Suddenly, we were confronted by a group of about 20 young men holding machetes, circling us, and mimicking my gringo Spanish.
“No, no puedes!”
Amidst the chaos of gleaming teeth and blades, laughter, taunts, and fear, I kind of shut down. Panic took over, and I didn’t know what to do. Luckily, my wife kept moving, and a teenager we were walking with grabbed my arm. We pushed through unscathed.
How we had arrived in that fiasco was just as confusing. Kate and I boarded a chicken bus that morning in Xela bound for Panajachel. The only gringos on the bus, our Spanish was very subpar at the time. So when it took several strange turns and passengers grew increasingly nervous, we had no idea what was going on. But when the bus started ascending a narrow Jeep trail on the side of a sheer cliff and people started crossing themselves, we knew something was definitely wrong.
Ultimately, the bus was forced to a stop in the middle of nowhere. Mayan people on foot were everywhere. We eventually learned we were in the midst of a mini insurgency. The government had sold sacred land to a foreign mining company, and the Mayans were in revolt. They had shut down the main highway, as well as this alternate route.
We had to backpack out, climbing over felled trees and passing burning refuse—and the aforementioned machete men—along the way. When we finally reached our destination long after nightfall, we learned that several people had been killed during the uprising!