Ya Casi: Biking Around Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán

Jorge’s high-pitched voice turned serious, still a few octaves higher than you’d expect: “You must have a plan. In life, in travel, in everything! Always, have a plan and always stick to the plan.” My brother, Quinn, and I looked at each other… “Wellll ya, we kind of have a plan.” We continued to bump along the dark streets toward the center of Guatemala City, looking at the empty streets go by through the window. I think we were both starting to wonder if maybe our “plan” was a bad one. Each city zone we passed through Jorge told us to be careful, explaining the dangers of Guatemala City, and warning us to be home before dark. “Two gringos locos, people know,” said Jorge, not so subtly alluding to the fact we stuck out like sore thumbs.

When we arrived at our Airbnb Jorge jumped out of the car and rang the bell of the security door. The guard buzzed him in, and we followed. The guard was young. On his desk, there was a revolver that looked as big as his hand. I wondered if he’d ever even shot it. In some ways, I hoped that he hadn’t. It was around 11:00 pm and, after a day of travel, we could feel the day catching up to us. We thanked Jorge for the ride and turned into the elevator. A few beers on the small terraces sounded good to both of us, but listening to Jorge’s persistent advice against going out past dark we decided to skip the nightcaps and go to bed. The next day we woke up to the streets below our rooms busier than the night before and the memory of Jorge’s warnings faded a bit. With no food in the house, we planned to walk to the market for some groceries and then decided we’d start to track down the key to our trip – bikes.

Every year my brother and I make plans for Christmas together that normally involve a trip to somewhere in South or Central America. With our family living overseas, it’s often just us drinking beers on a beach or hiking volcanos. The only semblance of tradition is our yearly viewing of “Elf.” This year, we decided on Guatemala, and to mix it up a bit, we decided we’d do a bike trip. We settled on a route around Lake Atitlán that fit our tight schedules. Quinn had tracked down a local bike shop with some bikes before we arrived, but we weren’t 100% sure if the owner had two bikes available. I joked I could just ride on the handlebars like we used to when we rode our bikes to the mailbox growing up. At the shop, we met the owner Edston and looked at the first bike. It was probably 30 years old, about my size, with shifters on the down tube, and a nice soft saddle. Edston, pulled out the second bike and explained that it was his personal bike. We hesitated a bit, surprised at how willing he was to lend it to us. Slightly bigger and just as old, Quinn stepped over it and it seemed to be a decent fit. After we road them around the cobbled streets in front of the shop testing out the brakes and shifting through a few of the gears we shrugged and smiled at each other, having already made a bond with our bikes. We negotiated with Edston a bit and landed on a deposit amount and a deal to return the bikes, unharmed, in five days. After picking up some tools, spare tubes, and thanking Edston, we took off back to our apartment to pack. We had a friend coming with a truck the next day to pick us up and drive us out of the city to Godinez where we’d start our trip.

Around 9:30 am the next day, Quinn and I finished our second coffees and loaded our packs. We each had small day packs; I filled mine with a pair of flip flops, a few spare tubes, some shirts, rolls of film, an old Rollie 35s camera, and some avocados and tortillas we bought the day before. At 10:00 our ride arrived, we loaded our bikes into the tight elevator and made our way to the ground floor. Outside we met our ride. Cesar, the owner of the truck, helped secure our bikes in the bed of the truck, and once ready we started to make our way out of city.

In Godinez, Cesar parked at a gas station near the end of town where we unloaded our bikes and said our goodbyes. After he left, we decided to snap a quick photo and start our day – not without first realizing we didn’t actually know which way to go. After a few seconds of confusion, and a bit of wandering around, we were on our way. So began the bike trip. We pedaled up and down gradual hills getting used to our bikes while keeping an eye on the views. My bike had already started to drop gears anytime I stood up and pedal a bit too hard. “it’s automatic shifting technology” I told Quinn, “state-of-the-art stuff,” as I pushed on the pedals.

Not more than an hour into the day we passed a dirt road diverging from the pavement. With the help of my automatic shifting and a few curse words I caught up to Quinn, who apparently was already thinking what I was thinking. “Want to go down that thing?” he asked me as I caught up to him. We made a quick U-turn and headed down the dirt path. We gently dodged rocks and stumps making our way down the path. Not far down the road, we came to a wooden fence blocking the way. Figuring we probably shouldn’t trespass we took in the views and turned around to make our way back to pavement. Our quads warmed up and we continued to push on the pedals. A few motorcyclists passed yelling “ya casi” with smiles on their faces. We laughed, our high school level Spanish not much help, we assumed it meant something along the lines of “you’re crazy.” Rightfully so. I guess it was a little crazy.

