Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Digital Storytelling with Peace Works Travel

In early August, Old Town Outfitters had the privilege of hosting a group of students from Harvard-Westlake high school (Los Angeles) on an itinerary designed by Peace Works Travel. As a group of budding documentary filmmakers, they were guided by their interest in finding stories they could tell. In order to do so, their itinerary consisted largely of meetings and interactions with Guatemalan non-profit organizations like De La Gente and Starfish Impact. This trip was the culmination of a digital storytelling class, so for most of the kids, it was not just a travel experience, but also meant daily hours spent on project work.

Peace Works offers socially conscious education travel, and in the past has successfully conducted travel programs to destinations such as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Rwanda – not the first countries that usually come to mind when you think about school travel. The intention behind this becomes more apparent when you consider one of the key questions the class is driven by on these trips, which is how do societies afflicted by genocide continue to evolve in the aftermath? It is in this context that Guatemala, with a past troubled by an almost four decade-long civil war, became a destination of interest – all the more so given the amount of influence the U.S. exerted on  Guatemala’s domestic affairs in the 20th century. (For further reference, the National Security Archive at George Washington University provides online access to a number of declassified CIA documents detailing its activities in Guatemala.) The class explicitly aims to trace the origin of the Guatemalan civil war back to one of its root causes, namely a post-war U.S. foreign policy driven by interventionism abroad, and really asks the students to ponder some of the more difficult questions about the consequences of such a policy. Not exactly business as usual for a group of U.S. visitors to Guatemala.

Peace Works’ founder and director, Alethea Tyner Paradis, elaborated on all of this and more during our initial meeting over lunch. Going over their itinerary for the week, we learned that one of the scheduled activities had fallen through on short notice, and now a few hours had opened up on a Tuesday afternoon. Brainstorming about potential alternatives, we mentioned that we knew a civil war survivor, one of our local guides in the Quiché department. Alethea was excited about the idea of having the students hear a first-hand account from an eye-witness, and so we decided to set up a meeting. Fortunately, Diego was very open to the idea and agreed immediately. Living in a little village outside of Acul, Quiché, we first met him while fine-tuning the route and logistics of our Nebaj to Todos Santos trek. Apart from accommodating our groups in his home and accompanying them on the second day of the trek, he has also been a valuable source of local history.

Obviously, no single blog post is going to do justice to the complexity of the Guatemalan civil war. To provide at least some background for the context at hand, it is helpful to know that Nebaj (full name: Santa Maria Nebaj) is one of three towns generally understood to form the Ixil community, named after the region’s prevalent Mayan ethnicity. Nebaj in particular was the site of one of the war’s worst massacres against the indigenous population, while the area surrounding these towns in general saw some of the war’s most intense fighting between 1980 and 1982. Diego was eight years old when the guerrilla first came to his village to garner support for their cause, and barely a teenager when the killing began.

Returning to present day now, we were able to use the exhibition space at a local cultural center in Antigua as a location for the meeting. In another fortuitous turn of events, Richie, one of our former full-time guides, had inaugurated an exhibition of his paintings just a few days prior. He is self-taught and has been painting for years, all while working on our trips and group itineraries. Last year, he caught a big break that afforded him a chance to go ahead with the decision to become an artist full time. The exhibit entailed a series of works called “Voices of the genocide”, which provided a fitting backdrop for the meeting.

Veteran television and documentary producer Jeff MacIntyre, who accompanied the group in a mentoring capacity, took charge to create a genuine interview setting: Once the scene was professionally lit, Jeff engaged with his interview subjects first on a general level, to provide some historic context, then gradually on a more personal level. Diego also brought his cousin Santos along for the occasion. A few years older than Diego, his memories of the period were even more detailed. Over the course of two hours, the two recounted their experiences. About first encountering the guerrilla recruiters, Diego remembered hearing all the promises being made to the village’s farmers and their families, about how political change was sweeping the country and how they were all going to benefit materially and economically. Then, at a later stage, how both he and Santos first became involved themselves, being made to act as messengers and errand boys. Finally, how the guerrilla began engaging in clandestine hit-and-run operations, growing bolder until the military retaliated, quickly surpassing anything that could be considered even remotely proportionate.

