Why you should care
The experience of your lifetime can improve other lives too.
“Poco a poco,” the laden-down farmer observed, as I gingerly stepped past him on a steep downhill path coated in thick, sludgy mud, headed toward a picturesque patchwork of fields in the valley below. Little by little. I was three days into an unforgettable six-day, 37-mile trek through the remote highlands of western Guatemala, I’d already fallen on my rear twice and my feet felt literally broken — I couldn’t rush if I tried. Fortunately, I was in good hands.
I’d booked this guided hike through a 22-year-old, all-volunteer-run nonprofit called Quetzaltrekkers, drawn to the idea of unbridled adventure through jaw-dropping rural landscapes — this part of Guatemala is rich in sacred lakes, Mayan mountain towns and perfect volcano cones — for a good cause: All profit goes to a nearby school, Escuela de la Calle, and a long-term safe house for disadvantaged children in Quetzaltenango, the country’s second-largest city, where Quetzaltrekkers is based. Currently about 80 percent of the funding for EDELAC and the home comes directly from the hikes, estimates Kendall Ahern, an Ohio native and former guide serving a second volunteer stint at the org as an administrator (the rest of the funding comes from outside donations). As the slogan succinctly puts it: Hike volcanoes. Help kids.
An open mind goes a long way.
Budget travelers will also be attracted to the price of these guided treks: Day hikes run up to $40, and multiday hikes top out around $204, the cost of the six-day trek from Nebaj to Todos Santos that I did. “Everything is included that you could possibly need. You can show up in a suit and a suitcase and we’ll have enough gear for you,” says Ahern. It seems a small price to pay given the value of the experience — not only in the stunning landscapes and physical adventure but also in the cultural access given to trekkers via their guides.
Of course, with that access should come adjusted expectations: Lodging and food are often provided by families in rural villages along the way, allowing Quetzaltrekkers to spread some wealth around local communities and affording visitors an intimate look at a unique way of life — but not always a bed to sleep in. (On my trek a few years ago, there was one night when the local clinic we were supposed to sleep in was locked, so we had to pitch our sleeping bags on a dirt floor in an adjoining room. Ahern assures me “that doesn’t happen much anymore,” noting they’ve built stronger relationships with villagers over the years.) And while the food is always tasty and plentiful, it is basic, hearty fare — expect lots of beans, rice, tortillas, potatoes, tamalitos. You are, after all, in the middle of the mountains in an impoverished country.
Still, while 20-something backpackers comprise the bulk of the clientele, the organization caters to a wide range of trekkers, from gap-year students to families on Christmas vacation. Hikers should be relatively fit — you’ll be carrying a heavy pack at altitude — but needn’t be very experienced. An open mind goes a long way.
“We don’t promise the world to people,” Ahern says. “Guatemala is pretty unpredictable with the things it throws at us.”