Immediately upon crossing the border from Mexico to Guatemala we felt a change in the air. Things seemed a little bit more helter skelter, and a little bit edgier. Welcome to Central America. Guatemala doesn’t have the best reputation for safety, so we were a little on edge too, or at least extra vigilant. We had decided to make straight for Lagos de Atitlan for our first stop. An hour into the drive I glanced in my side view mirror and spotted a motorcycle accelerating up next to me. One guy was driving and the other was sitting on the back holding a shotgun. This was a first for me, and I’d heard stories about robberies being committed this way. My heart rate accelerated and I wondered how this might play out as the bike pulled up next to us for a few moments, before passing and continuing on ahead. It turns out guys doubling on motorbikes with shotguns are everywhere in Central America. Soon we became accustomed to seeing them all the time.
At the border a gentlemen from Ontario had warned us about the steep road down to Lagos de Atitlan, suggesting we stop halfway to let the brakes cool. We thanked him for the advice and went on our way. How bad could it be? As it turns out, it could be really bad. I thought we’d seen a thing or two driving over the highest mountain passes in North America, and trundling around back roads of Alaska and British Columbia. The road plunges down 1000 meters over 14 winding kilometers, and contains the steepest scariest hairpins I have ever driven. Soon I started noticing cars passing us with smoke billowing out of their brakes, and sure enough our brakes started to get spongier and started to smoke as the Toyota 1 ton truck brakes struggled to slow its 6000 lb payload. We stopped not once, but 3 times to let the brakes cool. At one point the brake pedal went right to floor and it took the combined help of the emergency brake and the park brake to get to a complete stop. It took much longer to get down the hill than we had thought, and eventually we were stuck on the side of the road in the dark waiting for the brakes to cool. When we finally made it down we were pretty relieved. We had been concerned enough to put our passports, cash and phones on our persons in the case we had to bail out due to brake failure. Still the fun wasn’t over. Lagos de Atitlan is not a friendly place for an underpowered 21’ long motorhome. After crawling up a few very steep hills and much back and forth manoeuvring we finally squeezed into a hostel parking lot in San Marcos La Laguna. We hadn’t thought about it all day, but that night happened to be Halloween. Luckily we had a few costumes in the camper left over from Sasquatch Music Festival, and promptly joined in on the festivities dressed as a banana and a strawberry.
It felt good to unwind, but there were a few nagging thoughts I couldn’t let go. I was pretty sure we didn’t have enough power to get back up the hill, and whether it was reasonable or not I couldn’t shake the memory of a steep hill we tried to climb in Mexico. A taxi stopped half way up the hill and we had to stop, losing our momentum. Without enough power to get going again we lost traction and slid backwards down the cobblestone road and through an intersection. By sheer luck we stopped just as we nudged gently up against a concrete barrier, bending the bike rack in by an inch. A slide like that on the way back up this hill would be more likely to end in the camper tumbling hundreds of meters down to the valley below. We would need to come up with a solution.
Lagos de Atitlan itself is a paradise. The climate is fantastic, with temperatures in the low 20’s. The lake is nestled among volcanoes and lush green hills. There are a number of towns around the lake, each with a different vibe. San Marcos la Laguna, where we ended up, is a hippy hangout. This was clearly evident by the hostel crowd. Most people were doing a “moon course”, and spent their days doing cacao ceremonies and workshops on yoga, meditation, and creative writing among other things. We took it easy and explored the area for a few days, catching lanchas (local transit boats) to the different towns on the lake. San Juan la Laguna is well worth a visit to check out local handicraft. The sales from the shops generally go to support social causes. The local coffee is excellent, and goes well paired with course local chocolate sold everywhere. San Pedro la Laguna is where most of the action is. Located here are many hostels and a multitude of Spanish schools. There are other settlements on the lake which we did not visit, including the touristy and built up Panajachel.
When it was time to move on we had to get towed backwards up the hostel driveway because the space was too tight to turn around, and we couldn’t make it in reverse gear. We never would have made it without the help of Philipe an eccentric frenchman who was living in the van next to ours and turned out to be a specialist in maneuvering large vehicles in small spaces. We got up, but took a chunk out of the back corner of the camper on some rocks obscured by foliage on the way out.
We left with a new travel partner, an intellectual and slightly cynical American named Andrew. He would be coming with us to our next stop, El Paredon. We were glad to have him along for his company, and also for his fluent Spanish and camper pushing skills. Both of which proved instrumental in getting us out of Lagos de Atitlan. Because we didn’t think we could get back up the normal route out we chose an alternative way.
It’s possible to drive on back roads from San Pedro to Santiago around the back of Volcan San Pedro. The roads are not as steep but they are of poor quality and unsafe. We learned later that a gunman had recently chased another group of overlanders on this road. Two hills on the route still proved to be too steep, and Jessa and Andrew had to scramble out of the camper and push. Luckily that was always just enough to get us to the top.
In San Pedro we arranged for a police escort through the dangerous section. The police truck led us down one of the roughest but also most spectacular roads we have driven so far. On the way we met an oncoming beer truck. It was a tight squeeze.
The Police left us outside of Santiago. We thanked them and continued on to El Paredon, eager to get back on our boards.