The longer the fighting went on, the more desperate the measures employed by both sides became: the military eventually burned down Diego’s village and all crops in the area, implementing a now notorious scorched-earth campaign designed to flush out guerrilla combatants. A common Guatemalan expression goes “quitarle el agua al pez”, which basically means that if the fish won’t bite, just drain the pond in order to catch it. The guerrilla, faced with thinning ranks, resorted to forcing ever younger men and youth into picking up arms. Diego was twelve years old, when his father was faced with the choice of either handing him over to join the fight or being shot to death. The military, in turn, did not stop at food and shelter when it came to metaphorically draining the pond. Soon, a mere suspicion of conspiring against the state was enough to be considered guilty by association and executed on the spot.

In the end, both Diego and Santos were among the lucky ones who made it through this period alive. Being survivors, however, also meant having to live without closure for the losses they endured, as the remains of multiple of their family members are still buried in unmarked mass graves to this day. Steps are being undertaken to enable the process of identifying and transferring the remains, but there is a considerable paper trail involved, and political support is practically non-existent. Any assistance people like Diego receive in this matter comes from private initiatives. Guatemalan administrations elected since the peace accords in 1996 have been ineffectual about coming to terms with the nation’s bloody past, not to mention making amends for it.

Hearing firsthand from eye-witnesses really gave the Peace Works students a palpable idea not just of the gradual escalation of the conflict, but also how civilians unwittingly were drawn into a conflict that turned into full-blown armed warfare before they had a chance to really understand that there was an underlying ideological divide in the first place. This is of course especially true in the case of Diego and Santos, who were merely kids who did not know any better. It is not often that you get the chance to hear somebody talk about what experiencing war is like. Even rarer is someone like Diego, who can do so in a way that is neither bitter nor depressing, but rather gracious. As remarkable as this is, it makes sense once you realize that he has long made a habit of it: Once they had families of their own, both he and Santos have been very open to them about their past from the start. "I try to bring light to the dark I lived through", Diego says.

They were so approachable, and the students so intrigued, that the group continued for another 45 minutes of Q&A in a nearby park after the cultural center had closed. For us, in terms of studying history and maybe learning a thing or two in the process, the issue is now an abstract one, to be treated very rationally. For those who lived through it, however, it will always be very specific and emotional. This is both easy to forget and hard to relate to. But the longer you listen, the more it becomes apparent that sharing their testimony has really become the best way to turn what could have resulted in crippling trauma into something positive and constructive.

This is certainly part of the lasting impression the Peace Works students will take away from their visit, according to some of their feedback during the farewell dinner on the last night of their stay. Even our lead guide Arnold, who was with the group every step of the way, explained that he learned new things about Guatemala. So congratulations to Peace Works on a job well done! We at Old Town were certainly happy to be able to help with making this trip happen, and are already looking forward to future trips.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Epic Single track Ride at Lake Atitlan

Hot off the press!  Here's a short teaser of what you could be doing this weekend.  This is one of our favorite mountain tours out at Lake Atitlan or Guatemala in general!  But don't take my word for it, watch the video and see for yourself.
The riding at Lake Atitlan is second to none, end of story!  If its not the epic lake side singletrack, the big lake views, or the stellar company you'd be riding with, it could be the living Mayan culture you are riding alongside, the monster staircase DH run through Santa Catarina,  the fresh lunch spread and cold beers waiting at the bottom.  Whatever it is epic and you should get on Old Town's next tour.  Combine this with other rides here at the lake, a day sea kayaking and hiking along the shoreline and a relaxed night at the world famous hotel La Casa del Mundo.....another one of our favs.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Guatemalan Mountain Bike Adventure with Hans Rey and Tom Oehler

Check out this sweet video on Pink Bike of our Guatemalan backcounty mountain bike adventure touring at its best!  When Old Town Outfitters got the call from world reknown mountain bike legend Hans Rey to help he and fellow Red Bull rider Thomas Oehler put together an epic multi-day mountain bike tour we dug deep to find the sweetest remtote single-track Guatemala has to offer. The riding did not disappoint!

