Biking In Guatemala City? One Group Is Proving It’s Possible

On a recent Saturday, the streets were filled with bicycles. Bells rang and horns sounded as the cyclists wound their way throughout the city like a moving train of youth and energy.

This wasn’t in Portland, or Paris, or any of dozens of bicycle-friendly cities around the world. This was in Guatemala City, a city known more for its violent crime rates than its progressive bike culture.

But one group is trying to change that. Biketun is a new organization started by Javier Mata and Lucia Pivaral with the purpose of promoting a more sustainable way of life and transport in Guatemala.

The group’s signature event is a nighttime bicycle tour of Guatemala City. The first was held in December and drew around 250 people. The second, held in February, drew more than 500. The goal is to one day attract 10,000 cyclists to Guatemala’s streets.

According to Pivaral, Biketun’s mission is to show the country that a better lifestyle is possible – “a lifestyle in which Guatemalans own not only public spaces, but most of all, our freedom. A lifestyle in which we can go out on our bicycles, go to the park, walk on the streets, and interact with different people without any worries.”


Pivaral says that public spaces in Guatemala City have been abandoned because of fear, which then leads to degeneration, negative perceptions and danger. Parents keep children at home because they are scared that they will be exposed to drugs and violence on the city streets.

“This is similar to a field with bad grass,” she says. “When we don’t use the field, bad grass grows and the only way of removing it is re-taking control of the field and making use of it. This is what this movement is about.”

Biketun events wind through different parts of Guatemala City. The December event was centered on the main avenues – Bulevar Liberación, Avenue Américas, Obelisco, Reforma, Plaza 30 de Marzo, Septima Avenida – with an itinerary designed to take in the Christmas sights and lights. The second event was organized in cooperation with the Municipality of Guatemala, which provided an educational tour of different sites in the Historic Center of the City, like the National Palace, Iglesia La Merced and Railroad Museum.

“Doing this regenerates my energy and soul, along with my hope for humanity,” says Pivaral. “I deeply believe that for a city to progress, we need to take into consideration sustainable ways of living. The best way to approach this, for me, was not talking about it, but starting to live it.”

The next Biketun event is scheduled to coincide with Earth Day in April. There is no cost to participate, and a limited number of bicycles are available for rent on the organization’s Eventbrite page. For more information, visit Biketun on Facebook.

[Photo Credit: Jorge Toscana, Biketun]

Semuc Champey: Guatemala’s Next Big Attraction

If guidebook writers even bother to mention Guatemala‘s Semuc Champey, they rarely offer more than a teaser. The cascading pools of turquoise and emerald are often looked over in favor of the many other places worth venturing on the Guatemalan map, among them the ruins of Tikal, the colonial city of Antigua and the volcano-ringed Lake Atitlán.

I should know: I was an editor of one of those guidebooks. After reading the short description of Semuc Champey over (and over… and over…) something about it aroused my curiosity. So when I embarked on a 10-day trip from Guatemala City to Belize City, I made sure Semuc Champey was on the itinerary – even if it was a little out of the way. Now that I’ve been there and back, I can tell you it was well worth the extra effort and the few extra bumps in the road.


The Road to Somewhere

Although it was technically in the opposite direction of our route, we had taken a short sojourn to Lake Atitlán for a night. That meant in order to get to Lanquín, the small town that acts as a jumping-off point for Semuc Champey, we would have to spend nearly an entire day in the car.

After backtracking through the smoggy Guatemalan capital where we had landed a few days prior, our car endlessly wound up and up through the mountains. The trip would have likely taken half as long if we weren’t forced to slow down every few hundred yards to drive over speed bumps, many of which seemed manmade by local villagers in order to force cars not to be so lead-footed when passing through. Just after dusk we passed through Cobán, the capital of the Alta Verapaz department, one of 22 departments that make up the country – similar to states or provinces.

By that time it was dark – and raining – making the trip seem even more treacherous. As the city lights disappeared behind us, a thick layer of fog surrounded us ahead. In this part of Guatemala, a fine-misted rain falls from the sky constantly during the rainy season. Locals call it “chipi chipi.” It seems as though everyone is quite used to the continuous rainfall; many people were walking and riding bikes along the side of the road. As someone unfamiliar with what lay beyond the pavement, my mind couldn’t help but wonder where the people our headlights shined on lived and how often they had to make this trek during a downpour. Our driver, for one, seemed unfazed.

