Mountain Biking on the Moon

Overnight trip mountain biking the active Pacaya Volcano

Our trip to Pacaya was a good luck story: 2 days of great weather in the heart of the rainy season in Guatemala. A new route: 16 attendees – two support vehicles and camping made this the biggest logistical trip for Mountain Bike Guatemala to date.

For years we have been exploring ways to connect Antigua and the active Pacaya volcano by bike. The result is a route that circumnavigates the volcanic slopes with over 10,000ft of shuttle-supported descent in two days. Want to join us on our next trip? Get in touch here

Virgin land and otherworldly vegetation. Rider: Scott Harding.

Eco Park Collaboration

This trip was our first collaboration with ecological park Finca el Amate on the southern side of the volcano. The property was partially consumed by a large eruption in 2010 when a new crater opened a lava river that came within 70m of the house! After the eruption the family dedicated the property to conservation – opening a wildlife and bird watching park.

Crossing Lava Fields

9 years ago an enormous eruption opened a new crater on the Pacaya volcano sending rivers of lava dangerously close to the farm. New roads have been bulldozed through the lava providing access.

Antigua

It’s 6:30am we prepare the bikes in Antigua. The weather is unusually clear for October in Guatemala. Golden light spills through the cobblestone streets of the colonial capital. We load up 14 bikes on two vehicles dividing camping gear and supplies for our two day trip. Much of our route will be on 4×4 roads impassable by the bus so erick will be driving the long way around the volcano to meet us with the gear days end. Andres will follow us in the pickup providing mechanical and emergency support.

Antigua

It’s 6:30am we prepare the bikes in Antigua. The weather is unusually clear for October in Guatemala: golden light spills through the cobblestone streets. We load up 14 bikes on two vehicles dividing camping gear and supplies for our 2 day trip. Much of our route will be on 4×4 roads impassable by the bus so erick will be driving the long way around the volcano to meet us with the gear days end. Andres will follow us in the pickup providing emergency support.

We shuttle up the flanks of the Agua Volcano. At 2600 (8,500ft) this will be the highest point of our trip. Below are views across coastal plains of the Pacific. Our first descent follows washed out roads interrupted by morning horse traffic as campesinos make their way to the fields. In the distance glimmers guatemala’s wind farm – smoke rises from Pacaya.

The group is eager to go and takes off quickly. I stay back fixing flat tires as they arise – who runs tubes in 2019 anyways? We dip through subtropical forests and coffee plantations down to heat that leaves our skin sticky with sweat. In our haste we have beaten the bus for our rendezvous and shuttle. We divide the group and the stronger riders make the 5km climb to San Vicente Pacaya.

Rider Giovanni Gomez is psyched to get on the road!

We shuttle up the flanks of the Agua Volcano. At 2600 (8,500ft) this will be the highest point of our trip. Below are views across coastal plains of the Pacific. Our first descent follows washed out roads interrupted by morning horse traffic as campesinos make their way to the fields. In the distance glimmers guatemala’s wind farm – smoke rises from Pacaya.

The group is eager to go and takes off quickly. I stay back fixing flat tires as they arise – who runs tubes in 2019 anyways? We dip through subtropical forests and coffee plantations down to heat that leaves our skin sticky with sweat. In our haste we have beaten the bus for our rendezvous and shuttle. We divide the group and the stronger riders make the 5km climb to San Vicente Pacaya.

A Route of Rock

Linking together rough 4×4 roads we navigate the rocky slopes of the volcano its flanks shrouded in mist.

Dangerously Close

Pacaya is a volcanic complex encompassing an area with many towns and villages. There is a surprising amount of people who live in the shadow this active volcano. Guatemala City (pop. 3mil) is a mere 18km to the north. The locals on Pacaya live in poverty dodging eruptions they work slopes prone to landslides and lava ranching, growing coffee and pineapple.

Nearing the beast

As we get closer to the volcano the weather changes. A low fog drifts casting an ominous feel on the land. We can’t see the mountain anymore but we can feel it. On the bikes we traverse steep ravines and crude roads patched with instant concrete and sharp volcanic rock. This is ranch country and beef cows graze in rich pastures feed by the summer rains – all around us are tiny flowers. In the mist are jagged horizons of dried lava.

A particularly special moment when this local came and sang for us raodside in El Patrocinio.

Moon Riding

We bike amidst a dark volcanic landscape.  The route is new, recently bulldozed through fields of sharp lava rock. 

Rider: Julio Axpuac

FINCA EL AMATE

Gilber, the owner welcomes us to Finca el Amate with flurry of handshakes and photos. He is ecstatic as we are the first group to reach the finca by bike, all the way from Antigua. Gilber grew up on the finca in his childhood, moving to Thailand for several years before returning to Guatemala after the eruption to secure the future of the property. Gilber is an avid birdwatcher and is excited to name the various species you can see in the forests on the Finca.

Gilber shows us to our campsite, the rain comes in gusts. For the most part we have dodged the weather on the bikes today – and we are all thankful. Camping is unfamiliar to most Guatemalans and the atmosphere is abuzz with talk of equipment as well as show and tell.

A THAI BBQ IN GUATEMALA?

