RSF - The Off Road Cycling Club

The Adventure Starts Here

Guatamala City to Belize City by Bicycle, February 2003

by Steve and Anni Gregson


Do not all good tours start off with a few difficulties?

Thursday, January 30, slip and slide home (oh, that red wine!) in heavy snow by bus, train and cycle from the Anglo-Central American Society AGM in Belgrave Square, Central London. The only AGM that you pay to attend?

Friday, January 31, take the boxed cycles to Heathrow round an icy, treacherous M25, return home , park up and return to a Heathrow hotel by train. 8 hours travel!


Saturday February 1, fly out but on landing at Guatamala City I stabbed my multi-tool through to the bone in my hand which delayed our leaving the airport but happy about their first-aid facilities. We lost our booked room and were left wandering around the darkened streets late at night to find another hotel. Missing drain covers left holes large enough to devour a whole cycle. In the dark we passed by the velodrome where our friend Padre Rozo won Colombia`s first international cycling gold medal in the early 50`s Panamerican Games. He was the organizer of many enjoyable end of year tours in Colombia.


In the morning we took a bus to get a couple of hours clear of the heavy city traffic only to find the computer `removed` somewhere between loading our bikes on the roof-rack and having them unloaded outside Tecpan! Oh to be on 2 wheels, our two previous trips in Guatamala, albeit to the east, had been without problems.


From then on things got better, they had to. After a night in Panajachel, on Lake Atitlan, Feb 3rd and 4th were spent at Jaibalito just a short launch trip away, enjoying lovely weather, sunrises, an erupting volcano and marvelous scenery along the precipitous cliff walks from our cliffside hotel.

We were soon eager to be off as the roads through the Highlands were supposedly cold, rough and accommodation hard to find. We had seen a map showing a road from San Marcos la Laguna to km 148 on the main highway but guide books never mentioned it. In Jaibalito it was confirmed as existing and even newly paved which would save backtracking to Los Encuentros. However we were not prepared for two extremely steep sections getting away from the Lake. North from Km 148 on the main highway, we reached the highest point on the trip at 2610m where the landscape was barren but warm enough for shorts and 25C at mid-day. At Quatro Caminos we found an (in)decent Love Hotel complete with jaccuzzi. Walking distance away in friendly St. Cristobel Totonicapan there were funerals and a wedding to experience at 8am. The road to Huehuetenango was through lovely scenery and early morning frosts could be seen in the fields, necessitating longs for the first hour or two. A mad dog ran out at me but missed, however Ann was behind and ran over its front paws before she had chance to give out her normal scream. At Huehue we were able to buy a replacement computer which I deemed necessary in order to know our progress on the poorly mapped and unmade roads that we had read as extending from Huehuetenango 400 miles to near Belmopan in Belize.


Feb 7th and we set off on 5 magnificent days through the Highlands enjoying the beautifully costumed ladies, sunny weather, beautiful mountain scenery whilst riding the never-ending steep and unmade roads with only light traffic. Our average speed during these days was around 5.0 mph reflecting the great care to avoid bike damage and punctures. How we loved it and they were the best days of the whole month even though decent hotels and food were rare. Within 2 years, by the end of 2004 this road is likely to be paved therefore losing its great charm so do not hesitate, go before it's too late. If a couple of average 60 year olds can do it, one preparing by shopping trips, some Sunday bicycle riding, the other by work commuting, Sunday rides and some physical exercises to strengthen the back and arms, so can anyone.


The first day was a short afternoon ride to Aguacatan, where the only pension in town had its rooms reserved for the next couple of years by the Japanese road-building contractor, even if there were only two occupied at the time! Road surfaces were hard earth with embedded stones with very little loose gravel so no real problem except for the dust raised when an infrequent bus or lorry passed. 29" bottom gears made the inclines rideable on this and the following days. 700Cx32 wide tyres were sufficient except I fitted a Schwalbe Expedition 37 wide to Ann`s front wheel which gave her extra stability. Aguacatan has a pleasant smell of onions and we had a walk to the nearby source of the Rio San Juan. Hospedaje Nuevo Manacer was the best of the alternative accommodation with a friendly owner but basic WC/cold water `shower` and a rustic feel with traditional fir tree greenery on the floor. The owner had a daughter nearby with a decent restaurant.


