It’s been a few days since I returned back to the States after spending 7 weeks biking and driving from Costa Rica to Mexico while working on the TDA Ruta Maya bicycle tour.
The trip was 42 days (32 riding days and 10 rest days) and crossed 6 countries over the span of 3,065 km.
The riders climbed over 47,500 meters (155,000 feet), which averaged out to about 1,485 meters (5,000 feet) per day! It was an epic adventure that I’m still trying to wrap my head around.
While I didn’t pedal nearly all of the route – sadly working the trip meant I had to actually work (although riding sweep was part of the rotation!) – I did travel the same course from San José to Tulum. I ticked off three new countries, made some awesome friends, saw incredible sights, and felt like I became part of the TDA Global Cycling family.
It’s hard to put into words everything that I experienced throughout the trip, but here are some of the greatest moments and reflections from my Ruta Maya journey.
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First and foremost, the people that I worked with and the riders I supported on the trip were by far the best part of the adventure.
The crew included me (obviously) as the content creator, our tour leader, a bike mechanic, a medic (who was the best roommate ever), an assistant tour leader, a driver, and a local support/assistant tour leader.
It was a super fun group and we worked (and played!) really well together. There were tons of laughs, fun staff dinners and outings (see mountain biking in Antigua below!), and just an overall feel of comradery that is hard to come by, at least in my experience.
Honestly, saying goodbye to the team was one of the hardest moments of the trip.
Then there were the riders. While I expected the group of riders to be pretty rad (it takes a special sort of person to sign up for a 3,000km bike ride for a vacation), the Ruta Maya cyclists were awesome.
Everyone got along really well, new friendships were formed, and it was just a great group of good people sharing an incredible adventure.
Getting off the Beaten path
While I consider myself an avid and experienced traveler, I don’t like to visit places that are touristy or dubbed ‘must-see’. I hate crowds and I hate feeling like I’m part of the tourist trap.
The Ruta Maya was definitely off the beaten path and I loved it for that. We visited towns where there were no other white people to be seen and we traveled along roads that I’m willing to bet very few foreign cyclists or travelers have journeyed down.
This is true travel for me.
Of course, we did visit some of the popular tourist destinations along the route like Antigua, Lake Atitlán, Tikal, and Ambergris Caye. But these stops were for our rest days and they offered a chance to ‘see the sights’ while not fully feeling like we were part of the tourist train.
Guatemala was a new country for me and I kind of fell in love with it. I’ve spent a lot of time in Central America (I used to work there on National Geographic ships) and I thought I was done traveling and exploring those countries.
But then we spent two weeks in Guatemala on the Ruta Maya route and I knew that I would be returning some day.
I can’t quite pinpoint why Guatemala feels so different than the other Central American countries, but here are a few reasons why it drew me in:
As part of the staff, we each rotated between several jobs and one of those jobs was riding sweep for either a full day or a half day.
Obviously, this was the best job of the rotation!
Riding sweep meant getting some solo time on the bike and enjoying what we all came down there for – seeing Central America from the seat of a bike.
Some sweep days were better than others (riding on the Panamerican Highway was not my fave…), but I’ll always remember those days and hours spent pedaling, coasting, sweating, and grinning along the Ruta Maya route on my bike.
A few favorite memories of riding sweep are:
Mountain biking in Antigua
By far one of my favorite memories from the Ruta Maya was a staff outing in Antigua, Guatemala. We signed up for a full-day mountain bike tour down the slopes of Volcan Agua. We literally rode down a volcano!
The drive up to the start of the descent was as much of an adventure as riding down. The ‘road’ was barely doubletrack with deep ruts, steep switchbacks, and low-hanging branches that required us – in the back of the trucks – to duck down below the top of the cab and hope for the best. The drive took a good hour to get up to where the trail started.
Mountain biking down the volcano was equally as epic as the ride up. The trail switchbacked through dense forest with tight corners and steep sidehill. While the riding wasn’t the most amazing stuff I’ve ever done, it was some of the most memorable, especially since I shared the experience with the other Ruta Maya crew.
The highlight of the ride was coming out into an open meadow covered with some sort of viney vegetation. A switchbacked path was mowed through the sea of green to create a sort of slalom through the greenery. I’d never seen or ridden anything like it.
I really enjoy problem-solving and we got to do a lot of it throughout the trip. Unlike other tour companies I’ve worked for like Lindblad Expeditions and Backroads, TDA trips (at least the one I’ve done to date) truly feel like an expedition.
There’s no formula to follow and only an outline of notes to work off of – some of which might already be outdated. (That being said, I was incredibly impressed with how well the trip was run and how much time and energy went into figuring out logistics).
Throughout the seven weeks, there were a number of unknowns and problems that cropped up daily that we, as a team, needed to figure out – sometimes making decisions in the spur of the moment.
From figuring out vehicle rentals at the start of the trip because our original tour trucks were stuck in Panama due to protests, to roadblocks that required us to backtrack, to coordinating care and bike repair after several crashes and injuries, there really was never a dull moment.
While it was exhausting and mentally draining at times to constantly be thinking about what’s next, I also thrived on it and loved the responsibility of helping to make the trip a success.
Adventure & Freedom
All my life, I’ve chased the feelings of adventure and freedom, and working the Ruta Maya provided plenty of both.
I felt similar to when I first started working on the Lindblad Expedition ships so many years ago – alive, excited, and in the moment.
I love adventure, I love the unknown, I love getting out of my comfort zone and experiencing unique situations. I’m grateful that this opportunity provided these feelings of adventure and freedom and I can’t wait to join another trip!
Mayan Ruins & History
When I was growing up, I wanted to be an archaeologist. I was fascinated by ancient history and how people lived hundreds and thousands of years ago.
While my life took a (very) different path, I’m still curious about old civilizations and cultures, so being able to visit and learn about the Mayans during the trip was awesome.
We visited the Copán ruins in Honduras as well as the famous Tikal ruins in Guatemala.
One of my favorite memories of the trip was sitting on the steps of a thousand+-year-old temple watching the sunrise over Tikal and hearing the howler monkeys and birds wake up in the jungle.
I think everyone who has visited the Caribbean feels like it’s a special place. Time is more relaxed, there’s a sense of peace and contentment that washes over you, and it’s just so darn beautiful.
It had been a number of years since I was last in the Caribbean, but I have always loved the Caribbean ‘vibe’.
Our first taste of the Caribbean was a rest day on Ambergris Caye in Belize. We stayed at a nice hotel right on the beach and it was so relaxing and magical.
A few of the staff and riders opted to go snorkeling and swimming with nurse sharks, which was also a highlight of the trip.
Riding through Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
The route on our second-to-last day of the trip was through the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in Mexico.
We’d been warned that there would be mud, but I don’t think any of us expected just how much mud there would be.
It was insane! It was definitely one the muddiest ride I’ve ever done, but also one of the most fun.
At some point, I stopped trying to avoid the puddles and just went straight through them. It was a great way to end the trip and a good summary of the whole Ruta Maya experience – it was challenging, beautiful, exciting, and annoying at times, but a whole lot of fun.
It’s been a bit of a challenge transitioning back to my ‘normal’ life after spending the last 7 weeks on the Ruta Maya. I miss the people and the adventure and I even miss waking up a 5am and going to bed at 8pm.
I wasn’t sure what to expect since this was my first tour with TDA Global Cycling, but now I’m hooked and I can’t wait for another TDA adventure!