We of course started off by highlighting the great trails that the Antigua Valley has to offer as well as the famous purpose built mountain bike park out at El Zur.  The real riding however started once we got to the Cuchumantan mountains in Western Guatemala.  There's a gold mine of single-track out in them hills if you just know how to find it and link them together.  This is something that Old Town Outfitters has been doing for nearly 20 years.  We know how to find the best of the best terrain and pull the logisitics together so you only need to show up and ride.  We pack the cars, buy all the food, make all the reservations, guide and of course, keep the beers cold!

The trip was one for the books ful of huge epic days, monster descents and super rocky technical trail.  We pushed further and deeper into the mountains than any other biker before being sure that the treads we left on the ground were first tracks.  If you want to retrace this epic mountain bike tour of Guatemala or plot your own be sure to get in touch with us.

It was not all smiles for miles and cold beers at the end of a long day of riding as the true purpose of the trip to Guatemala was to support Hans Rey's NGO "Wheels for Life"  whose mission is to provide transportation to folks in need in developing countries.  The idea that something as simply as a donated bicycle which provides someone the necessary transportation to get to school or work can be life changing to those individuals.  Wheels for Life donated over 25 bicycles to school kids in a village outside of Antigua, Guatemala.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A 5,000,000,000 Star Experience

Antigua to Atitlan Safari Trek

Our sister company Trek Guatemala has just returned from its first customer trip, trekking from Antigua to Lake Atitlan.  A vision that was crafted from a couple nights drinking bourbon around the campfire out in the back country, brought the idea to connect the two tourist centers together via a well thought out, carefully planned, community/culturally based trekking route.  While the walking itself is pretty spectacular the well-appointed safari style tent camps are down right mind blowing. Trek Guatemala wanted to create a rewarding and engaging trekking route while at the same time offering all the creature comforts that are typically forgotten about on an ordinary trekking holiday. Think hot showers and queen size beds with down duvets! 

The current trek is a three day two night experience starting just a few kilometers outside of Antigua.  It was carefully hand crafted to combine scenic trail passing through culturally interesting areas with rich community interactions and stunning campsite placements.  Day one has the group cresting out high above the Antigua valley before dropping in the Acatenango valley well known for its great coffee. The group walks through working coffee farms and then climbs up to a seemingly forgotten Mayan village at the end of a dirt road directly facing Acatenango and active Fuego volcanoes.  This is the “Fuego” camp, fittingly named after one of the two volcanoes that dominate the view.  With a little luck sipping wine around the campfire you will get a front row seat to one of Fuego’s famous lava eruptions. 

Employing locals from the villages along the route ensures that there is always an opportunity to gain some insight into the lives of those who live in the area but to also give back to the communities in which they pass through.  The group is always accompanied by a local guide who along the trek can point out and share their personal experiences in the area, be it the hardships of 35 years of civil war to peasant subsistence farming life.  They have also trained women and men from neighboring villages at each campsite as cooks, guides and camp helpers.

Day two of the trek takes you through lush cloud forest and up high on a ridge that separates the more arid highland plateau and the lush Pacific slope.  Traversing the ridge there are amble opportunities to see bird life and other animals.  After a full day of walking the group walks into the second overnight camp called the “Agua”, named for its huge views over the distant Lake Atitlan, your next and final objective.  The campsite is nestled in a hill top forest just outside a small village. Part of the philosophy with Trek Guatemala’s vision was to create a rewarding cultural experience with the people of Guatemala.  In this village there is a women’s weaving cooperative that create textiles on the centuries old fashion back strap looms.  These textiles are then gathered together and taken to such places as Antigua or Panajachel where they are sold to tourists.  Here you will be able to see first-hand how these wonderful textiles are made and have an opportunity to buy direct from the weavers themselves leaving a greater economic impact.

