Two days in Quetzaltenango (Xela)

After arriving via multiple forms of transport from the Mexican border (check out my post on that here) we had reached Quetzaltenango (also known as Xela in the Mayan language and which I will use from here on as it’s easier to type).

Crazy and bright looking chicken buses

Crazy and bright looking chicken buses

Doing a loop of the town centre we discovered super cheap hotels which were nasty as well as pricier ones but none seemed to fit until we reached a guesthouse run by a friendly Dutch girl. We settled in and immediately thought of food as it had been a long time since breakfast in Mexico. Walking around for about 45 minutes didn’t help us with deciding on a restaurant so we headed back in the direction of our hostel and one we had seen earlier in the day. Luckily it was open and although looked close to closing they cheerfully invited us to sit. A fish platillo (Tom) and a beef platillo (Me) with tortillas and beers to drink hit the spot and we were very satisfied with our meal.

I had an ulterior motive when convincing Tom to walk through the plaza on a detour back to our accommodation. On our hunt for a restaurant we had seen two women selling what looked like round donut type things with a warm honey syrup. They were delish and I quickly became a sticky mess from eating them.

That evening, although tired, we made friends with another backpacking couple who we discovered were also heading to Lake Atitlan to study Spanish. The night was quite cold and we woke to a miserable day threatening to rain, which it soon did.

We farewelled our new friends promising to catch up in San Pedro soon. The rain stopped and we decided we couldn’t stay in the guesthouse all day so we ventured out to locate breakfast and visit the market. Breakfast was great. Q20 each for a huge plate of eggs and beans with tortillas (standard) and we just had to order an accompanying smoothie to go with it.

With more rain threatening at any moment we made it to the market as the sky opened. It was a perfect time for Tom to decide to get his hair cut at a barber. Afterwards we dashed around the stalls picking up ingredients to make dinner and headed back to the guesthouse.

Not a hugely productive day but not too lazy either. We rounded out the evening cooking and sharing a few beers before getting a good night’s sleep. The next morning would be an early start to get packed up and back to the bus station for our trip over to Lake Atitlan.

On our way back to the station we were joined in the colectivo by two other backpackers. The van got pretty squishy with all our packs arranged around us. They were on their way to San Pedro as well so together we located a chicken bus to the lake. Locating a bus was an interesting five minutes as the locals had different ideas and we kept getting different responses about the availability of buses on a Sunday. Eventually we were called over to a bus which was direct to San Pedro. Perfect!

Our packs being secured on top of the bus

Our packs being secured on top of the bus

The bus assistant guy threw our packs up on top of the bus, strapped them on and covered them with a tarpaulin. I was impressed at this and didn’t worry about my pack for a moment of the journey. We happily chatted away with our new friends as the bus (which are the fastest vehicles on the road) sped around corners and up hills. After about an an hour and a half we started to descend some steep roads to the lake.

Inside the chicken bus

Inside the chicken bus

The roads were insane and at one point there were multiple switchbacks so sharp that the bus had to take them as a three point turns. But the scenery was gorgeous and I all but hung out the window trying to get clear photos between the bus bouncing over potholes (more often than not).

Tom relaxing on the bumpy road to

Tom relaxing on the bumpy road to

Our first views of the lake

Our first views of the lake

By the time we arrived we were all sore from being bounced around in an old bus for 3.5 hours and happily climbed out. There had been six backpackers in the bus and only five packs were thrown down (all but mine!) before the bus driver impatiently started driving off. Tom chased down the bus as we all yelled “Una más, una más!” (One more, one more) at the drivers helper. He banged on the bus and it slowed for long enough for my pack to be passed to Tom. We had finally arrived in San Pedro la Laguna and headed off towards the lake to locate our school for the next few weeks.

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Travel from Oaxaca to Quetzaltenango

So we boarded our first class bus in Oaxaca and settled in for a long overnight trip hopefully with some sleep involved. After watching an episode of a TV programme we had with us we then decided to sleep as it was about 10:30pm. Surprisingly both of us fell asleep quite quickly and I’m not sure about Tom but I had a great sleep for being on a bus (Editor: Tom can confirm he had a horrible sleep).

