August 22, 2006 GMT
Trekking with Volcanoes

I took a little walk...

8-19-06 to 8-21-06

The hotel I stayed in the first night I got to Xela had a bunch of flyers posted for different activities in and around town, and one that appealed to me was a hike from Xela to Lago de Atitlan. I looked into the guide service, Quetzaltrekkers, and they are a non profit, organization staffed by volunteers, but more on that later. They described the hike to me as 50k over 3 days, more or less, with indoor, but very basic sleeping accomodations. I went ahead and signed up, there were to be 2 guides, one guide in training, and 4 paying customers. That's me.

The first day started with breakfast at their offices and parcelling out the community provisions we were responsible for carrying. My borrowed pack ended up weighing maybe 45 or 50 lbs. We started out with a walk through town to a bus stop for a ride to the edge of the city where we would start our hike, on a road through a small town. I got off to a rough start, as I had put my camera in the outside pocket of my pack, not knowing there was a huge rip in the pocket. First time I reached for it, it was gone. I hollered at the others to wait, while I dropped my pack, and went back. Luckily, it was laying in the road, about a quarter mile back, no harm done. The road turned into a steep single track trail, and we proceeded to gain altitude at a pretty brutal pace. After an hour I thought this old man had picked the wrong hike, as I was one hurtin' gringo. Of course, I could have suggested we slow down, but that would mean admitting that I couldn't hang with this crowd, that was 20 or more years younger than me, and we couldn't have that, could we? In truth, I normally ride a bicycle 60-100 miles a week back home, so I do enjoy pushing myself, but I was maxxed out here, and the biking muscles just aren't the same. I think we climbed close to 1000 meters, (Edit: Ive since been informed that the initial climb was only 500 meters. Well, it felt like 1000) through what started as dense forest, which got progressively thinner as we climbed. We topped out in a pasture like setting where there was a small village that had fields of corn and beans, along with the usual chickens and pigs. This village had been nearly wiped out when hurricane Mitch went trough in '98, and had been rebuilt with a bunch of concrete block houses that all looked exactly the same. Kind of strange to see what looked like a housing development run amok out in the boondocks, but at least they got to stay in their community. We then did some minor up and down, ending with about an hour walk on a gravel road to the town of Santa Catarina. Here we had the use of a block building, known to the guides as"The Asylum", as it has a bunch of cell like rooms off of a central hallway. While the guides were making a pasta dinner that we had carried the fixin's for, Ronnie, one of the other hikers, and myself decided we should try to rustle up some Gallo, the national beer of Guatemala. We got directions to the local saloon from some guys hanging out in front of what passes for a convenience store here, and walked over there. We went inside and there were 3 patrons, local ne'er do wells I'm sure, in the place, one with his head down on the bar, semi conscious. The other two, I think, were trying to sell us some dope, holding an imaginery cigarette to their lips and saying in spanish, "you want?". We declined, but succeeded in scoring a supply of beer. After an excellent dinner, we retired to the Asylum to try and get some sleep on the concrete floor.

After a big physical effort it is not unusual for me to have trouble sleeping, and this was no exception, so I was a tired, grumpy gringo in the morning. We had breakfast at a local restaraunt, and took some rice with us as well, for lunch. We did quite a bit of up and down today also, but I was getting my walking legs back, and I had an easier time of things. We walked along a river that we crossed a dozen times or so, over the course of a couple miles, putting our sandals on, so we could walk through with out soaking our boots. We ended this day at the home of a man named Pedro and his family. We called him Don Pedro, as a sign of respect. His wife cooked up a great chicken dinner, with eggs for the vegetarians. We bunked in a kind of pavilion building he has, with woven mats for padding even. Woohoo. There was even a boombox and a CD, Rock en Ingeles. I didn't take an Ipod or anything on this trip and have been jonesing for some decent music, instead of the ranchera crap you hear all the time, so I even appreciated this 60's CD of Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane and the like. I don't know why I didn't load some tunes on the laptop before I left. Slept lots better this night.

Next morning we got up before dawn, to go catch the sunrise over Lake Atitlan. We walked to an overlook, and started a hot chocolate and oatmeal breackfast while waiting for sunrise. Don Pedro and his family, of his wife, daughter, and 4 grandkids, came along too. Still being dark, at first all you could see was the outline of the lake , and the lights of the towns around it. Gradually, you could see the lake and the volcanoes that surround it. Finally, the sun came up over a distant mountain range, and you could clearly see the lake from our vantage point, 1000 feet or so above it. This is already in the highlight reel in my brain for this trip. The rest of the morning was spent descending to the lake, for a much needed swim. We then took a boat across a bay on the lake to the town of San Pedro, where we had a celebratory lunch. Then the real adventure began, as we had to get back to Xela by bus. Since I have done all my Latin American travel by motorcycle, I have never done the chicken bus thing. It took 3 changes of busses to get back, stowing our packs on the roof each time. It's a good thing I didn't have to figure out which busses to take, or we would probably be back in Mexico or someplace. Arrived back in Xela, safe and sound, and got back to Quetzaltrekkers office just as it started raining. We had been really lucky with weather, as it had threatened rain several times, but never did, except at night.

Quetzaltrekkers is a backpacking guide service that exists to raise funds to support a school for children in Xela who would not otherwise be able to get an education, along with a dormitory for orphaned or abandoned kids attending the school, or those who simply live too far away to go back and forth very day. Staffed by volunteers, it is about as low overhead an operation as you could imagine. There are no paid directors, but the teachers at the school get paid. The guides all make a minimum commitment of 3 months service, and are of many different nationalities, although it happened that the 2 guides on my trip, as well as the apprentice guide, were all British. I paid the equivalent of $65 US, which included 3 breakfasts, 3 lunches, and 2 dinners, and all bus rides, and they let me borrow a pack for free. It's insanely cheap by American standards, but remember this is Guatemala. This is a charity on a very human scale, where a contribution won't get lost in buearucracy, and I can't imagine a charity where more of a dollar collected goes to directly benefit their programs. Currently , Quetzaltrekkers funds over 60% of the school expenses, with other grants from Save The Children, and others. If you're interested in making a donation, see, or better yet, come take a hike.

The city of Xela itself, strikes me as a pretty grubby town, where outside the central plaza, and the few blocks around it, doesn't have a lot that's interesting as a vacation spot. You have to remember that Guatemala in general, is a poorer country than Mexico. There are enough volunteer workers and language students to have reached the critical mass to support a cultural scene that's more like a university thing than a vacation spot. Several of the bars and restaraunts have currents events speakers on a regular basis, and there are film venues as well. Crime is an issue here, where most times in Mexico I felt totally at ease walking around town at night, here I don't. I think the crime risk is manageable, and I would come here again, but I don't want to sugar coat the bad things about this town with my descriptions of the good.

Guatemalan laundromat

No caption needed

Proprietress of a small Gutemalan restaraunt

Sunrise over Lake Atitlan

I needed a wider angle lens, but this is the same time as above, about 30 degrees to the right

Stinky gringos after 3 days on the trail. At least we swam in the lake before this. Center, Brendan, USA. Clockwise from lower left. Ronnie, Isreal; Restaraunt owner, Guatemala; Karl, Germany; Tim, GB; Yours truly, USA; Nick, GB; Becky, GB.

Posted by Andy Tiegs at August 22, 2006 09:02 PM GMT

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