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Highs and Lows in the Mountains of Guatemala

After a month in Guatemala I understood all too well why the local buses were known as ‘chicken buses’.  Former American school buses, dilapidated and juddering and infinitely better suited to the frames of small children, they were always impossibly full with entire families crammed into a single seat, baskets and bundles loaded around them and the aisles packed sardine tight with lurching, sweating passengers. This was the first time however that an actual chicken had been placed above my head on a chicken bus. The comedic perfection was just too much to resist for my companions who instantly reached for their cameras through their howls but, noting the unlined cage bottom and contemplating the many hours to come, I wasn’t sure that I found it so funny. Fortunately the elderly male owner, observing the reactions of my companion and my own look of mild concern, decided to find the bird a new home tucked safely away under the seat and my head was spared. I couldn’t help feeling however that it was a somewhat inauspicious beginning and, not for the first time, wondering what I had let myself in for with this trip.

It had been some weeks since I first heard of the Quetzaltrekkers, a voluntary organisation based in the central highlands town of Quetzaltenango which funds a school for street children with the proceeds of hiking tours led by international volunteers. I found myself drawn to their longest trip, a six day hike in the remote Cuchumatanes mountains near the Mexican border. Passing through beautiful scenery and staying with local families in remote mountain villages it promised a chance to get to know the ‘real’ Guatemala. It was a tempting prospect but also a terrifying one for someone who had never ‘hiked’ (in fact in Britain I’m sure we just ‘walk’) for more than a few hours in my life. How on earth would I cope with six full days of hiking up and down mountains carrying a backpack heavy with food and supplies? Meeting my fellow hikers a few days later at our pre-departure briefing only somewhat allayed my concerns. A mixed group of twenty and thirty something American and Canadians they seemed like a great bunch: friendly, enthusiastic and interesting, but also alarmingly fresh faced and fit. My fears began to return; surely only shameful defeat or an unwelcome persona as the group whinger could lie ahead.

The next morning, with spirits restored and a backpack well loaded with sleeping bag, roll mat, a scant change of clothes (we had all heeded the cautionary tale of a previous trekker who on constant complaining about the weight of her pack was revealed to be carrying a pillow and three changes of shoes…) and pocket loads of trail mix, we set off on the first leg of our adventure. A series of chicken bus journeys to the town of Nebaj from where we would start our hike. Arriving intact bar close encounters with chickens and a perilously winding and crumbling mountain road, the evening was free to settle in, relax and get to know the group. In fact getting to know the group was to prove one of the highlights of the following days. A real mixed bag, from our tour leaders, Jake an inveterate traveller with a tale from every town and Rick an ex-pat American cynic in his fifties, to Dustin an idealistic young American making his way home from two years Peace Corp service in Nicaragua and Bethany a Maine lobster fisherwoman, the dynamic of the group lay in its diversity but shared enthusiasm for the trip.

The trip began in earnest the following day with the first of our four days of hiking. Within an hour I could think of nothing but the weight of my backpack and by lunch time, picnicking on rolls, fruit and cheese bought fresh from a nearby dairy farm, I was ready to collapse. Instead we soldiered on through pastoral valleys reminiscent of Switzerland in their wooden chalets and herds of black and white cows, bells jangling pleasantly around their necks, and eventually, in the late afternoon heat, up the hillside to the hamlet of Xexocom.  Here we were to stay in a building owned by a local woman’s weaving co-operative one of whom would feed us for the night.

Collapsing wearily into hammocks and benches as Rick and Jake painstaking boiled pots for tea on the single primus stove we perked up at the thought of the treat Rick had promised us:  a Guatemalan style sauna, known as a temescal. After a day of baking heat, sweating and aching limbs it was a very welcome prospect although surveying the rustic scene around us it seemed somewhat hard to imagine. But, trusting Rick’s advice, we girls donned bikinis before slipping back into our hiking boots and traipsing up to the house. A gaggle of raggedy, barefooted children awaited us in the yard outside a small brick outhouse from which smoke was emanating through a narrow rag covered opening. Following their pointing fingers, we slipped off our boots and beneath their fascinated gaze crawled muddily, past various passing chickens, through the opening into what was essentially a smoke filled shed. Inside were a couple of wooden planks, a pile of hot rocks and a plastic bucket of cold water. Somehow it wasn’t quite the soothing sauna we had had in mind but after several minutes of smoky splashing we did indeed emerge feeling at least somewhat cleansed and invigorated.

The following day after an early DIY breakfast of mosh, the Guatemalan take on porridge, and a group stretching session, we set out to continue our journey up the mountainside. And up. And up, and up, toiling under the weight of our backpacks and a glaring sun up rocky pine wooded slopes on a never ending series of harsh switch back bends. On each bend we would turn the corner with a sigh of relief only to see another unfold, one hundred and three in total as Rick, fit enough to have had sufficient energy for counting, gleefully informed us as we finally staggeringly emerged at the top. From the bucolic landscape of the day before we now found ourselves on a desolate, boulder strewn plateau, beautiful but bleak, a Tolkeiesque shire that extended as far as the eye could see. Survival in such an inhospitable landscape seemed impossible and yet it was still populated with the occasional village, bleak outposts of tin houses from which the few children would come running to investigate, hiding shyly amongst the rocks, their cat call of ‘hola, hola’ echoing behind us once we were safely past. 

