I’m awake early, Wednesday, to begin my exodus from Guatemala City. I have volcanoes on my route south, before arriving at the volcano-rich Lake Atitlan, due east of Guatemala City. Volcán de Pacaya is the most active volcano of all in Guatemala, with flowing lava, and Volcán de Fuego is one of the tallest. I’ll also be passing Volcán de Agua and Vulcán de Acatenango. I learned a few days ago not to fully trust my GPS map of Guatemala City. One particular turn on my route I figure to be a future connecting road. As I continue, the pavement ends at a construction crew, then one lane disappears, before becoming a soft volcanic-black sand trail.

Photo Album of Guatemala / Álbum de Fotos de Guatemala

    I narrowly pass by a bicyclist. A chain-link fence is to my left, tall grass and garbage piles are everywhere, and no safe exit in sight except the way I came, so I turn around. After returning to the main road and driving a few squares around one-way streets, I reach the tollway I want leading out of the city. I continue on the tollway ($7 Quetzales), only to discover I passed my turnoff for Pacaya 20 km ago. It’s a very foggy morning, and decide to skip the hike and continue on my route. I pull over to get some photos, and as you can see, the low clouds make it difficult to see the volcanoes.

Third down on the right (Guatemala, Guatemala 11/9/2010)

On the way out of the city (Guatemala, Guatemala 11/9/2010)

Vulcán de Agua (Guatemala 11/9/2010)

Drive to Lake Atitlan (Guatemala 11/9/2010)

    It turns out my GPS was routing correctly, but because I had grown weary of trusting the city routing, the same distrust spread elsewhere. I should have figured it was correct, as it has routed correctly for most of my maps. Today’s driving turns out to be the most enjoyable in Guatemala, which makes up for missing the volcano hike. In hindsight, had I gone on the hike, I might have arrived too late in Panajachel to catch a boat to Santa Cruz.
    I ride for another hour, then realize my rear brake is no longer working. I had anticipated this happening around this time, and am prepared with brake fluid to flush the system. If I encounter a dirt road, I know I must flush it before venturing further. Sure enough, in the town of Xepatán, just 30 km from Panajachel, my destination on Lake Atitlan, my paved road turns into a one lane dirt path winding up the mountain. I park on the side of the road and break out my toolkit. I ask a few locals if the road connects all the way to Panajachel and I’m told it does by everyone. When I ask if it’s advisable to use this road, I’m told I should backtrack to take the paved road. I finish flushing my brake line and against the recommendations of the locals, I ride off up the dirt road. I’m glad I did.

Bleeding the rear brake at the road change (Xepatán, Guatemala 11/10/2010)

Farmland to the side of my parked bike (Xepatán, Guatemala 11/10/2010)

Ready to go! Right of the fork, up the mountain, is to Panajachel (Xepatán, Guatemala 11/10/2010)

Part 1 of 2 of dirt road to Panajachel (Guatemala 11/10/2010)

Part 2 of 2 of dirt road to Panajachel (Guatemala 11/10/2010)

    It’s 13 km (8 mi) before I reach pavement again. I climb 100 meters to a maximum elevation of 2,514 meters (8,247 ft), before descending, passing many small villages, some only consisting of a few houses. It’s morning, and farmers are tending to their fields, harvesting vegetables and carrying them back along the road. I pass a few large animals, and numerous children playing, who cheer as I drive by. The mountain air is clean and the terrain is beautiful. Although these people are monetarily poor, their lives are rich. I respect this lifestyle, but am unsure I could live this way my entire life.
    There are a few loose curves that I almost loose control in. I’m taking it cautiously, but almost slide over the left edge on a rutted, steep, uphill, curve (Video 1 at 3:00). I’m able to recover and push back onto the road. In this short stretch of road, my clutch-fanning skill increased immensely. I also had confirmed the respect and attention that must be shown when driving off the pavement.
    After reaching the pavement, I come to the top of the last mountain ridge to see Lake Atitlan. The lake is in the caldera of an ancient volcano that filled with water. The rim of the caldera now has many towns and villages built on the shore. With my first sight, I have to stop and get off my bike to get a better view and take it all in. The blue lake surrounded by mountains and volcanoes is stunning. There are many trails that stretch great distances, connecting all parts of the caldera, for those who would rather not take a launcha (boat), need to travel inland, or would like to remain traditional.

