As we sat at the campsite in Coban contemplating our next move towards Panajachel on Lago Atitlan, we faced a choice of routes. We could head south on Hwy 5, a heavily traveled and guaranteed paved trip that would take us directly through the jaws of Guatemala City and get us to Antigua in about 4-5 hours if nothing bad happened in the city. Alternatively, we could take “Hwy” (I use that term very loosely) 7W for a slower, steeper trip through the stunningly beautiful and much less frequently traveled Highlands of Guatemala’s Quiche department. This would be a minimum of 2 days trip, taking us through Uspantan, Santa Cruz del Quiche, Chichicastenango, and landing us directly on the shores of Lago Atitlan without ever having to deal with the dangers of Guatemala City. The choice hinged (again) on the road conditions on 7W, and as usual we were given wildly variable and completely unreliable reports as to what those might be. Reports ranged from, “yeah, it’s totally fine, we have friends who went that way and didn’t have any problems” to “oh my god, the whole thing is unpaved and treacherous, and there’s a landslide, don’t go”. The most realistic, up to date and accurate sounding report was that the way is “mostly” paved, with a short section out of San Cristobal that still not paved (Is this sounding familiar to you from my last post on Las Conchas? Will we never learn?). After much discussion, we chose to go the 7W way…I’m glad we did, but there were several points where it seemed like we had made a major mistake 🙂
The following is the true, no bullshit, up to date situation for this route as of February 13th 2013.
Excellent road conditions! Note the size of the oncoming truck and remember that when you look at the rest of these pictures…
If you are in a hurry, on a tight timeline, afraid of heights, have any concerns about the roadworthiness of your rig’s suspension or brakes, or if it is raining – don’t go this way. If you have plenty of time, a sense of adventure, a hearty driver, a reliable rig the size of a Sprinter or smaller, a desire to get off the gringo trail and see some amazing high altitude country and parts of indigenous Guatemalan village culture that most tourists will never see, and it’s not raining – definitely go this way.
We left Coban in the rain at 11AM and made it quickly to San Cristobal Verapaz without incident, pavement all the way, patting ourselves on the back for our excellent choice. Entering the town, the road looks normal – but as you wind your way through the road becomes more and more narrow until all of a sudden is it essentially a VERY steep one and a half lane deeply rutted dirt road that looks like it is going to peter out into nothing within a couple hundred yards. That is, in fact, the road out of San Cristobal, and once you crest the top of the hill things don’t really look any better. We drove on for another 5km or so, averaging less than 13 km per hour, hoping that around every turn this “short” stretch of rough road would miraculously transform into pavement. As we went, the rain continued to fall and the road was turning to slicker than snot mud. Around the 5km mark we stopped for a team conference, on the verge of giving up and heading back. The collectivo driver we flagged down laughed at our vehicles and informed us that we had another 20 km of unpaved road to go but the good news was that it was dry in about another 5 km and the “gap” through the landslide area was open – his collectivo made it, so should we. The boys put their heads together and decided to press on and go for it.
Convoy conference – turn back or press on?
Lonely Planet states that in 2009 “the side of the mountain fell off” along this road – “a little bit of gratuitous hyperbole” I thought. It is now 2013 and the LP edition we have is 2010, so I thought surely this situation should be cleared up by now. So, so sad that I am apparently unable to learn my lessons. The landslide gap sits about 10 km (over an hours drive) out of San Cristobal, and does not appear to have had much done to it since 2009. Thankfully the road dried before we reached this point – this is not a needle you would want to thread on a slippery road. It was however, something spectacular to see and even with the clouds around us the steep drops off the mountain were readily visible and breathtaking.
When they say the side of the mountain fell off they weren’t kidding – and by the way the road is essentially only one vehicle wide
Nothing to keep you from falling off the mountain here…but honey badger still doesn’t give a sh*!
Looking down the slide gap through the drivers side window
Once we passed the gap we had about another 2 hours of 7km/hour super steep jarring road with amazing scenery through multiple very small indigenous villages. 25 km from San Cristobal we finally began to see the remains of old rudimentary broken pavement that was not really any improvement over what we’d been on. The real pavement started 27 km from San Cristobal where the road crosses the Chixoy river. Final tally is approx 3 hours to travel 27km.
Hard to explain how steep this was and how narrow that passage is – we were in 1st gear, praying that the brakes would hold and that nothing was coming the other way
We pressed on from Chixoy on to Uspantan where we spent the night at a tiny pensione on Calle 6a that was the only place in town with an enclosed lot for the vans and with a gate high enough to pass our tall vehicles. We slept in the gravel lot with three collectivos that took off in the morning at 3AM, 4AM and 5AM respectively, loud diesel engines blaring.
Hangin’ with the collectivos in Uspantan…
The next day we descended the highlands through Chichicastenango. The road between Chichi and Panajachel, although paved, is the steepest, twistiest stretch we’ve encountered on this entire trip and it is plied by multiple speeding chicken buses and collectivos driving like bats out of hell. It was during this Friday descent that I decided I didn’t care how cool the world famous Chichi market was supposed to be – there was no freaking way I was going to take my life in my hands on one of those buses to go back up the mountain on market day Sunday!