Friday, September 12, 2008

Capital Punishment

We at Old Town Outfitters call this the "Capital ride." It can be said that the name comes from the fact that it heads out of town and climbs into the nearby hills in the direction of Guatemala City, or "La Capital" as its called.

But one quickly realizes as soon as they are smacked down by the climb that the name refers to a certain type of punishment associated with a climb of this nature. The climb is long, relentless, steep, and has no warm up. And,it is most certainly punishing.

So why do it? Are we just gluttons for punishment? Maybe. But for me when the climb is over and you pass through (sneak really) the mysteriously beautiful fences of a remote finca called pillar and realize you are sucking wind looking out over the entire Antigua valley below, it all starts to make sense as to why you've come all the way up here.

The view. That's right...the view. To see the 3 volcanoes (Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango) that once towered over you while just a tourist back in Antigua on the valley floor now seem to be at eye level and not so oppressive.

You were'nt really gonna let me get away with saying its for the view were ya? Its the downhill...yeah the downhill that's so much damned fun. The views nice too, but come on. The trail rolls through fun fast open sections, tight technical rock gardens and you can test your luck on the tight rocky switchbacks at the bottom.
Bring it on....maybe you can tag along on our next morning out!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Nebaj -> Todos Santos Hiking Expedition

This last week we here at Old Town Outfitters packed up the van for another jaw-dropping expedition through the Cuchumatanes Mountain Range (a.k.a. the “high country”) in far northwest Guatemala. We knew it was rainy season, but we just didn’t care. It had been far too long since we had hiked these beautiful trails, so we packed some extra raingear, threw two of our most loved dogs into the trunk, and headed out for our trailhead in Nebaj.

Far up in the Quiche Department of Guatemala, and situated in a natural bowl-shaped recession, Nebaj is the largest town in the Cuchumatanes. When you mix this area’s long history of civil resistance with it’s proud, colorful preservation of Mayan traditions and stunningly beautiful backdrop of mountains and waterfalls – it’s no wonder this off-the-beaten-track town is one of Old Town’s favorite stop-offs before a big hike. Our first day’s hike (after a long day of driving up from the Antigua Valley) across a nearby ridge and down into the Acul Valley landed us at Finca San Antonio – where to our surprise baby Blue Heeler puppies had been birthed just a few days before!

After a hearty delicious farm breakfast at the Finca (complete with pancakes and homemade fresh cream), we grabbed some of the fresh cheese they produce at the farm and headed out for what would be one of the more challenging hikes. The dirt road out of Acul ends at a tiny village named Xexocom, and it’s an 800 meter climb up switchbacks to the even smaller outpost of Chuantuj – situated on the rim of one of the many high-alpine plateaus in this region. Beautiful panoramic views of the Cuchumatanes are all around us during this day’s hike, and at the end of the day we had climbed over 1000 meters on the day. The only people we saw for the last 4 hours of hiking were two farmers hiking down from the altiplano with their horses!

Coming into Chuantuj on the topside of the ridge we begin to understand why so few people populate the high plateaus of the Cuchamantanes. Weather conditions up here are always unpredictable and fogs roam constantly through the highlands, chilling hikers and creating confusion in what was (only minutes before!) a perfectly lovely sunny day. Cloud forests, moss and fern covered pine forests, and rocky outcroppings cover the rugged topography of these ridges, giving our group time to get lost in mushroom blanketed thickets and strange stone formations. Houses in tiny hamlets like Chauntuj are constructed of local woods and topped with corrugated aluminum brought on horseback from days away. Almost everyone in the highlands is a farmer, raising potatoes, garlic, corn, or whatever else they can successfully raise to trade or sell.

