Dos Bandidos in Colombia: Ten Days on the Caribbean Coast

A south Florida wedding in late December left me only a two and a half hour flight from the coasts of Colombia, a destination that foreign travelers through Latin America I have met consistently rave about. Given my lack of any set deadlines or New Year’s plans, I found this distance too close to resist and booked a flight to Cartagena directly after the wedding. I also convinced another attendee of the wedding and one of my oldest and best friends, Cabell Rosanelli, to make the trek down with me to this crown jewel of Latin American tourism. And as is the case with any great team, we had a name to rally behind on this audacious journey. We were Dos Bandidos, “Two Bandits” with little regard for the law and a strong inclination for swashbuckling adventure. Below is our story.

Day 1 – Sunday, December 31, 2017 – Cartagena

We arrived in Cartagena late in the afternoon on New Year’s Eve with little clue on what one does in Cartagena on New Year’s Eve. After checking into our hotel in Bocagrande, a skinny peninsula that extends southwest from central Cartagena into the Caribbean covered with numerous oceanside high rises, we made our way to the beating heart of Cartagena: the Old City. The Old City is what remains (and plenty does) of the walled Spanish city built in the 16th and 17th centuries. Once inside the walls, we quickly found out what goes on in Cartagena for New Year’s — nearly all of the streets are closed to auto traffic and each block is transformed into a street restaurant, complete with seating and live music or a DJ. And these street restaurants, would go from empty (around 7 pm) to packed with local families enjoying a New Year’s Eve Dinner together (around 10 pm) to Latin music dance parties (around 12 am – ??). Cabell and I did not have a reservation, so we ducked inside an open restaurant for an early dinner (8 pm is early for NYE here apparently) before strolling the streets of Cartagena with local beers in hand (with no open container laws and Colombian beers priced at about a dollar a pop, this was an obvious move) doing our best to blend in with the locals (our gringo-fied Spanish and questionable Latin dance moves did not appear to fool many). Exhausted from travel, we made it back to the hotel a little after 2 am, noticing that the citywide party in Cartagena showed no signs of flagging even as we trudged home well past midnight.


Day 2 – Monday, January 1, 2018 – Cartagena

Having attended a wedding on the 29th and then enjoyed a Colombian-style New’s Eve on the 31st, Los Dos Bandidos need most of the first day of 2018 convalescing. We did find some delicious Colombian cold brew coffee at Juan Valdez Cafe (the Colombian Starbucks) and spent some more time meandering the city streets and visiting the Fort San Felipe de Barajas, which offered some beautiful views of the city. After dinner in the Old City, we finished the evening at Cafe Havana, drinking mojitos and shouting over the live Cuban band before retreating back to our Bocagrande hotel.

Day 3 – Tuesday, January 2 – Cartagena and Minca

Dos Bandidos were on the move this day! We scheduled a shuttle to pick us up from our hotel in Bocagrande at 10 am. This pick-up never happened, which was not particularly surprising to me as I have found things often do not quite as one plans in Latin America. (In fact, I usually expect for things not to go as planned, so when they do, I am pleasantly surprised. Could this be a some kind of life lesson in happiness?). To continue our journey, Dos Bandidos ended up at a local bus station to board a shuttle bound for Santa Marta that, despite its shoddy appearance, beamed passengers a workable wifi network. (Colombia must have found some kind of loophole in modern technological adoption given that I have never had this luxury on a bus in the United States.) A four-hour ride brought us to the outskirts of Santa Marta where we took a taxi up the several miles and nearly 2000 feet of elevation gain to Minca, a backpacker crossroads in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Luckily for us, our taxi driver was attempting to set a landspeed record to Minca from Santa Marta, as evidenced by his need to make several multi-car, left-lane passes into oncoming traffic on turns that wound us through the mountains into Minca. From Minca, Dos Bandidos braved the pouring rain and hiked nearly an hour to our hostel (Mundo Nuevo), a surprisingly hard trek, as the 1.5 mile journey featured an elevation gain of roughly 1300 feet (400 meters). Our hosts kindly greeted us with fresh juice, a dinner, and a warm bed.

Day 4 – Wednesday, January 3 – Minca

Dos Bandidos began their day with a hearty breakfast at the hostel followed by an up-tempo hour and a half roundtrip hike to a mirador (“lookout”) that looked out onto Santa Marta, the sea beyond, and the surrounding mountains and jungle. After lunch and a nap, we then tackled the mountain roads and paths of Minca on mountain bikes, which we rented from the hostel. Luz, the main front desk operator at the hostel who spoke very little English and prefaced her responses to our broken Spanish with playful smiles, let on that very few guests actually rent these bikes given the intense climb back up to the hostel and, when tallying up our final costs for the hostel, she would compensate us for our pains by striking the bike rental line item from our bill, declaring it her “gift” to us.

After our four hour mountain bike ride which included a trip to the nearby hotspot of local Colombian tourism — the waterfalls and swimming holes of Pozo Azul — Dos Bandidos finished their day splitting a bottle of wine with Harriet at Mundo Nuevo, our new British friend who works in potentially the most British job you can imagine — advisor to Prince Charles.

