Monday, August 10, 2015

Chasing the elusive Quetzal


This past weekend we headed back up into the Sierra de las Minas to scope out logistics to re-open our "Trail of the Quetzal" trip.  Our trek  into the sierra is a unique opportunity to get out in to very remote and pristine Guatemalan backcountry. The Sierra encompasses more than %60 of Guatemala's remaining cloud forest.  It is home to the highest concentration  of the elusive Quetzal, the national bird, icon and currency, tapirs, monkeys and other large mammals.   The park is the key attraction of the conservation organization Defensores de la Naturaleza who are largely responsible for its creation as well as management.  


Working with the Defensores, we have create two different trips into the park.  Both trips start in a local community high up in the mountains at the base of the park.  One itinerary is a three day trip will focus of those who want to get into the core area of the park called the "zona nucleo" where we will have great chances to see Quetzales.  The "zona nucleo" stays high up on the ridge in prime cloud forest.  We will take two separate day hikes out to beautiful rock formations and high points to get an amazing view out over the park dominated by what seems to be a million shades of green.  


Our second itinerary is a 4 day trip that will not only focus on the "zona nucleo" but will push further through the park.  We will have the opportunity to trek through areas that almost no visitors see. We'll stay in small rustic "park ranger cabins" nestled around the park.  This is a much more intense trip, not for the faint at heart, but the payoff is amazing!  Hiking deeper into the woods you will have more opportunity to see the abundant wildlife that make the Sierra las Minas so unique.  Troops of monkeys swing through the trees above, birds seem to be everywhere, and follow fresh tapir y puma tracks.  


While in the park we walk each day with locals from nearby communities who are employed by the Defensores to act as resource officers.  These guys really know the park!  They point out everything of interest along the trail as well as help us to identify the songs of the birds overhead.  They know where to look to find the Quetzal, how to follow tracks on the forest floor and everything else about the forest.  We stay each night in the cabins that they use while out on patrol.  There are cabins places strategically around the park.  The nicest of which are located on the ridge in the "zona nucleo".  The rest of the cabins are more modest and rustic but still serve their purpose: to give us shelter for the night, a nice cozy warm place to dry out and tell stories around the campfire.  


The Sierra las Minas is currently not a major well-known attraction like Tikal, Antigua or Lake Atitlan and is thus often time passed over when planning a trip to Guatemala, which is a huge shame.  The Sierra is a world class destination, ground zero for Guatemalan wilderness.  It should be part of your next visit to Guatemala.  Get in touch with us at Old Town Outfitters if you are interested!

See ya on the trail.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Nebaj to Todos Santos Trek


So we went and got ourselves back on the road to Quiché, one of Guatemala’s most populous departments. The work at hand was to scout out the “Nebaj to Todos Santos trek”, a trip that is essentially a traverse of part of the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes. This mountain range runs for 400km in west-east direction through the neighboring departments of Huehuetenango and Quiché. With peaks clearing 3800m, it is considered the highest non-volcanic sierra in all of Central America. The name “Cuchumatán” btw is derived from the Maya Mam words “cuchuj” (=to join) and “matán” (=with great force), and thus means “what has been joined with great force”.


When crossing the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, we set out from Nebaj, one of the villages that form part of the so-called Ixil Triangle. This is the first hint as to the historic cross references that come into play on this trek. The hike entails clearing roughly 70km of trail in 6 days, most of which while crossing the flats of the “altiplano”, the Guatemalan highlands. The initial climb onto the plateau contains most of the elevation gain (ca. 1300m/5600ft.), with the rest coming as part of the ascent to La Torre, one of the highest points of the sierra (3832m/12.646ft.) 


The trail on this hike comes in all kinds of terrain, from pine-needle strewn forest floor, to limestone scattered over dirt roads, to grass-covered flats. The occasional mudfest is also not unlikely, as we learned this time around: After some torrential downpour in the night, descending through Pajuil País became somewhat of a unexpected challenge. As we were going downhill, our boots, caked in mud, were about as useful as soaped up cement blocks on our feet.


The Cuchumatanes are something else. I still can’t quite put my finger on it, even after two visits it’s hard to describe. Hiking there is not a spectacle, not a show as, say, hiking up Acatenango to see Fuego erupt. Some of the most gifted turns of phrase (and most of the lesser gifted; this very piece here not excluded) about Guatemala revolve around its beautiful landscapes, so I wonder if it bears repeating: but there really is no way around acknowledging the views, and to a great degree, it is the remoteness of the area and the vastness of the views that make up the lasting impression. They give the hike an even more contemplative quality than usual, especially when you happen to walk flat, green pastures in a soft rain with sheep in distant sight.


But it’s really when you’re walking through the villages that the slower pace of life becomes strikingly apparent. In so many cases, you get sensory overload from all the sensations around you before you can really get a sense of place, and by the time you’re leaving, you’ve forgotten half of them. Hiking the Cuchumatanes provides a good balance between perceptive details and ample time to process them. Here you have distinct notions of architecture, clothing, and pastoral lifestyle that you can observe and grasp in order to get this area’s unique geographic and cultural identity.


