Nebaj is a busy little pueblo set in a cup of mountains with a morning froth of clouds covering the green peaks. But on top of the lush landscape is a village still recovering from the Guatemalan civil war (see sidebar). With genocide claims filed and an economy based on wire transfers from family members smuggled into the United Sates, Nebaj has been flooded with aid organizations helping to rebuild and revitalize the beauty that remains. Additionally, a worthwhile way to induce a bit of economic stimulation is the Hacienda Mil Amores cheese farm. Established in 1938, the Hacienda, about 15 miles north of Nebaj’s town center in Acul, served up the best meal I’ve had since Thanksgiving at momma’s house. The fifth day was our longest ride at 124 miles, but with the treat of the Fuentes Georgi- nas natural hot springs waiting for us just steps from our cabañas, monkey butt relief was in sight. After finding our way through the un- signed city of Huehuetenango - where the highway just stops, the city grid begins and the exit can be found on the other side of town only by GPS or word-of-mouth - we had a smooth ride down the CA-1 (a.k.a. Pan-Ameri- can Highway) to the winding single lane ascent to the 8,700-foot high pools. With such a mountainous terrain, Guate- malan 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 has one of the high- est 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 har- The Guatemalan GRIP vest veggies to put food on the table. From the chilly heights of the Fuentes Georginas, we descended and then climbed back up the Pan-American to the highest point of our trip at 9,912 feet before a steep switch- back descent to“The most beautiful lake in the world,” as Lago de Atitlán was described by Brave New World author Aldous Huxley … and whom I do indeed agree with. Andy, Chris and I took advantage of the warm water, clear sky and the kayaks provided by our hotel to paddle across the volcano-lined lake to the pueblo of San Marcos for a little cliff jumping. 28 ADVENTURE RIDER MAGAZINE Alleyway through the hippie-chic pueblo of San Pedro la Laguna nestled between the base of a volcano and Lago de Atitlan. Ride guide, Chris Gwinner, twisting down the steep switchbacks to Lago de Atitlan. Andy, JR and Chris relaxing in the Fuentes Georginas Hot Springs that lay just east of Guatemala's second largest city, Quetzaltenango. Patchwork of hand-sown and hand- picked crops blanketing the hills beneath the Fuentes Georginas Hot Springs.
  5. 5. 30 ADVENTURE RIDER MAGAZINE 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 gov- ernment 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 has become a “Mecca” for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and “voluntourism”for first-world busy bodies who want to lend a hand in their time-off. Not only Nebaj, but also Guatemala in general has be- come such a popular base for humanitarian hands to reach out and establish assistance organizations that NGOs, like the Guatemalan NGO Network and Entre Mundos, have been created to organize and publicize the wealth of other NGOs. This valuable type of volunteerism, however, was one of the ways Andy fell in love with this“Land of Eternal Spring.” He helped build a Habitat for Humanity home in Tecpan that we were able to visit on our tour. The Guatemalan GRIP AR January/February 2011 31 Habitat Humanity-Andy: Andy Tiegs in front of the home he helped build with Habitat for Humanity in Tecpan, Guatemala. Our hotel was right on the water’s edge in San Pedro la Laguna, a major Guatemalan backpackers hub, with Spanish schools, yoga class- es, a maze of vegetarian restaurants, coffee houses, drinking holes and a two thumbs up moto-author recommendation. The majority of Lago de Atitlán is surrounded by paved or main- tained dirt roads, except for a little five-mile portion in between San Pedro and its neighboring pueblo, Santiago Atitlán. And, since there have been 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. And, I must add, from a solo second passing on a later date, the gun toting, cornfield Mayan ninjas are indeed still there (and probably in cahoots with the cops), so please get the escort. Our passage around the rest of the postcard perfect lake was de- layed, but fortunately not by bandits. Impassable town celebrations and events are held on a ‘get used to it’ frequency in Guatemala. Con- sequently, having spent hours waiting and searching for nonexistent detours around a marathon and a couple parades in our short 7-day journey, we learned to put our American impatience behind us and just watch the parade! After the seemingly infinite amount of cos- tumed elementary school classes marching down the cobblestone road, we hopped on the tail end of the parade and got an amazing spectacle of our own: hundreds of smiling, colorfully dressed, indige- nous locals staring back at us. It was a memorable and enlivening ex- change confirming the ‘I will miss this’ sentiment, as we motored through the Guatemalan Highlands for our last day on the way back to our checkered flag at the CATours MotoCafe in Antigua. The larger-than-life landscapes, welcoming people, vibrant cul- tures and unexplored roads that are dual-sporting gold make for a solid Guatemalan magnet. Chris, Andy and I have all returned because the country’s true splendor can’t be captured in just one visit. Guate- mala’s got its grip on me: my heartstrings, my smile and my fervor for moto-venturing. 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 Atitlan Day 7 - Back to the historical heart of Antigua CATours Highland Spin Tour Breakdown: View-worthy stop in between Nebaj and Huehuetenango.