Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Hiking around the Highlands of Guatemala

Having heard lots about the beauty of Guatemala's highlands - which stretch from the Sierra Madre de Chiapas in the Northwest of the country all along the border of Mexico into the lowlands of Petén - we headed for the hills to get our fill of green mountains and fresh air. In fact, very fresh air: the temperature up in the mountains, especially in the rainy season, can be downright chilly and reminiscent of misty English mornings.

The homestead at Hacienda San Antonio, in the tiny village of Acul.
Not really a hike, but we huffed and puffed out way up the hill
to appreciate the sprawling mountain scenery
Avoiding the hyped-up highland villages in the Ixil triangle (three fairly traditional Maya Ixil villages), we spent a few tranquil days in Acul, just west of Nebaj in the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes (the highest non-volcanic mountain range in Central America). Nestled cozily at the bottom of converging mountains, there is nothing here except for farms, farmers and farm animals (all very friendly and approachable, I might add). Accompanied by the sound of roosters and cowbells, we stayed on a working dairy farm where we got our fill of fresh cream, cheese, milk, butter... more cream. The village itself is a so-called "model village", one of the many villages created by the government into which to herd the Mayan communities whose own villages were destroyed by the army during the war. To our untrained eyes it seems a happy little village like any other, although we know for a fact that it is so much violence, destruction and sadness that brought these people here.

Then off course I get this crazy idea to try a road less traveled, opting out of a cushy tourist shuttle and coach bus service on a nicely paved road and into dangerously crowded, careening, blood-pressure-raising collectivos that hurtle along dirt tracks on the spines of sleeping mountains. To explain a little bit: there is a tertiary road (and you know what that means in Guatemala!) going east from Sacapulas towards Cobán in the Alta Verapaz. It looks like they are working on upgrading the road to a proper paved road, but it's hard to be sure since, in parts, there are enough potholes to hide an army in and in other parts whole sides of mountains including the road that traverses it have been washed away (I'm really not exaggerating!). And we hit the record of 26 people crammed into a little mini-van made for 12. And I was sitting in the front and could see the speedometer hitting 120km/h in some parts. I am no longer scared of flying.

The gorgeous little rooftop terrace at Hotel Don Gabriel.
You can see the church and views around Uspantan in the background.
Halfway between Sacapulas and Cobán is a pleasant town called Uspantán. Being the municipality of the region, we are delighted to find out it has two very nice hotels to choose from, as well as a small tourist info office (although not a tourist in sight). We somehow manage to get ourselves tagged along with a group of "local Guatemalans" going sightseeing at Laj Chimel (the birthplace of Nobel Peace Prize Winner Rigoberta Menchú) and from where we hike 3 hours through beautiful mountains to the Mayan site of El Soch.

We were supposed to be paying attention to the Corn Tour, but then this little cutie showed up...

Laj Chimel has an awesome rope swing on the way up to the Mirador. 

From the Mirador at Laj Chimel you can see EVERYTHING.
This lovely lady is the president of the community tourism initiative, such a sweetie.

Hiking from Laj Chimel to El Soch. We did get caught in a downpour. More than once.
I get tired just thinking about the day now: we left at 5am in an open truck (communication about the details of the trip were non-existent before departure) and the wet-cold alone was enough to exhaust us. We were told that it was going to be a five hour trip. We were also told that we would be back by 2pm (7 hour trip). We arrived home, cold and wet, at 8pm (a 15 hour trip). Turns out the group of locals we went with were a working committee for the tourism board going to evaluate the community-run tourism activities, having breakfast, lunch, coffee and just about dinner with all the local tourism representatives after we tested all the activities on offer. But in the end, despite the confusion and the cold, we got to experience a pretty awesome showcase of all the activities and sights in the area for about $10 because of the situation.

The reward at the end of the hike was the beautiful Finca El Recuerdo owned by Don Julio. Julio has about 40 hectares of protected land next to National Reserves, and it is honestly some of the most beautiful rainforest that I have ever seen. We even saw a Madre Quetzal!  Julio's wife cooked us a delicious lunch, and we got to try some Miel de Cana which he makes himself. P.S There is a little cabana being built by the gorgeous bubbling creek if you want to stay over.
The Maya site El Soch is on Julio's land and is a little lush green fantasy world.
One of the tourism board ladies in front of the main temple's staircase

My very own Mayan warrior xx

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The search for Black Salt in Sacapulas

Black tortillas from black maize... but not made with black salt

As I’m writing this I’m shaking my head in disbelief that I have once again been suckered in by the suggestion/ suggestiveness of a stupid guidebook. By now, I really ought to be wiser to the fact that my idea of traveling differs quite a bit from the writers of this particular guidebook (who was this idiot?!?). Nevertheless, while bored and looking for a distraction one day while waiting for the bus that Guidebook proclaimed would come, I started reading through the section on the Western Highlands of Guatemala where we were heading. Having been colonized by the Spanish in the 1500’s onwards, most descriptions read something like this: “Lovely little colonial church in centre of town….blah blah blah…town plaza…blah blah blah…market on this or that day bears investigation…blah blah blah…black salt...” Wait, wait wait… black salt? Hook, line and sinker, I was stuck on the idea of picking some of this mysterious stuff up for my mom’s spice rack. So off we head on another treacherous chicken bus journey to Sacapulas in the Western Highlands of Guatemala.

