So we went and got ourselves back on the road to Quiché, one of Guatemala’s most populous departments. The work at hand was to scout out the “Nebaj to Todos Santos trek”, a trip that is essentially a traverse of part of the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes. This mountain range runs for 400km in west-east direction through the neighboring departments of Huehuetenango and Quiché. With peaks clearing 3800m, it is considered the highest non-volcanic sierra in all of Central America. The name “Cuchumatán” btw is derived from the Maya Mam words “cuchuj” (=to join) and “matán” (=with great force), and thus means “what has been joined with great force”.
When crossing the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, we set out from Nebaj, one of the villages that form part of the so-called Ixil Triangle. This is the first hint as to the historic cross references that come into play on this trek. The hike entails clearing roughly 70km of trail in 6 days, most of which while crossing the flats of the “altiplano”, the Guatemalan highlands. The initial climb onto the plateau contains most of the elevation gain (ca. 1300m/5600ft.), with the rest coming as part of the ascent to La Torre, one of the highest points of the sierra (3832m/12.646ft.)
The trail on this hike comes in all kinds of terrain, from pine-needle strewn forest floor, to limestone scattered over dirt roads, to grass-covered flats. The occasional mudfest is also not unlikely, as we learned this time around: After some torrential downpour in the night, descending through Pajuil País became somewhat of an unexpected challenge. As we were going downhill, our boots, caked in mud, were about as useful as soaped up cement blocks on our feet.
The Cuchumatanes are something else. I still can’t quite put my finger on it, even after two visits it’s hard to describe. Hiking there is not a spectacle, not a show as, say, hiking up Acatenango to see Fuego erupt. Some of the most gifted turns of phrase (and most of the lesser gifted; this very piece here not excluded) about Guatemala revolve around its beautiful landscapes, so I wonder if it bears repeating: but there really is no way around acknowledging the views, and to a great degree, it is the remoteness of the area and the vastness of the views that make up the lasting impression. They give the hike an even more contemplative quality than usual, especially when you happen to walk flat, green pastures in a soft rain with sheep in distant sight.
But it’s really when you’re walking through the villages that the slower pace of life becomes strikingly apparent. In so many cases, you get sensory overload from all the sensations around you before you can really get a sense of place, and by the time you’re leaving, you’ve forgotten half of them. Hiking the Cuchumatanes provides a good balance between perceptive details and ample time to process them. Here you have distinct notions of architecture, clothing, and pastoral lifestyle that you can observe and grasp in order to get this area’s unique geographic and cultural identity.
Would you like to know more about this trip? Check out the 5 day Nebaj to Todos Santos hut-to-hut trip on our website. See ya on the trail.
Eventually useful bit of random trail advice: when you come across a sheep that's tied to a tree trunk and effectively stretching the rope across the trail, don't step over the rope. Because once you spook the sheep, which you will, it will try to cut across into the field while still ahead of you and, with the rope, take your feet right out from under you. See the sheep understands the implications of being tied to a tree just about as much as the courtesy behind trying not to spook it. And since you're going to do that anyway, there is no sense in trying to be polite about it.