Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Guatemala trekkers to ‘most beautiful lake in the world’ spend first night in Spokane mission village of Ixtahuacán
Story and photo by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register
(From the May 19, 2011 edition of the Inland Register)
Lake Atitlan is the final destination of a three-day trek that passes through the Spokane Mission area in Guatemala. The shimmering blue lake, at an elevation of 5,100 feet, is surrounded by mountains and three volcanoes and is widely recognized as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. The trek ends in one of the dozen villages that border the lake, the largest among them being Panajachel, a popular tourist and shopping site in Central America. (IR photo courtesy of Jerry Monks)
The rugged mountains and volcanic peaks of Northern Guatemala present a challenging environment to the native Mayan people living in the Spokane mission area. Their corn and beans must cling to steep mountainsides that can easily be transformed into mud slides by earthquakes and heavy rains. There are few, if any, roads in the area, and the dirt floors of their thatched roof houses offer little resistance to the unpredictable forces of nature. Remote sites frequently lack electricity, water, or even toilet facilities.
Yet the lush countryside, with volcanic peaks ranging to over 13,800 feet, is often acclaimed as some of the most beautiful in the world. Even the name Guatemala, which means “land of the trees” in the Maya-Toltec language – attests to the colorful nature of the terrain.
For international hikers, a trek through beautiful, but challenging, mountains can be both enticing and rewarding. One of the most popular trekking locations in Central America is now the three-day hike from Quetzaltenango, through the Guatemalan Highlands, to Lake Atitlan. Cost for the trek, which includes meals and bus transportation, ranges from about $85 (for the trip described below) to $265 per person, depending upon the tour operator, transportation, direction of travel, and so forth.
Quetzaltenango is a city of over 100,000 people. Also known as Xela, it was the capital of the Mayas for possibly 300 years before the arrival of the Spanish in the1520s. In native language the name is said to mean “under 10 mountains.” The colonial name of Quetzaltenango, used by visitors today, is taken to mean “the place of the quetzal bird.” The quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala, and the name, quetzal, has also been extended to the currency of Guatemala.
During the first day’s trek, international hikers bus from Xela to Xecam. From there, they begin climbing out of a valley into the alpine area served by the Spokane mission. The first day’s lunch stop is at Xetinamit, a tiny canton that Spokane missionaries have served since their early days in Guatemala. There are many ups and downs on the way, but by nightfall, trekkers reach the remote and indigenous village of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán.
Ixtahuacán has been the home to the Spokane Diocese’s Father David Baronti since 1977, when he took over the Church of Santa Catarina as the eighth “Padre de Spokane.” The village is also the site of one of the four Guatemala Mission clinics served by Dr. José Miguel, Sister Immaculata Burke of the Sisters of Charity of New York, and the medical team from Novillero. Sister Marie Tolle, another Sister of Charity of New York, also guides pastoral activities in Ixtahuacán, and St. Joseph Parish in Colbert is currently raising funds to introduce computers to the high school. In recent years, Father Baronti has finished a community center in Ixtahuacán, and Spokane-based Family-To-Family (FTF) has constructed a bakery and training center complex there.
As reported in the March 27, 2011 issue of The New York Times, trekkers spend their first night in the “tiny fog-laden village of Santa Catarina” (Ixtahuacán) sleeping in a “ramshackle municipal building” that was “a perfectly acceptable campsite.” (Note: With assistance from FTF, this building is being upgraded to serve as an earthquake and storm emergency relief center for local residents.)
After a Guatemalan breakfast in the local market, trekkers head out through cornelds, and down ravines for their second day. They cross footbridges, climb up steep paths, and over more ridges until they reach Santa Clara La Laguna.
The NY Times hiker tells of staying with a very poor local family who “sang us songs in both Spanish and Quiché.” The father, Don Pedro, told of the poverty and war of earlier days, and said that “the hardship had ended, thanks to God, only with the arrival of missionaries from Spokane and Helena who brought them radios, medicine, and irrigation. They even taught Don Pedro to read.” (Note: the late Father John Rompa, the third “Padre de Spokane,” founded the “Voice of Nahuala” radio station to open up communication to remote areas of the Highlands in 1962. Parishes in Pullman and Walla Walla help support the radio station today.)
Day three begins with an early morning wake-up call and a short walk in the darkness to a viewpoint overlooking the stunning Lake Atitlan, elevation 5,100 feet. Frequently referred to as “the most beautiful lake in the world,” Atitlan is a shimmering body of deep blue water, rimmed by three majestic volcanoes. The sunrise over Lago de Atitlan, along with the sparkling lights of distant villages along the shoreline will most likely become a cherished memory for the hikers.
Returning to their lodging, the trekkers enjoy a leisurely breakfast and begin their descent to San Juan La Laguna, a small village on the shore of Lake Atitlan, the final destination of their three-day journey. Here they may take a swim, have lunch, and board a bus for a ride back to Xela.
Visitors to the Spokane mission frequently return with a haunting realization of the dichotomy they have witnessed in the Highlands of Guatemala. On one hand, the beauty of the volcanoes, sunrise over the lakes, and friendliness of the native people is truly awesome. On the other, the plight of some of the poverty-stricken Mayans is lamentable. Spokanites can, however, take heart in the realization that their assistance over the past 50 years has had an extensive and beneficial effect on many lives.
(Jerry Monks is a member of the Spokane Diocese’s Guatemala Commission.)