Day 5 – Thursday, January 4 – Minca and Casa Santa Elena

Today, we set out from Mundo Nuevo on a new challenge — climbing Cerro Kennedy, a 3100 meter (10,170 ft) peak found roughly 15-20 miles east of Minca. We had heard rumors of a hostel, named Casa Santa Elena, that was a relatively short hike from the summit, at which we should be able to spend the night. However, given that the hostel did not have a webpage or phone number that we could contact (despite repeated attempts by Luz at Mundo Nuevo), we headed out from Minca, hoping for the best. The way to Santa Elena first involved a 18 km (~11 mile) motorcycle taxi ride up to the trailhead to Santa Elena, but the first few mototaxi drivers in Minca we inquired about getting a ride to the hostel trailhead had not even heard of Casa Santa Elena. (One even replied, “I do not know this woman!”) However, we did eventually find two trustworthy-seeming drivers who claimed to know of this fabled Casa Santa Elena, and shlepped us up over the mostly dirt roads (which at times were nearly impassably muddy) for nearly an hour to at a junction with a small stone path, which indicated “3km to Santa Elena.” From there, we headed up and, within an hour, arrived upon our “hostl.” However, Casa Santa Elena, situated on a beautiful ridge overlooking the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, is more accurately described as a farm that has sleeping space for travelers. Despite the fact that our accommodations for the night were decidedly light on amenities, we were extremely pleased with the set-up as Anna, the farm caretaker and cook, and Jonathan (pronounced “Yon-a-thon”), her grandson and our guide up Cerro Kennedy, provided delicious food and entertaining company (Anna gave several long, rambling dialogues 100% in Spanish and Jonathan challenged me to a game of cards and then balloon volleyball). Dos Bandidos, thus, would contentedly close their eyes early as a hard, driving rain beat down on the tin roof above the farmhouse.

Day 6 – Friday, January 5 – Cerro Kennedy and Santa Marta

The day got off to an extremely inauspicious start for Los Bandidos as Cabell came down with a stomach bug that had him rising several times early in the morning to head to the bathroom. Although his stomach felt more settled by the time we left for the hike up to the top of Cerro Kennedy, Cabell was forced to turn back after only a few minutes on the trail given his weakened states. Jonathan, our guide, and I pushed own, accompanied by Seús, the consensus “favorito perro” among the inhabitants of Casa Santa Elena. It took Jonathan and I nearly 2 hours to reach the top of Cerro Kennedy, which we did mostly in silence that was punctured from time-to-time by Jonathan offering me freshly picked berries from the trail or describing the owners of the neighboring fincas (most of which were also family members). When we reached the top, the view was largely obscured, but, after a few minutes, the sky cleared enough for us to see all the way out to the tallest peaks in Colombia — Pico Cristóbal Colón and Pico Simón Bolívar (5775 meters/18,700 feet) — both snowcapped and flocked by banks of clouds. Oddly enough, we left Seús on top to fend for himself as he had found a number of other dogs to play with on the peak (the peak of Cerro Kennedy is actually an active army base so there is quite a bit of activity). Jonathan assured me that his grandfather would retrieve Seús the next morning when he climbed up to the army base to sell his cheese. Jonathan and I returned to Santa Elena to find my fellow bandido strong enough to continue the descent off the mountain, so, after lunch, Dos Bandidos headed down to the road to catch mototaxis to take us back to Minca and then, from Minca, a taxi into Santa Marta, our home for the evening.

Day 7 – Saturday, January 6 – Santa Marta

Initially, Los Bandidos had planned to tackle the four-day, three-night journey through the jungle to Ciudad Perdida (“The Lost City”), the ruins of a recently-discovered ancient city built by the native Tayrona people. However, given Cabell’s weakened state, we decided to hold off on this trek in favor of exploring the Santa Marta area. The city of Santa Marta is the oldest Spanish colonial settlement in Colombia, founded in 1525 by the conquistador Rodrigo de Bastidas. Although Cartagena, founded in 1533, quickly surpassed Santa Marta as the most important Spanish Caribbean port in Colombia, Santa Marta still retains much of its colonial character, particularly in the city’s historic district between Parque San Bolivar and Parque Los Novios. Cabell and I spent most of the day exploring in and around this area, commenting on how gringo-friendly it appeared despite its relative lack of gringos. “Underrated” was the word that consistently came to mind as we cruised this city for which travel guides set rather low expectations. We had probably our best meal of the trip at El Balcon de Ouza, a Mediterranean seafood restaurant, that, like Santa Marta, defied expectations. We ended our night on a hopping Santa Marta rooftop bar, sipping Club Colombia Doradas (which had proven itself to be the top national beer), and listening to the DJ expertly pull off the classic gringo bait-and-switch — lure them in with mixes of Justin Bieber, Maroon 5, and Beyoncé, slide in a Despacito, mix in Shakira, and, then, all of the sudden, you’re listening exclusively to heavy reggaeton, salsa, and merengue.

Day 8 – Sunday, January 7 – Santa Marta and Palomino

Dos Bandidos set new tracks on this day, as we ventured further east along the Caribbean Coast to the “vacant” beaches of Palomino. However, we soon found that this “undiscovered” paradise is now sitting firmly on the “discovered” side of the ledger as freshly-built hostels and restaurants crowd the mile-long road leading from the main road to the beach. We spent the afternoon finding our hostel (which took about 35 minutes too long), exploring the beaches of Palomino, and drinking some delicious lemonade at a restaurant (Sua) with laughably slow service (even for Latin America standards). Over dinner, we sat at the same table as a mother and her two teenage daughters from Bogotá who initially engaged us by cackling at our horrendous Spanish. Despite this discouraging start, we proceeded to have a very friendly Spanglish conversation with them, that covered American and British pop music, their impressions of Bogotá, what the older daughter was studying in college (international business), and our travels plans.

