The Colours of Guatemala
Words by Steve Storey
Words by Steve Storey
Planning for this trip started as soon as our last Central America team trip ended. The whole team knew that we had only scratched the surface of Central American riding the previous year when we had visited El Salvador. It was only fitting that we return to explore more uncharted territory but this time in Guatemala.
The plan; cram 6 people, bikes, and camera gear into a severely undersized pickup truck for 2 weeks and ride as many places as possible. It was a seemingly simple yet knowingly complicated endeavour that would shatter preconceptions and teach true generosity and hospitality all on top of finding some of the world's most exotic and enjoyable single track and DH trails.
After spending months researching our destinations through convoluted internet searches we were able to throw a rough plan together mostly relying on the kindness of internet strangers. Guatemala doesn't have the luxury of a very organized bike scene but they do have a surplus of places to ride and very friendly people keen to show you their country.
Throwing caution to the wind, we departed Whistler during a late Spring storm eager to shake the remnants of Winter from our lives. There was a sense of freedom and ironically, some anxiety, once on the road. Were we risking too much placing the fate of our trip on people we hadn't met? We had heard fabled stories of El Zur and La Piedra Del Tigre but were we chasing after something that didn't exist?
Or that had been grossly over exaggerated?
After multiple flights and a 12 hour road trip that saw us through torrential downpour, flash flooding, and becoming hopelessly lost in a rough area of the capital city, we arrived in Rabinal 6 stressful hours behind schedule. An adventure no of us regret but wouldn't ever want to repeat....ever. Especially one of the videographers who had the joys of food poisoning for the entirety of the trip. Fortunately our soon to be guide, 'Cycling' bike shop employee and trail builder Jorge Quiroa, expected this and pre-arranged accommodations for us.
All of this done outside of his day job of marketing for Cycling bike shop. Over breakfast we got to know him and the riding scene of his home country. By his account, we needed a few months to cover a good chunk of Guatemala so we narrowed it down to 3 zones.
He opted to start out with La Piedra Del Tigre for our first Guatemalan riding experience. It's a massive 2 1/2 hour undulating descent starting high above the desert floor of Rabinal and drops through mountain villages featuring stunning views and every type of riding one could hope for in a trail. Flowing single track, punchy climbs, high speed open meadows, steep rock rolls, and open ridge lines. A world class trail that deserves to be at the top of the list for any destination rider to Guatemala.
For us it was a rousing success. On day 2 we were able to fulfill our goal of finding quality trails and Jorge had delivered that in a big way. As hospitable and helpful Jorge is, he still had to work and left us in the hands of a few Rabinal locals. That night they gave us a good introduction to the town and we quickly concluded Rabinal rarely saw tourists if any at all. We ended up at the town's local hot spot which in reality is a general store that people drink beer in front of.
Only thing missing was a latino Jay and Silent Bob. Surprisingly, it ended up being one of the best nights of the trip. Partying with the locals involved an embarrassing amount of dancing, drinking, and practising our second favourite pastime, drunken spanglish. The pre-cerveza decided time of 4:30 am rolled around unwelcome and much too soon the following morning. An early start was recommended to beat the desert heat and lack of shade on the trails.
After a tough climb up we were looking down a wide open ridge full of perfect rock formations and single track winding it's way through small shrubbery and cacti. Dropping in it became apparent this was one of those trails so perfect that everything lined up even on the first descent. Every rock made a convenient launching pad and options were everywhere making this a perfect track for riding in groups.
Thankfully so because had we been less astute we may not have noticed a long trail down a far off ridge line still smouldering from a fresh burn. We asked our guide about the line and he told us he had never seen it before. It had until this day been obscured by brush and to his knowledge, never ridden. Without speaking a word, we all knew where our bikes would be taking us for our final day in Rabinal.
The arduous hike started 3 ridge lines away and passed through steep ravines filled with burnt remnants of tangled scrub and choking vines. One step forward was repaid with a 1/2 step back in the dusty, black soil. 2 toiling hours of hike-a-bike later we arrived at our destination completely covered in soot. The air about our group cared little for our state of cleanliness seeing the sight we had down the descent. About as aesthetically pleasing as a line could be twisting through the black charred remains of an overgrown mountainside leading it's way all the way back to Rabinal.
We passed by yellowing trees that had somehow escaped the burn, shimmering in the still rising sun. Perfect rock rolls yielded even more perfect turns. Still smoking rocks added to the otherworldly experience of riding here. It was single track bliss the whole way down. High speed straightaways into roosty corners sending dirt so high it hung in the air as if the ground had exploded. The new found trail kept the good times rolling all the way to the end.
It was an especially scenic dirt road traversing it's way through valleys before climbing and descending mountain passes. Small towns littered the route with jubilant people out celebrating 'Dia del Trabajo'.
