Monday, 9 January 2017

Guatemala at it's best

Walking from Nebaj to Todos Santos in the Western Highlands of Guatemala has quite possibly been our best trek yet. This extraordinary tramp takes in volcanoes, pine forests, dusty roads, quaint rural villages, alto planos (high plains), towering rock faces, breath taking views, amazing sun rises, picturesque meadows and exceedingly mundane food.

We decided to use a proper trekking company for our latest foray and settled upon Quetzaltrekkers in Quetzaltenango. This unique outfit donates all of its profits to the support of a school and currently provides 81% of the running cost. Both guides and operating staff are all volunteers and run the place through collective agreement working within established guidelines. All are essentially equal and committed to the cause. Consequently there is a real sense of fellowship which permeates through to the treks themselves. As Rachel put it to me, “It feels like trekking with your mates rather than with guides”.

The overall event was 5.5 days of which 4 days were actually trekking the 65km up and down mountains. The last being El Torre – a whopping 3816m (12,419ft) high peak that is the highest non volcanic point in Central America.

So after a several hour long bus ride to our start point we are able to rest for the evening at Popi’s in Nebaj. A small hostel come hotel that served food in somewhat random format with some people receiving deserts first, part meals, no meals at all or two meals.. All quite jolly and accompanied by a kids choir singing in various languages then followed by a years-old version of Trivial Pursuits, which, possibly because it was years old, I won.

The following day we are up at 7.00 and on the trail by 8.00. Each carrying their own supplies, water, clothes, sleeping bags and goodies, with an average weight of about 13 kilos. It’s an easy start this first day. The sun is out, the sky is blue and we follow easy paths over moderate terrain. The sounds of traffic, shop music and bustling city life falling behind us . Soon all that can be heard are birds, breeze and the chatter of fellow walkers. The area we are in is all relatively high so although the sun is strong the cooler air moderates the heat a little and moving is very pleasant.  Eventually we come to the village of Acul, where we are told of the atrocities that befell the place during the civil war that only ended in the 90’s. As with all wars people here were subjected to torture and imaginative deaths. Some people were steadfast, others ran, some betrayed or bullied, more just suffered but essentially all for nothing. Little changed here apart from the loss of many lives.

Lunch this day and most others is a combination of chopped carrots, peppers, onions, Doritos, a roll and refried beans. Simple, tasty and filling. Later this is supplemented by a hunk of cheese from a cheese farm called Mil Amores. Where we spend a little time resting and watching country life amble on, donkeys carrying pitchfork piled hay, cows chewing the cud, dogs wandering about and various farm hands performing their tasks. We continue walking after lunch with pine trees providing a little shade until we reach the rest stop for the night. A school hall which has no heating, lighting, only one toilet and a stand pipe for washing. The majority of our group elect to try a Temascal. A sort of Guatemalan sauna cum shower where you sit in a dark, sooty lean to made for dwarves and sweat a bit before washing and drying yourself whilst squatting over a dirt floor. We didn’t see the attraction and took their proclamations of how lovely it all was with a pinch of salt.  Instead we secured some wood so that either side of dinner we could all gather around a fire and stare into the flames. A pleasant thing to do especially since no one whipped out a guitar and led the group into a chorus of Kumbayah. It's a cold night with never ending stars lighting the heavens over our hall in which we are all snuggled down on a nice comfy, cold concrete floor or creaking pallet. Praise the lord for the def metal german rock anthem that woke us at 3.30 am for our traipse up to see the sunrise on the nearby peak.

I’m not a great fan of sunrise hikes. You don’t sleep well the night before, you have to exert yourself far more than you feel capable of, you’re half asleep and 50% of the time there are clouds, mist, rain or a combination of them all. It was, therefore, a wonderful surprise when after hiking up an exhausting steep slope of dirt and broken rock for about 100 switchbacks that we eventually reached a viewpoint. At the time all was black with just a hint of light cresting the hill. However, soon after a eating a campfire breakfast of hot chocolate and porridge oats, turned into one of the  most magnificent and humbling vistas we have seen. The chilled skies slowly lightened. Stars dissolved and were replaced by faint yellows, bursts of orange and pink wisps of cloud on an increasingly blue backdrop. The shadows in the valleys disappeared to reveal a blanket of clouds beneath. Pierced here and there with mountain summits or tops of volcanoes. Then suddenly the sun tops a distant ridge and brilliance reigns down on us. We bask in the heat and light. I catch one of our group on camera looking with reverence (I later discover his religious beliefs but just seeing his face you could see him greeting his god.). All pretty moving!