Finally, as dusk was falling we began to descend sharply into the valley below. That night we would stay in the village of Canton Primero where Rick, a veteran of this particular trip, informed us that we would stay in the local school. In fact, a new school building was due to have been completed and he was hopeful that we would be able to stay there in warm, clean comfort.  Our arrival prompted the usual racing gathering of children and shy nods and waves from the adults of the community. As we reached the school we blearily set down our packs whilst Rick and Jake went off in search of water. Something didn’t seem quite right however in the assembled gathering of men. It felt as though the entire male body of the village had turned out to meet us, silently lined up in Stetson hats and their best shirts to watch us as we watched them back. It was not an entirely comfortable silence.

As the tension grew Dustin, our best Spanish speaker, was pushed to approach them. The explanation was simple: they had gathered to hear who we were and what we were doing there. Our eyes returned to Dustin. And so positioning himself in front of the group he explained, fluently if with some embellishment, that we were a group of international travellers and peace volunteers from all over the world, attempting this hike in order to experience the beauty of their country and to learn of their people and customs. The silence thawed and as Rick and Jake returned the men gathered to discuss what could best be done with us, the teacher had left for the day and there was no other key to the school. We were welcome to sleep on the dirt floor in the old school building but with two dust allergies within the group that didn’t seem an option. After some fascinated examination of our head torches and primus stoves the men bade us goodnight and we settled down for a long, cold night on the concrete walkway outside the school.

The following day saw the weather turn against us, as we trudged across open country grey skies gave way to lashing rain in a scene highly reminiscent of the British Peak District. With lighting beginning to flash rather alarmingly around us we weighed up our options and decided to seek shelter in one of the few visible houses. The resident family were somewhat surprised to find a group of dripping international hikers on their doorstep but readily agreed that we could shelter under their veranda. As we clustered, damp and hungry, under the leaking roof we gradually became aware of a delicious warm, yeasty scent filling the air. It swiftly transpired that the family were bakers and a fresh batch of rolls had just been prepared, would we like some? Dustin followed into the outhouse bakery to negotiate quantities and emerged several minutes later looking triumphant: the family had been trained as bakers several years ago by a pair of Peace Corps volunteers stationed in the area. A lift over the hill had been secured.

That night we were to stay with Jeronimo and his family in the small village of La Ventosa, outlying the larger village of Todos Santos. This isolated area was amongst the worst hit by the bitter and frequently bloody civil war which waged through Guatemala for more than three decades, only ending with a peace accord in 1996. That night, after his wife prepared us a dinner of freshly cooked tortillas and beans, Jeronimo settled down in the small bedroom we were sharing to tell us his story. Movingly he told us of a village divided by war, torn between the guerrillas who invited their trust and solidarity before ultimately betraying them and the army who terrified and oppressed them. He described the bloody executions of friends and family and the men and boys who simply disappeared throughout years of terror and turmoil during which they felt themselves to be forgotten by the world. Despite hundreds of tellings a tear still came to his eye as he thanked God for all that he had today and the peace he prayed that he would continue to know.
The culmination of our trip was an ascent of La Torre the highest non-volcanic peak in Central America. In honour of the occasion and in deference to the difficult, circuitous route we were to be led by local guides, Jeronimo’s teenage son and his young cousin Hugo. Hugo a shyly smiling ten year old, was particularly well dressed in an exact version of the local male costume. His red striped trousers, a cowboy style shirt with huge, vividly embroidered purple collar and blue sashed sombrero made a dashing outfit. After a morning of frequent recuperative stops we finally reached the summit. Below lay not quite the dazzling panoramic view we had hoped for but a valley swathed in cloud, distant grey peaks emerging above a swirl of white. But as we gazed, breathing heavily, in what we hoped was the direction of Mexico, our sense of achievement was tremendous. Surveying the scene I found it hard to believe how far we had come. After four long, bone rattling, exhausting days of discomfort during which I had frequently wanted to give up I had made it and the exhilaration of the moment suffused my body. Burnt faced, aching and caked in mud and sweat in clothes in which I had hiked, bathed and slept for five days, I certainly didn’t look in great shape but I felt, quite literally, on top of the world.

The next morning after one of the most anticipated showers of my life and an extremely welcome cold beer or two we rose at dawn to make our way back to Quetzaltenango. As I sat once more in a chicken bus, crammed amongst identically sombrero-ed heads, the man next to me caught my eye. With some polite disbelief he enquired who we were and what we were doing there. I explained, in my best ambassadorial Dustin style, that we were a group of people from all over the world here to try and experience something of the real Guatemala. “And did you?”, he eagerly questioned me. Yes, I think we did.

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