Highlands Hiking

With our time winding down here in Guatemala yet again, it seems prudent to cover what we’ve been up to in our time since the heady days of Semana Santa. While in most of the northern hemisphere April means spring – unpredictable weather,  melting snow, dirty streets, the first flowers shyly poking up from the dead yellow grass, and NHL playoff drafts – the difference down here is negligible. It might be a little bit warmer, possibly, although it’s hard to say for sure. You might think things would have settled into a post-holiday stupor after the hectic festivities surrounding Easter, but if you did you’d be dead wrong because, for some reason, mainly coincidence I think, April seems to be when all the nearby villages celebrate their “ferias”, or fairs. I could be wrong, in fact, but I believe these occasions mark the initial founding dates of the villages. Or the anniversary of their first electricity grid, or the opening of another big stone church, or maybe just the first time they successfully sold a blanket to a tourist for 800% of its true market value. Who can say for sure? All I do know is that while these festivals only technically take place over the course of a single weekend, everything surrounding them gets going weeks ahead of time, slowly ramping up over in the form of impromptu used clothing markets, upstart pizza stands, extensive competition among dozens of dry biscuit sellers, rickety and alarmingly unsafe ferris wheels, and children let loose from school for, apparently, the main purpose of running wildly and throwing anything they can get their hands on. So, that is definitely happening, as well as a few other things throughout our final month.

San Marcos Feria

I finally got around to my “big” cross-country hike…

After years of talking about it but always finding convenient excuses to put it off, I finally managed to complete the Xela (officially known as Quetzaltenango, not exactly the most obvious shortening of the name) to Atitlán hike. Generally lauded as a pleasant 3-day journey from Guatemala’s 2nd largest city back to the lake on foot, taking in local villages and impressive scenery along the 42-47 kilometre route (depending on who you ask), we actually chose to complete it in just two days since the second night was to be spent only an hour or two from the lake which, as it happens, boasts the benefits of our own beds, showers and clean clothes. Anyway, it turned out that while some of this information was true, other bits were more about marketing. First of all, the “pleasant strolls” were few and fairly far between, since the hike basically went straight across several valleys, entailing steep climbs followed by oh-so-brief plateaus or ridges then knee-pounding descents straight back down to the next valley floor or rushing creek. Not that I’m complaining, at least not much, as any hike worth the time is bound to involve some seriously hard work, it was just somewhat surprising, especially considering the unexpectedly heavy loads we ended up carrying because of the less-than-efficient size of the provided sleeping bags and the fact it turned out that we, as in the paying hikers, were also expected to carry much of the food to be provided throughout the journey (why the local village we stayed in wasn’t simply employed to provide a meal in addition to lodging remains an unsolved mystery). Also, based on modern GPS technology, we can confirm that the actual hike distance is really more like 32km, a rather large and baffling difference. Still a hefty couple of days, though, especially considering the daunting climbs and steep descents.

A welcome plateau

Our journey started with our friend, Leigh, and I on a chicken bus to Xela (a relatively comfortable ride, at least until we passed clean-up crews hard at work at the scene of that morning’s disastrous chicken bus crash which cost 20 lives, but at least provided a day’s worth of entertainment for a couple hundred gawkers). Once in Xela I made a shameless bee-line for McDonald’s and the first real burger (using that description somewhat loosely, of course) I’d had in a couple months. Another friend, Katie, joined us later on that evening in time for warm-up cervezas and the satisfaction of another serious craving – pizza. Early the following morning (and I do mean early, like still dark-even the stray dogs are sleeping-kind of early) we embarked on our warm-up ascent of a nearby volcano, spending the next 6-7 hours tackling Volcán Zunil. Definitely a bit of work, reaching 3,500 metres at the top, but well worth it for its nicely shaded trail through the trees and, despite some heavy, low-lying clouds, spectacular vistas at the top. The panoramic view took in a small portion of the famous volcanoes near Antigua, all three Atitlán volcanoes shyly poking up through the blanket of clouds, plus softly rounded Santo Tomás nearby, perfectly conical Santa María in the distance, and just a large puff of smoke pushing up through the clouds as proof that extremely active Santiaguito was lurking below. To top it off the haunting fog/clouds that engulfed us on the way down added a whole different atmosphere, as did the big crowds of Guatemalan tourists crowded into the Fuentes Georginas hot springs at the trailhead, in their motley array of questionable swimming attire and disconcerting physical conditions.

