Volcanarchy: Ixchiguan pt. 3

Aug 17 2016
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Volcanarchy: Ixchiguan pt. 3

Piedras Partidas

The Kindness of Strangers

Sick, desperate, and out of options, Brendan and I stood in the center of Ixchiguan in the dark. We had one card left to play. The kind pharmacist Ramirez who gave us medicine also gave his phone number. Brendan called and asked if we could pitch our tent behind the pharmacy.

Ramirez said that he owned another pharmacy in town which had a small room with beds above it, and we were welcome to stay there. His family lived just down the hill.

He met us with his pickup truck and took us to the room. “Stay here as long as you like,” he told us in clear, slow Spanish to make sure we understood. “It is peaceful here and you will be safe and warm. I am right down the hill if you need anything.” The room was well ventilated, with small and comfortable beds we were happy to crawl into, shivering after getting out of our soaking wet clothes.

The room above Ramirez’s pharmacy where we recovered from sickness.

Ramirez returned with hot tea and fresh bread that his wife had made, along with more of the medicine for us to take over the next two days. “Tomorrow, when you are better, you will meet my family. Do not hurry, this is your home for as long as you like.” It did not take long for me to fall into a deep sleep, only waking up to run to the bathroom a few times.

The next day, we slept and recovered. One at a time, Ramirez brought each of his many family members up to meet us, including his 95 year old father. He presented each of them proudly to us like he was introducing the President.

Latin cultures are very community oriented, and the extended family is revered above all else. Each had the same look: stoic and resilient, yet very kind. All of them welcomed us to their home and village. Throughout the day, Ramirez and his wife Dora brought us bread and tea.

Back on the bikes!

Exploring Piedras Partidas

The next day, Brendan and I felt good enough for a short ride. We wouldn’t be able to attempt Tacana, but we didn’t want to lose the opportunity to explore this beautiful, remote area of Guatemala that most people never see.

We headed very slowly up the hill about 5 kilometers to a local landmark, Piedras Partidas: an extinct volcanic cone that is the highest point in the San Marcos region.

Piedras Partidas is a popular place for people of the area to come and enjoy with their families. It was Semana Santa (Easter) weekend, the biggest holiday of the year in Guatemala. There were many people picnicking, hiking around, and scrambling on the rocks.

We saw some very old Mayan ladies in their traditional dress climbing up the steep faces with remarkable agility. Young children were frolicking around alone on the rocks, their parents unconcerned. Kids learn self-reliance and self-preservation at a very young age in Guatemala.

Some of the families were doing Catholic religious ceremonies, where they would chant, sing, and wail while lighting glass candles with pictures of Christ and the Virgin Mary painted on them. Eventually they would hurl these candles, glass and all, off the top of the rocks into the cirque below, and they would shatter on the rocks.

I found this an interesting practice, which left the beautiful rock formations littered with broken glass, but stranger things have happened in the name of religion.

The riding at Piedras Partidas was like nothing I had ever ridden before. It was conglomerate rock, globs of round stones melded together by solidified grey lava, cascading steeply down the extinct cone in couloir-like formations. Using what little energy we had, we hiked up and down the rock lines, linking together longer and longer segments of the tricky terrain until we couldn’t take another upward step.

Quite a spectacle

The Mayans watched us from above, cheering us on when we would skid down the steep rock chutes on our bikes. I was a little nervous that they might not like us riding our bikes all over the place they were doing their religious ceremonies, but in typical Guatemalan fashion — as long as we weren’t camping without permission on private land — anything goes, and no one cared what we were doing aside from finding us entertaining and hilarious.

Brendan shreds a steep line as some locals cheer from above.

Mayans of all ages come to Piedras Partidas to enjoy the beautiful area with their families, scramble on the rocks, and perform religious ceremonies.

At the end of the day, we rode back down the hill into another stunning sunset towards Ixchiguan. Ramirez was waiting for us, and told us we were invited to have dinner with his family in their home. As we changed clothes and went down the hill, the aroma of fresh bread wafted out the windows. For once in what felt like a long time, I was actually hungry.


Ramirez of Ixchiguan

As Dora made stew over the wood fire, Ramirez regaled us with stories of his family and his life in remote northern Guatemala.

He told us of his years spent working for the DEA in the United States, flying around in helicopters busting narcotraficantes trying to get across the border.

A helicopter crash that left him needing back surgery ended his career, and he returned to his community and became a pharmacist.

With the money earned from his time with the DEA, Ramirez is ensuring that his family is well taken care of and his children get a good education. His daughter is becoming a kindergarten teacher; and his son is in medical school, and returns home to work at the pharmacy on the weekends.

Custom Heading

The whole family had gathered for Semana Santa, and they were taking part in the community celebration which included dancing with elaborate masks and costumes, decorating the streets, and horses trained to do all sorts of tricks.

It was an unforgettable evening spent with this warm and welcoming family, whose lives were so different than ours, but who shared many of the same values and aspirations.

