Ruta Maya de los Cuchumatanes, Guatemala

  • Distance

    329 Mi.

    (529 KM)
  • Days

    10

  • % Unpaved

    70%

  • % Singletrack

    0%

  • Difficulty (1-10)

    7

  • % Rideable (time)

    100%

  • Total Ascent

    53,686'

    (16,363 M)
  • High Point

    11,177'

    (3,407 M)

Contributed By

Mark Watson and Hana Black

Mark Watson and Hana Black

Guest Contributor

Mark Watson is a landscape and outdoor photographer and Hana Black was an outdoor clothing designer/developer. The two have toured and bikepacked together since the early 1990s, but their current journey trumps all previous travel: a multi-year dirt-based ride from Deadhorse Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina following the American Cordillera.  Follow them on Instagram @highluxphoto and @beinghana.

The Sierra de los Cuchumatanes are sometimes called the Peru of Guatemala. It’s a well earned moniker. The vertical relief of this upland region’s valleys and ranges, its remoteness, and its isolated, traditional cultures all serve to make this an extremely rewarding—and challenging—region to explore by bicycle.
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In the north of western Guatemala’s highlands lies a landscape thrust high; a plateau of former seabed now residing at the chilly elevation of 3000 metres. A place where the humid lowland jungle of the tropics is left behind, replaced by pine, oak, and cypress trees with impossibly large maguey amidst rocky outcrops. Relatively isolated, the people living here have retained traditional beliefs, customs and dress, lending many of the villages of this mountain range—Central America’s highest—a distinctive look and a reputation for toughness and pride.

The Ruta Maya de los Cuchumatanes explores this high sierra in a clockwise fashion, beginning in Guatemala’s ‘second capital’ Quetzaltenango (Xela) and finishing in Chichicastenango. Both towns are transportation hubs. This tour of the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes makes a classic ride in its own right, which will give you an unforgettable experience of highland Maya communities, but it can also be joined from the north via Nenton, or from the east via Barillas if included in a longer tour. The route can be ridden in either direction.

Make sure to read the full Trail Notes below for a detailed itinerary.

  • Highlights

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  • Must Know

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  • Camping

    home

  • Food/H2O

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  • Trail Notes

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  • Resources

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  • Challenging and diverse mountain riding in a region that sees few foreign visitors.
  • Experiencing a huge range of ecology from arid valleys, to cloud forest and the unique high plateau of the sierra.
  • Sampling a rich mixture of Guatemala culture, from mestizo cowboy towns to deeply traditional Maya strongholds.
  • The village of San Andres Xecul and its intricately painted church.
  • The mountain town of Todos Santos Cuchumatan where you can see the most striking of the indigenous costumes. The Saturday market is a great time to try and be here.
  • The ‘Ixil Triangle’ town of Nebaj for its traditional Maya dress and culture.
  • Chichicastenango’s legendary market. Try to be there for either Thursday or Sunday to experience Central America’s largest market. The churches either side of the market are the focus for a mix of Catholic and indigenous religion, where locals come to make offerings of copal on the front steps.
  • Very few people in this region speak English, and for many people Spanish is their second language. Some basic Spanish is essential to be able to arrange food and accommodation.
  • Best time to ride: the dry season (or summer) is November to April. Be prepared for cold nights (sometimes close to freezing) on the top of the plateau. Outside of the dry season be prepared for afternoon thunderstorms. Good waterproofs, warm gloves and thermal hat recommended.
  • All the bigger towns have ‘Cajero Automaticos’ (ATMs) though foreign cards occasionally won’t work. Always carry backup cash.
  • Regular ‘chicken buses’ (Converted ex-USA school buses) service most of the towns on this route. Bikes will be put on the roof for a small fee, though it pays to ensure it is not roughly handled. Tourist shuttle vans can be booked between the start and end points and Antigua or Guatemala city. These are more expensive but more care will be taken with your bike.
  • We never camped preferring instead the cheap hospedajes/posadas and meals available in most towns.
  • There is plenty of opportunity to camp but be prepared to ask first as most land is either community owned or privately farmed.
  • When wild camping be discrete and cautious of your property.
  • There are many small tiendas selling snack food, drinks and water. Watch out for these as well as comedors (small cafe/restaurants), especially at intersections.
  • Comedors are not always obvious so you may need to ask someone where you can eat.
  • Meals are fairly basic and very cheap, and they are usually happy to fill water bottles with purified water.
  • There are many streams and rivers to fill bottles if you have a Steripen or filter.

