There are unusual rainclouds for the time of the year that drift over the mountains. It thunders in the far distance and we sit near an outdoor fire, watching the stars appear behind the clouds.
It’s the second day of our trek in the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, the highest non-volcanic mountain range of Central America. We have past the little settlements of Acul, Xexuxcap, Xexocom, Chuatuj and have come as far as Chortiz today. Here we will spend the night in a fairly spacious wooden shed. Wide openings in the walls where wind comes through, no electricity. Two big wooden cases holding loads of thick woolen blankets and a pile of pillows to keep us warm and comfortable during the long and cold night to come.
When we wake up in the morning and walk out the door, we see that the ground is wet of the nightly rain. It is still very misty and the sun shines lightly through the clouds and mist that drifts over the land. The first few hours we walk we have visibility of less than a hundred meters around us. It gives the surroundings a mystique glow in silence.The village we stayed in is formed in the years of the civil war, when families fled from the army and the guerilla rebellions groups, so they didn’t have to take part in either way of the fight, the immense struggle that was going on for 36 years.
The remoteness of this mountain area gave the people shelter from the war, but also gave them a rough ordeal. Those who survived knew what they could eat, how to stay warm and how to stay away from any danger. I have been told these people survived on herbs they could find for over years.
To come here the walk was long and sometimes exhausting, with big changes in climate and altitudes. The diversity of the landscape was astonishing. Where we started in a green and fertile forest environment near Acul, at around 2000 meters above sea level where people were cutting corn at steep mountain slopes. We climbed slowly up to above 3000 meters, passing some sort of pine cloud forest, where big grey rocks were spread all over, which made this place feel like something very old, fairly strange and highly remote. Not much before we passed a high pass, after zigzagging up a small ridge for a couple of hours, crossing a small self-made wooden fence what farmers closed to keep their kettle at one side of the mountain. It was here that we entered the pine forest where clouds drift in and bring a bitter cold. The two of us, who are ahead, take a rest and eat something. It is evident that corn doesn’t grow here anymore, only grass and small pine trees fall in sight, so the view seems inhospitable. Though not much further we come to a little settlement called Xexocom, where a handful of people live with their cattle.
Those who live here have adopted a lifestyle far from any comfort, in synchronicity with its surroundings and away from any influences of the outside world. We stop at a dark wooden house, what appears to be a little tienda (shop). A woman comes over with her son and opens the place. A couple of drinks and some small snacks can be purchased.
These places are slowly changing. Mainly due to development projects and organizations who have come into the area, a growing interest of the tourism industry and the migration of family members going to the United States.
Step by step the communities are opening up, some with more resistance then others, but a certain development is happening. Coming in these little and fragile settlements it is hard to imagine this route being taken by a number of thirty tourists or more, by some of the trekking agencies, overcrowding villages just by entering. We as visitors are able to make a conscious decisions, in how and with whom we travel so to be a responsible traveler. To be conscious of the impact we have on the environment we come across.
The hesitance and a certain fear among the indigenous communities for outsiders and strangers, for those who look and speak so differently and enter their world is not hard to imagen. It is not even so long ago that these places where undiscovered and were entered by any stranger at all.
Marvin, a tour guide, tells me that he had some hard encounters on a trek he did for the first time years ago. “People were suspicious when we first came into the village and thought we were part of the army or wanted to harass their wives and children. They threatened to harm us if we ever tried to come back.”
They did come back and started the dialogue and after some time people realized there was no harm in their intentions. Economic possibilities arouses, the little tiendas opened and beds were made.
Probably the biggest change that has taken place in the last years is that we now sleep at their houses, eat with them and, like Marvin stated, some of them have become good friends.
Our last night we stayed at the top of La Torre, at an altitude around 3800 meters above sea level, in an old brick house with wide cracks in the wall, a stinging cold, a hard, brutal wind and where mice were the regular natural visitor.