Hiking in Guatemala

Will Forrest
11 min readApr 7, 2017

Un hombre es más barato que una mula.”

— Guatemalan saying which in English means “a man is cheaper than a mule.”

About a year ago, when I was becoming interested in moving to South Florida and experiencing its diverse Latin culture, I read a book called “The Opens Veins of Latin America,” by Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano. With passionate and fiery rhetoric, the author chronologically follows the history of Latin America and how the continent’s development was stifled, abused and economically exploited by the West and how Latin America’s modern troubles were rooted in the past of unbridled greed of European colonization and American imperialism. Because of these outside influences and the disease, institutions, and violence they brought with them, he argues, much of the Caribbean, Central America, and South America were unable to establish their own independent industries and infrastructures, resulting in the relative paucity of wealth and stability that prevails to this day.

Guatemala is one the countries that has suffered the most from this foreign intervention. Since the Spanish first arrived in the early 16th century, Guatemala has faced unspeakable sorrow and horror. Even with an unfathomable 90% of the indigenous population wiped out due to Old World diseases such as smallpox and typhoid, it took almost two brutal and bloody centuries for the invaders to totally quell the Mayan tribes in 1697. The native people were then enslaved and put to work by the mixed-race and pure European upper class. When they rebelled and more were slaughtered, slaves were brought from Africa to replace them and Catholicism introduced to make the “savages” more docile. After more than a century of this injustice, the Guatemalans achieved independence, only to withstand multiple governmental coups and class warfare between the creole and mestizo landowners and those with Mayan heritage. These racial and socioeconomic tensions persisted until a peace accord was negotiated by the United Nations in 1996, ending an extremely ghastly civil war.

The role the United States had in undermining Guatemala’s progress is also outraging and shockingly recent. Under the discretion of the dictator Jorge Ubico in the 1930s, most of the peasantry was expelled from their farms and the land was given to the United Fruit Company, a U.S. corporation, vastly enriching the corrupt despot and–without any other work available–turned the former landowners into wage slaves. A revolution in 1944 brought hope: democratically elected reformers came to power and gave the land back to the farmers, but soon afterwards a U.S. led coup displaced the government in favor of yet another dictator. The excuse the U.S. government used to intervene in the affairs of Guatemala was that it feared communist influence, but this was a blatant lie: the president in power actually wanted a moderate and capitalist society. He even banned unions and actually sent communists to jail.

Further examination of the financial interests and entanglements several U.S. officials had with the United Fruit Company revealed the true motivation for the U.S. government’s subversive and morally destitute actions. Before he was appointed Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, owned a law firm that had represented the U.F.C. His brother, Allen Dulles, was even further corrupt: somehow he was simultaneously the director of the C.I.A and a board member of the U.F.C. Even President Eisenhower’s personal secretary was involved, as she was married to the primary lobbyist in Washington for the U.F.C.

This is the kind of history the U.S. school system neglects to tell its students, which I suppose they might do because educators don’t want to foment rebellion in the classroom, but it’s plausible the cultivation of loyal, flag-waving students is actually what the government perversely desires. In the grand scale of things, I think the U.S. democracy has mostly been a force for good (at least in comparison to dictatorship and monarchy) and a beacon of hope for repressed nations yearning for freedom. It has to be acknowledged, however, that this same hope has only occasionally been fulfilled by the U.S. itself. There are many more events–more than I am capable of listing–besides the interference in Guatemala that show how nefarious my country can be. The future looks pessimistic as well: the election of Donald Trump shows the U.S. has taken a massive step back from achieving its promise of justice and equality for all. The vile emotion of nationalism, which Albert Einstein famously declared, “…is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind” is still hideously present within American society. Perhaps the education system is a good place to start removing this noxious weed. We as citizens and students shouldn’t have the truth hidden from us and we don’t need to be protected from it for the misguided reasons of patriotism. If we are given the objective truth about our history and government from the start, maybe then we can elect better leaders with stronger intellects and principled stances instead of shallow, halfway illiterate reality-TV stars.

It was with these depressing thoughts in mind Buddy and I landed in Guatemala City. Our plan was to take a taxi to Antigua and meet some friends for a few nights. All of us would then continue together to the mountain city of Xela before starting a three-day hike to the achingly beautiful Lake Atitlan with the tour group Quetzaltrekkers. Although Guatemala is much more peaceful now and the United Fruit Company is finally disbanded (although the Chiquita banana brand still lives among us as one of its remnants), I observed on the short ride from Guatemala City to Antigua the stench and ooze of corporatism was still reeking throughout the country. The smog was toxic and pervasive. The highway scenery was limited to fast-food joints, mega-marts, and other slimy American bastions of greed.

Our arrival to Antigua was somewhat relieving and we spent two happy days there drinking and cavorting around with a few old friends from Mexico City and some new ones as well. Antigua itself is pleasantly restored, verdant and walkable. Another UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s located snugly in the mountains and was the colonial capital of Guatemala before an earthquake flattened most of the city in the late 18th century. It was a brief but pleasurable time we spent there. We had a party that lasted until dawn and to our dismay, we realized only then we’d actually have to get up this at this time for the next three days for the hike. The Airbnb was splendid and the city was welcoming, and I could have spent more time there exploring — although it was an unwanted burden to the wallet with its prices closer to that of the U.S. than the financial nirvana of the Mexican peso.