Day 9 – Monday, January 8 – Palomino

Having missed our four-day jungle trek due to unforeseen circumstances, Los Bandidos were eager to get out into the jungly Sierra Madre de Santa Marta, one of the highest coastal mountain ranges in the world. Therefore, we hired a guide to lead us on an 8-hour trek through these mountains that rise just off the coast in Palomino. Our guide, Jesús, was a nineteen-year-old local who, hilariously, guided us through the mountains on his horse while we walked. Jesús led us up a trail that followed the Río Palomino, passed through the indigenous village of Seywiaka, and then cut over to follow the Arroyo (“stream”) Mamaice. After about two hours, he stopped us in a beautiful spot to eat our breakfast by the Mamaice, during which time he disappeared to “find a friend” nearby. Along the trail, we met a lone Colombian man from Medellín who stopped with us for breakfast. Cabell and I did our best to determine if this man was a narcotraficante with intimate connections to the Medellín cartel (my recent Narcos binge inspired me to do my best Agent Murphy impression). However, he refused to admit that he had any “negocios” to attend to in the location deep in the Santa Marta mountains to which he was headed. We ended up spending nearly two hours at this spot, as Jesús certainly had his own business to attend to — he left us for about half an hour to visit a nearby friend then came back and spent another 30-minute taking a bath in the stream.

From our breakfast spot, the path branched off from the Mamaice and climbed up to the top of a ridge that offered breathtaking vistas of the surrounding mountains, jungle, and eventually, as the trail made its way back to Palomino, the Caribbean Sea. We arrived back in Palomino by mid-afternoon and spent the majority of the rest of the day engaged in heated card game of rummy (after my hot start, Cabell proceeded to bring on the fire and fury and bury me at our beachside dinner).


Day 10 – Tuesday, January 9 – Palomino and Santa Marta

The last full day of Los Bandidos’ expedition began on the beaches of Palomino for one last swim before we headed back to Santa Marta. By late afternoon, we were comfortably settled in Santa Marta, engaged in a game of rummy on the rooftop of our hotel. As the game wore on and Cabell’s lead grew, the trip’s last rays of natural light filtered down to us through a brilliant Caribbean sunset. The beauty of the moment prompted Cabell to walk to the edge of the roof to snap a couple photos while a silent prayer of gratitude bubbled up within me. Cabell returned to finish me off, but I was able able to hold off my inevitable defeat until darkness nearly enveloped us both. We spent the last few hours together reflecting on the trip over dinner and making tentative plans for the next Bandidos’ expedition, which, we agreed, must include us sitting on the tops of some high mountains. The next morning Cabell left early, and it was everything I could do to muster a “safe travels, brother” as he vacated the hotel, bound for the U.S. and his own next adventure in Richmond.

 

Dos Hermanos in Guatemala: From the Underwater River of Semuc Champey to the Slopes of the Angry Volcán Fuego

Antigua, Guatemala

Over the last ten days, my meanders through Guatemala were enhanced with the addition of my younger brother and regular partner-in-adventure, John Wesley Andrews. He arrived in Guatemala City from the States known as “Wes,” but since “w” does not really exist in Spanish (it’s true!), he would take on a number of different names that were more pronounceable for Guatemaltecos, including “Huest,” “Huas,” and “Uees.” Unfortunately, given his relatively short stint in the Guate, the inevitable Hispanic alter-egos corresponding to each of Wes’s new names lacked the incubation period necessary to develop into full-blown personalities. (On the other hand, “Ricardo,” the Hispanic version of yours truly, has come into his own as a native Guatemalteco over his two and a half months here. Ricardo is best known for his new, interpretative form of salsa that prioritizes sensual hip-shaking over proper step-taking and his unnecessarily long and deep rolls of the letter “r”, which occur irrespective of the language he is speaking.)

Wes and I’s first destination in Guatemala was Semuc Champey (“Where the river hides under the earth” in the Mayan dialect of Q’eqchi’), a natural limestone bridge over the Cahabòn River in central Guatemala. A number of natural infinity pools filled with turquoise water sit atop this bridge, making it both friendly for swimming and snapping breathtaking photos. The distance between Antigua (our starting point) and Semuc was a relatively modest 200 miles. However, our trip between the two locations, via a tourist shuttle, was a tortuously long 11 hours. If you are doing the math at home, yes, your division is correct: this is an average of a laughably slow 18 miles/hour. And yes, we took a bus with a gasoline-powered engine, not a horse carriage. A combination of winding mountain roads, speed bumps as we passed through countless villages, massive potholes, unpaved roads, a local funeral procession, and road construction contributed to this snail’s pace (in fact, we may have seen some actual snails scoot by us during our journey). However, after experiencing the beauty of the area, Wes and I would agree that this trip was “vale la pena” (English: “worth the trouble”).

For our two full days and three nights in the area, we stayed at Utopia Hostel, located on the Cahabón River, a walkable three kilometers from the turquoise pools of Semuc. The hostel has the added benefit of being downstream from the pools, meaning it is possible to finish your day at the pools by tubing down the river back to the hostel. We spent the majority of both days swimming in the pools and exploring the area surrounding the pools, which happens to include a massive cave network that we spelunked through with a local guide (ours was named Manuel who enthusiastically led us through the caves with occasional high-pitched yelps of “aiaiaiai!”). The area around Semuc Champey is also surrounded by dozens of local children selling chocolate and beer (yes, children sell beer here) at cut-rate prices. In fact, as we were tubing down the river back to Utopia on our second day, a Guatemalan boy of roughly thirteen years old floated by holding out a Brahva (the cheapest of the Guatemalan national beers) saying, “You want beer? You get now. You pay at hostel.” I, of course, could not turn down this entrepreneurial spirit and accepted his kind offer.

