A January 2004 trip
to Huehuetenango by lcampbell
Quote: In Part 3 of 7 of our month-long journey around Guatemala, we travel 2 days by bus through the highlands of Guatemala, where the traditional way of life is still maintained and traditional Mayan clothing is still worn by young and old.
Private or Shared Bath?
Private. We chose Hotel Gobernador specifically because our Lonely Planet guidebook mentioned that it had "extra-hot" showers. Because the Highlands are so cold at night, the lukewarm showers we had been getting were getting more and more unsatisfying. We didn’t even look anywhere else after confirming the existence of said hot water. The shower had good water pressure and did not disappoint – it was almost too hot to stand under!
Despite the dark, well-used rooms, there were a few things about Hotel Gobernador that I liked (besides the hot showers) that make me recommend it. First, it is a family-run hotel and everyone was extremely helpful and friendly. Also, there was a small TV room by the lobby, which provided entertainment during rainy weather and a hanging out spot to meet fellow travelers. I met an American woman who had lived in the nearby village of Todos Santos, Guatemala for four years – she was fun to talk to and gave me a ton of information. She also convinced me to visit Todos Santos, which turned out to be my favorite Guatemalan village.
Food and Other Amenities:
There is no restaurant at Hotel Gobernador, but it is just a 5-minute walk from the Center Square, around which are numerous restaurants and pastry shops.
As I just mentioned, Hotel Gobernador has a great location near the plaza, around which all the necessities can be found. It was a bit of a walk from where we got off the bus – we just got out where everyone else did. I’m not sure if the bus was heading toward the plaza or not, but it would have been nice to get a little closer if possible. From the north end of the plaza, follow 2a Calle west for half a block, then turn left on 4a Avenida – hotel is half a block up on the right.
Because all rooms are reached through the lobby, Hotel Gobernador is quite secure. The staff seemed trustworthy, but who knows?
It cost $8.00 per room for double occupancy. Lower rates for singles were available, and there are also cheaper rooms with a shared bath.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on October 21, 2004
Hotel Gobernador – Huehuetenango
4a Avenida 1-45
Hotel | "Casa Familiar – Todos Santos"
Private or Shared Bath?
Shared bath. The shower could have been warmer. It would be best to shower during the daytime, when the sun is out to warm you up afterwards. Casa Familiar does not have towels or soap for guests, so bring your own.
This is a family-run business, with the family living at the hotel. Mom and sister run most of the daily duties, as the men are gone during the day. One young girl (maybe 8 years old) keeps the place lively, and old grandma keeps it real.
Food and Other Amenities:
There are not many places to eat in Todos Santos, so we were happy to have the good and moderately priced selection at Casa Familiar. The family lives right there off the main balcony area, and there is usually someone in the kitchen. Just pop your head in and ask for something off the menu list on the wall, or ask about other offerings. They had really tasty and filling yogurt/fruit/granola for breakfast, fresh banana bread, and hot cereal. For a dinner large on quantity, but lacking in flavor, the spaghetti is a definite small-budget option.
A washing machine (really!) is available for 25 ($1.25) per load. There are many lines on the balcony to hang clothing to dry.
Casa Familiar is supposed to have a sauna (fired up on request – give plenty of notice as it takes a long time to heat up) and weaving lessons. I did not try out either of the options, so I cannot comment on them. There is an impressive and colorful store on site as well, selling the weavings of the local woman. I think it is actually a women’s cooperative of some sort. This is the highest quality weaving you will get in Guatemala and at good prices as well.
Todos Santos is very small. Essentially, the bus drops you off at the main intersection or plaza in town. Follow the road heading south for 30m or so.
The family watches for those who they don’t think belong, and the door is locked at night, but there might occasionally be a lack of presence during the day. The guest rooms are all on second floor, which helps maintain security.
25 quetzales ($3.12) per person per night.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 21, 2004
Casa Familiar Todos Santos
South of Plaza
Having entered the tiny museum to pay and get our tickets, we started our visit by exploring farther past the cash register. The museum contained some interpretive signs, tools, and ceramics, as well as some skulls, one of which was interesting because it had such a wide forehead.
Zacaleu was a religious and defensive site for the Mam Maya. It is strategically perched on a high spot with creeks and deep ravines on three sides. Today the buildings are restored, but not necessarily with authentic restoration methods. There was an attempt to redo the traditional plaster-like coating on the buildings, absent at other archeological sites, but the decoration that normally would have been painted into the wet plaster was not recreated. The overall effect is a plain, cement-like set of buildings.