The roads remained paved until about six miles before you reach Lanquín, when cars and buses take, quite literally, a downward spiral on a rocky road into the jungle. It’s bumpy and overgrown, making the pesky speed bumps we had to travel over to get to this point seem like child’s play. As we bounced down the road, I couldn’t help but think this place would make the perfect setting for a horror movie.

We made it to the tiny town of Lanquín and some locals helped direct us to our hostel, Zephyr Lodge. We checked in just as the nightly party hit its crescendo. For better or for worse we joined in, knowing that we had to get up bright and early to stay on schedule and get to Semuc Champey.

The next morning things started off a little rocky. It seemed our travels weren’t quite over: we still needed to spend a half hour standing with a bunch of other hostel-goers in the back of a pickup truck as it climbed at near-impossible angles up dirt roads to Semuc Champey National Park. Before we set off, our tour guide made a pit stop in town to get candles, an important part of the first adventure at this park – exploring a cave by candlelight.

Through the Cave

Not long ago I had “explored” Luray Caverns in Virginia, where visitors walk on manmade pathways through several well-lit chambers. I knew the cave near Semuc Champey would probably not be such an easygoing, accessible experience, but I wasn’t expecting the serious challenge that lay ahead.

Outside of the entrance to the cave, our guide instructed us to strip to our skivvies and leave our cameras behind, as we would be climbing and swimming through multiple underground chambers. The guide, who wore a headlamp and board shorts, didn’t say much else, but handed us each a lit candle as we entered the cave.

We were the first group to walk into the cave that morning. As we entered the first chamber, a few bats took the opportunity to leave, flapping their wings over our heads. As I watched the entrance to the cave disappear behind us, it became clear that the candles would be the only thing keeping us from being enveloped in total darkness.

What started as an easy hike through the cave soon turned into some difficult maneuvering. Not only did we scale walls and climb up and over waterfalls, but at some points we needed to hold our candle above our head with one arm and use the other to swim through dark waters where our feet no longer touched the ground.

We moved through the cave until reaching a waterfall that some daring people climbed and jumped off of. Our guide took a final leap into the water, and to our surprise, didn’t surface. At first some of us giggled, but after awhile we started looking at each other nervously. Was he just playing a joke? If he was, how long could he possibly stay under water? Just as someone stepped forward to jump into the dark pool of water to rescue him, we heard a scream behind us. It was our guide, who seemingly knew about some sort of underground tunnel and played this joke whenever he took visitors on tours. I was relieved, but as we turned back I felt a little daunted at the prospect of going back through the cave – which seemed more like an obstacle course.

In the end, I was happy our guide had not briefed us on any further details before we entered the cave. Otherwise, I probably would have let all the others go ahead while I waited outside. Instead, the group mentality pushed me to continue no matter how challenging the task or how claustrophobic I felt. And let me tell you: finally seeing the outside light filter through the cave was a great feeling. It had only been a little over an hour, but it seemed like we had been underground for much longer. Little did I know, this was only the first obstacle we would face.

Finally: Semuc Champey

So what is Semuc Champey, exactly? It takes a steep climb to a lookout to find out. Our guide (smartly) told us to follow the path up, enjoy our lunch at the lookout, and then meet him at the bottom. A few minutes into the climb – which, by the way, is labeled “difficult” on a signpost – we were out or breath and cursing his name. But we forged ahead until finally reaching a wooden overhang on the side of a mountain.

From the edge, you could see it: a river cuts through a dense forest, but instead of running water there is a 300-meter-long limestone overpass made up of a series of pools. These baths are filled with runoff from the Río Cahabón, and many are connected to one another by small waterfalls. The river here still flows under the limestone bridge, and emerges downstream.

We ate our lunches in silence, staring blankly at the beauty in front of us. After we climbed back down (this time, there were stairs!), we reached the placid pools of cool water. The day’s challenges were well worth the reward, and we spent the next few hours splashing around in the cool, clear waters. Our guide showed us some spots where waterfalls formed natural slides, and also some great jumping-off points. It was kind of like a water park, except minus the crowds and concrete. When it came time to leave, none of us wanted to stop enjoying the sunshine – but our stomachs were grumbling and our ride was leaving, so off we went.

