Dec 4, 2013

Guest Post 3 - Santa Maria Full Moon

Interested in a Quetzaltrekkers hike? But not sure if it's really going to be everything that those (somewhat-full-of-themselves) Sexy QT Guides crack it up to be? Well... being a Sexy QT Guide myself, I can't really help you out... but if you want to hear the report straight from the words of a recent client, check this out!

Guest Post #3, Written by Travis McMullen, Client on November 2013s Full Moon Santa Maria Trek. 
The night sky. It was always only about the night sky – the moon and the stars. The statement has multiple meanings: the way it illuminated the path ahead, how peaceful the night seemed, how clear the stars and constellations were, just how the full moon seemed the glow – regardless of whether or not you were looking at it. That night was all about the sky.
Once a month, Quetzaltrekkers offers a full moon Santa Maria hike, where clients get to hike up Santa Maria during the full moon, commencing at 10:00pm. A few quick facts about Santa Maria:
  • It provides the perfect mirador (scenic overlook) of Volcano Santiaguito – one of the most active volcanic craters in the world – erupting every 30 minutes to 60 minutes
  • Elevation of 3,772 metres (12,375 feet)
  • Stratovolcano
  • Its eruption in 1902 was one of the biggest eruptions of the 20th century
It was a cool November night when I, along with other clients, partook in the full moon trek. On the bumpy truck ride to the starting point, the cool breeze tested our layers of clothing and left the face feeling cold. As the sides of the truck were quite high, we had no choice but to let our gaze wander up, taking in the full moon and all the different stars as the truck weaved through the city and into the surrounding countryside. That was when the mind really started to appreciate it all. You can climb a mountain or volcano at any time, so during the full moon, it became clear it was all about the sky.
Once off the truck, it was gear on and up the volcano. Given the ambient light produced by the full moon, only a few headlamps were needed for the trek. The combination of moon and artificial light illuminated the ground below us so we could see where we were hiking.
Despite the frigid air, we were soon heating up from movement and we paused to start shedding layers, many of us going all the way down to just a t-shirt. Cool air met with warm body heat, counterbalancing to keep us slightly warm as we continued.
Throughout the night and early into the next morning, the ascent became gradually more and more steep, becoming more taxing as we neared the summit. The elevation also started to come into play, an excuse I used when I started to confuse the landscapes I was looking at. As we crested up above the clouds, the moon illuminated the clouds below us in a beautiful grey tinge. With the other mountains visible in a dark black outline, and the lights of the surrounding towns illuminating the points, it looked like the clouds were a large lake—similar to the view I had seen at Lake Atitlán during another Quetzaltrekkers trip.
Turning to one of the guides, I managed to gasp out my amazement in the cool air. “Look at that lake! Isn’t it just beautiful?” After what I’m sure was a quick mental assessment on the guide’s behalf to make sure I wasn’t suffering from altitude sickness, she calmly replied in a humorous fashion, “they’re clouds, not a lake.”
With my pride damaged, the group continued the ascent, using the frequent rest breaks to converse with each other – to find out each other’s stories, remark on the views, and discuss the uniqueness of hiking during the full moon. At times, when you looked at the full moon, you were blinded, like a deer looking at a car’s lights. It was an interesting experience, to see just how much the moon can light up the surrounding area.
Just before sunrise, when the sky was beginning its shift from dark to dawn, we found ourselves just below the summit. Our final task—a steep ascent up the volcano peak, the distance being a couple of hundred meters. Exhausted, short of breath, yet full of a sense of accomplishment, we made it to the top just in time to witness the sunrise.
Sitting on top of the volcano, we watched the sun slowly crest above the other mountains on the horizon, casting different shades of orange and red across the sky. Slowly but surely, the sun illuminated the other mountains across the ridgeline.
With the sunrise completed, many opted to pull out their sleeping bags for a few hours of well-deserved sleep. Others, myself included, were content to just sit on the volcano, looking at the scenery and down into volcano Santiaguito, which seemed like an arm’s distance away. Throughout the morning, we were able to witness the volcano erupt – smoke being pushed into the air with a roar as Santiaguito showed its power.