Saying Goodbye

The next morning, despite many invitations to stay and join the family for the Semana Santa festivities, we packed up our bikes to get back on the road. We had only a week left, and one more objective to complete. We were determined to get to the top of the next volcano, and we needed to make our way back across the country.

We said our goodbyes with gratitude, pointed our loaded bikes back towards the south, and rode away from Ixchiguan — with the elusive Tacana, still untouched, growing ever smaller over our shoulders.

Saying our goodbyes with gratitude to Ramirez, his family, and our pharmacy home.

Volcanarchy: Ixchiguan pt. 2

Aug 16 2016
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Volcanarchy: Ixchiguan pt. 2

Exploring the northern region of Guatemala and Ixchiguán on fatbikes


Brendan heads up the hill above Ixchiguan as our shadows grow long. 

A place to rest

After our much-needed siesta on the side of the road between Tajumulco and Tacana, Brendan and I continued north. We were headed for the pueblo of Sibinal, which was at the base of Volcan Tacana. But our siesta had set us back, and we knew we would not make the 40k to Sibinal that night.

We crested a hill as the shadows were growing long, and we were both getting hungry. Below us was a town: the village of Ixchiguan. Maybe we could camp somewhere around here? It would be a push for Tacana in the morning, but anything that would help Brendan recover was our priority- solid food and a good night’s sleep. As we coasted down, we saw a steep trail heading up an adjacent hillside towards a cemetery. The hill was just above treeline. It looked peaceful up there. Although we didn’t really have the energy to push the bikes up another hill – we decided to have a look.

Room with a view

At the crest of the hill was a Cemetario, with a few lone horses grazing in the stubbly alpine grass. Uphill from us a sleepy pueblo lay off in the distance.  We scouted the barren slope for a flat spot to camp for the evening -out of sight of the Mayans. To the west we had a 180 degree panorama with views of Volcán Tajumulco on our left and Tacaná off to the right. Here we were, at our tiny spot in space – halfway between our two objectives and our view framed by the two largest points in the continent.

Our hilltop camping spot was perfect.  Although we could not see it we knew the Pacific ocean was right there – 11,00ft below us and beneath the coastal clouds. “Not too bad!” said Brendan, eagerly setting up his tripod as the last light of the day faded.

Sunset haze over Volcán Tajumulco

When we crested the hill above Ixchiguan, there was no one in sight. The sun was setting, a storm was brewing on the horizon, and we were eager to put up the tent and cook dinner.

I wondered if we should find someone to ask if we could camp there, but we both knew it would take too much time to attempt to chase down a caretaker at that point. We figured we would be out of there early enough in the morning that no one would notice us.

In the distance, a major electrical storm was quickly enveloping the ridge between us and Tajumulco. As the sun set it took with it it’s last golden rays beneath the clouds. I put up the tent while Brendan cooked dinner, trying to minimize the time we would need to be outside if the storm came our way. Thunder rumbled and lightning cracked across the sky as we huddled in the dirt alcove, sheltered from the wind. We ate our simple staple of a travel meal (quinoa, pasta sauce and dehydrated tofu) and watched the storm rage and then roll on. Thankfully, it didn’t reach us.

Full moon rising above Volcán Tacaná

A different kind of storm

Sometime in the night, I awoke to a different kind of storm brewing- this time in my stomach. Oh shit. I spent the rest of the night running for the bushes. I don’t think I’ve ever been that sick in my life.

In the morning, I learned that Brendan had gotten it too. Sick on top of sick. We laid in the tent all morning, both moaning in pain in between runs for the bushes, trying to figure out what had gotten us. Was it the packeted sauce? The dehydrated tofu? Or maybe the breakfast we had many hours earlier at the tienda near the base of Tajumulco? Whatever it was, it got us good. We were wrecked.

Oh… shit.

Sickness strikes

Volcán Tacaná towered over us just a little ways north, but it might as well have been on another continent. At that point neither of us cared.

Just when we thought nothing else could possibly go wrong...

In the afternoon, clouds rolled in and a misty rain started to fall. We drifted in and out of fitful sleep, punctuated by stomach cramps. At around 4 pm, I awoke to the sound of commanding voices outside.

I peeked through the tent mesh and saw 12 angry Mayans standing there, both men and women, armed with clubs. My heart dropped into my stomach as I shook Brendan awake. “I think we’re in trouble.”

Brendan went outside while I stayed lying in a heap hoping that being a sick woman would evoke mercy. The villagers from up the hill had been watching us throughout the day and raised the alarm. This group was sent as representatives from the village to run us out.

Brendan explained the situation, that we did not mean any harm, that we were tourists traveling by bike and headed to the volcano, we had planned to leave early in the morning, but had gotten sick during the night.

They gave us a 20 minute speech, saying that we should not be here, that it was private land, people come there to pay respects to their dead and would not want to see someone camping up there, and besides it was dangerous: there were coyotes around, and people who would come and throw us off the cliff while we were in the tent.

Brendan pleaded for one more night to recover, saying the woman in the tent was very sick and could not move. They wanted to see me, so I poked my head out of the tent and moaned, “disculpeme, no tengo problemas, estoy muy enferma.”

