Ruta Quetzal

The Ruta Quetzal  (“Quetzal Route”) is a trip taken yearly by hundreds of Latin American, Spanish, and other Spanish-speaking students. It started in 1979, when Miguel de la Quadra-Salcedo proposed to former king Juan Carlos I of Spain his idea to create a trip for teenagers from Spain, Latin America and other countries of Asia and Europe; one which would promote intercultural exchange between the youth of Spanish speaking countries, as well as youngsters from more than 50 countries. Many different routes have been travelled through the years, though each one is unique. For half of the trip, students travel around a Latin American country and for the other half, around Spain and Portugal. Each year, 250 students have the chance to be a part of this educational, cultural, scientific and adventurous trip.

The selection process usually consists of an invitation to submit an original piece of historical, literary, artistic or musical work covering one of several pre-designated topics, followed by an interview (this stage only applies to Spanish participants). The only requirements are to be between 15 and 17 years of age and to be able to understand and speak Spanish. Up to date, more than 10,000 students around the world have been a part of this life-changing adventure that has, not only enhanced their knowledge of diverse academic disciplines, but also shaped them into environmentally aware, cooperative and respectful global citizens.

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I participated in the year 2010, and the Latin American country that would be visited was Mexico. The reason for this was that the country was celebrating two centuries of independence (since 1810). But the year 2010 was also special for the next reason: the Ruta Quetzal was celebrating its 25th anniversary. Therefore, the trip would be 45 days long instead of 30, and it was named: “El Misterio de los Caminos Blancos Mayas“. That is: “The Mystery of the Mayan White Ways“. The white ways (sacbe, in Yucatan Maya) connected temples, plazas, and groups of structures within ceremonial centers or cities, but some longer roads between cities are also known. The term “sacbe” is Yucatec Maya for “white road”; white because they were originally coated with limestone stucco, which was over stone and rubble fill. So, following the Mayan white ways, the 2010 expedition explored the Yucatan peninsula and its Mayan cities, white sand beaches, biosphere reserves and local towns and cities.

We started in Madrid, Spain, where we had the chance to meet our groups. In the Ruta Quetzal, every participant is assigned to a group, led by a group leader. Your group is your family: you eat with them, shower with them, share tent with them and do every activity of the day with them.  Each one of us can only carry two rucksacks: a large and a small one. Everything we would need for our 45-days-long expedition had to fit in these two bags. But you had to be careful and remember that YOU had to carry those bags. What do we carry in our rucksacks? Most importantly, our sleeping bag. Second, two pairs of hiking trousers, four official shirts and a thermal sweater. Third, a plate, a vase and a cutlery set to eat everyday. Fourth, a towel and a swimsuit, which were necessary when we had to shower in public. Yes, that was everyday. Fifth, our raincoat. Yes, there are a lot of tropical storms in Mexico, specially during the summer months. The rest? A good pair of Panama Jack hiking boots and sandals, a cap, socks, sunglasses, toiletries, PJs, sun cream, medicines and a camera.  To sum up, each one of us is responsible for their sleeping bag and their group’s camping tent. That and your personal belongings. Which, as you can see, were not many.

If you’re asking yourself what exactly did we do, let me tell you now that in the Ruta Quetzal there is no such thing as routine or a “typical day”. Every day is different.  But let me give you a general overview of what we did every day.

  • We would be woken up at 6.00am by our camp leader, Jesús Luna. He used a megaphone and walked around the camp singing songs to wake us up. He always made sure to include motivational messages like: “Today is the day you have all been waiting for. Today you will get a hot shower”  or “Today you will get a hot chocolate”.  Spoiler alert: most of the time, that was not true. But, hey, we did get a hot shower and a hot chocolate a couple of days. Jesús Luna was accompanied by the titiriteros, three musicians whose job was to wake us up in the morning to the sound of drums and tubas and to motivate us throughout the long and tiring days.
  • Already woken up, the whole expedition was divided into two groups: one group would go for breakfast first and then would take a shower, while the other one would shower first and then go for breakfast. The showers were normally built on camp, and the water was quite cold. But breakfast was always amazing. We were served a variety of fruits, yogurt, scrambled eggs, bread, rice, juices and cereals.
  • After breakfast, we started the activities planned for the day. Those could involve visiting ancient Mayan cities (e.g., Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Ek Balam, Ezdna) and local museums, touring Mexican and Spanish cities (e.g., Veracruz,  Campeche, Madrid, Leon, Avila) and getting involved with the local communities, or attending conferences. Sometimes, we did all of this in the same day.
  • In the afternoon, our buses drove us to our next destination. When we arrived, we had to set up the camp, build our tents and get everything ready for the next day. One of the best parts of the Ruta Quetzal is the amazing places where you get to sleep: we set our camps inside Trujillo’s castle in Spain, outside Avila’s city walls, next to the Roman ruins of Baelo Claudia, in a biosphere reserve in Rio Lagartos, and in the middle of the Mexican jungle.