The aspect of Zacaleu that I enjoyed most was seeing the local families having picnic lunches and dads playing soccer with the kids. It was nice to relax in a spot of shade and enjoy the view of the surrounding mountains and the quiet air. Overall, there was a nice atmosphere, that is unless you dwell on the fact the Spaniards overtook the site in 1525 by surrounding it and starving the Mayan people to death. Other than that, it’s a nice place… ahem…
To reach Zacaleu by foot, follow 2a calle west from the main plaza. There will be a jog to the left, where you will turn right. At a split in the road, stay right, then take another right in the next couple blocks to the next street over, where you will go left. Here you should see a sign for Zacaleu, or ask any passerby. The ones we talked to were very friendly. Follow this road all the way out to the park. It will be obvious when you get to the park – your first sight will likely be of food and beverage vendor tables arranged in a line near the entrance gate. I think there is also a bus or jitney truck to Zacaleu, but it leaves at the jog in 2a calle, rather than at the plaza like the other buses.
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on October 21, 2004
Zacaleu Archeological Site
From Cobán, most folks go either south toward Lago de Izabel and Guatemala City or north to Flores and Tikal. A few intrepid travelers with time to spare take the long high route directly west to reach the highlands of the Cuchumatanes Mountains.
This is not a comfortable trip – it is long and there are no bathroom breaks. Hint: intentionally dehydrate yourself in order to survive these long bus trips! The back roads of Guatemala are made of dirt, and they are bumpy and curvy. You will see crashed buses at the bottoms of steep embankments. Because there is limited bus service, the buses are always packed. Actually, this is true all over Guatemala, not just in the areas with fewer buses. There will almost always be three adults placed in U.S. school bus seats designed for two children. And often there will be families of four to six all packed in such a seat. Sometimes with you!
Anyway, back to the details of how to get from Cobán to Huehuetenengo by the back roads. In Cobán, wait in front of the main government building by the central plaza. You are looking for the bus to Úspantan. Some folks will try to tell you that the bus leaves from a different part of town. Actually, I think there is one that does, but another company definitely passes through the plaza area around 10am to 10:15am every day. The trip to Úspantan takes around 4 hours and should cost 10 quetzales ($1.25) per person.
You can stay in Úspantan, but a better choice is to continue on to Sacapulas. You will have a little bit of time in Úspantan to find a restroom – I truly hope you don’t have to, or at least find a better one than we did – and some food. We found a large building with maybe 20 little rooms, each with a woman cooking and a large table. Take your pick. We picked the one that looked cleanest and friendliest, and were happy with our choice. Then we hung out in the main plaza for a while until the bus arrived between 3:30pm and 4pm.
The bus trip to Sacapulas takes 2 hours and should cost 8 quetzales ($1) per person. Sacapulas is a nice little town tucked in the Black River valley. The highway is on one side of the river, and the town on the other. It seemed there were two places for travelers to stay: Hospedaje Black River (25 quetzales per person) and Hospedaje Tujaal (30 quetzales per person). We stayed at the latter while some folks we talked to stayed at the former, and all any of us could say is that the rooms were adequate. The toilets flushed by dumping a bucket of water down them, and the showers were bucket showers as well. I almost thought I was back in Thailand. We ate dinner at Hospedaje Black River, which was also adequate. A big group of military-looking guys were eating there, so I think it might be one of the better choices in town, but I’m not sure. We didn’t see much else for choices. The town itself is pretty, with stone streets and tile roofs, and a location on the bank of the river. I think there might even be a hot springs near by, but don’t quote me on that. The local folks seemed quite friendly, maybe with the exception of the Hospedaje Black River folks.
The bus from Sacapulas to Huehuetenango leaves at 3am, 4am, or 5am from the far side of the river by the bridge. Make sure, especially if you are taking the last bus, that you come plenty early to get a seat. I can’t remember the length of the trip – maybe 2 hours – but I know the price was 12 quetzales ($1.50) per person.
Bus from Huehuetenango to Todos Santos and back
The bus to Todos Santos from Huehuetenango leaves from the main plaza around noon, and the trip takes about 2 hours. The price was 10 quetzales (US$1.25) per person. We had eaten before boarding, anticipating a normal bus trip with no stops, but the driver did stop at 1pm at a place with lunch items.
The last bus leaves Todos Santos for Huehuetenango at 6:30am. In Huehuetenango, we got an immediate bus (around 8:30am) going on to Quetzaltenango (Xela) for 10 quetzales ($1.25) per person, another 2-hour trip.