Our wishful hoping for an uneventful drive disappeared with the arrival of a massive crack of thunder and onslaught of rain. Traveling in an undersized mini pickup with this many people, their bikes, and camera gear didn't leave much room and left all non-water sensitive items including two people outside in the bed of the truck. If the barrage of water falling from the sky wasn't enough, the two lightning bolts striking within 50' made things extra unpleasant for the two unlucky passengers that drew the short straws.
Too many near Chicken Bus collisions later we arrived, some drier than others, at our next temporary home of Panajachel on the shores of Lago De Atitlan. We had been told this area was the unofficial king of trail riding and was not be missed. Jorge had arranged for the local bike store to give us a quick introduction to the area prior to setting us off to explore on our own.
Over the next 3 days we found ourselves endlessly enchanted by the views, the people, and the routes that peppered the hillside above the lake. We rode steep, exposed, ridges that dropped into lush fields of green onions and cliff side trails high above the lake that twisted their way down to the water's edge through terraced farm plots. There were charming trailside conversations with the Mayan farmers who have the friendliest of dispositions.
We even had the chance encounter with the only area's downhill rider who shared his quasi-secret DH track with us. But beyond the memorable trail network surrounding the region it was our encounters with the Lago De Atitlan locals that made the biggest impressions The riding alone was enjoyable enough yet on one perfect descent we truly made some life time memories.
It was only seconds before a mob of children had chased us down all wanting to take a turn sitting on our bikes and even less time before we were pushing them up and down the hill. Each successive pass more children would jump aboard the bikes and with such cheerful laughter saying 'no more' was an impossibility.
The arrival of a thunderstorm chased the children off to their homes and left us scrambling for shelter. Through ever intensifying rain, a faint voice was heard and friendly wave seen through a haze of smoke rising from a nearby hut. We greeted the friendly woman and she insisted we take refuge in her small, earthen home. There wasn't a lot of room for us and she didn't have much yet she made sure to make us feel welcome and even offered us dry clothing.
We were introduced to her husband and children who had equally warm smiles and were genuinely happy to help us. We watched her weave braids while the children cooked dinner. The rain finally slowed enough to leave and we graciously thanked the family for their hospitality. It was a completely humbling experience and a fitting end to our time in ultra friendly Lago De Atitlan.
Up next was our final destination, Antigua and the endless descent of El Zur. Jorge had kindly arranged a meeting with Jose Carlos, owner of Cycling bike shop in Guatemala and all around good guy that helped to plan our itinerary when we originally arrived. Jose had purposely left El Zur for the end of our trip knowing what a special place it is and rightly so.
The purpose built mountain bike trail starts high up on the southern flank around 8500' but first you need to get up from the bottom that is situated around 1500'. We opted for the 4 x 4 in place of the 13 km steep pedal up. The sweltering 90 degree temperature made that a simple decision. One that would be much gnarlier than anticipated.
For the next 2 1/2 hours we were bounced around along with our bikes harder than the inside of a piñata. Exhilarating nonetheless, there was a feeling of pure elation among us when we finally stepped out of the truck at the top.
The massive descent we embarked on dropped almost 7000' vertical feet over 20 miles and all of it very well built. The first section offered sweeping vistas before dropping into 7 minutes of high speed flow through berms and rollers with loam so deep at times it was tough to tell if your rear tire was inflated. With such a massive change in temperatures from top to bottom the flora and dirt changed so fast it felt as if you were riding in a completely different part of the world.
Eventually the trail levelled out and began undulating through foggy 'Selva'. Slick clay bench cuts covered in tunnel forming bamboo led into rocky water crossings that once more turned into flowing corners and doubles. With a good chunk of the trail behind us everything changed once again. The forest became thicker and more tropical.
The dirt gripped tires once more and speed picked up again. Jungle trees surrounding the trail hung out their palms in an attempt to slap unsuspecting riders from their lines. We were kept on our toes with punchy climbs accentuating the all-mountain characteristics of the massive descent.
After almost 2 hours of riding we arrived at a massive opening in the jungle aptly named, El Estadio. The last 3rd of the trail is a stadium shaped bowl of low lying jungle brush with trail veering up and down both sides. An incredible sight to behold and even more incredible to ride. Natural rollers turned into doubles and ruts doubled as berms.
There was endless speed to be had and the track's fun limitless. El Estadio alone is worth a trip to Guatemala for. It was easily our crew's favourite ride and had we not been so beat down from the massive descent, we would've pedalled straight back up for another lap.
No ride lasts forever and sadly our run had come to an end. Over 2 hours and 7000' feet down, a descent so good it was baffling it isn't world famous already. It was our culminating ride to end an improbable trip that saw us ride in unexpected places, and most importantly, meet some of the world's friendliest most hospitable people.