After a hearty breakfast, we began our descent. Even though we followed the same route, it was a different experience being able to see everything in the daytime. A few hours later, we made it to the bottom and returned to Xela—memories full of the night sky. 

18 Years of Coffee and Morning To-Do-Lists

November 24th 2013. Another day of showing up at the Quetzaltrekker office, rummaging around in the kitchen, cooking everyone breakfast, pouring all some hot drinks, signing the early bird clients up for treks, and finally, sitting down: pen and to-do-list in hand. Eighteen years of morning coffee, pens, and to-do-lists is keeping this organization going. Wow. At two months into my period as a trekking volunteer here, I’m basically a seasoned pro (or at least I should be), and yet I am still captivated with wonder at what Quetzaltrekkers does. Look at it like this: you take a group of ambitious, fun, and hopefully-diligent wanna-be world-saving volunteers, teach them to be trekking guides, sell treks, take people out trekking, climb volcanoes, make a lot of money and then… hand that money over to EDELAC and Hogar Abierto where it will fill the brains, stomachs, and hearts of the most wonderful children you’ve ever met. Sounds a little bit like a magic formula to me.
If you hadn’t already figured it out by my gushy writing, I’m in love. At two months in to my three month minimum commitment at Quetzaltrekkers, I’ve come back from my honeymoon phase, learned the ropes (or at least now I can act like I have), and settled in to that sweet spot in my volunteer time frame between only knowing how to do the dishes… and completely burning out. Thus, this morning as we sat down at breakfast to write our to-do-list, I decided to leave the dishes to the new folk and take on the task of the Quetzaltrekkers blog.
Like many of things at Quetzaltrekkers, there is no set formula for how you are supposed to do a blog post, or what it should be about, or why we have a blog, or really any other instructions for what exactly I’m supposed to be doing. Luckily, one of the things you learn pretty quickly at Quetzaltrekkers is that even if there are no specific instructions for some set circumstance, you’ve still got to just put it on the to-do-list, and then figure it out. And, poco a poco, you start crossing things off and writing in new ones. Eighteen years of that, and there you’ve got your Quetzaltrekkers magic.
So, I can by no means speak to all 18 years of Quetzaltrekkers’ to-do-lists, and I’m still not really sure what exactly I’m supposed to be doing with this whole blog thing. But, if nothing else, I figure I can give you some details on some of the to-do-list items that have been checked off lists in the short time that I’ve been here. That way, if nothing else, you will at least know what exactly we’ve been doing in that back corner of Casa Argentina all this time anyways.
Okay, well where to start? Since trips are a big part of what we do we’ll start there with recent updates to our treks. First off, Quetzaltrekkers has been for the past couple months offering Rock Climbing treks to La Muela/Las Ventanas with a trio of three super “rock-star” climbing guides. Besides sending some dope routes and munching on some delish veggie sandwiches, the climbing guides have been hard at work trying to figure out what exactly is going on around them when they climb (the area QT goes to for its climbing trips is also sacred/religious area, so its visited by 100s of people every day to pray). From what we’ve picked up:  the praying Central Americans all around us are mostly (but not entirely) Evangelical Christians, who come to the area to pray because it is up high and therefore close to God, the Israeli flags hung everywhere throughout the sight are a symbol of the holy land that many religions share, and finally, if you hike a few kilometers to the west-ish from the best climbing and religious sites, you get to the site where an evil brujo (wizard) lives, practicing black magic and sacrificing children.
Ah. And so it goes. Life at Quetzaltrekkers always leads to a new surprise. Besides black magic near our climbing site, a recent surprise involved everyone’s favorite Tajumulco dog, Doris, who on a recent trip, climbed into the client tent (we told them they shouldn’t leave the tent door open), and well… gave birth to puppies. We definitely didn’t have any instruction manual for that one. But, a good washing out, and a few Woopah’s to Doris later, and the QT train was back on track.
On our other classic, the three day Lago Atitlan trek, we’ve also got a few new special treats. As of October 2013, a local family has started performing a play/dance/concert for our Quetaltrekker groups in the municipal centre in Santa Catarina. Their work reveals the history of their people in a fascinating mix of exuberant music, dance, and costumes. Additionally, another newer touch to the Lago trek is a stop at a coffee cooperative in San Juan in the morning of our last day of the trek, a delightful way to exchange contact details and reflect on the past few days of trekking.
Back in Xela, our days are spent busily crossing of items on our to-do-lists. Bit by bit, the little changes keep the organization running smoothly:  improving our water bottle rack, updating prep sheets, answering emails, inventorying gear, and finally throwing away all those random found items that should have been trashed a long, long time ago. And once all those tasks are completed? Add a few more things to the next morning’s list… paint some new signs, clean up the miscellaneous medical supplies, put some quick Spanish lessons on the wall in front of the bathroom…. Check, check, check. And then, finally, find some more ambitious, fun, and hopefully-diligent wanna-be world-saving volunteers, teach them to be trekking guides, climb volcanoes, and make a lots of money so that with a cup of coffee and a morning to-do-list, they’ll keep that magic formula going… filling the brains, stomachs, and hearts of the most wonderful children you’ve ever met. 