We were pulled out of our worlds when a giant bus flew past us on a corner. With all the other traffic being relatively tame Quinn exclaimed “Wooow, those are the ones we’ve gotta look out for.” With a bit of extra energy, or maybe just some adrenaline, we pedaled to the top of the hill to a bus stop. Deciding it was a good spot for a break and some lunch we parked our bikes and took off our packs. We sat down on the cement benches and munched on some peanut butter and Nutella wraps as we looked at the route on our phones. We figured the town we were looking at below was where our hotel was and, after soaking in the views, we remounted our steeds and took off down the descent. Teary-eyed, we rushed down the weaving road. I wanted to let off the brakes. The roads were windy and surprisingly good quality. But not trusting the old bikes and without helmets, we kept a conservative pace and rolled into the first town.

We bumped along the cobbled streets lined by colorful buildings as we looked for our hotel. We found our spot easily and carried our bikes up the stairs into the room. We unpacked, changed, and immediately made our way down to the lake on foot. Day one felt like a success. We were both looking forward to getting back on the road the next day. “Ya casi” be damned we were having fun. After laying in the sun next to the lake for a while we decided to walk back towards town to find some dinner and wander the streets a bit. Vendors sold everything from fruits to clothing, kitchenware to shoes. On the way back to the hotel after dinner we passed two young boy selling fireworks. Unable to resist a little fun we bought some for ourselves and a couple for the boys.

The next day we carried our bikes back down the stairs and out into the street. Still quiet, we peddled through town enjoying the morning to ourselves. Almost out of town, we made a quick stop to adjust a few things on our bikes when I noticed huge gash in my tire; concerned, we thought we had a simple solution. We took out some tape and wrapped it around the tire and wheel to try to help it from getting worse. I did a quick spin to test it out and feathered my breaks a bit. As soon as the taped section passed the brake pads my wheel seized up. A little annoyed by our stupidity/lack of foresight in our MacGyver-ing I was more relieved than anything. If I would have waited until a decent to test the fix, I would have immediately gone flying off my bike as soon as I touched my rear brake. We ditched the tape and hoped for the best. With that, we left town and started up our first stretch of road for the day. By early afternoon we were ready for lunch and kept our eyes open for a spot as we entered a small town. We passed by a few shops and restaurants and eventually came to a stop outside of a dark kitchen with a menu in its window. We asked a woman selling fruit nearby if she could keep an eye on our bikes and went in to make our orders. Chicken, beans, and some of the best lime-aid we’d ever had filled us up and we went back outside to buy some bananas from our hired security.

We happily biked down stretches of straight roads thick with jungle on both sides enjoying the cool lake air and full stomachs. Eventually, the pavement ended. At first, it was added fun; a little flavor to the ride. Quinn and I both grew up riding mountain bikes and enjoyed the more engaging ride. The day grew hotter and the dirt road steepened. A few miles in it turned into a fine dust-like dirt and was all together un-bikeable. We dismounted and started to walk, unsure of how much walking was ahead. At this point there were almost no cars. The whole morning we were be passed by small trucks loaded with folks going from one town to the other; the occasional passenger chippering “ya casi” as they rolled by. But, that had stopped and we pushed onwards alone. Dusty, thirsty, and hot, we hunched over our bikes and kept pushing. The dirt road was scarred with deep ruts from the few trucks and busses that braved the road. We were never passed by any, but we slogged by small groups of locals working on the roads. Each looking at us with smiles on their faces as they waved “ya casi” as we passed.

Up until this point we were able to stop in little towns to buy bottles of water often. This side of the lake however, was empty. Other than the few road maintenance crews we didn’t see many people. Unsure of how long the dirt section would last we saved the little water we had and trudge on. I wanted the hill to end. I wanted the dust to subside. But we kept winding up and up until finally, the road ahead appeared to turn to pavement. No less steep it was at least not so dry. A foot past the dirt we sat on pavement, drank a bit of water, and spooned peanut butter and Nutella into our mouths.

Without much water left we looked up at the hill as it continued ahead of us, around a corner, and out of sight. Although the dirt was done, the climb was not. It was starting to get late in the day and we still didn’t know how long it would be before we got to the next town. Happy to be back on pavement at least, we remounted our bikes and started up hill again. With the first few pedal strokes we knew we were in for a long haul. Our bikes were not geared for this, and we began to zig zag up the road. We inched our way up and up. Around each corner we hoped the grade would ease. Just a slight decrease and we would be able to ride in a straight line. But for hours we paper-boy’d our way up, going from the left side of the road and then to the right side. I decided to finish my water hoping that we’d been at it long enough and the road would ease soon. When the road did finally come to an apex, we plunged down the best decent of the whole trip. We hooted and hollered saying hello to farmers who laughed as we whizzed by. My fork rattled as I gripped the handlebars. As my speed increased so too did my worry about my fork so we stopped to take a quick look. As we bent over the bike a man pulled up in an old red Toyota, took a look at us and asked if we needed anything. We thanked him and told him we were okay and he took off. He smiled and waved, “ya casi” as he picked up speed. With everything looking fine with my fork we each threw a leg over our bikes and continued back down hill towards the lake. The decent was worth the climb and, as our breaks became hot, we neared the next town.

