Hiking in the Guatemalan Highlands

Guatemala may be only the size of England, but it has a huge variety of landscapes, from black volcanic beaches to flat, endless vistas of palm trees and banana plantations, to numerous caves, rivers, and lakes, to vast jungles full of Maya ruins and exotic animals. It’s also the most mountainous country in Central America, containing 30 volcanoes and the highest peaks between Mexico and Columbia.

Now, I’m no Reinhold Messner, but I do like my hiking. And I’ve read in every guidebook I’ve seen that the highland town of Nebaj is the perfect spot to find beautiful scenery to trek through and traditional Maya villages to stay in. And so it is that I find myself on yet another packed minibus, travelling from Cobán to Uspantán, along a road which, according to my guidebook from 2010, is in such a bad state and is such a dangerous journey, that the book recommends travelling via Guatemala City (taking an extra two days), or going north on a four-day-long detour. Fortunately, the landslides have been cleared and Highway 7W is paved all the way now (until the next storm or earthquake, anyway).

The journey is along the southern base of the Cuchumatanes, the highest mountain range in Central America, and it’s a stunning backdrop to the twisting road and lurching minibus. In Uspantán, I have to change buses to the Nebaj turnoff, and at the remote junction (one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever had to wait for public transport at), a family going to Nebaj offers me a lift in the back of their pick-up truck (sitting with the rest of the family and numerous bags of corn and rice). The journey takes us up into the cold, damp clouds and then back down into the clear, sunny air, as we drive over the mountains and into the valleys to Nebaj.

Tucked away in the Cuchumatanes, Nebaj is surprisingly large for a town in the middle of nowhere. Nebaj, two smaller towns called Chajul and Cotzal, and numerous villages in between, comprise the Ixil Triangle. The Ixil Maya speak a language spoken nowhere else in the country – and they speak Ixil first and Spanish a distant second. They’re famous for their isolated villages and their traditional way of life, and for suffering horribly during Guatemala’s brutal 36-year-long civil war.

As with most indigenous towns in Guatemala, the men are wearing western clothes (albeit with some enormous cowboys hats, that make the wearers look even smaller than they are); and it’s the women who are wearing the colourful, uniquely-designed, and locally-woven attire (the Spanish colonists allotted each village a different design in order to distinguish their inhabitants from each other, and nowadays every village has its own weaving traditions; many of the textiles are still made by hand, by women working on ancient, clattering looms). The local women have multi-coloured pom-poms in their hair braids, embroidered tunics woven with geometric patterns, and long, wraparound skirts of red or purple. Many of them have a colourful, striped shawl wrapped around them that functions as a bag, containing everything from clothes to vegetables to babies.

After spending a few days travelling around the three main towns of the Ixil Triangle by packed minivans (gawking at, and being gawked at by, the locals – I don’t think they see many foreign tourists here), I book a three-day trek with one of the local trekking agencies. My Spanish is basic, none of the staff speak any English, and they aren’t exactly helpful (when I ask what to bring on the trip, they reply “clothes”!); but they have a folder with descriptions of the various treks (in English!). The hike I opt for is one of the longest and most difficult (rated 4 out of 5) that they offer, but I’ve hiked for 2 weeks in the Nepal Himalaya, so surely I can manage this. Famous last words…

The next morning Diego the guide and I set off. Nebaj is set in a bowl in the mountains, so everywhere out of town is uphill (and then downhill, and then uphill again). It’s not long before we’re out of the town and into the countryside. As the trail thins and the woods thicken (and after a sweaty uphill section, accompanied by some random dogs), we come to the large village of Acul, where the rolling hills, green fields, and cow pastures make the area seem more Swiss than Guatemalan. Despite its bucolic appearance, Acul was the site of a horrific massacre by the army in the early 1980s, during which every villager present was killed, and the church was the only building not burned to the ground.

Acul is famous nowadays for its cheese-making, a cottage industry started by two immigrant brothers from Italy. It’s Sunday, and the cheese factories are closed, but in the village centre, all the shops stock the stuff – having spent over three years in Belize, with its fluorescent-yellow cheese slices, Happy Cow triangles, and Cheez Whiz in a jar, it’s nice to eat the real thing for once.

The rest of the morning is spent winding our way through woodland and scattered villages. In the early afternoon we arrive in Xexocom, a tiny village wedged at the bottom of a pine-forested valley, where we eat lunch – eggs, beans, a small piece of pork, and the first helping of many, many tortillas. Unbeknown to me, it’s the last time I’ll be eating meat on the trip.

And I need that protein. After lunch, we walk up Cerro Ochenta y Siete (Eighty-Seven Hill), a mountain boasting 87 switchbacks. I don’t bother counting them, I just plod on slowly, watching Diego disappear into the distance. Like most afternoons in September in the highlands, it’s raining. Walking up the mountain takes several hours (it feels like several days), by which time I’m soaked and everything below my waist is in pain.

Finally, the land levels out and we’re in the altiplano (the high-flat). Nebaj is 2,000 meters above sea level, and here is over 3,000 meters. The landscape is very different from the forests and maize fields below – the trees are small and shrivelled, there are weathered boulders scattered everywhere, the only people are goat- and sheep-herders moving their flocks, and the whole places is enveloped in cloud. It’s unlike anywhere else I’ve seen in Guatemala, and it has a stark, ethereal beauty to it (or at least it would have if it wasn’t freezing cold and pissing with rain).

