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Eco-Travel with Quetzaltrekkers: What to Expect and How to Prepare
What is Quetzaltrekkers?
Quetzaltrekkers is a nonprofit organization offering inexpensive, volunteer led, hikes and treks throughout Nicaragua and Guatemala. 100% of their profits go to funding programs in local schools and villages that address the specific needs of the community.
All the equipment is donated, all their office space is donated, all their labor is volunteer.
They have been in operation since 1995 and are a well respected member of both the International Development community and the local communities they serve. Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, The New York Times and Footprint all recommend touring with QT (as you immediately start to call this organization as you talk about it, because let's face it, Quetzaltrekkers is a mouthful).
These are important details for those of us interested in Eco-Tourism, and it is a great place to start when looking for tours. There are some operators out there who are not proving that they are doing the most good through their Eco-Tourism efforts. Sometimes this is for nefarious reasons, and sometimes it's because real Eco-Tourism can be hard to pull off.
Countries of Operation: Guatemala, Nicaragua
What They Do Tell You, and What They Don't
As I have not done every trek offered, my intent here is not to review specific treks, but rather to help provide expectations and tips for embarking upon the trekking experience with Quetzaltrekkers.
The website itself and the confirmation email you receive after you register for a trek has a good amount of information about what items you may want to bring on your trek, or not bring for that matter. This information is specific to the season and trek you have scheduled, not just a generic response. They also do a great job with answering your questions via email prior to the trek, may you have them.
My purpose here is to outline emotional and physical expectations that may not be highlighted on the QT website. Remember that QT is still motivated by profits even though we can all agree that we want them to profit as much as possible.
You cannot blame QT for not telling you that you will be exhausted, scared, defeated, angry, and emotional during their treks...what kind of marketing is that? But I assure you, it is all worth it. You will also be feeling accomplished, elated, thankful, humbled, grateful and triumphant.
QT Nicaragua Trekkers on the Path
QuetzalTrekkers Leon, Nicaragua - What to Expect
I went on two treks with QT Nicaragua while I was living in Granada as a volunteer teacher with La Esperanza Granada. I was trekking during the dry season, though treks are offered year round. The dusty conditions and brown landscape in the photos is unique to the dry season, but the main attributes of the treks remain the same in both the dry (November to May) and wet seasons (May to November).
Nicaragua is known as the "Land of Lakes and Volcanoes" with 19 active volcanic structures and many lagoons and the large, freshwater Lake Nicaragua. These, and countless other dormant peaks are the primary focus of the QT Nicaragua treks. The scenery is breathtaking and unlike many landscapes you see in other Central American destinations. At many points, you can see multiple volcanoes from a single vantage point, only to turn around realize you are surrounded by even more volcanoes.
Expect to be humbled by the Earth's creative process in action around you.
Dry season or wet, you will be hot. The landscape on most of the trek routes are dirt paths up grassy mountainsides. So, in the dry season you will be dusty, and in the wet season you will be muddy. You will not be clean. Not to that anyone expects to be clean on a hike or trek, but you might be surprised at the level of uncleanliness you are able to achieve, even on a one day trek.
Expect to be dirty, even a few days, and a few showers later.
The heat, the dust, the steep ascents...the heat; they will leave you wondering why you thought this trek was a good idea. Now, there are probably a few experienced hikers out there who do not have this experience while on QT treks, but I feel confident to say that if you are an everyday person, or even a casual hiker, you will be physically challenged on the trail.
Packs are large and heavy. Everyone carries their own water and their fair share of the food for the group. Their general rule of thumb is 3 liters of water per day, but when it's the height of the dry season, you might choose to bring more. On a 2-3 day trek, this can really add up in weight. Your shoulders will hurt, you might get a sore or skin irritation from your pack, your feet will hurt, and let's get real here, you might fall down. If you lean back too far you will lose your balance. You might feel embarrassed. You might lose a water bottle down the side of a cliff, or you might rip a hole in your shoe (both of these happened to me on my first trek). Fortunately, the guides and your fellow trekkers have been there, and they care about you, and they are proud of you the whole way through. It's not really embarrassing yourself, its bonding.
Expect to get hurt, a little. There will be pain (the kind that makes you stronger)!
Expect your gear to get hurt and your shoes to be trashed, volcanic rock is SHARP.
Which brings me to my biggest, if only, warning about QT Treks. Guides are volunteers, so you don't know what you are going to get. I have had really responsible guides, and I have had guides that, at times, forgot they were guiding. If you are worried about your fitness level or heat tolerance, make sure you are ready to speak up for yourself, or that you are bringing along someone that will. Though we would like to feel 100% confident in the skills and intuitions of volunteer guides, it is imperative that you keep yourself safe no matter what. There are contingency plans for leaving a trek early, or getting off schedule. There are also emergency plans, but it might be up to you to stopping it from getting to that point.
Expect to listen to your body and heart, and know when you need to rest.
Expect to speak up for your needs.
Okay, so now that all those logistical expectations are out of the way, let's talk about emotions. You will have emotions. You will have many of them in fact. All the physical challenges can bring about a barrage of intense emotions: doubt, anger, exhaustion, defeat, fear. There were times I was afraid I would faint. I was afraid I would throw up. I was afraid I wouldn't dig my hole fast enough to not poop my pants, and then I was angry about pooping in a hole for the 1,000th time. I was afraid I would have a bad fall down the side of a volcanic peak. I was afraid I would fall into the crater (no joke). I know this wasn't just me. It is a common theme of conversation throughout the journey. We cried. We laughed that we were crying, and then the next day, we cried again. Pushing yourself physically can also be a catalyst for other negative thoughts you might have tossing around in your head. This is okay. You are out in nature, surrendering to the elements, going back to basics. It is supposed to be both an emotional and physical journey. Remind yourself that this is part of the reason why you travel in the first place.
Expect to have negative, difficult emotions. Deal with them and persevere.
After all that comes the amazing part. When you reach your destination. Whether it be for the night, or back to base at the conclusion of your trek, you will find that as soon as you shed your pack, gulp some water, splash your face, and eat an avocado you are immediately glad you are doing this.
You think, "I am a freakin' rockstar and I am really doing this! I have arrived!" And you are right.
You are in this amazing place, among amazing people who you will finally get to sit and talk to about their amazing lives and reasons that they travel. And you laugh, and you share, and you make a fire, and take in the sights. You poop in a hole again and suddenly you don't mind. You make a fire and watch the sun go down. You all make dinner together and enjoy the hard earned fruits of your labor and it suddenly becomes clear, this is life, like, real life.
I AM ON TOP OF A VOLCANO! I AM HELPING KIDS HAVE BETTER SCHOOLS! I AM...tired.
And then you snuggle into your sleeping bag, and you drift into the most glorious sleep.
*Not all treks are overnight, and of those that are not all sleep under the stars. Some have homestays with home cooked meals, and those are awesome and illicit the same emotions.
Expect to feel SO DAMN GLAD YOU CAME.
Expect to feel grateful for your beautiful life and those willing to share theirs with you.
Trek Pictures from El Hoyo (2 Days) and Telica (1 Day Sunrise Hike)
Quetzaltrekkers, Xela (Quetzaltenango) Guatemala - What to Expect
The drill is the same in Guatemala as far as the emotional expectations, so if you have skipped down to this section because you plan to trek Guatemala but not Nicaragua, I strongly advise reading the Nicaragua sections about emotional expectations.
First, let's talk about weather.
In Guatemala you will be hot, and you will be cold. I mean it, cold. One morning, we woke up and it was rainy and 39 degrees F. Brr. You need gear in this country. Again, the office will supply, but I would recommend bringing your own raincoat and fleece and investing in both. For the fleece go with something wicking, and for the raincoat something lightweight and breathable. Spend money on these items or you will be miserable. I used my raincoat every day of a 18 day trip to Guatemala. It is a must have. So, first up...
Expect to spend money on a good fleece and a great raincoat before travelling to Guatemala. Do it!
