Where I rode:
Antigua —> San Andres Itzapa —> San Martin Jilotepeque
San Martin —> 15km North of San Martin. Awwwww Snap!
Hiked up Volcan Acatenango
At long last, a triumphant return to the road. After so many short spurts of riding interspersed with long breaks throughout Guatemala, I had planned a solid 10 days of riding with no major stops to impede my flow. While every pause I took (2 weeks in San Cristobal de las Casas, the week in Quetzaltenango, the 3 weeks in San Marcos and the near week in Antigua) were important and significant, I yearned to rekindle the feeling of continuous travel over days, even weeks on end. And so it began, pushing off from Antigua. The route would not be directly South (no surprise there) but Northeast toward the city of Coban, near which I’d encounter the magical cascading waters of Semuc Champey. From there I’d ride out to the Rio Dulce river and paddle my packraft all the way to the Caribbean Sea and a peculiar town settled by African slaves, Livingston. But I’m getting ahead of myself….
From Antigua, it was a short and steep climb up to the mountainous town of San Andres Itzapa. Slightly off of my planned route, but somewhere in town was the famous NGO called Maya Pedal. I’d heard about this place from Cass Gilbert’s blog and a few other cyclists, an organization which builds pedal-powered machines to help people in impoverished areas without power. From blenders to washing machines to well water pumps, these “bicimaquinas” are all produced from re-welded recycled bicycles, and distributed to places in need. There are indeed a few other organizations which fabricate similar machines but this was among the first, with a long and proud history. I was greeted at the large metal gate by a young woman who welcomed me in and gave me a quick tour of the site. A couple of modest dorm rooms to house interns and volunteers who often stayed a few weeks to a few months learning all the skills of machine fabrication, a common room, and office…
… And a big outdoor workstation, full of bikes, bike parts and bike machines! This particular example was designed to rapidly shell almonds for local farmers.
Water pump. Many other bicimaquinas were in various states of assembly around the place, worked on by a couple of builders.
It was so tempting to stop and volunteer for a week. I’d actually planned to do just that when I heard about this organization back in Mexico, but all the stops I’d made since then led me to push on. I spent a couple of hours there however, talking to the gregarious owner about the history and development of the machines, and how he grew the organization to its current state before he was interrupted by an Italian reporter who’d arrived to conduct an interview with him. I bid goodbye and pressed onward.
Given the long stop at Maya Pedal, I only made it another 40km before I found a good cheap place to crash in the small town of San Martin Jilotepeque, after a couple of insanely steep climbs and descents which have become par for the course in Guatemala. From there the road would turn to dirt and access to supplies might be limited, so a good early start was in order.
Pushing off from town around 8am, the road wound through beautiful farmlands, climbing over a small pass before beginning to descend steeply into a valley. As I careened down the steep, rutted dirt road, I began to wonder if I should slow down a bit. I’d truly only ridden limited distance on very rough roads since adding the 17lbs of pack rafting gear to the rig again back in Oaxaca, and the surprisingly deep ruts on this road were getting me a bit nervous. I flashed back to that moment on Mingus Mountain in Arizona, 11 months ago, when I heard a strange clunk followed by my rear tire treads noisily whirring as they rubbed against the frame. It took me a second to figure out what was wrong back then. Had the wheel somehow come loose and displaced in the horizontal dropouts? Did a spoke break and cause the wheel to be way out of true? Nope. A quick inspection of the frame showed that a part of the frame tubing near the rear dropout had snapped, and all I could do was create a make-shift duct tape splint and hobble the bike 30 miles into the nearest town to find a welder. Considering that I was now 15 kilometers outside of the last town and had only seen 2 vehicles all morning, it seemed smart to not be reckless.
Around one more corner I saw I large, very deep rut only a few meters ahead, so I braked sharply to avoid thunking over it. Moments later:
A strange whirring sound…
Dismounting the bike, my eyes went directly to the site where the last frame break had happened. Sure enough, A crack in the paint at the exact same location. It had to be a dream. How could the very thing I was just worried about happen, only minutes after I’d thought about it?? No matter. It did. And there I was in the middle of a random dirt road in rural Guatemala. Fuck.
