Central America’s steep and often volcanic terrain abounds with hiking opportunities, but the higher-elevation scenery of the Ixil region in Guatemala offers an exciting chance to escape from the usual lowland tourist trails. Departing from Nebaj, the main city in the Guatemalan department of El Quiché, hikers can hire a guide or, if equipped with good maps, strike out on their own for treks in the country’s Cuchamantan Mountains, a rural highlands where locals still adhere to traditional ways of life.
A Very Worthwhile Trip
At 1,900 meters (6,233 feet) above sea level, the mountain town of Nebaj is a complete change of pace from the tropical heat typical of much of the country. The trip from colonial Antigua takes about five hours by bus, but the Nebaj markets alone make the trip worthwhile. From handmade bedspreads to traditional woven huipiles pullovers with delicate embroidery work, the textiles produced by the town’s local artisans are well known throughout Guatemala.
Even at night, you won’t want miss the food carts in the market off the main square. They only come out after the clothing stores close up shop, but in no time you can sample plates of spicy ground pork, grilled beef, rice, beans and handmade tortillas, all accompanied by steaming hot, sweet, local coffee. Popi’s Restaurant on calle 5 also fixes up a decent selection of breakfast options, and has clean, spacious dorm rooms (with hot water!) for 25 quetzales per person (approximately US$3.25 in 2014).
A Good Base for Hikers
Aside from the town’s own charms, Nebaj is a particularly good departure point for hikers. Eager to see a little more of the countryside, a fellow traveler (the infamous Jethiker, Amber Nolan) and I decided to explore some of the villages north of Nebaj. Although it is definitely possible to reach some of the places we visited on your own, we followed local advice and booked a guide. Especially for the more remote hikes, it helps to support locals in a poor region like this that was one of the hardest hit during the decades-long Guatemalan Civil War.
To take us to some lesser-known villages, we hired Diego, a Nebaj local who works with Guias Ixiles, a community-minded tourism business dedicated to improving the local economy. With their help and Diego’s, we arranged to stay in the rural Ixil region by sleeping in village homestays, most of which were very simple accommodations in cabins with hammocks and bunk beds.
On a Quiet Mountain Path
Waking early on our first day, we headed to the crowded station in Nebaj to catch one of just a few public buses headed north that operate on Sundays (although camionetas are available on most other days). After an insanely bumpy two-hour ride, we reached a turn off and the beginning our walking adventure. Diego pointed up a steep, rain-washed road along a scenic ridge line with gorgeous views of pine-dotted valleys.
This is what would lead to our first overnight stay in a small hospedaje in the small mountain village of Parramos Grande (population 300). After a lengthy, three-plus-hour trek with plenty of much-needed rest stops in the shade, we found ourselves in the farming community surrounded on all sides by mist-shrouded mountains. It was the perfect place for a cool and comfortable place to bed down for the night inside a cozy log cabin adjacent to the local school.
The next two days were spent pushing higher into the hills, with stops in the mountain villages of Palop and La Ventosa, each with a population of approximately 150 families. The more ground we covered, the more we noticed how the scenery changed from highland forest to grassy windswept plains. The highlight came on the third day, as the trail rose out to a wide-open plateau where unusual rock formations jutted up through the grass. The surrounding jagged cliffs and grassy flatlands were almost lunar and unlike anything else I had seen in Guatemala. Sheep grazed and a few horses showed us the way, roaming far ahead of their owners.
A Taste of Mayan Culture
When the trail ended on a main road, we hitched a ride to Todos Santos, a highly walkable market town at an elevation of 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) surrounded by haze and mountains. Here, as in other villages seen along our hike, locals still wore traditional clothing – the men donned striped trousers, jackets with embellished collars and straw hats, while the women had on long skirts and brightly colored woven shirts.
The narrow market behind the church sells a few of these items, but the best deals in town are in the food market, upstairs, where fresh ceviche is available for just a few quetzales. With limited time, we couldn’t stay for more than a few hours, but we noted that the friendly town is another promising base for hiking excursions, not to mention chances to learn Spanish or Mam (one of the Mayan languages), or for indulging in a traditional chuj, the ancient Maya version of a steaming hot sauna.
If you’ve ever wanted to see another side of Guatemala, one that’s far removed from its ruins and jungles, head up to Nebaj. The hosts at the internet café at the entrance to the restaurant El Descanso can connect you with information about day trips and longer treks to nearby villages – a great way to see a bit more of local Guatemala village life.