My first glimpse of the lake (Lake Atitlan, Guatemala 11/10/2010)

    The road to Panajachel has numerous segments washed out by mudslides, with some cases, destroying half or more of the road. Descending toward the city I forge my first two streams that aren’t paved crossings. I cross without problem and soon pass through the city to the west dock with launchas to San Marcos.
    At the guarded car park near the docks, I pay $50 Quetzales (~$6 USD) to have my bike guarded for two days. I notice my radiator coolant reservoir is empty, and kneel down to get a better view. I notice my skidplate has collected a lot of the bright green fluid, so I suspect a leak somewhere. I strip the entire right side of my bike of crash bar, gas tank, and faring and inspect everything. It appears to have only escaped from the reservoir overflow tube. I check the hoses, and all seals are tight. The reservoir is now empty. This behavior strikes me as odd. One likely cause of this is that heat caused the coolant to expand into overflow, overflowing it, then receded from cooling afterward, pulling it all from the reservoir back into the radiator. The only shot against that theory is I never noticed the temperature gauge climb higher than midway for the entire ride. It could also be an air bubble in the cooling system, allowing fluid to be forced through, but not return correctly, causing a backup and spillage out to the overflow container. Another, more costly, reason for this could be a blown head gasket allowing exhaust to enter the cooling system, displacing the fluid. However, this last scenario is unlikely, due to the majority bikes having this problem were KTM models that had improperly torqued head nuts, and although mine was one of the affected models, it had the service bulletin performed that addressed this issue with new nuts, washers, and the proper torquing. Opening the radiator, I find ~200 ml of missing coolant. I can’t properly deal with this now, so I top it off with fresh water from my tanks and put the bike back together until I’m able to drive out of Panajachel and can monitor the level.
    At the public dock, I’m overcharged by $10 Quetzales when I’m asked for $25 Quetzales to travel to Santa Cruz. I’m on the cheaper, public boat, but wait no longer than 10 minutes before it fills, and we can take off. The third stop is Santa Cruz, and I see La Iguana Perdida (The Lost Iguana) Hostel from the boat. I walk into the restaurant/reception and meet Tom. I tell him of my reservation and he shows me my room. I drop my gear on the bed and follow him back to the restaurant to order lunch. I’ve worked up quite an appetite and order hummus and bread, crepes with beans, cheese, avocado, and tomato, and a Moza cerveza, my favorite dark beer in Guatemala. I devour my meal, then sign up for dinner at 7 before exploring the rest of the Hostel.

La Iguana Perdida Hostel (Santa Cruz, Guatemala 11/10/2010)

La Iguana Perdida Hostel (Santa Cruz, Guatemala 11/10/2010)

La Iguana Perdida Hostel (Santa Cruz, Guatemala 11/10/2010)

La Iguana Perdida Hostel (Santa Cruz, Guatemala 11/10/2010)

La Iguana Perdida Hostel (Santa Cruz, Guatemala 11/10/2010)

    My private room with a public bath is $75 Quetzales ($9.50 USD) per night. There’s internet, but it’s either satellite or cellular, so there are strict bandwidth regulations. Basically, nothing can be streamed and no photo upload/downloads (photo post definitely out of the question!). Dinner is $50 Quetzales ($6 USD) for a three course meal and is served family style at a large table. Tonight’s dinner starts with vegetable soup, followed by rice, yellow curry, chana masalla (seasoned chickpeas), and saucy potatoes, and with lemon cake as desert. I’ve met nearly all the staff and most guests before dinner, so the night is full of lively conversation. I end the night early after dinner as The Itis quickly sets in.
    Thursday morning I wake at 6:30, an hour after sunrise. I prepare for the hike I planned last night with Mike, who’s traveling from Canada and staying in Jaibalito, the next village over. When the restaurant opens at 8, I have a delicious breakfast of watermelon, banana, and pineapple covered with homemade yogurt and granola. Mike arrives at 9:30 with Sarah, a Tennessee native, who I had met on the launcha to Santa Cruz. Our hike is said to take 2.5-3.5 hours, and cover 5-10 horizontal km (3-6 miles). With the steep paths on these mountains, vertical distance added could easily double that. We set off westward along the coast and arrive in Jaibalito, where we begin our accent.

