Walk through the doors of Casa Argentina, and under the limp branches of the impotent fig trees into Guatemala’s only Not For Profit trekking organisation – Quetzaltrekkers.
Quetzaltrekkers was established in 1995 marking the penultimate year of the civil conflict that had eviscerated Guatemala. The project began as a heartfelt pledge by four Guatemaltecos and one British man to provide education and opportunity to the countless children who had been orphaned and displaced after more than three brutal decades of fighting.
The unlikely Cinco attempted to fund the development of Escuela de la Calla by selling bread and baked goods in the city of Quetzaltenango. With limited success, and realising the general indifference toward a decent sourdough in Guatemala, the business grew legs and moved into the trekking sector.
Quetzaltenango has a fortuitous position (assuming Santa Maria’s dormancy continues). It sits nuzzled against the tepid teat of the Sierra Madre mountain range, with great access to the country’s most iconic volcanos. As a result, Quetzalterkkers has, after more than two decades, become one of Guatemala’s most successful trekking outfits.
All profits go to Hogar Abierto and Escuela de la Calle. The former is a boarding school for at-risk children. The definition is deliberately broad and encompasses orphaned or single parent children, past incidents of physical abuse and extreme cases of poverty. While the latter is a school situated in one of the cities poorest barrios, Las Rosas.
Quetzaltrekkers provides around 80% of the budget for the two projects. For the children, this may be their only opportunity to receive an education.
Outside donations have contributed to the project’s success. The school has recently developed a highly respected computer study room, elevating it above the standard of your average public school. And as there is no centralised or set curriculum in Guatemala, the school coordinators’ have the freedom to create an eclectic program of classes to best suit the needs and prospects of the children.
Escuela de la Calle, however, is not completely free. Parents are required to pay a small contribution of a 150 Quetzals (approx £15) for a year’s tuition per child. With high levels of poverty in the surrounding barrio, competition is stiff as hopeful guardians jostle to have their child attend.
Quetzaltrekkers is organised by its volunteers and one head coordinator who is paid a small stipend. All guides are required to complete a minimum of a three-month placement. The trajectory of the time with the organisation is steeper than the western side of volcano Tajumulco, as guides’ progress from wriggling blind pups to lead wolves in the first month.
The structure of the placement is deliberately intense. Responsibilities range from memorising kilometres of new trail to repairing equipment and even developing social-political presentations to deliver on the treks.
Maximum group cohesion is a given due to the physical nature of the position, the early starts, the long hours and the high level of responsibility assumed. Aches and pains, distressing bowel contractions and fuel line repairs are soon discussed with a brisk casualness as if addressing a friendly neighbour over the allotment picket.
The Organisation maintains an effuse and dynamic heart due to the ever-revolving door of new guides and the occasional return of an old hand. While the office is a space for the banality of general choirs to the regaling of trail legends as guides bond over the unique experience of becoming trek leaders in a foreign land.
During the residency, the guides are based in Quetzaltenango, or as the locals call it, Xela. The city is not known for its first impressions. Cars and buses squirm lethargically through the narrow streets trailing tunnels of toxic emissions. While debris and dog shit mark the pavements as drunks loiter the Mercado, adding to the general confusion that sits atop the arid air.
Yet an incestuous and forbidden love grows between the guides and their surrogate city.
The reality, of course, is that you won’t get much time to explore it. Treks depart every Tuesday and Saturday with the occasional one-day-trip sandwiched in midweek. If the work is mysteriously levied, and you find yourself outside the confines of the Quetzaltrekker office, you’ll see various Escondido bars, trendy cafés and table-clothed restaurants scattered across the city.
The new and trendy locations that pop-up across Quetzaltenango is part of a complicated picture. From one vantage point, it suggests Guatemala’s popularity amongst travellers is increasing, and wealth is steadily seeping into the cracks of the city.
On the other hand, tourism is subject to fluctuations, and numbers appear to have plummeted across the cities Spanish schools after Fuego erupted last June, killing 75 people.
Inequality, corruption, conflict and deceit still checker the countries recent history. While the level of poverty in Guatemala twined with some of the world’s highest rates of malnutrition continue to grind down the prospects of its people.
Perhaps, the only measurable hope of salvation is possible through education. The liberation of the country and its people from the cyclic and chronic abuses of deliberate foreign meddling, autocratic dictators and civil conflict is a difficult and arduous process: one that cannot possibly be tackled in this minute space.
In a highly connected and inversely disorientating world, it can be impossible to see how and where to help. In this case, I would like to make it a little easier. If you’re in the area, come join us for a trek and help continue the success of Quetzaltrekkers – or better still – come volunteer for three months.