May 25, 2013

Chance are, if you are reading the Quetzaltrekkers blog, you are planning on hiking with us.  Or maybe you already have.  One of the most popular dayhikes that we offer is a early morning trip around the side of Santa Maria, to a Mirador (or scenic overlook) of Santiaguito, which is one of the most active volcanic craters in the world, erupting every 30-60 minutes.

Apr 14, 2013

Nueva Xetinamit Water Project

I stare out the window, maybe a little bit high on diesel fumes, of an old American schoolbus that moves to the beat of reggaeton. Guatemala is an amazing and strange intersection between traditional culture and modernity, I watch a woman board the bus carrying a basket on her head with a cellphone against her ear. In Xecam,  I hop out the back door, something that still makes me giddy after years of  prohibition, and begin hiking my way upwards towards Nueva Xetinimit. This trail has been used since time immemorial to traverse the highlands, it was hewn by the feet of thousands of Quiche villagers, the feet of guerillas during the civil war
and the well shod feet of those who want to see a Guatemala through from a different perspective. The long dry season is nearing its end, dust billows out from under my feet with each step. I step to the side of the trail into the pines as mules pass, straining under loads of firewood that arc over their backs. Men hurry alongside with machete in hand, we smile and greet one another with a long drawn out Buenos deeeeas that I learned to mimic after spending months crisscrossing the altiplano as a guide.

The trail opens up into fallow fields furrowed with the already sown with maize that awaits the rain. A few moribund pines dot the landscape, the sheetmetal roofs of Nuevo Xetinimit shimmer in the distance. I am going to write about this experience, I walk thinking about how to capture this place, I feel a love for Guatemala that is difficult to express. I greet a family working in their milpa and gaze out over the fields blotched with cloud shadows. A love this… grrrr….FUCK! I feel something clamp down on my ankle and instinctively break it loose and drive it directly into the cloud of fur and dust whirling around my feet. I shout obscenities and impotently fill the air with a cloud of dust as I pick up and release a fistful of dust at the retreating dreadlocked mongrel. The family shouts as a friendly gesture, but we quickly break out into laughter after a moment. No rabies..The only casualty is my sock.

I walk into Nuevo Xetinimit and approach two women sitting alongside a deep, dusty scar that cuts through the overgrazed and overworked plain. I greet them in one of the few Quiche words that I know, saqui’rik. I ask them how they are doing and they respond in Quiche accompanied with a hand gesture that says someone is going to come who speaks Spanish.

The farmers here, as in much of the highlands, scratch out an existence by planting corn, beans and potatoes in marginal soils on steep mountainsides. They hand plant a traditional milpa with beans and corn, harvest firewood for cooking and live in simple adobe or block homes. They lead a precarious existence; it is a harsh landscape where there is either too much water or not enough. In the end of October 1998, Hurricane Mitch dropped a years worth of rain that fell nearly horizontal with high winds. The cornfields that provide the year’s sustenance were destroyed by the wind and water. Above Xetinimit the deforested landscape and sloped fields gave way, unleashing a torrent of rock and mud that left dozens of houses destroyed and two lives lost. Central America was left reeling.

