Waking up in Huehuetenango, wrapped tight in my own blanket so as not to touch the sheets or pillow of the bed I was sleeping on, I could tell by the dim grey light that it was still dreary and rainy outside. Fine by me. We would be on a bus most of the day traveling to Lago de Atitlan anyway. I just wanted to get out of Huehue. The streets were lined with sidewalks barely wide enough for one person to traverse, water was flooding the curbs and exhaust fumes burned your eyes and throat. Why did we stop here again?
Either way, we were leaving and by the afternoon we’d be in Panajachel, a friendly town on the banks of one of the most beautiful bodies of water in the world. (Trust me, I’ve read that Aldous Huxley called it “too much of a good thing”.) The expectations I had of us for the afternoon ended sitting by the lake docks, drinking a beer and admiring the beautiful water surrounded by smoke-spurting volcanoes and sporadic village lights. However what would be the reality was us, soaking wet, exhausted by an 8km hike down a crumbling mountainside following what was among one of the most horrific bus rides ever.
No, our bus didn’t fall over a cliff forcing us to walk. Luckily, there were police blocking the road saying the highway had collapsed in a landslide and we would have to walk the rest of the way. Some might have been less than pleased at the prospect of having to walk 8km in the pouring rain — I could not have been happier.
The ride started modest enough, compared to our ride the day before that ended in a machete fight between rival drivers this bus was first-class. And then, after an hour and a half we switched buses. And this one was better yet — fewer passengers meant our pick of the seats and our backpacks could be stored inside out of the rain. But my positive outlook quickly turned to fear as we merged onto the Pan-American highway, a four-lane divided highway that should have been a welcome sight to the two lane back mountain roads — it was in fact the opposite.
Landslides had demolished several areas of the highway and as the mountainsides fell into the lanes of the road, traffic was diverted into the opposite lanes. Because of the elevation and the weather, fog made visibility nearly zero. Initially I thought all of these factors might work in our favor as drivers would have to drive slow. They didn’t.
Speeding at 60mph in the opposite direction of traffic as boulders the size of our bus grazed the sides, all I could do was take photos out of my window. I’m not sure if it was the wet, cold air whipping my face or the fear for my life that brought tears to my eyes, but they were streaming. The highway weaved along the tall crumbling Sierra Madre highlands. Paying no respect to the unpredictability and strength of a mountain’s worth of mud sliding away underneath you. According to most figures nearly 40 people were killed from the destruction of Tropical Depression 12-E, as it was called. I attribute my survival to incredibly fortunate timing and nothing more.
As we were asked to get off the bus to walk the rest of the way — I’ve never been happier to hike 8km with 70lbs of luggage to carry through the pouring rain. So down we walked, for an hour and a half in the rain, through mountain switchbacks with small rocks tumbling down as constant reminders of our precarious position along the side of an unstable mountain. The path ahead of us was littered with debris from previous rock-slides.
“Hey Dad! Are we sure there are going to be boats waiting down there?” I asked Xavi who was about 40 yards in front of me. As I spoke, rocks began to tumble down the side of the hill next to me. I sprinted to make up the difference between us and spoke in nothing louder than a whisper the remainder of the walk.
The base of the mountain, where the majestic Lago de Atitlan was located was cloaked heavy in fog, impossible to see. I figured it was a good thing to have the lake down there. If the mountain gives way, we could try to ride it out and over the water — it seemed more feasible than if there were just the uncompromising ground and jungle.
Our optimism grew as we got closer to the docks along the lake. We had been told all along that boats would be there to take people across the lake to Panajachel — but this was never a guarantee. Coming out of the fog and approaching the lake we met people who assured us there were boats, but that we should hurry. Finally we arrived, the water was gorgeous blue-green, the fog was above us so that in comparison with the dense, opaque whiteness the lush green of the mountainside was all the more vibrant. We couldn’t see more than 100 yards across the lake, but we were on it and in a boat, so as far as we were concerned, it was a success.
The dock was submerged so we had to jump onto the boat from the elevated embankment. Once on the boat we waited about 20 minutes as others stranded by the landslides made their way down the mountain. There were 9 of us on the boat in all. Normally a lancha tour around the lake will cost you close to $20usd, this one cost us just over a dollar. Sure the beautiful volcanoes and picturesque towns were shrouded in clouds, but the struggle to get there made the lack of views all the more beautiful. And as we finally settled into a bottle of beer along the lake all I could think of was how exciting our day had been. And that I couldn’t begin to imagine having to leave town on those roads. At dinner, the owner of Tuscani restaurant told us the access roads had been destroyed, so we were stuck there. Thank God.