Guatemala

Posted by James Anderton on December 29, 2018


Skip to Quick Facts

Ask a cyclist their favourite country in Central America and they will often say Guatemala without a moments hesitation. I can understand that. The highlands that run through the middle of the country offer up some excellent climbing. There are numerous opportunities to explore bumpy back roads through traditional Mayan villages. There are some of the world's most beautiful lakes, colourful markets and everywhere is as cheap as chips. I stuck to the highlands mostly. Escaping the sweltering heat down below and enjoying the quiet back roads that run throughout the country.

Cycling-El-Salvador-Mountains-Huehuetenango

Mountains of Guatemala north of Huehuetenango near the Mexican border.

It's not all good in Guatemala. The exhaust fumes were some of the worst I've experienced, which is saying something. It seems that every other vehicle is pumping out black shit which makes breathing a challenge. A nightmare when you are cycling uphill. Not easy holding your breath when you are out of breath. All the more reason to get off the main roads. The Pan American runs through the mountains in the middle of the country and is often quite scenic but the traffic is incessant and it is best avoided. Fortunately there are plenty of back roads that meander through the mountains. Sometimes steep, often bumpy, but always quiet. The back roads pass through little villages where you can get a sample of authentic village life in Guatemala.

Cycling-El-Salvador-Market

Cycling through Guatemala you will stumble cross many colourful local markets

I took such back roads towards Antigua. A UNESCO recognised town. Famous for its well-preserved Spanish Baroque architecture as well as a number of ruins of colonial churches. It is where foreigners head for to escape the chaos of Guatemala city. A tourist trap it is but it's delightful to wander around. Its ancient cobblestone streets with towering volcanoes looming all around. From here I took more back roads to Lago Atitlan. The deepest lake in Central America with a depth of about 340 meters. It is also regarded as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world and serves as the country’s most important attraction. Surrounded by steep sided volcanoes it is easy to see why tourists flock here. There's an excellent dirt road that runs around the south of the lake where few venture and you can enjoy the majestic view in peace and quiet. I continued sometimes on back roads, sometimes on the Pan American, to the mountain city of Xela. Then taking the excellent road through the highlands towards the Mexican border at La Mesilla.

Cycling-Guatemal-Lake-Atitlan

Lago Atitlan

The people in Guatemala cracked me up. They have a wonderfully relaxed, carefree, almost careless attitude to life. I would see guys sitting on top of tankers with “warning: flammable” signs, smoking a cigarette. Drivers always gave me a wide berth but they have scant regard for oncoming traffic. Fortunately most of the main roads come with a shoulder so it's easy for cyclists to observe the insane overtaking from a position of safety. Chicken buses that hurtle along are more like mobile disco's pumping out banging tunes whilst crammed to rafters with people. You certainly hear them coming. Lots of the main roads have walking bridges over them which the people use as a means of shade for when they run across the road. I was in the mountain city of Xela town on Christmas day where they have a tradition of firing guns into the sky at 2 in the morning. Scared the living shit out of me. They are all a friendly bunch though and gave me a lot of encouragement along the way. Guatemala has done a good job of shaking off its once dodgy reputation and I found it a perfectly safe place to travel.

Never had the privilege to get on one but the chicken buses certainly liven up the roads.

Guatemala is definitely one of the better cycling destinations in Central America. Thanks to its variety of terrain and the colourful atmosphere that permeates even the smallest towns. I could have done a lot more cycling. There were lots of areas I would have liked to have explored more especially the Mayan ruins in the north east of the country close to the Mexican border. Nicaragua and Costa Rica were my favourite countries to cycle in Central America but Guatemala is definitely not far behind.

Capital:

Guatemala City. I didn't like Guatemala City. I didn't really give it a chance to be fair. I was only there one night and perhaps I landed in a less salubrious part of the town by accident. Cycling in and out was pretty hairy and I wish I'd had a pollution mask.

Roads:

All sorts. Most of the main roads are well paved and come with a shoulder. The back roads are sometimes well paved, sometimes bumpy tarmac, sometimes good dirt roads and sometimes a nightmare. Expect to have to push every now and again. I'd be wary of these back roads in the rainy season (May to October).

Wild camping:

Not straightforward but manageable. The population is fairly dense and nearly everywhere along the road is either a village or fenced-farmland. I still managed it without issue. It would just take me a little longer to find a place than usual. You can get incredibly overpriced canister camping gas in Antigua at Old Town Outfitters.

Visa/Border Crossings:

No visa required. Rock up at the border and you will get 90 days. No need for proof of onward travel. No surprise fees. Border crossings were quick and painless. I crossed on the CA8 from El Salvador and at La Mesilla on the way to Mexico. Although I forgot to check the exchange rate going into Guatemala and duly got ripped off changing my dollars by the money changers at the border.

Bicycle Shops:

There's plenty of bike shops in all the big towns. Guatemala City has some that are well stocked with quality parts, especially Tiendas Bike Center.

Food:

I liked the Chicken Pepian (Chicken in pumpkin and sesame sauce). I also tried the traditional Mayan soup (called Kafik I think) which might have been nice if it wasn't so spicy. Knocked my block off.

Costs:

Everything in Guatemala is excellent value apart from the tourist town of Antigua where prices seem to double. Easy to get $10 rooms everywhere else.

When to Go:

In general, the best time of year to visit weather wise is in December and January, when everything is still green from the rains, but the sky is clear. Rainy season is from May to October but it doesn't rain all the time. You just get an afternoon downpour which can be quite nice if it's hot.

Safety:

I had no problems. I would be careful in Guatemala City but everywhere else seemed perfectly safe.

Recommended Airbnb:

Great option about 10km away from Antigua.

https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/21383827

Electricity:

Side of the road:

Right.