We continue climbing and finally reach the Alto Plano. A vast area of scorched grass scattered with jagged rocks . We take pictures, jump on rocks and drink in the early morning air still sharp in the nose but tinged with warmth. Walking along through pine forests you can hear the wind blowing through the branches. You can smell the wood as it heats and feel heat radiating off the rocks. It is a sublime place. Rich greens, and white stone, blue skies and occasional huts with rusting warped corrugated, brown and silver tin roofs. We rest on what appears to be an island rising out of the plain and sleep in the sun after lunch. The sun warming us and the air cooling our feet and hands – wonderful.

That night we sleep in another hall. We get served some more food – probably tamales or tortillas and something – I dunno its generally brown or white and not much fun to eat. In fact more fun is derived watching the young testosterone driven ones trying to eat them without a drink. We huddle in the room. Some of us in beds, others on the floor (we are lucky enough to have a bed) and cold as it is it’s kinda nice to all settle down with one another’s snores and shuffling in the background.

Rise and shine, the day is fine, the sun will scorch your balls off! We’re up and at ‘em nice and early and clamber down a few hundred metres to a river where we cook our breakfast, drink our coffee and generally shiver a lot in preparation for a long hike up the opposite side of the valley. This is quite a clamber up and our legs are screaming by the time we crest the ridge.

This is all so lovely. Our hearts are lifted as in every direction there is something to catch the eye. We tramp through juniper bushes, over grasses, along dirt tracks, up hills, down hills, over rocks and under trees . Every second. Even the ones spent hauling ourselves up slopes swearing about the stupidity of our actions is cherished. This has and continues to be an exceptional walk that we will always cherish.

The company for these days have been an excellent group of people. We had decided to feign stomach aches and cry off the trek had they all been exuberant young Americans  who were likely to be whooping and screaming “Awesome”. However when we met for the pre trek talk they all looked pretty good. Ages range from 26 to me. There are Americans, Germans, Israelis, Spanish, Dutch and us Brits. Conversations are honest, interesting, funny, lewd and entertaining. There are no distinct groups and people settle into chats with whoever is next to them along the way. We even had some newlyweds with us… Hell of a way to spend your honeymoon! Our lead guide turns out to be only 18. So grown up, confident, good looking to boot. Rachel freaked him a bit by referring to him as eye candy – I think he was worried she would cougar him. If any of you fellow trekkers are reading this, thank you so much for your company. We enjoyed you all and hope to keep in touch with many of you – obviously not you Rebekah!

The last day of trekking is stupendous . We trek to and up El Torre and can see for miles over the clouds. It's a long hike and tiring but worth the effort. From there we start to head down through the pine forest. Stunning! The smells of damp wood, flowing shrubs and my feet are a joy. We walk past 100metre rock faces that rise out and above the redwood canopy. The trails lead up and down and over and around bushes, rock outcrops and fallen tress. The sense of being in Jurassic park continues and nature in its most sublime form is everywhere.

Eventually after dropping down over a 1000 metres we meet our first proper road in 5 days and leave the conservation area. We bus into the town of Todos Santos which is bustling and filled with people dressed in magnificent local costumes. It’s just the way it is and has been for many years. Both men and women wearing the traditional woven cloth of red, yellow and black. Men in canvas shirts and straw boaters, women with shawls and flowery skirts. Its wonderful that their culture has remained so strong. We spend a night in a small hotel and for the first time in five nights I get to cuddle up to my lovely wife under clean, laundered and warm sheets in a private room. Heaven is found not only in trees and mountains….

We rise at 5am the next morning to catch the first bus back to Xela. Tired, satisfied and satiated with all we have seen, smelt, heard and touched. A great trek and one we would highly recommend.

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