Monday, April 4, 2011

Guatemala – Roadtrip from Xela to Nebaj and Cobán

On the day we left Xela, we knew where we wanted to go (Nebaj) but not really how we would get there. Two routes were possible, the northern route through Huehuetenango or what we were told would be easiest through Chichicastenango and Santa Cruz del Quiche. The latter would have meant some backtracking, which Patrick doesn't like to do and we would also have missed out on the scenic route outside Huehuetenago (simply called Hue Hue).

View of Cobán, our destination
on this leg of the trip
We forgot to mention that the easiest way to Nebaj would have been by tourist shuttle, this is the way many foreigners travel. The door to door service may be convenient and probably a bit faster; but then, there would be very little adventure and interaction with the locals. Also spending USD $50 each for this trip seemed a bit pricey for our backpacker's budget. So we took a local minibus to the Xela bus terminal on the edge of town, then hopped on a bus to Santa Cruz, but immediately changed our mind and switched over to another bus to Hue Hue which was just preparing to leave and had loads of empty seats too.

It did depart as soon as we sat down, just to stop around the corner, where the driver took out the newspaper and informed himself about the road conditions to HueHue (at least in the ideal world this would be the case). He probably was checking the soccer/football section. After 10-15 minutes there, we moved on for about 5km then we stopped again. This time the driver left the bus and was nowhere to be seen for another 10 minutes. When we moved again, the same procedure repeated itself at Quatro Caminos and San Francisco... So we ended up spending some 1½ hour for what should have been a 30 minutes journey. But at San Francisco, we finally had the bus and roof packed full: finally we're moving!

Chicken bus pulling into the terminal
At Huehuetenango
On this chicken bus, we for the first time see what can be best described as traveling salesman. At the second stop (when the driver disappeared), this guy gets up from the seat across from us and starts talking to all the passengers in a really friendly manner (aka. sales-pitch tone). He first pulled out a bundle of what looked like fresh rosemary and explained all the health properties of this herb. Then he reached into his bag again and brought out an onion, then a custard apple, etc…always explaining the health benefits of each. Finally after the 10 minutes lead in, he pulled out some small packets with a "magic" powder that probably included all the herbs and veggies. Then he hands one to each willing bus passenger to inspect and read the print on the package while he patiently sits down again.

Just before Quatro Caminos, he collected either the unsold bags or the money, with about a quarter of the people actually buying his health potion. Shortly after, in San Francisco, another salesman entered the bus. He was selling a little booklet with facts about Guatemala: Capitals of the provinces, Mayan languages, Statistics, etc... It was kind of an Encyclopedia and Atlas combined (for teenagers who are reading this: that's the Wikipedia before the Internet age arrived). He was fun to listen to: we could practice our Spanish and learn a bit more about Guatemala. His Spanish was very clear and we could actually understand quite a bit. He was also quite successful selling at least to a third of all passengers. Actually at 5 Quetzales (85 cents), the booklet seemed like a good deal, but we didn't buy one, too much stuff to carry already.
We love the way  they recycle old tires,
or are these considered "new" ones here?

We arrived in HueHue at 10:30 am, 2 hrs 40 mins for 90 km. That makes an average speed of 34 km/h actually not bad considering all the stops, and the scenery was nice too…although the windows were scratched up pretty bad so all we could see had a bit of blurriness to it!

Changing buses in Hue Hue was easy. We first went to a nearby restaurant to have coffee and take care of some body fluids. Then we asked around at bit at the terminal and were told that at 11:30 would be a direct bus to Sacapulas. It actually left at 11:20 and was a minibus, chicken buses apparently don't drive this route. We drove through the market, gassed/petrolled up, and waited some more... finally, leaving Hue Hue at noon.

Our pit-stop at Hue Hue
The Drive to Aguacatan was a short 45 minutes or so. But there we unloaded half the passengers and had a long wait for the bus to fill up again. Finally leaving at around 1 pm after the driver and his helper managed to fix the left rear wheel which was locked up in an immobile fashion for an unknown reason. Perhaps they made a prayer of offering to Road Gods, but somehow it finally engaged again. We hope the wheel doesn’t freeze up again or fall off along the way.

Aguacatan traditional dress
The drive to Sacapulas was through a wonderful landscape as we descended in altitude. The temperature went up quite a bit too, even gigantic bunches of cactus started to appear in the fields. We must have left the highlands. The roads were thankfully in good shape because Patrick was about at his limit of noise tolerance. The blaring Mariachi music got louder as we continued along and the guy behind us was nonstop on his phone, raising his voice to outshout the Mariachis.

