Fat-tire adventure kicks up Guatemala’s past

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      Scrawny chickens scatter into the undergrowth as we rip around a bend in the trail. Our leg muscles are just beginning to recover following a punishing granny-gear ascent from the cobblestone streets of Antigua, Guatemala, into the realm of cloud forests and plantations. High on a trail dubbed “Cielo Grande” by my mountain-biking guide, Matt Hartell, I look out on the rugged volcanic landscape of the highlands, a topography that seems to embody Guatemala’s tortured duet of beauty and tragedy.

      For more than 30 years, the country was mired in a dirty civil war that pitted leftist guerrillas rooted in the country’s indigenous Mayan population against a succession of brutal right-wing regimes. Guatemala’s poor were trapped in a dilemma: terrorized by the guerrillas for failing to support the “revolution” or persecuted by the military for sympathizing with the insurgents.

      In 1996, a peace accord ushered in a new era of calm. Now the guerrillas have laid down their arms and the bloodthirsty dictators are collecting pensions, making possible a backcountry biking adventure that would have been a fool’s game at the height of the civil war.

      Rumours of extensive and unexplored mountain biking had lured me to this tiny Central American country. After landing in noisy and smog-filled Guatemala City, I wasted little time escaping to Antigua, home base of Hartell’s company, Old Town Outfitters. A native of South Carolina, Hartell first visited Guatemala in the late 1990s. What he discovered made his mouth water—a nearly endless network of footpaths crisscrossing the country.

      “These trails are perfect for biking, but they aren’t mountain-bike-specific,” Hartell explains. “These are highways for the locals, for the guy collecting firewood or going to water his horse.”

      It’s the peak of the dry season, and the highlands feel as arid as a desert. Our knobby tires kick up a dust as powdery as flour as we start to enjoy the fruits of our long climb.

      At first we contour along the precipitous hillside, through sunny plantations of peas and cabbages. Vegetables give way to rows of flowers destined for florists in Antigua and Guatemala City. Here the trail is narrow and fast. Far below I glimpse the red roofs of El Hato, the small pueblo we rode through during the ascent.

      Soon the trail drops into a narrow gully shaded by remnants of the cloud forests that once blanketed the mountainsides around here. Bromeliads—spiky-leaved epiphytic plants—cling like Christmas ornaments to the branches of trees arching above us. After negotiating a tricky section of tangled roots, we glide on to smoother ground, then splash across a trickle of water before climbing for 10 metres.

      Suddenly, we encounter two young campesinos leading a horse burdened with freshly cut firewood. The men are short, with the sinewy limbs of people accustomed to physical work. Our meeting on the trail is a strange convergence of disparate worlds—subsistence farmer meets hedonistic North American middle-class thrill seeker.

      “Con permiso?” Hartell says, asking for permission to pass.

      “Si, si,” they reply in unison, with wide grins.

      We are guests on these trails, so Hartell is especially courteous. They watch us with looks of befuddlement, as if thinking, “Crazy gringos!” So far, the people we have met on the trail have been friendly, but also quiet and modest. Their words are few, and there is a subtle wariness in their demeanour.

      Although the civil war officially ended more than a decade ago, ghosts linger and emotional wounds are slow to heal. Deep social and economic divides still exist. Indigenous people account for roughly 40 percent of the population, but they occupy the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, a largely landless constituency excluded from mainstream politics and economic activity, which are dominated by a small, wealthy ruling class mostly made up of descendants of Europeans. Until this prosperity gap is closed, any peace in Guatemala will remain tenuous.

      Consequently, there can be an unsettling undertone to life there that is as palpable as the smell of burning cane fields during the dry winter season—seen in the white crosses next to the highway, the heavily armed policemen, and the sombre memorials to the victims of the civil war. I was reminded of this early one morning as we pedalled to the top of Cerro de la Cruz, where a cross is set upon a forested hill overlooking Antigua. There we encountered a solitary, bored-looking armed guard slouched against the door of a barren stone hut.

      “Cuidado aqui!” he said nonchalantly, warning us of “danger” as we grunted past.

      The exact nature of the danger was not entirely obvious. It was daytime, and a busload of elderly Maya were gathered near the cross, apparently performing some sort of spiritual rite with incense and hushed prayer. I learned later from Hartell that Cerro de la Cruz, though barely 10 minutes by foot from bustling Antigua, has been the site of many brazen armed robberies.

      Hartell has had his own encounters with Guatemala’s dark side. Years ago while exploring trails on the slopes of Volcán de Agua, he was robbed by a pair of opportunistic thieves who relieved him of everything, including bike and shoes, leaving him to tiptoe home barefoot in shorts and a T-shirt. Such incidents are rare these days, he says, shrugging off the misfortune and trying to sound reassuring.

      After we leave the two campesinos, our trail makes a sharp switchback, then drops in a series of hairpin turns. We cross another trickling stream, then grind upward for a minute before beginning a speedy downward traverse toward El Hato.

      I lose the trail in clouds of dust behind Hartell, so I drop back in order to avoid launching into a patch of rosemary and thyme. We join a rough jeep track, passing children walking home from school in El Hato. A young man rounds the corner ahead of us piloting a rickety bike that looks to be of World War II vintage.

      At El Hato we join paved road, but only for a hundred metres. Hartell makes a sharp right, bunny-hops the curb, then plunges down a path flanked by barbed-wire fences.

      “Don’t stop here,” he calls out as a pack of feral hounds snarls from behind an adobe hut. My pulse quickens, expecting a set of fangs to embed themselves in my calf at any moment, but the dogs quickly lose interest. There are countless intersections as we wheel among fallow, hardscrabble fields. In 15 minutes, we are back at Cerro de la Cruz. The same guard, cradling his semiautomatic weapon like a loving parent does a child, sits on a wall.

      While thousands of tourists ply the well-worn bus-tour routes of Guatemala, Hartell still feels like he’s only scratching the surface of fat-tire adventure in the backcountry—one that is astonishingly beautiful, but where the wounds of civil war and inequality are still fresh. “There’s still so much riding to explore here,” he says.

      As night falls, I chase Hartell back down to the cobbled streets of Antigua, leaving the armed guard to his ennui and ambiguous dangers.

      Access: The dry season, from November to May, has the most pleasant weather, but be prepared for dust on the trails. Toronto-based Sacred Rides Mountain Bike Holidays (www.sacredrides.com/) has teamed up with Matt Hartell’s Old Town Outfitters (www.adventureguatemala.com/) to offer multiday guided mountain-bike tours of Guatemala; the cost of an eight-day trip is $1,495. If you want to avoid the hassle of taking a bike in your baggage, Old Town Outfitters has a large, but rather worn-out, fleet of rental front-suspension mountain bikes. The writer travelled with Sacred Rides and Old Town Outfitters as a guest of the Guatemala Tourism Commission (INGUAT).