For the first time since the pandemic and just the second time ever, World Ride and Old Town Outfitters collaborated to host Guatemala’s only All-Women’s Travesia. The event attracted women from all corners of the country and riders could choose from 25 or 40-kilometer mixed-surface routes that stitched together local villages before ending at ancient Mayan ruins. The goal: creating a safe space for women to try cycling. The result: an unstoppable community of women riders. Continue reading below for Hilary Lex’s moving story and photo gallery of this epic event, along with a beautiful film co-produced with Ashley Hayes!
“I’m still alive!” Diana García yells as soon as the group stops for a break at the only aid station on the 25-kilometer travesía (“traverse”) gravel route. Diana is a volcano guide for Old Town Outfitters based in Antigua, Guatemala. But today, she’s a mountain biker.
It’s the middle of January and over 70 women have gathered on a Saturday, about an hour and a half outside of Antigua, to complete Guatemala’s only all-women’s travesía. I’m here to film the whole thing. I’m on assignment for World Ride working on a documentary with my filmmaker and partner-in-crime, Ashley Hayes. Upon dividing up our duties for the trip, we decided Ashley would ride the travesía with a GoPro mounted on her handlebars while I hum at speeds upwards of 60 kph on a motorbike filming the event with a full-frame mirrorless camera and drone in tow.
In Guatemala, travesía events happen all over the country. They are wildly popular community bike rides usually hosted by a town or a club. But there had never been one that was just for women. In today’s case, this particular event is a collaboration between Old Town Outfitters and World Ride to host Guatemala’s only all-women’s travesía. The two organizations knew that if the women’s mountain bike community was going to grow in Guatemala, they needed to introduce the sport to more women in a fun and approachable way.
You see, Guatemalan women are not given the same opportunities or encouragement to try different activities that are often male-dominated. It’s just one of the ways that Guatemala stands out as Latin America’s most gender-unequal country. According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), only 37% of Guatemalan women participate in the labor market today. And worse, violence against women is the most commonly reported crime in the country.
But that’s exactly what makes this women’s-only travesía event so important. As he explains the concept behind the Travesía Las Ruinas, Chris Gwinner (the manager of Old Town Outfitters) says that women need “a protected space where they know they’re going to be amongst their own and feel safe, comfortable, and supported.”
When Julie Cornelius, Executive Director of World Ride, first came to Guatemala with a friend in the spring of 2019 for a mountain biking trip booked through Old Town Outfitters, she wasn’t thinking that it was going to be anything with World Ride. But in talking more with the folks at Old Town and sharing what she does, Matt (owner) and Chris said let’s make that happen here!
World Ride is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit that works to empower women globally through mountain biking. They do so by establishing programs around the world where they create free bike libraries, train local women to become mountain bike guides and fund skills instructor certifications. World Ride believes that mountain biking helps women overcome fear and cultivates new opportunities. The organization funds and operates programs in Nepal, Guatemala, Peru, Botswana, and Lesotho. And they are hoping to expand to the Navajo Nation and Ecuador soon.
“In most of the countries we work in, there’s less of an opportunity for women to get into a sport like mountain biking. There was a need and excitement to bring our programs here,” Julie explains. “I think it’s important for people to see how our programs work and the women that are being supported through mountain biking in Guatemala.”
Julie continued talking with Matt and Chris after coming home that spring and they put together the first World Ride Guatemala Trip at the end of 2019. In talking with them about how to make a difference in the community of women mountain bikers in Guatemala, the idea of a travesía came up.
So World Ride and Old Town combined forces in late 2019 to put on Guatemala’s first women’s-only travesía and made it a part of the first World Ride trip to the country. World Ride had all these people who had spent a week riding around Guatemala, seeing all these different places, and then on the last day the trip ended with the travesía.
And now we’re back, post-pandemic, for the second women’s only travesía with plans for this to be a recurring annual event that aligns with a World Ride trip.
“The thing about Guatemala that makes it a great place for World Ride is that there already is a mountain bike scene here. It’s a growing sport in the country. There just weren’t that many women riding here. It’s a beautiful country and the culture is so rich.”
Julie continues “But also having amazing partners on the ground that really want to see us successful in our mission is important. We rely on having people in each place that can run our programs, house our bike library and really connect us with the local women that ultimately end up leading the charge with our programs.”
One of the purposes of the original travesía in 2019 was to try to recruit women that may want to be World Ride guides. At that first event, World Ride had a few women become ambassadors, and Christa Castillo stepped up to become a guide the following year.
