|I had heard by word of mouth that the dirt road from Huehuetenango, Guatemala to San Cristobal Verapaz was really spectacular, and I had previously driven west from San Cristobal for about an hour before turning back due to the beating my rented sedan was taking, and my experience there had tended to confirm what I had heard. Recently, my wife and I rented a Mitsubishi diesel pickup to drive the route, and I must report that although it is a pretty cool road, it really doesn't rank with the Alcan highway or Spain's hair-raising and frustrating road to La Garganta. At least, not any more. Maybe it did, but now there is extensive construction activity between the Chixoy River and Uspantan, widening and smoothing the road, and it looks as though they may even be getting ready to pave that stretch.|
I said we rented a pickup, but it was really a picop. A picop is a Central American version of a pickup. It is small, usually just a quarter-ton, sometimes modified with sturdy handrails bolted around the outside of the bed so that people more easily mount the sides and can ride more safely sitting on the edges of the bed. Standard, though, is a sturdy welded framework at least behind the cab and usually extending the whole way around the bed which people can hold on to when there's standing room only in the bed of the truck. Also, during the rainy season, plastic tarps can be stretched over the framework, military-style, to keep out some of the rain. Big, diamond-plate bumpers make handy platforms for riders to use to climb into the bed, and for hardier travelers to stand upon when there is no longer room within the bed.
Picop owners used to give rides for free, but now they often drive regular routes carrying passengers and cutting into the business of the chicken bus system. We gave rides to dozens, perhaps to hundreds, of people along the way, with as many as fifteen riders at a time. Even though I kept announcing that the ride was free, most people insisted on trying to offer a few quetzales to us at the end of their lifts. On the couple of occasions that I've hitched rides with big ten-wheels, and once in the back of a picop, I've neglected to offer any payment for the ride, just assuming that rides were being given for free like in Mexico or the US, and I guess I've been really rude in failing to offer payment.
The dirt road labeled Route 5 on the map that covers about 70 kilometers through Baja Verapaz from the San Raimundo cutoff into Rabinal is probably a better candidate for a great highway journey now than the road to Huehue. Both roads vary in width from one lane to two and consist largely of hairpin turns through fairly remote, mountainous terrain, but the road and the terrain through Baja Verapaz is considerably drier than the other road along the edge of the Cuchumatanes cordillera.
Progress threatens the road through Baja Verapaz, though, too. Since I took the road a year ago, the section from Rabinal to Salama has been nicely paved. It was so nice that we got off it in San Jeronimo to follow what was only a dotted line on the map, a track that was really foolhardy to attempt without a four-wheel drive vehicle. Wheels slipping in the dust, the picop just barely made it up some of the steep and deeply-rutted hillsides. Where a spring seeped water onto the track, my wife, who had gotten out to direct the path through mud holes that threatened to high-center and strand the truck, had the good sense to turn and run, because if the truck had had to stop, it probably would have stopped for good, and it would have been a long walk to the nearest tow truck.
One thing that is different along the Cuchumatanes is the grade of the road. The road to Huehue has got a lot of really steep grades, about the same as the steeper hills of San Francisco. And the method of dealing with landslides seems to be to just run a dozer over the top of the landslide once or twice and call it a new road, so that in one place, unless you want to get out and go inspect the road beforehand on foot, you have to just proceed with faith that there is more road on the other side of the hill, because cresting the rise, you're at such a steep angle that all you can see is blue sky in front of you until you suddenly plunge downhill and roar down along the edge of the cliff.
At Cunen, we turned uphill into the Cuchumatanes to go visit Nebaj, San Juan Cotzal, and Chajul. If the whole Huehue to San Cristobal road were like the road to Nebaj, it truly would be one of the great highway journeys of the world. The grades are steeper, the turns are sharper, and when you meet a chicken bus or a ten-wheeler tractor trailers simply can't travel these roads, and it's amazing even that a chicken bus should be able to maneuver through them coming up the other side of the curve, it is just scarier trying to maneuver past them with two wheels on the edge, because if you try to back up to edge over, the grade is so steep that a two-wheel drive vehicle without a lot of weight in the back will not go back, but just slip sideways in the dirt.
The whole region from the cloud forest biotopo that is the quetzal sanctuary up along the cordillera is famous for the frequent misting sort of rain that the locals call "chipi-chipi." When there is enough rain that the roads get muddy enough, it is not at all uncommon for the road to simply give way under the weight of a ten-wheeler, and for the big truck to tumble down the side of the mountain.
We discovered that there is a good dirt road that is not marked on the map that runs from San Juan Cotzal directly to Chajul through the wet, green, rolling countryside. Chajul is the most distinctively Guatemalan town I have yet seen with its steep dirt streets, white church, smoke from cook fires rolling out from under the roofs, the men in heavy rubber boots, and the women under heavy head-dresses and hand-woven cotton capes against the steady chipi-chipi. We drove into town with one rascally boy squatting on the rear bumper and another holding onto the side of the bed, running alongside the truck and laughing at the funny gringos.
The solid-line road stops at Chajul on the map, but many, many kilometers of dotted lines run from Chajul and Nebaj through the Cuchumatanes to smaller communities such as Xetenam, Poi, Amachel, Tziaca, and Ucalbitz. Hmm....