Quetzaltenango to Todos Santos Cuchumatan

The first day starts with a relatively gentle paved road leading you to the sheep farming town of Momostenango. Here the surface turns to dirt and follows beautiful conifer forest on a rolling ride most of the way through to the mestizo, blue collar city of Huehuetenango. The ride really kicks into gear leaving this city as you tackle the relentless Manzanas climb with over 1200 meters in elevation gain. This single climb brings to you to the top of the Cuchumatanes plateau, which is crossed briefly before descending to the amazing town of Todos Santos Cuchumatan. There is a lot to see in this lively town, especially the town’s mensfolk in their distinctive striped outfits. It’s a good place to take a day off, before tackling a tough section of mountain riding through to San Miguel Acatan and the Pett Junction.

Beyond Todos Santos the route is more remote, but there are occasional towns, villages and tiendas. The crux of the entire ride is the long and steep climb out of the Rio San Miguel but commitment is well rewarded with a glimpse of this spectacularly steeply walled valley and its isolated inhabitants.

San Mateo Ixtatan Out and Back

From Pett Junction the route makes an out-and-back to San Mateo Ixtatan on pavement. This town prides itself as one of Guatemala’s most traditional Maya townships and you’ll see many women in traditional dress. It’s well worth the detour and the return to Pett Junction can easily be made by minivan or chicken bus. Although it never ceases to be hilly, the legs get a gentler ride on the pavement that carries you through three small towns and eventually back up to the heights of the Cuchumatanes’ plateau. Here the route cuts south-east along the edge of the plateau before dropping into a long dirt road descent to Aguacatan.

Nebaj

After the river town of Sacapulas, nestled deeply in an arid valley, the road climbs again on pavement back into the forested sierra for a visit to Nebaj – another distinctly Maya town that’s part of the Ixil Triangle; a region that the Spanish struggled to fully conquer. Hence, the traditions and dress are strong here. Again this is an out-and-back section (the return climb can be made by chicken bus—get off at the top of the hill for a fast and fun descent) but the valley is good place to spend a day or two exploring a couple of further flung Maya villages: Chajul and Acul.

Chichicastenango

From Sacapulas the ride finishes with an easier day of mixed pavement and dirt through to Chichicastenango, where if your timing is right you’ll be able to witness the rituals and diversity of this town’s famous market, when separate Maya groups pour into town for the day.

Terms of Use: As with each bikepacking route guide published on BIKEPACKING.com, should you choose to cycle this route, do so at your own risk. Prior to setting out check current local weather, conditions, and land/road closures. While riding, obey all public and private land use restrictions and rules, carry proper safety and navigational equipment, and of course, follow the #leavenotrace guidelines. The information found herein is simply a planning resource to be used as a point of inspiration in conjunction with your own due-diligence. In spite of the fact that this route, associated GPS track (GPX and maps), and all route guidelines were prepared under diligent research by the specified contributor and/or contributors, the accuracy of such and judgement of the author is not guaranteed. BIKEPACKING.com LLC, its partners, associates, and contributors are in no way liable for personal injury, damage to personal property, or any other such situation that might happen to individual riders cycling or following this route.

