Friday, May 22, 2015

The 2nd Annual El Mirador Jungle Epic

Last week we headed out again from the nice temperate weather of the Guatemala highlands to the steamy humid jungle of thePeten, Guatemala's Northern department and home to perhaps the highest concentration of Mayan sites known in the Mayan world.  We have done this before, this was to be our second time out, and quite frankly, after the first time I wasnt sure thatI would be returning. However, they say time heals and I must admit that in the car ride out last year I was happy to see the jungle disappear in the background as the lush, light and breezy highlands came into focus. However, oddly enough just a few short days after being back at home in Antigua, I found myself missing the jungle and all the hardships that she brought with her.  So we decided to make this a yearly pilgrimage.

For this years edition we headed out with a more paired down and better prepared (even if just mentally) team.  Three returning riders, Matt Hartell and Nico Marceca from Old Town Outfitters, Brian Zimmer from the Antigua Bicycle Coop and Tom Vanderbuilt, a free lance writer who was documenting this trip for the New York Times.    When Tom asked me about joining on this years edition we exchanged emails about the ride, timing, conditions etc. in preparation for the upcoming trip.  More than anything this was an opportunity for us to vet Tom.  After all, this was one of the hardest 42 km ride I had ever done.  When we got to topic of distance, 42 kms. or 26 miles, essentially the distance of a marathon, I remember Tom's disbelief that last year it took us nearly 8 hours.  That's 4x longer than it takes a world class runner to run the same distance.  "How  could 26 miles with only 1350 feet of climbing take that long" he asked me.  "That's the distance of my lunchtime ride" he said.

I told him that I understood that it seemed inexplicable to take that long but that last year the trail conditions were brutal.  The usual method to get out to El Mirador is on foot, a two journey through the jungle.  Mules carry all the gear so that hikers wont have to contend with the heat and their equipment.  These mule trains absolutely destroy the trail especially in the rain.  They create these deep ruts, channels and churn up these mud post holes that when dry become boulders of  cement hard dried mud.  Last year there was apparently late season rain so when we go there in Early may when  it was dry there hadn't been enough time for the mules and people hiking out to smooth out the boulders.  This year however, I was assured from our friends out there at the trailhead that the trail was in "great shape" a it had been dry since January and thus has had sufficient time for the mud to be smoothed out.  Armed with the knowledge that this year the trail was going to be great we headed out to Carmelita heads held high with the confidence that this year would be different.

Indeed it would.  We arrived in Carmelita after 11 hours on the road and quickly went to the tienda to find few cold beers to fight the heat while unpacking and prepping our gear.  We talked to the folks out there who all told us that we were in luck that the trails were in great shape to to not worry about the ride.  The following day we set out on the trail and quickly found that yes, the trail was in better shape.  In fact, they were right, it was in great shape.  Now I must back up to say that even in great shape the ride is still tough.  The low, boggy, dried mud "bajos" as they called them were still bumpy but much better than last year.  You could actually ride them as opposed to last year where you had to surgically attack them with precision, balance and a huge amount of determination.  We bumped our way through the bajos, cruised the fun rocky altos and made it out to El Mirador in just about four and a half hours of riding time.  Again, even these times are mind boggling if you were only to see the stats.  How could 26 miles take that long?  Some how it just does.  If its not the bouncy bajos, its a short techy rocky climb to the altos and always the heat.  If you are not accustomed to the heat and humidity of the Guatemalan jungle you WILL suffer. After nearly 8 liters of water, more than I probably drink in a week, my pee was still dark yellow, if I could even go.  The jungle takes every ounce of it out of you.  Arriving in Mirador, a trail and heat weary Tom looked over at me and told me that now he "gets it".  He finally understood what I was talking about when I said it was the toughest flat 26 miles you'll do.

It sounds like a lot of pain and suffering, which it is, but the payoff is amazing.  El Mirador is very remote and hard to get to. Unless you have the funds to helicopter in, which on more occasions than one I wished I had had, you have to walk 2 days to get there or in our case one long brutal day on the bike.  And that's only one way!  Only about 3,000 visitors a year make this trip overland so there is definitely a sense of accomplishment.  The site of El Mirador is nestled in a unique part of the "protected" Mayan Biosphere.  This area is being threaten by the communities near by and the devastating slash and burn practices for clearing cattle grazing land.  El Mirador boasts the highest man made temples in the Ancient world.  Bigger than the pyramids of Egypt and larger in volume than the entire main plaza of Tikal.  With only a handful of other tourists out there who had made the walk we felt that we nearly had the site to ourselves.  The sunset from the top of the temple alone, made the journey worth while.  There is something special about looking out from the top of the temple seeing nothing but jungle as far as you can see in every direction.

Forest covered Mayan pyramids dot the landscape on the horizon and leave you imaging what other sites are still out there to be discovered.  Unconsciously the planning for next years ride had already begun.  How to tie the trail into El Mirador to other further a field sites out in the jungle.  Next year we will push past El Mirador, now our old friend, and find new brutal trails that will lead us to another temple and another sunset over the jungle. I can only imagine that sitting on another new temple at sunset will only mean yet another new ride the following year.  As hard as it is, I'm already looking forward to future rides.

