San Juan Atitán
We visited San Juan Atitán, a remote town where the Mam people still dress
in their traditional clothing (huipiles).
Our Rough Guide book suggested a 5 hour hike between the towns of San Juan Atitán and Todos Santos Cuchumatán. We were excited to try a scenic way see two towns and the countryside in-between.
Getting to San Juan Atitán
The small town of San Juan Atitán is not on a major bus route, so we squeezed
into the back of a microbus to take us there from Huehue. (Microbuses leave from the
parking lot to the east of Cafetería Tucana at 2C 2-15.
Somewhere along the steep windy dirt road up to San Juan Atitán, our microbus came to a stop. The driver mumbled something we didn't catch and got out, as did the other three people sharing the passenger seat. But otherwise, for 20 minutes, we all waited — patient and silent — crammed into our stuffy little vehicle. Finally, the two of us couldn't take it anymore, so we crawled our way out of the microbus to find out what was going on.
We were in a line of perhaps 10 vehicles waiting for some kind of road construction. "How long would it be?" we asked our driver, who was chatting with some of the other drivers. "Oh, just 20 minutes," he said.
One of the other passengers on our van was a photographer from California. He spoke poor (but enthusiastic) Spanish. He had gone walking up the road to scout around, and came back to tell us what he saw. He was agitated as he tried to communicate the magnitude of the road repairs still needed for us to pass. It would be least a day's wait, he insisted. He spoke louder and louder to compensate for his poor Spanish, shouting "rock-as", and "landslide". He tried to convince the driver that we needed to turn around now because there was no way we were going to make it to San Juan Atitán that day. Our driver asked us to explain to our countryman that this driver's home was San Juan Atitán, and so he had no intentions of turning around. The Californian, however, was not happy about the prospect of spending the night by the side of the road.
As we were all a bit unsure who to believe, we walked up together to see for ourselves. The construction site was, indeed, the scene of a giant landslide. There was a mountain of dirt and boulders blocking the road, and no one seemed to be working on it very quickly. So, at this point, we were convinced that it could indeed be hours before we were moving again. But since the two of us had all our belongings on our backs, we decided we could just hike the few remaining miles into town by ourselves!
The Strange Gringos
Hiking through the countryside, we came to realize just how rarely gringos like us passed this way. We were freaks, it turned out!
We politely said "¡Hola!" and "¡Buenos días!" to everyone we passed. But, many people from this area spoke Mam, not Spanish, so it was like entering an entirely new country.
Along the way, we passed the village of Santa Isabel, where the road passes right through a schoolyard. When some kids on a basketball court spotted us, they immediately started chanting "¡Gringos! ¡Gringos!" in a somewhat playful, but also mocking way. Following their lead, we shouted back "¡Niños! ¡Niños!"
Then we noticed a schoolroom right behind us. A gaggle of children was filling the doorway and spilling out onto the street — their faces showing tremendous curiosity, but also trepidation. They wanted to get a good look at us — but not too close! Like a school of fish, they flowed as a unit, streaming out of the classroom to see us. But as Laura approached them, playfully hiding behind a post, peeking around one side and then the other, the kids suddenly found themselves too close to her. They panicked, and backpedaled into the safety of the classroom — only to face the rest of their classmates pressing forward right behind them. It was a hilarious situation, but we decided to let them get back to their classes as we continued on our way up to San Juan Atitán.
The view along the road. Because it's all they have, the Guatemalan people will farm the steepest of mountain slopes.
After an hour hike, we arrived in town. It was market day, and everyone was out and about in their purple huipil finery. We certainly stood out: a Geoff's bald head and Laura's fiery red hair — both of us towering above everyone in town.
Our plan was to hike over the mountains to the next small town, Todos Santos Cuchumatán. We bought a few supplies from the market, including a hot order of fries for lunch.
Into the Mountains
After much asking of directions, we picked a path heading north up out of town and into the mountains.
Along the way, there was always a rustling in the bushes and scampering up ahead of kids spying on the strange pair of gringos — and running to alert their friends and families. "Gringos!" they would chant — along with any English they knew, "Hello! Goodbye!"
Every family seemed to have a loom set up in their homes to weave the same purple fabric for their local huipiles.
We also spotted many freshly handmade adobe bricks, ready for new construction.
We found this strange parasitic neon-orange plant growing on other plants along the road. (Probably Cuscuta).
As we said, we got the idea to do this hike from our Rough Guide guidebook — but it describes the hike in the opposite direction: from Todos Santos Cuchumatán to San Juan Atitán. In our direction, we found it difficult to discern the route. There were no signs to mark the maze of trails and offshoots — and there were very few people around to ask directions. At one point, a group of guys did tell us we were on the wrong trail, so we bushwhacked over to the right one, but it turns out we soon got lost again.
