Adventure, Central America, Guatemala

Lessons I Learned Hiking with Quetzaltrekkers: Part 2

August 10, 2011

One step after the other - Quetzaltrekkers hike from Xela to Lake Atitlan

I rock at mind over matter

Although I continue to put myself into situations where a modicum of fitness is required, I am really not so great at physical activity. 

Whenever I go hiking, horse-riding, cycling or any other activity that is not sitting on my arse using free wifi I find myself asking how I got myself into such a sweaty, wheezing mess in the first place.

The answer, more often than not? Is that mostly it’s one of my own bright ideas, so I only have myself to blame. 

This time, though, I’d roped Anthony and Elise from Positive World Travel into coming along for the ride – or in this instance, along for the 3 day trek. So when it turned out to be a little…challenging…I was feeling pretty guilty.

We began the first day of the trek by climbing out of the Xela valley, through cloud forest and up to an altitude of over 3,000m (to a point which, incidentally, is the highest on the Interamerica Highway).

By lunchtime it was pouring rain but we donned our ponchos (even Goretex can’t cut it in the Guatemalan rainy season) and marched solidly on.

On my back was the heaviest pack I’d ever hiked with and I felt every gram/ounce in my calves on the uphill and in my toes on the down.

But I made it through the day and to our overnight stop in the village of Santa Catarina, which I celebrated by crawling into and out of a Mayan sauna and then into my sleeping bag and having a wild night of crazy dreams brought on by what was probably an ibuprofen overdose. 

Our overnight stop on our Quetzaltrekkers hike

The next morning we were up early for a hearty, typical breakfast of eggs, rice and beans at a local comedor. We had time to buy bananas, play with the local dogs and photograph the early morning light before beginning our assault on the second major uphill of the trek.

The morning started out gently as we made our way through the Nahualá Valley before coming to rest at the bottom of a Very Big Hill. We took a brief break, during which Anthony tried to offload some of the trail mix he was carrying and I got over-excited and ate both my banana and my Snickers bar. 

The boys, including Ant, set off to try and run up ‘Record Hill’, which was so vertical that some parts involved scrambling. I would like to say it was an ascent of 600m or more, but it was probably more like 200 or less.

According to our guides, running up the hill would take 10 minutes and for those of us less athletically inclined the ascent would take 20 minutes.

Elise and I took 45.

For us, it was more difficult than the first morning. The first ascent was at altitude and we were carrying full packs for the first time. This? Was just incredibly steep. Treadmills don’t even go at that much of an incline. Plus, that banana and Snickers bar? Didn’t sit so well.

One of our guides saw how difficult we were finding it and gave us an out. At the next village, she explained, we could take a couple of buses and meet the rest of the group at the overnight stop.

Oh, how we were tempted.

But Anthony (who made it up the hill in 16 minutes)  convinced Elise to keep going and I wasn’t chickening out alone.

And so we struggled on.

Last year, during my high altitude trekking experience in Tibet when everyone around me was being hit with altitude sickness (there is nothing quite so panic-inducing as seeing your guide stop halfway up a 5,700m pass to retch) I went into a bizarre headspace.

All I could do was put one foot in front of the other. I wasn’t in any physical pain (aside from a pounding headache) but I could quite literally hardly stand up, battling both the thin air and a freezing wind that kept whipping my hood from my head and froze my water bottle as well as the snot and tears on my face. But I knew I was going to make it to the end because I just simply wasn’t going to stop.

This particular afternoon in Guatemala I found myself in a similar zone. It wasn’t as difficult as Tibet because this time I could, you know, breathe, and unlike that experience I could actually look around and appreciate my surroundings now and then, but I was in physical pain.

But I kept on. And after the uphill came the down and the weight of my pack kept slamming my toes forward in my boots. I’m not going to lie. I was pretty miserable.

But then suddenly, we were on the banks of the Payatza River, swapping our hiking boots for water shoes, ready to begin 12 river crossings.

The human body is an amazing thing

After the first river crossing, feeling the cool water swirl around my legs and appreciating how light my feet seemed without the weight of my boots, there is only one word to describe how I felt.


My body quickly forgot the pain of the day and, usually finicky about such things, I even appreciated the feeling of mud between my toes.

And the river crossings weren’t as scary as I expected – the water wasn’t that rough, the stones not that sharp and I didn’t fall on my arse and lose my camera in the current.

Elise and I agreed: we were both pleased and proud that we hadn’t packed it in and ended the day early. And I knew I’d be able to handle whatever the final day of the trek threw at me.

All it took was a little water, a heavy weight lifted and mind over matter. 

This is part two of a four part series about my hike with Quetzaltrekkers. Read Lessons I Learned Hiking with Quetzaltrekkers Part 1. The three of us received the trek at a discounted price but all opinions are my own. Many thanks to Anthony from PositiveWorldTravel for many of the photos featured in this post. You can view these and more at

Want to read more about my 3 day trek from Xela to Lake Atitlan and about the great work Quetzaltrekkers is doing in the community in Guatemala?

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  • Reply Keira August 10, 2011 at 8:52 am

    Hi Megan, your travel tales and pics are fantastic. I can’t believe you’re travelling the world. It seems ages ago that we used to sit in classes together at UTS.

    • Reply MeganRTW August 11, 2011 at 10:54 pm

      I know, Keira! Seems so long ago…thanks for your lovely comment, great to hear from you. Hope all is well with you 🙂

  • Reply Heather August 11, 2011 at 10:13 am

    Those packs look massive!

    But look at that smile of yours at day’s end 🙂

    Good on ya!

    And how much do I love the use of “modicum” in the first sentence 🙂

    • Reply MeganRTW August 11, 2011 at 10:55 pm

      Haha I think it’s actually the first time I’ve ever used that word, Heather…don’t know where it came from 😀

  • Reply Tijmen August 14, 2011 at 5:30 pm

    I found that with hiking, you can most of the time do a lot more then you thought you where capable of. It will hurt and can get quite painfully at some point. But after a while you just get into this auto-pilot mode and just keep going, and great scenery can also help a lot to stay motivated 🙂

    • Reply MeganRTW August 17, 2011 at 1:22 am

      I definitely go into auto-pilot – I’m great at just plodding along.

  • Reply Elise August 20, 2011 at 8:51 am

    Holy Crap that was hard huh! You are so right in saying that your body goes into auto-pilot when we were walking….plus I love that you proudly displayed our 45min trek up that tiny ’10 minute hill’……..we did it!!!

    I wanna be travelling with you again! 🙁

    • Reply MeganRTW August 25, 2011 at 3:29 am

      Fingers crossed that our paths cross in Bolivia!!

  • Reply GRRRL TRAVELER September 5, 2011 at 10:10 pm

    Wow, out of the treks I’ve taken so far, I’ve not had to do anything nearly demanding as carry my own backpack-backpack! No kidding you had pain! Weren’t you allowed to take smaller bags and leave your big bags at the trekking office?!

    • Reply MeganRTW September 12, 2011 at 6:20 am

      Nope – we had to take our big bags to fit the food, sleeping bags, sleeping mats and wet weather gear!

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