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


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