From Saturday to midday Monday, we hiked with an organization called Quetzaltrekkers from Xecam (a town fairly close to Xela) to Lago Atitlan, a total of 45 kilometers. Quetzaltrekkers is a really neat organization whose history and mission are described well on their website (quetzaltrekkers.com). What stood out to me about the whole organization is the dedication of the volunteer guides, who work for a minumum of 3 months, the foresight and organization that has come with many years of trekking in groups of various sizes and levels of experiences, and the long-term relationships that they have forged not only with local businesses in the pueblos we hiked through, but also the local families who recognize the groups of gringos traipsing through their towns and/or send their children to the affiliated school in Xela.
They do a great job of describing the hike day by day on their website as well, so I've unabashedly copied and pasted it below in italics with some pictures and addendums/edits of my own.
We meet at the office at 6:30am for a pancake breakfast before walking to the bus stop and taking a bus to the nearby village of Xecam – our starting point for the trek. There are only two major uphill climbs on the trek and we hit the first one straight off the bus! The ascent out of the Xela valley is as beautiful as it is sweaty with great views back down onto the city through gaps in the forest canopy.
A last look at the cathedral in Xela's Parque Central.
A break after the first big uphill stretch.
At the top of the hill we emerge, almost surreally, out of the forest and onto a high-altitude grass plain (known locally as Alaska). Passing through the highland village just over the rise, we hit our highest point on the trek at 3050m.
Molly and me in "Alaska"
From there, the rest of the day is downhill (literally, not figuratively). Descending through the cloud forest on the other side, we dodge goats and make way for Mayans carrying impossibly heavy loads of wood before breaking at a clearing in the middle of the forest to tuck in to a delicious QT-prepared lunch.
How did they know there would be goats?
I had fourths...maybe not such a good idea.
From lunch-spot, we continue our descent down to a dirt road hugging the side of the valley. At about 5pm we call into Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan, an isolated highland indigenous village with a town-hall that we call home for the night. There´s time to wash up in a local family´s temascal (a traditional Mayan sauna) while the guides serve up dinner and hot drinks. After a chat around the cook-pot, we unroll our sleeping mats and bags and get some well-deserved sleep.
Nearly all of these things happened exactly as the website had forecasted. The temascal was really neat - it's basically just a cement hut with a single wooden bench that is turned into a sauna by pouring cold water over fire-heated stones. Notable details that they left out of the description are as follows:
1) Our guides will be awesome. Lucas, Casey, and Julie are pictured above - Lucas was an occasionally snarky Czech fellow who was a fan of the pun "Czech mate," and I therefore liked him in spite of his snarkiness. I was also really impressed with his ability to be sarcastic in 3 languages. And I'm not being sarcastic.
2) The lunch food will be delicious. When Tyler and I have gone backpacking, we eat a lot of trail mix, tuna with macaroni and cheese, peanut butter, etc. Our guides had prepared a veritable feast, though: hummus, bread, guacamole, bean salad, roasted potato salad, and more. I ate a LOT of it.
3) The lunch food might contain enterotoxigenic E. coli or other pathogens that will induce vomiting every two hours all night, even if you've been in Guatemala for 4 weeks already and thought you had passed the traveler's GI bug window.
4) A nice man named Rick will be available at 2 am to pass you toilet paper under the stall as you vomit.
5) If you are interested in doing anything other than urinating, you must pick the 1 toilet out of 3 that actually flushes when you pull the handle.
The town hall where we slept
The calm before the storm.
Next entry: Day 2 of the hike or "recordless rigor"