Lakeside (Santa Cruz, Guatemala 11/10/2010)

Caterpillar (Santa Cruz, Guatemala 11/10/2010)

La Mariposa (Santa Cruz, Guatemala 11/10/2010)

Stop and smell the Flowers (Santa Cruz, Guatemala 11/10/2010)

Lakeside (Santa Cruz to Jaibalito, Guatemala 11/10/2010)

    We were warned of bandits with machetes on this trail, and heard Tzunaná, one of the last towns we’ll encounter on our route, is especially risky. We’re traveling in a group, and I’m carrying my mariner knife and pepper spray, so I feel safe carrying my GPS and camera. Along the path, we encounter stunning views, dangerous cliffs, streams, waterfalls, and many indigenous people. For the first hour we’re gaining more vertical distance than horizontal, reaching our first summit near the mountaintop. We continue along its edge, before descending to a small valley then ascending our second mountain. The next hour has us walking cliff-side across two more mountains, exiting our trail and traveling through the villages of Chui tzan cha and Pajomel on their paved and unpaved roads, before returning to a dirt path. We begin our descent toward Tzunaná down a dried stream bed. It’s very steep and rocky and takes us nearly an hour to get down to the town. The people of Tzunaná seem less friendly than those of the neighboring villages. We wait a mere 20 minutes for a launcha, and for $10 Quetzales are taken back to Jaibalito.

Cliff-side (Lake Atitlan, Guatemala 11/11/2010)

Watch your step (Lake Atitlan, Guatemala 11/11/2010)

Long way down (Lake Atitlan, Guatemala 11/11/2010)

Someone’s front porch (Village on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala 11/11/2010)

Mike overlooking Jaibalito (Jaibalito, Guatemala 11/11/2010)

Tallest corn I’ve ever seen (Hike to Tzunaná, Guatemala 11/11/2010)

Lichen (Hike to Tzunaná, Guatemala 11/11/2010)

More flowers (Hike to Tzunaná, Guatemala 11/11/2010)

The few mountains we crossed (Hike to Tzunaná, Guatemala 11/11/2010)

Terracing at work (Hike to Tzunaná, Guatemala 11/11/2010)

More flowers (Hike to Tzunaná, Guatemala 11/11/2010)

Kids (Hike to Tzunaná, Guatemala 11/11/2010)

Hard working people (Hike to Tzunaná, Guatemala 11/11/2010)

Overlooking the village (Tzunaná, Guatemala 11/11/2010)

Another flower (Hike to Tzunaná, Guatemala 11/11/2010)

Cool trees (Hike to Tzunaná, Guatemala 11/11/2010)

What an artistic dock-maker (Tzunaná, Guatemala 11/11/2010)

Waiting for the launcha (Tzunaná, Guatemala 11/11/2010)

