Friday, April 24, 2009

Tres dias a pie (and the mother of long posts!)

So, the last thing that I really wanted to do here in Guatemala, (and one of the first things I had put on my to-do list last Sept.) was to hike from Nebaj to Todos Santos, a three-day trek through the Cuchumantes mountains in Northwestern Guatemala. I tried to book the trip in early February but no groups were going, and then I tried to go it in early March but was disuaded when I heard that the road to Nebaj was dangerous due to a major landslide that took out the road between Coban and Nebaj on January 4th. (We eventually came over that way and it was a pretty massive landslide, as you can see!)

Finally Tracy, whom I met last September the day we de-boarded the plane in Guate City, agreed to be my companera de caminata. When we arrived in Nebaj we found out that a different group had departed the day before, so there was no guide available for us. Our hopes were crushed a bit (well, except that the hotel in Nebaj had THE BEST, CLEANEST, most comfortable beds in Guatemala and cable TV to boot, for $8 each/night and I kind of wanted to stay there forever), so we started working on plan B. Just when we thought we might try a different hike, the guide company called back and said they found someone to take us.

The man they found was Juan, 58-years old and father to 12 children, and a native of Palop, the town where we stayed the first night. I asked the woman in the office if Juan knew the route well, and she assured me that he did, as he is a local of the area, and he and his wife run a camping hut of sorts in Palop, where people traveling through can stay in a comfortable dorm (no electricity but a nice building and good beds).

So we set out one Tuesday morning with Juan and a backpack each, and over the next three days we covered over 24 miles of dusty trail, beautiful scenery, and some considerable sweat (no tears, though!).
Day one went well--we took a bus about two hours and then hiked in mid-day dust and heat for a few hours. We stopped for lunch in a town called Salquil Grande, where, convieniently one of Juan's daughters lives. She and her kids made us Box-bol (pronounced bocksh-bol), which is the traditional food of the Ixil area--leaves of a squash plant wrapped around corn masa and cooked in a sort of stew. It kind of feels like eating a big fat cigar filled with mushy corn goo. Sounds delicious, huh? (see pics!)

Day two was the most challenging hiking--we started at 7 am with a trail called "viente-cinco vueltes" (25 turns), a steep, rocky trail with 25 switch-backs (actually, I can't verify that because I lost track after a certain point.) That afternoon we started to get lost--well, to be fair to Juan, we were never totally lost, but we frequently had to stop and ask for directions, since it had been ten years since Juan had last done the whole trek, start to finish. It was an interesting lesson in cultural differences, as the local people we encountered couldn't fathom why we wanted to walk, and why we wanted to walk on trails instead of roads, and why we wanted to walk if there was some other form of transportation available to us.
Here's how it went:
Juan: "Is there a trail from here to . . .(insert name of town or landmark here)"
Local people: "Oh--you don't have to walk on a trail. You can go down to the road and catch a ride with a pick-up or car."
Juan: "But these women want to walk, and they want to walk on a trail, not a road."
Local people: "OK. Well, there's a trail over there, but it will cut down to the road soon and you can catch a ride on a pick-up or car from there."
Juan: "Thanks, we'll do that."
Then he would ask the next person we saw and the whole conversation would begin again.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with a peace-corps worker who laughed at me when I asked him why the people in his village (where there is no electricity) didn't have campfires together in the evenings. He said: "Can you imagine if I told them--yeah, in the U.S. sometimes for FUN we cook over fire."
Here are a few more highlights from the trek, since pictures say more than words:
The view of Palop early morning on day 2:

The youngest daughter in the family of 15 kids where we slept on night 2 (in Capenella, Huehuetenango, convieniently Juan's sister-in-law lives there so we stayed at her house)... this little girl was sucking on the remnants of a bag of sugar when we arrived:
The bed in which we slept on the second night (how I missed my therm-a-rest and a warm sleeping bag!):

Descending into the valley of Todos Santos on day 3 (it all felt worth while at this point!)

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