Doug Ruth's 1996/97 Trip Reports
Date: Fri, 8 Nov 1996 10:12:57 -0800
To: BMW -GS motorcycles mailing list
Subject: Trip Report - 961031.rpt
Sunday October 27
I spent the morning walking around Panajachel, after a gteat breakfast of
Belgian waffles and hot fruit compote. Very Guatemalan, huh? The town is
definitely geared to the traveler/tourist trade. There is a reason it is
known as Gringotenengo to both locals and foreigners alike.
There were two boat-docking areas in town, where boats departed for
Santiago Atitlan, San Pedro La Laguna, and several smaller towns across
the lake. I wanted to see if it was possible to take a motorcycle on any
of the boats. I planned to try to ride to Santiago and San Pedro, and
hopefully around the Lake, but wanted to know my options. Depending on
how hard the road to San Pedro was, if I couldn't continue around the
lake, it might be nice to take a boat back.
And all indications were that riding around the lake would be very
difficult if not impossible. The Lonely Planet guidebook, while showing
some type of road or trail around the lake, made no mention of any road
between San Pedro and Panajachel on the northwest side of the lake.
The Guatemala Guide says that after passing through San Pedro and San
Juan, "the road comes to an end at San Pablo. From just beyond San Juan,
a steep trail leads to Santa ClaraLa Laguna and Santa Maria Visitacion,
villages high above the lake." It then described a dirt road leading from
Santa Clara, via Santa Lucia Utatlan, to Solola and then back to
Panajachel. So the question was what was meant by the "steep trail" to
The Berkely Guides Central American Guidebook said that at "a tiny village
about 11km from San Pedro, the road becomes a steep narrow trail that
continues on 5km further to Santa Cruz La Laguna. Since there's no trail
from here to Panajachel, catch a boat back.
Last night outside my hotel I ran into an Israeli couple on a KLR650.
They said their guidebook described riding around the lake as something
only "an expert dirt biker should attempt," presumably on a dirt bike.
Of course all this made me want to ride around the lake all the more. The
problem with all such information is you never know from what perspective
or skill level it is being written from. What looks like terrain
requiring the skill of an "expert dirt rider" to a guy who rides his
GSX750 around town, or someone who casually rents a motorcycle to ride
around central America, to a rider with some dirt or dual-sport experience
may just be challenging or even a breeze. So I resolved to ride to San
Pedro via Santiago Atitlan, which all guidebooks indicated was doable, and
try to get more information along the way. You know, ask the same
question enough times, and you'L get the answer you want, even if it isn't
the correct one.
Alomg the northeast shore, were two small villages, San Catarina Palopo
and San Antonio Palopo, 4km and 9km east of Panajachel, respectively. The
dirt road from Pana to these villages was rough in spots but nothing which
warranted getting up on the pegs for. However less than a quarter mile
past San Antonio it quicly became a two-track overgrown with weeds, and
cut by several deep gullies. I pushed on, rerasoning from my experience
in Mexico that often roads were worse immediately entering or leaving a
town. I rounded a corner and just past a hillside garage with a Toyota
4-Runner parked in front, the 2-track turned into a foot-wide foot trail
snaking its way along the lake, hugging the steep hillside. Noone was
around the garage and the only house in sight was several hundred feet
down the hill by the lakeshore. I walked down the trail a bit, and had
already decided this definitely was not GSable, when I ran into an
Guatemalan boy coming up the trail. He confirmed that this was in fact
the only trail or road along the lakeshore between here and the paved road
at Aqua Escondida. Two of my maps showed the same quality road as from
Panajachel, continuing on through to the paved road. Well it shouldn't
have surprised me.
So I backtracked to Panajachel, then took the dirt road northeast out of
town which climbed steeply up the mountainside through the village of San
Andreas Semestabel. Along the way was an overview, directly above the
village of San Antonio Polopo, where I had had to turn around earlier.
Eventually, at the village of Godinez, this road intersected the paved
road south, through Agua Escondida, to San Lucas Toliman at the southeast
corner of the lake.
Along the way I passed the Israeli couple coming the other direction. We
both braked, ant turned around, and pulled off to the side of the road to
compare notes. They had ridden as far as San Lucas Toliman, but said
their map indicated the road from there to Santiago and San Pedro was
worse than the one I had just taken from Panajachel to Godinez, and that
they weren't really in the mood for it and didn't want to risk their bike.
They asked why I was riding with all my gear still on the bike, and I
said I was planning to ride to Santiago and San Pedro, spending one or
more nights in either those towns or one of the other small villages along
the south and west side of the lake. Actually, I rarely take my
saddlebags off the bike, even if I'm just out for a day ride. After about
45 minutes of bike talk, we said our goodbyes, and headed our respective
ways. They were leaving Pana tomorrow for Tikal, so I probably would not
see them again.
