Escape from Pana! (or The DIY Corn Maze)

If there’s ever a good month to get lost in a corn field, it’s surely October. These 31 days are practically dedicated to corn mazes, scarecrows, and pumpkin patches–except, that is, in Guatemala.

Here, October passes without fanfare. There’s no Halloween (the Day of the Dead, which falls at the beginning of November, is the not-to-miss party, instead), no hayrides through haunted fields, and worse yet, no apple cider donuts. October arrives at the tail end of the rainy season, so it’s lush and tropical—the opposite of the crisp, russet-gold Octobers I know and love.

Despite the month doing its best to dampen my autumnal spirits, though–it’s a sad day when you consider carving a papaya instead of a pumpkin–I’m proud to say that Shon and I recently managed to create our own frightening, Children of the Corn experience. I’d love to take all of the credit for our October-appropriate adventure, but it was really Panajachel that provided the inspiration.

Santa Catarina Hike.22 (427x640)I rarely talk about Pana (the town we call home), and that’s because there isn’t much to say. Having come from living in (and loving) New York City, I find it rather stifling. It boasts one main road (called Santander, it features the majority of Pana’s restaurants, street vendors, and souvenir shops–most of which offer variations of the same things); a handful of secondary streets lined with two-story houses, tiendas (stores), and tortilla-makers; and the rest of town: think cinderblock homes, schools, and noisy Evangelical churches. Surrounding Pana are cliffs, forests, fields, and the waters of Lake Atitlán.

The northern end of Santander.
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Vendors on Santander.

It’s a small town, which isn’t to say that there aren’t things to do. Shon and I go out for drinks, do dinner with friends, cook big meals at home, and stop by the market weekly. We get sunburned at hotel pools, visit other lakeside towns, and watch Dexter and Homeland on Netflix. Shon plays poker. I run. It’s a fine existence.

That is, until it’s not.

See, it turns out that small town living isn’t for me. The inescapable sameness of everything—the same sights, sounds, people, and places—grates on my nerves, often turning on my claustrophobic switch. I deal with it, though not always well.

Some days, my heart pounds so hard it threatens to burst, and I fantasize about running away to anywhere—even Guatemala City, where the promise of big buildings, bustling neighborhoods, and millions of people makes the city’s high robbery, murder, and carjacking rates seem trivial.

Other days, I’m able to direct my pent-up frustration into more productive pursuits, like finding something, anything new for us to do. Like grab the dogs and go for a hike.

Now, I know going for a hike doesn’t sound like a novel idea, but here in Panajachel, it’s just not really done. This isn’t to say that trails through farms and fields, over mountains, and into forests don’t exist. They certainly do, but as a means for rural farmers and villagers to get from place to place. A few routes—like the one we took to get to the town of Buena Vista last year—are well-known and well-trodden, making them fine for a day hike. Most, though, are unmarked, unmapped, and, as we were soon to find out, wildly unmaintained. (I should also note that hiking into unknown territory in Guatemala isn’t exactly a safe way to spend a Saturday. In case you had something in mind.)

All that said, a hike is naturally what I decided Shon, Chaddy, Sam, and I should do one recent Saturday morning. I grew up in Princeton. I never said I went to Princeton, okay?

Bordering Lake Atitlán and just a few kilometers from our house, Santa Catarina is a compact, hillside community that’s hugged by steep, grassy mountains. It’s the next town over from Panajachel, and there’s a single road that leads to it. On runs to Santa Catarina, I had noticed trails zigzagging into the hills above it. One of those trails, I decided, would be our hiking destination.

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Santa Catarina.

It was to be a short hike, so we didn’t bring sunscreen, bug spray, or anything to eat or drink. Shon wore sandals. I wore short shorts. It was just us, the dogs, and a camera heading into the unknown. It was essentially the plot for a bad horror movie–the kind where all of the characters make tons of stupid mistakes you just know you would never make, like running upstairs to escape the ax-wielding murderer instead of out the front door or hiking into the Guatemalan wilds with mascara in place but no water.

Santa Catarina Hike (427x640)Things started fine enough. Under a blue sky and strong early-morning sun, we followed the road from Pana to Santa Catarina, detoured onto a small paved path, and then let the dogs off-leash on a steep trail that Shon and I followed, too. We had striking views of Santa Catarina and Lake Atitlán. After a while, the path–now high in the hills–slowly U-turned, heading back in the direction we had come, and we could see Pana beneath us in the distance.

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Pretty Chaddy with Pana in the distance.

