From Antigua, I headed north to Xela, also known as Quetzaltenango. A friend I had made in Antigua who had unfortunately broken her foot and was on crutches was heading the same way, so I was lucky enough to get to carry TWO packs all day while we were transferring from bus to bus! I hadn´t quite gotten over the flu yet, and the road was one of the windiest I have ever been on, and I spent pretty much the whole day doubled over with my head in a bucket, making quite the spectacle of myself as the Guatemalans looked on, amazed that I was so weak haha.
Fiiiiinally we arrived in Xela, grabbed the first cab we could find, and asked the driver to take us to the hostel we had randomly picked out of a guidebook. We checked in, I spent some more quality time with my head in the toilet, and then I slept from 4pm to 7am and woke up feeling much, much better. I made my way over to the Quetzaltrekkers office and paid the balance on a six-day trek that I had paid my deposit for before getting the flu. It really was an awesome deal - $140 for a six-day trip, all food and transport included (accommodation was mostly outside), and free rental of any gear that I needed!
I spent the rest of the day running errands and picking up a few last-minute things I needed for the trek, and then went to bed nice and early in preparation for the 6:30am meeting time at the Quetzaltrekkers office. I stored a bunch of my clothes and stuff at their site, and rented a down jacket and sleeping bag, toque and gloves, and sleeping mat and picked up my portion of the group´s food.
We spent most of the first day bussing to the small mountain town of Nebaj. The afternoon was spent wandering in the market, looking at the amazing huipiles that the local women weave on their looms. We spent the first night in a hostel run by an American expat, who was quite the character. We had a delicious dinner that was followed by THE most amazing apple pie, and then we were treated to a performance by the Nebaj Children´s Choir! It was hard to keep a straight face as we were serenaded by a group of about a dozen young Mayan girls led by an odd American fellow, singing songs like This Land is Your Land, various Beatles songs, and even The Loco-Motion. I´m pretty certain the children didn´t understand a word of what they were singing, as Ixil is their first language, and they learn Spanish once they start going to school, but definitely no English is spoken in Nebaj!
The next morning we started off bright and early, walking through picturesque valleys filled with cows and horses, and stopping off at an Italian-run cheese farm to pick up some fresh cheese for the next few days´ sandwiches! Eventually we made it to the tiny hamlet of Xexuxcob (no idea if that spelling is correct), and settled down for the evening on the floor of the town´s school building. We were lucky enough to get to use one of the local family´s temascal (traditional Mayan sauna) to warm up before having a filling dinner of rice and beans in the family´s home.
The next morning was the hardest of the trek. We woke up at 3:30am in order to attempt to make it up a steep, steep hill of 87 switchbacks before the sun rose! Unfortunately we weren´t quite able to beat the sun, but the view of the sun coming up behind the lesser peaks was amazing as we were walking (struggling!) upwards. We made hot oatmeal and coffee at a beautiful lookout spot along the trail, and then tackled the last stretch of the hill before arriving at the altiplano.
The altiplano, or high plains, was incredibly beautiful, but quite desolate. It was covered in rocks that looked like the fell from the sky, and because of the ground consisting mostly of limestone, there were lots of weird sinkholes and other rock formations in the earth. Here and there we passed lonely-looking Mayan sheep herders, and occasionally travelled through teeny villages of no more than a few mud-brick shacks. After a loooong day traversing the altiplano, we descended steeply into the village (if you can even call it that!) of Canton Primera, and settled down for the night on the concrete slab outside of the local school. We cooked up a hearty dinner of pasta and gulped down some hot drinks before bundling up and burrowing into our sleeping bags to face the cold, cold night.
The next morning we packed up quickly and descended the rest of the way down the mountain to a beautiful river. We prepared a hot breakfast and warmed up in the sun for a while before starting the long uphill slog up the other side of the river valley, gaining almost the same elevation over the course of the day as we had the day before. Around mid-day we were on the altiplano again, and some of the darkest clouds I have ever seen began to surround us. We quickly huddled and made the decision to pay a local family to make us some hot eggs for lunch and let us hunker down in their house until the storm passed. It was an excellent decision - minutes after taking out packs off, the roar of hail on the tin roof became deafening, several tornadoes whirled around in the fields surrounding the house, and forked lightning hit the transistor near the house and knocked out the power!
Once the storm passed we thanked the family for their kindness and headed up to the ridge overlooking the town. Looking back from where we came, it looked as though the fields were covered in snow - so much hail! We made it to our next destination, the town of La Ventosa, just as the skies opened again and it started to pour rain.
In La Ventosa, we stayed in a spare room at the house of the village chief, and were lucky enough to get to use a temascal again! Unfortunately, this one wasn´t quite as nice and as another girl and I were the first group in, we were dismayed to have the later groups report that what we thought was mud in the dark of the sauna was actually dog poop. Not exactly a cleansing experience!
The next morning we headed out to tackle the highest non-volcanic point in Central America, La Torre, at almost 4000m (the volcano of Tajumulco is a little bit higher). The climb was one of the mildest of the trip, as we were already at such high altitude, but the view was unfortunately one of the worst as we were quite clouded in. Because it was sooo cold, we didn´t linger at the top and instead continued down for a few more hours until we came to a sheltered spot to stop and have lunch.
A little while after lunch, we arrived in the town of Todos Santos - the end of the trek! The town itself is very interesting; all the men wear exactly the same outfit of red and white-striped pants, a blue jacket with an embroidered collar, and a type of straw hat with an embroidered band. All the women wear navy and white-striped skirts, with beautifully embroidered huipiles (traditional blouses) cinched in with woven belts. It was really funny to walk around town and see how some of the townsfolk had adapted the outfits to their own styles - lots of the younger men wore their pants low and baggy and their hats tilted forward at a jaunty angle!
We stayed in the spare room of a family´s home again and were treated to a wonderful homemade vegetable soup for dinner - a very nice change from rice and beans with the (very) occasional egg!
In the morning (the morning of my 24th birthday!), we woke up at 4am to catch a couple of buses back to Xela. A friend I had made on the trek and I found a cheap room near the trekking office, and after wrapping things up with the group I had the best hot shower of my life!! After getting clean and dry, we headed to a cute cafe in the centre of town and met up with a couple from the trek, and spent the afternoon drinking beer and eating delicious waffles and enjoying the luxury of not being freezing and wet and sitting in dirt! Then I skyped with my parents for a while, which was really nice, and then headed back to the trekking office for a yummy potluck dinner and a lot of red wine!