using my inside voice

Day 99 to 101 - The Hike to Hell and Back

Central American Travel | September 6, 2009

The alarm sounded. 5am. I rose easily, having not slept soundly due to nervousness, anxiousness, excitement and a slight chill from a bed lacking in warm covers. My bags were mostly organised, divided into two piles, one for sending onto our final destination, one with the limited supplies I had calculated would be required for a three-day hike from Xela to Lago de Atitlan.

The mountains of Guatemala

As our shuttle rounded the corner it started sinking in that we had three solid days of hiking ahead of us, up and over mountains, in and out of rainforest, coffee plantations and cornfields, and over rivers tumbling down forested valleys. But, the excitement prevailed over all other emotions and when we stopped to organise our gear into hiking packs and to receive our share of the food, our sleeping bags and bed rolls. It was the sort of reluctant thrill you experience upon receiving a new batch of pencils, books and stationary at the start of a new school year. You know deep down that you are perilously close to the drugery and doom of 12 more months of study, but can't keep the small tingle of titillation from surging up as you turn the page of a fresh notepad and fantasize about that first stroke of blue ink.

So, we set off. Packs settled comfortably, on an uphill toddle through the small village where our hike began. The wide dirt road soon gave way to a smaller and much steeper track through a wooded hillside, muddy and slightly slippery from last night's rain. After almost an hour straight uphill we stopped for a small pause. I was a little winded, but confident that I could continue uphill for a while longer (our guide had previously informed us that it was about two hours uphill, before some flat walking, then some down and up for the remainder of the day - sounded pretty easy really).

Half an hour later, sooner than expected, we crested the hill and a vista of rolling green fields stretched away over the wide expanse of the mountain top. Long grass, wild flowers, purple thistles and fields of corn rendered an image that sparked my imagination, with thoughts of simpler times past and the repeating pattern of day-to-day life that existed for the mayans on this mountain top. We walked for a wonderful hour or so through this spectacular area which also encompassed breath-taking views over the mountains ahead (mountains which it didn't occur to me at the time that I would have to climb).

The fields on the mountain top

Unfortunately, after an hour of heady elation and easy walking, we started heading down. Down, and down, and down, for about 2 hours. That's one of the misleading aspects of hiking. One would assume that down would be easier than up, alas it is not. While it may not require the athletic output of an uphill climb, it is far more taxing on the feet and legs, with each step jolting up through your thighs like an elastic band pulled to breaking point.

By the time we reached the bottom I was feeling well and truly drained, with a small tingling pain between by big and second toes on both feet. We continued on.

An hour or so more of easy up and down hill and we stopped for lunch - already 5 hours had passed of walking and overall I was feeling happy with my performance and confident of the coming day's hiking. But, when I removed my shoe to see what that wee nagging between my toes was, I discovered a blister formed on the inside of each big toe, from rubbing against the next toe. Also, my big toenails had the initial pang that comes from constantly pushing up against shoes on a downhill walk.

None-the-less, I felt I could go on for a few more hours, so when our guide announced after lunch that if we soldiered on for two more hours we would reduce tomorrow's walk substantially I did not hesitate in my agreement.

It seemed I had sealed my fate.

We set off again around 12.30pm, so by my calculations we would arrive at our overnight resting point around 2.30pm.

At 1pm the sky attempted rain, but I didn't bother protecting myself as I was mightily hot, welcoming the relief provided from intermittent showers. At 2pm the rain set in somewhat more heavily. I put on my water-resistant jacket, and hoped for the best. My legs were now straining with the downhill, aching toes and painful blisters completing the picture, but if only 30 minutes remained I would make it in one piece.

2.30pm and the rain had started in earnest, a monsoonal downpour that verily tumbled from the heavens in sheets, rendering my jacket useless in a matter of minutes, and soaking through to my underwear for good measure. Plus, the downhill section was an endless treachery, and, once we finally did finish it, there would still be 25-30 minutes of steep uphill before we would arrive at our overnight stop.

I was wet, I was unhappy, I was in pain, I was swearing out loud by this stage and willing myself to put one foot in front of the other over and over, telling myself that tomorrow I would hop on a chicken bus and make the rest of the journey in relative comfort. Why I had decided a three-day hike was a good idea I could no longer recall.

When, in a wave of relief, we reached the bottom of the valley I was close to tears, in incredible pain, and so wet my fingers had turned pruney. Then I saw the bridge, small and rickety, with no hand rails, over a roiling brown river, swollen with the water falling relentlessly from the sky.

If I fell in I'd be royally screwed, and possibly badly injured. I tried to pull myself together and with a mammoth effort stumbled, wobbling at the knees and praying for my heathen soul, across the bridge as the guide told me "despacio, despacio" (slowly, slowly - he'd already seen me scrambling down the hillside like a drunkard after a week-long bender).

Crossing the bridge in the rain after 8 hours walking

Then, uphill. Steep, narrow, with lashings of water cascading down the path in a coffee-coloured torrent. I knew we were almost there, and by an effort of mental determination started my way up, scrambling in the sodden earth, grabbing handfuls of plants and vegetation to ease myself up an incline that would be considered difficult without the addition of a temporary waterway.

Our guide had wandered off ahead, as he had been doing all day, and when the path spilt in two I almost sat down and cried. But, stopping meant getting no closer to ending the unexpectedly hellish situation I had put myself into, so I picked the right-hand path and set off.

