Monday 1 August 2011

Other stuff I done in Xela....

I've finally departed Quetzaltenango; after four full weeks of studying and living there, and two failed attempts to leave in the fifth week, I'm now on the road again.

It was actually a lot harder to leave than I thought it would be (and not just because of the various ailments and injuries I suffered in the last few days). The final walk from my homestay into the centre of town - tracing the same route I'd taken pretty much every day the previous month - brought unexpected pangs of sadness and a real desire to stay longer... just another couple of days. Previously on my travels, I've not often spent much longer than a week or so in a single place, so saying goodbye to Xela felt different. I'd had enough time here to really get to know the city; where to go for the best or cheapest food, coffee and beer, what evenings offered the best nights out, market days in the surrounding villages, how much I should actually be paying for things, and many shortcuts and secrets around the town. With my own house, a school to attend and a temporary family to live with, Xela really felt like home. I also met a lot of great people who made my time here all the more memorable - you know who you are and thanks for the fun times!

I could have quite easily stayed for another five weeks (and beyond) but I still have a long way to go, and knowing that there are countless other incredible places to see, things to do and people to meet, helped me drag myself away from Xela: Adios amigo, fue muy divertido - te extranare!

My last blog was solely dedicated to the trials and tribulations of learning Spanish in Xela, and I didn't have time to mention any of the other activities I got up to during my time here. So, to address that now....

Volcano Climbing

I think I have a problem; something of an addiction. I've developed a slight obsession with scaling volcanoes - every time I see one now I have an urge to conquer it and stand on the summit - which can be difficult to deal with in a country with 30 of these natural wonders crammed into its relatively small landmass.

Base camp at Tajumulco
My problems began on my first week in Xela, when I decided to climb Volcan Tajumulco - at 4222m, the highest peak in Central America. I wasn't alone on this adventure; there were 20-odd other intrepid explorers too, all under the guidance of Quetzaltrekkers - a great, non-profit trekking organisation, run by volunteer guides and with all profits going to local schools and orphanages. I ended up spending quite a lot of time at various Quetzaltrekkers events - mostly parties and hikes - and developed quite a fondness for the organisation (and the people running it too!)

Tackling Tajumulco from Xela requires almost two full days - the first spent on a selection of 'chicken' buses to reach the starting point of the trek, and then climbing for five hours to reach base camp (approx 4000m). The next morning calls for a very early 3.30am start in order to scale the remaining 220m to the summit before sunrise. All in all, very hard work - especially while carrying the multiple layers of thick winter clothing that are required for the top, along with all the other necessities: sleeping bags, tents, food etc. I plotted to make it even harder for myself by swigging a fair amount of rum at base camp - a rather premature celebration and ill-advised behaviour at 4000m when you still have another 220m to climb.

However, sitting on the highest point in Central America, watching the sun slowly illuminate fluffy, candy-floss clouds; all the hard work, sweat and rum-induced altitude delusions were forgotten. Simply stunning; bloody freezing, but stunning.

Breakfast on Santa Maria
My next volcano outing with Quetzaltrekkers was of a completely different variety - an overnight 'full moon' hike to the summit of Xela's nearest peak; Santa Maria. At 'only' 3772m, Santa Maria isn't as tall as Tajumulco, but climbing to the top in one go, in the dark, provided more than enough new challenges to compensate. The path up is a lot steeper than TJ, and some of the 'switchbacks' (where the trail continuously cuts back on itself) seemed to go on forever. Still, with my head down, watching only the feet of the guide in front of me, I kept on trudging upwards, and actually made very good time - reaching the summit about 4.5 hours after our midnight departure. If TJ was 'bloody freezing', Santa Maria at 4.30am was phenomenally-bloody-freezing! Luckily, there was enough time before sunrise to put on every possible item of clothing - fleeces, jackets, hats, gloves - all wrapped up in a thermal sleeping bag.

What a sunrise it was (beating TJ hands down). We were extremely lucky with the weather conditions and the timing of the cloud dispersion; allowing a completely clear view of the sun as it first created a thick orange band across the tips of a distant Eastern mountain range, and then slowly appeared in all its fiery glory above the peaks. I have some great photographs that capture the moment almost as perfectly as when it occurred.

Starting to trek Volcan Chicabal
My final volcano experience in Xela was a solo expedition: I jumped in a minivan heading to the nearby town of San Martin Sacatepequez and, 2 hours later, was dropped off at the foot of Volcan Chicabal. The attraction here is not so much the volcano itself, but the lake - Laguna Chicabal - that has formed in the crater. This is a very sacred site for the Maya; priests and pilgrims make regular visits from all over the country.

Tajumulco trek
As such, I had it in my mind that I was visiting a lake rather than a volcano, and wasn't fully mentally prepared for what turned out to be quite a tough 2 1/2 hour hike. The phrase in the guidebook "Keep walking until you crest the hill" was extremely understated. When I'd finished descending the 615 steep steps down to the holy lake, all the hard work seemed to have been for nothing - a thick mist had descended and visibility was close to zero; I couldn't even see the water's edge. Twenty minutes later, with no improvement, I was ready to give up and trudge, dejectedly, back to town. But then, a small patch of blue penetrated through the gloom.... very gradually, the mist began to lift... and then completely cleared - allowing a few moments of perfect clarity - before rolling back in and encompassing the crater once again. Still, those short few minutes were more than enough time to take in the natural beauty of this wonderfully placid lagoon and I felt very pleased with the eventual success of my first solo trip; snatched from the jaws of seemingly inevitable disappointment. The trip back to Xela was a much happier journey as a result.