Most of the villagers left to try again elsewhere and Nueva Xetinimit was born. Multiple families shared small houses for years as they tried to get back on their feet, there was nowhere else to go. Several children from this area have have passed through a school for children who would not otherwise have access to education called Escuela de la Calle. Escuela de la Calle and Hogar Abierto are the primary projects that the funds generated by Quetzaltrekkers serve to fund. Quetzaltrekkers has maintains close relationships with many of the communities that we hike through: in Nueva Xetinimit alone guides have joined forces to build a bridge, donate bicycles and provide school supplies.

Manuel grinning in the tunnel.
What am I doing here? The village has spent that past 240 days working collectively to carve tunnels into the hillside in search of potable water. A project they undertook on faith, someone had an intuition that they would find water here. They dug two tunnels between 5-10 meters in length into the hillside, each one 1.5m high by 1m wide, before they found two trickling veins of ground water. Manuel, our liason with the committee tasked with building the project hands a candle out to me and points towards the tunnel. It feels like an affront to my manliness, I grab the dainty candle and plod my way through the running water, crouching as I move further into the darkness and feel a rising panic as I think about the mass of earth towering over my head. Here, right now? In this tunnel? What if I died? They spent months in this tunnel, it is fine. But everything is fine until it isn’t fine anymore! I am too large! I feel like Alice. I try and balance myself against the ceiling and walls, but worry that this will only weaken the structure. I look and see Manuel’s grin lit by his cellphone at the end of the tunnel. He points to the water as it emerges from nowhere. I awkwardly turn around, quickly moving towards the light. Always move towards the light.

La lavadera.
The guides from Quetzaltrekkers have agreed to provide the necessary materials to fortify the water source and carry water to the lavadera below. The lavadera is a washing station that currently sits almost empty, but will serve as a source of water for household consumption for several dozen families who currently walk several hundred meters to retrieve water. I am here to help organize the project.

Six women are clustered around the washing station as I approach, soaping, rubbing and rinsing the days wash. I am often cynical about aid from a theoretical perspective, critical about dependency and the inability of aid to achieve lasting results, yet I look on and imagine clear, potable water pouring out of a pipe and the effect that it will have on these women’s lives; it is beautiful.

I run back down to Xecam with a rock in each fist, ready for the cantankerous cur that never appears.

The Delivery

On a crisp and clear Xela morning I walk out the door of Casa Argentina with Santi to find our friend Victor leaning against his pickup truck with a new dapper mustache above an unsmiling mouth and mirrored shades. He says nothing as we approach, until I stick my hand out.

‘Les gusta el new look?’ He bursts forth and starts cracking up.

We pile into the back of his pickup truck and head out to Tubofort. I think about the name Tubofort on the ride there, going back and forth: pipes are definitely sold there, but it isn’t a fort. Fort is also not a word in Spanish. I ultimately decide that the name is great: succinct, yet it has some flair. We wrangle and rope three dozen 6 meter PVC tubes into the back of the truck I sit in the back and watch Xela fade away as we head up to…Alaska?... the strangely named highpoint on the entirety of the Pan-American highway.

Dust devil sweeps across the landscape as Victor takes a leak.
Manuel stands on the roadside grinning as we approach. He piles in and we drive into Nueva Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan to buy the rest of the materials. There is also a Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan where most of the locals here used to live they had the chance to change the name and instead kept it and added three more syllables.

We arrive in Santa Caterina (the town will be referred to by this name to avoid adding several extra pages) only to be informed from the woman at the hardware store that the estimate she previously gave us was wrong: someone from the city called yesterday and the global price for steel rebar went up. Her gilded teeth wink at me as she explains the unfortunate position in which we find ourselves.

Santi with continued excessive tortilla consumption
We arrange for another pickup and a truck to carry materials. We load them down with cement, blocks and rebar before caravanning along dirt roads towards the project. Through the cloud of dust I look out on the volcanoes around Guatemala City and Lago de Atitlan stacked in the distance, clouds gently rising on their flanks. I only catch glimpses through pines as they blur past. I spend half of the time airborne while trying to hold together the rebar bundles that are coming undone without pinching or crushing my hand. Classic Guatemala.