Turning around, I began walking. Playing out scenarios in my mind, I began planning how long of a delay this would cause. Perhaps if I could get back to San Martin by mid-day, I could get the frame welded quickly and be back even put in some distance that same day… I walked briskly through the farmlands, back to town. The occasional motorcyclist whizzed by, turning upon passing to study the random gringo oddly walking his alien apocalypse bike on this lonesome road. 15 kilometers is just under 10 miles. An hour or so by bike, but much much longer by foot. I wondered if there was any hope for a ride back into town. Luckily after 5 or 6 kilometers of walking, a small white pickup truck loaded with freshly built cabinets came to a stop by my side. The driver, an older man with crevasses of wrinkles extending from his bright-eyed smile, asked if I needed a ride. Amazing.
He helped me hoist the beast up on top of some wood planks in the back as his wife quietly sat in the passenger seat. I hopped in on top of some cabinets and tried to stabilize the bike for the bumpy ride back to town. I wandered the streets looking for welders. Having no idea what kind of welder I needed and what skills that person should have, it was a challenging endeavor. The first one I found said he didn’t have the right machine for that job. The second sent me to a third, who at long last confirmed that no welder in town would have the right machine to get this job done, I’d have to return to either Chimaltenango or Antigua. Fuck fuck. I’ll NEVER get back on the road again, will I? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, “First world problems in a third world country.” Put it all in perspective and it’s really just an inconvenience. Returning to the hospedaje where I’d slept the night before, I used their internet to ask some bike mechanic friends back in the US what I should do. They suggested contacting Surly, the company who built the frame, to see if they’d possibly warranty it.
Luckily, I spoke to an agent that very morning, who was extremely helpful in getting the warranty processed immediately based on just a couple of photos of the frame failure. They covered the shipping and everything.
Site of the previous frame failure back in Arizona… looks pretty similar to me… One break, perhaps it was a fluke. But two in the same spot?!? Methinks this was a design flaw. A quick internet search brought up a couple of other examples of people reporting a break in the same location on Surly Ogres and Surly Trolls. I studied the frame closely, trying to gain some insight into the source of the problem, and realized the smallest part of the tubing is located just below the attachment site of the rear disc brake caliper. So all that force from braking with a fully loaded bike would be directed right to that narrow weld in the tubing. Some other bikes have a truss rod to support this torque force from the brake caliper, or mount the brakes to a different area on the frame, but I’m convinced this is the problem on the Ogre. Alas, not much I can do but appreciate Surly’s willingness to stand by their frames and FedEx a new one to me the following morning! It would take 5 days to arrive, send to a local bike shop back in Antigua. Sigh. Okay, back to town.
I took the bags off the bike and hopped on the first chicken bus I could catch back to Antigua. I was initially worried at the callousness with which they hoisted the bike up onto the old school bus roof, but then thought, “what’s the worst that could happen, the frame breaks?!?”
Okay then, 5 more days in Antigua. At least. Who knew if the FedEx estimated delivery date was at all accurate. I’d heard horror stories of people waiting weeks on end for packages from the States, and hoped I wouldn’t share their fate.
To my great luck I remembered to contact Brett, a friend I’d met while staying in San Marcos on Lake Atitlan. At least if I’d be stuck in town I could hang out with a cool traveler. We went out for some drinks, and at some point he mentioned that he would be leaving Antigua sooner than expected, and had pre-paid for his apartment in town through another week. Magnanimously, he let me finish off his rental! Thanks so much Brett!!!
Brett’s place was amazing. A sweet little studio apartment right in the center of town, with a stunning rooftop deck view of the looming Volcan Agua.
I decided to make the most of the time. Reading, writing a little, and working with some jewelry making skills I’d learned back on Lake Atitlan. Combined with some inspiration from Google images, I put an old bike tube to good use and made some earrings, necklaces, and bracelets. It was fun working with my hands to create future gifts for people. One of the necklaces of course made it around Brett’s neck!
Another two pieces, the two in the middle, were designed for my good friends/family Adam and Meg, my gracious and amazing hosts back in Oaxaca. I’d been meaning to send them a thank you gift for months, but kept forgetting. Luckily, As luck would have it Adam was arriving in Guatemala City the following morning for a work trip and decided to take a bus to meet up with me for the day in Antigua! We had a calm, lovely day full of inspired conversation, during which time I shared my tales of bike woe.