    I join Mike and Sarah at their Hostel in Jaibalito for a lunch of bread, falafell, potatoes, vegetables, and a cold Moza. While eating, we meet a guy named Angelo, who tells us of bandits near Tzunaná who robbed him and his friend recently with machetes, making off with his cell phone and backpack. We took the higher route to the village, whereas he and others who have had problems there took the lower route.
    I hike the trail back to Santa Cruz alone, at sunset. My timing is impeccable, as I reach the Hostel just as it begins to be difficult to see the ground. Dinner is served shortly, and it consists of carrot soup, with the main entrees being vegetarian and meat lasagna, followed by banana cake for desert. Again, it’s delicious and filling. The guests slowly disperse after dinner, but we soon find ourselves in the lounge watching the movie Death Sentence. Half way through this horrible movie, I realize I might fall asleep here if I don’t pull myself back to my room, so I say goodnight.
    Friday I’m up at 7 to find the clearest day since I arrived, two days ago. I let an employee, Dan, know I’ll be staying another night and also for dinner, and set off toward Jaibalito on foot. The weather is clear, so I take the opportunity to shoot some better lit photos. I had planned to meet Angelo at his house in Jaibalito to go on a hike, at 8, to the top of a nearby mountain, where supposedly you can see over each edge. I have a very sore hike to Angelo’s, and let him know I won’t be going, and he’s going to have to, sadly, go solo.
    Yesterday’s hike was very demanding. Combine this with the lack of physical activity I’ve had the past 3 months, with just driving a motorcycle most of my trip, and there’s a situation ready for soreness. Before mid-August, I rode my bike and skateboards every day. Since reducing my possessions, I’ve lost the stamina and muscle tone I once had. I stretch and continue to do handstands, but have not used my legs for anything this demanding since I was in North Carolina a month ago. This high altitude is also a challenge, having been born and raised most of my life in Florida, I’m not used to the lower oxygen at 1,500+ meters.
    Returning to Santa Cruz, I sit down for a hardy breakfast of egg, beans, cheese, and tomato filled crepes with carrot and beet juice on the balcony. I spend the next few hours playing La Iguana’s guitar, writing, reading, playing with a puppy, talking to Mike about Biology, lounging in a hammock, and planning my route for tomorrow toward Tikal, as I anxiously await dinner.

On the dock (Santa Cruz, Guatemala 11/12/2010)

Vulcán de San Pedro (Santa Cruz, Guatemala 11/12/2010)

Vulcán de San Pedro (Santa Cruz, Guatemala 11/12/2010)

Hike to Jaibalito (Santa Cruz, Guatemala 11/12/2010)

Hike (Santa Cruz to Jaibalito, Guatemala 11/12/2010)

The water level is 3 meters higher than average (Santa Cruz to Jaibalito, Guatemala 11/12/2010)

Hike (Santa Cruz to Jaibalito, Guatemala 11/12/2010)

I sit down with my monocular to this view (next photos) (Santa Cruz to Jaibalito, Guatemala 11/12/2010)

Sunken porch (Santa Cruz to Jaibalito, Guatemala 11/12/2010)

Where am I looking? (Santa Cruz to Jaibalito, Guatemala 11/12/2010)

Hm? (Santa Cruz to Jaibalito, Guatemala 11/12/2010)

Hike (Santa Cruz to Jaibalito, Guatemala 11/12/2010)

Flower (Santa Cruz to Jaibalito, Guatemala 11/12/2010)

Younger flower (Jaibalito to Santa Cruz, Guatemala 11/12/2010)

Pollination (Jaibalito to Santa Cruz, Guatemala 11/12/2010)

Hike (Jaibalito to Santa Cruz, Guatemala 11/12/2010)

Flower (Jaibalito to Santa Cruz, Guatemala 11/12/2010)

Bad breath (Santa Cruz, Guatemala 11/12/2010)

Itchy (Santa Cruz, Guatemala 11/12/2010)

    This place it too hard to leave. I say this because this morning I reserve another night. After breakfast I read some of the last pages of the much neglected Children of Dune I’ve been carrying. I’m already a day underpaid for my motorcycle parking, so I take a launcha to Panajachel and speak with the girl watching the lot. I ask how much for yesterday and today, knowing the price should be what the previous two days were, $50 Quetzales. She asks for $60 before I see calculations in her head correct herself, then she tells me “no, $50 Quetzales.”
    Taking a launcha back, I pass by Santa Cruz to Jaibalito, to see if Mike is still hanging around. This particular launcha I take there must be the fullest I’ve ridden on yet. I hear there is supposed to be a maximum of 12 people on these boats, but I count at least 25, not including the 4+ children. I get to his hostel to find he checked out this morning, headed to see his brother in Belize. The hike back to Santa Cruz is great. The soreness in my legs has vanished, and is now replaced with rejuvenated strength.

Awesome macroalgae (Santa Cruz, Guatemala 11/13/2010)

Launcha to Jaibalito for a hike to Santa Cruz (Lake Atitlan, Guatemala 11/13/2010)

Shore (Santa Cruz, Guatemala 11/13/2010)

Shore (Santa Cruz, Guatemala 11/13/2010)

Flood damage (Santa Cruz, Guatemala 11/13/2010)

    The rest of the day is leisurely, and as night falls, people begin to arrive. It’s Saturday, a busy time for La Iguana. There’s barbecue tonight, with chicken and veggie burgers. The dinner is of course delicious. The veggie burger is made of some type(s) of nut, with a red center and a sweet taste. I’ve never tasted anything like this, and I have to say it’s the best veggie burger ever eaten. Desert is brownie, and after everyone has had a chance to take a piece, I grab a second.
    Saturdays are dress-up night. We’re shown the costume closet, and we all look through the enormous collection of clothing. While dress-up night usually turns into cross-dressing night, I chose another route. With a long-sleeved red shirt under a plush purple overcoat, I’m pegged by the first two people that see me as a pimp. We hang out around the fire, playing guitar, and occasionally drums on the guitar when it feels right. I expect to be up early, so I call it a night around 11.
    My route this Sunday morning, to Tikal, is on roads labeled on my map as secondary. Once I turn off the primary road that leads from Lake Atitlan, onto Ruta 15 and 7W, the twisties begin. There are a few roads taken out by repair work and landslides, which means the detours are dirt. I run into two of these today. The first is a short trip down a side street, that brings be back to the main street. The second leads me up a steep, rocky road that winds through tall grasses and deep tire ruts up to the top of a mountain that has a cell phone tower. From here it’s a short descent back to the main road.
    The next turn I make to stay on the route to Tikal turns to dirt. I knew this rout would take longer than usual because of the mountains, but I didn’t anticipate it not being paved. This drastically sets me back for total distance for the day, and I’m now reaching Cobán when I thought I’d be 70km further, near Pajal. I decide on a whim to call Herman, a guy on CouchSurfing that accepted my request to stay with him, days ago. I’m now days late and calling without notice, while in Cobán. A girl answers, and after I introduce myself, she tells me to meet her in 10 minutes at Parque San Marcos. I ask around, while driving, and arrive in about 5 minutes. After parking and dismounting, I buy an oatmeal cookie from a boy in the street tienda. A few minutes standing near my bike go by and a guy and girl emerge from a doorway a few feet away. They look at me for a moment then ask if I’m couchsurfing. There are introductions, and I follow them upstairs to their home. Cat and Herman moved to Guatemala with another friend, for one year, to teach at a local school. There are currently 3 other couchsurfers staying with them, and one more possibly showing up tonight. I’m given a bed, and there’s even an Indian dinner of chana masala and paneer cooked for all of us. Great food with great people.

Ride to Cobán (Guatemala 11/14/2010)

Ride to Cobán (Guatemala 11/14/2010)

Ride to Cobán (Guatemala 11/14/2010)

My Bed (Cobán, Guatemala 11/14/2010)

Kitten! (Cobán, Guatemala 11/15/2010)

Pretty eye (Cobán, Guatemala 11/15/2010)

    I’m eager to reach Tikal, so I leave early, at 7:30. The road soon turns dirt, and I find myself driving cliff-side around mountain after mountain on a one lane road. I stop to ask some farmers when it turns back to pavement, and they haven’t a clue. A bus driver coming the opposite direction with a full load of passengers stops to ask if I need help. I ask the same question as I did the farmers. He tells me the road goes on like this for another 2 hours, but maybe 1 hour because I’m on motorcycle.
    If a bus and commercial trucks can handle this rough road, I certainly can. I take off, and slowly regain my lead over the larger trucks. After I gain some distance, I stop to mount my camera on my left handlebar and document my journey through the mountains.