From Semuc, Wes (“Huest”) and I made our to what has become my home base of sorts in Guatemala — the banks of Lake Atitlán. The initial plan was to conquer various lakeside volcanoes, embark on kayak journeys of ambitious lengths, and to delve deep into the local cultures of a number of different lakeside villages. Alas, the germs and bacteria of Guatemala had other plans as Wes went down with stomach “trouble” (a euphemism), and I went down with a vicious cold. Therefore, we spent most of our two and a half days at the lake convalescing at and around our hostel in Santa Cruz (La Iguana Perdida). The highlight was the massive Thanksgiving dinner put on by the hostel where I had the honor of introducing this venerable American tradition to two Irish, four Aussies, and an Englishman. The Irishman was especially surprised to learn that Thanksgiving was not actually the day Columbus discovered America. (Wes sadly missed this event due to stomach “trouble.”)

After our relaxing few days at the lake, my brother and I headed to Antigua to take on the most talked-about single attraction in Guatemala among backpackers: climbing Volcán Acatenango and observing the neighboring active volcano (Fuego). Having heard multiple people describe this as potentially the “best thing they had ever done,” I was somewhat skeptical going in that any tourist attraction could be that good. However, our experience would back up this enthusiasm.

Volcán Acatenango is the third highest volcano in Central America at 3,976 meters (13,045 ft) and is the sister volcano to Volcán Fuego, one of Guatemala’s three active volcanoes (the others are Pacaya and Santiaguito). It is possible to hike up and down the volcano in a day, but the more popular option is to stay on the slopes of the volcano overnight in order to watch the spectacular eruptions of Fuego from one of the various campsites on the slopes of Acatenango. A number of different tourist agencies in nearby Antigua provide gear and a guide for an overnight trip for reasonable prices (most run for 350 quetzals or a little less than $50), so, for simplicity’s sake, my brother and I chose this option.

Our trip up the volcano began inauspiciously. After our guiding company had loaded all the clients into a bus, they drove us to their headquarters to pass out the food we would need for the trek. After this food was passed out, one of the clients, a vegetarian, startled everyone by angrily screaming towards the front of the bus, “ONLY rice? ONLY pasta? ONLY lettuce? No sauce! This is not three meals! This is three ONE-HALF meals!” Looking around to see who else was ready take up arms against the oppressive guiding company, he found his cause was generating little support from the masses. In fact, even after the meat eaters noticed that their ration only included an additional cold chicken leg on top of the “only rice, only pasta, and only lettuce” allowance of the vegetarians, no one else could seem to muster the indignation necessary to protest this company that was providing two guides, three (“half”) meals, transportation to and from the volcano, tents, sleeping bags, and a prime campsite from which to view an erupting volcano for roughly $50/person. Making little headway, the indignant customer stormed off the bus and back to Antigua, the land of three full meals per day. Fortunately, this dramatic exit occurred before the angry protester learned that sauce for the pasta was provided at the campsite. And we were all more than happy that he did not receive this information as it may have tempted him to continue on with the trek and discover additional injustices that the guiding company may be waging against his personhood. (“No car to the top? ONLY my feet? ONLY my lungs? ONLY this stick? This is not a tour, this is a ONE-HALF tour!”)

Having dispensed of the deadweight, the still-sizable group, now of eighteen customers and two guides, continued onto the trailhead where our main guide, Fernando, began steadily leading us up the steep trail. The trail would rise roughly 1500 meters (5000 feet) over 8 km (5 miles) and end at our campsite situated several hundred meters below the summit, providing a clear view of the neighboring Volcán Fuego. (At 3,763 meters/12,364 feet, its peak is slightly lower than that of Acatenango’s.) Fernando was on his way up Acatenango for the 598th time, which was probably the reason for the random, unprovoked fits of hysterical laughter that he would issue from the front of the group from time-to-time (his only explanation for the laughing — “I am a very happy man!” — which was always followed by a few more peals of manic laughter or his token phrase “Bery good, bery good, bery gooood!”). Despite having potentially ceded some sanity to the thin air of Acatenango, Fernando did lead us up in exactly five hours, the ascent time he quoted at the outset of our climb. Once at base camp, he also informed us that if four souls were brave enough, he could lead them off of Acatenango and onto Fuego for an even closer view of the eruptions after dark. I glanced at my brother after learning this and his eyes told me all I needed to know: we were going up Fuego.

We found two others to provide Fernando with the requisite four (Cameron from Canada and Fabian from Germany), and then, after scarfing down some pasta, we headed towards Fuego with headlamps and flashlights guiding our way. After a roughly 25 minute descent to the saddle and a 45 minute ascent up the slopes of Fuego, we found ourselves at the foot of the exposed ridge that climbs up to Fuego’s peak, staring through thick ash falling like snow and breathing in Fuego’s sulfurous odors. We were only four hundred meters below the summit but well beyond where we saw the most powerful eruptions throwing lava. We were entranced as every few minutes, bright orange chunks of lava would spray out from the top of the cone into the night sky — a natural fireworks display — and thick smoke would billow up and then ascend above the specks of lava into a dark, mushroom-shaped cloud. After the spraying lava reached its zenith, it would fall down onto the sides of the mountain and begin rapidly sliding down its slopes. The more powerful the eruption, the further we would see the lava cascade down. Each eruption was accompanied by a thunderous boom, the volume of the boom corresponding to the intensity of the eruption. (Early the next morning, one boom was so loud it would wake-up the campsite, causing many of us to unzip our tents and witness lava flows sliding well over halfway down the slopes of the mountain.) After nearly an hour on the ridge of Fuego, the five of us turned around and worked our way back to the campsite to catch some shuteye before our predawn wake-up call.