  • Nate Nykamp

    In the brief amount of time I’ve spent in the area surrounding Chichicastenago, I was stunned by how quickly the culture shifted, especially in terms of clothing. You move about 15 miles and suddenly the colors of the dresses change, the style of the hat shifts etc. I’ll definitely confirm that Spanish is a second language at best, especially with older residents. Those who have grown up after the civil war are generally bi-lingual in Spainish and whatever tribal language is spoken locally. The tribal languages shift as often as the clothing, and town-to-town variations happen as well. It’s an absolutly stunning area.

  • J Langstaff

    Hey, what small panniers are you using on that rear rack?

  • texasdiver

    Awesome. I’m glad to see that area is getting some attention. I mountain biked through that area back in the late 1980s when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala. We rode highway 7W from the town of Huehuetenango across the mountains to Coban with a side trip up to Nebaj with old mountain bikes and backpacks on our backs. But didn’t get so far deep into the north as you did. Every town does have its own unique typical clothing designs. There’s only a few still where the men wear typica clothing but pretty much every town still has women wearing them. After a while you know exactly where someone is from based on their clothing.

  • We just spent a month in Quetzaltenango. It was awesome. The surrounding area is so beautiful and steep. All of Guatemala is gorgeous and steep.

  • Revelate Designs Nano Panniers – a great lightweight solution for small frames/extra stowage.

  • Yes Nate, it’s amazing how each village and province has its own dress style. Makes Guatemala so unique and memorable. Our favourite country in Central America for sure and one of our favourites of all.

  • Would have been an interesting time to travel there – unforgettable I’m sure. I’m glad it hasn’t changed much.

  • texasdiver

    Judging from your pictures the place has not changed at all. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in San Juan Alotenango from 1987 – 1989 which is the village on the slope of Mt. Fuego that was nearly wiped out a couple months ago by the eruption. Luckily for the town the pyroclastic flow diverted slightly more to the south and hit another village. But during my time there I did a lot of cycling around the country. Did some riding in the southern Chimaltenango area which is really rugged and off the tourist path. Also rode from Coban up to Semuc Champey. Guatemala is great for mountain biking because you can hop the chicken buses and they will toss your bike on top to get where you want. I never used panniers or bike packs because I didn’t have them and preferred to have all my gear in a large daypack. But I always stayed in local hotels and ate in local comedors so didn’t have much gear to carry. Easier and more secure just to keep your extra clothes and gear on your back if you are traveling that light. The only actual gear I carried was a small down bag and thermarest for use in a pinch. I’ve been back about a half dozen times but not recently in the past 10 years. With a wife and kids we tend to go to Costa Rica these days for vacations.

    What I find amazing these days is the ability to zoom in on google maps and find street level maps and geo-tagged photo albums for practically every single tiny village and aldea in Guatemala. Just amazing. Back in the 80s it was pre-internet and pre-cell phone and mostly pre-GPS. There were no decent maps of the country because the Army had restricted public access to most of the topo maps of the countryside. I actually had to go to the National Instituto Geographical in the capital and found the map room in the basement where they let me copy topo and detailed highway maps because I told them it was for mapping the progress of the Africanized bees across the country (which was my Peace Corps project). The only maps you could find otherwise were the INGUAT (tourist institute) highway maps which were traditional accordian fold highway maps of the whole country that only showed the major towns and roads. Without more detailed topo maps a trip like you took would have almost been traveling blind in the late 80s and you’d have been needing to ask directions in every town. Now days you can download the google maps offline for the entire country to your phone and be good to go.

  • I’m a huge fan and have been following along on your adventures in South America (starting on the GDMBR, I believe). This is really wonderful and well done … and looks like a damn fine adventure.

    I have to admit that I may be coveting a pair of those sweet red striped trousers.

  • Kevin Moginie

    Hi; just read your post – inspiring. Just showed my wife who is looking at airfares to get there for beginning of November! However just read the safety travel alerts which are advising a high degree of caution due to high risk of kidnapping/theft/assault etc etc. Did you have or feel under threat at any stage? Thanks Kevin