Words: Hans Rey
Photos: Stefan Voitl
A young man, 18-year-old Kevin, stood on a dusty street corner on the outskirts of Antigua, Guatemala, waiting for us. Two years ago he received a bicycle from Wheels 4 Life through his school, “Escuela Proyecto La Esperanza,” which was founded and is run by a UK-based charity.
When we found him, Kevin jumped on the back of our pick-up truck and guided us to his humble home where he lives with his mother—a primitive brick building with a metal door and no running water. His room is tiny and beside his bed he stores his few belongings, which consist mainly of clothes, school supplies, football trophies and his most precious possession: his beloved bicycle.
Thanks to this bicycle, Kevin can travel to school much faster. He is now taking a university course to complete his education and in so doing, is building himself a platform for a brighter future. His passion is football but he rides his bike up a steep hill by his home with ease and cruises the 5-mile journey to school through cows and traffic like a New York bike messenger; I had to wonder if he could outride me.
Austrian photographer Stefan Voitl approached me a few months ago and asked whether I would like to join him and fellow Austrian trials rider Tom Oehler on a bike adventure while also incorporating a trip to visit a Wheels 4 Life project.
We all met up with a local tour guide in Guatemala City named Matt to prepare for a unique and remote hut-to-hut tour in the Highlands at 10,000 feet. Beautiful trails, natural terrain and a wild Guatemalian backcountry would soon provide a great stage for our adventure.
But first, we were treated to day rides around the picturesque and cobblestoned city of Antigua, which is surrounded by several active volcanoes. We also got to ride the first bike park in Guatemala, El Zur.
A few days later, after a 5-hour drive through the countryside, we arrived near Todos Santos at the base of the Cuchumantanes Mountain Range/Highlands. Our goal was to ride all the way via Laguna Magdalena and Chortiz to the town of Acul Quiche in three days, sleeping in simple backpacker huts and getting fed by local families. The trails, when we had them, were technical and slow going. Often we had to push, hike and literally trials ride our way on the little-used paths.
When we arrived at the small settlement of Laguna Magdalena, the locals were rather surprised to see us come down the rough hillside on mountain bikes. We settled into the cabin and, after a round of dice and a flask of local moonshine, we crawled into our beds before 9 p.m. When we woke up, the stars where still visible in the dark sky and the ground was frozen; we didn’t waste much time climbing out of the freezing-cold valley to reach the first rays of sun.
This was the big day, most of the route had never been ridden on bicycles and there were several parts with no trail at all. We knew that the small village of Chortiz had another backpacker cabin, but in between we had to traverse several valleys and mountain ranges always at an altitude of around 9,000 feet. Tom’s trials biking skills transferred very well into his mountain biking style, with ease he would pick his line through the gnarliest rock gardens.
When we arrived at the hut at sunset, we found that two backpacking girls from the United Kingdom and their guide had already snatched up most of the beds in the cabin, so we scattered mattress and blankets on the floor and made ourselves at home. Showers were out of the question and drinking water had to be filtered. A local family invited us into their primitive home with dirt floors and a fire pit in the middle of the room, where the females of the family were preparing a tasty meal consisting of chicken broth, noodles, potatos and eggs; the same would be served for breakfast the following morning.
The final leg of the trip was a long downhill to the Hacienda San Antonio, a working cheese farm. The trail reminded me of the old military switchback trails in the Italian Alps dating to Wordl War II. We only encountered shepherds and few packhorses hauling supplies into the highlands. One of the horses was accidentally spooked by the rolling wheels and fell off the trail into the scrub. We stopped to help remove the heavy load from the horse so that it could get back on to the trail and, luckily, he was OK.
Back in Antigua we visited the Education For The Children (EFTC) school and met some of the previous Wheels 4 Life bike recipients, as well as the 31 new children who would receive a bike from us while we were there.
Wheels 4 Life is a non-profit charity I founded that provides bicycles to people in need of transportation in developing countries. EFTC provides education to over 600 children, and also gives them access to healthcare, nutrition, transportation (via the bikes we donated) and, where needed, psychological council and therapy for kids and families that have undergone traumatic experiences. Further educational support includes university scholarships to set these kids up for real jobs and an opportunity to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty. Many of these families live on less than $1 per day.
I was chuffed to see Stefan and Tom supporting my cause and was also happy to see the project flourishing and succeeding after its initial phase three years ago. The donated bicycles had been put to good use and were still running strong. Some of the students are now attending university with dreams of administrative jobs or finding work in Guatemala’s growing tourism industry.
If you are interested in touring Guatemala, contact Oldtown Outfitters.