It was my decision to head to Quetzaltenango, Xela for short, because I had planned on furthering my Spanish education (really just throwing money down the drain). Xela is a very popular place for this, unlike Antigua, it’s not full of foreigners and English is not on par with Spanish as the most common language. This gives a fuller experience and a better chance of learning. Anyway, it didn’t matter as we had chopped and changed our itinerary so much that we only ended up allocating a week to Xela, far from enough time to sink into another Spanish school and at the same time try to hike the many volcanoes in the surrounding area. Xela is Guatemala’s second city, although nowhere near as big or dodgy as Guatemala City. It sits at 2330m making it very chilly at night and we were both under-dressed for the night time conditions and with no heating in the place we had chosen to spend the week, it was a little miserable – Casa San Bartolome was otherwise very nice and the owner upgraded us to a suite that included cooking facilities, something Andrea likes very much.
We arrived on Sunday afternoon by our new favorite means of transport, the chicken bus. It was a direct journey of just under 3 hours from Chichi to Xela, and pretty uneventful – not sure what we expected to happen but nothing did anyway. The second class bus terminal was, as usual, located next to the Minerva market in zone 3 of the city, whereas we were staying in the central zone 1 area alongside all the banks, cafes, tourist offices, and language schools. We found Xela to be a very safe city and had no problems wandering through the narrow streets at night. I was out in the pre-dawn hours on the way to climb a volcano or visit another market and always felt at ease. The city is overlooked by the mighty Santa Maria volcano, a sleeping giant, albeit for the time being. In the vicinity are others waiting to be climbed, and I was certainly in the mood.
Monday was spent running around the various tourist offices trying to get a place on one of the many volcano trips, but sadly, January is the off-season and no one wants to hike the more difficult peaks, or maybe the city is just full of lightweights! I was more than welcome to hike to miradors, lakes, and churches but not volcanoes without paying through the nose due to the minimum 4 hiker requirement. This sucks! I bit the bullet and used Altiplanos to climb Santa Maria, however I paid them 50% more than the regular price due to being solo. I had to be ready for a 5am collection the very next day. Check out the Santa Maria blog entry for details of the hike.
San Andrés Xecul & Salcajá
This same afternoon Andrea and I scheduled a two hour taxi rental to take us to San Andrés Xecul to see Central America’s most brightly colored church and to Salcajá to see its oldest, the Church of San Jacinto. We only had a couple of hours until dark but this gave us just enough time, and saved us from having to join a half day church excursion. We had a copy of Rough Guides Central America on a Budget book which had this amazingly colorful yellow church with a dome painted like a beach ball on the cover and we wondered where it was located – this afternoon we got to find out. When we arrived in San Andrés Xecul we saw a smaller yellow church, El Calvario high up in the town, but it wasn’t until we got much closer that we saw what we had come to see. The highlight is the bright yellow west facade, on which some 200 painted sculptures of human figures, angels, monkeys, fruit, corn, and quetzel birds dance in technicolor chaos.
Right at the side of the smaller yellow church, El Calvario, there was a Mayan altar and we were fortunate enough to see two Mayans performing a ritual which was cool. Not sure they appreciate being photographed, especially in these delicate moments. I did feel like crap for 3 days after this so I guess the Mayan gods struck me down!
We then headed to Salcajá to see the oldest church in Central America which was built in 1524. Pretty amazing to still be standing after almost 500 years, especially in this highly volatile, earthquake prone country. We were a little disappointed for it to be closed as it would have completed the tour to see the inside, other than the fact there we were about to get attacked and potentially robbed by a group of masked hoodlums using belts as weapons.
For me, the next few days were spent feeling generally crappy with some major bowel rumblings! Having this problem and the evening chill that filled the air we were both ready to climb into bed as soon as the sun went down, even at 6.30pm. Although it was cold we both said we would like to come back to Xela to spend a few months learning Spanish and helping in the community, which is very popular in the Western highlands of Guatemala. I also had a new bucket list item, to get up close and personal to the crater of the Santiaguito volcano.
Fuentes Georginas Hot Springs
On Friday after visiting the San Francisco el Alto market I had to get back to Xela by the time Andrea finished work at 11am so we could head to Zunil for the Fuentes Georginas hot springs, highly recommended on Tripadvisor, which incidentally we swear by for accommodation, restaurants and things to do. So for me it was a race back to the bus station in Xela, a dash across town to get Andrea and back to the bus station for another Chicken bus in the opposite direction. Its a hard life arranging travel and visiting places!
There were only two reasons for us to go to Zunil, to get a pickup truck for the 8km drive uphill to the hot springs and for the “true” San Simon, or Maximon. We arrived at the central plaza and were immediately approached by a guy with a truck offering us a ride up to the springs, we accepted since we knew the ride was long and steep. The road passes through a patchwork quilt of farmland where they grow many types of vegetables, including carrots, beets, onions, corn, potatoes, beans, radish, and others that look like they’ve been growing in the most nutritious soil on the planet.
The springs are in a beautiful, isolated setting high up in the hills, often surrounded by cloud – the pools, cottages and other buildings have been repaired and rebuilt on numerous occasions due to severe storm damage from Hurricanes Mitch and Stan in 1998 and 2005. We saw an entire building in a ravine, due to what must have been pretty horrific conditions.
San Simón / Maximon
Zunil possesses active worship of San Simón (also known as Maximon), a life-sized mannequin dressed in a colorful suit, wearing a hat, sunglasses, a woven bag for donations and sitting in a chair. There are many stories surrounding San Simon and his history, all sounding bizarre, but whether any of them are true or not is irrelevant to the many people that worship him. An adjacent store in the next room sells candles, incense, rum, etc. The room he’s in has a dirt floor and little light. On a table by his side are bottles of rum, cigars, cigarettes, money, and other offerings. In front of him were the stubs of hundreds of candles, fresh flowers, and the smoke and ashes of incense. San Simon is moved to a different house every year and most of Zunil’s kids were likely to know this years residence. This was the second Maximon we had visited, the first in Santiago Atitlan on lake Atitlan, and here, once again we both laughed as we walked into the room and spent money on a cigarette for him to smoke and to take photos. I was going to buy him a beer too but apparently he only accepts licquor!
Our last full day in the Xela area we were indecisive about a very long and full day hike to the summit of Volcan Tajamulco, the highest point in Central America or the much closer crater lake, Laguna Chicabal which was formed in the crater of Volcán Chicabal at an elevation of 2,712 meters (8,879 feet). The lake is very sacred to the Mam Mayan people with many ritual sites and shrines all around the perimeter.
We left Xela on our favorite means of travel and headed to the town of San Martín Sacatepéquez or San Martin Chile Verde, named after the large quantity of green chilli peppers its farmers historically grew and brought to Quetzaltenango to sell. After not much more than an hour of steep hiking through the town and surrounding hillsides we reached the park entrance where we paid the Q15 entry fee and continued on up to the mirador – the mirador route passes by the turnoff to the lake but provides a perfect view of the lake, and from another viewpoint, Volcan Santa Maria. Opposite the mirador are just under 600 stairs that took us down to the lakeshore, not too bad going down but coming up would be a test!
January 6th – January 13th 2013