When we arrived in Sacapulas at 2pm, we both were very hot. However, we've made it here much easier than anticipated, so without a break, we were off again. Just 10 minutes after arriving in Sacapulas the chicken bus to Nebaj came - enroute from Santa Cruz del Quiche to Nebaj. Since we were waiting outside Sacapulas at the junction to Nebaj, the bus was already packed full. And unfortunately nobody wanted to get off where we boarded at. So we ended up having to stand for the first time in a chicken bus. All the while going up the steepest and windiest road so far on our journey.
Traditional dress
of the women in Nebaj
On top of that, at every village, there was speed bump after speed bump. Since the shock absorbers were already over the hill or never even existed in the first place, we literally got thrown up and down like sandbags.
At 3:20 pm we arrived in Nebaj with a total door to door time of pretty much 8 hours. Considering that we spent 55Q each ($9) for the whole trip (compared to USD 50 for a shuttle that takes about 5 hours), we think we did pretty well. And the views enroute were stunning, of course we don't know what the scenery would have been via Santa Cruz del Quiche.

Look at these pom pom's
in her head-dress
Nebaj is in the so called "Ixil triangle" which is compromised of the towns Cotzal, Chajul and Nebaj. The local Ixil Mayan people have apparently suffered more than anybody during the civil war. To date, they are still very poor and are very proud to live their lives following many of their old traditions. One display of this tradition is the head dress of the women which are green, purple, blue and yellow hand woven thin bands, braided into the hair and with fluffy pom pom's at the end at the trailing end that rests just below the back of the crown of their heads. We had seen a variety of headdresses of the Mayan culture, but this one was quite original.

We were lucky to be there during one of the bigger market days.
The Nebaj Market
And even more than in Solola, it was definitely not a market catering for tourists. On display were mostly fresh and dried food stuff, clothes, every day household items, some clothes and of course the live poultry market. Julane thought that the Nebaj market was even better than the one in Solola. Patrick thinks the opposite. I guess you can form your own opinion by watching both movies below

The market in Nebaj

and here the link to the movie of the market in Solola

Boys like their Video Games everywhere
in the world. These are some
antique gems
We saw very few other foreigners in Nebaj, the most that are there are either working for an NGO, or are long term resident expats that had enough of a lifestyle in modernity.
We also bumped into a group of young Americans that volunteered in the Peace Corps at a restaurant that was setup by an NGO to train the locals in hospitality. Most of the streets in Nebaj are not paved, so every time a vehicle went by, we had to duck for cover from the white clouds of fine dust.
Our hotel "Shalom" was very loud,
but next door the security on
the main street was good!

The main road was paved and busy with the noisiest Tuc Tucs that we've heard so far. Patrick was wondering if there is an award or competition among the drivers for the nosiest Tuc Tuc. Our Hotel for the first night was called "Shalom" with great views down to the main street. But the noise level in the room was ear shattering, and it started at 5am! So on the second day, we had an involuntary early start. Patrick wanted to move on to Cobán right away, he didn't particularly care for Nebaj. But Julane was fascinated by the market and convinced him to move hotels and stay for another night. She was so fascinated by Nebaj that she managed to shoot 4 Gigs worth of movies at the market and additionally took about 150 photographs. Thank god that we have a large external hard disk with us to hold all that data.

Nice paint job (Nebaj)
Our second hotel, the Ilebal Tenam, was much more "tranquillo" so Patrick was also fine to stay an extra day, especially once we discovered that there would be an direct minibus to Cobán the next day at 5am. Before arriving in Nebaj we heard and read mixed stories about the road from Nebaj to Cobán, some reports said that the road is very rough and almost impassable, others said it was rough but passable, and the more optimistic ones said that it was OK and paved almost all the way. Either way, we now know that there is a direct minibus, and if they drive this route twice daily, we assume it must be passable. So let's do it. Anyway the alternative is a very long drive through Guate (El Capital).

The bus to Cobán leaves from this
gas station, we wonder if this will
be our "Bus".
Dig the decorations?!
We got up at 4am to be at the gas station from where the minibus was leaving at 4:30am. They told us the night before to be there early, we now also figured out why: at 4:50 we drove off, even though the bus was only half full. We picked up people who must have pre-booked as we drove a very indirect way out of town. We just love getting up early these days :-) especially to catch a direct bus.

The route to Cobán was again lined with spectacular views, though the sunrise was only at around 6am so we missed seeing anything on the way from Nebaj down to the lower lands. Shortly after Uspantán, the paved road ended and turned into dirt, it started winding steeply uphill. We wondered why the paved part was the relatively flat section yet the most mountainous stretch was a rough dirt road?