Would you like to know more abut this trip.  Check out the 5 day Nebaj to Todos Santos hut to hut trip on our website. See ya on the trail.


Eventually useful bit of random trail advice: when you come across a sheep that's tied to a tree trunk and effectively stretching the rope across the trail, don't step over the rope. Because once you spook the sheep, which you will, it will try to cut across into the field while still ahead of you and, with the rope, take your feet right out from under you. See the sheep understands the implications of being tied to a tree just about as much as the courtesy behind trying not to spook it. And since you're going to do that anyway, there is no sense in trying to be polite about it.


Friday, May 22, 2015

The 2nd Annual El Mirador Jungle Epic



Last week we headed out again from the nice temperate weather of the Guatemala highlands to the steamy humid jungle of thePeten, Guatemala's Northern department and home to perhaps the highest concentration of Mayan sites known in the Mayan world.  We have done this before, this was to be our second time out, and quite frankly, after the first time I wasnt sure thatI would be returning. However, they say time heals and I must admit that in the car ride out last year I was happy to see the jungle disappear in the background as the lush, light and breezy highlands came into focus. However, oddly enough just a few short days after being back at home in Antigua, I found myself missing the jungle and all the hardships that she brought with her.  So we decided to make this a yearly pilgrimage.



For this years edition we headed out with a more paired down and better prepared (even if just mentally) team.  Three returning riders, Matt Hartell and Nico Marceca from Old Town Outfitters, Brian Zimmer from the Antigua Bicycle Coop and Tom Vanderbuilt, a free lance writer who was documenting this trip for the New York Times.    When Tom asked me about joining on this years edition we exchanged emails about the ride, timing, conditions etc. in preparation for the upcoming trip.  More than anything this was an opportunity for us to vet Tom.  After all, this was one of the hardest 42 km ride I had ever done.  When we got to topic of distance, 42 kms. or 26 miles, essentially the distance of a marathon, I remember Tom's disbelief that last year it took us nearly 8 hours.  That's 4x longer than it takes a world class runner to run the same distance.  "How  could 26 miles with only 1350 feet of climbing take that long" he asked me.  "That's the distance of my lunchtime ride" he said.



I told him that I understood that it seemed inexplicable to take that long but that last year the trail conditions were brutal.  The usual method to get out to El Mirador is on foot, a two journey through the jungle.  Mules carry all the gear so that hikers wont have to contend with the heat and their equipment.  These mule trains absolutely destroy the trail especially in the rain.  They create these deep ruts, channels and churn up these mud post holes that when dry become boulders of  cement hard dried mud.  Last year there was apparently late season rain so when we go there in Early may when  it was dry there hadn't been enough time for the mules and people hiking out to smooth out the boulders.  This year however, I was assured from our friends out there at the trailhead that the trail was in "great shape" a it had been dry since January and thus has had sufficient time for the mud to be smoothed out.  Armed with the knowledge that this year the trail was going to be great we headed out to Carmelita heads held high with the confidence that this year would be different.



Indeed it would.  We arrived in Carmelita after 11 hours on the road and quickly went to the tienda to find few cold beers to fight the heat while unpacking and prepping our gear.  We talked to the folks out there who all told us that we were in luck that the trails were in great shape to to not worry about the ride.  The following day we set out on the trail and quickly found that yes, the trail was in better shape.  In fact, they were right, it was in great shape.  Now I must back up to say that even in great shape the ride is still tough.  The low, boggy, dried mud "bajos" as they called them were still bumpy but much better than last year.  You could actually ride them as opposed to last year where you had to surgically attack them with precision, balance and a huge amount of determination.  We bumped our way through the bajos, cruised the fun rocky altos and made it out to El Mirador in just about four and a half hours of riding time.  Again, even these times are mind boggling if you were only to see the stats.  How could 26 miles take that long?  Some how it just does.  If its not the bouncy bajos, its a short techy rocky climb to the altos and always the heat.  If you are not accustomed to the heat and humidity of the Guatemalan jungle you WILL suffer. After nearly 8 liters of water, more than I probably drink in a week, my pee was still dark yellow, if I could even go.  The jungle takes every ounce of it out of you.  Arriving in Mirador, a trail and heat weary Tom looked over at me and told me that now he "gets it".  He finally understood what I was talking about when I said it was the toughest flat 26 miles you'll do.



It sounds like a lot of pain and suffering, which it is, but the payoff is amazing.  El Mirador is very remote and hard to get to. Unless you have the funds to helicopter in, which on more occasions than one I wished I had had, you have to walk 2 days to get there or in our case one long brutal day on the bike.  And that's only one way!  Only about 3,000 visitors a year make this trip overland so there is definitely a sense of accomplishment.  The site of El Mirador is nestled in a unique part of the "protected" Mayan Biosphere.  This area is being threaten by the communities near by and the devastating slash and burn practices for clearing cattle grazing land.  El Mirador boasts the highest man made temples in the Ancient world.  Bigger than the pyramids of Egypt and larger in volume than the entire main plaza of Tikal.  With only a handful of other tourists out there who had made the walk we felt that we nearly had the site to ourselves.  The sunset from the top of the temple alone, made the journey worth while.  There is something special about looking out from the top of the temple seeing nothing but jungle as far as you can see in every direction.

