While looking for boxbol, the elusive dish of Nebaj, Guatemala, I discovered a lot more than cornmeal and squash leaves.
After spending hours on tiny mountain roads across two chicken buses, I finally stumbled out of the last rickety old school bus into the rainy streets of Nebaj, Guatemala. I’d decided to pay this small city a visit after reading about its location in the Ixil Triangle, a primarily indigenous Mayan region. Trekking is a popular activity of the few tourists that venture this far into the Cuchumatanes mountains, so I resolved to spend a few days learning about the Ixil language and culture while getting some quality mountain air.
Hugging my rain jacket against my torso, I found my way to Popi’s Restaurante y Hospedaje, where I’d been planning on spending a few nights. I’d called a few hours before to confirm their availability, but when I arrived, the doors were closed and the windows were boarded. A wave of panic passed over me as the rain began to fall even harder. I knocked. No response.
The main door was ajar, so I pushed it open, uttering a short, “Hola?” After a few moments, a middle-aged woman appeared at the entryway. She looked surprised to see me, but ushered me inside and showed me into the hospedaje’s empty dorm room. The cost? Q$30, or about $5 per night.
“Si, voy a quedarme aqui por dos noches,” I agreed, claiming my abode for the next two nights.
Soon afterward, I ventured to Media Luna, Medio Sol Hospedaje to book a few treks for the upcoming days. This is the office of the ‘official’ tour operator of the Ixil Triangle, called Guias Ixiles. After leafing through the tour booklet, I decided on two guided treks – one to a nearby waterfall, and a 3-day trek from Nebaj to Todos Santos, a neighboring city about 65 km away.
Once that was settled, I returned to my hostel, where I did a quick internet search on things to do in Nebaj. One writer spoke wonders of a traditional food called boxbol, which is only made in the Ixil Triangle from special vegetables and ingredients. I was intrigued. As I read more and more about this special dish, I decided I had to try it! When in Nebaj, I suppose…
After a good night’s sleep, I met my tour guide the next morning. His name was Francisco, a quiet man in his late 20s with a friendly face. Without any ado, we set off for the waterfall. Early in the hike, Francisco turned to me and told me not to expect too much, that the waterfall wasn’t actually that pretty and that the water was super polluted. I laughed and thanked him for his honesty, noting that I was really just interested in learning more about the Ixil people and what life is like in this area of Guatemala.
At first, our conversation was a little difficult, as Spanish was neither my nor his first language. However, the language of smiles and curiosity prevailed, and after some time we were chatting like old friends. He told me about his family, and explained what it was like to grow up during the Guatemalan Civil War in the 1980s. Nebaj was one of the areas that was most greatly affected by the violence between the army and the guerrilla forces, and Francisco had a few heartbreaking stories to share about growing up during that time.
Later in our conversation, Francisco mentioned that his family had to escape to the forest during the war. To survive, they subsisted off of the vegetables and plants that constitute traditional Ixil dishes. My thoughts immediately turned back to boxbol.
“Do you know a restaurant where I could buy boxbol?” I asked him.
“They don’t sell it in restaurants usually,” he replied, laughing, “but my family can make you some when we’re finished here!”
“Really?!” I exclaimed, excited about the prospect of making some local friends here, “that would be wonderful. But…are you sure?”
Francisco wouldn’t take no for an answer.
The waterfall was as anticlimactic as Francisco said, but I was so excited about trying boxbol and getting to meet his family that I didn’t even mind. We hurried back to the town and arrived at his house in what seemed like no time. Once we arrived, he introduced me to his wife, his daughter, and his mother, who all seemed quite excited to meet someone new. I also met Katty, his sister, who is the same age as me.
Katty escorted me into the kitchen and we began wrapping rolls of cornmeal in the traditional squash leaves grown in the Ixil region, as we conversed in Spanish about what life is like as a 22-year-old in our respective countries. Meanwhile, Francisco’s mother worked to make the traditional sauce for the dish. As she spoke, Francisco and Katty translated from Ixil to Spanish, as they taught me how to make boxbol and described what it’s like to live in the mountains of Nebaj.
Looking around their home was a learning experience in itself. The floors of the kitchen were made of dirt, much like the trails we’d walked earlier in the day. There was no electricity in the room, the only light pouring in from the cracks in the wooden walls. The ceiling was stained black from years of cooking smoke. It was far from the luxury I’d known my whole life, with insulated windows, air conditioning, and spotless tile floors. However, I still felt welcome and at home with this kind family.
Finally, the boxbol was ready! We sat down at the dining table and feasted on heaps of this delicious vegetarian dish. Hours passed by as we sat in their kitchen, chatting and laughing at our translation errors, teaching each other how to say things in our respective languages, and learning from each other. Even though we only shared bits and pieces of a common language, it was a meal I will never forget.
In the end, I wanted to help pay for this incredible meal, attempting to hand Francisco (who now insisted I call him Frany) a few small bills. He refused to take any of it. Instead, I offered to help him learn a little bit of English later that night, to which he happily agreed. I snapped a few quick photographs of Frany and his family before I headed back into the city center. They bid me farewell with strong hugs, smiles, and kind invitations to stay at their home the next time I return to Nebaj.
On this fateful afternoon, I was once again reminded of the kindness of humanity through travel. It seems that even in the most remote areas of Guatemala, friendship is worth more than money. And that’s exactly what I was served, with a side of boxbol.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this adventure in the Cuchumatanes, where I’ll recount my (mis)adventures trekking from Nebaj to Todos Santos on foot!