Todos Santos, Guatemala
This past week I tackled a 60 kilometer trek through the Guatemalan Highlands that started in the remote Mayan town of Nebaj, wound its way through a diverse array of natural environments, and ended in Todos Santos, another remote Mayan town. The trek was led by Quetzaltrekkers, an all-volunteer non-profit in Quetzaltenango (“Xela”) that donates 100% of its profits to a local school and a home for street children in town. This organization sports a whopping five out of five “circles” on TripAdvisor, and it would do nothing to tarnish that reputation on this trek. The trek was six days long, including four days of hiking, three nights on the trail in local villages nestled in the Cuchamatanes Mountains (the highest non-volcanic mountain range in Central America), and two days of traveling to and from Xela. Joining me on the trek were three other alumni from San Pedro School (the “Eens” -> Eline, Nadine, and Antien), seven more clients hailing from across Europe and North America (Tom – England, Melanie – Switzerland, Ayala – Israel, Eitan – Israel, Max – Austria, Andrea – Venezuela/Miami, Michel – Quebec) and our four guides (Spencer – Portland, USA, Grace – New Zealand, Stéphany – Quebec, and Maria – Spain).
The first day of the trek, Tuesday, was spent mostly in transit from Xela to Nebaj, which involved a three hour ride in a chicken bus and then two hours packed into a private shuttle. We arrived in Nebaj mid-afternoon in time for a quick lunch at Popi’s Hostel — our home for the evening — and a stroll through the small town. Popi’s was a bit dark and dingy and featured a circuitous route to my bunk that required a walk through the trash room. However, despite its lack of accouterments, the food at Popi’s exceeded expectations (especially the apple pie) and provided an excellent venue for cards, beers, and a dinner that included a stop-in by a choir of local girls. These young Nebajans serenaded us with a variety of local classics such as “Twist ’n’ Shout,” “This Land is Your Land,” and “Love” by John Lennon. This mini-concert was quite adorable, but the balding American man in his 50’s or 60’s with gapped teeth, a portable keyboard, and a creepy smile was an odd choice to lead this choir. (The guys
Day 2, the first day of legitimate hiking, introduced the group to “Storytime with Spencer.” Spencer, the lead guide on the trip, has an extensive knowledge of the history of the people in the highlands, who are almost exclusively indigenous, and several times a day, he would stop to explain significant events that had occurred in and around the areas we were hiking through. For the most part, these stories covered the struggles the Mayans have faced since the Spanish – led by Pedro de Alvarado — arrived in Guatemala in 1524 and began subjugating the people to Spanish rule. Especially heartbreaking were the tales of violence the Guatemalan government carried out against the people in the Highlands in the 1970’s and 1980’s as it worked to root out guerrilla revolutionaries. These atrocities included kidnappings, murders, and the destruction of several towns through which we walked (that have since been rebuilt).
After hiking through several villages and a stop at, oddly enough, a cheese farm, we ended the night at the tiny pueblo of Xexocomb, where we would spend the night on the floor of the local school building. Before dinner, a few of the locals opened up their temazcals (Mayan sweat lodges) for us to bathe in. As my temezcal buddy (Tom) and I were waiting for our turn to sweat, we began chatting with one of the local boys whose primary line of questioning focused on whether or not England also has farm animals (yes, England has both chickens and goats). After temezcals, we enjoyed dinner served in couple of local families’ houses. These dinners, included, as is the norm here in Guatemala, heaps and heaps of tortillas. (I’m convinced the question “¿Mas tortillas?” is either rhetorical or a joke as this is always asked as a smiling Guatemalan is already dumping stacks of tortillas in front of you.) In the house where I ate, we were joined by a wall full of pictures of relatives that are illegally working in the United States; interestingly enough, all of these relatives are doing some kind of rapper pose in various suburban Texas parking lots. Although we never discovered the significance of these rapper poses, they certainly became a popular pose option for group pictures throughout the rest of the trek.
Day 3 began absurdly early — 3:30 am — as we raced the creeping dawn up 87 switchbacks and 600 vertical meters in order to make a sunrise breakfast. Shortly after arriving at the top, the partly cloudy skies greeted us with a brilliant sunrise, and as we munched on oatmeal and sipped on coffee, we commented on how the view was well worth the limited sleep. After breakfast, we ascended a few hundred more meters to reach the altiplano, the mountain plateau (~3000 meters high) that features coniferous trees scattered across rocky landscapes. As we hiked across this unique landscape, the group conversation took a several hour diversion into the world of riddles and brain teasers, which helped to keep our minds off the mounting fatigue in our legs.
Just about an hour from the day’s stopping point, Antien became the first of five in our group to fall sick with a fever and stomach bug. (She would be evacuated out to Todos Santos the next morning, where she would be joined early the next day by two other casualties). Each person that got sick had dinner at the same house in Xexocomb (we were divided into two separate houses), so this seemed to be the explanation. In addition to the trip’s first casualty, the last hour of the day’s hike also presented an ungodly muddy trail that descended to our mountain home for the evening. Although most of the us fell down at least once, the prize for best fall went to Nadine who began slipping, then sliding, then — carried by the weight of her backpack — falling into a headfirst roll off of the trail. As Nadine disappeared off the trail in front of them, Ayala and Michel, who were hiking directly behind her, had a curious split second where they were wondering whether or not Nadine had tumbled all the way down the mountain. However, these fears quickly dissipated as Nadine popped back onto the trail a second later, unscathed except for the mud that caked her pants.
