We waited about four hours after Andy broke down and took a Cipro before walking into the offices of Guias Ixiles and booking a three day guided trek from Nebaj to Todos Santos. We didn’t know what to expect from the hike and hadn’t been able to find very much information about it online, which only made for more excitement the night before as we sorted through what to take with us and what to leave behind. We decided that there was no way we wanted to carry everything that we travel with on a daily basis during our three day trek and ended up leaving everything but some clothes, silk sleep sacks, a small first aid kit, and our water filter with the travel agency. We paid extra to have our things transported over to Todos Santos for us so that we wouldn’t have to make the return trip in a bus over roads that we heard were in a questionable condition.
The ever present drizzling rain that had been in Nebaj since our arrival convinced Andy to run down the street for some last minute heavy duty trash bags to line our backpacks, and finally ready to go we headed to the El Descanso restaurant to meet with the rest of our group. All together we were six people; us, one Canadian couple, another Canadian guy, and our local guide Nicolas. After quick introductions we all enthusiastically set out at a quick pace ready to cover some miles and start seeing the country… for about 10 minutes until we got to the bus station. A very bumpy hour later, finally stretching our legs and starting to get in the groove we made our way quickly uphill… for about 15 minutes before taking a rest break. I started to get the feeling that maybe Nicolas wasn’t the most enthusiastic guide in the world.
After a stop and go morning we made it to our lunch stop for the day and really started to get a taste of what rural Guatemala feels like. We were welcomed into a nice family’s home and served a warm beverage of chilacayote (a kind of squash) mixed with water and plenty of sugar added for flavor. While waiting for the lunch of a hard boiled egg served in black beans to finish cooking I got to hang out in the family’s kitchen which was made with adobe walls and a dirt floor. There were plenty of children and chickens wandering around the kitchen to complete help complete the rustic feeling. I asked the woman cooking if I could take her picture while she made our meal and not only did I get an enthusiastic yes, but she carefully took off her sweater to reveal the gorgeously intricate hupil she had on underneath and proudly posed next to her stove. We chatted with the rest of the family while we ate and everyone seemed genuinely excited to learn about us and to share some things about their lives. Except for one little girl who started crying hysterically whenever she saw the Canadian gringo with the beard, that was just a little too much for her to handle.
The afternoon was spent covering ground at a nice slow pace and being followed by children yelling, “Gringos!” good naturedly but loud enough to let everyone in the area know that we were passing through. The kids were very interested in us and would ask questions, but when we answered and tried to speak with them they became shy and acted as if they hadn’t just been following us and yelling. Some of the older kids would push squirming younger ones closer to us and laugh at the horrified expressions on their faces. The other girl in our group spoke Ixil really well and talking to her they loosened up a little.
We made it to our home-stay in the early afternoon and were shown to an outbuilding the family had built specifically for hikers and filled with bunk beds. We gratefully accepted the hot coffee that was offered to us and were a a little surprised by the taste. The way the locals prefer their coffee in this area is without any coffee flavor and with enough sugar to give a thick, syrupy texture. After one guy took his first sip he asked us all what kind of tea we were drinking because he had never tasted anything like it. We all paused for a few seconds to look at one another and managed to let him know that was the coffee before beginning to laugh hysterically.
Nicolas was not the most talkative person so after dinner when he actually started to tell us a little something about what we could expect from the following day, we were all ears. His little speech went a little something like this, “So, tomorrow won’t be like today. There will not be any stores, the people will not say hello to you, and the people where we are going never smile. These people are different, they aren’t my paisanos, they speak a different language, but it’s worth it. Vale la pena.”He repeated some version of this about three times and then left us all staring at each other while he went outside to the bathroom. Some pep talk. I think we were all more confused than if he had just said nothing.
The second day turned out to be just as amazing as the first, despite Nicolas’ predictions. The path the entire way had been extremely muddy and as we made our way down one particularly steep area we attracted a large audience of curious women. I have never been very good at making my way downhill under normal circumstances and I pretty quickly fell to back of the line as I tried to pick my way down the mud bank in my once white Converse All Stars. Four women had a keen eye on me, gasping at my every wobble and cringing as I slid unwillingly into various yoga-like poses. I called out to them telling them that I had no idea how they managed to move so quickly and gracefully through all this mud balancing a basket on their head and a baby on their back. The biggest gasp came when one guy full on slipped and landed in the mud. Slowly but surely we all made it down.
