When asked to name my favourite hike, my standard response is: “The one I’m currently hiking.” Hardly original, but safe—and usually true. That being said, the hikes I find most memorable are those that test me to the point where I wonder if I would have hiked the route if I knew what I was getting myself into before I began. Hiking in Central America can do that.
The five-day Nebaj to Todos Santos excursion offered by Old Town Outfitters in Antigua, Guatemala falls into that category. In other words, it included some climbs that occasionally made me ask myself: This is fun?
On the other hand, I enjoyed that extra sense of satisfaction that comes with having completed a challenging route.
See a Culture from Inside
More important than the extra-ordinary physical exertion of hiking up as high at 3,840 metres (12,600 feet), which is well above the height at which you may experience serious altitude sickness, was the cultural richness of this trip. I often explain that hiking is a way to see and come to know a landscape from the inside out. In this case, it was a chance to experience a culture from within. This 65-kilometre-long trip involves staying in remote mountain villages, and eating copious amounts of homemade corn tortillas and other simple foods in the homes of Indigenous people. We soothed tired muscles and bathed in their sauna-like te mescal, observing a way of life that is entirely different than our own.
The six of us (three Americans and two British-born Kiwis as well as myself who ranged in age from 56 to 65) and two Old Town guides climbed a total of about 3,000 metres (9,800 feet). This is a taxing experience when you are over a certain altitude—both physically and figuratively. For me, anything above about 2,800 metres gives my legs a jelly-like consistency.
When hiking in Central America, high altitude is surprisingly often a factor. Height speeds up my pulse and contributes to extra-hard breathing. Nonetheless, with patience, we all covered the route. Moreover, we all had that giddy feel when we arrived at our destination each evening. There’s nothing like meeting a challenge to make you feel high as a kite.
Civil War in Central America
It’s not possible to really understand another’s lot in life even if you spend years living in their shoes. But the small window, the little glimpse we were awarded on this excursion, opened our eyes. We learned some things that were hard to stomach: Guatemala experienced about 40 years of brutal civil war and a number of the communities we visited were among the hardest hit by atrocities. In the village of Xexocom, our local guide Diego took us to what he referred to as a “clandestine cemetery.” As we stood on a small grassy area below the village, Diego explained that some 400 to 500 victims of the conflict were buried under our feet. The only marker was a white hydrangea his family had planted when they moved his grandfather’s remains from this location to a proper graveyard.
Diego was a young boy at the height of the conflict in the late 1980s. He recalls being given the choice of joining either the US-backed military or the insurgents. “Both the military and the insurgents,” Diego explained, “pointed at gun at us and asked us if we would like to volunteer.” His family chose the insurgents because they at least promised to give his family land if they won the struggle. (No land was ever delivered.)
The hiking, which I describe in more detail below, was superb. While there were some tough climbs, they took us onto high open plains, rock-strewn alpine meadows and through pine and oak forests. The landscape was varied, always changing, and the views—well we did reach the highest non-volcanic point in Guatemala. From this perch, we peered over a sea of cloud islands with a hot sun warming our tired legs. Several of Guatemala’s pyramid-like volcanoes populated the far shore of this cotton-puff ocean.
Topping off the local experience was the te mescal we enjoyed on three nights. Te mescal is a Guatemalan sauna. A stack of small blackened rocks that had been heated by an aromatic wood-burning fire filled one corner inside of what appeared to be a large doghouse. Juniper wood gave the fire a fragrance that cleansed my air passages and helped me sleep. A jug of near-boiling water had been place by the fire. Closer to the entrance was a bucket of cold. By combining the two, we washed in a steamy sauna-like environment. It was bliss at the end of a long hike especially given the colder-than-normal temperatures we experienced. My nightly te mescal warmed me to my bones. Afterwards, I slept soundly. In the morning, I rose refreshed and ready to hit the trail. (Be warned that getting into that little door you see on the right side of the photo above, required a certain level of flexibility.) I have to say that these “saunas” were a highlight for hiking in Central America.
Village to Village Hiking in Central America
Village-to-village hiking, as opposed to back-country trekking, takes you right into the human culture.It is one of the benefits of hiking in Central America. It also meant we slept in cabins with blankets. Most nights we had flush toilets. Moreover, we travelled with reasonably light daypacks and took most of our meals seated at the kitchen table under a lone light bulb or two as our Guatemalan (mostly Quiche) hosts bustled with mealtime preparations.
I highly recommend this trip for curious people willing to experience high-altitude walking. It offers great hiking as well as that inside-out glimpse of Guatemala, I described earlier. The route I write about below is the “hut-to-hut” version of this trip. If you prefer, Old Town Outfitters also offers a hut-to-hotel option.
For more information, prices and dates, visit Old Town Outfitters.
Our journey began in Antigua, Guatemala’s historic colonial town. Cobblestone streets, cascading bougainvillea, and courtyards hidden behind colourful plastered walls lie in the shadow of three volcanoes. The Volcan de Agua is the most dominant (see above). It is one of this small Central American country’s 29 volcanoes, three of which were active while I was there in January, 2017. (There is some disagreement over this number as not everyone agrees about what constitutes a volcano. But any way you look at it, Guatemala has a lot of volcanoes.)
I’d advise spending a few days in Antigua in advance of this hike since there is plenty to see and do. Also, at 1,500 metres above sea level, Antigua provides some acclimatization to higher elevations.
I stayed in the lovely Hotel San Jorge (about $50/night).