I once read about a study by Geert Hofstede on the cultural dimensions of different nations around the world, where Guatemala ranked as the least individualistic country with a mere 6 points relative to the most individualistic country, the United States, with a score of 91 points. This can conversely be interpreted to reflect the degree of cooperation, or collectivist ethic, within a society. I feel this when I am here, it seems to permeate society and I think it may be what keeps bringing me back.

We arrive with the materials in Nueva Xetinimit and dozens of villagers hop to their feet, ranging from old women to young men with gelled hair. Blocks are stacked on backs, bags of cement are passed from person to person, rebar is carried in pairs, bundles of tubes are snaked up the hillside. Thousands of pounds of materials are unloaded in just a few minutes. The trucks leave and then I begin the descent to Xecam on foot with Santi.

The Inauguration

I am out working on other projects for a couple of weeks; the only news that I hear from the project is that it was short two sections of PVC pipe, which Santi carried up from Xecam on his back.

I arrive slightly before Amir and Santi on morning for the inauguration; old men and women in traditional dress, teenagers in second hand clothes from the United States and little kids wearing a mix between the two lie around in the grass as I approach. We all sit admiring the project with mugs of atole de maiz in our hands. Everyone has come together and I marvel at the outcome. Manuel steps forth to express his gratitude for our collaboration on the project. One woman stands up and says the following, which Manuel translates to Spanish and I transcribe roughly:

‘Aqui tenemos la voluntad y estamos bien organizados. Terminamos con el proyecto en pocos días, pero no se pudiera hacerlo sin la ayuda de ustedes. Gracias a dios que hay personas con corazones como los que tienen ustedes.’ ‘Here we have the will and are well organized. We finished the project in just a few days, but it couldn’t have been done without your help. Thank god there are people like you with hearts like those that you have.’

Another woman steps forth and hands me a hand knitted sign thanking the organization to hang in the office. I also receive a diploma to add to my ego wall, once I have a wall that I can call my own and can afford to have it framed. We walk the length of the project and I see the sight I imagined weeks before: clear water gushing forth into the full lavadera. A few women look up and smile they knead their clothing against the washboards already down from just a decade of use.

Guatemala is incredibly rich in a way that is vastly different than the United States, it has taught me much about life. I want to give back and support what I see as right in the world. Projects like this and the myriad of NGO’s operating in Guatemala, like Quetzaltrekkers, demonstrate a beautiful side of humanity.

It is about coming together and working towards a better future one step at a time. Each step moves more than just a foot. – Alex Jahp. Write that down.

Mar 30, 2013

The New Hogar - La Carrera de las Sonrisas

We are happy to announce that we have enough money to pay the final instalment to Habitat for Humanity Guatemala and the handover to EDELAC will be in mid-April. The inauguration of the Hogar will be 2 April, attended by representatives of the Hovde Foundation, who generously provided the grant that paid for the purchase of the building and about half of the subsequent renovations and construction. 

This is an exciting moment for EDELAC and Quetzaltrekkers as it represents the culmination of a lot hard work, fund raising efforts and generosity on the part of the volunteers and EDELAC staff, former volunteers and clients. The Hogar Abierto Expansion Project (HAEP) has undergone many changes, but the aim has always been the same - a bigger, better and permanent home for the Hogar Abierto so that we can better help more children. A massive thank you to anyone who has donated money in the drive to finish construction of the Casa Perry Hovde - this project would not have happened without such generosity.

Nearly finished!

However we are not resting on our laurels... The final step of the HAEP is to furnish the new (soon to lose that tag!) Hogar with new everything! Ranging from important things that are currently lacking (an oven), to things that we will need more of with an increased capacity (computers) and to things that need replacing (worn out mattresses and sofas, a fridge that works) - we want the best quality of life for the children. A new home so why not new furnishings?

The children themselves are taking the next step in fundraising. On 5 May they have organised a race, La Carrera de las Sonrisas (The Race of the Smiles), with all the kids committing to run a certain distance (between 8 and 22 kilometres). We are asking for people to sponsor them per kilometre, with all money raised being used to furnish the new Hogar with all the trimmings! Using Indiegogo, we have created a platform to allow you, the generous reader and soon to be donor, to sponsor (or just donate) individual or multiple children in this race. There is also a snazzy video!