We bedded down for the night in a spare room in Chuantuj used during harvest season for storing potatoes. We opted to seek out a shelter rather than set up our tents because of a good-sized rainstorm which ushered us into the village. As we dried our boots next to the fire, the guides on the trip – Juan and Sean – cooked up a feast for the group and passed around tea and hot chocolate. Situated at over 3100 meters above sea level, Chuantuj can be a chilly place to spend the night. We woke up rested with some sore calves, but happy to be setting off on a beautiful hike up on the high plateau.

Today’s hike took our group on a long windy hike across the top of one of the massive high-alpine plateaus this region is famous for. Landscapes here can best be described as “dreamy” or “fantastical”. Sinkholes, dense pine forests, brightly colored high-alpine flowers, trippy rock gardens and wide, sprawling plains make it a feast for the eyes as we make our way from one edge of this high mesa to the other. We pass by another tiny (sub-100 pax population) village, Chortiz, as we wander towards Pauil Pais – a larger sized village on the plateau by virtue of its road connection to the valley town of Aguacate.

Horses and mules wander outside the villages up in the high country, some of the few farm animals hearty enough to handle the conditions up here. Our Old Town guides befriend a local hunter out looking for deer with his dogs and rifle, and after a quick exchange of information and the usual pleasantries, our group makes a few minor adjustments to our planned route across the high plain in order to reach our destination before dark. We ate a huge lunch today nestled in a thickly wooded valley watching clouds roll past just a few hundred feet above our heads. Our blue blue skies and heavy stomachs forced an involuntary group nap in the early afternoon – a great opportunity to enjoy the tranquility of our scenery and the calls of the brilliantly colored mountain birds flying about the branches over our heads.

Another reason this area is so fascinating to many hikers is its remoteness and ruggedness – and their apparent effects on the locals here. Many Cuchumatanes residents haven’t ventured farther south than the nearest large city Huehuetenango, situated just outside the mountain range in the valley to the south. Most travelers to Guatemala never venture this far north because of the poorly maintained roads, lack of food, lodging, and transport options, distance from the capital, and the difficulty involved in obtaining guides and information for the area. Our 5-day camping expedition is a perfect way to see a part of Guatemala which is truly unique an unaffected by modern technology.

Another day full of dog-assisted hiking past Pauil Pais, our group traversed the gargantuan Pericon River Valley over the course of the afternoon and pitched tents on its western slopes. Rain showers in the early afternoon have been a trademark of this hike, and today was no different, but all in all we’ve had little trouble keeping the contents of our packs dry. The hearty meals our guides cook up every evening, together with warm oatmeal and fruit breakfasts and non-stop munching of hiking snacks (nuts, trail mixes, dried fruits and meats) during the days, have been making this trip (like all Old Town Outfitters trips) one of culinary delight and swollen bellies. We’re glad to have plenty of energy these days, because the rocky weathered landscape at these altitudes demands it. It’s onward and westward for our group towards our food re-stock in Chancol and our final destination of Todos Santos.

Walking down from the high plateaus the final day and descending into the charming town of Todos Santos is the last of our hikes over the course of these mesmerizing six days. Old growth cloud forests with 400-year-old trees blanket the insanely steep slopes of the Todos Santos valley and provide our group with limitless eye-candy as well as non-stop camera spots our entire trek downward. The locals here are known for their unique local textiles, their history of itinerant work throughout the country and world, and of course their legendary drinking abilities. The weaves and patterns of local clothing here are extremely distinctive and wildly beautiful. The remoteness of this town, in particular, and the local’s penchant for the pursuit of beauty and happiness in such a harsh environment, embodies the heart and soul of rural Guatemalan culture. After five long days of hard hiking and sleeping under the stars, we enjoy a night at a local hotel and steam the aches right out of our legs and feet with a traditional sauna. When it’s all said and done, the trip turned out how it always seems to turn out in the high country - an unforgettable experience and a rare and wonderful glimpse into the beauty of the Cuchamantanes Mountains and the local people and traditions who color it. Shoot us here at Old Town Outfitters an email or give us a phone call - and join us on our next trip up north to the beautiful Cuchumatanes.