We entered town noticing it was starting to get much more touristy. We checked into our hostel, and both enjoyed a hot shower. We were ready for a good night’s rest. Unfortunately, it was Christmas eve and the bar next to our hostel wasn’t concerned about our rest. Cheers and dance music spilled out of the bar all night while Quinn and I were left pressing pillows over our heads and waiting the night out.

Groggy and soar we crawled out of our beds the next morning looking for coffee and breakfast. Although tired, we were happy we weren’t hung over like many of the young backpackers at breakfast. We slowly gained energy and prepared ourselves for our next leg. It would be our last section of riding. It was a short section to one of the smallest towns we’d been to. I was looking forward to the seclusion over Christmas day. We both had swimming on the mind after the heat and dust of the previous day so we made it the day’s goal to find a place to jump into the lake. The road started out a bit busy with Christmas day travelers, but quickly turned to dirt. After a few small towns the road basically ended all together. Under construction it was barricaded and only bikes and motorcycles were able to pass. We dodged rocks and I prayed my tire would continue to hold air. At times we walked and at times we picked our way through the rough road slowly pedaling up hill. Finally, around noon we passed a few police officers and decided why not just ask if there was a swimming spot anywhere nearby. Luckily the officers were open to sharing their local beta with us and pointed us in the direction of a narrow stairway that led down to the. We graciously thanked them and made our way. Our excitement grew as we descended the steep stairway overgrown with flowers and palms. At the end was the spot we’d been looking for. We hid our bikes, shed our shammies and dove in. With only a handful of miles more to ride we rested and swam for a few hours. Happily munching on more peanut butter and Nutella in between dips.

Ready to move on we changed back into our riding shorts and slogged up the stairs with our bikes over our shoulders. Once at the top we jumped on our bikes and pedaled the rest of the way to our last stay. It was dirt roads the rest of the day and we rolled into our spot in time to grab a few beers from a local shop before they closed early for Christmas. Our last day of riding done we began to prepare for re-entering the real world. Covid tests were required, we need to organize a pickup time with Jorge, and to line up the logistics of returning the bikes to Edston.

The next morning we wandered down to the dock in town to wait for a boat to taxi us across the lake. The final section of road veered back inland and meandered around volcanoes – too long for our short schedule. As most people travel around the lake via boat, not bike, there were plenty of water taxis. Every 20 minutes, or so, a few boats would pull up to the dock and then head off to the next spot. Knowing the boats came consistently, we let day drift by as we sat on the dock jumping in the lake and then drying off in the sun. Every boat that came we’d look at each other and say “maybe one more boa.” We relaxed all day. At one point we were joined by two young local brothers who found us entertaining and hung out for a while showing off their diving skills one at a time.

Sometime in the late afternoon we figured we better get going. We had relaxed long enough. We loaded our bikes into the bow of the next boat that docked and hunkered down as we cruised across the lake. We found our way to our hotel and ditched the bikes to go find dinner and take care of what we need to.

In the morning we were greeted by the perky Jorge who laughed as we greeted him. He was impressed by our adventure. We managed to dismantle the bikes and fit them into his small passenger car. We loaded in and started the trip back to Guatemala city, Jorge energetically playing his favorite Eagles songs and asking us about our journey. He repeated how worried he was about us, but we assured him we felt completely safe the entire time and it was much different than the big city. “Gringos locos” he laughed. Once we settled into our ride we finally had the chance to ask what “ya casi” meant. “ahhhhh ya casi, it’s like you’re almost there, so close!” Jorge smiled and squeaked at us, turning up The Eagles. I smiled, thinking about all the friendly people willing to give us encouragement along the way.

From the start of the trip we began to worry, maybe Guatemala wasn’t a great place for two Gringos locos to ride their bikes around. We worried maybe Jorge was right, maybe we ought to rethink our plan, or lack thereof. Guatemala City has its problems no doubt. It’s probably best to stay inside after dark. Areas you need to look out for yourself in and other areas you best not visit at all. But the whole trip we found nothing but smiles, help, and encouraging words as we biked and hiked ourselves around Lake Atitlán. Every place has its blemishes (some more serious than others) but every place also has its people willing to help, willing to encourage you, and willing to laugh at two gringos locos. As we rolled into Guatemala City on our last leg of the trip we exclaimed “ya casi” as Jorge did his best to battle traffic back to the heart of the city. I felt lucky to get to experience the best side of Guatemala, and grateful to all the people willing to help us along the way.