Waking at around 7:30am (Editor: for those of us that weren’t already awake from 3am)  we soon encountered our first bus problem in Mexico. After six months here that’s not a bad run. All the cars on the Panamericana highway (the road which travels all the way from Canada south, through Central America stopping in Panama and continuing from Columbia to Argentina) were slowing to a stop.

Trucks lined up from the roadblock on the Panamericana highway

Trucks lined up from the roadblock on the Panamericana highway

More lined up trucks

More lined up trucks

It got warm inside the bus without aircon so we sat outside in the shade

It got warm inside the bus without aircon so we sat outside in the shade

A town had decided to block the road and therefore our route to Tapachula. We chilled out in the bus for an hour or so before vacating out into the fresh air where we sat in the shade of the bus as the day began to heat up. After a snack/breakfast of a yoghurt drink and a cookie from a nearby OXXO convenience store we were feeling quite good; relaxed and not at all concerned by the halt to our journey.

By 9:30am we still hadn’t moved but not being on too tight a time frame this didn’t bother us too much. Some other passengers opted to jump in taxis, which could obviously find a way around the road block, in order to get to their destinations.

Finally our driver and the driver of the bus in front of us made an executive decision to also find a way around. It was about 10:30am and we were back on our way with only ourselves and three other passengers remaining on the bus.

After driving through the small town and making some crazy multiple point turns to navigate tight corners we were off and travelling through remote rural countryside. Not being the usual roads to see a first class bus on we were getting some strange looks from locals but we were moving ever closer to our destination.

After the detour, which ended up being at least an hour, we returned to the main highway and stopped briefly at the last planned stop before getting to Tapachula. Finally after a 17 hour bus journey we disembarked and while collecting our bags we saw the driver discussing the bus with another staff member. The bus had a giant scrape/gouge on the top edge which must have happened from a tree or something similar on our detour as the roads definitely weren’t made for large buses. Whoops.

Tapachula is a border town and doesn’t have a whole lot going for it other than that so we decided on a hotel on the main road across from the bus station. This was solely for our ease as we were tired after sitting on the bus for so long and didn’t have time to be tourists here.

Dinner consisted of a torta for Tom and a burrito for me at a nearby restaurant; cheap and easy. We polished those off with a couple of beers (Tom) and some fresh fruit agua frescas for me. Indulging my sweet tooth I convinced Tom that I needed an ice cream and we visited a convenience store to pick up this as well as another beer. So the evening was quite relaxing and lazy overall in preparation for what we expected would be a hectic next day.

Awake bright and early we zipped and locked our packs and headed to an ATM to grab some Peso to exchange for Quetzales at the border. We knew we wouldn’t have access to a bank without fees in Guatemala so this was the reason we decided to convert the cash. After breakfasting at the same restaurant we ate at the night before we were ready to start our day and travel across the border. Cue music: dum Dum DUM!

The first mode of transport was a colectivo from the main road in Tapachula to the frontier, or so they call the border town. The actual name of the border where we crossed was Talismán and after being dropped off it was surprisingly straight forward. We had done our research about what we needed to do and what was required of us while being at the border and it all went pretty smoothly.

We were mobbed by money exchangers and ‘guides’ as we left the colectivo and proceeded to barter with the men for quetzales in exchange for our pesos. After half an hour we had the rate we wanted and handed over our money receiving a heap of Q100 notes in return. One task done.

Next stop was handing over our Mexican visas and getting our passports stamped which was easy enough. With only two days remaining on the visas we joked with the customs lady about how we liked Mexico so didn’t want to leave.

Walking across the border/bridge we were finally in Guatemala. The immigration building in Guatemala was small and not obviously easy to spot but some locals helpfully called out and pointed us at the right building. Handing over our passports we quickly had them stamped and were asked for Q10 each. We are still not entirely sure if this money was an actual fee or a scam but it wasn’t much so we handed it over.