No mercy

The group had a tense conversation in Mam, the native Mayan language of the northern region. Finally, they informed us that they would give us one hour to pack up and move on. If we were not gone in an hour — “there will be problems.”

It was evident they felt threatened by us. The wild border area was known for narcotrafficking, and certainly not for tourism. No one here sees gringos. Sick, tired, and frustrated, trying not to shit our pants, we packed our things in the cold rain as they smirked, smacking their clubs in their hands.

We finally managed to stuff our wet gear into our packs and trudged off, dripping and despondent, back down the hill towards town.

When we got to Ixchiguan, I was a wreck. I was barely able to move without releasing a foul torrent of liquid bowel magma down my pant legs. My stomach felt like something had curled up and died in there, and its ghost was trying to claw its way out.

Brendan was slightly more functional, and when we stopped at the pharmacy, the first building in town, he went in to seek help while I lay in a pathetic heap on the side of the road.

He emerged with a concerned-looking Mayan man who introduced himself as Ramirez. He was the pharmacist, and wanted to talk to me. He was very kind as he asked me about my symptoms, and quickly produced water and some pills for both of us: an antiparasitic drug he said would have us feeling better in two or three days.

He also gave us the names of the two hotels in town, and his phone number, with instructions to call him if we needed any help.

Darkness fell as Brendan and I slogged up the main street of Ixchiguan. We found both hotels and looked at the rooms. They were no place for a sick person: stinking of mold, no ventilation, and sketchy electrical wires running everywhere. I would rather sleep outside.

As we stumbled back out into the night, I was trying hard to hold it together. Freaking out or panicking wasn’t going to get us anywhere, but I was at my wits end and doing everything I could to keep from having to drop my pants and shit in the street.

Desperate, I pulled out Ramirez’s number and asked Brendan to please call him. “And ask him what?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “But he said to call if we needed help. And I think we need help.”


Volcanarchy: Ixchiguan pt. 1

Aug 15 2016
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Volcanarchy: Ixchiguan pt. 1


Exploring the northern region of Guatemala and Ixchiguán on fatbikes

Ixchiguán and the Search for Volcán Tacaná

The time Liz and I spent in Ixchiguán was not the highlight of our trip. It involved a terrible stomach sickness for the two of us, an unfriendly encounter with the locals, and we had to scrap one of my most coveted objectives of the entire expedition: the ascent of Volcán Tacaná (4060m).

For this leg of the journey we had to travel from home in Panajachel to the the remote northern border that Guatemala shares with Mexico. When our friends Sergio, Oscar, and Pichi dropped us off at the base of Volcan Tajumulco we were prepared to spend up to 6 days in the region with the objective to fatbike from the base of Volcan Tajumulco to Tacana.

There was very little information on the route or the roads in the area. I was recovering from a sickness that had left me bedridden for 3 days and too weak to get to the summit of Volcan Tajumulco  – lowering our morale even more. My plan was to recover “on the road” and take it slowly.

When you reach the end of the Chicken bus network you move on to pickups.

For this leg of the journey we had to travel from home in Panajachel to the the remote northern border that Guatemala shares with Mexico. When our friends Sergio, Oscar, and Pichi dropped us off at the base of Volcan Tajumulco we were prepared to spend up to 6 days in the region with the objective to fatbike from the base of Volcan Tajumulco to Tacana.

There was very little information on the route or the roads in the area. I was recovering from a sickness that had left me bedridden for 3 days and too weak to get to the summit of Volcan Tajumulco  – lowering our morale even more. My plan was to recover “on the road” and take it slowly.


A dream unfinished

When Liz came to me with the idea of Volcanarchy I somewhat knew what logistics would be involved. I had hiked most of the objectives on foot with the exception of Volcan Tacana. Ever since I had stood on the summit of Tajumulco looking across towards the Mexican border I had been enticed by the volcano’s appeal. It was big, remote, and stood alone, with much more prominence than Tajumulco.

There were two routes to its summit: one involved a 3 day trek from the Mexican side of the border and the other involved reaching the remote town of Sibinal on the Guatamala side to which there was very little public transportation. To my knowledge no one has taken bicycles up Tacana – I knew it would be the highlight of the expedition.

Coincidentally we were also scheduled to be in the San Marcos district during the holy week of Semana Santa, during which they have a hiker’s reunion on the mountain, so I thought that would be cool to catch as well.

San Marcos District

The northern frontier of Guatemala

Looking across the valley beneath Tajumulco you can see the endless patchwork of fields and switch-backed dirt roads that climb the impossibly steep terrain. Although they are numerous, none of the roads are on the map and our research for this trip had to be done entirely with satellite imagry.

Beyond the law

All the information on the San Marcos District is a bit sketchy. The area is known for narco-trafficking and violence and it shares a rugged and lengthy un-patrolled border with the Chiapas district in Mexico. During the Guatemalan civil war in the 70’s and 80’s the area was a stronghold of the rebel forces and they even used the summit of Volcan Tajumulco as a radio base to communicate with their soldiers.

