The journey from Lanquin to Todos Santos.
...The bus and driver hiring were no problem. We were picked up at 4.30 am and 14 of us piled in, rucksacks atop, and we're off. We saw a beautiful sunrise, traveled through the mountains and had the luxury to stop whenever we wanted to for food, ATM machines and toilet breaks..heaven. Heaven lasted about 2 hours.
The driver didn't tell us he would have a 'helper' - a young boy who didn't seem to serve a purpose and took up extra room. It was a bit of a squeeze and the seats were none too comfy and everyone was getting restless so we kept stopping to do 'seat changes' so everyone got a bit of comfort. We trundled along 'roads' that got worse and more bumpy the further into the highlands we got. After about 6 or so hours we eventually had a lunch stop and it was at this point when our driver, who looked like he'd had quite enough of driving announced he was only taking us as far as Huehuetenango and not all the way to Todos Santos. "Huehue" is about 2 ½ hours from Todos and not what we had agreed. He wasn't budging and nothing was changing his mind (certainly not the roads) so we just had to accept it and we continued through the mountains on our way to Huehuetenango.....until he drove over a small rock which in turn put a great big hole in the oil tank.
So..there we were. Fourteen backpackers, a driver, his 'helper' and a broken down minibus and a load of oil all over the dusty roads in the middle of nowhere. The poor guy looked like he'd wished he'd never got out of bed that morning and after flagging down a driver, he went off to the next village to get oil and something to fix the tank with. We in the meantime entertained ourselves with games of cards, playing 'knock down the bottle', reading and watching cattle, cowboys and the indigenous women go by with their baskets piled high on their heads.
We must have looked a real sight to them and they looked on fascinated and beeping as they went past. After a couple of hours he was back with oil and metal filler. Metal filler?? We knew instantly that this was not going to work and waited patiently as he tried to fix it anyway and of course it didn't work. By now he looked like he was on the verge of a breakdown and we felt very sorry for him. Rescue came in the form of a huge pickup truck by a local guy from the next village. All fourteen of us and all our luggage managed to fit in the back of the pickup and the forlorn minibus was attached to the back and off we were to Aguacatan - a little village very rarely - if ever visited by tourists.
By now it was just getting dark and the town bustling with lots of people. As we reached the village, Marco a German guy who's a singer and great guitar player got out his trusty instrument and began to play 'La Bamba'. We all joined in, clapping and singing 'Lalalala...La Bamba' at the top of our voices and driving through the streets slowly whilst the villagers looked on with a mixture of incredulousness, fascination, disbelief and humor. Some clapped, some just stared with their mouths open but most looked on and smiled - totally mesmerised by this strange sight before them.
This small town was going to be our home for the night so the 14 of us found 2 hotels to stay in and the next morning we all met up for breakfast and got stared at a lot. The locals were absolutely wonderful and fascinated by us and all wanted to speak to us and know where we were from. Marcus was given some mangos by one guy and the man in the photographic shop was as happy as Larry after we discovered that film was the cheapest we had seen in Guatemala and we all went and cleared him out of his film stock.
We got a bus to Huehuetenango the next morning and another to Todos Santos almost immediately after. Despite the journey turning out not as we expected, we all agreed that it was a fantastic trip and one of the highlights so far - strange as that may seem. I think that one is a case of 'you had to be there'...
The bus pulls into the village and we are met with the strangest sight. Literally 100's of Tzotski Mayans lining the streets all in their traditional dress (which is worn all the time) - the guys all quite drunk dressed in their red and white stripy trousers, blue and white stripy shirts with colorful patterns on the shoulders and straw hats and the women in their skirts and colorful blouses (see photos)...and LOADS of tourists.
Then there were 2 ferris wheels, arcade games, loads of stalls and chicken 'n' chips sellers and very loud country & western music coming from the super massive speakers at the funfair. I don't know why, but I didn't quite expect this from a very small, traditional indigenous mountain town in Guatemala!
Todos Santos is very high (at 2,500m altitude), SUPER cold at night, hot in the day and VERY hilly. Naturally with so many tourists in such a small town everything was booked up, but we found a very basic place where loads of us could crash and we had to walk up a hill that seemed as though it was at a 60 degree angle - it was a killer! The altitude affected many of us and even going up a few steps left you breathless and your heart racing. Still, after a day or so you got used to it...although nothing would get me used to the hills. Seeing 90 year old women walking up them as if they're strolling up a mere slope left you quite embarrassed!
Despite the huge amounts of tourists in town there was very little mixing between locals and gringos - the latter all gathered in a bar with a huge terrace overlooking the pristine mountain scenery. The night before the race, one totally off-his-face local walked up to Marcus and asked me whether he wanted to see his horse. Splynter, a Dutch guy we had been traveling with, and Marcus followed him to through the lanes but instead of taking us to a field the drunken horseman escorted us to a fiesta exclusively for the locals. So that's where they all were!
All the men there were totally hammered dancing like they do at rave parties... but all of this in slow motion and to the pling-plong sound of marimbas. Some men were silently crying, falling over, getting up again and continuing to boogie to pling-plong. And all the local women just stood around watching. Splynter and Marcus had a go on the dancefloor too trying to imitate the movements of the locals which seemed to be totally at random not following any pattern... just like at a rave!
The day after we arrived was the famous horse race. This event is the grand finale to a week of festivities and partying and follows another night of full on drinking by the riders. The race kicks off at 9 am, involving totally drunk Tzotski men dressed up in the most colorful clothes riding up and down a 200m lane as fast as they can. Then they stop at 12 pm for a two hour break (more drinking) and continue the race from 2-5 pm. That's pretty much all there is to the race. No winners, no losers... only survivors. Occasionally someone falls off his horse (that's when the crowd cheers the most) and if unlucky he is trampled on by passing horses. Every year a couple of horsemen die this way. But all the riders see it as an honor to participate in the race.
That night, the women were allowed to drink too and very soon the entire town was comatosed. The following day was the "Day of the Dead", and we made our way to the graveyard where a little fiesta was supposed to kick off. By the time we got there in the early afternoon, there were only a handful of old, plastered Tzotski couples left rolling in the mud and a couple of marimba players. It was definitely time to leave Todos Santos.
Half of the original 14 of us remained to the very last day of the festival and we left this mountain village in the most memorable way possible...on top of a chicken bus! It had been recommended by those who have done it as an amazing experience - quite safe as the top of the bus has railings all around it - and an experience we'd never forget...and they were right! All seven of us and three locals sat on the top and took in THE most spectacular views of the Highlands - Marco strumming his guitar and singing and us ducking the power lines at the right moment! We were also ten times more comfy than the other passengers squashed in down below too.