Guatemala is not like the rest of Central America in terms of landscape. It has A LOT OF MOUNTAINS. Really substantial mountains. If you are not used to altitude, you must build time into your trip to acclimate before going on trek. This is super important as you only ascend higher and higher throughout the duration of the QT Guatemala treks. If you experience any kind of altitude sickness it will be hard for your to complete the treks. The routes are remote and though you can get out, it is expensive and a long arduous process. This is one point at which I did not feel that the QT team did a good job of setting expectations. As a group, we were not ready for the "there is no turning back, and no one to help you" structure of the trek.
Expect high elevations and 1000+ ft. ascents in a single day, for consecutive days.
The QT Guatemala trips are mostly homestay. You will trek all day, and then bed down in a local home, municipal building (usually a school) or hostel and eat meals with local families. QT pays these families for their hospitality and it is a source of income for these communities. They are so glad that QT is there. They are so welcoming. They are so grateful. They are so warm. BONUS! On many treks, you are introduced into the ancient Maya tradition of tamascals, which are basically saunas. If you are claustrophobic, you should opt out. A tamascal is a tiny wood/mud hut with a hot stone stove inside. It is used for warmth (again with the cold) and bathing in the Maya highlands. If you do take a tamascal, make sure you thank the family. This is the equivalent of offering you their shower, but it's a sacred shower.
In addition to homestays, Guatemalans are walkers. You will see many townsfolk on the trails. They will pass you by. A 90 year old woman with no shoes and carrying twice the weight will smoke you. Just accept it, you are only going to get slower. They will remain speedy and proficient on the trails. It was more than once that a chuckle was heard or a joke was made about what a hard time we were having. Just remember, this is their life. You only have to do this once if you so choose.
Many Mayan don't speak Spanish, so if you do and have been coasting through linguistically, be prepared for charades. The good news is, hugs are international.
Expect to interact with the locals, a lot.
My experience on the longest trek offered at either QT location is the Todos Santos trek which spans 6 days with a full 4 days of serious trekking. I will say it straight up, I did not respect this trek. I was not ready. I feel comfortable to say that this was the case for others in my trek group as well. So i will stress this again.
Expect to listen to your body and your heart and ask for rest when you need it.
Expect to speak up for yourself.
Photos from Quetzaltrekkers Guatemala Santiaguito (1 Day) and Todos Santos (6 Days)
How to Prepare for Your Journey with Quetzaltrekkers
Getting the right gear is the easy part. The Quetzaltrekkers website has a comprehensive list of the material items you need:
- Do your research on both the treks themselves, and the gear.
- Make sure your items are versatile, you don't want to carry things you don't need.
- I recommend a water bladder, they are easier to carry, and drink, than water bottles.
- If you cannot afford an item, or don't think you will use it again, you can borrow it from QT. Just make sure you let them know you plan to utilize their gear so they set it aside for you.
- In the giving spirit? Think about leaving gear at QT as a donation and lightening your load of the rest of your vacation/trip.
Altitude and Weight
- Get a heart monitor and get out there and train. You can find plenty of training plans with a quick internet search.
- Get your pack early (or borrow one from a friend for training) and fill it up with to the weighs listed on the QT website for your trek. Go for long walks and see how it feels.
- Break in your boots/shoes. If you are buying new footwear, it is absolutely necessary that you break them in. You might as well do it while you are walking around with your test pack.
- Go for a practice walk. Even if you don't live somewhere hilly or mountainous, plan a day of walking. It is not as easy as you think!
- Are you going through a tough time in your life? That's a-okay, but be real with yourself. This is going to be challenging. You are going to hurt, in all the ways. Make sure that you are willing to experience and process some of the things you are going through. And that you are willing to go through it with strangers. Buy yourself a nice trip journal, and start it before you go. Jot down some expectations and how they make you feel.
- Are you shy? Get ready to confront that! You will be cooped up in the great wilderness with new people, and you are going to need each other. Even if you are going with a confidant, you will still need to rely on the whole group. Join a meetup or another social group to help you do the physical training and practice speaking up to, and with the group!
- Get psyched! This is going to be great. You are going to have the experience of a lifetime. You are going to be a rock star. And you are totally going to have an amazing photostream to show for it.
GO ON THIS TRIP!
Just know what to expect.