Motorcycle Riding in Guatemala 🏍🏍🏍

This post is not about language teaching.

Tina, her brother Bobby and I decided to spend two weeks in Guatemala over Christmas, touring on motorcycles. We rented from Simoon online. First we spent three days at the beach in Monterrico.

We picked up the bikes in Antigua. They are RTM 250s. The small-dick-big-belly-big-motor crowd is giggling 1000 cc or GTFO. I was a bit sceptical too, having spent most of my riding time on a 750. We didn’t have dedicated bags, so backpacks and bungees it was for gear.

From Antigua it was about 20 minutes to the Carretera Panamericana on first cobbles and then a smooth two-laner.

Town and village riding basically comes down to: look around, go slow, use your well-adjusted mirrors, and go when you have to.

From the junction, we headed north toward Chichicastenango. The highway was fine: smooth, and most Guatemalan traffic isn’t going much past 80. The carretera runs smack through the middle of Chimaltenango (although a new bypass will open soon) at which point we learned the First Rule of Riding in Guatemala: whatever goes, goes. Cut lanes? Ride in the ditch? Ride to the left of oncoming traffic? All good.

And yes, you can do all of this around— and with– Guatemalan cops, providing you follow the Second Rule of Riding in Guatemala: don’t be an idiot. If it’s reasonable and doesn’t look dangerous, go ahead.

We rode past, through and around at least 3 km of stalled traffic and then were home free. Shortly past Chimaltenango, we had our first and only “accident.” As I pulled off the road, the bike moving at about 1 kmh with feet off the pegs, a fraction too much brake tipped the bike. Bob, a few hundred meters behind, pulled over and did the same.

Unscratched, we righted the bikes, having learned The Third Rule of Riding in Guatemala: road-edges are dangerous. Because of low budgets, corruption, bad design or whatever, most Guatemalan roads go straight from driving lane to dirt— no shoulder— often with a good bit of dirt or gravel on the edge of the pavement.

On one straight stretch, I got the bike up to 100 and that was as fast as I would go in two weeks. My cynicism about the 250s evaporated. I had thought, maybe I should spend three times as much and rent a BMW, but the decision to get 250s was right: much cheaper insurance and rentals, and no real way to let a GS do what it’s meant to do on these roads.

We spent the evening in Los Encuentros, as Tina was tired and darkness encroached. At dinner, in a comedor off the highway to Chichi, we watched a parade of lightless cars and bikes, animals and pedestrians stroll along the 15. Here, we correctly deduced The Fourth Rule of Riding in Guatemala: Do Not Ride At Night. Yes, yes, I know: you have 300,000 accident-free miles and ten bikes under your belt. But in Guatemala you are dealing with the following at night:

◦ animals, sometimes in herds

◦ people, often drunk, generally unreflective

◦ pets

◦ cyclists, generally like pedestrians

◦ vehicles with no lights

◦ epic and unmarked potholes

◦ literally any object

topes, aka speedbumps, often unmarked

The next morning we slurped awful Nescafé along with fantastic churrascos con frijól in the just-above-freezing sun. When we went to start the bikes, two wheezed and then died. Luckily Guatamala is full of hills and we were on top of one, so roll starts got the janky beasts going.

The 15 toward Chichicastenango has been recently repaved and was our introduction to proper Guatemalan riding: moderate traffic, crazy curves, steep ups and downs, and magnificent pine forests and milpas (cornfields). I rode visor up, as 40 is about as fast as you can go.

In Chichi we paid $2 per bike for safe parking and in the market Tina and I got our lucky toucan masks for the bikes.

From Chichi it was 20 minutes to Santa Cruz del Quiché, which is Chichi minus the tourists.

The next day we split: I north and Tina and Bobby to Lake Atitlán. I was aiming for Nebaj, high in the Cuchumatán range. Maps said it was 90 km and would take 2:17. Ya right, I thought, even I on this 250 can do better than that.

The road north from Chichi was poor: potholes and gravel bars, but the scenery was stunning. There were 10 km of gravel, and then, as the loooong descent to Sacapulas began, the road became a silky brand-new blacktop. Other than the unmarked topes in the tiny hamlets, this was perfect pavement.

