The truth was, few of us had actually lead hikes before and some hadn’t even really been backpacking. We were in charge however and we were going to do our best to make sure the clients that hiked with us had fun and got home safe.
Quetzaltrekkers (QT) is a charitable hiking organization located in Leon, Nicaragua and how it works is that foreigners (and the occasional local) pay us to take them on guided treks throughout the north western area of Nicaragua. In all there are 6 different volcanoes, one canyon, and a waterfall tour that they do and all of them are amazing. I’ve mentioned a few of my favourite hikes in this post.
All of the money after expenses such as food, marketing, and a few miscellaneous costs goes towards charity projects supporting at risk children in the community. In all, about 40% of the revenue is streamed towards the children’s projects and is made possible by the fact that the hiking guides are volunteers, not employees.
This post however isn’t about the amazing projects that Quetzaltrekkers supports, it’s about what life was like living in the house, hiking the trails, and being part of the project.
Learn valuable skills
Coming in to QT, none of us had all the skills we needed right from day one. Every one of us had to learn something and there was so much to know about such as; first aid safety, navigating the trails, how to make a fire, preparing food for a group, leading a group, and trivia about the hikes.
One of the challenges I faced early on was learning how to lead a group of people and make sure they have a good time. I had extensive backcountry experience, but this was the first time I’ve had others rely on me. Our groups varied wildly and each one had to be treated differently. For some you were their guardian and mother, for others a coach, and once in a while you’d get one stellar group that made things so easy it was like hiking with friends.
I learned new recipes for hiking, cool little tricks, and how to deal with well-worn gear in a country where every repair and replacement had to be MacGyvered.
Working as a team
Life could be hard at times. While we were normally supposed to hike about 4-5 days a week, some of us ended up with schedules as long as 9 straight days of guiding, all the while
carrying 25-30kg. While that many days of hiking wouldn’t normally seem like a lot to some people, I found that guiding took a lot more out of you between getting everyone up for sunrise, prepping food, carrying other people’s gear, keeping the group together and happy, as well as a host of other duties.
If it wasn’t for the fact that our team at QT worked to help each other out, each of our lives would have been made more difficult. Sometimes you’d come back from a hike to see that all your gear, water, and food had been prepped for the hike you’d be going on the next day, laid out by another thoughtful guide. When we had situations where people couldn’t hike due to an illness or other reasons there would always be someone who’d step up to fill their place no matter how much they’d already pulled their weight or how badly we needed to rearrange the schedule.
One of the girls even went as far as to write on the whiteboard how much each person was appreciated for each and everything they did the previous week.
Making lifelong friends
Though a few people lived outside the QT house/office, most of us lived there and spent nearly all our time there, when we weren’t hiking of course. It was like university dorm life, but more intense. We were relying on each other, not just ourselves.
When we managed a day with most of the guides in the house someone would step up to make a family dinner. At our Sunday meeting we often had an opportunity to share with the group our highlights from the previous week. Perhaps our grandest feast was Christmas where we roasted a whole pig and invited some of our closest friends and heads of the charities.
Through combination of teaching each other, working as a team, and just needing to let loose we became friends and family. I’m grateful to many of my fellow QT guides for the dinners and laughs we shared, the skills they taught me, and most of all how a few helped me to be a better person.
“Do you realize our job is to have fun, hike volcanoes, watch sunsets, and enjoy the sunrise.” A fellow guide once said to me, “That’s amazing”
Two or three times a week I found myself staring out from a volcano over an ocean watching the clouds turn a deep red before the sun slipped into the waves. Over a dozen times I looked over the edge of a steaming crater to view hot red lava below. Numerous times I tested my skills running down a volcanic scree slope where a world record was set. I’ve walked through clouds, caves, and under waterfalls. I’ve swam in rivers, volcanic lakes, spring fed ponds, and oceans.
When times were quiet, just the guides would head out to find new routes on old hikes, circumnavigate a volcanic crater, marvel in the beauty that surrounded us, and strengthen our bonds.
Between all that I have learned, the friends I’ve made and the amazing places I had the opportunities to enjoy, I could not have asked for much more from Quetzaltrekkers. I really enjoyed my time working for Quetzaltrekkers Nicaragua, so much so that I’ve considered repeating at their sister location, Quetzaltrekkers Guatemala and have already started with Condor Trekkers Bolivia.
How has volunteering abroad changed your life?