At approximately 4:15 am the next morning, Fernando announced to the bleary-eyed group that we were headed to the top, which was followed by a few of his characteristic manic peals of laughter. The trudge to the summit took an hour and, there, we were greeted with a spectacular, slowly brightening 360 degree view of Guatemala: to the east were Antigua and Volcán Agua, with the smoking cone of Volcán Pacaya (the second of Guatemala’s three active volcanoes) peaking out behind it; a bit further to the north were the sprawling lights of Guatemala City; to the northwest was Volcan Atitlán with the blue waters of Lake Atitlán spilling out below it; even further northwest were the peaks of Santa María and then, barely visible, Volcán Tajumulco the highest peak in Guatemala and all of Central America; and, finally, to the south, was the erupting Fuego with the Pacific coast and ocean beyond. We snapped as many photos as our frozen fingers could bear, whooped as the sun rose, then made record time back to camp by sliding down the volcanic sand that comprises much of the surface of Acatenango’s summit cone. After a quick breakfast and much-needed cups of coffee, we descended the volcano quickly enough to be back at our Antiguan hostel before noon.

Wes and I spent the rest of the day in Antigua doing our best not to fall asleep for the night debilitatingly early and rehashing some of the highlights of our ten days together. And then, sadly, yesterday morning, we parted ways as his flight back to D.C. left Guatemala City airport in the afternoon. It is bizarre to think that this morning, he sat down for his desk job at a software company in suburban northern Virginia, less than 48 hours after having stared a highly active Central American volcano in the face.

Reflecting on the Acatenango experience, it certainly met the ridiculously high expectations set by the multiple backpackers I met who told me that this may have been the best thing they have ever done. Having now lived on the planet over thirty years, it is rare where I experience anything that feels new, unique, and fresh enough to inspire genuine wonder within me. It is a feeling I experienced quite often in my childhood, such as the first time I felt the weightlessness airplane wheels just leaving the runway give you or the first time I saw how green the outfield grass of a Major League Baseball stadium looks as you emerge out of the concessions area into the stands. However, as I stood and watched with fascination as lava sprayed out of Fuego and spilled down its slopes while the roar of the eruption’s seismic blast thundered out across the valley, I realized I had forgotten what true wonder feels like because, in that moment, I experienced it again. I felt just like a kid, simply amazed at the magnificence of the world around me. And quite fittingly, the guy with whom I shared most of my childhood, stood beside me.

 

Bumping My Head on the Roof of Central America: Volcán Tajumulco, Saúl, and Saúl

Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

Another week of Spanish school here at PLQ in Quetzaltenango is in the books, and I can now add a new teacher to the list: Saúl. Saúl, a single Guatemalan man in his mid-50’s, brings a unique, freewheeling style to teaching, which, at the very least, must keep himself entertained throughout the 20+ hours per week he spends having conversations with people who have anywhere from a two to eight-year-old’s grasp of his native language. To break-up the five hour sessions, Saúl included numerous spontaneous walks to wi-fi friendly areas of the school in order to look-up historical facts about Guatemala, comb through images of paintings (Saúl is a big Andy Warhol fan after I introduced him to this great American), listen to songs in Spanish (highlighted by “De Que Sirve Querer by Malacates Trebol Shop — the Maroon 5 of Guatemala), and poke around on Facebook. In addition to our Internet browsing sessions, Saúl also provided a bevy of unsolicited advice on how to win the hearts of my female classmates, a personal guitar solo and serenade (he gave me the lyric sheet so I could sing along with him — to which I am only slightly embarrassed to say that I did), a slow clap after I finished each grammar exercise, and a laundry list of ridiculous personal stories and anecdotes that blurred the lines between fact and fiction. Some stories, as they grew in absurdity, clearly were completely made-up. For example, one morning as I walked into class, Saúl was standing with his backed turned to the classroom, gazing out the door into the courtyard. When I asked him how he was doing, he remained with his back turned and dramatically responded that that he felt particularly “alive,” more “alive” than he had ever him. Then, spinning around, he explained that this deep feeling of vitality was because of strong connections he made with spirits in the cemetery the night before. When I pressed him on some more details, he explained that he had encountered the spirit of Marilyn Monroe, who had given him a 45 second kiss. This kiss was the best he had ever had. However, Saúl’s voice took on a somber tone as he described how he became suspicious of Marilyn after she told him he was preferable to John F. Kennedy, who was too in love with Jackie to give Marilyn his full attention. With such a beautiful woman throwing herself at him, Saúl wisely became suspicious and consulted the spirit of Dracula, who tipped him off to the fact that she was likely a vampire and wanted him for his blood. I could see traces of what looked like genuine fear in Saúl’s eyes right before his head kicked back as a deep laugh rolled out of him; after a few bellowing guffaws, his head dropped back to eye-level, and he leaned over to offer a high five and a fist pound which I took, laughing. This story, of course, was completely made up. However, this was just one of many stories, and others left more questions than answers. Is he really a clown every Sunday at church? Has he really had relationships with three different women in the United States that all ended because he could not bring himself to leave his beloved Guatemala? Did he really serenade his New Zealand girlfriend over his flip phone for her birthday this past Monday morning? For these stories, the truth remains, and will forever remain to me, a mystery.