From semitropical Sacapulas the road went basically straight up to Nebaj with more stunning scenery. Some of the hairpins were so tight and steep I took them in two. A bigger moto would have done nothing for speed here, but probably would have cut down the amount of shifting.

Nebaj was as it was twenty-five years ago, only in three stories and with cellphones: smoky, orange in the afternoon light, and calm. I rode to Chacmul for lunch. It was market day, and a fair number of unacompanied men were drunk. Many of them stumbled off to motorcycles and headed homeward, wearing the Guatemalan motorcycle helmet: a hoodie.

Nebaj in the morning.

The next day’s ride went back to Sacapulas, and then through fast, undulating pine and corn with even more amazing views to Chiantla and then basically vertically up through a boulders-and-pine desert to Todos Santos, nestled among hanging forests, woodsmoke and cloud high in the Cuchumatán mountains.

Views west from the cumbre between Chiantla and Todos Santos.

The RTM 250 with views into Todos Santos.

Todos Santos is high in the mountains.  Locals wear colourful traditional clothing, supplemented with cell phones and T-shirts with American rappers on them. Twnety-fiveyears ago, all the buildings were one storey.  Now, it has grown upward and is wealthier, and there is less woodsmoke, but the same chill vibe (with the obligatory drunk sleeping it off on the street) remains.

After Todos Santos it was off to Xela on the good Panamericana. In Xela I marveled at how much the city has grown and how much wealthier it is.

From Xela it was up over the cumbre, the highest point on the Panamericana– more stunning views– toward Lake Atitlán. I avoided Los Encuetros, ditching the CA1 just before Caserio de la Miseta and had another stunning paved ride down to the Lake to San Antonio Palopó, where a wild New Year’s eve ensued.

Panorama from the cumbre.

Lake Atitlán by morning and evening.

From San Antonio we took back roads and a bit of CA1 to Antigua. The back roads followed the high country and had more incredible views.

Overall, a magnificent tour. I’d do Guatemala on bike again, but four weeks would beat two.

LOGISTICS

BIKES

If you are new to Guatemala and/or poor-country riding, you might want to rent first in Xela or Antigua, as Guatemala City can be uhhh challenging.

You can do Guatemala on a 250 easy. Don’t get a 125. Other than on the Panamericana for 1-2 km at a time, you’ll never go faster than 80 kmh. Renting a dirtbike makes riding way less fun on highways but opens up a load of off-road options.

I would buy World Nomads insurance (and check with your home country insurance provider too). Really do your insurance and rental research: who pays for/deals with an accident, breakdowns or medical costs? (Note: things like dead batteries or flats will be your responsibility no matter what.) If there is a serious accident involving a Guatemalan, prepare for epic legal hassles including jail.

If you are in an accident where a Guatemalan is involved, you are better off working things out on the spot.

If you’re one bike two riders, get at minimum a 750 and make sure it has paniers/boxes.

TOOLS: Guatemalan mechanics are smart, skilled and infinitely adaptable. Any taller mecánico can lend you the basics and/or help. Every town has a mecánico. If you like tools, bring an adjustable wrench, a couple of hex keys, some electrical tape and a set of pliers. Your odds of getting something fixed are in direct proportion to how popular your bike is: Italikas, RTMs and low-power Jap bikes are no prob; your Ducatti or BMW, well, hopefully you bought the Deluxe International Helicopter Assistance Membership.

SECURITY

In bigger towns and cities, bikes should be wheel-locked and secured somewhere locked (your hotel/hostal or secured parking) overnight.

In smaller towns, wheel-lock and put a lock on the front wheel overnight.

When in doubt, ask: locals know security and secure parking is cheap.

In Guatemala City, do not ride at night, and ask which places are safe to walk. Leave the $$$$ , passports and iPhone XX in the hotel on party nights. Always carry a photocopy of your passport and driver’s license, & store pics of these in the cloud.

If you stop in Gringotenango for a few hours to cruise the market or hot springs, pay for secure parking ($1-2) unless your gear is locked and secured. Bring/buy a light cable lock for helmet & gloves.

Do not ride at night. It is not worth the risks, time savings, etc.

