Monday, April 30, 2012

The Purple People Hike from Nebaj to Todos Santos

Apparently tiny shoeshine boys like frisbee.  Or maybe they just wanted a chance to be a kid for once.

In the central square in Nebaj, a village in the northwestern highlands of Guatemala, Dave was throwing a disc with a tall guy named Steve.  A dozen little boys fought for their attention and their toy.  Soon four older girls joined in (you go girls!); one of them had a decent throw and sent it to Dave every time (aww!).  Older boys stood around the outside of the circle, looking cool and desperately seeking a way into the circle without looking too eager.  Men sat on the church stairs and watched the show.  Women walking through the square appeared confused, annoyed, and amused.
frisbee in the main square
 A few of the boys crashed into a puppy pile, trying to rip the frisbee away from each other.  Steve, who just spent seven months working in an orphanage in eastern Guatemala, broke up the fight with a twitch of his head and a shake of his hand.  He took away the frisbee and walked out of the square.

The kids followed him.

He sat down on a bench.  The kids crowded around him.  They stared.  He stared back.

Steve launched into the funniest clown routine I've ever seen.  He made faces, pulled his ears, made his eyes big and small.  He made a rock appear and then disappear.  He switched around kids' baseball caps.  The kids squealed and hung their round, wide eyes on his every movement.  The adults around the square, who were pretending not to watch, snorted and smirked.  He was hilarious.
steve clowns with the kiddos
So began our walk through the northwestern highlands of Guatemala, starting in the village of Nebaj and walking west to Todos Santos.  It took six full days, two travel days plus four days of walking, to make the trek.  Here's what we did:

Yellow: places we slept. Blue: villages we walked through.
Buses: where we took public transit. Tree: La Torre, highest non-volcanic point in Central America.
View Nebaj to Todos Santos in a larger map.

We organized the trek through Quetzaltrekkers, an all-volunteer organization that leads outdoor adventures to raise money for Escuela de la Calle, a school and safe haven for disadvantaged youth.

I could go on and on and on about the trek, but Dave and I had so much fun that we immediately signed up for another trek with Quetzaltrekkers as soon as we got back to Xela.  So, this will be a quick summary of the trip.

DAY 1:  Nebaj

Day 1 was a travel day from Xela to Nebaj.  In Nebaj, we checked into a guesthouse for the evening, wandered through the market, and settled into the central square for a bit of frisbee.  The women in Nebaj wear slim, red traditional skirts.  My stomach was still a bit touchy, so I went to sleep immediately after dinner.

the ayudante ties stuff to the roof of the chicken bus... while it's in motion
DAY 2:  Xexocom

Right out of Nebaj, we hit the first big hill of the trip.  We crested the ridge and meandered down to the village of Acul.  This region has a very deep, very tragic history, particularly related to the recent civil war.  Seventy-nine out of 80 villages in the region either suffered massacres or were burned to the ground.  In Acul's case, villagers were forced at gunpoint to hurt and kill each other.
the village of acul
 After our somber break in Acul, we hiked through green pastures to, of all things, a cheese farm run by Italians.  It's a small world, after all!  We passed through the village of Xexuxcap and out of town along a dirt road.  The scenery reminded me so much of the Himalayan foothills in Nepal, steep and green and steep.  We followed the dirt road as it climbed across a hill and arrived in Xexocom, our home for the night.
reminds me of nepal...
We set up our camp in a school house.  Then, we took turns in a local family's tamascal, or traditional mayan sauna.  It was dark and steamy, relaxing and refreshing.  We had a dinner of rice, beans, an egg, and lots of corn tamales prepared by the same family.  Quetzaltrekkers rotates host families in the community so everyone can benefit.  Apparently, this is a nice economic boost for families, for not a lot of extra work.  Good to see money going directly to people who rarely, if ever, benefit from international aid.
camping out in the school
DAY 3:  Canton Primera