Santa Catarina Hike.8 (640x427)“Maybe the trail circles all the way back to town,” said Shon. Yes, please! I thought, elated by the prospect of having one more “thing”—an easy-access escape from town—to add to our weekend list of “things to do.” It was this hope that I’m certain jinxed us.

As we continued on, our once-pleasant trail turned moody, most notably upon entering the shadowy side of the mountain, where the sun was still a long way from showing its face. The ground beneath us became damp, overgrown, and tangled, and a forest quickly grew up around us.

Santa Catarina Hike.15 (640x421)Santa Catarina Hike.21 (427x640)As first, it felt refreshing to brush through the cool, dewy leaves and vines. But then niggling thoughts began to pop into my mind.

Are all these shiny leaves I’m walking through poison ivy?

Are those thorns scratching my legs drawing blood?

The dogs grew increasingly speckled with pricklers and shiny with morning dew. Soon, the foliage around us was so thick I could no longer see Shon. And then, just as quickly as the forest appeared, a corn field took its place. Slender green leaves soared above our heads and the pearly teeth of young corn cobs peeked out around us. We made our way easily through the stalks—that is, until our trail faded away, and our once-defined route now resembled all of the other rows around us. Some folks would have probably called it quits at this point, but we pressed forward, certain the trail would pick up elsewhere.

Santa Catarina Hike.23 (427x640)Santa Catarina Hike.16 (427x640)The field hugged the side of a mountain, and we decided to follow the rows of corn downhill, in the hopes that we might eventually reconnect with the road to Pana that we knew was somewhere beneath us. The terrain was thick with dead cornstalks, on which we tripped and tripped. In the maze of rows, our otherwise trail-wise dogs lost their sense of direction. I called to them, and through the green, I saw flits of black to my left, to my right, and behind me. The dogs ran in circles but couldn’t figure out where I was, hidden in the corn.

Santa Catarina Hike.18We trampled through the field until a gnarly forest wall brought us to a complete stop. For a moment, we stood in silence, pondering where to go next, and that’s when I heard it. Somewhere not far away, a repetitive sound, a Ching! Ching! Ching! It was the hacking of a machete.

There was someone in the mess of corn and forest above us. Where above us is what I wondered. If high up enough, a person could have an open view of the area and mountainside below. A person could have monitored our progression through the corn field, as we grabbed stalks around us for support, shaking them violently, forcing their green leaves to alert whomever was above and possibly watching. A farmer in another field working on his crop? A woman cutting down kindling for a fire? Or the farmer of this field, who might want to know what the hell we were doing. I didn’t want to find out.

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Looking happy for the camera, but my hair is a good indicator of our predicament.

We forced our way into the forest and continued our downhill march, hoping desperately to find a trail that would lead us to the main road. We occasionally stumbled, tripped, lost our footing, and fell. And we did find a path and then another and another—but each one eventually died out, leaving us to wander anew.

I took a momentary break while Shon went to investigate a potential new route. I glanced at my legs. A dozen striped tiger mosquitoes circled and landed on my bare skin, then quickly multiplied into a swarm. I slapped frantically at the bugs, checking off the maladies I was surely acquiring: Malaria. Dengue. AIDS. Gluten intolerance.

Shon returned with bad news: Our current prospect for a trail led nowhere. We were muddy, tired, bloody, and bitten with no idea where to go. And so, we did the only thing we could. Defeated and disappointed, we turned around. Our trailblazing attempts had failed.

We climbed back up the mountain and into the corn field and headed in the general direction from which we had come. Eventually, we found the trail that had led us into this mess, and we set out to backtrack home and back to Pana, which was–for the first time in a very long time–exactly where I wanted to be.

4 thoughts on “Escape from Pana! (or The DIY Corn Maze)

  1. Whoa, you guys made it a long way, especially without food and water! I probably would have turned back a lot sooner. 🙂 But glad you made it back safely with some great photos!

  2. Yikes! What a crazy adventure. Too bad you didn’t have the gang from Quetzaltrekkers there to help lead the way. Speaking of, I was in Telluride, CO in August, and who do I run into on a hiking trail but our guide, Lindsey! Such a small world… Anyway, I am glad that you, Shon and the dogs made it out alive–mostly so you can keep writing these blog posts. I have missed them and am happy that you are back. Make sure to pack your insect repellant next time. Gluten intolerance would certainly be a bummer for a foodie like you!

    1. Alison, small world, indeed–that’s crazy!! And yes, Shon and I would have definitely fared better with Quetzaltrekkers–or, at the very least, had better conversation along the way. We were so far apart while in the corn field and forest (he’s ALWAYS moving faster than me), and our dogs aren’t great conversationalists ; )

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