VUELTA DE LAGO ATITLAN
I have been leading and attending bike tours for many years, but my recent experience in the ¨Vuelta de Lago Atitlan¨ which means ¨Tour of Lake Atitlan¨ was an event without parallel. The day culminated in a procession of police and firefighters with sirens blaring, promoters in vans blasting music and trumpeting the success of the 150 mountain bicyclists, including myself, who completed a 70 plus kilometer ride around Lake Atitlan. The townsfolk lined the streets applauding, cheering and blowing off fireworks. I haven’t felt this adulated since I was a child, and never before on my bicycle!
Lake Atitlan is a volcano-ringed lake in the highlands of Guatemala, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. The lake coast is populated by Mayans in small towns who subsist on agriculture, weaving and picking coffee beans of the rich landowners. A speckling of rich Gringo houses are perched on stunning cliffs surrounding the lake, but most Gringos live in Panajachel, THE trading town of the area. I had business in Panajachel and the ¨Vuelta¨ was conveniently dated.
I happened upon the ¨Vuelta de Lago Atitlan¨ because one of my Guatemalan fabric suppliers, Leopoldo, is also keen on mountain biking. When I arrived in the country over two weeks ago, he alerted me to the Vuelta so I rented the best mountain bike that I could find, in Antigua, and proceeded to bus and bike around as training for this big day.
I needed this day. I had been ¨out of humor¨ for the past couple days with a cold, but the two days before the ride, I was able to get in some training rides interspersed with my business travels.
I had no idea what to expect of an organized Guatemalan ride. As with most things in Guatemala, one can’t depend on the quality or service. And this ride only cost 80 Quetzals, or about $10, so I was surprised when I was told the trip included a T-shirt, boat rides, lunch, dinner and sag support.
I showed up at 6:00 am ¨sharp¨ at the boat launch, and I was the first participant to arrive. Shortly thereafter, about 15 Guatemalans arrived with their bikes along with, thankfully, the tour organizers. Then to my amazement, over the next hour and a half, over 150 cyclists arrived completely filling the privately chartered boat, the largest on the lake. Most people I met were from all over Guatemala, from avid to novice cyclists. There were at most 20 Gringos, mostly locals living or working in Panajachel. Outside of the country, it was not an advertised ride. Leopoldo, who is from Totonicapan, was accompanied by his Brother Felix and friend Donald who were both riding, then Leopoldo and Donald’s Mothers, Donald´s sister and his sister’s daughter who were enjoying the day by riding in the chartered boat which followed us around the lake the entire day.
The tour started with a short boat ride since the road doesn’t actually go around the lake due to mountain cliffs plunging directly to the shoreline in sections. So our support entourage met us at the start. What an assemblage for a bike ride! — 5 chase vehicles, three with multiple megaphones for trumpeting announcements and playing music along the ride; a firetruck and two firefighters; 3 motorcycles with extra flagmen for marking sharp or dangerous corners (there were a lot of them); 3 armed policemen dispatched from the new tourist police force in Guatemala; a bike mechanic, and all the food for the event which included purified water, Gatorade and bag lunches for each person for two lunch stops.
After everyone disembarked from the boat in a small lake village whose townsfolk were dumbstruck by the size of our expedition, bike tires were pumped up, announcements were made, a group photo was taken, and then the tour began with a whistle in a mass start.
The retinue followed a set itinerary through the beautiful lakeside rural villages. The motorcycles and flaggers led the way with one of the announcement vehicles playing Guatemalan Pop music. The Mayan villagers, adorned in their local dress or field work clothes, all rushed to the roadside as we passed. As we passed through villages, the firetruck sounded its siren. The population smiled, waved, clapped their hands or just gawked with astounded looks on their faces. As we passed by, we would hold out our hands for the young children to “high five”, which elicited bursts of laughter and amplified the excitement. Kids ran alongside laughing, pointing and hooting.
I will forever cherish the moments when the doubtful or bewildered children, taught to distrust outsiders, would burst out in laughter at the engaging, lycra-clad cyclists. The populace of these little lakeside towns, like Santiago Atitlan, were the victims of military occupation, genocide and torture in a brutal civil war in the 1980´s. Our invasion of predominantly Guatemalan cyclists startled, but then delighted, the normally guarded residents of this impoverished region.
And our greetings were returned with equal optimism. In the towns where we stopped for breaks, we gave an economic boost as well. At each rest stop, we regrouped. More announcements, more instructions to bike carefully on the steep mountain roads. Another whistle start. The entire ride was captured on videotape and film; afterwards we were offered video and photographs of the event.
This was not an easy ride. We clocked 73 kilometers, about 45 miles, but it was not the distance that was as difficult as the incredibly steep and unrelenting hills, often 20% grades. The biggest climb of the day was a good 2500 feet up the backside of San Pedro Volcano and a super steep gravel road, but we got cold Gatorade at the top. The road surface was a mix of paved concrete on the short steeps and between villages, bone jarring ancient cobblestones and the remainder gravel. At times it was dusty because of the size of our entourage but it was hardly a bother due to the ebullient atmosphere of the ride. And tired riders had plenty of support vehicles for lifts up the steeps.
Guatemalans are not renowned for their biking abilities. They average about 5 feet tall, so not many bikes fit them. They have few safe roads on which to train and most struggle to find recreation time. So it was all that much more amazing to participate in an event with such a determined, proud and fun-starved group of people. It was as if the whole country turned out in recognition and support.
Everyone stopped and regrouped just outside of Panajachel for the final procession into town. The local police force joined us for the impromptu procession, sounding the way. We paraded through town, twice, following the promoter’s vehicles, sirens blaring, megaphoned music, fireworks and cheering. The town stopped to pay tribute to the 150 mostly local cyclists. We all felt like champions even though it was day ride. We ended at the local grade school in the center of town for a hearty meal of BBQ chicken, rice, vegetables and tortillas. I said my farewells to my friends, old and new, and marveled at the depth to which such a simple event could be transformed into such a triumph.
Copyrighted by Josh Gerak