The road to Sacapulas, 24 miles on, was also steep - we even walked downhill once when the brakes overheated the rims and there was a bit of surface washboarding. The basic Hotel Tughaan was the better of two in town and from the open veranda on the top floor we had an interesting view over the market on the Sunday morning. Clothes washing and drying facilities on the top floor were ideal. Had a look at the hot springs in the river where people enjoyed family baths.


There were also great views, now with more pine trees, on the road to Uspantan, 28 miles further on and the climbs and descents were longer but still steep, the road was quite dusty, sometimes stony, sometimes sandy. More ups than downs on this section. At Cunen, dancers in masks of the Conquistadores, bulls and deer paraded through the streets just as the camera battery gave out! Ann however found some charity workers with a couple of spare partly-used ones so we were back in business. Factor 50 sun-cream and long sleeves were needed on these highland days. At Uspantan, Ann found a newish guest-house hidden behind a not too attractive wall, the Posada Dona Leonor had lovely large bedrooms, tiled bathrooms with hot water, a real treat after cold water for 2 nights so we decided to stay another day, check the bikes and relax before the final run to Coban which we knew to be a 9 hour day. The open Bar-B-Q in the main square was the best place to eat, lively and they did not mind if you accompanied the delicious beef with chips from an adjacent brazier. Once again the ladies were wearing the colourful costumes and elegant headwear.


For the long 52 miles final Highland day, we set off in longs at 6.20 when the temperature was only 13C. After an hour we changed to our shorts, vest and jersey, a short climb preceded an 18 mile descent down a scraped surface to a rickety bridge guarded by 2 friendly gentlemen who helped Ann across when she suffered a vertigo attack. An 18 mile ascent followed. Surfaces on this day were more solid than the first days so we were able to average 6.7 mph but this included the final paved 13 miles into Coban. Every 5 or 10 miles there was a tienda where drinks and biscuits were available. A young boy we met on the road, very polite and clearly intelligent rode an hour to school and an hour home every day. Talking to him he had the opinion that cycling was better for the body than crowding in a vehicle. A future politician?


Arriving at Coban we celebrated with wine and a 4-course meal in a restaurant with a fire to give a warm welcome. The Guide Books were right about Coban weather, drizzle all day to dampen even the spirits of striking teachers invading council offices. Also we were constantly warned to avoid riding the middle section of the unmade but dramatically descending El Estor road which was suffering a spate of robberies, so we joined other passengers in giving a bus a push-start and jumped a ride over that section and in fact on arrival were told of an assault just the day before. Our conductor was inebriated at 7 am but the driver was sober and a big strong guy that gave you confidence. I had a running battle with the conductor on the roof at every stop when he was carefree with the loads he put on top of the bikes! Sharing our seat down below and supporting our bikes on the roof were 2 families of turkeys. An exciting journey but safe enough on the bus.


El Estor was a peaceful town, restful but with good fish to eat and plenty to do so from there we canoed in the El Buqueron canyon before setting off for Rio Dulce on another rolling unmade road via a stream where we had a unique swim letting hot sulphurous water splash on our backs from a waterfall. Interestingly, at the waterfall were an Italian couple in their seventies, and although the husband was an author of cyclo-touring books, he was of the opinion that in Italy, apart from say 1000, there were no cyclo-tourists. `Only day riders` he said in disgust.


On 16th at Rio Dulce, the hot sunny weather continued and a visiting yachtsman informed us that if we thought there were a lot of resident Americans, some of them had been tempted the previous week by a free meal and seminar to learn of the latest US benefits etc. at a nice local riverside hotel only for 12 of them to be arrested the next day by US officials who had placed hidden video cameras and compared faces with police photos. They were flown back by jet to face embezzlement, molestation and other charges. `There is no such thing as a free lunch`. The yachtsman`s description of them was either `Wanted or Unwanted Somewhere`. Later there was the most amateurish circus we have seen not to mention a thunder storm that resulted with more water inside the big-top than outside and loss of lighting in mid-performance. We had an escape route planned under the tent walls. `Hermanos Chinchillo` - well worth a visit.


