A full week in Xela (Quetzaltenango)

We arrived again in the craziness that is Minerva bus station in Xela. However, because we had experienced it before we knew where to go to get colectivos to centro. Easy-peasy. We had our new friend Claire with us as well as two other girls who were heading in the same direction. As we found out shortly literally the same direction. By chance they had booked the same guesthouse as we were returning to. So leading the way through the insane market we were feeling pretty useful with our knowledge and made it to our accommodation without any problems.

Zocalo

Zocalo

That afternoon, after settling in and relaxing with a cup of tea, we ate a late lunch at a local restaurant which served the Guatemalan speciality of pepian. Tom and I got different variations but both were delicious. The best way I can describe them is a similar to a stew consistency with whole pieces of chicken still on the bone and super tender. The taste is between a mole and a light tomato curry, and while they have lots of spices neither was ‘spicy’.

My pepian meal. It was so good I started eating before thinking to take a photo

My pepian meal. It was so good I started eating before thinking to take a photo

After lunch Tom wasn’t feeling great so he headed back to the guesthouse while Claire and I visited one of the local markets. Armed with avocados, corn chips and the rest of the makings for guacamole we made our way back to our accommodation for the evening. We discovered Tom half asleep in a sunny hammock but feeling a lot better.

One of the great street markets in Xela

One of the great street markets in Xela

The next day we had a late start and together left on an outing once Claire came to visit after her Spanish class. We walked to a nearby bus stop along a dusty, busy main street and hopped on a chicken bus to Selcaja. This town is about 20 minutes away and is known for the following reasons: the first is that it has the oldest church in Central America, second is the bootleg semi-legal/illegal alcohol called caldo de frutas (kinda like ‘fruit broth’ if I translate it) and lastly there is a lot of textile shops renown for the local style of women’s clothing. I didn’t actually know about the textile shops until after we returned as we were only there for the first two items but we did notice that every second shop seemed to sell thread, textiles, patterns or weaving equipment.

A cute bright plaza in Selcaja

A cute bright plaza in Selcaja

It took us two attempts to locate the church as I first led us to one which had shown up on Google Maps. Wrong church! It definitely didn’t look old enough so we had to ask a local. Luckily I had a picture of it loaded on my phone to show where we wanted to go as I didn’t know the name either. A great moment of planning from me.

Church of San Jacinto in Selcaja

Church of San Jacinto in Selcaja

The church of San Jacinto was built in 1524 and is in pretty good condition after weathering multiple earthquakes and is still used today for special occasions. After snapping some photos we went on a hunt for the final reason for our visit; locating the caldo de frutas. Buying some spicy peanuts as a snack we enquired where we could find the liquor and received some directions. Wandering down the street we found a normal looking tienda and sampled then purchased some of the alcohol. It’s quite tasty, a fruity liquor with bits of fruit still floating in it and bottled in random old, screw top wine bottles. I also got my hands on a small bottle of rompope, a creamy custard-like liquor which I imagine tastes delicious over ice cream or cake. I just drank it straight though, and on occasion straight from the bottle as well.

With our objectives complete in Selcaja we boarded a very crowded chicken bus and headed back to Xela.

The next day we visited the city cemetery and spent an hour or so wandering the area looking at the different graves and mausoleums. This cemetery was interesting for the style of the graves as well as the difference between the large family mausoleums which in some cases towered above our heads and the small rudimentary crosses with concrete graves outside the main walls in the back part. It was our first cemetery we had actively sought out as it’s not really an interest of ours.

Topping up on more food at the market/supermarket and our day was complete. Our dinners for a majority of the week were cooked in the guesthouse kitchen which was very well equipped. I had a chance to cook some fun dishes and decided I wanted pikelets as they needed a small amount of extra ingredients. This worked out quite well as I wasn’t feeling that well on our third day in Xela so we decided to just take it easy. Tom got a haircut as well as dropped in some clothing for repair at a nearby tailor. In total his favourite jeans, which were ripped at the crotch, and his favourite Merino t-shirt, which had a hole in the front from his pack strap, cost 20Q to repair and 24 hours in time. Low cost and happy Tom.