Get in touch with us if you are interested in next years 3rd annual ride which will be weather permitting around the end of April or the beginning of May.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Double Header

Check out this sweet client posted video of a recent Old town Outfitters trip up the twin summits of Acatenango and Fuego volcanoes. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Here is a video of a recent trip down to the pacific coast of Guatemala to the beach town of Monterrico.  Old Town Outfitters offers a one a two day sea kayaking trip in the mangrove canals of this quaint little beach town.  This trip is a great opportunity to see the diverse waterfowl and other animals that make this mangrove ecosystem their home.  We head out to the sea turtle conservation project on the beach to see what is being done to help the resident population of turtles and with a little luck during the right time of year you will be able to sponsor your own turtle for release.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Biking to the ruins of El Mirador

Just just recently got back from an one of a kind mountain bike trip out to the Northen Jungles of Peten, Guatemala.  Our idea was to be the first to ride the famous Carmelita to El Mirador trail.  This trail has long existed, infact it dates back to the Mayan pre-classic period and follows much of the original Mayan Sakbe or Mayan highway from Carmelita to the ruins themselves.
 In its heyday Mirador was one of the largest Mayan city/states in the area.  It still boasts the largest pyramids built by ancient peoples, ANYWHERE!  In modern times these trails have been used by Chicleros, or the men who walk out into the junlge to harvest Chicle.  This is the stuff that we used to use to make gum.  Today the chicle trade isnt quite what it used to be but the trails still exist.  Most of the traffic on the Sakbe these days are adventurous backpackers and gear laiden mules headed out to the ruins.
 After having hiked this trail years ago I wanted to be the first to take a crew in on bikes.  Having seen the trail, the lack up elevation that I am acustomed to in the Guatemalan highlands,  and mapping the distances it didnt seem like this was going to be too hard.  After all, the trail is only 43 kms. from Carmelita to Mirador.  Most groups walk this in two days overnighting on day one at the ruins of Tintal.  
 We sent an advance team to Carmelita with the gear and food that we would need and loaded the mules.  They set out a day ahead of us so that, assuming all went to plan that they would be arriving in Mirador about the same time as us.  We had caluclated that the mules would take a full 2 days to get there while we on bikes moving much faster (we hoped) would be able to cover the 43 kms. in a hard day.

We didnt really take into account the heat and humidity into our calculations of effort and time needed to make it to Mirador.  It is totally do-able in a day.  But you need to be prepared to have access to a LOT of water.  Upon planning the trip everyone that we spoke with out in Carmelita tod us that it was going to be hard going and hot but at the very least that it was dry.  What no one told us was that it would be potentially better to go a little later in the season.  They had gotten a  lot of late season rain which with all the mule train traffic had created this lunar hardened mud post hole effect that was like riding through a 43 km. boulder field in 35* heat and 90% humidity.
 We did make it though.  Crossing the many altos and bajos (high and low ground) where the terrain would change from rolling, beautiful singletrack to hardened mud post hole hell out to the ruins.  We slung our hammocks and listened to the sounds of the jungle and mosquitos lull us to sleep.  We decided that we would give this trip another shot the next May a little later in the season when enough mule traffic would work to smooth out the crusted mud formations and thus make it a slightly easier ride.
We spent 3 nights in the woods riding from ruin to ruin far away from anywhere.  It was a pretty amazing experience.  One that although was the hardest 43 km ride ive ever done and looking forward to next years trip.  We are hoping to create a tour to help the locals promote and protect this amazing resource.  Stay tuned to jump on the next ride out.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Volcano Bashing in El Salvador

Our neighbor to the East, El Salvador doesnt seem to get the tourism focused on the outdoors quite like we do here in Guatemala.  So we decided to head over and check things out.

I must say we were pleasantly surprised by what we found.  Only a few short hours from La Antigua, Guatemala you can be cruising the "Ruta de las Flores", an old back-roads Salvador feel with cool little colonial and artisan towns with quaint B&B's and fun bars.

But crusing Salvadors backroads wasnt why we went.  We wanted to check out the rarely visited interior of the country with her National Parks, caves, waterfalls and volcanic peaks.  We headed first for the sulfuric crater lake volcano of Santa Ana.  Its an hour or so hike up to the cone where you are looking down on this super cool blue crater lake.  Its not a super hard hike but is very different from the Guatemalan peaks that we normally hike.

Its an easy 4 hour drive to Santa Ana from Antigua and after your hike its only a bit further to the Ruta de Las Flores where you can find food festivals, outdoor beer gardens, scenic lakes, caves and waterfalls.  We headed to Juayua first and caught up with the street-side feast that was going on.  It was like a little piece of Guatemalan Europe.  Folks drinking beers and eating food in the streets.

Just outside town is a waterfall with a system of caves that you can swim through.  Each tunnel takes you further into the mountainside and into a larger chamber.  Pretty sweet! After lounging in the pools we headed back to town for beers and a night out before we headed over to Lago de Coatepeque, the Salvadoran version of Guate's Atitlan.  It wasn't as big but it sure was pretty, we had seen it from the tops of Izalco and Santa Ana volcanoes and knew we wanted to head over and check it out.

Funny how after so much time here in Guatemala that I had neglected our Central American neighbor.  She's so close and offers so much to do than just hanging on the beach and surfing.  Dont get me wrong, Zonte and the rest of the beaches are pretty stellar.  But this highlands "Ruta de las Flores" side of Salvador was a great change from my normal trip.
We'll most likely be adding this to the long list of amazing trips on the Old Town Outfitters website.  Stop in and get yourself booked up on our next adventure!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Surfing the Pacific Coast

We have teamed up with our good friends down at the Paredon Surf House on the sleepy but up and coming surf beach of El Paredon.

Unlike many other Guatemalan beaches Paredon as its known, has a good surf break and super fun waves even if your not a surfer.  Our new trip will be sea-kayaking and surfing focused.  Like our kayak trips to Monterrico we will spend some time exploring the back waterways and mangroves before heading out to the beach for a fish lunch.

We'll overnight in ocean front thatch bungalows.   We'll have an afternoon surf lesson as well as one the following morning before breakfast.

Get in touch with us at Old Town Outfitters for more information on this new great trip down to Guatemala's Pacific coast