Leaving “Agua” camp on the morning of day three, the trail dives down through beet, corn, broccoli and bean fields and into shaded coffee and avocado farms on its way down to the Madre Vieja river.  It’s a steep climb up and out of the river valley to the top of the shelf overlooking Lake Atitlan.  The reward of nearly three full days of walking is evident as the group crests out over the lake and starts making its descent to the water’s edge.  Moving now through a distinctly different landscape the group drops steeply and steadily on the rocky trails overlooking Lake Atitlan.  There is an opportunity for a stop off at a Mayan Altar in a cave above the town of San Antonio.  Continuing down here the trail as it winds closer to town begins to weave through terraced onion and flower fields where local farmers channel the limited water into their terraces based on an age old water sharing practice.

Arriving to the lake trekkers can decide to either pack it in the bus and head back to Antigua or stay out on the lake at one of the many hotels there.  Trek Guatemala is in process to continue the trek from Atitlan across the altiplano to Quetzaltenango locally known as Xela.  For now however, they are offering extensions to the Hotel La Casa del Mundo in Jaibalito where trekkers can kayak or relax in a swinging in a hammock lakeside. 

For about $150 per person per day, the trek is all inclusive.  All you have to do is show up, lace up the ole boots and take in the sites of the trail.  The well-oiled machine of Trek Guatemala will do all the heavy lifting and logistical planning from getting you in from the airport to setting up the camps to keeping the beers cold. 

Old Town Outfitters is excited to be partnering with Trek Guatemala to help travelers find this unique, handcrafted trekking one-of-a-kind cultural trekking experience.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Best Restaurants in Antigua Guatemala - OTO Staff Picks

If you find yourself visiting our lovely town of Antigua, Guatemala, you will be glad to know there is no lack of great restaurant options. Wonder around the cobble-stone streets and you will be able to find everything from local cuisine, Italian, Japanese, French, German, and so many more. A few of us here in the Old Town Outfitter's office decided to share a few of our top picks around town. We hope you try a few and enjoy your visit! 


Chris' Picks

    Pitaya Juice Bar. Fresh fruit smoothies (liquados) are popular throughout Guatemala, Pitaya serves some of the best I’ve found so far. They also have a simple menu of fresh, healthy, and affordable breakfast and lunch options. My recommendations are the Chia Mia smoothie and the Mr. Aguacate wrap. Smoothies: Q20-30, Wraps: Q30-35

Metiz Delicatessen and Bistro. This small French restaurant has become one of my go-to spots among Antigua’s vast pool of choices. I have yet to try something I did not like on the menu and the staff is always friendly. It is hard for me to narrow down the choices, but my top two recommendations are the large salad (probably my favorite salad in Antigua) and the Croque Monsieur sandwich. Average dinner: Q60-80 per person

Rincon Tipico Comedor. This local restaurant has grown over the years from a closet sized lunch spot to a sizeable dining room that accommodates large groups. There is a reason they’ve grown over the years, they offer good portion plates at a super affordable price. Ask for the day’s options and then choose your meat and two sides. My suggestion:  start with a side of guacamole and chips for your table – hard to go wrong there. Lunch: Q30 including drink


    Matt's Picks

    Cactus Grill. Mexican style tacos, cold Mexican beers and margaritas!  Need I say more?  Some of the best guacamole in town and do not pass up the Shrimp and Bacon burrito! 

-     Hector's Bistro. An Antigua establishment for a decade.  What started as a buddy’s (Hector) word of mouth restaurant without a name or sign out front has come to define small, quaint well thought out dining in Antigua.  Don't miss the original Antigua open faced steak sandwich                        and sweet potato fries!

Quincho's Street Ceviches. Starting Friday afternoon through the weekend you can be sure to catch someone you know out on the street fighting off last night’s bender with a 'picosito' (Antigua style prepared beer) and a shrimp ceviche.