Gilber has promised us an ecologically-sound barbeque and delivers with freshly grilled of steak and vegetables served on compostable bamboo plates. The vegetarians in the group are surprised to get a thai noodle salad in the mix! Bellies full we retire back the tents for songs and alcohol fueled shenanigans in the pouring rain. Around midnight the storm clears giving us our first views of molten lava erupting above us on the volcano.

Swapping stories and scouting lines in the lava fields below Pacaya Volcano.

Day 2

After a night of rain – a clear morning

Fuego volcano lets off some steam.

Two active volcanoes in one spot

The crew is up early to get photos. There is a light cloud layer that filters the sunrise with hues of pink and red. Just when we are ready to call it and prepare breakfast – the sun breaks on the horizon – lighting the land in a fire of color. For the first time a view of our position in this volcanic mess of lava, smoking mountains and rippling ravines.

From our vantage point are numerous volcanoes stretched in a chain. Guatemalas two most active volcanoes: Fuego and Pacaya fight for our attention in a duel of fire and smoke. “There it goes again!” someone excitedly exclaims pointing towards the Fuego Volcano as an enormous landslide rips down the mountain.

Beef ranching and Pineapple Plains

We are at 1300m and the air is cool and surprisingly free of insects. We shake the night rain from our tents and prepare for the day ahead. Today we will continue our descent to sea level chasing the lava fields through old fincas and sugarcane plantations of Escuintla below.

Gilber guides us out of the finca by motorcycle on some new singletrack. We cross through spikey patches of pineapple. The volcano smokes above us. When the moto can go no farther we shoulder the bikes and continue by foot across the fields of lava.

Two active volcanoes in one spot

The crew is up early to get photos. There is a light cloud layer that filters the sunrise with hues of pink and red. Just when we are ready to call it and prepare breakfast – the sun breaks on the horizon – lighting the land in a fire of color. For the first time a view of our position in this volcanic mess of lava, smoking mountains and rippling ravines.

From our vantage point are numerous volcanoes stretched in a chain. Guatemalas two most active volcanoes: Fuego and Pacaya fight for our attention in a duel of fire and smoke. “There it goes again!” someone excitedly exclaims pointing towards the Fuego Volcano as an enormous landslide rips down the mountain.

Fuego Volcano lets off some steam.

Pineapple Plains

We are at 1300m and the air is cool and surprisingly free of insects. We shake the night rain from our tents and prepare for the day ahead. Today we will continue our descent to sea level chasing the lava fields through old fincas and sugarcane plantations of Escuintla below.

Gilber guides us out of the finca by motorcycle on some new singletrack. We cross through spikey fields of pineapple the volcano smokes above us. When the motorcycle can go no farther we shoulder the bikes and continue by foot across the sharp fields of lava.

Taking bikes where they haven’t been before

In the clear weather get the views we missed the day before – traversing the flanks of the volcano. All around us are lava fields and ash – extending in enormous flows. We descend following an old lava river. Now 10km from the summit – it’s incredible to see just how far the lava traveled during the eruption.

The roads are rocky and steep. Loose rock batters the bikes – there is very little ascent on our way out. We pass several streams of warm water running clear from the lava rock. We have entered the tropical zone and everything is wet and humid from the rains. Leaves the size of mattresses nestle in coves. Palm trees dot the landscape.

We shoulder the bikes and continue by foot – crossing the cracked earth. The contrast between the gentle green fields and dark lava is stark. Below us the ground is still hot.

Massive terrain

Views of the smoking Pacaya volcano from lava fields below. 

Much of the descent was on loose rock with several river crossings.

Savannah like lowland grassland climate of Escuintla.

Some slow down to cross rivers – others speed up! Rider: José Ignacio Ochoa Del Busto

A MTB Guatemala First

The group today is much more tranquil, stopping to take photos along the descent. No es carrera – es tourismo! Besides a few farmers we se no one along the route which descends through remote vallys – all around us is green. We battle a few more flat tires and river crossings with the truck.

Emerging from the forest into the sugarcane I get my first message from Erick over the radio – Estoy circa! We push across rutted roads of mud to reach the van for lunch. The heat has caught up with us and everytime we stop beads of sweat form on our faces. We all can’t wait for lunch.

At the van the sandwiches and guacamole are served. Everyone is all smiles – tired from the rocky descent.  In our two days we had traveled a mere 60km around the volcano dodging rain and flat tires. 14 Guatemalans and one forigner got to see Pacaya for the first time – from the seat of the bike.

As Guatemala grows as an international mountain bike destination my goal is to promote routes like these as a sustainable way to experience the rich cultural and biodiversity that the country has to offer. Getting people outside and discovering one of the gems of the Americas.

-Brendan James

Mountain Bike Guatemala is privileged to be at the forefront of a growing sport and ecotourism revolution the country. Our tours pass through small towns and new sights relieving the strain that traditional tourism puts on the environment.

Mountain biking is sustainable tourism — placing a value on the land beyond resource extraction. Mountain biking can also provide an alternative revenue stream for isolated communities that are struggling to adapt in a changing world.

Get in touch and let us show you the real Guatemala.

Pacaya Volcano is one of our new itineraries for 2020!

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