It feels kind of metropolitan–a wee bit European, a bit gritty and very Guatemalan. Quetzaltenango showed us an intimate and very real view of Guatemala.
Surrounded by a plethora of typical Mayan villages Quetzaltenango aka Xela is a city with a real heart.
To get the most out of this place and it’s surroundings come for more than a month if you can.
Living in Xela we were a short day-trip away from wonderful lakes, hot springs, steam baths and volcanoes.
Within an hour by bus is the hike to the gorgeous and sacred Laguna Chicabal. A small lake that sits in the middle of Volcán Chicabal´s crater.
Lake Atitlán, which many believe is the most beautiful lake in the world, is only two and half hours away by bus.Also three hours away sits Volcán Tajumulco (4,220 meters), the highest point in all of Central America and third highest volcano in the world.
Volcán Santa Maria (3,772 meters), which towers over the southern part of the city, and the active Volcán Santiaguito (2,488 meters), which sits next to Santa Maria.
All of these volcanoes, as well as others within a short distance away, such as Volcán Zunil or Lago Chicobal, are possible to climb. Some are harder than others and we opted for the highest one rather than the hardest one, even though Tajumulco was pretty tough for us.
Then there’s literally dozens of amazing open-air markets selling local garden fresh produce, traditional and western clothing, hand-made artisan products, woven and colourfully dyed products right in Xela.
Within a small day-trip are dozens more traditional Mayan villages with authentic markets, unusual churches, can´t-miss deities, religious festivals and a whole array of other discoveries for the inquisitive visitor.
Some of those in the the nearby villages are Momostenango (famous for its heavy woollen blankets called chamarras), Zunil ( women´s handicraft cooperative), and Totonicapán (famous for its artisan’s crafts and tours).
The biggest of them is Chichicastenango, two and a half hours by bus. It’s well known for its famous market days on Thursdays and Sundays where vendors sell handicrafts, food, flowers, pottery, wooden boxes, condiments, medicinal plants, candles, pom and copal (traditional incense), cal (lime stones for preparing tortillas), grindstones, pigs and chickens, machetes, and other tools. In the central part of the market plaza are small eateries (comedores). The manufacture of masks, used by dancers in traditional dances, such as the Dance of the Conquest, have also made this city well known for woodcarving.
Thanks to the chaotic, yet efficient bus system in Xela it’s easy and cheap to get around on the chicken buses to the many small villages in the area, just ask a local to help you catch the right one.Xela has a number of museums as well, including the “infamous” Museo de Historia, located on the south side of Parque Central. This museum has wonderful exhibits on the Mayan people, Central American politics and the history of Xela.
Unique though are it’s stuffed animals and freaks including the famous quetzal bird native to Guatemala.
Not primarily a tourist city, Xela continues to retain its traditions. Many residents continue to speak in their native Mayan tongue and dress in traditional clothing for everyday living.
This is the part we so loved about Xela.We spent a short 5 weeks in Xela our primary reason to study Spanish promising to return one day for longer. So apart from learning Spanish and going to school every day here are some of the highlights and side trips that we had from Xela.
Bright and early one Saturday we meet at school for a bike trip around the local villages. There were about 12 of us turned up but alas there were only 7 bikes.
There was a tandem which a couple of the boys tried, but along with long legs and rough cobblestones, the tandem bike was impossible to control.
In the end some dropped out and went on a later trip.
Is there helmets? I asked.
After all we would be riding bikes on the road with the chicken buses. Luis produced a smelly looking, half broken helmet which I declined. No one else was bothering and it seemed helmets were not the done thing here.
I’d never even seen them on motorbikes and everyone hangs out the doors of cars and kids ride on the back of trucks.
So I figured – that’s how it rolls here, I will just have to get used to it. Biking through the narrow cobbled streets was hard on the bum but nothing compared to getting onto the Cuatro Caminos with the rush of buses, fumes and dust that followed.
Ten kilometres later we arrive at Salcaja, a quiet sleepy little village.
Salcaja is famous for it’s illegal alcoholic concoctions, jaspe textiles and the first Catholic Church in South America thought to have been built in 1524 by the Spaniards. The church was different to other churches in many ways. Firstly it was locked and we had to find the local key keeper to get in.
This was a church with a difference, the wooden beams were constructed from the original boat sailed from Spain and there was a huge lace draping the seemed to echo the shape of the boats hull.
It seems the Spaniards found also found a plentiful supply of both fruit here which they soaked in barrels of rum. This made a highly-potent alcoholic drink and highly-potent pieces of rum-flavored fruit to eat.
Keen to try we visited a local home where the owner still prepares caldo de frutas in the traditional way albeit supposedly illegal – in large vats in his basement.
Caldo de fruta has a unique flavor, somewhat similar to sherry but way stronger. While it was delicious, I was aware of biking with chicken buses under any sort of effect of alcohol!
It was here in Salcaja that we learned about the brightly colored and beautiful skirts of the local indigenous women and girls, even the littlest girls have these and they look so cute.
We were also able to watch the production of traditional textiles on the ancient foot loom. They make and dye their own wool, and then create their own combinations of vivid colored fabric in long bolts. Every single piece is unique and is 6-8 metres long. It is uncut and unshaped – simply wrapped around the woman in its original length and width (it looks very hot and cumbersome).
Each year the woman gets a new skirt (bolt of cloth), and uses the previous year’s skirt for other purposes (clothes for children or bags).
