We were in Semuc Champey and needed to get to Quetzaltenango (AKA “Xela” for short). It appeared the most direct route was through the Northern Highlands of Guatemala. Alternatively there were tourist shuttles that we could take on a more Southerly route through Antigua and then connect to Xela. We were already planning to be traveling around that area after Xela, so rather than backtrack, it seemed more logical to use the more direct route and go through the Northern highlands. Eleven buses (yes, 11) and a few days later, we finally made it.
A town named Nebaj seemed about half way and we figured that would be a good place to break up our travels and stop for the night, so that’s where we first sought out from Semuc Champey. From Semuc, it was an hour ride standing in the back of a pick-up truck on dirt roads to Lanquin. From Lanquin we hopped on a tourist shuttle bus for a few hours to Copan. There was supposed to be a direct microbus from Copan to Nebaj leaving at 1:00 or 2:00, but no one in Coban seemed to have any information about this. Instead we were continually directed to just go to the bus station. So we took a taxi a few kilometers to the bus station just outside of town and were quickly ushered onto a microbus (a large, cramped van) that promised to get us to Nebaj. It was a fast and furious drive on the sides of cliffs known for landslides but we finally arrived in a town that was not our destination of Nebaj. Our bags were transferred onto another microbus and we were off for another wild mountain ride. We continued to go from microbus to microbus, town to town, a few more times and finally arrived in Nebaj.
As much as a pain in the butt as this was, hopping around from village to village, we got to Nebaj around 4:30 pm and saw the direct shuttle from Copan pull in around 7:00 pm, so that was a win. I was slightly skeptical in blindly trusting these vans to get us there in the shortest distance and time possible. But they did. The rides were ridiculously cramped clown cars, as they overloaded the vans with nearly 40 people, 6-7 people deep on a regular bench seat, standing/squating room at times, and some even hanging off of ladders on the outside of the vans. But they were very efficient and moved us right along!
Since we spent so much time getting to Nebaj, we decided to stay there the next day and do some hiking in the area. During our time to and in Nebaj, we saw absolutely no other gringos. Even when speaking to locals elsewhere in Guatemala, when they asked where we’ve been and we mention Nebaj, they seemed to have one of two reactions: either (1) laughing and asking why Nebaj or (2) looking confused and asking where is Nebaj. It was nice to get off the tourist trail a bit and check out some of Guatemala’s rural highlands.
So what’s there to do in Nebaj? Apparently not much. But we hired a guide to take us on a day hike to a nearby Mayan Ixil village of Acul. The three of us (Heather, John, and guide) left Nebaj on foot early in the morning and set out on a trail over a mountain. Usually hiking doesn’t really wear us out but we were having trouble breathing. Perhaps it was because Nebaj is at an altitude of over 1,900 meters (that’s over a mile in altitude). We were certainly feeling it. This mild altitude sickness was only a small taste of what we had in store for us days later in our trip.
We hiked along the trail up the mountain, through valleys, past streams, and farmland. I’ve never been to the Swiss Alps, but some of areas were how I imagine how the Swiss alps look in the summer. There were some very nice views.
After a few hours of huffing and puffing, the tiny village of Acul began to come into focus.
Tucked into a mountain valley were a few dirt paths with simple houses and livestock pens. Taking the path into the small town reminded me of wandering into a village right from one of the Zelda video games. There were chickens hopping around people’s yards, children wandering the streets saying hello, a few shops owners inviting us in, people walking by with their livestock, and the obligatory cemetary.
Next we went to a cheese farm. Walking past the cows, we sampled the fruits of their labor and bought a half wheel of what tasted something like manchego directly from the rack it was air drying on. Ok, are we sure this is Guatemala and not the Alps?
Next we were brought to someone’s house where we were served a fried chicken lunch.
After relaxing in Acul for the last few hours and eating a heavy lunch, it was tough to get going again. But we had to return to Nebaj. We went a back a different route which seemed longer and went by more farmland and some houses. The children along this route just loved seeing us and would continually run out to the road to smile and say “Hola, hola, hola!” Funny, like us, they actually don’t speak Spanish. They speak the Mayan Ixil language, yet a Spanish “hola” was the common denominator we could both share a greeting in.
Finally we got back into Nebaj. After this very full day hike we decided to go out to a ‘nice’ steakhouse for dinner. We got there and found no alcohol nor even menus. There were just three verbal options to choose from, none of which was steak (lol); but our chicken breast and pork chops were fresh, plentiful, tasty, and inexpensive.
Overall Nebaj and Acul were interesting stops off the beaten path in Guatemala. It certainly can’t even begin to compete with some of the larger draws in the country, but I’m glad we stopped on our way to Xela. If looking to get off the radar and/or explore indigenous culture in Guatemala, this is a good place to do so. It was not among our favorite hikes in Guatemala but was worth the trek if in Nebaj.
The next day we left left Nebaj on another series of busses. This time we figured out the route in advance so we weren’t left guessing if we were truly headed towards the right way. It was another several wild rides on micro and chicken buses that finally got us into Xela, eleven busses and a few days later.
Was this article helpful? Pin this to your travel Pinterest boards!: