I made it to San Mateo in one day from Antigua, but if I had planned better it would have taken two. The bus rides I took from Antigua couldn´t have been a better illustration of getting further and further off the beaten path.
First I got a minibus to Panajachel with a group of other tourists: two American college kids on spring break, and a Polish couple with a baby who live in Baltimore. Took lots of pictures on the drive, which I still can´t post. The vegetation for most of the drive was different than what I expected, and yet strangely familiar. It was mostly pines, cedars, and other mountain vegetation, and for parts of the drive I could have believed I was going through Northern New Mexico. Even the adobe Mayan houses and roadside stands that lined the road weren´t that different from the dwellings of the Navajo and Pueblo.
One of the differences was the campaign posters that were stenciled on every available rock blasted out of the mountainside. There is an election coming up, and the two parties are Victoria (whose stencils are red) and Patriota (orange).
At Pana, I got a minibus to take me to Los Encuentros, an appropriately named place where you can get a bus to pretty much anywhere in the Highlands. There is no bus station, just a snack stand by the side of the road where the buses slow down enough to grab your bag and jump on. The man that drove me to Encuentros was a helpful Kakchiquel named Santos Juracan, and he stayed around to make sure I got on the right bus (for which I gave him a Q50 tip). You have to be careful, because the bus drivers will promise that you can take their bus and transfer to where you´re going, even if you they are going completely the opposite directon.
The Pullman that took me to Huehuetenango was filled with Maya and quiet except for pop Latin music playing loudly, and later a dubbed American bank robber movie. I even got a few minutes sleep, which I know you shouldn't do but sometimes you have to take it where you can. It was still thrilling, really, I was feeling very off the beaten path.
At Huehue it got more interesting, and less fun. I got off at the wrong stop, at the edge of Huehue rather than the terminal. So I found myself dragging my bag down the highway, with psychedelically colored buses roaring around me. I asked someone how far to the highway, and he said two kilometers.
Fortunately, a kind middle-class Ladino family in their car picked me up and drove me the rest of the way. I told them where I was going and they asked me if I had had the black salt of San Mateo. I said no, but that I had heard of it.
When they got me to the station, they found a bus to Barillas, which is the way you need to go to get to San Mateo. While I waited people walked around selling water, food and dulces. I bought a box with a drumstick from Pollo Campero, which is the KFC of Guatemala, some agua pura and some cookies.
It was just when it was too late that I did the math in my head. The bus was leaving at 4:00 and I knew the ride to San Mateo was almost 5 hours. I hadn´t gotten in touch with the people I was to meet in San Mateo. I was going to get into an isolated Mayan village at 9PM with no way to get in touch with anyone and nowhere to sleep.
...if I got in at all. The bus climbed higher and higher on a tiny twisty road with country spread thousands of feet below. Soon there were not many trees left, just dry grass and yucca. The rocks are a gray volcanic rock that look like theyjust broke apart yesterday.
Then it got foggy, and you couldn´t see ten feet in front of the van. Then the road ran out, and it was just bumpy dirt road that barely looked like a road at all. The van bounced so high a couple of times I hit my head on the roof. Then it got dark.
We stopped in a few towns, and I didn´t know whether I was getting off in the right place. I asked some of the passengers. Most were nice, but one angrily asked me what the hell I was doing up here instead of down in Guatemala City or Antigua. I might have told him I was wondering the same thing. Luckily he got off at the next stop.
We passed through two stops that I established were not San Mateo. Then we were completely in the wild for over an hour, with nothing around except a few trees, broken rocks and the occasional light of a bus going the other way. Once we passed a truck that was just broken down; they slowed and tried to see if there was someone in there, but there wasn´t. I knew the next stop was San Mateo, but I didn´t know what happened then.
San Mateo is bigger than I expected. I was worried it would just be a few houses by the side of the road, but there is a town square. I asked a couple of men standing there which way to the hotel, since I didn't see any way to get in touch with my contacts that night. They pointed up a dark alley.
Fortunately, at the end of the alley I found not one hotel but two. But there was no one in the office. A couple of amused men hanging around helped me find someone running the hotels. A man named Diego finally showed up, but both hotels were fully occupied. Clearly they´re being used as permanent residences. But Diego kindly put me in a storeroom where they were keeping mattresses, and even put some sheets on one of them. The storeroom must also be at least a part-time room, since it has a toilet and a cold-water shower.
This morning I awoke and came down to see the Internet cafe. After this I´m going to try to get ahold of Elias, my contact here. Hopefully things will get easier then. I even have a promise of a place to stay, but it all needs to be worked out.