Heading North (Guatemala 11/15/2010)

Heading North (Guatemala 11/15/2010)

Cobán to Tikal 1 OF 2 (Guatemala 11/15/2010)

Cobán to Tikal 2 OF 2 (Guatemala 11/15/2010)

    This is exactly what I’ve been looking for. These back country roads, although rough and dusty, are extremely fun to ride. Besides the technical aspect to staying up, they offer the chance to really appreciate where I am and how I’m getting there. It may not be a quick route, but these kinds of challenges are best when they’re drawn out. A lot of people wave as I pass them on the side. They may not even know spanish, but I sometimes yell “Hola” as I pass. Most of the women I see are in traditional dress, and many carrying bundles of clothes, bundled firewood, or pots, possibly filled with water, on their heads. Some of the older women even carry them without hands.
    After about an hour, the road opens up to a beautiful, freshly laid, black tarmac. These are the perfect roads to drive, and now that the sun is high, it’s nice an warm. The sticky ground holds my street tires tight as I lean into the banked turns. There aren’t lines painted yet, so it feels more like a race track. Another benefit of taking the less-traveled dirt road, is there’s hardly anyone driving here with me. I’m able to take wide turns and open up the throttle.
    I’ve been checking my coolant since leaving Lake Atitlan, and am pleased to see it behaving properly. I suppose the problem was the incredibly slow speed I was descending caused the fluid to expand too much, forcing too much into the overflow reservoir.

I reach pavement (Guatemala 11/15/2010)

It’s sporadic pavement, but pavement (Guatemala 11/15/2010)

Wrong way to Tikal (Guatemala 11/15/2010)

    The road goes between phases of dirt, then paved, then dirt. There’s construction for the next 10 miles, as I enter a town and fill up my tanks. The guy at the gas station says my route north has bad roads. Setting off down a road my GPS has routed, something doesn’t feel right. The road has turned from from hard packed dirt to rocks. My GPS is now telling me to turn right, down an even rockier road so loose it’s sure to cause either a wipeout or fatigue trying not to wipeout. I stop for a moment, as cars and trucks fly by honking their horns and churning up dust clouds. Examining my maps, I find my GPS is routing me over to the primary road a hundred or more kilometers to the east. I now have to backtrack 10 km, past where I got gas, past all the construction crews, to take the correct road. My GPS still seems to be screwing with me, trying to make me do a U-turn every 30km or so. I finally find out why, when I arrive at a river. Luckily there’s a ferry that takes me across for $8 Quetzales (~$0.70 USD).

Ferry (Guatemala 11/15/2010)

Ferry (Guatemala 11/15/2010)

Smaller ferry (Guatemala 11/15/2010)

    I arrive in Tikal with a mighty layer of dusk covering everything I’m wearing and all my gear tied down. I’m glad I have all my riding gear on, so only my face and nostrils are saturated. I pay the $150 quetzales fee to enter the park for a day, and approach the information booth at the center of the hotel strip. I ask which is the cheapest hotel with internet, and at a steep $42 USD/night charge, I told the Jaguar Inn. I get my room at reception, and walk back over to the info booth to inquire about their morning services. Alberto is a guide who, for $30 USD will lead me two hours before anyone else is allowed on the ruins, at 4am, to climb the tallest pyramid for the sunrise. I debate whether I should do it, but finally give in to the temptation of what can turn out to be something spectacular.
    I’m starving, and having only eaten some granola midday to keep my brain active, anything sounds good. As it turns out their only vegetarian entres are salad and pasta. I order and devour my pasta and Moza, then saunter back to my room to wash my clothes and take a shower. I discover a rather large, hairy spider as I pull my blinds shut. It seems to be keeping to itself, so I let it be. I bring my laptop to the restaurant and for $40 Quetzales ($5 USD), I’m allowed the wifi key for unlimited internet (until 8:30pm). I finish my communications online as my battery is about to die, so I return to my room to edit video and write before passing into slumber.

My Cabaña (Tikal, Guatemala 11/15/2010)

It wouldn’t be the jungle without leaf-cutter ants (Tikal, Guatemala 11/15/2010)

Kyle Gabriel