The Galgos spat us out. Half digested. A bus journey in Guatemala is not quickly forgotten. We had arrived in Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala’s highland city and capital of the indigenous Mayan culture.
Chicken buses nose into Xela's market, Santa Maria hides behind cloud
The looming volcanic massifs of Cerro Quemado and Santa Maria towered over us, giants ready to pluck us from the rough hewn maze of cobblestone avenidas and calles. We negotiated our way along crumbling kerbs, dodging sleeping dogs, drunks and detritus. Shutters implanted in white washed walls exposed small tiendas, internet cafes and Spanish language schools. Colourful and short, the indigenous women sat in the dust with their bundles of babies and fruit.
We had a destination in mind; Casa Argentina, well regarded hostel and home of the most famous trekking company in Central America. We had stumbled over Quetzaltrekkers on the internet, by linking from the medical clinic where Penny had arranged to work. Established in 1995 as the fundraising arm of a school for disadvantaged children, Escuela de la calle, Quetzaltrekkers has grown into a major tourist attraction and charitable organisation. Mama Argentina ushered through the large steel door, removing us from the heat of the street into her comfortable courtyard beyond.
Penny at Primeros Pasos: The medical clinic part funded by Quetzaltrekkers
Casa Argentina unravelled like the Tardis. Guatemalan family home morphed into gringo backpacker hotspot. Tanned travellers played hacky and drank an afternoon beer. Deepest in the depths were the Quetzaltrekker office and guides. Otherwise multinational the Quetzaltrekker guides (boys at least) spoke the universal language of the beard. A good beard morphs a 21 year old student from Holland into a rugged mountain man and inspires confidence among clients. A good beard keeps you warm at sunrise on a 4000m summit and as importantly marks you as different from the casual traveller.
Quetzal trekker guides, Elliot (US) and Becky (UK).
Three times a week Quetzaltrekker groups emerge from Casa Argentina and trek into remote parts of Guatemala. The staple trips are a 2day summit attempt on Central Americas highest peak at 4220m Volcan Tajumulco and a 3day overland trip from Xela to the famous Lago Atitlan following jungle trails and visiting remote villages enroute.
Sunrise over the Lago Atitlan
At sunrise two days later I was at 4220 staring out over the drug-infested badlands on the border of Guatemala and Mexico. The volcanoes shadow rippled down the plain pointing at the Pacific. To the north rolling hills were terminated by the dark wedge of the Cuchumatane range, home to much of the violence in Guatemala’s troubled past. To the south the volcanic chain sat, lions on the savannah: Santa Maria, Santiaguito, San Pedro, Atitlan and the two headed Toliman that rules Lago Atitlan.
As my beard grew I got to know these mountains better. Santa Maria was a monthly occasion on the full moon, Santiaguito a restless pimple on its western flank erupting ceaselessly sending lahars roaring down ravines splitting banana plantations. San Pedro stole the show at sunrise on the final morning of the Lago Atitlan trip, its proximity and symmetry breathtakingly beautiful.
Santiaguito erupts from the summit of Santa Maria, San Pedro smirks in the sun While mountains ruled the weekend, mountains of dishes ruled the week, as we cleaned, promoted and prepared. Every Tuesday was dinner with the kids from our orphanage, every Thursday they destroyed us at futbol. The haggling at the market was intense, stilted Spanish versus stubborn Quiche, the indigenous language in renaissance. The Quetzals (local currency) were cherished when they belonged to the kids.
"...you know it feels so good, when I know you're skanking with me" - Fat Freddys Drop
Suddenly we were on our final trek. Mama Argentina had ushered us out the steel door and we had caught the crazy chicken bus and walked the jungle trails one last time. We were sitting at sunrise above Lago Atitlan, the lights of the hamlets around the lake fading in the dawn. Smoke poured from the active Volcan Fuego on the Southern horizon, while dug outs plied the edges of the lake, weary of the Xocomil, a localised wind, the stretching of a giant serpent deep in the lake.
The customary team photo was taken, before the rugged descent into the caldera and the final soothing dip in the surprisingly clear waters of the lake, an earthly paradise. Our lancha ferried us all across the lake to San Pedro La Laguna where we sat satiated, sipping cold beer and watching the hubbub of the tourist town. Next week another Quetzaltrekker group would be here recalling their adventure, as fresh and unique as ours.
All Quetzaltrekker guides are volunteers who stay for a minimum time of three months. Further photos and information can be found on www.quetzaltrekkers.com