I have a love affair with these toys

Selling rose petals, Chichi

One of the flower ladies in the Chichicastenango market

Meters and meters of cloth on sale everywhere

I forgot what this fruit was called, but it was like a mix of tomato and passion fruit

Having exhausted ourselves at the famous markets in Chichicastenango that morning (colours bustling bumping yelling smelling selling blur of bodies), we arrived late afternoon in Sacapulas. In contrast to the colour overload in Chichi, Sacapulas is a dirty and uninspiring little town situated on a brown river and with a smorgasbord of nasty street dogs and stumbling men (although I will credit it with a nice location nestled in the large looming Sierra los Cuchumatanes mountains – I’m not that jaded yet!). Being too late to source some black salt, we (I) decided we should stay the night in the town’s only hotel (the dark little hospedaje was more than we could handle after the bus ride along cliff faces and hairpin turns). A plate of cold chicken and chips so greasy even I wouldn’t touch them, the StarTrek movie and Avatar in English (score!) later, it was morning and ready to start the hunt. Wait no more my black beauty, I’m coming for you!

Grooming time for all on the steps of Santo Tomas church, Chichi

I wasn't joking - he really was shaving!

Taking a break from the hectic streets below

Mayans are very strong - the way that the guy bottom left in this photo
carries his load is how all Mayans carry heavy loads (up to 80kg!)

Turns out you can buy this stuff quite easily from a lady in the small market, which is next to the town square, which is in front of the colonial church, which is in the middle of town (what a surprise). Even though I was specifically looking for it, I almost missed it. That, my friends, is because it bears no resemblance to salt whatsoever at all, but looks more like grey-brown rocks made from compacted sand. But the little old lady let me try some and it was indeed salty, so I bought five Quetzales worth in defiance of the whole sodding situation. I’d be damned if I didn’t after all that! And sorry mom, it’s not really a surprise anymore, but at least you’ll know what the little baggie of dirty sand-looking substance is when you receive it (customs permitting)! 

Friday, June 17, 2011

Back in Guatemala!

If a picture paints a thousand words, then here are 28,000 words on why we love being back in Guatemala:

1. Great food
This amazing creation of grilled beef & chicken, guacamole and tomato salsa on a garlic toasted bun was reason enough to hang around Guatemala City for half a day. The real reason for our stop here was to see Pablo Aguilar, who we met in San Marcos Atitlan a few months ago. Pablo works in the healing arts and has done magic for our backs, shoulders, hips and knees. The little stand (not much more than a covered parking bay and a gas grill) where these gems are produced is in the parking lot of Pablo's office in Zona 10 of Guatemala City.

Jamaica (pronounced Ha-my-kah) is a delicious drink made from hibiscus flowers

2. Friendly faces & great service
The people in Guatemala are just so friendly and so easy to talk to. Taxi drivers try to give you a service instead of just a ride - they are interested in clients and not just customers. Likewise with dentists. Upon recommendation of an American we surfed with, we spent four days in Antigua to visit Dr. Victoria Recinas, who gave us the best and most economical dental service we've ever received in our lives (as well as a same-day appointment and absolutely no paperwork). Whether shoe polishers or professionals, Guatemalans appear to be proud of their jobs and it makes it a pleasure to deal with them.

A couple on this street in Antigua offered to take our picture without us asking
This mischievous old lady who makes and sells candy told us with a twinkle in her eye
that she was doing community service  to keep the dentists in a job
Friendly dogs too!

3. Realising that hot showers are a luxury
Behold the electric shower head!
This regular death trap can be found in showers all over Central America.

4. The colonial architecture is just amazing (especially in Antigua, which we adore)
Hermano Santo Pedro, Antigua

Saucy fountain in Antigua's Parque Central

Strolling the streets of Antigua was a full-time occupation for us

5. The rich and colourful culture
Guatemala has 23 different Maya language and culture groups, which makes it an incredibly diverse and interesting place to visit. We always visit a town's market, a cooking pot of culture and food.

KaqChikel street performers playing the marimba, drums and flutes in Antigua.

The backstrap loom, used by most Maya women to weave amazing cloth,
 is common in traditional Guatemalan villages and in Antigua's craft market

You'll find everything and its dog in a market

6. The rich and delicious chocolate & coffee
...which we enjoyed in excess at Fernando's Kaffee in Antigua. If the chocolate drink machine at the front of the store has been repaired by the time you visit, you have to try it. You'll be addicted for life.

Fernando's processes their own chocolate. Fernando showed us the smoothing process
where the chocolate spends 5 days in this machine to become silky smooth.
Talk about temptation!
So ask me again why we love Guatemala so much...