Nico, Francesco, Me and our Guide Nico, setting out
After having read this wonderful post by the Globetrotter Girls, I was further intrigued when I discovered the availability of a three day trek through the remote Western Highlands of Guatemala from Nebaj to Todos Santos, staying with local indigenous families along the way to eat and sleep. After a much needed day of rest in Antigua after saying farewell to Arnaud, I headed out to Nebaj via three chicken buses and a six hour journey to meet up with Nico, the Swiss traveler Arnaud and I had climbed Volcan San Pedro with.
Schoolchildren both scared and enamored with our cameras
The journey was surprisingly smooth and quite joyful. I met up with another Polish couple on the bus to Chichicastenango and had a lovely conversation with them in a mixture of Polish and Spanish (Spanish because the locals on the bus kept asking us what we were talking about!) before bidding them adieu and continuing north to Sacapulas where I’d have to change buses a second time. I happily jumped onto a micro, happy because I was offered the front seat as opposed to having to cram in the back. Funnily enough, the local guys sharing the micro started talking about me in Spanish, not realizing that I could understand what they were saying. They called me a “gringasita”, which I thought was particularly cute. After only ten minutes or so of winding up the steep narrow mountain roads, the engine of the micro gave out and the driver kept trying repeatedly to start the ignition, to no avail.
Long hours of sitting on the bus had numbed my ass and now I couldn’t get to Nebaj on time to pay for my trip leaving the following morning, and I had no way of getting a message to Nico. So, we waited on the side of the road. And waited.
Local woman in her kitchen preparing our first lunch
Finally, another ride came by and picked up the majority of the people, however the last few were literally pushed into the micro to allow the door to shut, like too many socks in a dresser drawer. I had no desire to spend over an hour like that.
Waiting a while longer, I finally decided to try and hitch a ride. A pick-up eventually pulled up with four workers already in the flatbed, and I threw my backpack in and climbed aboard. It was actually a very pleasant alternative to a bus, one was able to see the passing scenery much more easily, and the breeze was refreshing. On arrival, I thanked my helpers and made my way to El Descanso where Nico and I had arranged to meet.
There was a message for me letting me know that a dorm had been arranged for me at the adjacent hotel, and on arrival I was greeted by a familiar sight: a large backpack that I recognized as belonging to Francesco, an Italian traveler Arnaud and I had met while in Semuc Champey. I had randomly remembered that Francesco had also been staying in San Pedro, so I had sent Nico a text asking him to please invite Francesco along on the trek in the event that he was able to find him at his hostel. Amazingly, the two of them had connected and Francesco jumped at the opportunity! I was so happy- our hiking team of three was complete.
Famished, I ordered a beer and a burrito at El Descanso and chatted to the local owner. After ten minutes or so, the boys showed up and warm hugs were exchanged. I was happily surprised to see that both Nico and Francesco spoke fluent Swiss German and already seemed to have bonded. I could feel that this was going to be a good trip.
Little Local Girl
After a decent night’s sleep on what was no more than a wooden plank of a bunkbed, we headed back to El Descanso to be united with our guide, also named Nico. At one point, an elderly man dressed rather oddly appeared hanging around the bar entrance, and I commented to Francesco, “Oh, I hope that THAT’s not our guide!”
Turns out, it was.
Nico was a local Mayan Nebaj resident, 64 years old, with the mildest voice that never changed its volume or rhythm for any given situation, so much so that it was akin to mumbling. This made it difficult to understand. He wore a t-shirt under a polka dotted polo shirt, covered by a multi-colored sweater that was then layered with a heavy denim jacket and really rapper-style baggy jeans. He never changed this outfit for the next three days, not when it got really hot, and not even when he went to bed. In addition, he wore a different hat each day. An odd, yet endearing character.
We took a micro for about an hour to the start of our journey. Approaching the very first village we encountered for the first time what was to be a continuing theme on this trek: our new-found celebrity status. School was just getting out, and all of a sudden, we were swarmed by throngs of children who squealed with delight and genuine fear when we took pictures of them. It was as if they’d never seen a camera or a white person before. This was to continue over the next few days and was quite a reminder to just how unique and remote this place was.
Our lunch stop was with a local family and we got to watch as the mother, complete in her traditional dress, made us hot drinks made from corn, and grilled fresh tortillas on her wood-burning stove. The home was extremely basic and I was humbled by their generosity and hospitality. Our business must have meant a lot to them.
A deserved beer at the end of Day One
All was well until I noticed that my camera was missing. I distinctly remembered placing it on top of my pack, and since the guide was sitting in the room, I didn’t give much thought to its security. I knew I hadn’t lost it on the road, and the only explanation was that someone in this Mayan family had taken it. We asked the guide who muttered that such a thing would be impossible. After further searches proved fruitless, Francesco, bless his heart, requested that the father of the family petition his kids to see if they’d taken it on an impulse. I assured them that it was more about retrieving my memories than it was about the camera itself, and that if they just returned it, I wouldn’t say a word about it to the agency. No response. I was beginning to lose hope when Francesco insisted on being permitted to search the rest of the house, which he did together with the help of the younger of the two brothers. The brother found my camera stashed away at the back of a shelf.
I was so relieved to find my camera but I was also dismayed that any sense of security about my belongings, now that I was so far away from tourist-developed areas, was now gone. What was worse, was that when Francesco asked the other brother if he in fact had done it, the young teenager responded in English saying “fuck you, idiot”, to all of our amazement.
It was time to leave.
Nico showing the kids their pictures
I did wonder what happened to the boy after we left. Preparing meals year round for travelers was a substantial source of income for this family and the kid had just jeapordized it.
The rest of the day passed without any further incident and we were pleasantly surprised by the high standard of our accommodation when we arrived at our first night’s destination: it was a cabin that could have been in the Swiss Alps. Very clean, basic, but pretty. We ate soup with chicken and tortillas for dinner and turned in very early.
Where: Nebaj to Todos Santos, Hotel Melia Sol in Nebaj
When: 16th to 17th of March
How: Chicken Bus from Antigua to Chimeltanango – Sacapulas. Micro/Pick-up to Nebaj