The entire area has a certain lawlessness to it, with very little police presence and no tourism infrastructure. The entire region of San Marcos is at or above 10,000ft and can be considered alpine terrain, with very few trees, extreme weather and volcanic formations. The temperature ranges from blistering hot in the sun to extreme cold at night – San Marcos is one of the few areas in Guatemala that receives snowfall.

Back on the road!

Joining Volcan Tajumulco and Tacana by bike


After a welcome breakfast with a family who ran a small tienda at the base of Tajumulco we were off along the highway to Sibinal.  Taking the fatbikes on pavement can be a bit of a bog so we pumped up the tire p.s.i in preparation for the 40k journey. The highway afforded enormous views southward across the country and east towards Huehuetenango.

I was moving slowly, weakened from our 12 hour climb of Tajumulco and a shivering cold night in the tent the day before. The weather in the northern area could be quite temperamental – hot one minute in the sun and freezing cold the next in the shade. We were at 10,000ft after all.

We made our way slowly gaining altitude en route to Sibinal, somewhat recovering from an intense day on Volcan Tajumulco. The energy just wasn’t there for me that day and I ended up passing out on the roadside, still very sick from the week before. We had already been through a lot on this expedition and I found myself at an all time low –  with serious doubts that we would make our objective of Volcan Tacana after traveling so far.

Both weak from the day before we decided to take a long siesta on the side of the highway and take in the clouds as they cascaded up the valley.


Volcanarchy: Tajumulco pt. 2

Aug 14 2016
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Volcanarchy: Tajumulco pt. 2

A journey to the highest point in Central America:  Volcán Tajumulco


Head down, brain off. Finding my rhythm one step at a time. 

The Journey Upwards

As Brendan and I snaked our way up the flanks of Volcan Tajumulco, the trail quickly turned steep. We gradually learned the most efficient and effective methods for each of us to make progress. Brendan’s preferred method was pushing. Since he is tall and can get more leverage against the load, he made good time this way.

For me, the best method was lifting my bike overhead and balancing it across my shoulders, resting it on the top of my pack. Pushing the bike, for me, mostly results in pushing myself backwards. It is steep and loose, and the bike is too heavy. So I shoulder the bike, put my head down, turn off my brain, and march upwards.

For me, the best method was lifting my bike overhead and balancing it across my shoulders, resting it on the top of my pack. Pushing the bike, for me, mostly results in pushing myself backwards. It is steep and loose, and the bike is too heavy. So I shoulder the bike, put my head down, turn off my brain, and march upwards.

Below me, Brendan fell further and further back. I was worried, as I have never seen him move that slowly. Usually he is the strongest of any group we are in. I could tell he was deep in the pain cave and struggling. He had barely eaten anything in days, bedridden and sick, and he was running on nothing but tenacity and willpower.

Above me, our friends were still sprinting uphill. I waited as they slipped from my sight. Brendan and I had always stuck together on rides where one of us was struggling, the other hanging quietly back for moral support. This time would be no different. I knew he would push as far as he could.

Volcán Tajumulco (4,220m)

Brendan leans on his bike as he struggles uphill, fighting waves of nausea.

We finally hit a ridgeline, and there was an eerie feeling to the place as we continued up.  The fog was otherworldly, almost alive, like a veil of heavy grey algae that we had to swim through. Standing over 100 feet tall, ghostly Araucauria trees slipped in and out of the mist as we trudged past. I looked up at them in awe. I could barely see the tops. I felt like I had gone back in time, walking past these ancient trees I had only seen before in pictures.

A Rebel Stronghold

Finally we reached the base of the summit cone. Just below us in an old steam vent crater stood the remnants of a building: the remains of an old rebel base from the civil war that ended twenty years ago. Tajumulco had been a rebel stronghold, and there are still 500 untriggered land mines lying buried somewhere around the mountain. I shuddered in the fog, silently vowing to stick to the trails on this one. This was not a place to get lost.

As we huddled close together in the rocks for warmth, our backs against the biting wind, we decided to pull the plug. Brendan was cracked, sick, and the summit was still enshrouded in the milky veil. Our friends flew past us from somewhere above, hooting and hollering as they descended wildly only half in control. We had to laugh, and cheered them on as they charged out of sight. It was the Guatemalan way.

Okay, its not the summit but we’ll celebrate anyways

The Golden Hour

Finally, a reward for our efforts.

As we slowly made our way down, the fog finally cracked, and we were rewarded for taking our time. A burst of warm golden light filtered through revealing the tops of the ancient Araucaria trees reaching for the sky, and bathing us in warmth.

Suddenly we could see where we were: atop a huge ridgeline, with vast, mountainous terrain below stretching all the way to Mexico in the north, Xela in the south, and the Pacific Ocean far on the horizon. The clouds below us ebbed and flowed like waves in the valleys. The struggle was forgotten as we stood in awe of the scene around us.

A network in no-man's land

In this remote area of northern Guatemala, we were looking down upon a network of human life. Hundreds of tiny roads snaked along ridgelines, dropping precipitously down the canyons with tight switchbacks. The roads connected to countless tiny villages that don’t exist on any map, invisible to most of the world. This was a different sort of wilderness.

Timelapse at 13,000 ft.

Time to go down!

The ride down the flanks of Tajumulco was so fun it should be illegal. The trails were carved deeply into the soil like tiny canyons, changing quickly from shallow to handlebar high and back again, snaking through the trees and popping out into green meadows where the golden light and swirling fog danced around like some sort of trippy dream. Darkness came quickly as we re-entered the dark forest. A drizzly rain started to fall, making the roots, rocks and steep dropoffs tricky to negotiate.


We donned lights and pulled out the GPS. We had not tracked our ascent route as we needed to ration batteries for the week. Looking at the topo, we knew we were headed in the right direction, but trails were snaking everywhere. Routefinding went from difficult to impossible. Slowly we continued on, being careful to stay on the ridgeline and not drop off into the canyons. Though neither of us said it, thoughts of untriggered landmines were in the back of both our minds.

Lost in the dark on a volcano covered in land mines? No Thanks.

Suddenly, we saw lights off to our right. Was it a house? Maybe the one we were camped at? We stopped, contemplating. Then, flashlights pointed at us. Maybe it was our friends searching for us! We started moving towards them. As we got closer, we realized it was not our friends, but four soldiers from the Guatemalan army, complete with night vision goggles and assault rifles.

We are definitely in their territory: a shine of their lights behind them reveals a large military base, obviously built to ensure the guerrilla forces that had Tajumulco as a stronghold during the war don’t come back. Brendan and I look at each other, silently thankful we can communicate in Spanish as we explain our harmless intent. The soldiers point us the right way towards our camp and we ride into the night.

When we reached camp, our friends were overjoyed to see us. They had been worried. Sergio and Oscar had been out searching for us twice, and also for Pichi who had gotten onto the wrong trail and was lost alone for two hours in the dark. Somehow, she said, she had ended up two valleys over. She had just returned, exhausted.

Oscar was cooking dinner and tea, and we gladly contributed our share. The hot meal warmed us from the inside, and we crawled into our tent as the dust swirled and the wind howled around us, reminding us we were at 11,000ft. I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

“Extreme” – go figure

Moving On

In the morning Brendan still felt weak, but his nausea was gone. We decided to ride north to Volcan Tacana as planned. We felt deflated by falling short on Santiaguito and now Tajumulco. We wondered aloud if we had bitten off more than we could chew, and if our goal was even possible.

Sergio, no stranger to these pursuits, has one piece of advice for us as he bids us farewell: “Con tiempo, todo se puede:” With time, all can be done.

- el Fin. -


Volcanarchy: Tajumulco pt. 1

Aug 13 2016
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Volcanarchy: Tajumulco pt. 1

A journey to the highest point in Central America:  Volcán Tajumulco


Volcán Tajumulco (4,220m)

From the west, Volcàn Tajumulco towers above the coastal planes and the Chiapas region of Mexico, lifting like a hunched giant above the tropical haze. The mountain’s broad grey summit is one of the few places in central America that receives snowfall. From the east the volcáno is more attainable, sloping up gently from the San Marcos highlands where a mere 1000m of climbing brings you to its 4,220m summit.

Volcán Tajumulco (4,220m)

Snow-capped Volcán Tajumulco from the west.
Pushing the fatbikes uphill is becoming the norm for this trip.

Of all the volcanoes Tajumulco is the most rideable by bike, with gentle pastures and livestock paths that spider up the mountainside. Route finding can be a bit tricky especially in the clouds.

In the Guatemalan civil war in the 70’s and 80’s the rebel army used the mountain as a base and installed over 1000 landmines on the mountain – this was no place to get lost!

4am: Panajachel

We set the alarm for 4am on the day that we were supposed to climb Volcán Tajumulco. Our plan was to to get the first chicken bus out of Panajachel around 5 or right when the sun came up. From there we would do the usual routine – transfer in Solola and hop off early in El Baranco at the intersection of the Panamerican highway. An early morning text confirmed our friends from the capital were on their way, and we had agreed on a rendezvous of 6am sharp.

“Did you tell them how much stuff we’re gonna have with us?” Liz asked me, referring to our enormous fatbikes and backpacks loaded with camping and camera equipment. “They will find room to fit us,” I said confidently, “they’re Guatemalan.” Five people and five bicycles is a lot for any vehicle, not to mention that all of us would be carrying the extra supplies needed for camping.  Liz and I were prepared to spend up to 6 days in the region and tick off the two largest volcanoes in the country: Volcán Tajumulco and Volcán Tacaná.

The question of whether all our bikes and gear would fit was never an issue  for the Guatemalans.


A long way from home

For this leg of the journey we needed to travel from our home in Panajachel to the the remote northern border that Guatemala shares with Mexico. This involved 2 chicken bus rides and over 6 hours in a cramped pickup truck. When we finally pulled up at the base of the volcano it was early afternoon and we were all stiff, stretching in circles around the car. I was recovering from a sickness that had left me bedridden for 3 days, and had been fighting nausea all morning on the drive. I should have slept in and I was in no condition to be undertaking this serious of a climb. Our departure date was not up for discussion. Travelling along with our friends from the capital would save us over a day of travel over the traditional method (chicken bus). My plan was to recover “on the road” and take it slowly.