After the muddy descent, we arrived at our local accommodations for the evening (an empty house), where we spent our time mostly trying to avoid a driving downpour that began shortly after we arrived and would end shortly after we went to sleep. However, during breaks in the rain, we squeezed in some friendly competitions in our “yard” that were closely observed by the 7 or 8 villagers (mostly children) that stared for hours unapologetically at this collection of gringos that had assembled in the middle of their humble pueblo. Only Carlos, age 11, was bold enough to join us in a game.
Day 4 began at a more “reasonable” time — 5:30 am — and we spent the first hour and a half hiking down to the river at the base of the valley below. Shortly after beginning this descent, a Guatemalan man walked into the road in front of us, halting our progress. Given the number of stories I have heard about robbers on hiking trails in Guatemala, I was relieved to hear his request: his digital watch did not show the correct time, but given its controls were in English, he had no idea how to adjust it. Spencer deftly set the watch to the appropriate time and informed the man, in his nearly fluent Spanish, how he could change the time in the future. I asked the man where he got the watch in my well-less-than-fluent Spanish to which the man, surprisingly, responded, “Alabama.” Long way to go for a watch.
After breakfast by the river, we ascended the ridge on the other side of the valley, serenaded by a lone speaker that blared some truly horrific-sounding music from the window of a house out across the valley. This cacophony played in the background even as we paused for a session of “Storytime with Spencer” that focused on how the U.S. CIA successfully organized a military coup to overthrow the popular Guatemalan president in 1954. (American motivations included the Guatemalan’s government’s socialist leanings and the fact that it was forcing the American-based United Fruit Company to sell a good chunk of its land in Guatemala back to the Guatemalan people. A highly recommended book on U.S. involvement can be found here.)
We kept ascending until lunch, which took place in an empty house under construction in a desolate-looking local town. This squatting was enthusiastically sanctioned by the pack of unsupervised local children, who claimed that this house was their “uncle’s” (local children gathering in packs to observe us at every stop was now becoming a token occurrence). Despite this dubious license to squat, we figured questions would only prolong the rumbling in our stomachs and took this claim at face value. As we finished up lunch, a local man in a pickup truck rolled up to drive us five kilometrers over a road to our next location. Amazingly, we fit all 13 people, 13 loaded packs, and the driver into the one pickup. Playing off of a tune from the first evening’s mini-concert, Eitan, crammed in the bed of the truck with eight others, began singing a song that would serve as this 20-minute cramped truck ride’s anthem — “This leg is my leg, this leg is your leg…” (sung, of course, to the tune of “This Land is Your Land”).
The final push on foot for the day was a walk over “Terror Hill” — whose peak sported fantastic views of the countryside below — and into another local village to meet a shuttle that would carry us to our night’s accommodations. The green, rolling hills of this last section of the day’s hike reminded me of parts of the English and Scottish countryside; however, I was quickly jolted back into the reality that I was in Guatemala, as, when we were walking through the street of this local village, three little niños poked their heads over a fence adjacent to the street and promptly proclaimed in unison “GRINGOS!” My fit of laughter provoked by this cute, fly-by racial epithet quickly turned into a fit of coughing as a truck sped by us on this unpaved road, filling my lungs with exhaust and dirt. Yes, I was, in fact, still in Guatemala.
We “slept in” on Day 5 to 6:30 am as all that remained was a climb up La Torre, the highest non-volcanic peak in Central America at 3870 meters (12,700 feet). We were guided up this peak by the previous night’s host, Don Jeronimo, a sixty-year-old ox of a Guatemalan man who did the hike in his full traditional Mayan regalia, pantalones and all (see picture below). At the top of La Torre, we celebrated our accomplishment by polishing off a few cheap, Brazilian beers — Don Jeronimo included. (These beers are known as Brahvas in Guatemala but Brahmas everywhere else, as “brahva” in Guatemala apparently means “gay.” In a practical marketing move, Brahma has tweaked its name in order to successfully sell beers into this country where machismo culture still thrives.)
We spent our final afternoon and evening in the town of Todos Santos, trying our best to remain inconspicuous as we snuck pictures of the men and boys decked out in their colorful, traditional outfits. (Literally all the men here still wear these eye-popping costumes.) After dinner, however, we quickly shattered this low-key profile when a Bluetooth speaker and some Quetzalteca (the local, cheap rum) led to an impromptu dance party and a limbo competition in the comedor of our hostel that, embarrassingly enough, was clearly visible from the street. Once again, the token niños showed up to stare and laugh at the funny gringos doing gringo things.
We awoke yesterday morning, with satisfyingly sore legs and less-satisfying sore heads, and hopped onto a private shuttle that carried us the four-hours without incident from Todos Santos to Xela. After a lunch at the Quetzaltrekker headquarters, we shared goodbyes before scattering off in different directions throughout Guatemala and Central America.