Forest covered Mayan pyramids dot the landscape on the horizon and leave you imaging what other sites are still out there to be discovered.  Unconsciously the planning for next years ride had already begun.  How to tie the trail into El Mirador to other further a field sites out in the jungle.  Next year we will push past El Mirador, now our old friend, and find new brutal trails that will lead us to another temple and another sunset over the jungle. I can only imagine that sitting on another new temple at sunset will only mean yet another new ride the following year.  As hard as it is, I'm already looking forward to future rides.

Get in touch with us if you are interested in next years 3rd annual ride which will be weather permitting around the end of April or the beginning of May.


Monday, April 20, 2015

The Double Header

Check out this sweet client posted video of a recent Old town Outfitters trip up the twin summits of Acatenango and Fuego volcanoes. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

36 Hours in Antigua

The New York Times 36 hour column just featured Antigua as one of its destinations!  Our Old Town Outfitters trip to Pacaya Volcano was featured as one of the top experiences while here in country.  It is indeed a great trip.  If your thinking to visit Guatemala, get in touch and lket us get you out there off the beaten track and onto a unique adventure trip.  Congratulations to all the other folks that also  were featured.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

37 in 27


January of 2015 4 hikers set out to hike 37 of Guatemala’s volcanoes in just 27 days.  This would be quite the undertaking to get up and down and then on to the next peak in that short amount of time.  This is remarkable not only because of the feat of climbing that many volcanoes in that sort of time but these four guys were doing it not for themselves or any sort of fame, but to raise awareness and money for four different developmental organizations in Guatemala that they each had a special link to.

Old Town’s own, Nico Marceca, Reinhard Prosch and Luis Galindo were supporting Niños de Guatemala, Integral Heart Foundation and Asociación Q'ukumatz.  Steve Cook was trekking for Habitat For Humanity Guatemala.

These selfless 4 some pulled together Guatemalan and International sponsors to help not only fund the trip but also to fund their respective projects.  At the end of the month they had managed to climb the 37 volcanoes with a day or two to spare.  Using their home base of Antigua and her four resident volcanoes as the grand finale the group invited folks to join on the Acatenango/Fuego overnight as well as “sold” spots to donors for famous Pacaya Volcano.  All said and done the group was able to raise a over $20,000 and plenty of awareness for their organizations.  

Good work lads and Old Town is happy to have been able to help out! For more information on the trek visit their website at: 37in27.com. Donations are always welcome and will go to a good cause. Visit their crowd rise page as well. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Guatemalan Highlands Hut to Hut


Over the past year or so we have been working to open a few new routes out in the Western highlands of Guatemala.  This has always been one of our favorite areas to ride as its aboslutely criss-crossed in single track.  One of the challenges of riding up here is that to truly get out there and away from it all it unfortunately means that you will also be away from any sort of lodging.  

We wanted to open a route like those epic rides in Colorado or Europe where cyclists can basically leave the worry behind of camping gear and cooking and focus on what you are there for: the riding!

We came across a couple pretty cool communities on our rides that have started to create some basic lodging options in the way of community hostals or posadas.  Last year we started working to find creative ways to link these hostals together to create a pretty unique adventure mountain biking experience.  

The trails are great, the scenery is even better and there is a cultural freshness to the rides that is second to none, anywhere!  The going is tough in some places, hell, most places but to reach such untouched, unridden areas means that you will have to push you bike at some points.  The beauty is that you can do this and not have to carry mush with you in terms of camping gear.  At the end of each day there is a warm bed, good filling food and in most cases cold beers, and if no beers there’s most likely moonshine.

About the same time that we were thinking to head out to link all the rides together, about 5 or 6 days depending on how you do it, we were contacted by none other than Hans No Way Rey who was coming to Guatemala and wanted to do something unique.  He was en route to hand out about 50 bicycles to school kids in need via his NGO Wheels For Life in the Antigua valley and was looking for something to do afterwards. 

This seemed like the perfect opportunity to head out into the Guatemalan backcountry with a couple seasoned pros.  Over the next 5 days we would push through areas that rarely receive foreign travelers, much less on bikes, and ride a huge swath of Guatemala much of which probably hasn’t ever seen a mountain bike.

This area of Guatemala between Huehuetenango and Quiche doesn't receive that much tourism. Let alone mountain bikers pushing through the backcountry and villages where roads ad power are non-existent.  If you are looking for a unique once in a lifetime sort of ride, our new Highlands Hut to Hut is it. Get in touch with us a Old Town and ask for it. 
See us on the trail!