Appearing out of the mist like Brigadoon is Chortiz, our home for the night. The tiny village (it’s less a village and more a collection of scattered houses) is deserted, until a bell rings and all the locals pile out of the church (it doesn’t matter how far you get off the beaten track in the world, it seems the missionaries have got there first). Diego and the alcade (the village head-man) have an interminable discussion, while I stand silently in the rain, and the locals hover around checking out the foreigners (especially the tall, white one). The villagers aren’t as overtly friendly as Maya people I’ve met in Belize and Mexico, the women apparently uninterested, and the men quietly sizing me up. Perhaps they’re not used to seeing foreigners. Or perhaps, after several centuries of oppression from the Spanish and several decades of brutality from their own government, they’ve learned to be wary around strangers.

Arrangements made and money paid, we have beds for the night, in the lodgings attached to the school. After getting out of my wet clothes and into some damp ones, it’s time for dinner in the alcade’s house. It’s less a house and more a large hut (the church and the school seem to be the only buildings made of brick); but it’s solidly built and warm. Like many Maya, the family live in this one-room building, which consists of beds, a kitchen area, and a fire. Dinner is a small bowl of vegetable soup, and a never-ending supply of tortillas. The soup is watery and not particularly tasty (I’m too shy to ask if they have any salt or chilli), but it’s piping hot, and after walking uphill in the cold rain for hours, sitting round the fire eating hot food is the best thing ever. But it’s not enough for my appetite, so I get out the cheese, which proves popular with everyone and is gone in minutes. And after a brief chat about who I am, where I’m from, and what I’m doing here, and a few questions from me in my pidgin Spanish (and translated into Ixil by Diego), it’s time for bed, huddled under every blanket I can find.

The next morning at dawn, I get up to find that most of the men have already left the village to tend to their animals or collect firewood. Despite the peaceful, rural setting (and people’s romanticised ideas about how nice it must be to live in harmony with nature), life here must be tough for the locals – no electricity, no clean water, no gas, no roads, no vehicles. Just whatever they can get from the land and their animals, plus a few luxuries from the nearest village with a shop. And you think your life is hard when you have no internet and can’t get a decent latte. On the way to breakfast, I see a woman washing her clothes (and hair) in a small lake of what-must-be-freezing water. Breakfast is more soup and tortillas (and all the cheese is gone), but I’ve got one more trick up my sleeve – a jar of chocolate, vanilla, and chilli spread that I bought in a café in Cobán. I’ve been saving it for precisely this sort of occasion, and its appearance creates more of a stir than the cheese did (the only problem is that the cold weather has solidified it to rock-like hardness, so I have to soften it to spreadable consistency over the fire). Within minutes, Diego and I, and everyone in the family are enjoying chocolate tortillas and coffee for breakfast.

Not only is life hard for the locals now, it was even worse just a few decades ago. The Ixil region became a centre of guerrilla activity in the late 1970s, and was the scene of horrific reprisals by the government, as thousands of villagers were killed by the Guatemalan Army (who had been well-trained in torture and murder by the US Army and the CIA). The colourful costumes and peaceful setting hide a bitter history of conflict and death, with the human rights abuses that took place here during the civil war rating as some of the worst in Latin America. By the end of the civil war in 1996, 200,000 Guatemalans had been killed, countless thousands had disappeared, and a million were made homeless. Over 70% of Ixil villages had been wiped off the map, and over half the population had been killed or had disappeared. Several hundred thousand Guatemalans fled across the border to Mexico, slowly returning in the 1990s (although the cycle of emigration is repeating itself today, as many young men try to reach the US and find work).

After Diego asks a number of locals, we finally find the indistinct (and sometimes invisible) trail across the altiplano to where we can see the large village of Parramos Grande in the distance. It’s downhill all the way from now on, on a rocky and muddy path that descends over 1,000 metres, and after we both slip and land on our arses several times, Diego fashions us a pair of walking poles. My masculinity isn’t enhanced any further when we’re overtaken by a pair of young girls skipping down the trail in what look like ballet shoes.

Finally, after several thigh-killing hours, we’re in Parramos Grande. The electricity wires, solidly-built houses, and small stores make me feel that we’re back in civilisation, and the mountain setting is lovely. After lunch (more soup), there’s not much to do except wander round the village, chat to the locals (they’re more friendly and curious here, especially the children, who follow me around shouting “Hola!” every ten seconds), buy crisps and biscuits from the shops (to make up for the soup), and have a siesta.

The evening’s activities are the same as the previous night (but fortunately, it’s nowhere near as cold down here at night). Dinner is more bloody soup (livened up with pasta), followed by an hour or so round the fire with the family (under a wooden ceiling blackened by decades of smoke), and then blankets and bed.

The next day, it’s breakfast of yet more fricking soup and tortillas (I’m so glad I brought that chocolate spread), and then it’s slowly back to Nebaj. The sun is out and the mountain scenery is as magnificent as before, as we walk along lush river valleys, and past waterfalls and corn fields. In several villages, I can hear the clacking sound of the weaving looms, and the occasional child’s surprised shout of “Mama! Gringo!”.

Slowly, the narrow dirt paths become wide dirt roads, the numbers of people increase, and we start to get overtaken by motorbikes, minivans, and chicken buses (pimped-out ex-American school buses, gleaming with chrome, dangling with religious paraphernalia, blasting out Latin American pop music, belching exhaust fumes, and driven by certified lunatics).

We’re back in Nebaj in the early afternoon, after three fascinating (and tough) days, in some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever hiked in. Which gives me plenty of time to do the two things I’ve been dreaming about for the last two days – have a hot shower and eat a Pollo Campero (the Guatemalan equivalent of KFC) meal of fried chicken. No more soup though…

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