ANTIGUA, Guatemala -- If the gods of the ancient Maya still have any power, we are in serious trouble.
This thought occurs to me as I crouch in the middle of a lava field at the top of Pacaya, one of the world's most active volcanoes. Rather than running for our lives as a glowing river of molten rock flows past us, we are instead roasting marshmallows over the thousand-degree lava, thumbing our noses at the deities who once held sway over Central America's ring of fire.
Fortunately, our blasphemy goes unpunished, unless you consider melted hiking shoes to be some form of divine retribution. In fact, despite a vague sense of impending doom, the hour-long hike up the mountain has been quite rewarding, offering sweeping views of the surrounding peaks and of Guatemala City, some 30 km to the northeast.
We've become quite accustomed to panoramic mountain views during our week-long stay in Guatemala. The six of us -- four Canadians and two Brits -- have spent the last several days riding through some of the best mountain bike terrain in the world, while getting a healthy dose of the indigenous culture at the same time.
We were invited on the trip by Canadian Mike Brcic, the president and "customer happiness manager" of Sacred Rides Mountain Bike Holidays. Already one of the top tour companies operating in British Columbia, Sacred Rides has broadened its scope in recent years to include journeys to Peru, Chile and now Guatemala. The trip we're on is something of a scouting mission, as Brcic sizes up the trails in the area, as well as the many off-bike diversions.
Our base of operations is Antigua, the old colonial capital of Guatemala. Despite having been ravaged by dozens of earthquakes over the centuries, the city of 35,000 remains one of the most picturesque communities in all of Central America, as well as the ideal jumping-off point for any number of outdoor adventures in the Guatemalan highlands.
Between two-wheeled forays into the surrounding countryside, we spend plenty of time relaxing and enjoying the local colour of Antigua. Along its narrow, cobbled streets are 5-metre walls painted in rich shades of mustard, ochre and burgundy. Behind these walls, through heavy wooden doors, secret courtyards can be found, where diners, drinkers and shoppers wile away the afternoon under the warm Guatemalan sun.
But enough loafing -- we have work to do. After a warm-up ride on the slopes of Volcan de Agua, one of three volcanoes surrounding Antigua, we get a real taste of the countryside on Day 2, on a gruelling ride known as Cielo Grande, or "big sky."
The ride starts the same way all Antigua-area rides begin -- with a punishing climb out of town. Fortunately, the less-ambitious in our group are able to do the climb in the back of our shuttle van. After all, the real fun begins at the top, where smooth single-track weaves through lush forests of towering cypress trees, their branches heavy with orchids and other dangling epiphytes.
As the descent steepens, the trail becomes more technical, filled with fast, off-camber turns and tricky tree roots. Our grips tighten and our brakes heat up as we snake down switchbacks, barely noticing the views of Agua in the distance and the screeches of unseen tropical birds above. Finally, the trail spits us out onto pavement and we coast the last few kilometres back to Antigua.
We reward ourselves with tapas and tequila -- perhaps a bit too much of both -- at Cafe No Se that night. The gang then crowds into nearby Riki's Bar to listen to live music and watch the salsa students try out their new steps. As we down bottles of Gallo, the local beer, we can't help but chuckle at the sight of leggy, blond gringas being twirled around the dance floor by their local, male teachers, some of whom are almost a foot shorter.
With nobody to blame but ourselves, we grimly attempt to pedal off our hangovers the next morning. Climbing through dusty fields cultivated with avocado trees, gourds and maize, we huff and puff toward the town of Parramos, some 15 km northwest of Antigua. We pass several campesinos carrying heavy loads of wood or leading horses with huge piles of branches on their backs. Despite their crushing burdens, the poor farmers smile and say "Buenos dias" as we pass.
Our fourth day in the saddle takes us to the shores of Lake Atitlan, at 340 metres the deepest lake in Central America. After lunch at a viewpoint hundreds of metres above the water, we descend the chalky, rocky slopes into Santa Catarina Palopo. From there, it's a quick ride to the tourist haven of Panajachel, known as "Gringotenango" by the locals.
We clamber aboard a small boat and leave the bustle of Pana in our wake. Thirty minutes later, we arrive at our destination -- a little slice of paradise called La Casa del Mundo.
Perched on a near-vertical hillside overlooking the north shore of the lake, La Casa del Mundo is the perfect place to recover from our efforts of the past four days. For the next 48 hours, we swim, kayak and explore the nearby villages, stopping only to refuel with avocado sandwiches and fresh fish. At night, it's a bit of a hike from the hot tub up to our rooms, but we are rewarded in the morning with amazing views of the volcanoes Toliman, San Pedro and Atitlan dominating the cloudless sky.
Somehow, we tear ourselves away from the hotel for one last ride in the Solola district near Panajachel before loading up the van and heading back to Antigua. The next morning, we scour the artisans' market for bargains, then head south to Pacaya for our volcano hike. Our final night in Antigua is spent in the bars, enjoying more salsa, more Gallo and more tequila.
- Sacred Rides Mountain Bike Holidays offers small-group cross-country and freeride trips in B.C., Peru, Chile and Central America. Their next trip to Guatemala will be in December. Visit sacredrides.com or call 1-888-423-7849. For those who don't bring their own bikes, good-quality rentals can be arranged.
- La Casa Del Mundo is perched on the edge of Lake Atitlan, near the village of Jaibalito. Rates are $31-$68 US per night. For more info, visit lacasadelmundo.com.
- Antigua has many beautiful and inexpensive hotels. We stayed at Hotel San Jorge, about four blocks from the town square. Visit hotelsanjorge.centroamerica.com/maine.htm.
- Maya Pedal is a Canadian-supported non-governmental organization which turns old bicycles into pedal-powered machines to be used by people in the San Andres Iztapa area. For more info, visit mayapedal.org.
- Global Vision International supports aid projects in Guatemala and 29 other countries around the world through direct funding and by sending interested volunteers to assist with short-term aid. Visit www.gvi.co.uk.