Discovering the Secrets of Guatemala’s Western Highlands

In Blog, Central America, Destinations, Guatemala, Inspiration, Storytelling by Kay4 Comments

This is the second in a four-part series chronicling a particularly eye-opening experience in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, from Nebaj to Todos Santos. What was so special about this region? Read on to find out.

Her face told stories.

The stories might have been hidden in the blemishes left behind from a lifetime working in the fields, or folded into the creases that kissed the sides of her face. Maybe it was the laughter in her eyes, radiating an aura of curiosity and benevolence. Her dark hair poked out from the sides of her headdress, marked by silver streaks of time. Weathered, dark hands spoke of years of manual labor, an explanation for the dusty boots and tools hanging from the walls of her home. She told her stories before she spoke a single word.

* * *

I met her while desperately searching for clean water during a 3-day excursion in Guatemala’s Western Highlands. My own naïveté led me to believe I’d have access to amoeba-free water, but I quickly realized after a night of culture shock that those chances were slim to none. When my guide, Fernando, and I set off for the second leg of our trek the next morning, my impending thirst was becoming more and more imminent.

As we made our way to the outskirts of Chuatuj, observing the way people live in this remote village made me realize just how sheltered I’d been all my life. No one in the town had electricity or running water, and many families shared a single latrine. Often, several generations of family members would live in the same one-room household, each taking on a certain set of chores to keep things running.

On our way out of town, we stopped to talk to a man who was tending to some piglets. He explained that the piglets were being raised to be sold to his neighbors once they reached adulthood. Farming certain vegetables was very difficult in the rocky soil of the mountains, so the townspeople primarily ate various meats and starches for nutrition. Deliveries from neighboring towns and cities were few and far between, so they often depend on each other for survival.

Almost all of the people born in Chuatuj, he mentioned, stay here for most of their lives. The families construct the homes they live in out of wood, stones, and mortar. Many of the families originally arrived in mountain communities during the Guatemalan civil war of the 1980s, where being in more populated townships and cities like Nebaj posed a great risk to people of Mayan descent. These people came to rely on the forest, the land, and each other for safety and protection.

To me, it seemed like it would be difficult to live here, tucked far away from the rest of civilization. However, despite their simple living conditions, people in the Western Highlands seemed to enjoy the serenity of their isolation, and their relationships with their families and neighbors. Although many of the indigenous people in the Highlands had to endure the violence and oppression during the civil war, they were extremely welcoming towards me, a foreigner who didn’t speak their language. Often, they had as many questions for me as I had for them.

After our quick stop, Fernando and I continued on through neighboring towns until we met the woman, who waved at us until we stopped to talk to her. In Quiche, her native language, Fernando asked her if she had any drinking water. Luckily, she did! Grinning, she stepped into her small, wooden house and retrieved it. Three small plastic bags of purified water ran me 6 quetzales, or less than $1. I was so relieved that my dehydration would temporarily be quenched.

Her kindness didn’t stop there, however. She wouldn’t stop smiling, taking my hand in hers and speaking in her native tongue. It was an exceptionally beautiful and strange language, full of rhythmic stops and tone changes. Even though we couldn’t communicate with words, something about this fascinating woman struck me profoundly.

Because of the limited resources in the Highlands, both men and women are expected to contribute to feeding the family and the township. Later in my trek, I met two girls around my age who were working as shepherds in a large field of sheep. They giggled when I asked to take their photo, but when I went to snap it, their smiles disappeared.

I thought maybe the lack of smiles in photos was a cultural thing, but we later ended up laughing so hard that the stern expressions quickly went away. The girls were carrying a large whip, which was used for rounding up the sheep in the late afternoon. One of the girls demonstrated, throwing the thick rope to the ground with all of her might, created a clapping sound that reverberated around the stony alpine valley.

Next, she handed it to me so I could try. I failed. Miserably. I quickly realized that it took an amazing amount of strength and the right technique to be able to simply crack the whip. I had neither. After a few of my embarrassing fruitless attempts to crack the whip, we all laughed until we could barely breathe.

Like many other areas of Guatemala, the women weave their own colorful, patterned clothing, a proud symbol of their Mayan roots and traditions. I noticed, however, that in the Highlands, women wear these beautiful garments even when performing hard labor, like farming and herding.

As Fernando and I trekked onward to Todos Santos, I found myself in awe of how content these people are, despite having very few material possessions. Many of the communities we passed through were composed of a close-knit set of families who look after each other. It made me think long and hard about the excessive amount of stuff that I own, and how much I actually need to survive. Although Guatemala’s Western Highlands and Texas are actually quite close to each other, life in both places couldn’t be any more different.

Just a day before, I was regretting going on this trek. I found a million things to complain about – the rain, the pain in my feet, the stinky outhouse and the drafty sleeping quarters. In these precious moments, however, I realized that very few travelers in the world actually get the chance to experience what I was experiencing. What I mistook for bad luck was actually amazing fortune. As we drifted through towns, up mountains, and down into valleys, I mused about how incredibly special and unique this experience was. Despite the misadventures that got me here, I was so, so lucky.

Also, did I mention that Guatemala’s Western Highlands are strikingly gorgeous?

This trek flipped a switch within me. My time here interacting with people who were so distinctly different than me drastically changed my perspective on what makes me happy and fulfilled. Everyone I met seemed to find happiness in the small curiosities every day, placing more emphasis on interpersonal interactions than material wealth. In the second half of my hike, I slowly quit complaining about the rain and began to enjoy the cool breeze it brought. I stopped feeling frustrated about the language barriers and started to notice how beautiful and unique their Mayan languages sound. I learned that the secret to enjoying every adventure is to go into it without preconceived notions.

My trek through the Guatemalan Highlands wasn’t perfect, and it’s definitely wasn’t glamorous, but it was a privilege that taught me so much about how to find the most beautiful experiences in travel and life. To this day, every time I start to lose sight of this raw and strange beauty, I’ll think back to the twinkle in this woman’s eyes as she waved goodbye, her laugh lines permanently etched into my memory.

Have you experienced a similar adventure? Share your stories and thoughts in the comments below!


  1. I love reading your blog! Thank you for your continued insight on other cultures. Truly a humbling, eye-opening experience!

    1. Author

      Thank you so much Kim! I’m so glad you enjoy my posts and that you find other cultures fascinating. For me, that’s the most rewarding part of traveling, and I’ll never forget the amazing experiences travel has brought me!

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