Sergio Valdez

Sergio is the man to talk to about riding the volcanoes. He is fifty years old and has been mountain biking before it was called mountain biking. He has pioneered many of the major bike routes in the country including Acatenango, San Marcos and in the Petén. He proudly states that he has climbed every volcano in Guatemala.  Sergio gets out of the city every chance he can get and this year for Semana Santa when he was planning a bicycle assault on Tajumulco, we were more than willing to join him.

Our city friends were much more motivated than we were – their plan was to drive 8 hours to Tajumulco, climb and bike it in a day then drive home the next – Talk about weekend warriors!

Sergio is an amazing source of beta. When we told him about our attempt on Volcán Santiaguito the week prior he just laughed and laughed – pulling out his phone and showing us a webpage with the difficulty ratings of the volcanoes. Santiaguito is the ONE volcano out of all the rest labeled “extreme,” no wonder we had no luck with our massive bicycles!

“Extreme” – go figure
Arriving at Tajumulco

We show up at the base of the volcano in typical Guatemalan fashion: arriving in a fury in our 30k dollar truck. We pull up into a driveway of a farmer and begin barking questions asking him if we can camp and park on his land. The farmers are, as usual, more than happy to oblige and after a bit of bartering we secure a parking space and camping for the night for 10Q a person ($1).

The farmer at the home below the volcano is living  with his family – 6 children, wife and a grandmother in a single tin shack while they work on constructing the house. The children are in the yard playing with rope and eating spam with their hands out of tin cans. The kids are taking turns tying the rope around rocks and dragging them around to a larger rock pile, laughing as they played and worked. The weather is ominous with no view of the massive volcano above us – its summit enshrouded in clouds.

The Upward Slog

Haven’t we been through this before?

My last time up Tajumulco I left at 5am before the afternoon clouds moved in – today we were leaving at 2pm and I knew from a photography standpoint there would be no good views up there. We decided to go anyway. Our Guatemalan friends headed off eager to make time to the summit and Liz and I begrudgingly began pushing our fatbikes at the first incline. We were both exhausted.

About halfway up I started to crack with exhaustion and sat in the meadow defeated. The last time I had climbed this volcano I had done it in a little under 3hrs. I felt like I was treading earth – not getting anywhere. Slowly and steadily I proceeded.

Liz pushes uphill, carrying the gear for the two of us.


Volcanarchy: Santiaguito Pt. 2

Aug 12 2016
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Volcanarchy: Santiaguito Pt. 2

The torment of the descent


Why me? Why us?

Descent into hell

We woke early in the morning to Santiaguito exploding at sunrise. Its giant ash cloud filled the air, and we were filled with excitement. Maybe people were wrong — maybe the route had been cleared in the past year? We had to know. We’ve come this far. It’s time to give this thing a go.

We decided to stash our packs near the mirador and descend with only the day’s worth of food and water, to give ourselves the best chance to make it. We knew the push back up would be the hardest part.


Trying to squeeze all the water we can get off of the dew-laden tent

1000m straight down

At first the descent was fun, and moderately rideable. We were on steep, overgrown trails, but gravity was on our side, and we screeched down the side of the mountain, scrubbing speed by drifting corners and pinballing off large roots with our fat tires.

Then, the trail got deep, and we started “trenching,” walking our legs on top of the handlebar-high trenches while sitting on the saddle, as there was not enough room to actually ride anymore.

Just when we thought it couldn’t get any steeper, it did. The trail turned to full-on technical downclimbing, and our silly laughter quickly turned to quiet focus on getting the bikes down the vertical sections.

One of us would downclimb while the other stayed up to hand the bikes down one at a time, then the other would downclimb. It was slippery, and we anchored into rocks and roots to keep from shooting straight down the chutes.

A logistical challenge

I have a bad feeling about this...

It was about then that my self-preservation instinct began to kick in as I realized the deep hole we were crawling into — literally and figuratively. We were moving less than 100 vertical meters per hour. DOWNhill. This is no bueno.

To make matters worse, conditions were deteriorating. We were socked in with fog and ash from Santiaguito’s constant eruptions, and we couldn’t see anything. There was ash EVERYWHERE – gathering on all the foliage, our bikes, and us.

With the speed we were going, I knew we were going to run out of food and water long before we reached the canyon that held the base of Santiaguito. And if it was taking us this long to go downhill, no doubt uphill would be 100x worse.


Pushing down feelings of guilt at being the weaker partner, I suggested that we think about turning around. Brendan knew his own strength, and was firmly committed to the goal. He didn’t care if we ran out of resources, he was determined to not turn back. “Oh man,” I thought. We hadn’t talked about how to handle this scenario.

Finally, after much debate and me standing my ground as the weaker link, we compromised and decided to push for the halfway point, a petrified lava river running down the flanks of Santa Maria. We would ride on the river, then turn back.

