Huehuetenango is a venerable city in Guatemala’s western highlands, well off the tourist trail and charmingly preserved as a colonial center for coffee production. Originally known as Xinabahul by the Mayans who inhabited the area some two thousand years ago, it was captured by the Spanish conquistadores in the early 1500’s, through the usual trickery. Zacaleu, the region’s nearby palace and ceremonial center, was cut off by Gonzalo de Alvarado, the lesser brother of the regions’ nastier conqueror, Pedro Alvarado and the inhabitants were simply starved to death by an encircling group of Spanish with their newfound Toltec allies.
It’s been long on my list of ‘places to see’ and explore: the town is called ‘Hue-Hue’ by everyone, and pronounced as WAY-way. There are some 80000 inhabitants and at 6200 feet, it can be a bit cool at night, especially in the winter months. The dog-eared and semi-tattered old guide book described it as once having been near to a silver mining region (Chiantla, 5 kilometers north) and my wrinkled and oft-folded map of Guatemala showed at least four mines nearby, marked with the symbol of a pick and shovel. The small dotted lines to each, leading off the main road were the only clue. The mines, of course were located up and over the far side of the nearby 9000 foot mountain range known as Los Cuchumatanes.
Remembering last years’ shortcut up and over the backside of nearby Volcano Acatenango and the wretched road that had been described as ‘good’ via a low clearance 96 Mercury Cougar, a bit more planning was indicated. Maps and local, i.e., fresh knowledge was important. The Guatemalan Institute of Geographics provided the topographical and geologic maps and thanks to the presence of Mike Donley, Ph.D, who drew the original geographic map of Guatemala in the late 60’s, the staff was helpful.
The road condition report? There were tales of horrendous conditions from years ago, to the most recent experience of ‘roads under repair’ of two years ago, and were enough to ditch the idea of the Cougar and consider a 4X vehicle. The makeup of the crew changed slightly, from the Acatenango fiasco: Norm the K, a retired old services/geologist from Ohio with a lot of time on back roads in Guatemala, Mike Donley, cartographer and likewise grounded in geology, Ponzi Bob, perennial gold hunter in Guatemala for decades and myself, chockfull of mining and mineralogical lore. Norm, in his mid 50’s, was the youngest: some of us were pushing seventy and the others already on the other side of that number. The thirst for adventure was only tempered by bad hearing and the need for reading glasses. Instead of Depends, we packed rock hammers, cameras and a metal detector. I stuffed the little Beretta in a suitcase, if only to call or demand room service. Tomorrow: we overran the Inspection Station and still had time to visit the Mayan ruins of Zacaleu.