The gang looking smug

The next morning, ridiculously early yet again, which for some reason seems to be a standard hiking ritual, we were off on the main event. Along with our original group of three we learned we would be joined by four young backpackers whose names I’d list but they wouldn’t mean anything to you, and really I can only remember two of them (and one of those only because it was eerily close to “jiz”). After a short drive to our staging point we hiked up, up, up for a couple hours to a beautiful plateau with the morning sun still just peeking up over the volcanoes, spent one of the only flattish hours of the entire hike strolling past some surprising hidden villages, along a few quietly dusty roads, finally arriving at a black sheep with a striking blonde cap of fur that was curiously reminiscent of US soccer player Gyasi Zardes. Well worth it.

Gyasi Zardes vs A Sheep

From there it was waaaay back down, as in 1,500 metres down, to a tiny river, which we crossed, only to climb halfway back up again to a tiny, secluded village that would be our home for the night. Well, to be specific, our home for the night would be the tiny, empty cement room where we were graciously welcomed to lay our borrowed sleeping bags on the rock-hard floor. From there it was snack time (rather than “beer time”, since there was no beer on offer at the miniscule pantry that passed for the local tienda), a brief rest, then some of us were coerced into some probably ill-advised (from a fatigue standpoint) 2-on-2 soccer with some local kids, a simple but satisfying pasta dinner and then taking horrific turns visiting a “bathroom” straight out of Deliverance, before bunking down for a night of groaning and fidgeting.

Middle-of-Nowhere Hilton

The next day, another early morning which saw us spend a couple hours climbing 600 metres straight up the side of a large hill before our first bit of sustenance (i.e. roadside yoghurt and granola). From there it was a decent up and down stroll along picturesque ridges that eventually led into Santa Clara where our guide and his helper shopped for fruit for lunch while some of our group explored, others hunted down coffee and I merely sat on a nearby curb inadvertently dipping the straps of my backpack in the passing sewer water. Then we were back into well-worn territory, for us anyway, back across “Indian Face” and steeply down to good, old San Juan, famous for hosting my weekly soccer struggles, and a coincidental but happy reunion with some fellow Pasaj-Cappers finishing up a day hike at the same time, and unsurprisingly, also in dire need of several beer. A couple hours later – showering, so very much showering…

The final descent

People just keep leaving…

This was our first post-Xmas Atitlán visit in a few years and we had almost forgotten how different it can be compared to the more subdued, but much greener, fall season. For starters, there are just more people everywhere and a lot more going on. It also happened that there were a large number of fellow long-term visitors here at Pasaj-Cap, most of whom became a fairly tight-knit group lucky enough to include a few very energetic social planners (for once Laynni wasn’t the only one). Which meant a lot more group gatherings (daily Happy Hour), outings (El Barrio brunch and Smokin’ Joe’s Sunday BBQ), parties (Pierre’s Punctilious Pool Party!) and hikes (Jaibalito, Santa Clara, San Juan, etc.) than we had expected. Anyhow, as March faded into April it seemed as though we were imbibing another round of goodbye drinks every couple days until, finally, midway through April we were down to just us and the three remaining permanent residents, plus Leigh, who actually lives in Tzununá these days, and a couple others we’ve never really gotten to know. Well, them, and the fifteen to twenty new people who have slowly but surely replaced all those dearly departed, a seemingly friendly crew who we are gradually meeting in a fairly desultory, indifferent fashion, since it feels hardly worth the effort with so little time remaining. Never mind that during other stretches of more active, some may say more “normal” travel (Mongolia, China, Nepal and Bhutan, I’m thinking of you now), two weeks in a single location would seem like a luxurious eternity plenty long enough to establish a hereditary legacy or get a creepy suburban wine club up and running, let alone make a few new friends. But at the tail end of three months, at the tail end of six similar visits to this very location, it feels like the merest of brief moments in time. Nonetheless, my indifference quickly went out the window during our group BBQ the other day when I discovered that for the first time all year there are finally a few other sports fans here, all the better to encourage trips to San Pedro sports bars and jovial daytime drinking.