“I can take your raft gear back to Oaxaca right now if you want,” he said without hesitation.
The thing is that the added weight of 17lbs of raft, paddle, panniers, repair kit, straps, PFD, spray skirt, pump and dry bags had made the bike handling quite sluggish. Not that the bike was ever all that spry, but it was like going from a pickup truck to a tank. I yearned for a lighter rig again, able to ride the roughest of roads/trails. But I loved being amphibious… Sigh.
Again, first world problems in a third world country.
With reservations, hesitations, and deliberations, I handed him the 2 panniers of rafting gear as he got in a van back to Guatemala City. I knew he could ship the stuff back down to me, but it was still hard to let go.
Staring up at the sunset with the gorgeous volcano Agua hovering above Antigua on my second night back in town, I realized I might as well get my legs some exercise through hiking, since biking wasn’t an option. I asked a friend who worked for a local guiding company which one would be the best, and he suggested climbing Volcan Acatenango. So the following morning, I packed up my backpacking gear with plans to camp out somewhere on it that night.
2 hours of rough chicken bus rides through rutted dirt roads led me to the trailhead for Acatenango, the 3rd highest volcano in Central America at over 13,000’. Most people seem to hike Acatenango with guides, for security reasons I guess, but I was assured there had not been any incidents on the trail for a long time and that I’d be just fine hiking alone. I brought my trusted machete just in case.
Beautiful berries on the way up. Perhaps edible, but I didn’t know enough to warrant trying.
The trail wound through dense jungle, steeply climbing around beautiful old growth trees. I’d often need to dodge trailside “chichicaste” plants, a variation of nettle which, if brushed up against, would cause a skin reaction akin to many simultaneous bee stings. I should know as I mistakenly touched one near Lake Atitlan and my hand swelled up for a whole day!
I kept climbing, eventually reaching a faded 2-track road going straight up the volcano. I don’t know where it came from, but it quickly became eroded enough that no vehicle I could imagine would be driving that way anytime soon. After a few hours of climbing, I arrived at a beautiful flat area suitable for camping, only 800’ short of the summit. I decided to camp there and wake up before dawn to watch the sunrise from the top.
First light. I saw the flashlights of some other hikers coming up the hillside behind me as I scampered up the loose sandy slopes to the peak.
From the crater rim, I could see all the way past Antigua to Guatemala City. Crowds of other hikers gathered to watch the sunrise spread it’s brilliant light across the volcano-strewn landscape. I noticed a few people wandering around the craters edge to the South. I’m so glad I followed them:
Volcan Fuego. Among the most active volcanos in Guatemala, and my first live, exploding volcano sighting up close!
Volcan Agua, the same huge peak I’d noticed towering over Antigua seemed so much smaller from above!
Layers upon layers of luscious landscape.
Wandering around the far side of the crater, I could glimpse back at Lake Atitlan. I could even squint and make out San Marcos in the distance! So much time and so little distance covered! One thing confounded me about this picture: by now familiar with the volcanic geography in Guatemala, I recognized all the big peaks just to the left of the lake. but what was that much taller one behind and to the left of them? The slight head from the morning’s sun against the back of my neck answered that question. A perfect sharp shadow of the very peak on which I stood, cast against the distant clouds!
The hike back down, loose soft sand that was so difficult to sink my faded sneaker tread into for a foothold allowed a descent full of gleeful glissading through brilliant wildflowers and foggy morning dew.
The return to town was a simple 20 minute wait at the trailhead for the next chicken bus, which connected to Parramos and on to Antigua. All in all, a trip that would have cost me 4-500Q’s if paid for via a the suggested tour guide route cost me a $50Q entrance fee and $20Q in chicken busses. Not a bad little outing!
2 days after I returned from Acatenango, my shiny new frame arrived at the bike shop from Surly. An hour later the Ogresa was resurrected, cleaned up and ready to rock! I took her up into the mountains on some rough jeep roads to make sure she was solid and ready to tour again, and all was well! So despite the frustration of an unexpected extra week in Antigua, I now could ride on through Central America with the confidence of a new frame, slightly more svelt once again now that I was sans pack raft.
Tomorrow, I’d roll once again, back up through San Martin, but onward to Coban, Semuc Champey, and out to the Caribbean!