First Views of the Cordillera Blanca

Mar 24 2019

Fatbiking on an Active Volcano

Volcán Santiaguito, Guatemala

Published: March 24, 2019 by PICSPORADIC

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Baptism by Fire

Our attempt at fatbiking on the Santiaguito Volcano – one of Guatemala’s most active Volcanoes.Volcan Santiaguito was our first attempt in this expedition, and it would prove to be the most difficult. We had no beta on the route besides a few vague GPX waypoints and some local beta from the rockclimbing club who said the volcano hadn’t been attempted in the past two years due to extreme activity.To reach the volcanic terrain we would need to descend the landslide on the backside of Santa Maria.

The entire mission would be an inverse hike – 1000m down then 1000m up – this was not going to be a straight forward volcano.  I thought to myself: “It’s only a thousand meters, how hard could it be?”The approach to the Santiguito Volcano was overgrown and had was no resupply for food or water. We would have to take with us three days of supplies which meant traveling with bikes that weighed over 70lbs loaded with gear.

Neither of us had any idea of what we were about to get into on this volcano and the only thing I think we really proved  through all of it was that we both were really crazy to think up such a preposterous idea!

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Brendan James

Traveler and photographer, Brendan has cycled throughout Latin America currently lives in Guatemala. bio


Elizabeth Sampey D.P.T

Endurance athlete and former pro USA Cycling national champion. Visit website

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The Journey Begins

Quezaltenango, or Xela is about 2 hours away from Panajachel by chickenbus. We packed up everything (checking twice) before heading out in the evening. We were staying at Hostel Nim Sut, our favorite, modestly priced hostel in Xela. For about $10 a night we got our own room, which didn’t matter because the place was completely empty. The owner complained about how “Americans don’t travel anymore.”

While we were going over the bikes in the courtyard an older Danish couple arrived and immediately began talking to us enthusiastically about the fatbikes. “Where do you take the bike?” the older gentleman asked. We told him we were going to Santiaguito. His face grew long. He said he had gone to the volcano the last time he was in Guatemala – some 10 years ago.

“You will not succeed with the bicycles” he said, holding his hands out as if he had a handlebar. “There are many small trees, your bikes will not fit!” … Great, more encouraging news…


Quetzaltenango, or Xela is the second largest city in Guatemala. The city is home to several major universities and sports centers.  It’s metropolitan vibe is a interesting contrast to the native villages that surround the city.

Packing for the Unknown

Nothing about this is going to be easy…

After packing and repacking throughout the morning we finally got on the road – following the cobblestone roads out of Xela changing to the dump-truck battered roads of the highway. We crossed the plains getting ever closer towards our goal: the flanks of Volcan Santa Maria.

We had only been riding for an hour, and I was starting to get a nervous. Because my bike frame was so small I had to carry quite a bit of the weight on my back, and after only an hour of climbing it was starting to ache. This expedition was going to require a level of toughness and creativity that I hadn’t tapped into before.The road changed from pavement to cobblestones and finally to gravel. I was off my bike pushing as the pain in my back became unbearable. When the grade eased up I took off the backpack and put it lengthwise across my handlebars, balancing it between my arms as I rode. Ah, much better.


Trash Everywhere.

I rode along at a good clip and started to enjoy myself, looking around at the beautiful scenery and finally finding my rhythm. Hmm, Brendan must be pretty far ahead, I thought. Well, we’re turning off this road and he’s got the GPS, so he’ll know and wait for me at the turn. I pedaled harder. I passed a turnoff that looked like the one we had marked, but no sign of Brendan, so I kept going.I flew downhill and rounded a corner, and saw a sight that stopped me in my tracks. What lied before me was a HUGE dump. Miles and miles of trash staked in giant heaps.

From my position up the hill I could see wild dogs picking around, people sifting through piles, and smoke rising from trash fires.Hesitantly, I continued forward and soon found myself riding right through the spectacle. People stopped their picking and stared at me like I was an alien. With my hot pink baggy bike shorts and my bike with huge tires fully loaded down with bags, I pretty much was.I rode slowly through a mile of burning trash on both sides of me, hoping the dogs would ignore me as I passed.

There are no words..

I finally spotted Brendan in the dump. He had stopped to take photos up on the plateau and in my stupor I had ridden right past him. He assumed I had seen him and didn’t call out to me, and I had been cranking along fast enough that he hadn’t been able to catch me. I wanted to be angry, but it was an honest mistake on both our parts, and it wouldn’t have helped anyone.As I looked around at the remnants of people’s lives there in the dump, I realized: it all ends up here. When we buy things, we don’t often think of where they will end up when we break them or they are no longer useful to us.In the US, “we” have the money to send the trash away or cover it up so we don’t have to see it. In Guatemala where they don’t have the money to hide it, it is on display. It’s all the same. It still exists, and we are all guilty.

Hesitantly, I continued forward and soon found myself riding right through the spectacle. People stopped their picking and stared at me like I was an alien. With my hot pink baggy bike shorts and my bike with huge tires fully loaded down with bags, I pretty much was.I rode slowly through a mile of burning trash on both sides of me, hoping the dogs would ignore me as I passed.



Back on the trail to the mirador, after leaving the valley of burning trash behind, we climbed through the most beautiful cloud forest I had ever seen. We were riding on a ribbon of tacky, loamy singletrack, its dark brown color a stark contrast to the brilliant green on either side.

As darkness fell we donned our lights, and they sparkled off the dew collecting on the grasses and shrubs as we rode. In Guatemala’s dry season, where they can go for months without seeing rain, the dew serves to keep everything sustained until the rains come again.


Preparing the vegetarian staple of Protemás (dehydrated vegetable protein)

Mirador Volcano Santiaguito  el. 2600mWe finally reached the mirador, and it was stunning. There was no moon – and the brilliant stars overhead matched the twinkling lights of the pueblos far below. In between was the Santiaguito massif. Smoke puffed silently from the volcano.Night birds began their cheerful chatter, and we watched fog swirl in and out between us and the volcano as we cooked dinner.

The smell at the mirador was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. A faint tinge of sulfur mixed with the crispness of the night air and the fresh scent of juicy foliage swelling to accept the dew forming, drinking the sweet nectar of night.If I could bottle up the scent itself, even without the view, it would be priceless.- Liz Sampey


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Published: March 24, 2019 by PICSPORADIC

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