Indiegogo charges a higher fee if an organisation fails to make it's fundraising target. For this reason, the target was initially set at a tenth of what we need to raise. We have already hit our initial Indiegogo target to complete the construction, and now we only need another $11,000 to completely furnish the new Hogar with beds, shelves, seats, a stove, a refrigerator, and all the other basic necessities.  

So follow this link and sponsor one of the Hogar kids in raising money for the new Hogar! A hearty thanks to anyone who sponsors or who has already sponsored the Hogar children!

Feb 22, 2013

Guest Post 2 - Santa Maria (Overnight)

With much surprise and little fanfare, here is the second installment of the guest posts series!! Although about a trek that Quetzaltrekkers offers - Santa Maria - it qualifies for the much sought after tag of 'guest post' as it was authored by a client. Santa Maria is an awesome hike whichever way you do it, as a one  or two day or full moon/overnight hike; all offering spectacular sunset, sunrise and Santiaguito views, as well views over the volcanic Western Highlands. Check out the schedule and contact QT now to organise your ascent of this awesome volcano!

The post comes from Operation Groundswell, a fantastic group that come and hike with QT several times a year. For more information about OG, follow the link above. The original post can be found in it´s entirety here.

Santa Maria looking over Xela.
The trek was arranged for Sunday night. We planned a late lunch, a nighttime nap, and dinner around 10:30pm to load up on energy for the grueling trek up. Lunch happened, nap happened, trek… should have happened, except plans in Guatemala during rainy season are as reliable as the chicken bus schedule, and anyone who has visited Guatemala knows that the “schedule” is more of a suggestion than a rule. Since the trek would be more of a swim than a hike, we were forced to call it off in hopes of better weather the following night.

The view down onto Santiaguito from the summit.
Monday came: same routine. Late lunch, late nap, late dinner. The alarm sounded at 10pm. Everyone jumped out of their sleeping bags and ran to the windows to check for rain. This time around… success! Not a cloud in the night sky. Filled with adrenaline for the hike to come, OGG scarfed down a delicious pasta primavera dinner, laced up their boots, and turned on their headlamps in preparation for the ascent. We were out the door with no time to spare, ready to conquer Mrs. Maria.

After a short ride across the city in the back of a furniture moving truck, the fourteen of us, accompanied by two close friends and trail guides, unloaded at the base of the beast. Santa Maria seemed to ascend beyond the stars in one rigid, vertical silhouette. Her outline in the sky was almost threatening, but we had no time to dwell on that. The clock struck midnight and we were off, determined to make it to the top by sunrise.

The night lights of Xela.
Huffing and puffing, heaving and hoeing, we trudged along the black, muddied trail for what seemed like days. It took about an hour and a half to reach a grassy patch called “La Mesa,” which serves as the foot of the switchbacks. From here, it would take us about another three hours to summit. We climbed over boulders, walked across tree trunks, slipped in mud, and stopped to suck whatever oxygen we could out of the thin highland air. Despite the discomfort, there was no shortage of encouragement, laughs or trail mix.

The going got tough but OGG fought back, rising to the top for perhaps the most memorable sight of the trip: Sunrise on Santa Maria. Every centimeter of the 3, 772m climb was worth it. From the top, we looked down on crisp clouds and rising sunbeams, complimented by several sister volcanoes as a backdrop. We cozied up in true OG fashion, snuggled together in sleeping bags and down jackets, enjoying each others’ company among such natural beauty. What a night!

The rising sun silhouettes the nearby volcanoes.

Want to author a guest post? Get in touch now!

Feb 11, 2013

Benefit Party: Torneo de Futillo!

Just the other night we threw our monthly Pool and Beer benefit party and held what will be the first of many foosball tournaments in 2013! Drinks were drunk, shots were sunk, and at the end of the tournament two of our very own QT guides took first place, winning shots and a Pool and Beer margherita pizza. Looking forward to the next one! Here's some pictures we found the next day.

Game faces were on.

Mid-fielders were blurred.

