OG Goes Off the Grid

Having conquered Santa Maria everyone displayed a new determination and the calves to match, and seemed keen to stretch their new legs “off the grid”. So following our week in Xela OGG hooked up with Quetzaltrekkers again to undertake a week long trek across a 70km stretch of the Sierra Cuchumatanes, the highest non-volcanic mountain range in Central America. The walk took us from the Ixil Triangle, a unique and isolated enclave of Ixil Maya, who had endured perhaps the most intense and sustained repression during the civil war, to the colourful Mam Maya community of Todos Santos, where the traditional white and red striped trousers still adorn the men’s legs and the blue ribboned straw hats still sit atop people’s heads.

On Monday morning, Jay and crew departed with guides Eric, Anne, and Santi for Nebaj, while I remained in Xela to resolve OGG’s chronic cash conundrum. The group arrived uneventfully in Nebaj in the late afternoon, and after taking in the sights and sounds of Guatemala’s largest Ixil community, everyone met Bernardo, a town elder, who in his own language described his and the communities experience beneath the repressive regime between 1977 and 1982, at the height of the civil war. With the help of his Daughter and OG participant, Chelsea, his tale was relayed to the group.

He explained that in the Ixil Triangle emigrants and guerrilla sympathizers were targeted and by 1981 disappearances were widespread with suspected supporters sometimes buried alive in 40ft deep mass graves. The army required all campesino’s to acquire permission to go their fields, detailing time of departure, and return, when instructions we followed to the letter, culprits would be targeted as guerrilla accomplices. Simultaneously, the government began a war of attrition against the areas inhabitants, prices on basic commodities were artificial hiked, salt climbed from 3Q to 10Q. People were increasingly forced to flee into the surrounding hills, Bernardo, described how he and his family retreated to the refuge of the mountains leaving behind all of their belongings, with no shirt and no shoes, they roamed, relying on the land and the generosity of locals, they lived. But the Army was given orders to seek and destroy all those finding shelter in the mountains. Soldiers burned homesteads and harvests while military planes dropped pamphlets throughout the area promising immunity to those who chose to return. But when people heeded the call they were immediately targeted for torture, and slaughter. Consequently, people began to turn their voices to god, asking why. But even Nebaj’s sacred spaces became scenes of horror as the army used churches to trap, torture, and kill those that had sought sanctuary within. By the 90’s fighting had calmed but according to Bernardo the army’s repressive presence remained.

While participants proffered questions, the most potent follow up came from Bernardo himself who posed the group one of his own: Why did we care to know? A potent and perturbing window into the pronounced sense of abandonment and isolation felt by the victims of the genocidal campaign in the Ixil Triangle.

While the group listened to and learned Nebaj’s story, I bumped along the gravel roads of Quiche enroute to our reunion. But as my Chicken Bus raced around hairpin turns, with only the near constant sound of the horn to announce our intentions to oncoming traffic, a landslide up ahead turned the snaking cliff side mountain road into a bottle neck, and funnelled a cattle truck directly into our path. Choosing hillside to cliffside, our Chicken Bus swerved into the rocky face, sending passengers, human and feathered, flying. Luckily, sauf a few cuts and bruises, the passengers emerged one by one and soon they and I were all standing safely alongside the road, cargo in hand, awaiting the next passing Chicken Bus.

I arrived in Nebaj just in time to have my wounds tended to before a dinner of pasta and delicious strawberry rhubarb pie at Popi’s Restaurant and Hostel, a self-sufficiency project of Mayan Hope, a non-profit dedicated to providing educational, nutritional, medical, ecological, and other needed services to indigenous families, villages, and abandoned or abused children of Guatemala.

After a hearty Breakfast, OGG set out from Nebaj, ascending and descending the mountain slopes, passing through a number of the regions more isolated communities. In one such community called Acul, rowed houses, pretty red roofs, and a visit to local cheese farm betrayed a more sinister history. Anne, Quetzaltrekker’s lead guide explained that one day in 1980-81 the army had come. They lined up all of the local men, dividing them into guerrilla and army sympathizers respectively. Army supporters were then brought to the school and told that they would go to heaven, while the guerrilla supporters were taken to the church and told they would go to hell. They were subsequently thrown into a hole dug in the church floor, trampled and buried alive. After the outright destruction of all its stores and homesteads, Acul became a prototypical example of the model villages, the virtues of which Guatemala extolled internationally (see the article printed in the LA Times in 1989). For some of us, it became difficult to ameliorate the beautiful and tranquil veil that the landscape provided with the terror and tragedy that lay beneath it and still haunted the homesteads that we passed.

