Avoiding the main tourist attractions while on spring break vacation can sometimes be difficult. Even more so when you travel with children and even more so when you drag along foreign friends.
Last April, however, we managed to visit Cataratas de Chichel (Chichel Waterfalls) under said circumstances and …it…was….great!
Maybe part of the reason of our success was the spontaneous way in which we decided to make what we thought was a 30 minute trip from Nebaj, Quiché, Guatemala to the actual reserve. We had traveled from Guatemala city a couple of days earlier to Nebaj in 2 cars with 5 kids under the age of 13 and my pet turtle, Lily. One of the cars began having brake problems….I cannot emphasize enough how scary that is during this trip.
The Sierra de los Cuchumatanes is the highest non-volcanic mountain range in Central America. Its elevations range from 500 m to over 3,800 m, and it covers a total area of ±16,350 km².
Anyone familiar with the roads leading to Nebaj will tell you that ANY car problem can become a tragedy as you go up and down the winding roads through the Cuchumatán mountain range. The sharp turns and steep climbs and descents will make anyone nervous. Add to the abrupt turns, narrow lanes flanked by ravines, and large trucks, chicken buses, semis transporting goods in a hurry, plus a forest fire and the corresponding lane block and you get a scene worthy of being on a segment of “World’s Deadliest Roads”.
And then your brakes begin to give out and you begin to wonder if the large truck behind you might have the same problem at some point as you descend the mountain so you decide to let him pass you only to be very sorry as you see him climbing very slowly up the steep road ahead. And you wonder again if he recently had his brakes checked as you should have.
Thankfully, we were able to arrive to the top of the Cuchumatanes, just a few blocks from the main entrance to Chichicastenango where we parked the car off to the side of the road in the first place we could find that seemed safe enough. Turned out it was the house of mechanic specializing in brakes. No joke! Probably not a coincidence either.
We arrived in Nebaj later that night after whizzing past Chichicastenango (hitting that beautiful town on our way back) to a cozy 3-room house with a wood-burning stove in the kitchen. Perfect to melt the chill of the day’s events off and warm our feet as well. Nebaj can reach 26 ºF during the coldest seasons which is usually in January.
For the next few days we made sure to visit the market and central square of Nebaj and the Centro Cultural Kumool (Kumool is the name of the region in the Ixil language) also known as Museo de Arqueología de Nebaj where our kids enjoyed a peek into the back room full of donated and unclassified objects as well as a full guided tour. We also visited the Radio Ixil 97.5 fm (listen online! find them on fb!) which transmits 90-80% of the time in the Ixil language and were allowed a few words on the air. They were holding their annual Radio-marathon and we were so glad to be able to buy some beautiful things in the bazar for very little money plus we helped raised money for their station!
My Uruguayan friend Yenny, ever the thrift store shopper, sought out all the great thrift stores in the area and found great pieces of clothing and excellent customer service from the well-spoken Ixil women at the shops.
We visited the Pizza del César sit-in or take-out oven-pizza restaurant and were not disappointed. While they prepared our pizza we walked through the local market learning about new spices and chilies such as the “chile cuerudo” used to make one of the 3 sauces that are served with the very delicious and unusual Boshbol tipical dish.
We also visited the famous cheese producing ranch in Acul called Hacienda de San Antonio. This hacienda was settled by an Italian adventurer many years ago. He fell in love with the area which reminded him of his native country. So the story is told. His family members (grandchildren) run the farm and produce the famous Chancol cheese, run a small hostal and eatery from some bungalows on the grounds. It is worth the visit if only for the view and the peace of the countryside.
That night as we wondered what to do the next day we stumbled upon a picture pinned up on a dinning room mirror depicting beautiful waterfalls. We looked it up online and asked a couple of people how to get there. The next day we took off after an early breakfast and crammed ourselves in one car for what we thought would be about a 30 minute ride.
On our way we stopped in San Juan Cotzal, where we bought beautiful textiles woven by a group of women who survived the brutal 36-year civil war in the area. Only wish we had taken more cash to buy more!
We quickly realized our next minutes were to be on a dirt road with 1 1/2 lanes and a ravine on our right. As Yenny expected we encountered a truck coming the opposite way…who didn’t even touch his brakes and whizzed by us with milimeters to spare. I laughed as Yenny squealed in contained terror and covered her eyes. I enjoy this type of adventure!
Further down the road we realized we had either come to the end of the road or had to drive directly through a soccer field in use. It was Sunday and the obligatory soccer game was in full swing. My husband, the soccer expert, was able to detect the right moment to cross with the referee quickly calling a time out and waving us through.
We arrived to the parking area of the Chichel reserve which was just a clearing big enough for one car, on the left of the road. From there we walked down the rest of the dirt road which was too steep and carved in to drive through.
That is where we took our first pictures.
My husband and I thoroughly enjoyed jumping in the very, very cold pool of water directly under the fall.
My youngest son and daughter dipped in and lost their breath from the shock of the cold water.
No better place to enjoy Uruguayan mate!!!