Ultimate Guatemalan Challenge 2021

by Gareth

February 9, 2021

Day 1:

It’s just gone 7:30 am. Our taxi stops outside the arrivals’ hall at Flores airport. The five other members of The Ultimate Guatemalan Challenge 2021 are all standing together. We finally get to connect in person with these other humans that, until now, we’ve only seen on Zoom calls.
A few minutes later and we’re on our way to Yaxha National Park. Day 1 was always going to be rush, as we needed to transfer to the starting point in Yaxha, see the park and start (and complete) the first day of the 2-day jungle trek.
Day 1 is 30 km of jungle trekking.

 We race through the park seeing some amazing Mayan ruins, which feel rushed, and at the same time, we don't feel like we've started early enough for our long first day. Within an hour of leaving the ruins, the winding dirt road begins to narrow and the firm ground becomes squishy. Joel our nimble guide is soon switching between the left and right-hand side of the road, choosing the least muddy route. Two hours in and the idea of keeping my feet clean or dry has long gone. Araminta tells me that she's strained her hip flexor and despite her brave face, I can tell she's hurting. The mud is brutal. Slow and never-ending. When we stop for our first break at around 3 pm Araminta's in agony. I've found my groove got over the mud and I'm doing ok - but it's tough to see Minta in pain.

We agree with our two guides that they will unload some of the non-essentials and repack one of the horses so that Minta can on the other horse. I don't think it's comfortable riding a horse through thick jungle mud, but at least the pain of trying to walk with a strained hip isn't getting worse. I lead the horse with Araminta on it.

It's 5 pm. Everyone is tried and it's been a long day. It's starting to get cold and dark when a small dwelling and a rustic camp appear in a clearing in the jungle.

"YESSSS" we're here before the sunset. There had been a possibility of us having to walk some of the jungle at night. We're welcomed into a small metal shack with a wooden table, already laid with wholesome food. A chicken breast with tomato sauce, black beans and piles of tortilla. Perfect avocados still in their skin, sliced in half and spread across the table to serve yourself.

I'm lost. I'm having multiple foodgasms. I'm warm. Everyone's chatting and laughing.

Manola runs the camp, and she seems to be in charge of everything we can see including the incredible food. She's out-going filled with heart, huge personality and a contagious laugh. She, like our guide only speaks Spanish.

At some point during the feast, I overhear a conversation between Manola and Joel about leaving for the overnight camp.

"Es Camp El Tigre?". Is this Tiger Camp? The name of our overnight stop.

"No, es Nakum"


"Cuantos kilometros hasta el campo?"

"Dias kilometros" - We've still got 10 kilometres before our overnight spot!

The Sun had set. We were going to be walking in the dark after all.

Minta is back on the horse, and we're 1 km deeper into the jungle. Leading the horse, he feels even less enthusiastic than he did in the 2 hours before we stopped for our 5 pm "lunch".

My legs are heavy from six hours of muddy trekking and carrying a heavy pack. Pulling an unenthusiastic horse adds to their heaviness.

I'm torn between wanting to pull the horse harder to keep up and treating this amazing animal with kindness. He's been through the same muddy path overloaded with gear for half the day and then carrying Minta for the second half.

I'm so grateful we have this horse.

I slow down and the rope between the horse and I slacken.

I'm walking in the jungles of Guatemala with the woman that I love, having an adventure in nature!! What's the rush?

This becomes my mantra over the next three hours as we wander through the jungle in the darkness.

The only light we see is from my headlamp, or sometimes glimpses of light from the rest of the group a few minutes ahead of us.

My experience of walking a horse through a jungle at night is limited. What I can conclude from our time together is that horses can't see in the dark. There were numerous times when the horse slipped and skidded on slippery rocks in the dark almost falling with Araminta hanging on for dear life on his back.

About half an hour before we arrived at our final overnight stop, we heard a deep growl followed by high-pitched warning calls of what I think were spider monkies. We'd seen jaguar prints in the mud earlier in the day and now in the darkness, there's always a part of myself that constantly reminded me that we were in their territory.

At around 8:30 pm out of the darkness emerged the noise of a generator rumbling! The first sign of human life since we left Nakume just after sunset.

We were welcomed by about 6 smiling Guatemalan men and Manola who was already there. I thought we'd left before her from Nakume and was surprised to see her at the camp, already directing everyone, steam coming out of pots on the fire, dinner being prepared.

El Tigre camp was spectacular.

Tired, cold and hungry after 11 hours of trekking anything would have done. The camp was warm and the sleeping arrangements were amazing. Proper double mattresses, three per room, a (cold) shower and flush toilet and electricity for lighting. It was an oasis in the middle of the jungle.