In the evening, the group arrived in Xexecom, and settled on mats and mattresses in the small community’s school house before joining local families for a fantastic dinner and authentic Temascal (a Mayan steam sauna) before bed.
At 3am OGG rose to tackle the hardest part of the trek, a climb up to the summit of an immense plateau strewn with huge limestone boulders originating from the ocean floor. After some snacking, relaxation and a snooze in the sunshine, the team continued along the plateau passing several small settlements where the local people make their living growing crops, herding sheep and making hand woven textiles. Later in the afternoon, the group descended the face of a beautiful ravine on which perched a small community. There an abandoned school house served as shelter for night.

OGG takin’ a pausa amongst the rocks.
Ali and Chelsea share a moment.


Anna and Ali play demonstrate who’s who.

The following morning we descended to the valley floor to enjoy a hardy breakfast at the river’s edge before climbing the opposite slope and conquering its aptly named Agony Hill. Just before lunch the group was challenged by Agony’s bigger brother, Terror Hill. But OGG rose to the challenge, with its TL’s losing a foot race by only 1:20 to the record setting pace of Quetzaltrekkers’ guide, Santi. Santi is an amazing young Guatemalan man who with a little help from the Hogar Abierto and Quetzaltrekkers’ has earned a scholarship to continue working with the trekking organization and its affiliated home for vulnerable youth.


Lunch was served on a beautiful hill with views of the plateau, before a chicken bus whisked us off to Laventosa, a small indigenous town on the east side of La Torre, the highest non-volcanic point in all of Central America. There we met Geronimo, a local community man who is attempting to carve out a sustainable tourism enterprise for him and his community. After a delicious dinner, Geronimo stayed with the group telling us of his and Laventosa’s toils during the war. His amazing tale left many of us struggling to digest.

Ali and Geronimo at La Torre.

The following morning Geronimo’s son helped guide OGG to the top of La Torre. At 3837m the summit provided the group a spectacular view of Mexico and virtually all of Guatemala’s volcanic range including OGG’s previous nemesis, Santa Maria, which now looked insignificant in the distance. The peak also proved opportune for a game of high-stakes, high altitude Samurai.

OGG at the top of La Torre (3837m)

From La Torre, we descended down through the beautiful Cuchumatanes Mountains to the streets of Todos Santos, our final destination. Despite exhaustion OGG decided not to pass up a visit to a completed bottle school. Meeting with its bubbly PeaceCorp volunteer, Stefanie, the group got to see the future fruits of their labours and get the goods on their upcoming project with Hug-it-Forward and the community of Tzibal. In the evening, a charla with Francisco provided a contrasting account of Guatemala’s guerrillas, criticising their perversion of the revolutionary idealism and laying blame for Todos Santos’ torments squarely at the feet of both warring parties. A satisfying dinner of spaghetti followed, and the weary trekkers were soon settled in at the Hispanomaya Spanish School, a non-profit, cooperative language school that donates all its proceeds towards scholarships for local school children.

Allison tells of the week’s epic travels:

“The trek. So we have discovered that it is impossible to stay clean in this country for more than 10 minutes, especially whilst on a 6 day trek through the mountains, splashing through puddles, sloshing through mud, slipping and sliding, taking down the tour guides in front of us as we fall – Japleen, discovering that socks and sandals are the worst possible combination for hiking, and being drenched from head to toe in our own sweat. As a result, we all decided to embrace the hippie within all of us, which included taking on new names like Earth Spirit, Munching Squirrel, and Prairie Wind. This movement was initiated by James who tore the sleeves off his shirt using his raw strength and the toe nail of a lion. Hiking an average of 13-15 km a day is no easy feat especially when you throw in the 87 switchbacks, Hill of Agony and the Hill of Terror, unless you´re Santi, the local 19 year old tour guide who ran up the hill of terror in about 7 minutes, not even out of breath while the most of us took anywhere between 15 to 30 minutes. However, the view is absolutely breath taking. The landscape that we passed trough is so diverse and so stunning, it´s unbelievable to wake up above the clouds and look out across the other side of the mountain at where you were yesterday or where you will be by the end of the day. Some nights were pretty chilly so group snuggling was again appreciated. On the last day we reached the highest non-volcanic point in Central America, and looked out over the horizon at the peak of Santa Maria and thought to ourselves, yeah, we conquered that too. Of course, a mountain summit is not complete without a celebratory game of Samurai.
The trek was not only a physically challenging but it was also an emotional journey as we heard the stories of several locals and their experiences throughout the Civil War and their continuing struggle with poverty and abandonment by their own government. By the end we were all exhausted but in a good way, knowing that we had accomplished a lot more then we had thought ourselves capable of and feeling more connected to the people we had met along the way and the beautiful country that we have the opportunity to explore.”

A picture says a 1000 words…

Allison and Porschia all geared up.
James conquers day 1.
Just another view on Day 2.
OGG descending to camp on Day 2.
Anna and Nikki enjoying a cup of tea riverside.