The Cuchumatanes, rising to a frosty 3837m just to the north of Huehuetenango, are the largest non-volcanic peaks in Central America, stretching from the Mexican border to the highlands of Alta Verapaz.
The mountain scenery is magnificent, ranging from wild, exposed craggy outcrops to lush, tranquil river valleys. The upper parts of the slopes are barren, scattered with boulders and shrivelled cypress trees, while the lower levels, by contrast, are richly fertile, cultivated with corn, coffee and some sugar. Between the peaks, in the deep-cut valleys, are hundreds of tiny villages, isolated by the enormity of the landscape.
It’s an immensely rewarding area, offering a rare glimpse of Maya life and some of the country’s finest fiestas and markets. The mountains are also ideal for hiking, particularly if you’ve had enough of struggling up volcanoes.
The most accessible of the villages is Todos Santos Cuchumatán, which is also one of the most fascinating – its horse-race fiesta on November 1 has to be the most outrageous in Guatemala. North of here a remote road leads to Barillas through some of the most compelling Maya settlements in Guatemala; deeply traditional San Mateo Ixtatán is probably the most interesting place on the way. A trip into this mountainous area reveals an exceptional wealth of Maya culture. In this world of jagged peaks and deep-cut valleys Spanish is definitely the second language, and women rigidly adhere to traditional costume, offering you an ideal opportunity to witness Maya life at close quarters, and perhaps undertake a hike or two.
This area had little to entice the Spanish, and they only exercised vague control, occasionally disrupting things with bouts of religious persecution. The people were, for the most part, left to maintain their old ways, and their traditions are still very much evident in the fiestas, costumes and folk Catholicism.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the violence and terror of the civil war sent thousands fleeing across the border to Mexico. Most families returned from exile in the 1990s, settling back to life in their old communities, but the cycle of emigration has repeated itself again in recent years, as thousands of young villagers have sought work in the US.