In the Quetzaltrekkers office on Tuesday morning, I hoist my loaner pack onto my back. It’s ill-fitting and unbalanced, many of the straps are broken, and the sleeping bag only compresses down to the size of a three-year-old, but I still can’t suppress a shiver of excitement.
We’re about to set off on a six day trek that will take us from Nebaj to Todos Santos in the Guatemalan highlands, hiking from village to village through the Cuchumatanes mountains.
Our group includes six European girls, one Guatemalan guy, and us. We’re being led by three international volunteer guides. One of the cool things about Quetzaltrekkers is that all of the profits go toward a school, Escuela de las Calles. Our all-inclusive trek is 1300 quetzales ($175 USD) per person.
I’m initially hesitant about the size of the group, but it turns out everyone is relaxed and friendly and we settle into talking about life and joking around. The Guatemalan, Javier, offers up his home if we ever need a place to stay in Guatemala City. He even volunteers to do a segment about Quetzaltrekkers on his radio show.
We start out with a half-hour warmup walk through the streets of Xela to the bus station, where we hop on a chicken bus. The colorful, repurposed school bus fills up until we’re sitting three to a bench. At each stop, vendors squeeze themselves aboard to sell fruits and beverages, with surprising success. One even gives a full pitch about plastic surgery.
After three hours, we transfer to a microbus in the city of Quiche. It’s a van designed for about twelve people, but we manage to fit twenty-five men, women, and children inside.
The countryside goes by in flashes: pigs and cows tied up at stakes along the road, a five-year-old chopping wood with a machete, red and white paint splashed over every guardrail and rock for the Lider Party.
After two hours, the microbus deposits us at Popi’s Hostel in Nebaj.
We poke around town for a bit, checking out the clothing of the Ixil Mayans and relaxing over a cup of tea.
Back in the hostel, I consider showering, but put it off because there’s no hot water. It’s no matter – soon I’ll be crawling into a traditional Mayan temescal sauna to bathe in my own sweat and the steam off hot rocks.
Of larger concern is the toilet situation. There are only two for the whole hostel – one that doesn’t flush behind a door with a sticking lock and a prison-style toilet with no door in our six-bed dorm room.
I don’t have much of an appetite during dinner, which I attribute to the altitude. Nebaj is at 6,200 feet, which is enough to produce altitude sickness but pales in comparison to the 12,700 feet we will reach during our hiking.
Everyone crawls into bed soon after dark to rest up for the adventure ahead.
And that’s when it strikes.
The stomach cramps. The vomiting. The torrential diarrhea.
It’s the classic traveler’s illness, but being familiar with it doesn’t make it any easier to bear.
The night passes like a slow motion nightmare. Each run to the bathroom I pray that this time the intestinal turmoil will stop and the toilet will flush.
In the all-too-brief moments of calm, I stand in the hallway in the cool darkness, waiting for the next wave. Eventually, I’m able to lay back down in bed and await the dawn.
My mind spins around one question: What should I do? I have no idea how long this sickness will last. Suddenly, the idea of sleeping on a villager’s floor with eleven other people, no electricity, and a single squat toilet seems foolhardy instead of adventurous.
As the lynchpin in my decision, in the morning I discover with horror that I had leaked through my pants and pooped in the bed. A twin-size bed that I was sharing with my boyfriend, no less. The embarrassment is palpable.
At breakfast, weak and sleepless and dizzy, I break the news to the guides, breaking my heart at the same time – “I don’t think I can do the trek.”
While the group heads up the mountains to a cheese farm, Nash and I stay behind. I know I made the right decision, but that doesn’t lessen the feeling of disappointment.
With the messed-up toilet situation in Popi’s Hostel and my pipes temporarily blocked up by Immodium provided by the sympathetic guides, we decide to do the entire five-hour journey of the previous day in reverse.
“At least we get to go back to Xelapan!” I say, referencing the bakery chain that offers rows of lizard-shaped rolls, elaborate pastries, and shecas stuffed with chocolate and plantains.