The physically hardest part of the hike was the section called the 25 vueltas where the path climbs straight up, switch-backing for what I would say was definitely more than 25 turns. We passed viewpoints which I’m sure are beautiful for people who are not hiking inside of a cloud and came upon a large, flat, bright green pasture. It was a beautiful contrast from the surrounding hilly areas. We didn’t pass through any towns and we saw fewer people than the first day. The amazing thing was that when we looked at a hillside long enough we could almost always find someone collecting firewood or cultivating a little plot of land. We would watch these people working for a few moments before a new cloud rolled in they would melt back into the camouflage of the hillside, only the faint sound of a machete letting us know someone was there. We walked until late afternoon passing from the Ixil speaking region into the Mam speaking area. In this relatively small country (it is the size of Tennessee) there are something like 21 official Mayan dialects spoken. It was really interesting for me to think about the fact that someone can literally live in one valley and hike over the ridge to the next valley and not be able to communicate with the people who live on the other side unless both of the people speak Spanish.
Nicolas had planned on us taking another bus for an hour this day also, and somehow four of us managed to cram into an already full collectivo van he flagged down, while Andy and another guy hung onto the back rail and stood on the bumper. People who live in rural Guatemala are some of the nicest people in the world and I spent the bumpy ride over the unpaved road talking to a woman who showed me every photo of her granddaughter that she had on her phone. A short while into the ride the terrain changed from damp and green into a more desert like landscape with lots of prickly looking plants.
This night’s home-stay was even more rustic than the first and was a very typically home for the area. It was a concrete block structure with two rooms, both filled with beds. One was for the family and one was for the tourists. They had a separate pit toilet and a separate large kitchen made of adobe block with a wood fired stove inside. The Canadian girl and I spent the evening in the kitchen with the other women watching them make our food, talking about various girly things, and in general comparing our lives. We had a really great time sitting near the cooking fire while the guys played soccer outside with the hoard of children who had gathered. The women told us that when the gringos come hiking through they don’t usually talk with them as they prefer to huddle together in their room away from the family. They told us that they were glad we were different, and seemed to have as much fun talking with us as we did with them.
The next morning was beautiful and sunny, which was a relief after the coldest night of the hike. It was a pretty flat, easy day. We hiked past women carrying loads of laundry on their heads down to the river and taking advantage of the sun by hanging the clothes to dry on fences. We took a bus the last hour down the canyon to Todos Santos. At one point during the ride I would have given anything to be able to get out and hike again. That point came when the bus was backing up towards a cliff to let another bus pass going the other way on the makeshift one lane road we were on since the main one was under construction. One of the tires appeared to be only a couple of inches from the soft shouldered cliff edge and the looks on the local’s faces really let us know we were in trouble since nothing like this usually fazes them. Thankfully we didn’t careen down the cliff face to our deaths and were safely in Todos Santos a half an hour later.
We all went out for one last meal together at a local comedor and reminisced about what a great time we had. It was a really fun experience to hike through villages that were off the beaten path and to connect with people who we otherwise wouldn’t have met. It really only whet my appetite for exploring the area and Andy and I are already talking about spending more time in the area next year if we can make it work. The only thing that could make this day even better, I mentioned to Andy, was a nice cold soda. And as I took a refreshingly long drink of my glass bottled Fresca I heard Andy say, “Maybe not that one.” I set it on the table and took a quick peek at an inch-long dark object floating at the bottom of the bottle, before squeezing my eyes shut tight. Cockroach? Human finger? My mind flashed on a handful of other possibilities before Nicolas picked up the bottle and poured the soda into his own disposable plastic bottle. He dumped the slimy globule that was in my soda onto a plate, poked it a few times, and triumphantly declared it “Fruta!” With those wise words he left us to make the bus journey back to Nebaj, my de-chunkified soda in his hand.
For those of you interested in doing the three day trek from Nebaj to Todos Santos we booked ours through Guias Ixiles in Nebaj. For a group of five people the cost was a total of 2295Q ($287) which worked out to 459Q each ($57) plus we paid the rather high amount of 385Q ($48) to have our bag waiting for us in Todos Santos. For a single person to take a guided trip the cost is 975Q ($122) so it is definitely more economical to get a small group together before booking your trip. These prices include food, but not water.