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!

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