    Reinhard's Picks

    Saberico: If you like choices, get a load of their extensive menu. Even vegetarians may have a hard time deciding, which is usually not a problem they encounter in Guatemalan restaurants. Also great: the selection of comida típica. Try the authentic Guatemalan enchilada, you’ll see that it is a far cry from the Mexican variety! 

     Casa Santo Tomás: The best part about a smaller menu is that you can focus on doing fewer dishes exceptionally well. Casa Santo Tomás is great for entrées like spicy chicken with fennel seeds and Guatemalan specialties like Suban’ik, an aromatic stew that is served with sliced, fried tamales on the side. Extra plus: One of a handful of places that serves locally brewed craft beer.

La Canche: Not only is this a hole in the wall, you have to enter walking through the adjacent mom-and-pop store before finding a seat in the back room. Menu? Don’t look for one, it doesn’t exist. Just ask one of the little old ladies what’s for dinner today. Whether it’s chicken soup or Pepián, it’s bound to be simple, hearty, and a Guatemalan staple. If you go, make sure you come prepared to burst the bubble that Antigua can be.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Nebaj to Todos Santos: All Saints' Day Special Offer

High season is about to begin and we are kicking it off with an Old Town Outfitters special! We have been hiking and biking out in the Cuchumatanes in the past, but now we have finally wrapped our heads around a unique trek and made it work. “Nebaj to Todos Santos, Hut-to-Hut” is a 6-day, 5-night hike across a roughly 70km stretch of the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, heading west from the center of the Ixil triangle in Quiché all the way to Todos Santos Cuchumatán, Huehuetenango. 

Not only are you hiking through one of Guatemala’s most serene and remote regions, rich in culturally and historically significant references – you have the chance to do so in time for one of the most important holidays of the year: Día de Todos Los Santos, or All Saints’ Day. Every year on November 1st, Todos Santos hosts some of the more remarkable and memorable All Saints’ Day festivities you can experience. 

This predominantly Maya Mam town is known throughout Guatemala for the distinctive traditional garb that the locals wear year round. And for All Saints’ Day, they bring out their Sunday best, so to speak. Topping off the festivities is the horse race, an adrenaline-inducing spectacle fueled by the fact that most of the riders are drinking and have been doing so since All Hallows’ Eve, i.e. the night before. 

After the relative craziness of All Saints’ Day, things calm down somewhat on the following day, when people gather to honor the deceased on Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). You don’t have to participate in the race, just being there to watch and take it all in will make for an incomparable adventure and an unforgettable experience.

Would you like to know more about this trip? Here is the summary from our Adventure Guatemala website: 6 days of “out there” trekking across the remote departments of Quiché and Huehuetenango. This trek traverses areas only accessible by foot. We’ll walk through small, seemingly forgotten Mayan villages of people that were displaced by nearly 35 years of civil war. Along the way we stay in small community run hostels and/or hotels and break bread with local families.  Much of the route is above 10,000 ft. across the Guatemalan altiplano.  

We offer 2 options along this classic route; both treks start in the Ixil Mayan stronghold of Nebaj and finish in the remote mountain village of Todos Santos, famous for its “Day of the Dead” festivities. On our hut-to-hut option we rely each night on the hospitality of the local communities we pass through. We will spend 4 nights in community hostels that are set up across the highlands.  We’ll sit around the hearth of a local home and break bread with a local family.  

Our hut and hotel route plies much of the same route with a couple detours to visit 2 boutique hotels nestled in the area.  This is the perfect mix between the more rustic hut to hut and full luxury.  We’ll spend two nights in community hostels and 2 nights in beautiful unique boutique hotels; one a working artisanal cheese farm and the other a horseback riding center.

Can you think of a better way to spend Halloween this year? Thought so. Get in touch with us at, and do so sooner rather than later! We only have 4 spots left on this trip, and Todos Santos is a popular destination this time of the year.

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.