After my week with Saúl, the teacher, I would bizarrely spent the rest of the weekend with another Guatemalan man named Saùl, my guide up Volcán Tajumulco. Volcán Tajumulco, standing at 4,220 meters (13,845 feet), is the tallest peak in Central America and has been on my “to do” list since I got to Guatemala nearly two months ago. With only one weekend left in the Xela area (the typical launching off point for Tajumulco treks), I made a point to book a trip with the Guatemalan guiding outfit, Adrenalina Tours, for an overnight ascent. Three other brave students — Marije from the Netherlands, Anna from Montana, and Jasmine from Colorado — enthusiastically signed on as well (teacher Saúl, of course, offered me several high fives across his teaching table after I revealed the male – female ratio of my upcoming trek).

The trek up Tajumulco began on Saturday morning in a quite, private shuttle ride from our school in Xela that was interrupted rudely by the chaos of Minerva Bus Stop, a crowded, hectic chicken bus stop across town. As soon as we stopped, Saúl (the guide) dumped sleeping bags, tents, food, and other supplies in the middle of the street, barking orders in Spanish about who should pack what while simultaneously negotiating our travel arrangements with the ayudantes that had swarmed our shuttle, lobbying us for our business. (Ayundantes are assistant chicken bus pilots that frenetically herd people and supplies on and off of these buses.) In a matter of minutes, our backpacks and supplies were on top of a chicken bus headed to the town of San Marcos, with us improbably inside. This chicken bus was particularly crowded — each seat was packed with three people that were spilling into an aisle that itself was full of standing riders. (As chicken buses are just former American school buses, I recalled that three to a seat is bus-packing arrangement that I grew out of sometime around 3rd grade.) This nearly two hour journey could not have been over soon enough, and the next chicken bus, which took us on a winding, mountain road for a little less than an hour before reaching the trailhead, mercifully was not packed to the brim.

The 9 kilometer (~6 mile) hike up Tajumulco started at an altitude of roughly 3000 meters (~9,900 feet) in the pueblo named, appropriately enough, Tajumulco. After spending a few minutes adjusting our packs, our five person party began ascending a cobble-stoned road through the beautiful, green countryside of San Marcos (the Guatemalan state in which Tajumulco lies). As we ascended, the road turned into a dirt trail, sweeping vistas opened behind us, and thick, grey clouds ominously obscured the higher reaches of the trail in front of us. Saúl set a slow, plodding steady pace up front (“despacio”,”despacio”). After about an hour, he paused as a light rain was beginning to fall. Saúl has mastered how to configure two large sheets of plastic over his pack and head, respectively, to keep the rain off, and he used this brief pause to school us in this art. Saúl’s lesson was well-timed as only moments after the plastic was in place, the light rain turned hard and steady, which would keep our heads fixed down on the trail immediately in front of us for the remainder of the climb. We arrived at the campground, 200 meters below the summit, a little after 2 pm, registering a little over three and a half hours for the hike up. The campsite itself was half-flooded and surprisingly busy — by nightfall, there would be a dozen or more tents crowded together in the dry spots of the campground. The clientele was primarily Guatemaltecan, so the campsite buzzed with Spanish. One exception was the English couple camping beside us that was led by Saúl’s friend, Carlos. Carlos, a friendly Guatemalteco that knew quite a bit more English than Saúl, paid us a visit during dinner in Saùl’s tent (the menu: heaps and heaps of spaghetti) and suggested that we mix our cheap, horrendous-tasting Guatemalan rum, known as Quetzalteca (approximate price per liter: $3), with hot tea. Against all odds, this mix actually tasted worse than Quetzalteca on its own; as Anna and Marije did their best not to spit the hideous concoction all over the tent, I offered Saúl a cup. He declined on the grounds that he is an Evangelical Pastor, his wide grin belying this claim. Laughing, I then handed Carlos cup. He took a sip, smiled, and proclaimed, “¡Es perfecto!”

Anna, Marije, Jasmine, and I were hunkered down in our tent for the night by 7:30 pm, hoping to catch a full-night’s rest before our 4 am wake-up call and summit push. The cold air (temperatures approached freezing overnight) and hard ground prevented this, and most of us had already been awake for hours when Saúl chirped an “¡Hola!” from his neighboring tent promptly at 4 am. We dressed quickly and made it to the frigid, windy summit a little after 5 am, with little more than a dull glow on the eastern horizon. For the next hour, Saúl huddled under his NYC Post-Marathon warming blanket (purchased at a secondhand store in Xela) while the four of us tried a variety of warming tactics to stave off the cold wind. As sunrise approached, clouds and mist obscured the horizon and views of the valleys below, and we braced ourselves for disappointment. However, just after 6 am, the mist and clouds lifted enough to expose the summit — an incredibly interesting martian-like landscape — and the stunning views of the surrounding volcanoes, mountains, and countryside. From the top of Central America, howls and whoops lifted into the air as the now relatively crowded summit of Tajumulco came alive. Over the next few hours, the five of us would explore the summit, the volcanic crater behind the summit, and the peak of Tajumulco’s sister volcano, Concepción, snapping one incredible photo after another. The ample dose of cloud cover added to the beauty, providing spectacular cloud formations that billowed up from the lower elevations and cascaded between mountain ridges.

