Daniel had told me all about his amazing trek from the town of Nebaj; which was about 5 hours by bus to the north east of Xela, to the town of Todos Santos. This trek is really off the tourist trail and so I decided to book in with the same private guide.. It cost me about $50 a day for everything included,\. To get to the town of Nebaj was a bit of a marathon effort: first I needed to take a Chicken bus from Xela to the town of Quiche which was 2.5 hours away. Then I changed chicken buses for the bus to Nebaj – another 2.5 hours in the bus up the windy roads. Riding in the chicken buses is always an interesting adventure. At times there are up to 100 people on the buses, everyone squished right in up against each other and holding on for dear life as the bus careers around the corners at top speed, often with a plunging cliff off to the side. I arrived in Nebaj at around 4:30pm and got in contact with my guide to organise a meeting point and leaving time for the following day.
Met up with Jacinto at 8am on Friday morning all excited and ready for my big outback Guatemala adventure. We first took a minivan out into the mountains for about an hour – again, I was amazed at how many people were able to fit into this tiny minivan! Eventually we were dropped at the start of a small road in the middle of nowhere, which apparently was the starting out point of our hike to Todos Santos. We began hiking along the road up and down as the elevation changed continuously with some beautiful views over the farmland and the surrounding limestone cliffs. Eventually we turned off the road and into a windy and slippery path that took us right across the countryside. We walked for about 2 hours before reaching our lunch spot in a tiny rural town and we ate in the kitchen of a local family who didn’t speak much Spanish but who had cooked a lovely lunch of frijoles (beans), eggs and tortillas. Definitely provided the energy that we needed for the next part of the trek.
The afternoon session was much more challenging. Most of it was on a small track winding through the mountains which was fine initially, but became very slippery and treacherous once the heavy rain set in! It was a shame because a lot of the views were obscured by the heavy clouds that surround the mountains in the afternoon. The going on this track was certainly a lot slower than normal. We saw some horses, loaded up with wood for construction making light work of the track – the horses and their owners passed us with seemingly little effort as we struggled onwards up the slippery path.
Finally, after a 3 hour slog, we reached the “main road” again. We walked through a small town and then onwards up the hill into what would be our final stop for the day; the town of Tzebal. We were staying with a local family in what appeared to be their bedroom - a room full of beds, but only Jacinto and I were sleeping in there that night. I’m not sure where the family were sleeping. It was really nice to get out of my sopping wet clothing and put on some warm, dry clothes.
Up nice and early and I bravely tackled the change back into my cold and wet clothing! With the Merino layers it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought and once we were walking, things soon quickly warmed up! This morning we had amazing views over the town and out into the valleys as we climbed up the mountain that separated the province that contained Nebaj from the province of Huehuetenango – which contained our final stop of Todos Santos. The going up the mountain was tough, very steep uphill, but it was worth the effort when we reached the top and were able to see out over the two provinces. It was really beautiful! Just amazing! It actually looked as though we were heading from the sunny Nebaj side to the cloudy looming Huehuetenango side and I hoped that we could make it to our night’s lodgings before the rain set in, but we still had quite a bit a walk ahead of us!
Heading down the other side of the mountain was definitely much easier going than heading upwards! Once we got the bottom, we reached an eerily flat plain – surrounded by looming cliffs on all sides, that seemed to go on forever. It appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, but as we walked across it, we passed a number of families herding goats and cows in the opposite direction, obviously heading somewhere, perhaps towards the town we had visited the night before? Jacinto spotted the first snake that I had seen in Guatemala – it was a tiny thing that didn’t look very dangerous, but Jacinto assured me that it was very venomous! We walked at least a couple of kilometres across this strange flat expanse of land and then all of sudden we had reached the opposite side and were once again heading up a steep mountain, into a town and out the other side to the small house where we ate our lunch. The house was located in the most beautiful location, looking out over the mountains in a very remote location. The family was very friendly, and children were very interested in me – but also very shy. One of the boys had amazing reddish hair and green eyes with the dark Guatemalan skin. Jacinto told me that this look was pretty common in this community. After lunch it turned out that we didn’t have too much more walking to do; we headed about another kilometre up the road to the “bus stop” which was just a fork in the road where a bus would ‘maybe’ come by each day at 12 noon. But only maybe. The only options other than the bus were to either a) Wait by the side of the road for a pickup (a ute that we could hitch a ride on) or b) Walk the 18km to the next place where we could catch a bus to our accommodation. We ended up doing a mix of both, we walked along the side of the road waiting for a pick up to take us. We weren’t having too much luck and had made it about 6kms down the road before a truck carrying potatoes stopped and let us take a ride in the back. This ended up being even better than a pick up because, just after we got in the skies opened up and it poured with rain. We were able to sit in comfort on the potatoes and chat with some local workers about their plans to immigrate illegally to the US. We were dropped at a crossroads by the bus and we walked a little way down a busy highway to a lookout point with beautiful views down over the valley, even though it was slightly cloudy. After the viewpoint, it was onto a chicken bus bound for Todos Santos and our accommodation for the night at a place called Geronimos. It was here that I got my first glimpse of the local men dressed in their traditional dress. They wear what looked like pajama pants – white with red vertical stripes, a jacket of the same style with a hand woven collar, and finally a straw hat to complete the look. This is one of the few places in Guatemala where both the men and the women wear their traditional dress.
Geronimo’s place was very basic and we arrived right as the rain started up again. It would continue raining all night very heavily. There wasn’t much to do at Geronimos other than read my book and relax (and try to keep warm). Jacinto needed to head back to Nebaj for another tour so he left me in the capable hands of Geronimo and his family. Just before dinner, they called me over for an interesting experience which was a sauna. This sauna was a little brick outhouse which looked like it was designed for midgets. Inside the sauna, they build up a fire and burn it down to hot coals. The idea is then that you sit down inside and pour water on the coals and yourself and enjoy the steam bath. It was pretty strange being inside there and I’m not sure how sanitary it was but I definitely got a good steam out of my pores! After the sauna was a simple dinner with the family seated around the stove fired by wood. Finally off to bed for an early night. Ready to be up early yet again for my final day of hiking.
Day 3: Geronimo’s to Todos Santos
This morning I hiked with one of Geronimo’s sons – Dorotea. We ate a quick simple breakfast of eggs, frijoles and tortillas by the stove before setting out at about 6:30. It was a pretty cloudy morning as we climbed the highest non-volcanic peak in Guatemala – called El Torre. We were still able to get a good view out to Santa Maria as we walked up, although it was too cloudy at the top to see anything at all. Luckily for us, as we descended the other side, the clouds cleared and we were able to see out through the valley all the way to Todos Santos and onwards towards the border with Mexico, more than 4 hours by car away.
While we walked, Dorotea chatted to me about some time that he had spent in the US. He was deported after a few years when he was in a car accident. The scenery was beautiful, with the views constantly changing as we descended down into the valley. Once we hit the road down into Todos Santos, we caught a pick-up into the town proper, and we were in another world. All the men and women were in traditional dress, walking up and down the street going about their daily business. There wasn’t another tourist (gringo) in sight. I felt like Dorothy in munchkin land. Also it was a special day of significance for the Catholic Church and we were able to see a procession down the main street with a band playing solemn music. Later that day I saw a similar procession, although much bigger in Xela, where they were carrying what looked like a huge coffin with a statue of Mary on top. We spent a little bit of time touring around Todos Santos and then it was time to jump back in the Chicken bus and head back to Xela on 2 x 2.5 hour bus rides. I arrived back into Xela at around 5:30pm