CLOTHING & GEAR

The minimum is a riding jacket and gloves, and sunglasses. I wore hiking runners and jeans. If you are attached to your helmet, bring it, otherwise check with your rental agency re: sizing. You don’t need raingear. If it rains (from April-Oct late aft/eves), stop riding. Get up early, ride, then relax. Riding pants & boots are lovely, but not much fun to wear while walking around in towns along the way.

Radios and/or dedicated GPS are not a bad idea but check first: some bikes don’t have plugs so make sure you charge/have batteries. An arm- or crossbar-mount GPS/phone holder and earplugs is nice but not essential.

The mountains are cool. Bring a sweater, some comfy socks, jeans and light longjohns/tights. Lots of hot springs so yes bathing suit.

NAVIGATION

I pre-loaded Google maps daily onto my phone from hotel Wifi. You can activate terrain and traffic features with the layers function. Be prepared to have Google Maps and/or your GPS lead you astray 😉 cos road conditions change.

If your map says 90 km 3.5 hrs, trust it: roads are good but windy and you have to drive right through towns. Take it slow and enjoy! Stop for a coffee! You are not in Guatemala to pound out miles. If you want a big motor and like going fast, go to Arizona.

If you bring an unlocked phone, TiGo stores sell Guatemalan SIM cards and weekly plans dirt cheap.

BASIC SPANISH

Literally every word of Spanish you know improves your Guatemalan experience. Get a phrasebook. Better yet, take a couple of weeks of Spanish classes in Guatemala —living with a family— before you ride.

The “study” of Spanish– ie memorising grammar rules and vocab– is, according to science, better than no exposure but relatively useless. If you want to learn on your own, LingQ is good, as is Spanish film or TV subtitled into whatever language you read. Best is a couple of hours a week of tutoring and reading anything you can understand.

There are also apps that “translate” between languages. Not a bad investment but don’t rely on them (slang, weird pronunciation, weird situations, figurative language, plus you may need WiFi). You can always print this out and have locals read the Spanish if there’s a problem.

Here’s some basics:

por favor, gracias, de nada: pls, thx, yr welcome

Tengo un… pinchazo/problema I have a flat/prob.

  • llanta tyre
  • rueda wheel
  • frenos brakes
  • batería
  • luces lights
  • señales signal lights on bike, road signs
  • silla seat
  • llave key

¿Tiene herramientas (automóviles)? Do you have (automotive) tools?

(no) funciona/sirve it’s (not) working

¿Me puede ayudar? Can you help me?

se cayó it fell down/over

perdi… I lost…

Necesito… ayuda, gasolina, aceite de motor, una habitación, una cerveza I need help, gas, motor oil, a room, a beer

¡Llénela! Fill it!

¿Cómo llego en…? How do I get to …

  • sigue go/follow
  • recto/derecho straight
  • dobla a la derecha/izquierda turn right/left
  • regresar return, go back
  • vuelve come back
  • adelante up front
  • detrás behind, in back
  • al lado (de ___) beside, beside ____

¿Cuán lejos queda _____? How far is ___?

¿Cuántas horas son para _____ ? How many hours to _____?

hay/no hay ... there is/are (not)…

  • asfalta pavement
  • tierra gravel/dirt
  • topes speedbumps
  • mucho tráfico lots of traffic
  • curvas peligrosas dangerous curves
  • piedras rocks
  • túmulos bumps/uneven surfaces
  • desvía detour

hubo un accidente  there was an accident

(no) hay paseo  you can (can’t) go thru there

¿Hay parqueo/estacionamiento (seguro)?  Is there (secure) parking?

¿Me la cuidas?  Can you watch it for me? ¿La puedo dejar aquí un rato?
Can I leave it here for a bit?

¿Hay…? is/are there, do you have (use for transactions)

¿Cuánto es/son? How much is it/are they?

cavál We’re here/this is it.

chapín(a), guatemalteco(a) Guatemalan

te invito aalmorzar/cenar/un trago/una cerveza I’d like to buy you…lunch/dinner/a drink/a beer

no mames, cabrón G.T.F.O. 😉

se chingó it’s fucked 😜

“No parking. Flats done for free.”

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