The hike itself begins in the bustling town of Nebaj, about a five-hour drive from Antigua. After lacing up our boots and hoisting on our packs (I carried a very full daypack while some others carried full-sized packs.), we experienced Guatemala’s hills for the first time. On day one, we walked for five hours, covering 14 kilometres and about 600 metres of elevation in two separate climbs. There was no easing into this hike. When we arrived in the tiny village of Xexocom, we discovered the first of what would be surprisingly great accommodations. There are no tents or campfire meals on this hike. While the literature refers to “huts,” in reality we stayed in solidly built homes or cabins. We always had a bed or mattress and blankets, and for two nights we were treated to clean sheets. You could easily do this trip carrying only a sleeping bag liner.
Day two was our hardest hiking day, made more difficult because an unusually cold front arrived mid-afternoon bringing rain and foggy mist. As it was, we covered 17 kilometres in 10 hours, climbing over 1,000 metres. Most of the climb was a three-hour haul that seemed to take us straight toward the heavens. Once we reached our highest height for the day (3,265 metres), we rambled across level open fields littered with limestone boulders. We wandered into and out of mature oak and elegant pine forests. With the clouds descending on us, we scrambled down a steep, stony trail for two hours. My hiking poles, which never see the light of day in Southern Ontario, were put to the test as the trees gave way to golden farm fields of corn, wheat and oats.
We recovered on day three with a 13-kilometre route that involved some steep, though short climb. We stayed overnight at 3,270 metres in a stone and wood-frame cabin that would have looked at home in Algonquin Park. It had indoor plumbing and electricity. There were proper beds with fresh sheets, and atop each bed was a carefully folded towel, a small bar of soap and a packet of shampoo. Very posh, indeed.
For me, a highlight on day three was our local guide Romulo, a Guatemalan Indiana Jones (see above). Each day, we had a local guide assist our Old Town Outfitter guides (Pepian and Emmy). To varying degrees, they provided us with information about the local environment, plants, animals and life in general. The communities survive on the corn, wheat, oats and beans they grow. Increasingly, they are switching to cultivating potatoes, which they sell in larger communities. The potatoes, we all agreed, were delicious. In fact, the food throughout this trek was wonderful—not fancy, but filling and tasty. Hearty, healthy meals are certainly a good reason to go hiking in Central America.
Day four was by far my favourite. I shed most of the effects of the high elevation despite our climbing up to a whopping 3,840 metres. Moreover, the 15-kilometre, eight-hour route made us all wonder if we were in Guatemala at all. After summiting La Torre, the highest non-volcanic point in Guatemala, we looked out over a sea of cloud islands backed by a distant lineup of pyramid-shaped volcanoes. With a hot sun warming our backs, we took in the dramatic view from our high perch. Could the peak of Mount Everest be any more special?
Afterward, the trail meandered through open bowls of grassland surrounded by limestone rocks and fringes of pine trees. Had I been dropped into the landscape blindfolded, I would have guessed I was near the Cartwright’s Ponderosa Ranch. It never would have occurred to me that I was hiking in Central America. Expecting to see a herd of mooing cattle kicking up dust, the occasional small herd of goats or sheep were a surprise.
Planes del Diablo
Without knowing it, we gradually climbed up to nearly 3,900 metres as we passed by a rocky cliff known as Cerro de los Cuervos (Crow Hill) before finding ourselves on the “dreaded” Planes del Diablo (Devil Plains). For the next two hours, we pounded our way across this Saskatchewan-like prairie land that once supported hundreds of sheep and goats. Luck was with us as we enjoyed a clear blue sky, a light breeze and cool temperatures. The Planes del Diablo is known for thick fog and gale-force winds. According to local lore, it was so named because of the high risk of becoming disoriented and lost. Gregorio, our local guide, explained that even horses are not immune to the devil’s powers. As the legend goes, after spending the night lost on the Planes del Diablo, a horse was found walking in an endless circle.
That evening, we stayed in another Algonquin-esque cabin. After dinner, we walked “home” under a full moon and a blanket of stars. The brisk air promised to bring a hard frost so we cuddled under a mountain of blankets. We were both relieved that tomorrow’s route would be all downhill (1,000 metres drop over six kilometres) and sad that our trip was nearing its end. As is so often the case, our group had bonded into a closely knit family. It was going to be hard to say goodbye.
We took most of our meals seated at the kitchen table under a lone light bulb or two as our Guatemalan (mostly Quiche) hosts bustled around the wood-burning “cocino,”or stove. A medley of pots sat warming at the back of the concrete stove that was vented to the outside. A round metal “element” about one foot in diameter served as a grill for the endless supply of homemade corn tortillas.
We drew our chairs right up to the fire as they prepared dinner. Dressed in traditional costumes, these petite, hard-working women made our meals while also attending to a bevy of children, and shooing a cat or a dog or even a turkey from underfoot. We feasted on black beans and rice and chicken and plantains and pasta made in various ways. The food was always hot and flavourful. It was hearty home-style cooking, which was perfect after our strenuous days. We gobbled it down with relish. Each morning, we set off filled to the brim with scrambled eggs, more beans and sweet hot coffee. And, of course, hiking in Central America meant we feasted on stacks of steaming-hot corn tortillas.
In summary, Guatemala offers some of the best hiking in Central America.
My thanks to my amazing hiking companions, Michelle, Chris, Bryan, Dave and Dan, as well as our exceptional guides: Pepian and Emmy. (Pictured centre above: our guides Pepian and Emmy. Right above: Chris and Bryan.)
For more information visit Old Town Outfitters in Antigua, Guatemala.