Volumes of Volcanos: The Guatemala Edition.

Places I visited: 

— Based out of Quetzaltenango (Xela) for a week

— Hiked up Volcan Santa Maria

— Was invited to compete in a local mountain bike race

— Many other mountain bike rides in the area with local riders

— Rode to hot springs on Volcan Zunil

— Rode to, hike-a-biked up, and rode back from Volcan Tajumulco

 

But first…. it’s been a while since I’ve posted to the blog. Almost 2 months. Wagons are curious. Having fallen off it becomes exponentially harder to remount as time passes. As the weeks progressed, I could feel my motivation regress. I am sure this feeling intricately connected to having fallen off of the ‘no movie watching’ wagon concurrently. Netflix is a dangerous drug for a TV addict, and I have done my share of binging this Fall. It has been so interesting to feel the wave of apathy I so deeply associate with this activity roll in like a slow rising tide, only to realize with time that it kept building up to tsunami-like levels. It happens so slowly I almost don’t see the change until something shocks me into consciousness again. Similarly it seems to take time to settle, revealing the extent of damage done as it recedes. Anxiety and addiction are so deeply intertwined, and while my vice is not drugs or alcohol, it is still quite a venom to the soul. But out of that darkness of avoidance I crawl, again, to sit myself down and start anew. So much else has happened these last couple of months since entering Central America, and I’m working to catch the blog up on some of the rich stories and experiences. In interest of continuity, I’ll keep working my way forward, from whence I left off.

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The ride from Huehuetenango to Xela. Right off the bat I saw a gas station with my name on it. Not a common name South of the US border, so I took it as a sign… going the right way…

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Overlooking the beautiful valley in which Xela resides (photo taken a few days later), surrounded by enormous volcanic peaks. This part of Guatemala is a hiker’s paradise, with trails up all the volcanos and all accessible within a day’s drive. I chose to partake in hiking some of the more famous ones while in the area. But first, a bit about Xela.

 I’d been invited to stay with a Warm Showers host (Couchsurfing for touring cyclists, not a fetish group) who lived about 15km out from downtown in the sweet little town of San Cristobal Totonicapan. Upon arrival I was greeted by Carl, an American ex-pat who’s lived in Guatemala for 40 years. He shared a fantastic home-cooked meal of veggies from his organic garden, then led me over to ‘my place’. I had no idea what’d be in store…

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Many years back, Carl had purchased about 3 acres of land about a mile from his home, and has spent many years developing the property. What was once a fallow corn field has been transformed into a lush forest, filled with Carl’s collection of trees from all over the world. He built 3 structures on the property: a house for his daughter, another for his son, and this beautiful yurt for guests… like me! Oh, and a fantastic little treehouse for the grandkids. Surrounded by a vibrant flower garden, the yurt was pure luxury with a bedroom upstairs, a huge outdoor grill, and raw wood furniture from recycled wood. I couldn’t believe he was just letting a stranger like me take over his castle, and for as long as I wanted (he proudly said the current record for a touring cyclist’s stay is 23 days!). He even made sure to invite Karl, Marie and Kayla (remember the cyclist family from Canada I keep running into?) when they arrived the following day!

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Next step was to visit the vegetable garden. By Carl’s orders, I carried a large empty backpack to a large metal gate around the corner from Carl’s house in town. Inside was a huge veggie garden, full of corn, carrots, artichoke, eggplant, squashes, multiple varieties of lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, herbs, chickens, and more! He proceeded to stuff my backpack full of fresh veggies that “had to get eaten” while they were still good. I hadn’t been around so much fresh food in months! Many fantastic meals were cooked in that yurt!

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Carl is quite an interesting fellow. At nearly 70 years old, he hikes at least 2 volcanos a week and challenges all visitors to his “7 volcanos in 7 days” experience. I figured I’d start with one. So he picked up Canadian Karl and I before sunrise the following morning, and drove us to the trailhead for Volcan Santa Maria. This 12,000’ peak had the potential of giving us an overhead view of the adjacent and active Volcan Santiaguito, which which we might get lucky enough to see erupting if not hidden by clouds. Starting up the steep trail just before sunrise, it was a perfect way to start the day. Carl even had extra pairs of hiking poles for knee support!

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Looking down on some ‘tiny’ little volcano on the way up Santa Maria…

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Upon reaching the summit, we were immediately greeted by a random young cow! I’ve never seen a more friendly cow, nor have I ever seen a cow hanging around the top of a 12,000’ peak! It walked right up to me and started licking my leg and backpack. I gave it some pets while enjoying the view, and decided to name him Moofort T. Justice.

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Karl at the summit, nothing better than peeing on a mountain top!

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 Unfortunately, the surrounding clouds had arrived before we made it to the summit. We still got some great views, but Santiaguito’s eruptions would not be viewed that day.

