Sunday, June 8, 2014

Good Life Choices: Hiking from Xela to Atitlan

I’ve kind of fallen off the blogging wagon over the past month.  The reason is simply that life has gotten in the way—lesson planning and grading and spending more hours than I would care to admit at school supervising DI (Destination Imagination—see what I’m talking about in separate post).  But that’s not to say that my life has stopped, or that I’ve had nothing to blog about. 

We had a four day weekend for Guatemalan Labor Day on May 1-4, and several of us took the opportunity to finally go on a 3 day trek I’ve been wanting to do all year.  The trek leaves from the city of Quetzaltenango (more commonly called Xela) and winds over ridges and through forests to emerge on the morning of day 3 over the shores of Lake Atitlan.  Friends who had done the trek had given it rave reviews, and the six people who decided to go on the hike are among my favorite to travel with here in Guatemala.  Going, quite simply, seemed like a good life choice.

We left the city early on Thursday morning, boarding a comfortable Linea Dorada bus at 7:00am and arriving (after a somewhat late start and a half hour stop along the way) in Xela before lunch time.  We spent the afternoon in Xela doing not very much; we got lunch, dessert at a coffee place, wandered around the plaza and a market, and tried to stay out of the rain that had started to fall.   Rainy season starts in May,  but whether it’s the beginning or end of the month can vary.  It seemed to all of us that May 1st had issued in the start of the afternoon/evening rains, which was not the greatest news for the hike.

We spent the night at the hostel attached to the trekking company’s offices.  The hostel wasn’t much, but it was a dry place to sleep, and very convenient for leaving the next morning.  And on Friday, we were up early, eating breakfast with our fellow trekkers and packing the supplies for the trip into each of our backpacks.

The first day of walking took us up a steep climb (I think it took us about an hour and a half, but apparently our group was fast as a whole) to a meadow area nicknamed “Alaska.”  The day was misty and cloudy, and we didn’t have the greatest visibility, but the walk itself and the immediate surroundings were still pretty.  

At one stop in the morning, our guide Ben pointed off and said, “there’s a pretty cool lookout point over there, where you’ll probably just see fog today.  But you can check it out.”  We scampered over, and sure enough…just fog.  And sheep.  The sheep we found on the path (who later passed right by where we sat to rest) were pretty entertaining.  

That afternoon, as we walked up the road along a sweeping valley, nearing our stop for the night, it started to rain.  I actually like walking in the rain.  It wasn’t a hard rain, and it wasn’t cold.  If I had been walking towards my house where dry, comfortable clothes and warm blankets awaited me, I would have been quite pleased with the weather.  But seeing as I imagined walking towards something more like camping conditions and all that I had for the next two days was on my back, I was less pleased.

My expectations were low for our sleeping accommodations on the trek.  Like I said—I was planning to camp.  So the place we stayed the first night completely blew me away.  It was a building constructed recently by an enterprising local woman from the village.  There are several “bedrooms,” which even had thick sleeping pads on the floor and a warm blanket for each of us.  We had a bathroom (oh the simple joys of indoor plumbing!), a common area where we sat and played Uno as a whole group for a while, and exposed rafters where we were able to hang our wet clothes.  Nearby, there was also a temescal—a traditional Maya sauna—which we each visited to clean off the day’s mud and sweat and get warm.  So after the sauna, changing into dry clothes, enjoying pasta dinner, and cuddling up in the blankets, I’d say my mood was pretty good. 

A wild game of Uno

Our bedroom for the night

The morning of day 2 was clear, and we could see the entire town and valley stretched out before us.  I fell in love with that little town.  Not because it was picturesque, especially, or because of any visible reason.  I think it just seemed real to me. 

View from the place we stayed Night 1

We spend the first few hours of our walk on day 2 on a road with sweeping views of the valley.  At the bottom of the valley, we came to Record Hill.  The steep single-track path is a challenge on the trek.  The record to reach the top is 9 minutes, but there is a reward if women can climb it in less than 15 minutes and men in less than 12.  Halfway up the hill, I decided to stop looking at my watch or trying to break the 15 minute mark.  I focused instead on keeping moving (but I even stopped twice—the first time for 10 seconds and the second for 4, just enough to catch my breath).  I surprised myself when I crossed the finish line at a time of 14:36! 

Relaxing at the top of Record Hill

After record hill, we came to another small town.  All of the local children came out asking us to take a photo so they could see it on the camera.  We felt like celebrities passing through.  After a stop for ice cream, we continued to our lunch spot.  Usually, the group would take a 1 hour nap after lunch, but because we wanted to beat the afternoon rain if it decided to come again, we left as soon as we had finished eating, putting us ahead of schedule. 

Shortly after lunch, we came to the river (stream) we would cross a total of 9 times, and so we switched to water shoes for that duration of the walk.  Crossing the cool, ankle-depth water felt amazing, so a group of us took it slowly every time we came to the river, savoring every moment.  We laughingly remarked that we couldn’t understand why everyone was crossing the river so quickly each time. 

Changing into water shoes...and soakinga  bit while the guide waited.

The last climb of the day was nicknamed the “Cornfield of Death,” but it looked more intense than it actually was.  In a matter of minutes, we were up the top, and we emerged onto a paved road which took us to yet another town and Don Pedro’s house, where we spent the night.  Don Pedro’s family cooked us a delicious dinner of chicken and rice, and after dinner there was a fire and marshmallows to roast. 

On Day 3, we all got up at 3:30am and trucked out of town in darkness.  We were met by 2 police officers (from the tourism department) who escorted us just to be safe.  After a pretty short walk, we reached a grassy hill overlooking Lake Atitlan. It was still fully dark when we arrived, and we could just make out the outlines of the volcanoes against the inky sky.  

Slowly, the sky turned from deep blue to purple, and then to pink as the sun rose over the mountains.  We enjoyed our perfect vantage point and a delicious breakfast from our spot, chilling there for close to three hours.  

When the sun was fully up and we had taken all the pictures we could, we started down the hill and into the city of San Juan.  There, we were supposed to visit a coffee expo, but since we arrived on Sunday and not on Monday (they’d changed the departure date of the trek for us), it was closed.  So we continued on to the weaving co-op where we would eat lunch, left our bags, and took tuk tuks to the neighboring town of San Pedro where we visited a hostel with a deck out over the lake.  After jumping in a few times and having a mid-morning snack, we headed back to San Juan, had lunch, and eventually were on our way back to the city. 

A street in San Juan, Guatemala

It was an amazing weekend.  This weekend had so many things I look for in an escape: great travel companions, good exercise, breathtaking landscapes, rural culture in tiny villages.  I was able to put all of the things that were stressing me from “real life” out of my mind for the weekend and really remember why I love Guatemala.  It’s a weekend that will be hard to top for some time.  

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