Recently we paid for and took a hike up the Volcan Santa Maria with Hike & Help here in Xela, Guatemala. A non profit that supports libraries on local communities, we chose to go with them because their guides are actual Guatemaltecos rather than gringos. I have recently begun to dislike the concept of gringo ¨vacationing¨ in a place and in the process taking jobs away from locals. This particular hike took place at night, during the full moon, and so it was a special occasion for all of us.
This was about the point where my good feelings toward our guides ended. While I don´t think groups need to be hand held, there are a few points that I thought should have been discussed before heading up the mountain given that the group had very mixed experience.[ad#final-review-ad]
Meeting at their office at midnight we were quickly on our way to the volcano to begin our hike. Given that we were beginning at 7500 feet and climing to 12,400 – during the night, when it is both dark and cold – I expected there to be some discussion, even in Spanish, on the effects of hypothermia and the importance of regulating your body temerature in addition to telling us the importance of staying together. This never happened.
The hike up was a difficult one and it was not long before some participants began to fall behind. One person even began vomiting shortly after the start of the hike. Quickly we split into two groups, one with the front guide, who was tearing up the mountain at breakneck speed and another group with the enfirmed.
Generally the pattern was to hike with him very quickly, work up a sweat, then sit in the cold for 20 minutes allowing the sweat to cause shivers while the slower portion of the group caught up. Walking slowly, in the middle became our best option as we could take more frequent breaks for less time but then we were alone, in the dark, in a stange country…why did we hire the guide? Additionally, the fact the group was almost never together and the majority of the hikers had no hope in keeping pace with the first guide meant that had we encountered more trouble it would have been a much longer time before help would have arrived as the guides would not have known. This breackneck pace was repeated on the way down only without a single opportunity to rest our exhausted, trembling legs.
I do not belive these guides were malicious but rather that they are not actually qualified guides. I write this as someone who has wilderness first aid training in addition to having led many groups on hikes and other adventures. I do not belive these guides, themselves, have had any training in wilderness first aid, hypothermia, group safety, or anything other training a paid wilderness guide should have. Luckily there were no repercussions this time but it really is only a matter of time before something serious does happen.
In the end, I do not recommend using Hike and Help as an outfitter when in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.