A lovely Rio Dulce trip by launch preceded crossing a stretch of sea as wide as the Dover-Calais channel but in a launch for only 16 people. In addition to pounding our backs and wetting those on the port-side, the bikes suffered a real shaking luckily without damage. Arrival in Belize and Immigration was at the top of the tiny jetty to be greeted by the second and last drops of daytime rain of the whole trip. The Punta Gorda tourist office was worse than useless as it only gave out accommodation information if it was on commission. Thus we were informed wrongly that there were no decent places to stay in the nearby Mayan villages nor between P.Gorda and Placencia, 70 miles up the coast. The Southern Highway has been recently paved (albeit with large saddlesoreness-inducing pebbles) most of the way so we were able to make good progress up the coast and we set ourselves the task of finding rooms with nothing in front of us but sand and sea. (A real holiday?).


From 20 - 24th Feb we had hot sun and enjoyed the beaches of Placencia, Hopkins and Dangriga before riding the famous Hummingbird Highway, also now fully paved to the junction by the capital Belmopan. As we had made good progress, it was turn west and we thought we were to ride another 20 miles in temperatures of 36C to San Ignacio to find somewhere to stay. Both of us started this section without commitment but a beautiful Lodge at Warrie Head just 7 miles from the junction, tempted us to have a look in and in fact was by far the best accommodation of the trip.

A short day to San Ignacio preceded a rest day and a walk around the large but rarely visited Cahal Pech Mayan ruins just outside the town, where there were also plenty of colourful birds like the Motmot. The Belize River there was ready to receive the hundreds of competitors for the annual canoe race down to the sea. It was outside a police station that my rear tyre blew off from overheating. The loud bang made all the locals and the police look around so it was a case of whistling gently and disappearing behind a shop to avoid embarrassment. It was our first and only bike problem of the trip.


All that then remained was a long ride to Belize City and the airport but a short cut saw us detouring to buy Cashew nut wine and around the corner in Burrell Boom was a nice hotel with a pool and good company, just 10 miles from the airport.

At Miami airport we were not looking forward to the 12 hour transfer so went out of the airport, contacted a Bolton friend who has a building business there. An hour in a shuttle bus started a convivial few hours around Fort Lauderdale. All those turnpikes, classy sea-front restaurants and luxury hotels were a big contrast from the previous 4 weeks. Guess which we preferred?

For those who study statistics, we covered 684 miles riding on 18 days, averaging 38 per day, longest day 68 miles. Every day except 2 we had sunny weather with mid-day temperatures ranging from 25C in the Highlands to 36C in inland Belize. Early morning temperatures ranged from 9C in the Highlands to 25C in inland Belize. Probably our best ever weather whilst on a cycling holiday. Traffic was light throughout the tour. Accommodation was rarely full. Costs in Belize were twice those in Guatamala which were £30 for 2 per day, however in Guatamala you have to take care with random overcharging. Security was easily manageable, it was always easy to find the police to ask for information and around Atitlan and on the main Highway towards Mexico, they were patrolling regularly. As in the rest of Latin America, if you need a bus on a main road, in 10 minutes one will come along. We also noted the age profile of backpackers was creeping upwards.

Air tickets as usual from JLA who are reliable, efficient and good on price.


Other Central-American cycle tours have been -

1994. Costa-Rica to Guatamala. An excellent 3 week tour.
1999. Guatamala to Roatan in Honduras and back. Security problems around Tela otherwise plenty of interest at Copan, around La Ceiba and the islands.
1999. Around Panama including Boca del Torro Islands. Helpful and friendly people but Panama can be rainy.
2000. Around Costa-Rica. Lots of quiet, unmade roads, good wildlife and beaches.

Where to next? Continuing northwards and into Mexico would be a logical idea after 10 years of covering all except the Darien Gap, from Ecuador to Guatamala. 5 trips in Colombia, including an End-to -End do not seem possible to add to until the kidnapping risk reduces, but following the Rio Magdalena from source to the sea would be a real adventure and one that we are determined to do as soon as we feel safe to be there.