Although it is far from being overrun with tourists, I should note that travelers do go to Semuc Champey. Usually the ones who are moving slowly, spreading their experience out over weeks or even months and saving money by renting beds at hostels. They are also usually in good health, and are more than willing to climb the grueling 20-minute hike and go caving by candlelight. Of course, these are just generalizations – but they also give clues as to why Semuc Champey has remained more remote than other destinations throughout the country.

[Photo credits: Top photo by Kacy McAllister. Gallery images by Libby Zay]

Gore Vidal’s Old House

In later years…President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Longworth, congratulated me every time we saw each other: “You got out. So wise.”
“Reflections on Glory Reflected,”
— Gore Vidal, in United States: Essays 1952-1992

The day Gore Vidal died rain fell hard on the roof of his old house alongside the ruins of Our Lady of Carmen in Antigua, Guatemala. Braids of thick plaster twisted gracefully around chipped columns, dripping after the downpour that signaled the end of the canicula. Those golden weeks of sun and hummingbirds in the midst of the rainy season were over.

Of tens of thousands of yearly visitors to Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, few realize that the late author Gore Vidal lived here during the impressionable first years of his writing career. I lived around the corner from his old house for eleven years, and happened to be visiting a friend in Antigua when news came of the author’s death on July 31. I felt moved to walk over to the old neighborhood through town, alert to “that sharp smell” that Vidal once wrote was the scent of “most Latin towns: green papaya, dust, damp stone and plaster, and something else, unidentifiable, yet insistent, ubiquitous, death sweet.

In 1946, the author, then just twenty-one, took $3000 from the payment for his first novel, Williwaw, and bought a crumbling 16thcentury convent next to the ruins of Our Lady of Carmen.

In such corners of Antigua, a town of some 45,000 about an hour from Guatemala City, amid fine homes, galleries and a popular central parque, ruins from five centuries of earthquakes remain in place, reminders of history and natural forces that are inescapable.
Vidal hired an American architect living in town to turn the abandoned convent into a comfortable home. Foreigners and wealthy Guatemalans still build such places here, colonizing the proud old Central American town anew after each temblor or war, re-using stones first placed by the Spanish conquerors. Walk the streets, be cautious of windows with wrought-iron grilles that jut over sidewalks, keep an eye for any set of high, wooden double doors that may be open. You may see it then, an ancient, uneven wall kept in place mid-garden, or a fountain three hundred years senior to the flagstones that surround it, colonial vestiges considered badges of honor by residents.

Gore Vidal’s old house is not marked by the kind of wooden doors grand enough to admit a carriage, as others are. It looks more modest from the outside, a single story. Simple doors, a window like a porthole, the name of Jesus Christ in a rendition popular after the twelfth century, carved on a stone lintel. More convent than residence, but not unusual-looking among these streets.

Two blocks away is Antigua’s central square, where Vidal surely must have strolled with other townspeople early evenings, when noisy starlings crowd the trees. The Spanish laid out the square in colonial times, when Antigua was capital of the Vice-Regency that stretched from southern Mexico to what is now Costa Rica. Spanish planners reserved one side of the square for each force that ruled daily life: religion, symbolized by a white cathedral atop tall steps; government offices over a porch of arches; armed authority in the ornate Palace of the Captains General that has housed soldiers and police; and commercial shops, today ranging from sellers of books to pineapple juice to flash drives. In the center of the park stone mermaids feed a fountain’s pool with water from their breasts. Look up and you see “volcanoes…like the prongs of a crown,” as Vidal wrote, surrounding the city.

When I used to pass Gore Vidal’s old house in the 1990s, after he had long since moved on to Italy, I liked to imagine the conversations that might once have gone on inside, the history, the hi-jinks. The day the author died in Los Angeles, I had to wait to see the place again until the fierce rain stopped, walking carefully as thunder receded, avoiding small pools in the streets.

Antiguans called that day’s storm a tormenta, a really strong one. The tormentathat broke the caniculaleft the cobblestones steaming before Gore Vidal’s old doorstep, as stones steamed all over town, because they were still warm from days of sun. The mist gave heavy square buildings a sense of weightlessness, as if it they were floating above the ground.