In the evening, we met our hiking group in Xela after a winding, bumpy, and sometimes nauseating (not just due to the hangover) shuttle ride through the mountains, where they provided us with donated equipment for our journey and outlined our itinerary for the next few days. The process was professional and the guides were qualified and proficient. The cost for the trip was only a hundred dollars, some of which went to local charities that helped offer education for the children in the nearby towns. I was impressed by the organization and would highly recommend anyone to use Quetzaltrekkers if you happen to be in Guatemala and want to hike through incredibly scenic vistas but still provide some altruistic benefit to the country. In a way, the donation made things seem less touristy and more meaningful; you weren’t just forking over some cash in order to gain a service: you were providing some good for the world rather than just a simple transaction.

After an authentic and delicious dinner at a nearby restaurant, we headed back to our hotel. I had been warned–but not really believed–that there is sometimes a dark side to traveling, but it was only then during that nighttime walk when I unwillingly and finally had one of those experiences. As we traversed alone through a shadowy and deteriorating street, two zombie-like drug addicts approached us and said something unintelligible and piteous. They didn’t attempt to harm us, but followed us for a little bit before we saw them enter their home further down the street, an abandoned and unflinchingly gray apartment building. As we unavoidably looked inside–the building had no doors or covered windows–we saw the first floor strewn with fetid garbage and stray feral dogs sniffing and rooting about the debris, their glowing eyes watching us menacingly as we hurriedly walked past. It was a scene out of a nightmare. I was unnerved, not only because I felt my own safety threatened, but because it was so heartbreaking to see human beings living in such a condition. Back in the sanctuary of our hotel, I was even more dejected when I had the thought that this squalid distress is probably the undeserving reality of life for far too many people around the world. I’m sure Xela has its charms somewhere, but I don’t think I ever want to return to that place.

That morning we were more than ready to begin the hike. We met our previously unknown companions for the hike–we were about twelve in all, with the guides–and after a quick breakfast, we were on our way through the city, shipped off on a large school bus, and then started marching up a steep, dirt incline through a local village to the jungly path ahead. The first part of the hike was probably the hardest: two hours of strenuous uphill when everybody hadn’t quite adjusted to the pack’s weight yet. We eventually came to a plateau that overlooked a number of small farming inhabitants and took a break, feeling accomplished yet panting heavily and dripping with sweat.

Now that the ascent had lessened, we were afforded the opportunity to get to know our trailmates over the next couple of days. Everyone was extremely pleasant and easygoing and the entire hike was continuously stimulating. When we stopped for the night in the villages, the conversation was so pleasant it carried on late into the night despite our weariness and early wakeup hour. There were a couple of strange coincidences as well: a professor from Rhode Island actually had taught at my college while I was studying there (I never took a class with him, though) and another traveler from Australia had been in Guanajuato studying Spanish at the same school I had been at mere days before I had arrived. While the terrain was varied and continually interesting and the visual backdrop sometimes superb, the people we hiked with really made the trek truly special.

Hiking in Guatemala is like nowhere else. We passed through every environment imaginable–jungles, forests, farms, misty hills, deserts, and lakes–and spent each night in untouched local mountain villages. It was an incredibly diverse arrangement of scenery for such a short period of time. For two days it almost felt like we were hiking in someone’s private ecological collection, each habitat thoughtfully constructed from vegetation from all over North and South America. On the last day we woke up while it was still dark, hiked for about a half an hour, and were greeted with an incomparably stunning sunrise view over Lake Atitlan and its imposing volcanoes (see heading picture).

By the time we arrived in San Pedro La Laguna, one of Lake Atitlan’s many quaint lakeside towns, I was falling in love with Guatemala. Lake Atitlan is stunning; truly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. I could see myself living here, I thought. I’ve always had the idea of one day studying oenology and starting my own winery after I made enough money from poker, living somewhere in the mountains amongst nature’s tranquility. The land had to be cheap here and the volcanic soil and climate perfect for growing grapes. There is even a potentially huge market in the towns around the lake, as the place is infested with gringoes: while I was in the area, I saw an eclectic multitude of free-spirited hippies, rich spa-loving faux spiritualists, and travelling escapists looking for a good time. In other words, the perfect kind of people to sell amateurly made, overpriced wine to.

We planned to stay in Lake Atitlan for four days with no real plan other than to unwind and enjoy ourselves. We took a boat taxi (people get around the lake by boat or by tuk-tuk, a hilariously small Mario-kart like vehicle) to our incomparably inviting and remote Airbnb and settled in. I am proud to say I accomplished pretty much nothing the entire time I was there, meditating, reading, and going to the spa with an insatiable appetite for relaxation. Buddy was so enraptured he canceled his original flight and stayed for another ten days. For my part I daydreamed wistfully about the winery idea constantly; I craved to find a Spanish-speaking wife, someone like Gio, to raise some bilingual chestnut kids with and integrate myself among the locals, away from all the cares in the world and concentrating solely on living a simple life out in nature developing sweet, luscious grapes. Surrounded by volcanic mountains, green forests, and pristine waters, it was a captivating vision.

I hadn’t played a hand of poker in over two weeks, though, and it was time to get back to work. I was set to go back to South Florida for a couple days and then go to a ten-day meditation retreat just north of Jacksonville where I hoped I would have the time and the willpower to sort through all these crazy, debilitating fantasies of mine and re-focus for the sake of my career and livelihood. I had no expectations, but perhaps I would travel on a winding, dusty road that would become a little straighter and a little less hazy after I devoted myself entirely to this unknown process of silent enlightenment. If not, however, after my time in Lake Atitlan I felt like it couldn’t be so bad to permanently have my head in the clouds.

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