Hats were worn by all players in attendance.
Oh-faces were made.
And our winners, Lukas and David, took the whole thing very seriously...
...most of the time.

Feb 8, 2013

Guest Post 1 - Parque Nacional El Cocuy (Colombia)

So here is the first in a new (and likely to be sporadic) series - guest posts! In this exciting new feature, the QT blog will spread its metaphorical wings and diversify to bring you, the lucky reader, the latest in vaguely-related-to-QT news and information! 

It was decided to keep this first entry as closely related as possible, so, playing it safe, for your reading pleasure - Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy located in the department of Boyaca in north easterly Colombia. Recently hiked by three ex QT guides and not so recently but at least one more, El Cocuy offers an amazing high altitude hiking and trekking experience.

Just getting there is a journey in itself, but well worth it! Most people take the overnight bus from Bogotá, arriving early am to the towns of El Cocuy or Guican. Located close to the two main entrances to the park, either town is an ideal base to acclimatize, stock up on provisions, rent gear and prepare for the trip ahead.

Looking back down on the pueblo of El Cocuy.
Having not stayed in Guican, I can only talk about El Cocuy. Nestled high up in the folds of the surrounding hills, El Cocuy is a small, picturesque colonial town full of cobbled streets and white washed houses. It can get chilly at night here, but if the sun is shining during the day the climate is very similar to Xela - a nice, dry alpine heat. There are plenty of hotels to choose from, all close to the central square. Renting gear is easy as there are plenty of outfitters around, though it is easier to rent equipment in Bogotá if you can as prices reflect the isolation of the areas!

Collecting the fresh milk.

Setting off early in the morning, it´s possible to catch a lift with the lechero - a truck that follows the windy road between El Cocuy and Guican stopping to pick up fresh milk left out by the campesinos. It leaves the central square around 6.30am and, for a small fee will drop you off at whichever trail head it passes.

Entering by the Southern entrance, we gently meandered our way along the trail; following an undulating path that eventually dropped to the valley floor. During our descent we were treated to good views of some of PNN El Cocuy´s signature peaks - Pan de Azucar and El Púplito de Diablo (The Devils Pulpit). The latter is an incredibly square rock is either the result of many thousands of years erosion or the remnants of a giant Rubik Cube  - after much debate we couldn´t decide! 

Descending into the valley... El Púlpito del Diablo is sticking up in the background.

Looks good? Tastes better!

Once hitting the valley floor, we following a crystal clear river for about an hour, stopping to marvel not just at the clarity of the water but also its glacial coldness! One of the wonderful things about PNN El Cocuy is that once inside the park, river and lake water is safe to drink - a lovely situation that allows less water and, therefore, weight to be carried!

After a short climb we reached the area knows as Lagunillas and looked for a place to camp. Three lakes all connected together fed by glacial meltwalter, sandwiched into an ever thinning valley as it climbed to the ridges that surround it, the setting is incredible! We managed to find a sheltered spot out of the wind and set up the tent we rented back in town. We had made very good time and so were able to relax for the rest of the afternoon taking in the majesty of the area and fighting off the effects of the altitude - at a little bit higher than 4000m up the altitude was making it´s presence, or lack of, known and felt, before having an early dinner and turning in as darkness (and coldness) fell!

The view towards the of the valley as the sunsets behind the surrounding hills.

Rising early in the morning, we were treated to a fantastic clear view of a distant snowy peak and it´s equally clear reflection in the water of the lake. After breaking camp we set off for a tough days hiking 
Not a bad view to wake up to!
- up and over two high altitude passes before finishing at what was reputed to be one of the highlights of PNN El Cocuy, Laguna de la Plaza. Climbing slowly but steadily ever higher, we reached the top of the first pass at a lung bursting altitude of 4650m. With the wind roaring up, over and through the pass not giving us a chance to stop to enjoy the views or catch our breath, a few hurried photos was we all we managed before hustling down the other side to find shelter out of the wind and to catch our breath. After descending and crossing a river, the trail slowly wound its way up to the second pass of the day, a slightly less intimidating 4350m, before finishing the day hugging the edge of a steep valley all the way to Laguna de la Plaza and literally stumbling out of the valley into the mountain bowl valley within which sits the Laguna.