Pushing down feelings of guilt as I realize we will need to turn back.

Lava Rocks

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The lava river

The petrified lava river was otherworldly. It was like slickrock, only black, coated with a fine layer of ash, and slippery as graphite powder.

Riding on this alien terrain took precision, balance, and focus. A split second of being off balance on our tires would take us crashing to the ground. Gingerly hovering on our bikes, we rode lines, playing on the ridges, slides, and holes present in the rock. It was thrilling and fun. I was glad we had made it this far.

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Eyeing lines on the complicated terrain of the petrified lava river.

Brendan using his agility to balance on the slippery terrain.

The climb we will never forget

We were jolted from our shred session by the feeling of raindrops on our skin, reminding us of the ordeal we had ahead of us. It was time to head back up. We could only hope to make it before dark, but we were very happy we had brought the lights.

Right away we removed our pedals, loosened our headsets and twisted our handlebars vertically, taping them to our top tubes with electrical tape to make the profiles as skinny as possible and help our bikes pass more easily through the trenches.

I knew within the first ten feet that we were screwed, as I hefted my bike overhead to clear the technical exit from the river and immediately got it stuck in the brambles. I was underneath, helpless. Finally I squirmed out the other side, scrambled up the embankment, and after about five minutes was able to pull the bike out. Great. One down, a million to go.


We both knew without saying that our success here, and in fact our ability to continue as partners without killing each other, would depend fully on our attitudes. I vowed to myself to not say or think anything that wasn’t helpful or positive, and I think Brendan did the same. We silently and slowly moved upwards, occasionally encouraging the other.

The next six hours were a blur of agony. I felt like we had somehow become extras in a B-rated horror film. The sawgrasses that had been soft on our way down had turned sharp with the rain, and razored our skin from head to toe. The toxic ash, now liquid, seeped into our cuts, burning and stinging. It was a nightmare, and I have no idea how we both stayed positive and focused. We were moving inches at a time.


Eventually, it got steep enough that neither of us could push or carry our own bikes. We realized we would have to shuttle. Brendan pulled from the front and I pushed from the back, moving one bike at a time for 10-15 minutes, then going back for the other. It was agonizing, but it was working.

Finally, we decided to take my bike and make a run for the top. It was almost dark. It took us an hour to get my bike, the lighter one, back up to camp. We were exhausted and starving. We decided to make camp and load up with dinner.


“Extreme” – go figure

After dinner, Brendan wanted to go back for his bike which was filled with his camera gear. I was unwilling to let him go alone. We came up with a plan: I would hike down with an empty backpack, and Brendan with nothing. We would strip his bike of all the bags and extra weight and put it on my back in the pack. Then I would hike it up, and Brendan would carry his bike solo.

Finally... the ordeal ends.

It worked. It was dark and slippery, but we were bolstered by the delicious food we had eaten, and we made good time. The effort took us an hour and a half both ways, and just before midnight we finally slipped into our sleeping bags, exhausted and defeated.

The last thought I had before plunging into a deep sleep was: That was easily the dumbest thing I have ever done.

In the morning, we crawled out of the tent and assessed the situation. We had exactly two bottles of water, two small bags of peanuts, and one tiny energy bar between the two of us.

We still had about an hour of hike a bike and lots of downhill and flat pedaling left to go to make it back to Xela. We would really have to conserve.

In the dry season, huge amounts of dew forms on everything at night to quench the foliage in the time of year where there is very little rain. This included our tent, and we decided to collect the dew from our tent to use as drinking water. We actually got nearly half a bottle of water off of our tent. It would come in handy in the blazing sun on the ride out.


It is incredible what humans can do when they have to. On just two bags of peanuts and one tiny bar, Brendan and I biked all day long. The trail down Santa Maria was technical and fun, and despite the efforts from the day before and our tiny food supply, we were able to ride it well and enjoy it.

It was a small consolation for the disappointment of the previous day, but at least it was something. I wished we could come up here and ride this fresh. It was really, really good riding. (Hint: if you find yourself in Xela, go ride Santa Maria! It’s a treat.)

After what seemed like an eternity, we finally reached civilization on the outskirts of Xela. We stopped at the first tienda we saw and Brendan made short work of an entire row of small bags of chips, while I promptly inhaled three ice cream sandwiches. It was the best ice cream I had ever eaten in my life.



EP00 – Guatemala (Introduction)

Aug 11 2016
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A vibrant land and culture

Guatemala is a wild and vibrant country not only in its landscapes, but in its native cultures and Mayan people. Guatemala is one of the most ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse countries; with twenty-one different Mayan languages spoken along with Spanish.

Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in Central America, largely a result of the decades-long civil war which ended in 1996. The country has been recovering from the war, but is still considered by many a dangerous place to travel.

Lake Atitlán from the summit of Volcan Atitlán with volcanoes San Pedro (left) and Volcán Tolimán (right)

(Brendan James) In the past year that I have been in Guatemala I have seen some of the most amazing things in my life. Amazing beauty, amazing poverty, amazing kindness, amazing natural wonders and amazing environmental destruction. Living, working and navigating this incredibly dense country has been a daily adventure for me.