Nash sighs. “Katie, I keep telling you, Xelapan looks way better than it actually tastes.”
Microbus to Quiche… chicken bus to Xela… walk through the city… It all passes by in an exhausted haze.
On the home stretch, we walk down a street full of homemade, straw Christmas mangers. I step around a sidewalk laid out with tiny plastic cows and baby Jesus figurines and wonder if this is all in my head.
Back at the Black Cat Hostel, the bed in our private room rises to meet me and I sleep for fourteen hours straight, right up until the Immodium wears off and I’m running back and forth to the restroom again.
The next day, we return our gear to the Quetzaltrekkers office, where we meet some more friendly guides. They give us a partial refund since we had to bail so soon, which softens the blow.
Later that afternoon, I’m curled up around my book and cramping stomach when Nash pokes me in the back.
“Hey, look at this weird little guy. What is he?”
I roll over and look at the fat, brown, leaf-shaped bug marching across the sheets.
“I don’t know… He has six legs, so he’s not a tick,” I say.
“You don’t think he’s a…” Nash trails off, not daring to say the word.
“Hmm, maybe. I’ve never seen one before,” I reply.
A quick image search reveals the dreaded answer: Bedbug.
(Image by Giles San Martin, Creative Commons)
“Huh, I thought they were smaller,” Nash says.
He reaches out and crushes the insect against the sheet. It leaves behind a bloody stain. Hopefully that wasn’t our blood… and where there’s one bedbug there are usually more.
We examine our bodies, bed, and clothing for signs of infestation. Our search for bites and feces comes up empty, but we still decide to notify the hotel staff of the lone chinche.
They transfer us to a new room while they investigate. Our new room has two twin beds instead of a double. I go back to reading while Nash showers. Things seem to be calming down at last…
And that’s when there’s a loud, mysterious bang and a chunk of the ceiling falls on my face.
What the heck?! I spit ceiling dust out of my mouth, brush the debris to the floor, and switch to the other bed, which is pushed up against the opposite wall.
This one proves serviceable, although the night is punctuated with laughter and the click hissss of some Mexican youths opening their beer cans next door. The noise is tolerable, up to the point that two of them start banging against the wall and screaming in ecstasy.
We ping-pong back to what I now call “the ceiling bed” and fall back asleep.
Late that night, the room rattles and shakes me awake. An earthquake! A little more of the ceiling rains down, and I fear for the worst, but it holds. My heart keeps pounding even after the small tremor has passed, but the pull of sleep is just too strong. At this point a horde of poison-ivy-covered scorpions could fall from the ceiling and I’d still drift into a dreamless stupor.
My health and mood improve throughout the week, and I feel fresh and energetic during our next walk to the bus station. On the way, we run into one of the other girls from the trek.
“How was it?!” we ask.
Her response is a groan. She’s aching and sick and grumpy. It turns out, no one in the group had escaped illness and others also had to leave early.
In the end, I realize just how minor my whole series of unfortunate events was:
– I got sick at the beginning of the trek, surrounded by helpful people, when it was easy to relocate.
– The bedbug was a lone wanderer instead of an orgying party animal.
– The Black Cat Hostel is still standing and didn’t collapse on our heads.
– The Mexican tourists were having an awesome time.
– The earthquake was only a tiny temblor and not a terrifying terremoto.
And, in between all of the above, I got to spend a week relaxing with my boyfriend, playing Final Fantasy, reading about Guatemalan history, and occasionally even trying to sample some nearby foods. Though Nash was right, Xelapan’s not that great.
Offers a variety of volunteer-led treks to support street kids. As a non-profit organization, they don’t have the best gear if you choose to use theirs, but do have a lot of heart and an adventurous spirit.
- The Black Cat Hostel
Affordable and friendly hostel in Xela offering free wi-fi, hot showers, and free breakfast. Despite some mishaps there, the staff was helpful and I would recommend the place.