Christa is a 38-year-old Guatemalan woman that lives in the foothills outside of Antigua. As a volcano guide, Christa was the first woman to join the Old Town Outfitters guiding team. And Chris knew that she had what it took to become their first female mountain bike guide.
So World Ride started supporting Christa in guide training and running the World Ride bike library in Antigua out of Old Town’s garage. “Christa is really the reason so many women have started riding in Guatemala. She got the word out to organize weekly rides and it’s cool to see how much it’s grown since then.” Julie shares.
Back on the trail of 2023, we reach the finish point at Vieja Mixco, an ancient Mayan site with sweeping views of the valleys and mountains that surround it, I see Christa trying to hold back tears. Ultimately the tears win and she’s quickly wiping a few from her face. I know she wishes more than anything that she could be riding with all these women, especially today. But a mountain biking accident just one month ago left her with a torn ACL and a pair of crutches.
Just as we make eye contact, another woman pops up over the hill in view of the line of women who’ve already completed the ride. Christa hurriedly hops over to the finish line and throws her crutches in the air to cheer on the rider.
After the shouts and cheers die down, I ask Christa why she is so emotional. “I know that when a woman discovers her own power on the bike, she is unstoppable. It’s something that’s starting to happen here in Guatemala.”
I scan the bustling social hour and find Julie in her brightly striped World Ride jersey. “Julie! How was your travesía experience?”
“Well, I didn’t eat this morning because we were running so late. So I didn’t have my best day on the bike. I was bonking. But even through that experience, I just keep bringing myself back to how amazing this is – I’m here riding with all these women! It doesn’t matter how I’m feeling, it’s so cool to see all these women pushing themselves! I did the longer 40-kilometer ride this year which was really cool. It’s much more challenging than the 25-kilometer ride.”
“And the 25-kilometer one’s really hard for the record.” Ashley, my filming partner, chimes in.
Julie responds, “But there were a lot of women that did the 40-kilometer route, like 23 women, and they all crushed it! It was so cool that there were that many women that said ‘yeah, I’m going to push myself today.’ It’s the coolest way to see a country too – to ride through all the villages and see how people live and to get out of the touristy areas and just see the real Guatemala – to ride through that was beautiful.”
Ashley swiftly adds “And then we’re all done and we have this collective experience of doing this very cool but also very tiring thing. And there are really heightened emotions.”
I look back at Julie and she shares, “I think that’s the magic of the community. What does it mean to get a whole bunch of women together to do something like that? That energy… I don’t think you can really describe it until you can feel it and experience it for yourself. We all just did this thing and we all had hard moments but we made it through and we did it. And there are all these ladies cheering me on at the finish and all along the way. It’s just an energy I can’t quite describe.”
After the January 2023 travesía, World Ride now has two more women training to become ride leaders. And Diana García is one of them. World Ride funded three women (Christa included) to complete their Professional Mountain Bike Instructor Association (PMBIA) Level 1 certification course in January.
“All of the women we work with all over the world say the same thing about what mountain biking gives to them: it gives them this freedom and community they didn’t have before.” And I’m instantly tearing up at Julie’s reflection because I suddenly am having one of my own. What an incredible legacy to leave on the world! Because of Julie’s vision to make it easier for women to get into this sport, there is a ripple effect of one woman at a time finding confidence and freedom.
I’m struck by how clearly the theme of freedom resounds. I ask Christa what she would say to a local woman that is considering mountain biking for the first time. “I say we are here together. If you are feeling something, we stop, we talk about it. We are not only working on your skills, but we are working on ourselves. I want them to know this is a safe place to feel a sense of peace or comfort. If they want to stop or they feel stressed, I stop and just let them be. It’s a rule to express how you feel. In one word, what I love most about biking is: freedom. The feeling is incredible – to let fears go and know they are not bigger than you. And that we can be free.”
As we wrap up the day and drive back into Antigua, I notice Julie staring out the window.
“What are you thinking about?” I hesitantly ask (so as to not interrupt her meditative state).
“I’m just so glad that Christa got to be there to at least experience the travesía. Even if she wasn’t riding… just to see what it’s all about and to see what an impact she’s having. Getting to see all of her friends that she rides with and that she’s helped get into mountain biking – to see them get to have that kind of experience. I hope she appreciated that.”
I know she did. Because in the first few days of meeting Christa she told us that “Just by seeing all the girls enjoying the bike, it’s something that’s good energy for me. Because even though I’ve stopped riding because of my injury, I’m still working with the girls. And I know that I’m not so alone.”
To view Christa’s story and learn more about World Ride Guatemala, head over to https://world-ride.com/ There, you can also learn how you can support World Ride’s programs and even book a trip to Guatemala!