Thursday, April 16, 2015

Nebaj to Todos Santos: A spring break trek in Guatemala

Some adventures are easier to write about than others.  Some have their own stories, and rather than telling about what we did on the adventure, I tell the story.  Some posts practially write themselves.

And then sometimes, you just have an absolutely amazing experience...and it's just too much and too many stories to fit into one post.  This year's spring break was like that.  For six days, I lived in the moment and had the best time of my life.  And now I'm left with too many memories, too many stories, too many breathtaking snapshots, and I'm having a hard time deciding how to get it into a blog post.  

I decided (or maybe, my inability to write decided for me)  to wait a few days (or a week or two) before beginning to write about spring break.  My hope is that what I'll be left with in my memory is simply the best stories, simply the things worth telling about.  That is my hope.  

Amy, Rachel, and I had dreamed about this trek for a really long time.  6 days in the highlands of Guatemala, walking a total of 58K over four days (the other 2 days were spent in transit from Xela to our destinations)  And it definitely did not disappoint.  We spent our time under beautiful, bright blue skies (not event a hint of rain!), in good company, and passing through some of the most beautiful and varied scenery that Guatemala has to offer.  Each night, we stopped in a tiny village and stayed with families who spoke only a little Spanish, lapsing more comfortably into their indigenous languages when not speaking with us.  

The first night we spent in the medium-sized town of Nebaj.  Because we were traveling during the week of Semana Santa (Holy Week) before Easter, many towns and people were celebrating, and Nebaj was no exception.  We explored their town feria (carnival), and decided with trepidation not to ride the Ferris wheel once we saw how much speed it gathered in its rotation.  

We stayed at a hostel in Nebaj, and after dinner, a local children's choir came to serenade us with a few songs.  They sang in English, Spanish, and their native language Ixil...and aside from being cute, they were really good vocalists!  It was an amazingly memorable experience. 

Leaving Nebaj
The first day of actual hiking, we left Nebaj and hiked over a ridge and down into the village of Acul, then on to a cheese farm where we purchased amazing cheese that we'd eat for lunch for the next three days.  We didn't know what type of cheese it was, so we made up a description, claiming it was "Aged, salt-brined hard cheese with a rind."  (Upon returning to Guatemala City, I showed a friend a picture of the cheese and he immediately said, "Oh, that's queso chancol--from Acul, right?  It's so good!")  
Acul in the distance

Ben shares a story of the horrors of the Civil War with us
outside the church in Acul

Queso Chancol outside of Acul

Right after the cheese farm, we stopped for lunch along a small stream.  While we enjoyed the amazing Quetzaltrekkers trademark lunch of veggie sandwiches and nachos, one of our guides remarked wistfully that he wished he could have brought along avocados for more than just the first day.  As someone wondered aloud that it seemed we should be able to find some along the trek, we looked up to see tons of avocados hanging from a tree high above our stream.  And so the challenge of getting us avocados began.  Between Alex and Ben's ingenuity, many thrown rocks, and one long board from the makeshift bridge over the stream, we secured five avocados.  Unfortunately, they were hard as rocks, but the boys put them into their packs with the hope that they'd ripen by the end of the trip.

On the second day of actual hiking, we arose at 3:30am, flipped on our headlamps in the village with no electricity, packed up our sleeping bags, and climbed 87 switchbacks in order to catch a magnificent sunrise from the top at our breakfast spot.  We were supremely lucky to be rewarded with a view of the sun rising above a sea of low-hanging clouds which only the tallest hills stood above.  

The sunrise was only the start to the reasons that day was my ultimate favorite on the trek.  

In the golden light of early morning, warm breakfast filling our bodies, our next adventure of the day was administering Amy's rabies shot (see previous post).  This included much laughter, consternation, and photographs.  It was the highlight of several trekkers’ trips.

Right after that, we hiked a few more switchbacks and found ourselves on the altiplano--a plateau-like ridge peppered with small farms and lots of jutting rocks.  On a rock field at the top of the hill, we posed for pictures, snacked, and relaxed for an hour or more.  I could have stayed the entire day. 

After lunch that day (a relaxed affair in a field of juniper), we set off in the direction of music that drifted to us over the hills, seeming out of place in the middle of nowhere as we were.  We rounded a bend, and suddenly saw far in the distance a field of hundreds of people involved in a soccer tournament.  As we came closer, a few of the children noticed us and cautiously approached.  After some hemming and hawing by both parties, eventually a soccer game between the trekkers and the Guatemalan kids began.  This spontaneous interaction was definitely another highlight of the trip.  

A huge group of people playing soccer in the distance

Dividing into teams (US vs Guate)

high fives

After about a half hour of playing, we tore ourselves away, and it was but a short walk to Don Roberto's house where we spent that night.  Staying there was my favorite place of the trip.  We had a wooden building, complete with five beds and Christmas wallpaper, to ourselves, as well as a front lawn with a great view of the valley to relax in before dinner.  The water filter became clogged that night, and we took bets on how long it would take to fill a 2 liter water bottle with the filter moving at a slow drip.  (The answer was 13 minutes per bottle).  