Dodging and ignoring the taxi drivers we continued to walk into Guatemala and easily found another colectivo which would take us a third of the way to Quetzaltenango (from now on I will refer to this city as Xela, the local Mayan name as it’s easier to type). The colectivo was packed full and we had to sit with our packs on our knee, but they weren’t too heavy or annoying. Whenever we have to do this I choose to think of them like ‘airbags’ holding me in my seat in case of an abrupt stop, luckily this has never happened.

After making it to Malacatán we hopped out of the van and it was approximately 30 seconds until Tom realised that he didn’t have my phone. In the juggling act of getting two packs, two backpacks and ourselves out of the colectivo the phone had stayed on the seat. Leaving me with the packs Tom sprinted through the traffic dodging tuk-tuks and colectivos after the van and luckily returned with my phone. I would be devastated if I lost it, it has my life on it.

A local pointed the way to our first chicken bus; these old American school buses are painted up in crazy bright colours and travel all over Central America. This time last year Tom would entertain himself with telling me about these buses. He had me convinced that they would be horrible and I would have to sit next to chickens/turkeys or even goats to the point that I had REFUSED to even entertain the idea of travelling by one. Oh how easily I get convinced otherwise, but being used to local buses in Mexico I was ready for this next adventure.

Crazy and bright looking chicken buses

Crazy and bright looking chicken buses

This first trip was relatively easy, we had the seat to ourselves and could again sit with our packs on our knees. At this point I was afraid of the luggage rack on top of the bus and was very reluctant to part with my bags. The road was a steady but steep climb for the bus and we passed through some gorgeous mountain scenery. With the driver overtaking other cars, buses and trucks on the narrow, windy road we both had that slightly nervous giggle happening whenever a dodgy driving move was executed (often). But we made it to the bus station in San Marcos in one piece and were hurried towards another chicken bus which would take us to our destination of Xela (also known as Quetzaltenango if you remember my earlier note).

This bus was CRAZY! Yes so crazy that it needs capitals, bold text and underlined. We had our packs taken from us and thrown up onto the roof of the bus while we got ushered on via the back door of the bus. The bus was what I considered very close to full but I would soon learn that this was definitely not the case. With two people already on each of the seats we squeezed onto the back set of two seats bracing our legs against each other as our bums were only half supported. The bus took off and stopping frequently kept loading more and more people on. Three to each seat plus a person standing in what remained of the isle became the norm and we seemed full to capacity, any more and people would probably have literally been on the roof or hanging off the exterior.

It was an intense hour or so trip and I spent the whole time worried that our packs would be bounced off the roof each time the bus drove over a bump. Speaking of the bumps, each time we went over one I was airborne, the bus had non-existent suspension.

Finally we arrived in Xela at a bus station which was more like a side road chock full of other chicken buses. We received our packs which hadn’t fallen off and were still in one piece and asked for directions to centro. Walking through a bustling mercado we made it to the main road and hopped in a colectivo into centro. This would be our fifth vehicle of the day we and were getting tired.

In centro we needed to do the standard wander until we found accomodation routine, and having a new form of currency we were constantly converting Quetzal into Peso in our head to compare prices to what we were used to in Mexico. It took a little longer than usual to find a place to stay but we ended up in a lovely hostel/guesthouse owned by a Dutch girl.

It had been an interesting and eventful 48 hours but we had finally made it to Guatemala after six months of travelling. After food and a good nights sleep we would be ready to see what this country had in store for us.

Oaxaca

View from Monte Alban

View from Monte Alban

Arriving in Oaxaca meant we were finally back on track to reach the border before our visas were due to expire. As per usual we didn’t have any accommodation organised except for Google maps loaded on my phone ready to go for knocking on hotel doors. Our first stop was a hostel in the area which we quickly boycotted due to the price. Another few hotels later and we located one which was adequate right around when I was about to start complaining about the weight of my pack. We booked a week because we knew we needed time to get one of our cameras looked at. For some reason the image on the right side of our photos was becoming increasingly out of focus as time went on. Not a small nuisance when you are taking a lot of photos. But there was enough to occupy ourselves with in Oaxaca for this to be an acceptable amount of time.

Pretty colonial streets

Pretty colonial streets

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