Now you know what we did in a “typical day”. However, the Ruta Quetzal is also known for its uniqueness, unpredictability and long, tiring, but rewarding hikes. Every expedition does four long hikes: two in the Latin American countries they are visiting and two others in Spain. In our case, we did 28km hikes in Kolem Jaa (Mexican jungle), Rio Lagartos (Mexican biosphere reserve), Garganta de los Infiernos (Caceres, Spain) and a part of Camino de Santiago (Galicia, Spain).

Before the Ruta Quetzal, I had never hiked alone. So imagine how much fun I had hiking in the Mexican jungle for 10 hours. Seriously, it came as a surprise to me how much I enjoyed it despite the heat, the sweat, the mud, the rain, the difficulty of the hike and its length. The recent tropical storms had erased the hiking trail, which meant that the expedition had to make its way through unknown territory. There was so much mud we sometimes had to slide down the mountain side. The humidity was so high that 1L of water was not enough for 28km, which meant that by the end of the hike most of us had ran out of water. And we couldn’t drink water from the rivers either. Because the storms had erased the hiking trails it took us longer to reach our destination; we were still hiking at twilight and our camp leader warned us that snakes were more active at that time of the day. Could anything else go wrong? Yes. When we finally reached our camp, they warned us about a tropical storm that was supposed to hit the camp in the next hours. That meant we had to take the tents down and, since we were so many students and they couldn’t fit us all in a small house close to the camping site, we had to sleep in small groups with the journalists who were covering the expedition. If it wasn’t for each others support, we would have broke down anytime during our hike. You can watch a video of this hike here. Even though it is in Spanish, it will give you a clearer idea of what we went through. Seven years later and completing this hike it still one of the thinks I am most proud of.

Another long hike was in Rio Lagartos, Mexico. The peculiarity of this hike was that it started a midnight and that we would hike along the beachside. The goal of the hike was to see white turtles’ eggs hatch. Some of the students in the first groups of the expedition were lucky enough to see a white turtle, but I wasn’t. Nevertheless, hiking at night in a biosphere reserve has its perks. First, you can see the Milky Way. Second, it is not as hot as it is throughout the day. We took a break to sleep for 2 hours, after which we resumed our hike and reached our camp at 8.00am. This was the first time I ever saw the dawn from beginning to end, and it was beautiful.

In Spain, the highlight of the expedition was hiking a small part of the Camino de Santiago, especially because 2010 was a Jacobean Year. A year is considered Jacobean or Holy Year when Saint James Day, 25th July, falls on a Sunday. Guess what? We hiked from Padron to Santiago de Compostela on the 25th July, with so many other pilgrims who arrived in time for Saint James Day celebrations.

Other highlights from this expedition were learning about the manufacturing of chocolate and vanilla, swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, sleeping inside Trujillo’s castle, camping in a biosphere reserve, learning the painting techniques of the Romans, diving in a cenote (a natural pool that the Mayans used for rituals and sacrifices), singing with the chorus group in front of Chichen Itza, seeing pink (natural) water, living for three days in Buque Galicia, a ship of the Spanish Navy, and, most importantly, seeing the Spanish national soccer team win the World Cup. Whaaat?!

When we say the Ruta Quetzal is a life-changing experience, we really mean it. When I came back, I remember my friends telling me there had been a “before” and “after” the trip, regarding my behaviour. For 45 days, we learned, explored, cooperated and discovered ourselves. No phones, no internet. When we disconnected from the material world, we connected with each other. This certainly made me reconsider all of the things that I once considered valuable and I realised how little we need to be happy. This expedition had me thinking about people, happiness, and self-discovery, which led me to study Psychology in college. Honestly, I do not know who or where I’d be today if I hadn’t been one of the 10,000 students that have been part of the Ruta Quetzal.

Miguel de la Quadra-Salcedo, Ruta Quetzal’s former director, passed away last year. Almost all of the sponsoring organisations have decided not to sponsor the programme anymore. So I can only hope that other organisations contribute to the achievement of Miguel’s vision and to the maintenance of a cultural programme that not only has changed the lives of more than 10,000 teenagers for the better, but that also has spread for more than 30 years love for the environment and has embraced and celebrated the differences that unite us. If not, Miguel’s vision will not die with him, since it lives in the hearts of all the people that he’s touched.

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