"Permanent temporary road"
through the landslide
area outside Uspantán
About 45 minutes into the bouncy dirt road driving, we suddenly turned off sharply to the right onto a really narrow and even more rugged dirt road... soon we could see why. The "normal" road had been taken out by a massive landslide, and we now drove on what look to be a permanent temporary road. We let the video below do the rest of the talking. Do they expect a second landslide soon and don't bother to put in a better road? Who knows! Anyway after about 15 minutes we were back on the normal (still dirt) road.

A good 90 minutes of dirt roads under our buts, we reached the town of San Christóbal, this is also where the remaining 30 minutes of paved stretch into Cobán started.
Unbelievable: the trip from Nebaj to Cobán was very easy thanks to the direct bus. It took us 4 hours and 50 Quetzales each ($8.50) and we arrived before 10 am just in time for breakfast. Still dress in highland clothes, we could feel that we must be quite a bit lower than before. The temperatures in Cobán were driving the sweat out of our pores. For weeks, we had been dreaming about reaching warmer climates again… hummm.

There as so many 2nd hand clothes stores
here: we wonder why?
Cobán is a quite affluent area with many Fincas (large plantations) around, and the wealth shows. The town looked very neat and we’ve seen more police than anywhere else in Guatemala. The center of town has a park perched on top of a hill lined with cafés and shops. This is definitely a very different part of Guatemala compared to the highlands where most of the Mayan people live and still follow their traditions.
Genesis Import: taking care of your
old clothes.
In Cobán, we could hardly see any traditional clothes. Actually, we saw lots and lots of stores selling second hand western clothing; some of which were designer labels such as Tommy Hilfiger, Polo, Alfani, Pink, Victoria Secret, etc.
Where do all these clothes come from? We didn't need to guess long, when we found the "Genesis Importadora S.A. that sells them by the pound, starting at 100 lbs up to 1000 lbs.

Delivery of the 2nd hand clothes,
we guess that's the 100 lbs size
Guess where Genesis gets them from: Do you have any of those collection bags for old clothes at home? The bags that are distributed by your local charities and say the clothes must be clean and in good shape? Yes, they come straight from your closet to the streets of Guatemala (at least if you live in the USA or Canada).
Need we say more?
So next time you donate any of your old clothes to a local charity, do make sure that you only include the items that can be sold by a second hand store here in Central America! Julane did notice that many of the sizes on the clothing were large and XL which seemed appropriate since most of the people here seem to be about that size too. Save those skinny jeans for shipments directed to Africa or India!

We spent 2 full days in Cobán, catching up on Internet and sleep. We also enjoyed tasting the sweets from the many bakeries that are lining the streets. We don't think that there are many places that rival Cobán in the number of bakeries per capita, the ratio must be something like one bakery for every 50 people. For two days, we left our big packpacks in our Hotel (called "La Paz" – the peace) while we left town for a side trip to Semuc Champey, you can read more about that trip in the next Blog update.

Patrick working on uploading the
"Gettting high in Xela" Blog entry
The reason we mention La Paz (besides that we enjoyed it there) is the unusual security level: There is an iron bar gate blocking the entrance to the hotel. Anybody that wants to get in or out has to go by the guard (24 hours) and if the guard is busy – bad luck, you wait! It happened to us at least 3 times that we were left standing in front of the gate for more than 5 minutes waiting for him to finish. He is also the check-in and check-out reception employee "after hours", plus on weekends he also doubles up as the housekeeper. So depending what he is up to (cleaning, checking someone in, or using the toilet himself…. ) you have to wait to come in or go out. But we really liked this old hotel that had been around for decades as it was well maintained and definitely felt very safe for us to stay at and leave our backpacks in their storage room during our side trip to Semuc.

Templo El Calvario
If you ever come to Cobán we also can highly recommend visiting the local tourist information office. The lady there was the first (and so far only) person at an official Guatemalan tourist info counter that had lots of good info and tips. As a bonus she even spoke English really well and was eager to practice it. (A message to the guys at Lonely Planet: you should update your Guatemala guide. First, it has moved locations and also we totally disagree with your negative comments about this particular tourist office.) We stopped by during the day when the office was closed, so we asked the security guard of the building if it was safe to go up the hill to the "Templo El Calvario" (Lonely planet warns to watch out for robbers but perhaps all the police in town have gotten rid of this menace.)

The Temple is a combination of Catholic Church but with Mayan traditional offerings periodically placed in niches along the 131 steps leading up. After our trip, we returned to the tourist office to discover that the lady is also very well networked. She knew all about us coming by, going to the temple and chuckled a bit about our safety concerns.

From here on we will leave the highlands behind us, take out our shorts, t-shirts and sandals to explore the northeastern regions of Guatemala (and it's going to get even hotter!)