Weather these days: It's the rainy season, y'all, so it pretty much rains every . single . day. What can I say! Carry an umbrella and wear a light hoodie.
As part of my job in local development (with international aid funds), I had to organize an outing at an ecological park located within the urban perimeter. The Govt. of Spain works with the Calmecac Foundation, which recovers urban green spaces to turn them into parks, so it was a natural choice to take our students to Parque Ecológico Ciudad Nueva, managed by this organization at the very end of the Ciudad Nueva neighborhood (it ends at the edge of a steep precipice, or barranco).
Guatemala City, located at about 5,000 feet above sea level, is built in a valley surrounded by mountains. Nevertheless, the city itself straddles some hills surrounded by deep abysses known as barrancos. Barrancos are the natural water repositories, as well as the lungs, of the (extremely polluted) City of Guatemala.
Note: Barranquear, hiking some of the urban area's barrancos, is a very popular activity among city youngsters and has been so for centuries. All sorts of interesting fauna and flora can be found in these places: birds, mammals (raccoon-like critters and smaller wild felines) (non poisonous) snakes, and big-ass insects.
The park extends and goes down into the aforementioned barranco, which we hiked with a capable (and very patient) Calmecac guide, Architect Ricardo Molina. The views from the altitude are simply amazing. Very steep drops. If one falls down some of them, one is certain to break one's neck. Or at least some other bones.
There was no way we could get to the very bottom of the barranco due to time contraints, but along the way we saw caves and gigantic agave plants, trees and all sorts of species of beautiful lichens and plants. There are ponds and rivers at the bottom, from what I am told, and these water bodies supply specific areas of the city, such as the Historic Center.
We learned to do stuff, like how to read tree bark to see if the environment is lacking moisture. Not that this is going to come in handy in my day-to-day life, but still. It's interesting.
Even though we did not see any, there are interesting mammals in these barrancos.
I have seen the wild cat species before at another barranco (I have done this before), and they are pretty much like very large, yellow cats. Their fangs are a bit longer than regular cats. And they seem to be both scared of and hateful towards humans. From what I recall from previous personal experience, if you bump into one, its back hair raises, it arches its spine and it'll hiss showing its fangs before turning around and dashing away from us. Not that I blame them!
Pizote, mammal typical of Guatemalan urban barrancos
So, what do our students do? They come from all walks of life, and are taking a 6 months course in community-organizing we offer via a Government of Spain institution in partnership with the City Government. Most of our students come from the old neighborhoods or barrios of the Historic Center of Guatemala. We help them learn how to organize their neighbors for the betterment of their barrios and public spaces.
The point of this in-tune-with-nature exercise is that our students be able to experience the ways in which natural environments can be brought into urban and densely populated areas, and how these endeavors are not impossible or all that hard to achieve. To my surprise, many of our students are already very involved in ecological activities in the urban area, from different levels of recycling to greening roofs and creating vertical gardens. I have to say it, our community-organizing students are a truly amazing group.
The climb back up was a paradoxical experience, as it was both easier to accomplish yet much more painful, probably because we were so tired already. Going down is very slippery-slide in those steep hiking trails. Going up involves a lot of pulling yourself up from whatever you can grab onto. It helps that when going up, you're not looking down into the abyss!
I ended up with blisters on my hands and heel and my thighs and shoulders ached explosively for days afterward. After all, there is a lot of "pulling yourself up" from lianas and protruding roots and stuff like that (don't try grabbing on to the belt of the person walking in front of you... they seem not to like that!). It was all worth it. The smell of damp earth and leaves, the beautiful and impressive views, some really strange plants, the fresh wind, etc.
Mirador or sight-seeing deck in the park towards the precipice. Great place to take photos! Photo: Calmecac
One of the ways in which I found that this activity had worked best of all, was that at the end of the hike the students had become much more tighter and cohesive as a group. I guess it truly was not only a learning and informative experience, but also a bonding experience as a group.
After that (brutal, brutal!) climb back, we all plopped around the deck to catch our breath, enjoy the view, drink cold water and have our snacks. We enjoyed an informative talk and a debriefing session, all of which was done in an ambiance of great camaraderie and friendship.
Calmecac offers a longer guided walk that takes around 4+ hours (more time than we could afford) down to the very bottom of the barranco, walking across it to come out at another park a couple miles away. Both of these parks offer ample parking space and other amenities, in case hiking through the wilderness is not exactly your thing (in general, not my thing either! Believe me).
One thing, though, is that because Calmecac concentrates on recovering local plant species, it is not a "prettily manicured" type of park. It is, however, comfortable, safe and clean. I find it beautiful and refreshing in its own style.
Entry to the park is free, but there are some small fees for camping and guided hiking walks. The park has security, so that campers and hikers can engage in their favored activities in reasonable safety. The park also offers kiosks with barbeque facilities and bathrooms. It is clearly a very popular place for families, as we saw several family groups with children enjoying a late lunch, walking the hiking paths and playing on the swing sets.
Calmecac and the park are managed by a group of staff and volunteers under the direction of Ricardo Molina and Marta Ayala, who have also opened other ecological parks throughout the whole country. To contact them you can click here for more information or visit them at www.calmecacguate.org.
In short, the outing was a great success, although my body ached terribly for days afterward. If you haven't done anything like this before but want to try, this is a great way to start. Make sure you bring a couple bottles of water, though, for you are going to need it. Oh yeah, and mosquito repellent! You are going to need that too.
Other things going on are that, in my eternal quest to become useful in the kitchen, I learned how to make that ubiquitous dessert-candy called Dulce de Leche. There are two types: made from goat milk or from bovine milk. If made from goat's milk, it is called cajeta and it is stickier, like taffy; and from cow's milk, it is called dulce de leche (milk candy). What it is, it's basically a very thick-creamy caramel.
Some people prefer it liquid, as a syrup, but I like it very silky-creamy and richer in taste. It is very easy to make.
Buy a couple of cans of condensed milk at the supermarket. It has to be sugared. Sugarfree won't work.
You cover the can/s in water and boil them for a couple of hours. For added richness, you can boil for 3 or 4 hours. If you like it more liquid, boil a much shorter length of time.
Some people boil it in a pressure cooker, but I am terrified of pressure cookers. I know the pressure cooker will save on energy, but bad things have happened to me when I have used one in the past. Flashbacks of food dripping from all over the kitchen ceiling and walls haunt me still.
Anyhow. Once you have boiled them for the required time, making sure they are covered in water all the time so that you don't have some parts cooked better than others, you turn the stove off. You let them cool. Once cooled, open the cans and voila! Dulce de leche.
Place it in a covered container and you don't need to refrigerate it. It can hold its own outside the fridge for a long time, and it remains softer outside the fridge. And this is why you make it rather than buy it: It is richer than the commercial kind bought at the supermarket.
What can you have it with? You can eat it by itself, or else, on ice cream, crepes, bananas (raw or roasted), on toast, as icing or filling for cake, to make candied apples or on obleas (big very light cookies made of the same material that communion wafers are made from). Or... some people grab a spoonful and mix it in their coffee, in lieu of sugar.
With goat milk (cajeta): If you are allergic to cow's milk, make it with goat's milk, but that involves a lot of standing by the stove and stirring milk with sugar for over an hour, till most of the milk has evaporated and you're left with a sludgy sticky mixture (which actually tastes delicious). It is so labor-intensive that you're better off just buying it ready made at the grocery store.
Anyhow, that is it for today. A little bit more about living in Guatemala City. Next post will probably talk more about work and nightlife. Till then, I wish you well!