Then a fog rolled in, so we were unable to see beyond a few yards on our current trail. We could no longer tell where we were going. Our GPS told us roughly what direction we were heading in, but that wasn't very helpful in the windy mountain pass switchbacks.
At each intersection, we picked the trail that looked the most well-traveled — the widest one with the most footprints. However, at each successive fork our choices branched out like a network of veins, getting smaller and smaller... and smaller still... until we were deep in the forest and had only the faintest of capillaries to choose among.
As night approached, we came to terms with the fact that we had gotten
ourselves totally lost! (Well, with our GPS we knew exactly where we
were, and how to backtrack, but not how to find a trail forward.
So, after much backtracking and investigating all the tiny trail options we had passed by earlier, we heard the whippoorwills starting to call — telling us that there was nothing else to do now but set up camp and spend a chilly night in the woods. We had plenty of snacks with us — a can of beans, a can of tuna, an avocado, and some fresh tortillas that we had purchased in town — but we were getting pretty low on water. At this point, we were at about 10,000 feet elevation, with no sleeping bags or tent — but we were up for the challenge of making it through the night wearing everything we had, snuggling for warmth.
How often can you say you spent the night in the woods in Guatemala? At 10,000 feet? We were indeed wearing all our clothes — multiple layers of coats, t-shirts, and even extra underwear and swimsuits. We woke up every few hours to shake out our limbs, check in with each other, do a little dance to warm ourselves, and hunker down again for sleep. We were amazed that in the end we actually got a decent 6 hours of sleep!
The next morning, there was frost on the ground. But the fog lifted and we now could see down the valley — exactly to the trail we should have been on!
But we were low on water, so we decided to take the safe approach and just backtrack to San Juan Atitán.
On the way, we passed many groups of woodcutters starting their day of work — and they were very surprised to see us two gringos out in the woods! It turned out we had been exploring a network of (illegal) logging trails that started in San Juan Atitán, but all ending somewhere in the trees.
A Crazy Day
Returning to San Juan Atitán, we knew something funny was up. We spotted kids with their hands and faces covered in metallic powder — and a mischievous gleam in their eyes. Today was Carnaval! (Carnival or Mardi Gras in the U.S.) Our homestay mother Josefina had warned us about this: it was tradition on Carnaval for kids to try to pelt each other with cascarones (eggshells filled with confetti), and fistfuls of colored powder. As we approached town, we realized that freakish gringos were prime targets! It was only a matter of time before the kids overcame their fear and covered us with color!
We tried to avoid them, ducking into a tienda (tiny store) for water and Gatorade to rehydrate ourselves. It happened that this tienda was also the local bar/liquor store. Like many other housefront tiendas, it really was very tiny — only just large enough to squeeze in the four men who were sharing a Carnaval drink, and Geoff. Laura had to watch from the doorway.
These men were drinking Venado, a popular local aguardiente (sugarcane booze). They were very excited to see us two gringos, and insisted that we join them in a shot of Venado and coke. Well, we wouldn't have an opportunity to do this elsewhere, so we gave it a try. Anyway, after spending a night in the woods, we deserved this late-morning drink!
Standing in the doorway, Laura watched the scene outside. Despite being mid-day on a Tuesday, kids were everywhere in the street, roving in packs, looking for victims to bombard with their powder and confetti.
We needed to find a microbus to take us out of town. As we wandered through town, everyone we saw was eying the two gringos. We did find one microbus, but the driver was drunk, slumped back in his seat. We hoped we could find better options!
At this point, several of the groups of kids came together around us shouting "¡Gringos! ¡Gringos!" They had now gained some confidence in their numbers, and, yes, soon we were covered in various colors of powder and confetti! Geoff chased these kids around too, trying to put some of his powder back on them.
To play along, we also brought out a screaming ninja slingshot monkey toy we had been saving for a kid situation like this. We all had a hilarious time firing it up and down the street.
After an hour or so of this, we escaped to the town's single comedor for lunch. As we waited for our food (only one dish on the "menu"), we watched the local men in their huijiles come in for lunch. There was a sink right by the entrance of the restaurant, where each customer was very careful to wash his hands — but there was no soap! And the towel appeared to be a soiled rag. The customers all spoke to each other in Mam, intermixed with bits of Spanish. We had a big lunch of pollo, beans and rice with a radish salad — all for Q18 (US$2.50) each.
Soon after lunch, a microbus (with a sober driver) arrived, and we left San Juan Atitán.