Looking down the other side.

4650m up and looking back to Las Lagunillas.

Arriving slightly weary, we were greeted by one of the most magnificent sights of my life. Nestled under and ringed by snow covered peaks that soar up and over 5000m, Laguna de la Plaza sits at an altitude of 4300m with its crystal clear (and cold) waters providing a perfect reflection of it´s beautiful setting. We quickly set up our tent and explored the vicinity, trying to take in the jaw dropping view, before settling in for the night with pasta and gazing up at the incredible clear night sky.

The view from slightly above the campsite, towards the snowcapped Cerros de la Plaza.

The waterfall thats drains the Laguna.
An early alarm rudely awakened our slumbers, but the chance to explore further afield quickly smoothed over any resentment felt towards the offender. Deciding to head to the snow line of the Cerros de la Plaza, we skirted the edge of the Laguna before making a beeline up towards the snow that glistened invitingly. Easier said that done as first we had to cross a waterfall tbefore climbing up and down ridges, traversing ledges all the time slowly, but surely, inching our way ever higher and closer. The Cerros top out at around 4800m - plenty high - and we definitely felt it as the final hundred metres climb seemed to last forever!

They say that in life something that´s easy isn´t worth doing and, without doubt, that applied to reaching the snow line - it wasn´t easy but it was worth doing! We were afforded spectacular views up and down the valley, as well as looking back down on Laguna de la Plaza. After a while soaking up these views and enjoying some warming high altitude sun, everything that goes up must come down and we headed back down to camp. Still basking in the glorious sunshine, camp was struck and we returned, via the passes, to the campsite of day one to spend the night.

The awe inspiring view of Laguna de la Plaza from Los Cerros. Our campsite was at the top left of the lake, and the two passes can be seen on the far left of the picture (above the mist).

The fourth and final day was a leisurely hike retracing our steps from the first day - back out to the road and then simply waiting for a lift back down to El Cocuy town. Once in town we satisfied our cravings (antojos de la montaña) by drinking the place dry of whatever soft drinks came to hand and eating it out of papas fritas and arepas, before being whisked away on the night bus to Bogotá, thus ending the incredible adventure!

The map of PNN El Cocuy. Our route is marked and where we camp is approx. at the
end of each days colour marked trail.

One of the undoubted highlights of my life, PNN El Cocuy should be considered an essential place to see for anyone in Colombia. The best times to go are November, December and early January as this coincides with the best weather. It also coincides, however, with high season. A visit in mid November should allow you to get the best weather with the least people as true high season starts with Colombian holidays in December. Our route we did entirely unguided (apart from a map, purchasable in El Cocuy) and we found the trail well maintained and sign posted. There is a complete six day circuit of the park, leaving from Guican and finishing at El Cocuy (or vice versa), and whilst the trek we did to Laguna de la Plaza is a part of this trek, a guide is still recommended as the trail becomes less trail like to the north of the lake!

So that´s it for the first edition of the guest posts. Hope you enjoyed it and keep your eyes peeled for the next installment. Coming soon...Maybe!

Want to author a guest post? Get in touch!

Jan 30, 2013

Benefit Party: Circus Fiesta!

A couple Thursdays ago, Quetzaltrekkers and Primeros Pasos teamed up and hosted an epic circus themed benefit party. Many a good times were had by all in attendance. On that note, we at QT would like to give a very special thank you shout out to Rich DDT for agreeing at the last minute to step in as guest DJ and throwing down a mind-blowing set from the confines of our humble DJ booth.


In addition to the magical musical arrangements that Rich DDT provided, we were also entertained by:

Cotton Candy and Juggling, at the same time!

Clowns and Ring Leaders,
Feats of Strength and Acrobatics,
Copious Face Painting,

and Lots...

of Dancing,

and This Guy...

At the end of the day, we were able to raise over 2000 quetzales for Primeros Pasos and the EDELAC Scholarship Fund. So, thanks to everyone who came out to make the night such a success!

See you next Thursday, er... tomorrow night, at our monthly Pool and Beer benefit party! Rumor has it, there is going to be a foosball tournament.