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 Carl giving us a geography lesson from our perch above the clouds.

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As he was speaking, a loud airplane-like roar quickly gained volume enough to interrupt his words. I’d never heard the sound of an erupting volcano, so didn’t recognize it. Carl told us where to look, and just as he predicted, a huge cloud of grey smoke bloomed from the white billows below. No lava in site, but still it was quite a beautiful experience.

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On the way back from the volcano, Carl mentioned there would be a mountain bike race in town the following morning. Always up to ride trails with locals, I leapt at the chance! Knowing nothing about the route, the distance, or the terrain, I just showed up, registered, and got in the starting line-up.

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Somehow I found myself at the front of the expert group starting line, due to my poor understanding of Spanish through a megaphone. What can ya do? Carbon racing bikes all around and behind me, everyone in spandex. Whilst I wore the same rat-a-tat bike outfit I’ve worn all along… the only one I have. The Ogresa was still fitted with her frame bags, lights and other unnecessary weight, so I was pretty sure we weren’t going to make it onto the podium anytime soon. The whistle blows, and…

I get passed within moments. Then again. And again. These guys are serious. I did my best to just let people by while still pushing to make progress on the narrow windy loose and rutted single track route.

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 Taken by a local photographer. The trail was short but quite intense, lots of tight turns and loose traverses across steep soft dirt hillsides. Needless to say I did not receive any medals. I had a great time though, and met some very friendly locals who offered to take me out on some other trails while I was in town!

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Like Emerson here for example. He’s a guide for a local adventure tour company and a very very fast mountain biker. He took me out on some really fun trail and introduced me to another group of riders who went out a couple days later.

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Lots of the best single track near town is simply riding on farmers’ trails through cornfields. Not exactly wilderness, but still some great views and better company.

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 Maestro Polito. All the bikers in town told me this was the man for any and all bike repairs. He tours with the Guatemalan national team, and operates a tiny shop the rest of the time. This man is truly a wizard with the wrench, and charged me about $2USD for nearly an hour of work. He would not take any more. Crazy.

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Having heard about some lovely hot springs within a day’s ride from town, I took the chance to ride up the lower slopes of Volcan Zunil to Los Fuentes Georginas. Known to be the best hot springs in the area, and at a sufficiently high elevation (therefore cool enough air) to actually enjoy soaking in hot water in Central America. On the ride up to the springs, I looked across this gorgeous valley down the river to see a large cloud of smoke arising from the adjacent cliff wall. It was steam actually. Excitement levels: rising…

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 A beautiful rustic ride through steep farm country led me to the foggy entrance pools. It was a lovely afternoon, soaking in perfect hot water trickling from the cliff behind the pool while the skies weeped refreshing cool rain. Great conversations with locals and tourists alike. I’d considered camping there on site, but the only flat area fit for camping was extremely muddy from the rain. Time to race the sunset back to Carl’s place…

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 The dense town of Zunil, jameed into the narrow valley formed by gargantuan volcanos.

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One more volcano had been beckoning my attention while in the Xela area. At just over 14,000’ Volcan Tajumulco is the highest peak in Central America, and would be a bit of a beast to summit. I’d previously decided to skip it, but a little google mapping got me sold on the idea. Deeper sleuthing provided some videos of people riding mountain bikes down Tajumulco… Oh yeah, this was gonna happen for sure. Some local riders said they’d heard of it being ridden but none had tried it. Carl said the trail was WAY too technical for a bike. Now I was even more convinced I should try…

Leaving Carl’s place with a small daypack of rain gear and food, I hoped to increase my speed and likelihood of actually hiking my bike up this monster. There was said to be a super cheap $6 hotel room right by the trailhead so no need for camping gear.

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 Fun little stretch of single track on the plateau above Totonicapan.

FYI the route I took to the trailhead from Totonicapan went as follows: Totonicapan —> San Carlos Sija —> Sibilia —> Rio Blanco —> San Sebastian. From unbearably steep muddy climbs to loose rocky descents to seemingly endless rough cobblestone roads twisting through the dense mountainside, it was no piece of cake to get to the tiny town of San Sebastian from which my ascent would begin. Upon receiving confirmation that the main hiking trail would definitely be too steep to ride up the volcano, I found via satellite images a road that climbed up the slope which I hoped would be easier. I was proven quite wrong as I’ll explain….

Arriving to San Sebastian in the late afternoon, the bike drew quite a lot of attention from locals, who crowded around me asking the barrage of typical questions that I get tired of fielding. But the excitement of the people to hear that I was planning to ride up and down the volcano made it a really fun interaction, when compared with each person’s personal experience with the peak. On of the younger guys worked at the only hotel in town and got me set up in a room. He then drove me down the big hill to the town center to get some dinner, and proceeded to pay for it!! I begged him not to, but it felt rude to reject his extremely kind gesture. He then led me to the general store to stock up on calories for the ascent the next morning. Seriously, so many people in this town were so sweet. ! I fell into the hotel bed at 8pm, knowing I’d only have about 4 hours to rest a bit if I wanted to reach the summit by sunrise.