The people of Guatemala are incredible, no really. It was their openness to me that kept me here as a traveler and gave me new comfort in the world unknown. As one of the few gringos in the country racing mountain bikes – they embraced me. They have given me hospice in their own homes and taken me into their extended family.

You really are never alone in Guatemala.  The indigenous are constantly pushed deeper and deeper into the rugged mountains to continue a tradition of farming and subsistence living off the land. When exploring within country you need to bring your manners as you never know when you will stumble upon a campesino working. With a friendly greeting and a bit of small talk they are always willing to help you along your way.

There is no such thing as “too remote” for a village in Guatemala. Roads begin and end in the middle of nowhere- cuttoff by enormous landslides. The infrastructure of the country is webed together in a unofficial transportation network of Tuk-Tuks, Chicken buses, Fletes (trucks) and pickups. You never have to wait more than 15minutes for a ride in Guatemala, and more likely than not they will ask you first.

Guatemala is a living anthropological site with an incredible diversity of people and culture. 80% of the population is indigenous and for many spanish is a second language. The density of tribes here is profound. At lake Atitlan it is not uncommon to run into a different traje or traditional clothes from one town to the next – each village speaking their own distinctive language.

Guatemala! Pura Utz Pin Pin!

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The Land of Volcanoes

Nestled between the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean Guatemala is incredibly mountainous – with sharp ridge lines percolated by deep canyons. Guatemala is home to twenty-two volcanoes, ten of which are over 10,000 feet and seven of which are active. For this project we attempted five of them:

Volcán Santa María


Elevation: 12,375ft
Last Eruption: 2013

Volcán Acatenango



Elevation: 13,045ft
Last Eruption: 1972

Volcán Santiaguito



Elevation: 8,366ft
Currently Active

Volcán Tajumulco


San Marcos District

Elevation: 13,845ft
(Highest point in Central America)

Volcán Tacaná



Elevation: 13,320ft
Last Eruption: 1986

View from the summit of Volcan Acatenango, Guatemala’s highest volcanoes in a chain along the Sierra Madre de Chiapas

Fatbikes in a Foreign Land

For this trip we knew we would be taking fatbikes where they had never gone before. We became quite a spectacle in Guatemala where the locals would cry out “Bici Gorda! Bici Gorda!” (fatbike in spanish).  Everyone wanted to pick up the bikes and feel the tires.


For this expedition we brought two Alaskan built Fatback Rhino Bikes with Lauf Carbonara Suspension forks and 4.5″ tires.

The bikes were outfitted with custom made bikepacking equipment by Mayasak in Panajachel.

For the extreme mountain conditions at 13,000ft we brought Gore Bike Wear outerwear and photochromatic Julbo eyeglasses.

Nutritional and hydration support provided by SkratchLabs out of Colorado.

Photography equipment including Panasonic Lumix Micro 4/3rds cameras.


Fatback Rhino
Lauf Carbonara
Kenda Juggernaut Tires
Race Face Componentry


Primus Gravity II MF Stove
GSI Cookware
BigAgnus Jackrabbit 2 Tent
Marmot Sleeping Bags
Thermarest Sleeping pad


2x Panasonic G7 4k Camera2
2x Gopro Hero3 Black Cameras
Various Gopro Mounts
Tripod, Monopod
Garmin 310xt GPS


Deuter Guide Tour 35SL Backpack
Arcteryx NoZone 35 Backpack
Mayasak Frame Bags
Mayasak Headset Bags
Mayasak Seat bag


GORE Bike Wear
Julbo Stunt Glasses
Julbo Aero Photochrromatic Glasses
Julbo TREK Photochromatic Glasses
La Sportiva Down Jacket
La Sportiva Boulder Approach Shoes

Read on...


MTB Guatemala

Aug 08 2016
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MTB Guatemala

A season with Guatemala’s Rowdiest Mountain Bike Club: The Papa Bikers

MTB Guatemala

Guatemala is is pitted with deep canyons, enormous, volcanic terrain, a reckless happy-go-lucky chicken bus culture and for the crazy ‘chapins’ the sport of mountain biking is the perfect fit. Bicyclists fill the streets of the small agricultural pueblos as the preferred mode of transportation and towns hold yearly festivas for cyclists with live bands and TV broadcasting where all ages compete.

Mountain Bike races are run on unofficial single track through coffee fincas and Mayan footpaths. One of the country’s most famous races’ El Reto De Quetzal runs over 3 days connecting Antigua, Panajachel and Xela. Bikers test their balance and grit on steep hiking trails cut into the steep cliffs of Lake Atitlan, and the enormous 10,000ft climb from Santa Cruz La Laguna over Alaska to Quetzaltenango.

This past year I have been privileged to join the amazing cycling culture that has welcomed me as a permanent guest and know me as gringo! Participating in mountain bike races and travecias have brought me all over the country where I can gain a unique perspective on the remote Mayan villages forests and farms that make up this incredible country. Guatemala is mountain bike heaven!


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