We’ve been planning to take another Spanish lesson in Guatemala. The guide books recommend Antigua as the “ultimate” place for the classes but we weren’t sure at this point if we wanted to go to Antigua or at least staying for a Spanish-class-length of time there.
After some research John found writings on a couple of remote villages in the north highlands where next to some activities Spanish class was an option too. John is very keen on visiting more authentic, indigenous villages so we decided to take our next stop to Nebaj.
Nebaj is small village in a valley of a the untouched Cuchumatanes mountains with locals keeping the ancient way of living life. Women are still wearing traditional clothes with striking colours. It is a small modest looking town with a church on the main square and a reasonably large market.
We arrived early in the day, parked up at the side of the road and walked in to the centre where there was a local gathering of some sort and the couple bigger streets that lead to the main square had waves of red-skirted woman rushing up to the centre for the beginning of whatever was about to start. We enjoyed looking the arrivals for a while then went to find the Spanish school building to see what our options are.
After asking around for a bit we finally arrived to the school. They did have places for us -whenever we would want to start the course but couldn’t really help us with camping in Burt and a good place to park up for a couple of weeks. At this point it dawned on us that this could may be a problem. However the manager of the school offered to park up at his house which was in the next village. So we came away with some thoughts.
It was getting late in the day so, regardless for the upcoming time, we had to find a place to stay for this night. The outskirt of the village we found a hotel where we could park up for a small fee.
The next day we were still hesitating to make a decision on the school and the offer of the campsite in the next village so just to take our time, we hired a guide and went for a hike for the day.
We had an elderly guide who spoke some Spanish but mainly spoke his Mayan language but with pointing and the little Spanish I understood we could make small conversations.
At lunchtime we arrived in a very small and very remote village and we were invited for snacks and hot drinks which were prepared and cooked on open fire in the adobe hut while chickens, dog, cats and a pig were coming in and out. The hot drinks was basically roasted, grounds corn cooked in hot water and the snack was a hard-skinned with thorns, dark green, pear-shaped vegetable that was steamed for many hours then the skin needed to be pilled off and munch the flesh of it. They simply tasted like boiled potatoes and we were desperately looking around for butter and salt. Then we got more sugary burnt corn drinks. Then it was time to move on.
From here on it was only downhill for a couple of hours, arriving to a town and from there catch a bus back to Nebaj. All together it took the whole day, despite for our snack we were very hungry and very tired by the time we got back but it was well worth it.
We found out that the Spanish school building is actually also a cafe/restaurant with wifi and a quite nice atmosphere. We had a few beers and dinner here and walked back to our hotel spot.
This was our second night with late night football next door, quite literally 6 meters from us, and it went on till 10.30-11PM. By the sound of it, when I asked about this in the hotel, it seemed that there are no evenings really when they don’t play football. So that wasn’t very promising for early and quiet nights. Though we stayed one more day and night to see if we can find a place to park for weeks nearby for the school. Somewhere and sometime in the day we decided to move on to the next town Todos Santos with better luck of the combination of camping and learning Spanish in a school.
It was a day drive through towns, mountain roads then more towns then more winding roads. We thought, according to the description of the town that it will be dirt roads but for our biggest surprise the road was paved all the way. The drive was lovely and there was a point when it did feel we were in Scotland. It was late afternoon when we arrived to Todos Santos.
Its real name is Todos Santos Cuchumatan and it is high up, over 3000 meter in the raged mountains of the Guatemalan northern highlands. It is also a town and area where only indigenous people live under slightly more advanced circumstances than Nebaj. This town felt masculine as oppose to Nebaj but I think it was because in Nebaj the women stood out with their gorgeous dresses, and here quite the opposite. The men, small or big, in Todos Santos wear the exact same outfit; striking red and white stripy trousers and white and blue shirt with embroidered large collars. The fabrics seemed very similar to denim which made it practical in this climate. Being there in December it was quite chilly. The mornings started with thick fog that couldn’t disappear throughout the day which created a spooky atmosphere for the sunset and evenings.
We found a large parking lot on a dirt, grassy field right in town. We found out it was private, but saw a couple of trucks parked up here so we made drove in and our nest for the night. Within half an hour the owner was there so we could settle with a small fee for the parking with him.
The next morning we woke to a 3C (37F) temperature so had to take our woollies out. Then we were on a hunt for the Spanish school. In the meantime visited the small market and got the essentials, found an internet cafe and called Mother for her birthday. We found the school but also found out that it doesn’t functional anymore -or at least not in the winter season. We got a name of a teacher and a rough direction to her home. We found her home but no luck so we continued up the hill till the road ran out and we found ourselves in the woods which wasn’t just very pretty but we were out of the clouds and the view from above was spectacular. On our way back we discussed our options, how long want to stay etc.
By this point we got in touch with another overland traveller couple from Holland and we got an email from them that they are in Guatemala now as well -in Cobán and will be heading to Lake Atitlan in a few days. As much as I appreciated John’s efforts to find an authentic places to stay and learn Spanish, and I really do, and also as much as I found these places fascinating and was very pleased that we visited Nebaj and Todos Santos I started to feel isolated and … well lonely. Not only these 4-5 days but for weeks, perhaps months. We have been travelling exactly for one year now in our style; slowly, taking our time, enjoying places and people then move on when we want to etc. But I felt it would be very nice travelling with company, at least to try, at least for a while… John wasn’t quite ready for this yet. He enjoyed these places, the remoteness more. One of the differences between us is that John is more of a “solo” person who is very comfortable being on his own, being quiet and do things his own way. I am a very social person, I enjoy people the most on this travel (and in general), I did find difficult to leave places in Mexico, Belize where we made friends but had to leave them behind so I was ready to make new friends who potentially like-minded, adventurous like us and as a bonus travelling with a dog! That I love. I persuaded John to leave Todos Santos in the next day or after and head towards Lake Atitlan.
When we got back to our camp we found a bunch of mucky faced, cheeky kids who loved Burt and playing around and under it. As we just set down on a piece of log to watch them they gathered around us and entertained us. It was very sweet and amazing how kids just don’t care for the fact that we speak a different language, somehow everything is understood all you need is a football or a camera or a small bottle of water. For an hour I was playing with the kids and it made feel even better for this town. Where children are so contented, happy and constantly smiling a place can’t be a bad place.
And it wasn’t. I did feel sorry to leave here though I knew we have so much ahead of us.
We left the following morning in the spooky fog and headed south towards Quetzaltenango which is on the way to Lake Atitlan.
Next, Meet the Dutchies…