I loved reading and people-watching in the pretty central park, the only tourist among a hundred people enjoying the large shade trees. I chatted with friendly local people, and had a long discussion with a local woman about forest fires – and her amazement that women in the US fight fires as a profession.
Just across from central park is a drug store, where the owner for some reason befriended us, and decided to show us his huge collection of foreign currency, which he had proudly displayed in glass cases on all of the walls of the pharmacy. He collected the money over many years of attending conferences.
One of my favorite places to eat in Guatemala was also in Huehuetenango. Just off the main plaza, Cafeteria Las Palmeras was packed with local people – always a good sign. A friendly woman, who seemed to be a head waitress or owner, brought out a plate of the "lunch of the day" to show us what was on it. She anticipated our almost daily struggle to figure out what the heck to order. Besides the great service, the food was really good and there was lots of it. We were given large plates filled with cucumber/tomato salad, potatoes, beets, choice of meat, plus chicken noodle soup, insane quantities of freshly made tortillas, and a soda. The price of this feast? Twenty quetzales, or $2.50! The side dishes change each day, but the basics are the same.
Another good place to eat is Mi Tierra Café, around the corner from the plaza on 4a Calle. This café definitely caters to the small but steady stream of westerners passing through the area. Food choices here would be more along the line of hamburgers or nachos (not a normal Guatemalan dish), and chocolate cake – that sort of thing. But the atmosphere is comfortable, and there is good visitor information and Internet access.
Huehuetenango was also where I got my first good look at the traditional dress of the Mayan people. While Huehue citizens are not terribly traditional, villagers from the mountains come to town for market (located east of the plaza a few blocks on 3a Calle). The highland villages of northwest Guatemala contain some of the last pockets of people still upholding some of the traditional ways. And while not much of the traditional culture remains, some of the people seem to be realizing what they have and are trying to keep what is left of their culture as much as they can and pass it on to their children.
In addition to seeing the colorful and detailed woven clothing, you can also purchase high quality weavings at good prices in Todos Santos. On every porch of every house, women are weaving on backstrap looms. It is said that the women are pretty competitive in their weaving. It is a true art form, one of the few that haven’t been lost, at least in this region. The women’s cooperative at Casa Familiar sells the weavings of many of the local women, and has a great selection. You can even arrange to take weaving lessons from one of the women, just don’t expect to leave with much more than a belt unless you are staying for a long time!
It is said that the Mayan calendar is still remembered and partially observed in Todos Santos. Sheep herding is common. I have a particularly vivid image in my head of a young girl, in stereotypical sheepherder garb, patiently and peacefully tending her flock on a steep and rocky hillside. It was a perfect picture, really, not to be disturbed by an actual camera, but to be kept in my memory forever.
Now that I’ve touted the glory of the old ways in Todos Santos, I have to confess that the area is far from pure. Those looking for an intense ethnic experience might be disappointed to see the pick-up trucks and baseball hats worn by the kids in additional to their hand-woven clothing. The baggy-pant style that we see on young people has infiltrated the area as well, but the fascinating part is that the boys have their mothers make their traditional woven trousers to be shaped baggy with urban-style pockets in the back. Thank goodness belly T-shirts haven’t invaded the place!
Another non-traditional invasion has been, like in the rest of Guatemala, the extreme popularity of the Evangelical Church. In order to save our souls, the Evangelical followers purchase very loud and far-reaching broadcast systems. Then they publicly announce their worship sessions, thinking that they are helping us to be saved even without attending services. It is a well intentioned, but annoying, phenomenon throughout Guatemala. Seriously, you can hear these guys for miles and miles.
A story has circulated among travelers about a tourist-killing incident in Guatemala, where a mob of local people killed a Japanese woman who they thought was going to steal their children. This is a true story, and in fact occurred in Todos Santos. The incident was preceded by a prediction by the Evangelicals that an evil spirit was going to show up in the village and steal the babies. Lo and behold, a huge black bus, filled with Japanese tourists, many of them dressed in black, shows up shortly after the prediction. They were, (dare I say) of course, taking copious photos and approaching the local people – probably well inside their comfort zone – when the attack occurred. I do not feel there is any reason to fear the people of Todos Santos, but it reinforces the obvious – think before you act, and try to understand the local culture and language before you arrive.