Our accomodations for night 2 of hiking.

That night, Don Roberto and his wife, Isabel, provided our dinner--a delicious meal of flavorful rice, pasta in a chicken gravy, and roasted chicken, with warm, sweet avena to drink.  As we were leaving--stuffed--Alex thanked our host and introduced himself.  Not five minutes after we returned to our separate sleeping building and began getting ready for bed, we were approached with a message--Don Roberto and his family wished for us to come back over for a special semana santa treat.  None of us could imagine eating or drinking another bite, but you don't turn down hospitality or a chance to learn about culture.  

Back at the long family table, an individual loaf of bread coated in a sugary glaze awaited each of us along with a mug of weak, sugary coffee.  The bread was dense and would have been filling enough to be a meal on its own.  We each ate some, enjoying ourselves, and then finally decided to ask whether the bread was a special tradition for semana santa. I was elected to do the honors.  

Turning around in my seat, I asked, "Este es una comida especial para la Semana Santa?"  Is this a special food for Holy Week?
"Si," Isabel told me.
"Ahh, y como se llama?"  Oh, and what is it called?
"Pan."  Bread.  
All of us at the table had basic Spanish knowledge, and we couldn't help it...we cracked up.  Of course it was bread.  But she didn't know whether we knew the word for it in Spanish or not.  Pulling myself together, I turned again and asked, "Es un tipo de pan especial para Semana Santa?"  Is it a special type for bread for Holy Week?  
"Pan de harina," she answered.  Made from flour.  
So we sort of deduced that perhaps bread is a treat for once a year, as most families in rural Guatemala generally subsist on tortillas, beans, and rice, and not much else.

Pan de harina for Semana Santa

After this interaction, we were able to chat a bit more with Roberto and Isabel.  Both of them used to live in the US, but without proper paperwork.  They returned to Guatemala, they say, to be closer to family again and to support them.  Their eldest son was born in the States, though, and therefore has the papers needed to return there by airplane.  They plan to send him back next year so that he may work for papers for his parents to come and join him.  Our guide, Ben, offered to create a book of English phrases for the boy to help him before he embarks on his journey.  The story breaks my heart, and I worry for this boy.  I do not know what or who waits for him when he will step off that plane, but I hope for the entire family's sake that they have planned that far ahead.  

The next morning, our 3rd day of hiking, we paused shortly after breakfast at a pristine river of cascading emerald pools.  The water was bone-chillingly cold, but after a few minutes, my feet stopped aching quite so badly from the water temperature, and I was able to explore upriver with Amy and Alex.  When another trekker and Ben realized what we were up to, they quickly followed.  Soon it was Ben leading the way.  I was amazed by Ben as a guide along the trek, because he seemed continually awestruck by everything we saw, even though he's led this trek six times now.  He would point out how beautiful the clouds were, or how amazing it was to talk to locals, or how beautiful the view was when the weather was clear (like it was for us).  That morning at the river, a childlike sense of wonder seemed to overtake him.  Around each bend in the river, he would remark with positive glee that he couldn't believe the little waterfalls and crystal clear pools kept going.  After a while, we began to wonder if maybe we should return to the group.  However...we were following the guide, so what could our exploration hurt?  
It only got prettier as we moved upstream...
Finally, after glancing at a watch and realizing we'd been gone for nearly 45 minutes, we made a pact that whatever was around the next bend, we would turn back once we saw it.  Ben got around first, and he turned towards me and said, "Oh yeah.  This is the end."  We found ourselves inside the walls of a canyon.  A 15 foot waterfall emptied into a deep sapphire pool.  Sandwiched between the walls of the canyon, a wide log hovered just a few inches above the waterline, wide enough for us to easily stand on to view the cascade (and do flips off of into the pool, as Alex did).  It was beyond picturesque.  And of course none of us had a camera along.  

The next few days, we hiked through farmland, met more locals, traversed "Terror Hill," shared more Semana Santa specialties, hiked to the highest non-volcanic peak in Central America, La Torre, and finally arrived, just a little bit tired of walking, in Todos Santos.

Reaching the top of "Terror Hill"

Leaving the trail of Todos Santos

With us for the last leg of the journey were 3 dogs that’d made the 5 hour walk over the mountain with us from the house we'd stayed at the night before.  Blanco was spritely and apparently has accompanied the trekkers various times before.  Then there was a little one with scoliosis (or which had perhaps been hit by a car and had its back and tail broken in several spots) who I nicknamed Scruffy and who Ben joked had ADD.  And finally there was an old black/brown dog who trudged along.  Each time our group paused, the old dog would find a patch of shade and lay down, staying there as long as he possibly could without risk of losing us.  I don't know how they made the long walk back to their home in La Ventosa alone, but Ben says they always do.  

Blanco and Scruffy, our four-legged companions

That last night in Todos Santos was a celebration--of our efforts, of the beauty of the Guatemalan countryside, of new friendships.  The next day, nothing could bring us down, not even the uncomfortable chicken bus ride to Xela, or the child who vomited into Alex's lap during it.  We were happy and content with ourselves and our vacation.  It was a trip I will never forget.  

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