By 8:30 am, we were headed back down the volcano, racing to beat a rain that would never come. Instead, the race was for the 10:30 am chicken bus which arrived at the trailhead just as were sprinting down the last few meters of the trail, waving and yelling “¡Espera! ¡Espera!” Unfortunately, this would not be the last race we would encounter on our journey home. Shortly after boarding the connection in San Marcos back to Xela, we found the road home blocked off for Guatemala’s premier cycling event, the Tour of Guatemala. For the next 45 minutes, our chicken bus took a meandering detour throughout the surroundings of San Marcos like a chicken with its proverbial head cut off, picking up Guatemaltecos from the side of the road until the bus was, like the previous morning, bursting at the seams. Once the bus finally found its way, we had a bumpy, two hour ride across 30 miles of road before the four of us arrived back in Xela, exhausted but satisfied with having reached the roof of Central America.

 

 

The Only Gringos Between Nebaj and Todos Santos

Todos Santos, Guatemala

This past week I tackled a 60 kilometer trek through the Guatemalan Highlands that started in the remote Mayan town of Nebaj, wound its way through a diverse array of natural environments, and ended in Todos Santos, another remote Mayan town. The trek was led by Quetzaltrekkers, an all-volunteer non-profit in Quetzaltenango (“Xela”) that donates 100% of its profits to a local school and a home for street children in town. This organization sports a whopping five out of five “circles” on TripAdvisor, and it would do nothing to tarnish that reputation on this trek. The trek was six days long, including four days of hiking, three nights on the trail in local villages nestled in the Cuchamatanes Mountains (the highest non-volcanic mountain range in Central America), and two days of traveling to and from Xela. Joining me on the trek were three other alumni from San Pedro School (the “Eens” -> Eline, Nadine, and Antien), seven more clients hailing from across Europe and North America (Tom – England, Melanie – Switzerland, Ayala – Israel, Eitan – Israel, Max – Austria, Andrea – Venezuela/Miami, Michel – Quebec) and our four guides (Spencer – Portland, USA, Grace – New Zealand, Stéphany – Quebec, and Maria – Spain).

The first day of the trek, Tuesday, was spent mostly in transit from Xela to Nebaj, which involved a three hour ride in a chicken bus and then two hours packed into a private shuttle. We arrived in Nebaj mid-afternoon in time for a quick lunch at Popi’s Hostel — our home for the evening — and a stroll through the small town. Popi’s was a bit dark and dingy and featured a circuitous route to my bunk that required a walk through the trash room. However, despite its lack of accouterments, the food at Popi’s exceeded expectations (especially the apple pie) and provided an excellent venue for cards, beers, and a dinner that included a stop-in by a choir of local girls. These young Nebajans serenaded us with a variety of local classics such as “Twist ’n’ Shout,” “This Land is Your Land,” and “Love” by John Lennon. This mini-concert was quite adorable, but the balding American man in his 50’s or 60’s with gapped teeth, a portable keyboard, and a creepy smile was an odd choice to lead this choir. (The guys

Day 2, the first day of legitimate hiking, introduced the group to “Storytime with Spencer.” Spencer, the lead guide on the trip, has an extensive knowledge of the history of the people in the highlands, who are almost exclusively indigenous, and several times a day, he would stop to explain significant events that had occurred in and around the areas we were hiking through. For the most part, these stories covered the struggles the Mayans have faced since the Spanish – led by Pedro de Alvarado — arrived in Guatemala in 1524 and began subjugating the people to Spanish rule. Especially heartbreaking were the tales of violence the Guatemalan government carried out against the people in the Highlands in the 1970’s and 1980’s as it worked to root out guerrilla revolutionaries. These atrocities included kidnappings, murders, and the destruction of several towns through which we walked (that have since been rebuilt).

After hiking through several villages and a stop at, oddly enough, a cheese farm, we ended the night at the tiny pueblo of Xexocomb, where we would spend the night on the floor of the local school building. Before dinner, a few of the locals opened up their temazcals (Mayan sweat lodges) for us to bathe in. As my temezcal buddy (Tom) and I were waiting for our turn to sweat, we began chatting with one of the local boys whose primary line of questioning focused on whether or not England also has farm animals (yes, England has both chickens and goats). After temezcals, we enjoyed dinner served in couple of local families’ houses. These dinners, included, as is the norm here in Guatemala, heaps and heaps of tortillas. (I’m convinced the question “¿Mas tortillas?” is either rhetorical or a joke as this is always asked as a smiling Guatemalan is already dumping stacks of tortillas in front of you.) In the house where I ate, we were joined by a wall full of pictures of relatives that are illegally working in the United States; interestingly enough, all of these relatives are doing some kind of rapper pose in various suburban Texas parking lots. Although we never discovered the significance of these rapper poses, they certainly became a popular pose option for group pictures throughout the rest of the trek.

Day 3 began absurdly early — 3:30 am — as we raced the creeping dawn up 87 switchbacks and 600 vertical meters in order to make a sunrise breakfast. Shortly after arriving at the top, the partly cloudy skies greeted us with a brilliant sunrise, and as we munched on oatmeal and sipped on coffee, we commented on how the view was well worth the limited sleep. After breakfast, we ascended a few hundred more meters to reach the altiplano, the mountain plateau (~3000 meters high) that features coniferous trees scattered across rocky landscapes. As we hiked across this unique landscape, the group conversation took a several hour diversion into the world of riddles and brain teasers, which helped to keep our minds off the mounting fatigue in our legs.