As the road made its way south along the eastern shore it climbed to some
ridges offering some spectacular views down to San Lucas, Lake Atitlan,
and the 3 volcanos south of the lake, Toliman, Atitlan, and San Pedro. At
the southeast most arm of the lake, I turned off the main paved road,
which continued on south to the Pacific Coast, onto the dirt road to San
The 15km of dirt to Santiago Atitlan was not bad at all. There were
several steep uphill sections, but the worst of these were actually paved
with paving stones. I had to pass several busses and a handfull of
pickups and larger trucks along the way. The road roughly followed the
semicircular shoreline along the base of Volcan Toliman. Santiago Atitlan
itself is on the eastern shore of a bay formed by the flanks of Volcan
Toliman and Volcan San Pedro.
I got a room at the Hotel Chi-nim-ya, and parked the bike out back in an
enclosed dirt lot with the chickens and pigs. After a hot shower I
wandered up the hill to the town plaza where the market was still in full
swing. Santiago is actually the largest town along the lake, and while it
is the second-most visited town by tourists, after Pana, it has few of the
restaurants, and other facilities geared for tourists. Most tourists
visit Santiago via boat, on a day trip from Panajachel. With the
departure of the last boat at 5pm, I saw only a handful of gringos the
rest of the evening.
There was some kind of event going on in the large Catholic church on the
town plaza. At the end a large number came out in similar purple uniforms
and sat and stood on the semicircular stone stairway leading up to the
main entrance. I got a couple of photos. After the service was over I
went inside the church. It was beautiful inside, though I didn't take any
pictures. There were colorful ribbons, balloons, and banners strung
overhead, and pine bows covered the floor. Fresh flowers and candles
were everywhere. The fragrance was wonderful! In the main plaza in front
of the church, kids were flying small octogonal kites in the stiff breeze
blowing up the hill from the lake.
Kites are very big in Guatemala. There is hardly a village you drive
through where you don't see several kites in the air. And the littlest
kids, too young, or poor to have a real kite, can be seen running down the
street pulling a string, at the other end of which is a simple clear
Many locals have converted to Evangelical Protestantism, and wandering the
hilly streets after dark, I passed at least 6 different churches holding
Sunday evening services. Each seemed to have a small band, with guitar
and drums leading the hymns.
Monday October 28
I left Santiago around 10:30. The road followed the bay formed by the two
Volcanoes to its southern end, then turned northwest and climbed along the
southern flanks of Volcan San Pedro. There was one stretch which was a
bit nasty. It was an slight uphill stretch but was heavily rutted and
gullied, parallel to the road, from rain runoff. Navigating the ruts I
got my feet bounced off the pegs and with the bike seemingly more in
control than me at the moment, I decided to get off the gas and got the
bike stopped, still upright. Whew. The rest of that stretch was easy and
from there on the road was in pretty good condition. Eventually the road
climbed to a flat tableland on the volcano's western flank where there
were large dields of corn lining each side of the road. Men and boys were
headed in the same direction as I was, apparently to San Pedro or houses
along the way, carrying large bundles of wood by straps from their
foreheads. Truely incredsible to see the load they carry. It's enough to
give me a kink in my neck just watching them. Eventually the road began
to descend through a series of switchbacks, offering several great views
of San Pedro, and Lake Atitlan far below. The road down was in great
I stopped at the 1st boat dock northeast of town and a man there says a
good rode continues on around lake and that all the busses and trucks
coming to San Pedro use it. But he is unable to give me more specific
informayion on the road. While we were talking, a group of young boys and
girls gathered around and the usual examination of the bike and riding
gear ensued. One boy wanted to try my Aerostich on, despite it's being
way too big for him. I let him put it on, though he may have regretted it
later since the inside of the jacket was drenched wet with sweat from my
ride into town. I pointed at him and said "El Diablo" and all the other
kids broke out laughing.
I rode over to the other boat dock northwest of town which was where
Casa Elena, recommended to me by the British mother/daughter, was located.
However it didn't have adequate parking for the bike. Another place 50m
up the road did, Got a room at Hospedaje Xocomil for 15Q (US$2.50). The
bike was parked right outside my door, under a porch in the central
courtyard. Nice large clean room with 2 beds ans a table. Cold showers
One of the young boys, Roberto, who folloed me from the dock sais he could
guide me to the volcanoe tomorrow, but he needed to get at least 2 more
persons and then it would be 25Q per person. I said OK and he said look
him up later that afternoon by the docks, but it seemed a little uncertain
The kids hung around while I unloaded my gear into the room, one boy
laying my Aerostich and helmet on the bed as if it were someone laying
down. That got a laugh out of the others including the lady who ran the
At lunch I ran into two women, one from Canada, the other from Australia,
who had just arrived in town on the boat, and had already lined up a guide
for the morning. However they said he already had 4 people and that was
I spent the rest of the afternoon checking out San Pedro. It is perched
on the flanks of Volcan San Pedro as it rises from the lakeshore. The
road I took into town continues straight down the hill to the docks
northeast of town. The main street in town parallels the shore some
distance up the hill. Few buildings or streets are located near the lake.
At the northwest end of town the main street turns sharply and heads
steeply down the slope to the lakeshore and the other boat docks. The
main plaza with its church and municipalidad are located midway between
toe two streets leading down to the lake. San Pedro sees even fewer
tourists than Santiago Atitlan.
Later that afternoon I tracked down Roberto. He said he still didn't have
any others for the volcano, but that he knew another guide, Augusto, who
did and would take one more. He introduced me to Augusto, and he said he
could take me. I told him my hotel and room number and we agreed he would
meet me at my hotel at 5am the next morning. I hoped the kid had a good
memory, since nothing was written down.
That evening while having a spagetti dinner overlooking the lake as the
sun set, Augusto came by to say that the two others had got sick with the
stomach flue, and had backed out. He would still take me, but it would
now cost 50Q.
I don't know if that was true or not. I told him 50Q was too much, and we
haggled over price. I told him the most I would pay was 35Q, but he would
only come down to 40Q. It's funny how, when in a different economy, one
haggles over 5Q, which is less than US$1. Augusto said he knew another
guide, Domingo, who would take me, solo, for 35Q, and that either he,
Augusto, or Domingo would meet me in the morning. Now I was really
wondering if I'd strike out again on my seconf attempt to climb a volcano.
I ordered 2 sanwhiches to go, for breakfast and a snack in the morning,
and headed back to the hotel. On the way back to my hotel, I ran into
Roberto, and he inquired if I was climbing the volcano with Augusto in the
morning. I told him what had happened, and he said not to worry. As I
left, he said, if no one showed up by 5:30, I should come get him at his
house, and hw pointed it out to me.
Tuesday October 29
I awoke at 4:45 with a scratchy, dry throat, and a mild case of traveler's
diarrea. Great timing. At 5am Augusto showed up, and 2 minutes later
Domingo as well. Augusto said goodbye, and at 5:15am, Domingo and I hiked
up along the dark cobblestone streets of the town, and picked up the road
out of town, the one I had ridden in on. Domingo was 17 years old, but
only about 5 feet tall, typical for many Guatemalans.
We followed the road out of town for the first half hour, before the trail
left the road, and climbed along the lower flanks of the volcanoe through
light forest and fields of coffee and corn. As we left the road Domingo
pulls out his machete. The guidebooks recommend hiring a guide as
robberies have occurred on the trails to the summit. I wonder how
effective a small 17 year old boy with a machete ans a 38 year old guy
with a Leatherman tool will be against a bandito with a gun. Domingo
however also uses the machete as a sort of walking stick and to clear
overhanging brush in places, so maybe banditos are no longer a problem.
Where we cross rocks leaving muddy footprints, there were no other prints,
so I think we are the first ones up today. As we climb it gets cooler and
windier, but the trail is so steep that I'm working up a sweat anyways.
Most guides I talked with said it would take 3.5 hours to reach the top.
At several spots where there is a good view Domingo stops for a short
break, before saying "Vamos." For the first 1.5 hours I pretty much stay
right on Domingo's heels. His short legs are having to work a lot more
than mine, but it doesn't seem to slow him down. However after 1.5 hours
I start pausing more ofen for brief minute breaks. Domingo waits for me,
but I think if it wasn't for me he'd just keep hoofing it to the top. He
brought a small backpack, but no water, so I offer him some of mine and he
We reach the top at 7:45, 2.5 hours after starting. The summit is at 9909
feet while my hotel is almost at lake level which is at 5125 feet which
means we climbed 4784 feet, almost a mile in 2.5 hours.
At the top it's windy and cold, and clouds are blowing by from the north.
One minute we are completely engulfed in a misty cold cloud, the next
everything it clear and the view stretching out below us in all directions
is breathtaking. In the distance you can see Panajachel, across the lake
to the north, Santiago, seeminly directly below us and across the bay to
the east, and the complete expanse of the lake and Volcan Agua to the
east. Truely worth the work it took to get to the top (but I'm not sure
I'd do it a 2nd time).
