Bikepacking in Totonicapán – a mini adventure

Apr 11 2018
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Published: April 11, 2018 by PICSPORADIC 

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Totonicapán, Guatemala

A visit to the communal forest of the 48 Cantones

Keeping tradition with my recent weekend epics in and around Antigua Guatemala I made a second visit to an area few know about: Totonicápan: a high mountain communal forest located up around 3200m (11,000ft).

The area is home to hundreds of springs which feed the indigenous communities below. Smartly the 48 cantones (small towns) that make up the region have come together to jointly protect what is the largest coniferous forest in all of Central America – united by water.

In Guatemala we have a tropical climate with a temperature that averages about the same year round – the seasons, however vary drastically. For half the year (sept-april) the highlands receive no rain. During this time the country experiences a drying period where the trees change color and drop their leaves. By the time march rolls around it is so dry a dust covers the land in a fine powder.

During the dry season nearly all of the water in Guatemala comes through forest cloud conductivity. Situated between two oceans – the 2000-4000m the highlands have steady air currents and cloud cover – water condenses in the forests and feeds large underground aquifers.

Climate Crossroads

In terms of deforestation and desertification Guatemala is at a crossroads. Every year the forests are pushed back farther – fueled by steep population growth – and an under-educated indigenous population that making its living working and clearing the land – moving ever deeper into the forests to establish homesteads.

The difference between forest and field could not be more apparent that when you are out mountain biking – cleared land is dry, dusty and bakes in the high altitude sun – enter the forests, however and it is immediately apparent the additional humidity and the air drops a notable few degrees cooler.

A wealth of Trails to Explore

Antigua is situated in a valley of valleys with elevations ranging from 1,500-2,700m above sea level. Agriculturally rich, most crops here are planted and harvested by hand. It’s easy for the mountain biker’s mind to wander admiring the patchwork of fields that dot the landscape, most of which are interconnected by ancient footpaths and horse trails. Just point and go!

Brendan James

Adventure photographer, athlete and bike guide based in Antigua, Guatemala. Full bio

Thank you to:

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Antigua, Guatemala

Guatemala’s Colonial past

The sights and sounds of Antigua bring you into another time. The city – a UNESCO world heritage site – is rich in Spanish colonial history and scattered with ruins, remnants of various natural disasters since its foundation in the 16th century. Everyday life here involves the bustle of street carts, mopeds, moto-taxis and campesinos carrying goods on their backs through town.

Our first few days we explored the city and environs by bikes, connecting ancient footpaths and agricultural trails to vistas high above the town. It’s easy to get out around here.

Lined up in front of the 17th century ruins of San Cristobal🛒

Rider Candace Shadley on a dusty and dry trail shred in the hills above Antigua, Guatemala |🛒

Post-ride refreshment break on the side of the highway. 

Kevin peak-a-boo.

Women return to town after gathering firewood from the forest.  |🛒 Purchase

"This is not like the riding in Canada"

One thing was a consensus among the riders: this wasn’t like any of the riding up north. Dry sandy volcanic soil, loose corners, and a raw element that the groomed trails of Canada will never have! With our teeth cut on the local terrain it was time to make moves.

Bikinis and Down Jackets

On day three, we packed our belongings for the ascent of Volcán de Acatenango, leaving Antigua for 4 days of bike travel across the country. The logistics were a bit complicated: a third of our luggage would go up to high camp at 3,500m on the volcano, carried by a team of porters on their backs. Another third including the bikes would go up in two heavily loaded 4×4 trucks, while the last bit would go directly to our next destination in Tecpán.

Preparing the bikes for the climb. |🛒

Local guide Alex explains the history of the ruins. 🛒 Purchase

Kingdom of the Kaqchikel Maya

Located at 2,100m in a forested region above Lake Atitlán, Tecpán is home to Iximché, a former Mayan metropolis from the post-classic period (300AD). The kingdom was violently overthrown by the Spanish in the 1500s. Conquest proved difficult because of the city’s strategic location atop a cliff band in the center of a canyon.

Later on, although briefly, the Spanish established their first capital in the region. It is also said that Guatemala gets its name from the Mexican Náhuatl translators the Spanish had with them, who interpreted the Maya K’iche’ word for “between the trees” as Quauhtemallan or “place of many trees”.

A Mayan priest performs a fire ceremony at Ixcimché | 🛒

The twin summits of Acatenango are a captivating site as seen from the Antigua valley. The volcano rises 2500 vertical meters like a wall. |🛒


Hunting for singletrack in the home of the K'iche' Maya

The greatest treat of this tour for me was being able to show the Big Mountain group one of my favorite places to ride in Guatemala: Lake Atitlán. The trails here are technical, rocky, and steep, with volcanic views that make it hard to keep your eyes on the handlebars!  This supervolcanic crater is steep in all directions with 1,000 to 2,000m downhills – I always find a new challenge when riding the raw trails here.

We shuttled up to the town of San Andrés, home to pine forests and agricultural trails that sweep down through cornfields and onto tight streets. Children scream and wave as we roll through town. We break at a stunning lookout where paragliders launch into thermal drafts, taking off at 2,000m.

We finished our last ride on the legendary Santa Catarina trail: nearly 1,000m of rocky downhill that follows an aqueduct along a cliff above the lake. Technical riding that is demanding to the very end, finishing through the stepped streets of town.

First views of Lake Atitán. Rider Cathy Jewett descends dusty singletrack above San Andres This is mtbguatemala.  | 🛒

We made it

On the shore of the lake, the late-day sun glistens on the water. We are on the last part of the ride, following a path along the beach. Brightly colored stands and vendors line the sidewalks in Panajachel, their calls and whistles merge into a collage of sound as we ride by.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of riding in Latin America is passing through markets like this. The stimulation and stolen glances of the people, the men playing cards, the children laughing as you roll past. “This place is incredible”, I hear someone mutter.

It’s another beautiful day in Guatemala and our 6-day ride has come to an end. Tomorrow, we’ll spend the day resting at Casa Del Mundo, a cliff-side hotel with nothing to do but watch the light change, fading through its spectrum at the end of the day.

In a little while, our guests will go back to skiing in the northern hemisphere with nothing but memories and sun-tans to show for their time spent here in Guatemala. I can only hope that they come back some day and we can ride a little more. We have just scratched the surface of the riding here and there is still much more to discover.

-Brendan James

Sunsets here linger for hours at Lake Atitlán. At 2,000m the horizon glows long after the sun sinks past the volcanoes. |🛒


Published: April 11, 2018 by PICSPORADIC 

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