Just about an hour from the day’s stopping point, Antien became the first of five in our group to fall sick with a fever and stomach bug. (She would be evacuated out to Todos Santos the next morning, where she would be joined early the next day by two other casualties). Each person that got sick had dinner at the same house in Xexocomb (we were divided into two separate houses), so this seemed to be the explanation. In addition to the trip’s first casualty, the last hour of the day’s hike also presented an ungodly muddy trail that descended to our mountain home for the evening. Although most of the us fell down at least once, the prize for best fall went to Nadine who began slipping, then sliding, then — carried by the weight of her backpack — falling into a headfirst roll off of the trail. As Nadine disappeared off the trail in front of them, Ayala and Michel, who were hiking directly behind her, had a curious split second where they were wondering whether or not Nadine had tumbled all the way down the mountain. However, these fears quickly dissipated as Nadine popped back onto the trail a second later, unscathed except for the mud that caked her pants.

After the muddy descent, we arrived at our local accommodations for the evening (an empty house), where we spent our time mostly trying to avoid a driving downpour that began shortly after we arrived and would end shortly after we went to sleep. However, during breaks in the rain, we squeezed in some friendly competitions in our “yard” that were closely observed by the 7 or 8 villagers (mostly children) that stared for hours unapologetically at this collection of gringos that had assembled in the middle of their humble pueblo. Only Carlos, age 11, was bold enough to join us in a game.

Day 4 began at a more “reasonable” time — 5:30 am — and we spent the first hour and a half hiking down to the river at the base of the valley below. Shortly after beginning this descent, a Guatemalan man walked into the road in front of us, halting our progress. Given the number of stories I have heard about robbers on hiking trails in Guatemala, I was relieved to hear his request: his digital watch did not show the correct time, but given its controls were in English, he had no idea how to adjust it. Spencer deftly set the watch to the appropriate time and informed the man, in his nearly fluent Spanish, how he could change the time in the future. I asked the man where he got the watch in my well-less-than-fluent Spanish to which the man, surprisingly, responded, “Alabama.” Long way to go for a watch.

After breakfast by the river, we ascended the ridge on the other side of the valley, serenaded by a lone speaker that blared some truly horrific-sounding music from the window of a house out across the valley. This cacophony played in the background even as we paused for a session of “Storytime with Spencer” that focused on how the U.S. CIA successfully organized a military coup to overthrow the popular Guatemalan president in 1954. (American motivations included the Guatemalan’s government’s socialist leanings and the fact that it was forcing the American-based United Fruit Company to sell a good chunk of its land in Guatemala back to the Guatemalan people. A highly recommended book on U.S. involvement can be found here.)

We kept ascending until lunch, which took place in an empty house under construction in a desolate-looking local town. This squatting was enthusiastically sanctioned by the pack of unsupervised local children, who claimed that this house was their “uncle’s” (local children gathering in packs to observe us at every stop was now becoming a token occurrence). Despite this dubious license to squat, we figured questions would only prolong the rumbling in our stomachs and took this claim at face value. As we finished up lunch, a local man in a pickup truck rolled up to drive us five kilometrers over a road to our next location. Amazingly, we fit all 13 people, 13 loaded packs, and the driver into the one pickup. Playing off of a tune from the first evening’s mini-concert, Eitan, crammed in the bed of the truck with eight others, began singing a song that would serve as this 20-minute cramped truck ride’s anthem — “This leg is my leg, this leg is your leg…” (sung, of course, to the tune of “This Land is Your Land”).

The final push on foot for the day was a walk over “Terror Hill” — whose peak sported fantastic views of the countryside below — and into another local village to meet a shuttle that would carry us to our night’s accommodations. The green, rolling hills of this last section of the day’s hike reminded me of parts of the English and Scottish countryside; however, I was quickly jolted back into the reality that I was in Guatemala, as, when we were walking through the street of this local village, three little niños poked their heads over a fence adjacent to the street and promptly proclaimed in unison “GRINGOS!” My fit of laughter provoked by this cute, fly-by racial epithet quickly turned into a fit of coughing as a truck sped by us on this unpaved road, filling my lungs with exhaust and dirt. Yes, I was, in fact, still in Guatemala.

We “slept in” on Day 5 to 6:30 am as all that remained was a climb up La Torre, the highest non-volcanic peak in Central America at 3870 meters (12,700 feet). We were guided up this peak by the previous night’s host, Don Jeronimo, a sixty-year-old ox of a Guatemalan man who did the hike in his full traditional Mayan regalia, pantalones and all (see picture below). At the top of La Torre, we celebrated our accomplishment by polishing off a few cheap, Brazilian beers — Don Jeronimo included. (These beers are known as Brahvas in Guatemala but Brahmas everywhere else, as “brahva” in Guatemala apparently means “gay.” In a practical marketing move, Brahma has tweaked its name in order to successfully sell beers into this country where machismo culture still thrives.)

We spent our final afternoon and evening in the town of Todos Santos, trying our best to remain inconspicuous as we snuck pictures of the men and boys decked out in their colorful, traditional outfits. (Literally all the men here still wear these eye-popping costumes.) After dinner, however, we quickly shattered this low-key profile when a Bluetooth speaker and some Quetzalteca (the local, cheap rum) led to an impromptu dance party and a limbo competition in the comedor of our hostel that, embarrassingly enough, was clearly visible from the street. Once again, the token niños showed up to stare and laugh at the funny gringos doing gringo things.

We awoke yesterday morning, with satisfyingly sore legs and less-satisfying sore heads, and hopped onto a private shuttle that carried us the four-hours without incident from Todos Santos to Xela. After a lunch at the Quetzaltrekker headquarters, we shared goodbyes before scattering off in different directions throughout Guatemala and Central America.