While in Todoa Santos, we stayed at Casa Familiar (see separate entry). We thought it was a fine place. There are not many places to eat either. I didn’t find anything to rave about, but the breakfasts at Casa Familiar were quite good, and it seemed that the local people really enjoyed Comedor Katy. The market building has really cheap food in the upstairs part.
One great resource for travelers in town is Rebecca’s Place. I met Rebecca while staying a Hotel Gobernador in Huehuetenengo. I had been thinking of going farther up into the mountains, and Rebecca helped me make up my mind to go for sure. She came to Guatemala four years prior as a traveler taking Spanish classes in Todos Santos (three schools – no reservations required). And she just loved it so much that she never left. Now she runs a used bookstore and small café. She can help with any questions you may have, and you can pick up a book in the process. She has more western-type food to relieve any cravings you might have. When the temperature drops to near-freezing, it is a great place to have a hot chocolate and play a game of Scrabble.
When I visited Todos Santos, there were three different Spanish Schools. I believe all three have approximately the same prices, which on one flyer was listed as $115 for one week room and board with a family, 5 days of (afternoons) Spanish lessons, plus hikes, movies, and other activities included. This seemed like a great price compared to other schools I had seen in Guatemala, and all of the students I met seemed happy with the program.
We went on one guided hike with one of the Spanish Schools. We met up with the group at 6:15am. at the main intersection in town (is obvious) where the buses stop. A must before hiking is to stop at one of the roadside booths to buy sweet bread and hot chocolate. Yes, hot chocolate. Todos Santos is high enough in the mountains that you will want plenty of blankets at night and plenty of hot beverages after the sun goes down, otherwise you will be one big tourist Popsicle.
After the small group assembled, we took the bus south about 15 to 20 minutes. After exiting the bus at a nondescript place along the highway, we headed directly uphill to some ceremonial caves. The caves themselves were rather anticlimactic, but I understand that they can be quite interesting if you encounter a ceremony taking place – interesting good or interesting bad, I can’t really say. I imagine it depends on how amenable the ceremony-givers are to intrusion. Despite the unremarkable caves, the landscape around the caves was very pretty, with jagged rocks and cliffs and a mirror pond where you wouldn’t expect one.
We descended back down to the road, crossed the road, and followed a path that lead down the valley about 1.5 hours all the way back to Todos Santos. Along the way, we observed the daily life of the mountain people, and even chatted with a few of them with the help of our guide. It was a great hike, and the price was excellent, at just 10 quetzales ($1.25 per person). There are usually different hikes each day. Sign up at the Spanish Schools the day before a hike.
I attended a discussion group, or conference as they called it, one evening at one of the Spanish Schools as well. The price was the same as the hikes ($1.25) and it was really really interesting. A local woman came to talk about what it was like for women in Todos Santos in the past, and what it is like now. She talked about men from the village going illegally to the United States with the help of an expensive "coyote." According to her, they go in order to earn money to send home, but once there, many have a hard time (with the language, with learning how to cook for themselves, with being lonely) and become alcoholics or find a new woman. They forget about their families in Todos Santos.
This woman was unusual because she had never married. She said that her father beat her mother (domestic violence is common here) and she knew how it affected the children, so she knew she never wanted to marry. She says there is some stigma with it.
She also spoke a little about the recent civil war, which brought her to tears. She talked about how entire families disappeared, and people were killed or vanished, including the father of her youngest daughter. Listening to her was very sad, frustrating, and angering. Others told me that the villagers in Todos Santos actually cooperated with the army and their community did not suffer much loss. Nearby Nebaj is said to have been nearly wiped out, and I can hardly imagine the violence and suffering that occurred there. Todos Santos suffered despite their cooperation, maybe because they didn’t so much side with the army as try to remain neutral, fearing torture and death, as well they should.
Now that you are thoroughly depressed, back to hiking. Besides the guiding hikes with the Spanish Schools, there are oodles of dirt roads and paths to follow all over the valleys and ridges surrounding Todos Santos. You can get recommendation from the Spanish Schools, Rebecca’s Place book store, or local people for unguided hikes (hike in Spanish is caminata).
One afternoon, we followed the road that our guesthouse (Casa Familiar) was on until we got to the top of the ridge, and discovered large trees, expansive views, grazing animals, and a friendly local woman. Wildflowers in yellow, red, pink, purple, and white greeted us around every bend. The heat from below gave way to a cool breeze, supplemented with sweet silence. The road dropped down the other side of the ridge to another small village, which can be hiked to as a long day hike, or possibly as an overnight trip.
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