The Western Highlands of Guatemala are the epitome of off-the-beaten-path, with long stretches so remote they were spared the country’s brutal 36 year civil war, and—as I discovered hiking across them—often literally without a path.

More than an education in aspects of Guatemala’s cultures and landscapes though, my 6-day hike through the mountains and altiplano taught me lessons that sharpened my own character:

Question your fears

One kilometer in elevation gain, 89 switchbacks, before 6 a.m. Our third day’s itinerary scared the bejeezus out of me.

But day 3 came, and slowly but surely, I trekked up the switchbacks in the dark. It was difficult, but difficulty doesn’t need to cause fear. As I paced myself up the switchbacks with a friend, I couldn’t help but to laugh at the irrational nature of my anxieties over this challenge—did I imagine the group would be composed of super strength humans who would leave me alone on a Guatemalan mountainside because I couldn’t keep up? Like most fears, this one came down to my own insecurities about not being strong enough, and like most fears, the only way to get over it was to face it.

By 5:45 a.m., I had reached the summit and was sitting down to a hot cup of coffee and a cloudy sunrise. And next time I sign up for a group hike, I’ll remember to save my fears for something more relevant.

Take it slow (with inclines and friendships)

When faced with a large group of people, I revert to my inner 13-year-old as my anxieties over being cool and fitting in come surging back to infiltrate my calm and cool adult persona. And so on the first day of the hike, when I found out that (surprise!) the normally 8-person trek had expanded to 34, all I could think was, “Oh shit.”

After an initial frenzy of meeting people on the first day, I didn’t feel like there was anyone I connected with. But come day two and our first big incline, I found myself with a group of women hiking at the same pace (slow), and we had a lovely lazy conversation all the way to the summit. These were the people I ended up befriending for the remainder of the hike, the ones who could, like me, relax and enjoy the journey.

Don’t lose your sense of humor

On day 4 on the trip, I lost my sole.

My sturdy old hiking boots were suddenly just old, as the glue keeping them together gave into the strength of calf-deep mud. At first, I duck-taped the sole back into place, but that solution quickly failed. My sole had fallen off on the trail, and there was no getting it back.

The situation looked bleak: two days left of hiking and one functional hiking boot. I figured I could either cry and bemoan my fate or start cracking jokes, because neither option would bring my boot back to life. I braved the muddy paths in Chacos and officially became the dirtiest person on the hike, alternatively nicknamed “the hobbit” or “the prophet”—but how can I be a prophet if I don’t have a sole??

Those two days totally sucked, don’t get me wrong, but keeping my spirits light and giving the whole group something to laugh about carried me along.

Guest Contributor

Georgia peach, coffee addict, and Bananagrams champ (in no particular order), Olivia Cohen is a freelance writer and designer currently based in Guatemala. Her work has appeared on TripAdvisor, Viator, and more, but you can always keep up with her travels through Central America on therecouldbeblackberries.com