Waking up and feeling much better except for a sniffly nose we decided to venture out of town on another excursion. Xela is a great base for seeing a variety of things around this area of Guatemala. It can also be very cheap (if a little more time consuming) to do these by local transport rather than paying for tours which are plentiful as well.

We set off by colectivo to the nearby town of San Martin where we would be able to walk up an old volcano which now has a pretty crater lake at the top. It would be a good day of exercise and practise for our booked overnight volcano hike on the weekend.

View of San Martin where we started our walk to Laguna Chicabal

View of San Martin where we started our walk to Laguna Chicabal

With blocked sinuses I struggled a bit at the steep constant uphill walk. We were at altitude as well which didn’t help the situation. Luckily it was a beautiful day and the the cool breeze was very welcoming. At the entrance we paid a small fee and started walking up hill again. Another hour later and we were at the mirador looking down over the lake. From there we walked down the 600 (apparently, we didn’t count) stairs to the lake itself. The area is a Mayan site of worship and there are altars around the lake to different deities. This also means the lake is sacred and not to be waded or swum in.

Apparently a mist is supposed to fill the crater in the afternoon and so we sat for an hour and waited but on that day we could only see cool swirling cloud around the edges at the top of the crater. This is probably due to the canicula, a short period of dry in the rainy season, which seemed to be upon us during our stay in Xela.

Path up to Laguna Chicabal

Path up to Laguna Chicabal

Panarama of Laguna Chicabal

Panarama of Laguna Chicabal

It was a lovely day of walking though some pretty scenery but I was exhausted so when a ute stopped near us shortly after starting our trip back down the hill and offered 5Q each for the ride we happily jumped on. Although we thought walking may have been the safer option, as we bumped our way down the steep potholed track, at least the brakes didn’t fail.

The rest of the day was pretty straight forward, we easily found a colectivo heading back to Xela where we relaxed, cooked dinner and had an early night.

With an early morning start looming the next day we decided that doing another physical activity wouldn’t be smart so we headed to some hot pools. This required yet another colectivo, a chicken bus to Zunil and a ute up the hill to the Fuentes Georgina. The reviews on trip advisor hadn’t prepared me for the amount of locals who frequent these pools and I was one of the only females in a bikini. A little awkward to say the least, it was like an easy game of spot the tourist. We saw another couple from our guesthouse and hung out with them for the afternoon so I didn’t feel too obvious with another person in a bikini beside me. The pools are natural springs and near the source they get warm, like you could make yourself a cup of tea kind of warm. So we had to keep moving in and out of the water to keep ourselves from overheating.

Following a path down the hill through the jungle we found two more pools and these were even hotter. So hot my legs would tingle from the heat and I couldn’t sit submerged. A local kid was happily cruising around fully submerged in the water with his toy truck. The heat didn’t seem to phase him which was confirmed when Tom enquired if he felt hot.

Misty mountains on the way to Fuentes Georginas

Misty mountains on the way to Fuentes Georginas

Fuentes Georginas with Tom up the hot end of the pool

Fuentes Georginas with Tom up the hot end of the pool

Dehydrated and warm from our afternoon at the hot springs we jumped back into a ute for the trip back down the hill. This time with four of us it was a little cheaper per person as the drivers charge per car not per person rate. Arriving back at our guesthouse we had nothing to do for the evening except organise our packs for the hike. The next day and a half would be tiring.

We were picked up at 6am for our overnight hike up the highest mountain in Central America, Volcan Tajumulco. We each added a sleeping bag, bed roll and food to our packs which already contained our warm clothing (thermals, puffa jacket, scarf), water bottles and snacks. In total there were four of us; the guide, our friend Claire, Tom and I and we would be travelling to a remote mountain town of San Sebastian by two chicken buses.