I slipped in the mud, got a handfull of dirt up my sleeve for good measure, and finally saw the end of the path, through a corn field and into a village. We trudged the rest of the way, dumped our packs on the porch, and took in our surroundings; A small village in the middle of nowhere, a cement-floored shed to sleep in, and a string from which to hang our sodden clothes, that had no hope of drying overnight. But, we made it. Nine hours later.

Luke and I changed into dry clothes and sat on a small bench on the porch, dazed and confused, not sure what to do with ourselves. Our guide had once again wandered off after informing us where we were to sleep and letting us know that dinner would be at 6.30pm. It was 4.30pm, so we sat, talked, hoped tomorrow wouldn't be as bad, and managed to while away the few hours until dinner.

Afterwards, I fell into an amazing deep sleep, unhindered by the lack of padding between myself and the cold cement, not thinking or caring about tomorrow until it should arrive.

And, arrive it did. At 6am our alarm went off. Packing, breakfast, dressing in wet clothes, and finally putting on squishy, cold sneakers and damp, smelly socks. The small comfort of artificially flavoured porridge warmed my heart somewhat. Add to that the thought of only four hours walking and my mood lightened at least a little.

Two hours uphill passed with only relative discomfort as my pain and injuries were all related to downhill walking. But, after two hours, when we started once again downhill I decided enough was enough. I removed my dripping sneakers and socks, tied them to my pack, and continued for the last two hours of the day in thongs - God bless Havaianas.

We arrived as scheduled for our overnight stop at 12pm; A small, quaint house in a village named Santa Clara. Sure, I could barely walk, and sure, we were sleeping on cement again, without the possibility of a shower. But, there was a view of trees from the drop toilet out the back, and I was watching my clothes and shoes drying in the heat of the midday sun as I waited patiently on a plastic chair for our lunch to be delivered by our ever-silent and seemingly unenthusiastic guide. One of the small rewards of constant pain is the moment when it finally ceases, as it seemed to have done for the moment.

The little house where we stayed with our clothes drying in the sun

That afternoon we explored the town somewhat, slept, and had a sauna in a tiny brick box out the back of our lodgings. For 10Q each we had the pleasure of inhaling smokey air, sitting just off the ground on dirty wooden benches and scrambling in and out of a sauna that had obviously been made with mayans in mind, rather than 5'11'' westerners. But, there was a giant pot of hot water inside, so I took the opportunity instead to clean myself, and exited smelling of smoke, but still rather happy.

The next day we set of at 5.15am to catch the sun rising over Lago de Atitlan. We sat on our packs on a corner of the bush track at 5.45am and silently took in the pink clouds, turning slowly to orange, the light shimmering off the lake as roosters called out the daybreak and dogs barked in agreement. Lights twinkled in the villages below, turning off one at a time as the sun peaked over the distant mountain. It was spectacular.

Sunrise on our last day - spectactular

Half an hour more and we stopped for breakfast in a shelter with a vista over the small village of San Juan which was our destination. When we started out after breaking our fast I knew it was only an hour more, and with each step my legs groaned in refusal, but my mind knew the end was close, so I plodded along happily in the early light of day.

San Juan. Villagers heading home with plastic tubs of tortilla dough, dogs scratching themselves in the shade of buildings as they decide whether it's worth the effort of getting up as the sun creeps to their sleeping place, and Luke and I knowing that just around the corner there is a pick-up truck waiting to take us to San Pedro La Laguna where we would hopefully spend the day sleeping, tending sore and sorry bodies, and relaxing to our heart's content.

The pick-up, loaded with our packs, us, and locals also needing a ride between villages, took us smoothly to our final destination, and let me tell you, with the wind in my face, and the fact that I was traveling somewhere under the power of something other than my own two feet, I was feeling incredible. Elation the likes of which is rarely experienced flowed through my veins as I thought about that first coffee or a room with a hammock or a small glass of wine while the sun sets.

We made it, in one piece to be sure, but slightly scarred in the process. Our backpacks with the rest of our gear were two hours away, so we set up at a nearby cafe, ordered that coffee I had been dreaming about, and whiled away a few hours.

More soon...


1. Elizabeth on September 7, 2009

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh my, Bay. I'm glad you made it. Sounds unforgettable!

Any Comments?

About Bay Oliver

Bay's career has been many and varied due to a penchant for traveling the world. After completing a double degree in Business Management and Journalism at the University of Queensland in 2002 she was lucky enough to land herself a job at Brisbane's Quest Community Newspapers. A year of roving reporting brought the epiphany that journalism and Bay didn't jive.
Read more »

Hobbies & Interests

How to be creative...

Creating an economically viable entity where lack of original thought is handsomely rewarded creates a rich, fertile environment for parasites to breed. And thatʼs exactly whatʼs been happening. So now we have millions upon millions of human tapeworms thriving in the Western World, making love to their Powerpoint presentations, feasting on the creativity of others.

Blog Roll

Categories of Published Work

Day 87 - Fading Spanish & a Little Bet to Spice Things Up

Published: August 25, 2009

Ensuring my newly learned Spanish does not disappear like an unattended bag at a Central American bus station...

Day 112: Some things not to do on Caye Caulker

Published: September 20, 2009

It seems that on a small island, with little else to do other than relax, read and swim, you start to get creative in areas where you really, really shouldn't.