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I awoke to my alarm at midnight, and after a couple of confused snooze button pressings, I remembered why the alarm was sounding at such an ungodly hour. I shoved some food into my belly and hopped on my bike.Warning: short string of complaints to follow —  Right from the hotel, the rough cobblestone road climbed at ludicrous grades. In my lowest gear I could barely keep enough speed to balance on the bike while standing up to pedal. It’s the kind of effort that has you nearly suffocating for air after just 3-4 minutes. But it stayed that steep all the way up the 3000’ road climb. Not to mention it was pitch black. When I tried to use my headlamp the dense night fog prevented visibility beyond about 15 feet. I of course couldn’t hike my bike fast enough to produce any useful light from the hub-dynamo. The cobblestones were slippery from the wet fog, so hiking the bike inlvolved regular slippery missteps. Then there were the dogs…. Dogs just LOVE to defend their turf, and in the darkness of night it was quite anxiety provoking to hear aggressive canines approaching from the shadows without any knowledge of their likelihood of biting. Luckily I avoided contact, but was passed from one snarling Spot to the next as I hiked up the never-ending neighborhoods in the lower slopes. NOT my idea of a relaxing night hike.

Eventually however the clamor subsided and I was able to enjoy the brilliant constellations revealed as moonlit clouds drifted by overhead. Reaching the road’s end, I started up the narrow trail, dragging the bike up over roots, rocks, and loose soil… for about 20 minutes. Appreciating that this trail was far from rideable either up or down, I decided to stash the steed in the woods and continue to the summit by foot. At least I’d save the slog back down the road by being able to ride back down the road from here.

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First light. Still far from the summit, but stunning nonetheless…

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The rocky peak emerging from around a corner, scarlet from the early morning light. Much further than it seemed!

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 Above tree line the trail turned to a field of rocks and got much steeper. Scrambling around boulders with increasingly intense cold wind searing my face, I kept my eyes on the prize: up.

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Looking out from the summit. From the left, San Pedro, Talisman and Atitlan Volcanos down on Lake Atitlan (coming soon…), then the little bump of Acatenango way in the distance, and Santa Maria and Zunil are the two volcanos  that are much closer. Truly volumes… I made it to the summit just as the morning clouds were rolling in. The wind at the top was severe, and I was not prepared with enough layers to hang out in those conditions. So after a few minutes of photos and snacks, I turned back to find shelter.

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Across the valley from Tajumulco is another enormous neighboring peak, that of Volcan Tacana right on the Guatemalan/Mexican border. Funny how I’d spent so much effort getting South from Mexico only to have it appear so close!

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 The crazy switchbacking road up the volcano slope by the light of day… The descent back down Tajumulco was not as fun as I’d hoped. Extremely steep cobblestone is surprisingly uncomfortable to ride down with a rigid mountain bike! Oh well. 5 hours up and about 90 minutes down, I got back to the little town I’d left just hours earlier, sleep deprived and tired. What better decision could I make than jumping on the bike and riding a super hilly 70 mile route all the way back to Xela right then and there?!? I arrived back in town late that afternoon and fell into a deep sleep for the rest of the night.

All in all, my time is Xela was jam packed with magnificent experiences of biking, hiking, hot springing, and fantastic fresh meals. But the journey called and I didn’t want to get stuck in another town for another few weeks (as has been increasingly the case…). Packing the bike back up, I pushed on toward my next destination, the famed Lake Atitlan…

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5 Responses

  1. John Fontanilles
    | Reply

    This is a great read Scott. I like the zipper-less framebag mod. How’s it holding up and would you make any changes? My bag has a blown zipper and I’m looking for a zipper-less repair.

    • Scott Pauker
      | Reply

      Hey John!

      Holding up better than the rest of my shit down here! Only thing I’d add is what Nick Carman has on his: a strap with a click strap to ensure it doesn’t come loose unexpectedly.

  2. Brad
    | Reply

    Great write up. I’m looking forward to Xela. I’m planning on it being the place for me to rest, relax, hike and learn Spanish for a month or so. The holiday within the holiday! Enjoy.

  3. James G
    | Reply

    So glad to see another post, I was legitimately concerned after so much time went by! Guatemala looks like it’s been another great segment in your journey. As always, you serve as such a great inspiration, not only for inspiring adventure but also for making connections with people. Incredible!

    • Scott Pauker
      | Reply

      Thanks James! Just took a long needed blog break!

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