I take a bunch of pictures, of the views, and of Domingo and myself, and
then split half my sandwich with Domingo. By this time we've been on top
about a half an hour, and I'm really cold, despite having my fleece jacket
and long pants on, so we head back down. My fingers literally were
getting a bit numb. Still hadn't seen any other hikers.
Half an hour after starting down we meet a group of 4 hikers (plus 2
guides) , including the Canadian and Australian women, on their way up.
Further down we pass several other guided groups on their way up. One
group had already been hiking for 4 hours and had at least another 2
hoursa to the top at the rate they were going. I guess that's one
advantage of having your own personal guide. You don't have to wait for
the slowest member of the party.
As we got lower to a spot with a good vantage point of San Pedro below us,
I let Domingo look through my binoculars. I had to show him how to focus
them as he scanned over things at different distances. I think it was the
first time he had ever used binoculars. He was fascinated. Whereas on
previous stops, he was quickly ready to move on, here we lingered for over
a half an hour as he looked at things. When he found his house in the
town below, he jokingly waved, and said "Hola mama". He was really amused
when he discvered that if you looked through them backwards thing became
even further away. In the end, as he handed them back to me, he said "Me
gusta" (I like them) and jokingly indicated I could give them to him if I
Where the trail rejoined the road, there was a group of gringo hikers
without a guide, starting up the trail. Domingo asked them if they wanted
a guide, but they declined. He actually would have turned around and
climbed the volcano again, if they had hired him. I think I'd pass on
We got back to town at 10:15, I buy him a coke, pay him his 35Q, and we
say goodbye. I'm really beat, and feeling a bit hot and feverish, so
return to the hotel and lay down and sleep till mid afternoon.
Have dinner with the Canadian and Australian women (I forget their names)
and the other couple they were hiking with, Todd & Lisa, from Lake Tahoe,
California. They're traveling for several months between their summer
jobs in Glacier Bay, Alaska, and their winter jobs in Lake Tahoe. Todd is
a naturalist on a small cruise ship in the Bay and leads sea kayak trips,
and Lisa is a bartender in the lodge in Bartlett Cove. We have a lot to
talk about. In '89 I did a 5 week kayak trip to Alaska with 3 friends,
including 3 weeks in Glacier Bay. The restaurant we are at has killer
chocolate cake. We all have a piece as an appetizer while waiting for our
meals to arrive.
Domingo as well a several other guys I talked to last night and tonight
are of the opinion that either there is no road on around the lake, or if
there is it is very dangerous and in bad condition.
I talk to several men at the boat docks. They all say it's no problem to
load the bike on the boat. "We'L just get 5-6 men, the whole village if
needed" and lift it on. "We do it all the time". Looking at the narrow
docks with steps leading out over the water, and the steep hills leading
down to the docks, I don't have a lot of confidence in their assessment.
I think it may be a case of them telling you want they think you want to
There is a big boat with a front loading ramp, but it makes infrequent,
irregular trips between towns and cannot be predicted when it might next
come to San Pedro..
I go to bed pretty much decided not to try to ride on around the lake, but
undecided whether to ride back the way I came, or to try to load it on the
boat. Even if we get it loaded here, we still have to get it unloaded at
Panajachel, and the docks there didn't look much easier.
Wednesday October 30
Get up and decide to ride back around the lake, the way I came, not
trusting the ease with which the boatnmen say the bike can be loaded.
At breakfast I meet Stewert and Bob. Stewert is a Canadian who has lived
in San Pablo, the neighboring town, for the last 2.5 years and is just
finishing building his house there. He teaches English and math in the
local school there to earn money. Bob is an American who lives just
outside San Pedro with his wife and 2 kids, and earns his living doing
mechanic work of various sorts: fixing motors, electrical systems, and
other assorted odd jobs. Stewert tells me that, yes one can continue on
around the lake. The road continues on to San Marcos, where he lives,
then climbs up along a ridge to the town of Santa Clara, high above the
lake, dropping down into another valley, before once again climbing to the
village of Santa Lucia, from which one can take a dirt road back to
Solola, and the paved road to Panajachel. Stewert says at this time all
the busses and heavy trucks coming to San Pedro use this route. He says
there are several steep sections, but that it shouldn't be a problem on
the bike. He adds that the route I arrived via has been more recently
repaired, but that the other way is in good condition. It is also much
shorter. I decide to try that route.
Back at the hotel I pack the bike, put on my riding gear, and push the
bike off the centerstand. The hombre watching, pointed at my rear tire
and said, "Es disinflado". Sure enough, it was flat, though not
completely, which is why I hadn't noticed it while the bike was parked.