Ye Olde Pool Party

The flies are still an issue…

I wouldn’t say that my entire day is spent killing, watching for, being annoyed by, or brooding in quiet consternation toward common house flies, but certainly most of it is. My trusty fly swatter, imported directly from Canada due to its superior quality to those on offer down here, is my constant companion and most dependable ally and remains invariably by my side like the sword of a valiant knight, or a plumber’s favourite drain snake. For most of our stay the flies were simply a minor annoyance, the small price paid for an apartment with one entire wall usually left open to the expansive views and barely noticeable elements. But despite no apparent changes in environment or circumstance (the early offensive struggles of the Blue Jays can hardly be to blame for affecting the lifestyles of Guatemalan flies, can they?), the flies have really ramped up both their numbers and their game. And by game, I mean how irritating it is when they land on my legs or hair while I’m trying so determinedly to nap, or how they can somehow manage to produce a flash mob of eight or nine on a single cutting board on a moment’s notice, based seemingly only on the faint traces of the former presence of food. Dumb, but impressive. Keeping the place fly-free used to be a reasonable goal, especially with my killing skills so sharply-honed through intense repetition, but lately it feels like an unachievable goal, like correctly spelling the names of Nigerian footballers, or living a life without lip balm.

Waddling back from El Barrio brunch

Soccer’s been a struggle…

My Tzununá team, Club America, had its season end on a sour note when we lost convincingly, 5-1, in front of a huge Easter Sunday crowd in the final after finishing atop the season standings. Then in the weeks surrounding Semana Santa the weekly contingent of my San Juan team, Internacional, dwindled from 15 or so per game to more like seven or eight, leading to a couple tough losses and even tougher 90 minute stretches of running (i.e. chasing futilely). Attendance has bounced back lately but those are points we can’t get back, and with me leaving soon with five games still to play, well, how much hope truly remains?

Swimming continues as planned…

Most days we can be found down on the dock between 9 and 9:30, ever so reluctantly cajoling ourselves into the water for about 20 minutes or so of enforced exercise and voluntary dampness. However, few things feel better than lying on the dock in the sun afterward, or the ensuing shower. Small things that form the fabric of our days here…

Starfish!

Some hikes are more local…

Before the exodus it seemed there were group hikes every couple days, but now that we have been left more or less to our own devices we make our way to (or back from) Santa Cruz once a week or so, take the short jaunt to Tzununá and back most afternoons and join(ed) Leigh for the occasional different trail, such as the 2-hour hike from Tzununá way up a hill then along a picturesque ridge, then way down (sense a pattern yet?) into San Marcos. Most of this hike essentially takes place directly up the hill from where we live yet this is the first time we’ve ever done it. You look up into the hills and you know there must be trails all throughout, due to all the farms and such, yet without direction there is no way of knowing how to find your way through without spending half your time backtracking out of remote chicken coops or scarcely maintained latrine pits.

Wandering above the ridge

Time to bid adieu for another year…

Next week we reluctantly leave the lake, with a night in Guatemala City before heading off to Mexico for a few days to dip our toes in famous Lake Chapala, then home for the summer – family, friends, limitless fast food, learning to drive again, fast internet, actual television. Well, you get the picture. Normal life, I guess some would call it. See you again next year, glorious Atitlán. Same time, same place?

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2 comments

  1. Dean, nice writing! Also safe travels to Laynni and you and looking forward to next year. Bill

    1. Thanks Bill, already got you pencilled in for a beer or two next year.

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