This took around three hours and then we were off up, up, up, and more steep uphill walking. I think I remember our guide saying it was only a few kilometres of walking but at an altitude of between 3000 and 4000 meters with packs on it was by far the hardest bit of walking I can remember doing in my life. You easily could have called me lagging Lauren but luckily Tom and Claire were too busy walking to do any mean alliteration. Our infrequent rest stops were amazing and the small snacks we had were equally so. The pikelets I had made the day before and brought along were the perfect treat and helped me make it to our campsite after about three hours of slow walking.

Halfway to the campsite and I'm in struggletown

Halfway to the campsite and I’m in struggletown

We all threw down our packs and guzzled down some water. It wasn’t warm at the campsite and we soon cooled down from the walking and started layering up our thermals. Our guide made us sandwiches of ham, cheese, tomato and mayo which we ate with a side of corn chips and in that moment it was the best meal I’d ever eaten.

Relaxing after our lunch we played some cards and soaked up the warm sunshine as it was a little cool in the shade. We would soon venture up to the crater for the first time to hopefully see the sunset.

Settling up our campsite

Settling up our campsite

Putting on all our layers which consisted of: leggings (or jeans for Tom), long-johns, wool socks, walking shoes, singlet, merino thermal, merino hoodie, puffa jacket and scarf, we all set off walking again on sore legs. This part of the walk was less like hiking and more like climbing as we crawled up some steep rocks to the summit.

We had finally made it to the highest point in Central America! Unfortunately the cloud cover was too thick and we couldn’t see the sunset, but the clouds billowing around us were very cool to watch. We were loosing light and visibility fast and before long we were engulfed in the clouds with a bitter wind so started the climb back down.

It's so cold, and my background is white from the clouds

It’s so cold, and my background is white from the clouds

We were all ravenously hungry as our guide cooked us pasta for dinner. It was pretty simple with just spaghetti, sauce and mushrooms but again we were starving so basically inhaled the food before it cooled down. After this we all decided on sleep as the morning would start at 4am to climb to the summit again for the sunrise.

With four to a small tent we weren’t cold just a little squished and uncomfortable so waking at 4am wasn’t difficult as we had all tossed and turned most of the night. Having slept in our clothes we were ready to go after a hot cup of coffee. With my headtorch equipped (the first time it’s been used on our trip) and my scarf wrapped around my head we clambered up the rocks.

The sunrise was beautiful but wow was it cold and exposed up there with nowhere to hide. Our hands went numb as we clicked away with our cameras to try capture the colours. From our vantage point on top of the world we could see two other active volcanoes letting out small puffs of smoke in the distance. Our volcano luckily was old and long extinct.

Xela - GuatemalaOne thing which we had all been worried about was getting altitude sickness but apart from feeling a lot more puffed during our walk and the walking being physically more demanding on our bodies none of us felt nauseous, dizzy or headachey.

The walk down was leisurely compared to the hike up the previous day and in the sun it was a lovely experience overlooking some stunning mountains and valleys. The bus rides back were squishy and as we were all tired this wasn’t the nicest feeling. I remember looking out of the windows in hope that I’d see some sign that we were nearing Xela. The return trip certainly felt longer than it had the day before.

Arriving back at the guesthouse we relaxed for a while before heading out for dinner. After our big hike we decided we wanted burgers for dinner. Finding a diner style restaurant we ordered and disappointingly received small pathetic burgers with a grand total of five wedges each. Not exactly what we had been craving. Back at the hostel Claire was waiting for us as it was our final night in Xela and Tom assisted her with demolishing some leftovers found in the fridge from some departed travellers.

Finally on the subject of our camera, in perfect timing, we received an email letting us know it had been repaired.

We were planning on making the whole journey from Xela to Oaxaca by multiple buses including an overnight one. I’ll have a short post on our success with that soon as well as how we spent our short two night return to Oaxaca.

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4 thoughts on “A full week in Xela (Quetzaltenango)

  1. Pingback: Travelling back to Oaxaca from Guatemala | Two Stray Kiwi

  2. Pingback: A quick return to Oaxaca | Two Stray Kiwi

  3. Pingback: San Cristobal de Las Casas | Two Stray Kiwi

  4. Pingback: Flores and Tikal, Guatemala | Two Stray Kiwi

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