Pedealeando Verapaz: Antigua to Semuc Champey


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Last day in Antigua, Guatemala. What was planned as 3 days had become 2 weeks. Between discovery, romance, broken bike frame, and volcano climbing, the time went quickly. I’d gotten the new frame in this morning, quickly switched the parts over and headed for the nearest trails to work out the bugs. This little perch is from a beautiful park on a hill over the city. Fun staircase ride back to town as well!

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Taking the direct paved route North from Antigua, I quickly retraced my steps towards the site of my broken frame. There’s dastardly climb out of a valley to reach the small industrial town of San Martin Jilotepeque, with continuously ludicrous grades and hairpin turns without rest. This particular curve was called to my attention while I was hitching a ride back towards Antigua with the broken bike, because a chicken bus full to the gills with people had lost control and careened over the cliff ahead, killing everyone aboard. In fact, my driver had shown me 3 or 4 such sites just along this stretch of road, now marked with crosses and flags.

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A word about the chicken buses here in Guatemala:

Now that I’ve ridden on an overflowing chicken bus I feel really lucky not to depend on one for travel.  This shot was taken just as the bus began to load. No way I could even access my camera in my pocket once it had filled. Chicken buses in Guatemala are all just ornately painted school buses, mostly retired from use out of the USA. Remember how small the seats and rows were? Now imagine each seat jammed with 3-5 adults and their children (that’s 6-10 in each row just to be clear), and the center aisle crammed as well. I had elbows, bellies, crotches, knees and random baggage pushed up against every part of me. THEN, to top it off, the rear emergency door would open periodically to allow even more people to cram in. FINALLY, an often overly portly man would begin climbing over seats, heads, children and stuff to charge everyone their fairs from back to front! It was actually pretty comical at a certain point, where I both wished I’d just climbed onto the roof with the oversized items, or at least put on some clown makeup to complete the effect!

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After a taking a moment of silence where my frame had broken, I rode North on a progressively rougher dirt road. Gently climbing up to a small mountain pass, then began a long super fun 5000’ descent into the next valley!

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Pretty rough. Lots of loose rocks and steeper than it looks… SOOOOOOO glad I ditched the packraft in this moment.

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… Because it just got worse. By the time the descent was nearing the valley floor the road grade was so steep I just had to keep skidding my way down over endless loose rocks.

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At the bottom of the descent, rewarded by a quick dip in the cool Rio Montagua.

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The road only followed the river valley for a kilometer before beginning another insane death climb up to the town of Pachalum. Luckily it was a paved climb because it was getting late and with the density of jungle here I wasn’t seeing any flat, open, secluded spaces to camp. A $4 room in Pachalum was just perfect, and I enjoyed stares from all the locals as this was clearly not on any beaten tourist track.

The following day I awoke at dawn to start what I knew would be a very long and challenging day. It started with a steep, rocky 3000’ climb over some lush mountains accompanied by hot, humid, heavy rain. Every time I thought I’d summited, the road would turn a corner, the mud would deepen, and the grade would increase. But spirits were still high. Many locals would cheer me on as I passed, and I was just so happy to be back on the bike again. At long last, descending to the next town of Cubulco, I was covered in mud from head to toe to teeth, given my permagrin while enjoying the fruits of all that climbing!

From Cubulco, the once again paved road rolled over endless hills and valleys through Rabinal to Salama with some lovely views. Unfortunately the continual rain prevented me from pulling out the camera all day to share the moments.

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 Taking the rough back road from Salama to Coban was a great choice. Heading up through beautiful open mountains, the road was extremely difficult but full of luscious flowers, a couple of wet river fords, and more very very steep climbs. I still think that the longest, steepest climbs of this entire journey are concentrated here in Guatemala. Then again, I still haven’t gotten to South America…

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Pinballed for 4 hours along that rough mountain road, I was suddenly dumped onto a new, smooth paved highway for the final stretch into Coban. I could tell it was a bigger town, as I was first welcome by Ronald.


The road from Coban to Lanquin is mostly paved. Lots more rolling hills to keep me working though. A biker I met back in Antigua described the topography as similar to egg crates. No major hills, but endless very steep little kickers. He was right.




A shame to see such beautiful lands so completely developed, but there was a certain beauty to the patterns of crop planting here…

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Reaching a high traverse the highway began to descend into the Lanquin Valley. Stunning.


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I was welcomed into the tiny hamlet of Lanquin, surprisingly by a little commodore (eatery) titled in Hebrew! Taking some local advice, I rolled through the various hostels and posadas to {name of lanquin hostel), right on the edge of the beautiful, rushing Lanquin River.

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There I was immediately greeted by my now old friends Karl, Marie, and Kayla, the bikers from Quebec! I’d last seen them in Antigua and as usual, we just keep running into each other!


$5 gets you a covered platform by the river. PERFECT. But VERY hot at night with no breeze.


 The following morning I set out early to ride up and over a steep mountain to reach Semuc Champey on the Rio Cahabon. Semuc is one of those top 5 places to visit in Guatemala, and while I was nervous about it being overly touristy, I still just had to see it for myself. The climb was indeed intense, a muddy sloppy road made progressively worse by the daily rain. There are a few small sections like this where the road is so damn steep that small tracks were paved for 2-300’ so vehicles wouldn’t get stuck. Turns out the road was the subject of great controversy locally as the government required locals to charge significant entrance fees, with which a new road would be built. But that was promised many years ago and nothing has been done. So the locals are striking. They now live on the donations left by tourists at the entrance, which interestingly, is more than they were paid by the government.


Dense jungle. Full of life.


What makes Semuc Champey so special is that it’s a river, OVER another river. The Rio Cahabon, above,  roars all the way down a huge valley from Coban, dropping underground for about 1/4 mile right here. Above ground, various small streams flow into pools that have formed in this section.


Gorgeous cascading pools atop the Rio Cahabon. You can hear it underneath, if you listen closely…


Hiking up a steep slippery trail to a mirador (lookout), I got the big picture. You can see the bright green waters of Semuc Champey to the left, and the exit site of the Rio Cahabon as it resurfaces to the right.


 Beautiful vines everywhere, some up to 8” in width. The whole scene inspired some tarpan-like swinging, but the 500’ cliff led me to think otherwise.

After a few hours of floating and exploring around Semuc Champey, I rode back up over the hill to Lanquin for one final night before pushing on toward the Caribbean coast. The following morning I bid the French Canadians farewell, with our typical phrase, “See you in Argentina”. I didn’t know when I’d see them next since they were headed far North to visit the ruins of Tikal and I was headed South. But I had a strong feeling our paths would cross again, somehow. Sadly however, I’ve recently learned that Marie injured her knee quite seriously while trying to exit an overly crowded ferry in Honduras. The family has returned to Quebec to earn some more cash while she recovers. Hard to see another brethren in bike travel need to cut the journey shorter than planned, but I’m sure they’ll be out on the road again sometime soon. Sending you supercharged healing energy, Marie!


Where I Rode: 

Day 1: Antigua —> San Martin Jilotepeque —> Pachalum

Day 2: Pachalum —> Cubulco —> Rabinal —> Salama

Day 3: Salama —> Llano largo —> Tactic —> Coban

Day 4: Coban —> Lanquin

Day 5: Lanquin —> Semuc Champey —> Lanquin

One Response

  1. Mom
    | Reply

    Absurdly fantastic,indeed!
    I thought I’d barf when you passed the truck on the video on a steep curve!!
    Gorgeous scenery and photography. Thank you!
    I feel really sad for your Quebec trio! I had loved watching Kayla grow up. Hope to “see” them again.
    The river on the river!! Amazing!

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