After a nourishing dinner, a glass of red wine from a plastic cup and stories about the last 5,000 years of Ancient Mayan history in Spanish from Manola that was just a bit too fast for me to completely understand, we all said goodnight and headed towards some welcome rest.

Day 2:

I didn't need the 6 am alarm that I'd set. My eyes burst open, the room was still dark, but was filled with a deep noise that sounded like a scene from Jurassic Park. Howler Monkies are the loudest animals on earth and their call can be heard 10 km away. This troop was 10 meters above us in the trees going through their morning routine.

After a solid breakfast, it was time to head off on the final day of the jungle trek. Another 10 hours of more mud, water and mosquitoes to our overnight spot, a hotel at Tikal National Park. Araminta and Shayna (who had an ankle strain) wouldn't be walking today. They had a plan to leave the jungle another way. The plan wasn't very clear, but Joel our guide told me that they would have an adventure of their own.

They were in good hands with Manola and her team of strong, big-hearted Guatemalan men. It felt good to know they didn't have to mission through another 30km of jungle trekking.

Joel had not trekked this section of the jungle since March last year. Global lockdowns and travel restrictions have had an impact on the jungle trekking business. This meant about 10km of day 2's trek required path clearing by Joel with a machete. Day 2 had a lot more water and a lot more mosquitos than day 1. I think walking through ankle-deep water is easier than mud, and we made good time. After a short stop for lunch, and an eight and a half hour day, our team arrived at the Tikal National park just as the sun was setting. I was overjoyed to have a hot shower and to take off wet shoes and socks. My feet, white and shrivelled from two days of being continually wet, were happy to dry and in the open air.

Araminta and Shayna arrived in a shuttle about two hours after us. I don't think I've yet got the full story of their adventure. But it included another two hours on the horse. Countless hours of navigating mud in a burnt-out old pickup truck. A broken axel, chainsawed pieces of wood to repair the truck, another breakdown, a second truck and finally a shuttle. Manola was with the girls the entire time, offering food and laughter, and also helping winch the truck and walking through the mud.

It's not called "The Ultimate Guatemalan Challenge" for nothing.

Day 3:

I had an "order delivered" this morning when we saw the sunrise over the ancient Mayan site of Tikal. New tourist restrictions meant that only guests staying at the Tikal National Park Hotel are able to access the park before 6 am. So we were the only people walking through this ancient site predawn as we climbed Temple 4 to watch the sunrise.

It was breath-taking.

The rest of Monday we spent at the hotel. We dried our shoes, ate at the restaurant and walked around Tikal again in the afternoon. Before heading to the airport in Tikal we had an early dinner at the hotel restaurant. Within a few minutes, Shayna was complaining about an upset stomach. By the time we were in the air en route back to Guatemala City 90 minutes later, Shayna, Andy and Araminta had all vomited at least once. Andy, who at taking off had been in the seat behind me, spent more time in the bathroom than his assigned seat of 12B. For the entire 50-minute flight the only bathroom on the plane was occupied by someone from our crew.

Back in Guatemala City, the team transferred to our accommodation in Antigua, the old capital of Guatemala. We had a final hurdle of a flat battery in our car to navigate before we would arrive at night 3's accommodation. While Minta sat on the side of the driveway being sick into a bag, I spent over an hour looking for jumper leads with Rita, the kind lady that kindly offered to let us park our car at her home. After a trip in Rita's car across town to a friend that had jumper leads, we finally managed to start the car. 45 minutes and a full sick bag later we arrived at our accommodation in Antigua. 

What a day.

Day 4:

Thank God, that we had the day off today. Minta was still feeling terrible, Andy went to the doctor and was put onto a drip and Shayna was only just managing to keep any food down.

We spent the day relaxing, doing laundry and getting ready for the overnight hike up Volcano Acatenango the following day.

Day 5:

It was clear that Minta wasn't going to be well enough to hike the volcano. It's a 6-hour steep hike to the base camp where we'd spend the night before trekking to the summit for sunrise the following morning. Andy had decided that he was going to do it and was feeling better, and Shayna decided that she was also going to give it a try.

A mixup in the booking of our tour with the guiding company meant that our 9 am start ended up being a 1 pm start. We again started a hike with the possibility of arriving after dark. The first half an hour of the hike is up a steep sandy section where you're often taking 2 steps forward and sliding one back. It's tough and demoralising. It was clear that the last two days of illness had taken their toll on Shyana, who had low energy, and she was forced to turn around about 45 mins in.

