Not even a week after our arrival in Xela, we found ourselves spandexing up and heading out to meet a group of strangers at 6am for a ride to the much-hyped Lake Atilan. Attila, our first friend in town, organized the ride for about 8 of us. We were to meet another 10 people at the lake who were going to take a chicken bus at a more civilized hour. We were nervous that we would be bringing up the rear- even though we have been cycling for about 4 months at this point, our interest in food and local beers have not molded us into the golden gods that we thought we’d be by now. When we arrived at the meeting place, however, it turned out that most of the other riders were on child-sized rented mountain bikes in questionable repair and we relaxed a little.
Good view, good folks
They always look like this
The ride was one of the most beautiful and difficult rides that we’ve done to date. Xela is in a valley separated from Lake Atitlan by some big mountains, which provide both the awesome views and the death-defying pot-holed descents. We headed out of town on a main road towards the cross-roads of Cuatro Caminos, a huge transfer point for chicken buses going in all directions. It was nice and flat for about 13km until we turned onto the Pan-American Highway, which took us most of the way to the lake.
Attila and Reed both rode their bikes into Xela, too!
The Pan-American Highway is some good riding. This is the highway that stretches from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego and we discovered that it is by far and away the most reliably in-repair road that we’ve ridden on in Guatemala. Unlike most of the roads in the Guatemalan mountains, which just go up and over the mountains, the Pan-Am apparently had enough money and support to blast through in places and, therefore, sustains a much gentler grade. Uphills were still hills, but the climbs were less extreme than on other roads we’ve used in Guatemala. All of this changed when we made the turn-off at Nau Hualá, a tiny traditional town where we stopped for lunch.
This was the texture of the exposed rock that had been blasted to make way for our perfect ride
The ride from the turn-off to the lake might be the most frightening riding we’ve done to date. The roads were so steep and windy that I rode with my brakes fully engaged the entire way. The potholes just added to the terror, but I really freaked out when we came up to a traffic jam caused by a large truck whose brakes went out and subsequently crashed into the side of the mountain. Final Destination scenarios started scrolling through my head until we finally arrived at the lake, 27 switchbacks later.
Trust me, this is much more difficult than it looks
A view from the top
Nope, those aren’t ants on bicycles; that’s us!
Aside from all that, the ride was incredible. I was so impressed by the guys on the rented bikes made for Guatemalan-sized people. We were fortunate to have our own tuned, properly fitting bikes with panniers instead of backpacks and so, as tenuous as the ride was for us at times, it was that much more challenging for these guys. We all made it safe and sound and fully tuckered out to San Pedro, where we met another 12 travelers who had come from Xela.
There are at least a half-dozen tourist-friendly towns on the lake and we chose San Pedro pretty much blindly, but couldn’t have been happier with our choice. We found a hotel that was willing to house all 20 of us for a very reasonable rate and even managed to find a restaurant willing to serve us all at a long, communal table. R and I were pretty tired from our long day, so we missed out on the nightlife, but have it on good authority that the group was satisfied in that capacity as well.
The next morning, we rented kayaks and paddled to a pretty sweet rope swing platform with great views of the volcanoes, at least until the storm rolled in. Luckily, the rain and lightening passed before we were back on the water and we made it back to shore just in time to dry off, get something to eat, and hop into the two private shuttles that we chartered for the way back.
Local kids, showing off
I’ve got to say that the ride back to Xela in a minivan was probably more terrifying that the ride into Atitlan on bicycles. Hairpin turns on foggy mountain roads are even scarier when approached at 50km per hour. R was so carsick that I actually count him lucky for being too queasy to notice what was going on through the windshield. I, on the other hand spent the hour and a half white knuckled and thinking about the irony of driving off a cliff in a minivan while I was supposed to be on a bicycle trip. But all’s well that ends well. We made it home safe and sound with a ton of great pictures.
Note for cyclists: I will mention to anyone else thinking about riding this route that I think we would have had considerably more difficulty with the downhills if we were fully loaded. I would recommend doing what we did and finding a spot to leave whatever is not necessary and riding as light as possible.