It appeared to be a wealthy little village and we learn that a lot of the local men here actually work in the United States much to social detriment here in Guatemala.
Back on the bike up and down a few hills for another 5 kilometers to the next village San Andres Xecul famous for it’s bright yellow temple in the main square.
We’ve been talking about this place for a while, but were disappointed to find a marque erected outside spoiling the look of the facade. The temple being quite small needs the marque for services. The baroque facade seems to recreate the colors and designs of the local weaving. There are paintings and carved figures of jaguars, corncobs, quetzal birds, angels and icons that are a mix of Mayan and Catholic beliefs.
Beside is the local market, I wander through and buy a piece of bread for a few cents, there are not tourists here just us, that’s nice.
We walk our bikes up and as I rest I chat to some local kids in Spanish. It’s baby talk but I learn how old they are, what their names are, how to say Xecul properly – (Shicool), they laugh at my pronunciation and we have some fun chatting.
The local Mayan people use the tiny church to cover both Catholic worship and the worship of their own gods (covering all the bases – just in case…)
Outside the church is erected a pair of concrete crosses, in front of which the people burn offerings of various types as they ask their gods to improve their lives.It’s a gorgeous view over the valley, and there’s the rainbow of colors on the town’s rooftops, resulting from dyed threads being dried to make the “guipil”, the stunning embroidered blouses worn by Guatemalan indigenous women.
Back on the bike back to Xela and as always the scenery here is nothing short of spectacular, through fields of corn and local homes we arrive back in Xela dirty, happy and exhausted.
Much and all as I would like to bike or walk all the valleys and hills of Guatemala, truth is I don’t have enough puff, so sometimes I just need to suck it up and take the Chicken Bus.
Although I think I am really just too old for Chicken Buses or maybe I just value my life!
I have mentioned before about the craziness of it all and what I would really like to do is get all the chicken bus drivers together, jam them tight in one of those buses, put a racing car driver in the drivers seat and take them for a spin and see how they like it.
You’ve heard me talk about the amazing vegetables and fruit here in Xela, well Almolonga is where is all is grown. Located 3 miles from Quetzaltenango, Almolonga is well known for it’s medicinal sulfur baths and these wonderful vegetables. Known as the Garden of Americas for it’s produce grown in the ever so fertile volcanic valley. No land is wasted, there is something growing on every piece of land, even the side of the road.
The confluence of water sources provides for some of the most fertile land in Central America, we certainly reaped the benefit of these wonderful vegetables during our stay in Xela. They say the waters of Almolonga fortify your food, your body and your soul – I believe it.
Almolonga has also organized its life around the Godspell; almost everyone is a born again Christian or Evangelico as they are called.
It’s interesting to observe the results of the protestant Christian doctrine put into place – crime is very low, people are happy and business is good.
The chicken bus grinds to a halt and here we are at Zunil – a small Mayan village on the banks of a raging river.
Over the bridge lies the village of adobe houses with broken slate roofs.
Completely surrounded by mountains and volcanoes the mist comes and goes with lightning speed.
The people here wear colorful textiles embroidered with designs that portray objects from the surrounding area. Vegetables, corn, beans and wheat are cultivated on the river banks. This whole valley is covered with huge volcanic stones from ancient and modern eruptions.
It’s here we visit the house of the folk saint Maximon worshipped by the local Mayans. They believe he likes to smoke, drink and have plenty of cash, an illustrious character, he can be found in several villages in the highlands of Guatemala.
Maximon is seen by his followers as being able to grant both good and evil requests — from helping to yield better crops to finding love to recovering from an illness or taking revenge on an enemy.
Other times, he has a business suit and a cowboy hat adorned with red and green feathers. He’s a mischievous-looking saint, whose origins are a mystery but who represents a mixture of Christian and pre-Hispanic rituals.
Turning off up the hill from Zunil we wind our way up the side of a mountain with picture postcard views of the valley below. Reaching the top we are surrounded by a steep, high wall of tropical vines, ferns and flowers. Though the setting is intensely tropical, the mountain air currents keep it deliciously cool through the day. There are four pools of varying temperatures fed by hot sulfur springs from the furnace of the volcano Cerro Quernado. It’s the perfect relaxation spot after a hard day at Spanish School.
This area is sacred to the local Mayan people, so much so that you are not allowed to swim in it. It’s especially gorgeous when it rains and little bringing mysterious fog and clouds continually approach and rest on top of the water.
Winding up of course another mountain, over the rough roads we arrive at the start of the hike to Lago Chicabal. Our first attempt at hiking at the altitude here, it was supposedly an easy hike and a preparation for Tajumulco.
Well, some of us didn’t think so.
Straight up a steep road for a couple of hours, down 500 very steep steps is easy? No.
A few of those young ones that raced on ahead took a short cut and they missed the 500 steps – lucky them.
At the first stop we managed to snare a look at Santiaguito erupting which it does pretty regularly each day.
Then the highlight of this volcano is the lagoon that the locals consider sacred, so no swimming or camping.
Throughout the month of May, locals go up to the lagoon and perform Mayan rituals. The lake crater is marked by 7 small altar structures which are mainly composed of the volcano’s stones.
The mist falls over the lake early on and the ambience is reminiscent of a mystical movie scene. During ceremonies, a shamans voice carries through the mist and envelops onlookers in the profundity of the spiritual mood.
Quetzaltenango, it’s people and surrounds captured a special place in our hearts, there is still much of our life’s work to be done here.