As the afternoon passed, the temperature dropped, and we pushed hard to reach the base camp at almost 4,000m before sunset. Our team was weary from the last few days. Despite this, we made it to the final plateau and flat section to our camp while the last of the sun rays were touching the mountain. Our pace increased, excited to be reaching our camp overlooking Volcano Fuego, we arrived just in time to see a huge eruption of orange lava followed a few seconds later by the sound that hit us like an afternoon thunderstorm.

It's impossible to sleep well in a tent with temperatures somewhere close to freezing and the extremely strong wind whipping against the tent all night. Add high-altitude and an active volcano popping off every 30 mins and you've done well if you get more than a couple of hours of rest.

Day 6:

At 4:15 am we were woken up by Isiaier. Another huge hearted and friendly guide that supported us on this leg of our adventure around Guatemala. Despite the wind that I guess was around 60 km/hour we decided to head to the summit. It was agreed that based on the strength of the wind near the top we'd make the decision about if we were going to the summit or not when we got there.

We began our ascent in single-file. The soft glow from the setting full moon pierced by circles of brighter light from headlamps. Each step up the steep sandy slope got colder and the wind got stronger. After 30 minutes of walking the wind had reached a level where you needed to lean into the prevailing wind to prevent being blown off your feet. The wind picked up small stones and sand and smashed them against anything in their path. I was left walking forward but facing my head away from the summit so that the dust and stones hit the back of my jacket's hood and not into my face and eyes.

With about twenty meters before the summit, our group of six sat bundled together with our backs to the summit and prevailing unpleasantness. Our guide was going to chat with two other groups a little ahead of us, also deciding on if to summit or not. No one said anything to each other as we sat there waiting. We were silent as we were all going through our own process and any attempt to chat saw your voice carried off by the wind.

This is so shit.

So cold.

Unpleasnaly windy.

Wait, I get to decide how I experience is. I'm the author of my own story. I'm not dying. Maybe it's a little unpleasant, but it's temporary.

At that moment I realised again why I enjoy pushing my body into un-comfortability, it's mediation. A moment of true presence. A chance to decide how I would like to author this experience.

Isiaire, returned having spoken to the other guides and suggested that summitting wasn't a good idea. The wind, once you're over the summit, gets even stronger as you suddenly lose the shelter from being on the leeward side of the mountain. But the choice was ours. Everyone sat silently for a while, a combined sense of wanting to summit but worried about the conditions.

"There is no choice", I finally spoke, "we've made it to the top and going further isn't safe, let start descending"

Everyone agreed.

The sun had already started to come up and each step down would be warmer and less windy. We didn't need to put ourselves in danger for the sake of a photograph or to be able to say we stood on the top.

Day 7:

Uncertainty and change seemed to be a theme for The Challenge this year. The final event was a stand-up paddleboard across Lake Atitlan, but unusually high winds meant that the event was cancelled by the guiding company. The organisers decided instead to do some ziplining for the morning instead.

Day 7 ended as planned with us arriving in San Juan to the team from ODIM and the Mum's and babies that our fundraising efforts were supporting. Small cardboard signs, saying thank you in Spanish and English. About 20 people on the dock cheering and welcoming us with hugs and flowers. It was a lump in the throat moment. The realisation that we'd done it. We'd completed the challenge, and here in the flesh were the people that would directly benefit from all the work we'd put in.

Months of fundraising, leaning on our networks and creating awareness, followed by a week of intense travel and physical excursion, and it was now complete! We'd done it!!

As I write this, Araminta and I are a few hundred dollars short of our initial fundraising goal of $6,000, which I know we'll meet! I will include a link to the fundraising page below if you're able to support us to reach our final goal it would make a huge difference to the mums and babies that directly benefit from your contribution.

A huge thank you to the team at ODIM. The work, communication and logistics that go into organising an event like this are huge. Despite all the challenges and changes, the event went off so smoothly! Thank you also to all the tireless work you all put in throughout the year to support the 120 mums and their babies that go through your programs. In addition to the direct support of nutrition and medication, the mums also have a support network and place that they can share and connect on their journey as young mothers. This work is deeply needed and I'm proud to have been able to support this organisation.

To the other challengers, you guys are amazing. It's been an honour to spend this past week with you. Thank you for the shared moments and the combined effort you've all put into supporting ODIM and the work they're doing in Guatemala.

To Minta, thank you for agreeing to do this. This was my idea, and you did this because you knew it would be fun for me. You put in all the hours of training and preparation and you soldiered on despite the challenges this event bought up. Thank you for all the ways that you show up for our relationship. I love you.


About the author

Gareth is a Lifestyle Designer, a Perfect Day chaser and a minimalist. Based in Guatemala his highest joy is creating content that helps and inspires people to Live More Perfect Days.

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