There was no obvious nail or puncture, so I had to remove the tube and use
water to find the hole, a very small pinhole. Nothing left in the tire at
the corresponding point.
I seem to have a hard time getting the patches to adhere when I do the
repair on the spot, and this time was no exception. The patch started
peeling at one edge. Maybe my patches or glue are old. I used the tube
from my previous flat, which I had repaired several weeks ago. About an
hour later I had the bike loaded again and was ready to go.
The road to San Pablo was easy. San Pablo is known for making string and
rope, and as I rode down the main street, I rode between long 50ft long
strands of string and rope being twisted and wound. When I crossed the
main street they would either hold up the strands for me to pass under or
hold them down on the street and motion for me to ride over them.
At the only paved cross street in San Pablo I turned left, towards Santa
Clara. The pavement ended in 2 blocks. The road to Santa Clara climbed
steeply up the mountains bordering the lake, through many switchbacks.
Santa Clara was at the top of the mountains immediately bordering the
lake, and when I reached it, I thought to myself, that wasn't too bad. In
fact it was easier than the route I had taken to San Pedro. Little did I
know. The road dropped down and then began another switchbacked climb.
The road material changed from a rocky red-dirt to gray rocks and dirt.
The uphill sections became steeper with larger, looser rocks. I was
frequently up on the pegs and the bike was moving around a lot as it
bounced over the rocks and ruts.
I caught up to a large truck during a long steep uphill stretcch through
several switchbacks, and because the road was so narrow and rough, it was
next to impossible to pass it, so I just stopped in the nearest thing to a
level spot I could find and let him get well ahead. I could hear it
gringing away in low gear as it made its way up the mountainside. When I
could barely hear it any more I continued on. This stretch was by far the
most difficult of the trip so far. On two seperate stretches, my feet
came off the pegs as the bike was bouncing over rocks and ruts and I just
kept grabbbing as much throttle as I could to keep my forward momentum
going. Another time, as I was dabbing to save a particularly nastybounce,
I stalled the motor. I slid backward about 3 feet, frantically
backpedalling, and feathering the clutch and front brake, before the
combination of locked rear wheel and front brake halted the slide. Then I
had to slowly back up over to the side another couple of feet to ann area
offering better traction to get started on.
However I was rerwarded for this effort, for as the road leveled out as it
reached the top, it went through a sharp lefthand hairpin, on the outside
of which was a small knoll, covered in lush green grass, and which,
through a cleft in the mountains, looked way down to Lake Atitlan, and the
villages of San Pablo and San Pedro. Truly a spectacular view! And worth
the effort it took to see it.
>From this point on, te road was easy, and eventually I came out to the Pan
American Highway, where I turned right, and rode back to Los Encuentros,
the junction with the road to Solola and Panajachel. I had decided to
return to Panajachel, and then leave tomorrow morning for Todos Santos,
rather than push on today. For several reasons: the scratchy throat of
yesterday morning had turned into a sore throat and congested chest, and I
needed to do laundry after slip-sliding back down Volcan San Pedro
There was some kind of bicycle road-race going on and from Los Encuentros
to Panajachel I was pacing and passing bicycles and their chase vehicles.
Ran into Todd and Lisa, who had taken the boat over from San Pedro, and we
had a couple beers at Happy Hour at a local bar and then had dinner at a
Vegetarian Indian Restaurant.
Thursday October 31
The bank machine wasn't working, last night or this morning, and I was
almost out of money.
Rode from Pana to Todos Santos, with a side trip to Quetzaltenango to get
money from a bank machine.
Todos Santos is reached via a dirt road which climbs steeply up from the
commercial city of Huehuetenango to a high altitude plateau. Farms, sheep
herds, and rock walls dividing the fields, dominate the landscape of the
plateau. The road continues on across the plateau before dropping down to
the village of Todos Santos, nestled in it's own little valley.
The men of Todos Santos are known for the red and white candy-striped
pants they wear. Rigoberto, the boy I met in Poptun was from here, and I
saw him again that evening while having dinner at Comedor Katy where his
The hotels were full as I had expected since tomorrow was All Saints Day,
the culmination of Todos Santos' (get the connection) weeklong
fiesta/celebration. I camped at the top of a hill overlooking the town,
among the remnants of some ancient Mayan ceremonial/burial mounds. Their
I met Dave and Whitney, from San Francisco CA, who were camped there also.
They were travelling in a Vanagon Camper van, and spent the last 8 months
in Mexico and Guatemala. We exchanged email addresses since they had a
laptop with them, though were having some problems with it at the time.