3:30 a.m. wake-up call, and we're hiking by 4:00 a.m. up the hill of 87 switchbacks.  It wasn't too bad, lots of huffing and puffing but it was so steep that we made fast progress.  We watched the sun rise over Acul, and Nebaj beyond.  Most of the way up the hill, we stopped for breakfast and basked in the morning sun.  From breakfast we hiked uphill again to reach the edge of the altiplano.
first glimpse of sun
I have never seen anything like this altiplano before.  Lots of green pasture, interrupted constantly by grey rocks of every shape and size.  Really stunning scenery!
shepherd on the altiplano
We passed through the villages of Chuatuj and Chortiz.  This was probably the most remote place I've ever been.  Instead of people smiling and waving, villagers stared from a distance, or just ran away entirely.  Our guides told us a story about a trekker pulling out a camera in Chortiz to take a photo of some kids.  The kids dropped to the ground and cowered; they thought the camera would steal their souls.  I have very few photos of people from this trip, even though they wear beautiful clothing.
distant horseman
The weather clouded up and it looked like it would rain.  Nice atmosphere to hike across the altiplano.  At the edge, we descended into the Pericon Valley to the village of Canton Primera.  There, we set up camp under the eaves of a decaying school.  We made a campfire and ended up cooking our pasta over the flames.  Played a game around the fire until an early bedtime.
dinner over the campfire
DAY 4:  La Ventosa

First thing in the morning, we walked down to the Pericon River, where we made breakfast and took a long break.  Looong break--this group does 2-3 hour meal breaks!  Dave and Lisa jumped in the freezing water.  Crazy.
The hike out of the Pericon River Valley, through the village of El Pericon, and onto the second altiplano was way longer and harder than I expected.  I had the "Day Three Blues" (the third consecutive day of hiking is always the hardest).
pericon river
The second altiplano was not as spectacular as the first.  We followed a dirt road through scrubby pastures to the village of San Nicolas, which had a road.  People here have much more contact with the outside world; they waved and smiled as we passed.
guy on his bike, driving a few horses loaded with firewood
We had lunch under the shade of a lone tree, within sight of "The Hill of Terror."  It actually wasn't that bad. Dave was sick and he did it in under 10 minutes.  Crazy.
thumbs up (then he puked)
Descending the Hill of Terror, we ended up at the paved highway in La Capellania, where we picked up a microbus to cut out the walking along the highway.  We spent the night in La Ventosa with a man named Geronimo and his family, where we enjoyed another tamascal and a dinner of mashed potatoes with tortillas (starch and more starch).
sweating in the tamascal
DAY 5:  Todos Santos

We left La Ventosa with one of the family dogs, named Negrita, who would follow us all the way to Todos Santos and spend the night with us.  She does this with every group, enjoying the attention and the food the trekkers slip to her.

More uphill.  This trek actually does have more uphill than downhill, which is fine for my knees.  This uphill wasn't too steep, and we made good time up to La Torre, the highest non-volcanic point in Central America.  Ginny shared a very sad story about Geronimo's family and the village of La Ventosa from the civil war as we looked out over the valley.
view from la torre
From the high point of the trek, there was nowhere to go but down.  Down, down, down.  We descended through a cloudy, misty pine forest into a lush, mossy forest.  Down, down, down.  Eventually I needed a break for my knees (and my brain, downhill takes concentration!).  Turns out we were only 15 minutes from our lunch break, which we took at the base of a beautiful cliff overlooking the Todos Santos valley.
beautiful lunch break location!
The rest of the walk was easy; a Peace Corp volunteer had raised funds to construct trails within this park.  At the highway, I decided to take a bus directly to Todos Santos with Dave, as he wasn't feeling well, and Katie, who had an ankle injury.  The rest of the group continued through the valley.  We waited a while for a bus, but fortunately one did arrive eventually.
ceremonial putting away of trekking poles
In Todos Santos I wandered around with Katie, then met up with the group for a celebratory beer or three at a local cantina.  Our host family made us rice tamales for dinner, and we had a few more drinks in our room with a lot of laughs.
central square in todos santos, complete with guys in traje (traditional dress)
DAY 6:  Quetzaltenango

Not happy to be awake at 4:00 a.m. but our bus leaves at 5:00 a.m.  The first bus ride is surprisingly comfortable, and we get a very very quick bathroom break in Huehuetenango where we change to a chicken bus.  We're back in Xela's bus yard by a little after 9, and back at the QT office before 10.  We de-issue gear, swap photos and email addresses, and pay for a room upstairs.  Then it's time for a well-deserved nap, a hot shower, and a solid lunch.
the purple people!

So, that's the quick summary.  The highlights were the altiplano, the tamascals, the beautiful forest descending from La Torre, and the cute little dog that followed us on the last hiking day.  More photos from the trip are here.  I think they're worth a look!

Gotta run, I've still got to pack for the next trek and we're meeting the group at 6:30 a.m. tomorrow!


  1. You're making me want to travel! Fascinating culture things :)

  2. Hey Alex! How are you these days? This trek was absolutely the highlight of my time in Central America. An awesome group, great scenery, solid hiking, and lots to learn. See you around this summer?