Visitors in the late 1940s say Vidal left one great, ruined pillar lying where it had tumbled two centuries before, so guests had to walk around it to enter his living room. After he sold the house in 1950, a new owner divided the house into two, with separate entrances and addresses, but I have seen no such fallen column in either place.

Anais Nin visited her dear friend Gore in this house, even nursed him through a near-fatal case of hepatitis caught eating from pots in the market. Once I sat in one of its salons during a cocktail party, and pictured her in that very room, dressed fashionably in square-shouldered, post-war style, sitting with legs crossed at the ankles, shoes to die for on those little feet. In my imagination, she was writing in her diary.

While Anais Nin visited, a dashing college student named Dominick Dunne, the same who would become the famous crime author, came to stay for some days with a friend of Vidal’s. Dominick and Anais began an affair – in which rooms? — then ran off to Acapulco together. Meanwhile, host Gore was busy writing a novel, Deep Green, Bright Red, about an imagined U.S.-engineered regime change in a Central American country.

Vidal had come to Guatemala during a revolutionary post-war government that based itself on Franklin Roosevelt’s declared Four Freedoms, an era some locals still call the Ten Years of Spring. A young congressman and writer, Mario Monteforte Toledo, often visited the congenial American when Monteforte came from the capital to see his Maya Indian mistress. Over afternoon pitchers of beer in the patio of Gore Vidal’s old house, Monteforte, who would become one of Guatemala’s most honored novelists, attempted to explain how entwined the U.S. government was with U.S. business interests in Guatemala. That foreign commercial enterprises complained dangerously loud of fewer profits and less control over their work forces under the new government.

Vidal, a patrician Tory, argued that the United States, which had just won the Good War, had no reason to interfere in its democratic neighbor’s politics. Even if new laws cramped business as usual for U.S. corporations such as the United Fruit Company.

Young Vidal had arrived in Guatemala already understanding the concept of oligarchy, because he belonged to that of the United States, cousin to a president, a vice-president, stockbrokers, a news baron, lawyers, “everyone in the United States who matters,” he wrote. I have often wondered if Vidal’s experience while living in the renovated convent knocked the beam from his eyes about the cynicism of some Washington policy, and set an attitude for a lifetime. You need only read him to see he understands the concept of “empire,” because he lived in an outland of the American imperium.

Four years after Deep Green, Bright Redappeared in 1950, a C.I.A. coup replaced the democratically elected Guatemalan president, installing a line of friendly generals that ruled for decades. The day Vidal died, I stood on the curb across the wide street and considered the rich life in the author’s house at the beginning of his career: sex, politics, the magical work of writing.

Others followed Vidal in transforming the antique walls of Our Lady of Carmen for personal use. Vendors have turned one section into a warren of tiny shops where tourists are welcome, walls hung with intricate Maya weavings, necklaces of shiny beads, hand-tooled leather belts. On Saturday mornings the crafts spill out the doors to spread for sale on the cobblestone street.

Late on the night the author died, I drove past the house once more, with a friend. This time the street lay empty. Through the car window, with the obfuscating rain falling once more, the remains of the Carmen church looked fearsome. I tried to stare through the new storm. Sacred stone stricken by a shaking earth. Disordered, fluted columns collapsed upon massive broken blocks, angels who once looked from high cornices become fallen, scattered shards. I rolled down the window, wanting to see better. The rain had released scents from gardens hidden behind tall, thick walls on surrounding streets. The fragrance of night-blooming jasmine was overwhelming.

Veteran journalist Mary Jo McConahay is the author of Maya Roads, One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest (Chicago Review Press), winner of the 2012 Northern California Book Award for Creative Nonfiction.

Guatemala travel alert: road to Lake Atitlan closed until year’s end due to mudslides

The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City is asking that travelers defer visiting Lake Atitlan until January for safety reasons, due to an increase of crime during the holiday season, and closure of the main road due to mudslides. The stunning volcanic lake in Guatemala’s Highlands is a popular destination for travelers in search of a low-key, off-the-beaten-path holiday.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the road from the Department of Solola to the lakeside town of Panajachel will be closed until the end of the year, and that “alternate routes to Panajachel by road or boat involve risk.”

For updates, go the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs website.

[Photo credit: Flickr user alq666]