My self-assigned volcano-climbing mission has been derailed in the last couple of weeks - thanks to a combination of typical traveller illness and, more recently, a foot injury. However, I'm almost back to full fitness again now and will soon return to my new-found calling - no peak is safe! :)

Village Visiting

Xela is surrounded by a plethora of smaller towns and villages; fanning out in all directions from the much larger city. Each place hosts its own market on a particular day of the week and usually has at least one additional and unique point of interest - whether it be a comic-book church or a rum-swilling saint.

San Andreas church close-up
Hiring a bicycle or jumping on a chicken bus and heading out to one of these 'pueblos' for a half-day trip became another of my regular pastimes. I visited four dwellings of note - San Franciso El Alto, Zunil, Olintepeque and San Andreas Xecul. There were colourful, chaotic markets in full-swing at each of the first three, but the latter only had a church to offer for perusal. So, why did I cycle for over an hour - constantly eating bus fumes and slaloming past rabid dogs along the way - to reach this place? Well, this is no ordinary church. In fact, it's quite possibly the oddest church in the world: daubed with a sickly, bright-yellow facade and covered in crude, child-like carvings of saints, angels, tigers, monkeys, flowers and, of course, a smiling, disembodied head or two. No one is completely sure of the full story behind this structure - who built it, when, and why - but that mysterious past just adds to the allure. It's definitely not everyone's cup of tea though and could probably cause mild damage (visual and/or psychological) if stared at directly for too long.

En-route to Olintepeque
Just down the road from San Andreas is the smaller village of Olintepeque (home to a disappointingly normal church). I was visiting for a different reason, though; every Tuesday morning the village is swamped by inhabitants from the surrounding mountain towns, with their finest livestock in tow, for the weekly cattle market. I wasn't really sure what to expect and some aspects weren't to my liking - some of the more obvious displays of animal cruelty were unpleasant, as was the constant cacophony of squealing pigs as they were packed into crowded pick-ups and sent off to a fate of which they seemed all too aware. Myself and another girl from Xela were the only two 'tourists' to be seen as we navigated through the mud and sludge. It definitely wasn't glamorous, but it was real and allowed us a small window into authentic local life outside the student bubble of Xela.

Looking down on the market in San Francisco
San Francisco El Alto was the largest of the four towns I visited. Every Friday morning it plays host to the biggest general market in Guatemala. There's nothing particularly interesting for sale - mostly wholly unauthentic 'authentic American clothing' - and I had no intention of actually buying anything. However, I did want to witness the sheer size of the market and the overwhelming number of people crammed into every 'calle', every alleyway; every inch of space. It was fun just being part of the mayhem and getting swept along by the tumultuous crowd. I also visited the church - nothing as special as the wonder/monstrosity in San Andreas Xecul - but I'd heard it was possible to climb onto the roof and take in an outstanding 'vista' ('alto' means 'tall' in Spanish and San Francisco El Alto is perched way above Xela, on the top of a mountain). Sure enough, a quick word with the 12-year-old caretaker and a sly 5 quetzal bribe later, I was on top of the highest vantage point in town. Not only did this provide a great spot from which to observe the hubbub of the market below, but it also provided unbeatable panoramic views over the surrounding valleys and towns below.

San Simon & worshippers
My final half-day trip was to the smaller village of Zunil - another hill-side spot about an hour from the centre of Xela. Once again, I timed my visit to coincide with the weekly market - a much smaller affair than SFEA, but definitely the one I preferred. Everything was a lot more authentic; the people, the produce, the clothing - all very local and bursting with colour. My main reason for visiting Zunil, though, was to catch a glimpse of the infamous San Simon - a 'god' of sorts, worshipped throughout the Guatemalan highlands and believed to be a combination of Maya gods, a Spanish conquistador and Judas. Sounds odd already, but things get stranger still: In Zunil, San Simon is in wooden effigy (moved to a different local house every year) draped in scarves, wearing a tie and a cowboy hat, and constantly smoking cigarettes. There are always a couple of local people kneeling at his feet; praying and offering more cigarettes and his favourite brand of rum (which is poured down his open mouth at regular intervals by the adoring guards). Quite a mesmerising spectacle, but not to everybody's taste - my more conventionally Catholic 'house mum' described San Simon as "diabolico".

Hot Springs

Fuentes Georginas
The geography and geology of the hillsides surrounding Xela have combined to create a number of natural hot springs in close proximity to the city. I only found time to visit one of these organic baths, but I chose the most popular and most impressive of the group: Fuentes Georginas.

A number of steaming pools are positioned above hot sulphur vents in a gorgeous setting here - the irresistible 'agua' is framed by lush green vegetation that climbs high up the cliff faces. A recent landslide actually benefited the baths as it opened up a brand new vent; causing the main pool to become almost unbearably hot (almost, but not quite).

Salsa & Football

Enjoying a 'Cervaza Grande' at the Football
Two other activities that helped me pass the time during my five weeks in Xela were salsa and football. I first tried the former on a bit of a whim; knowing that I was going to be dragged to a salsa club later that day, I thought it might be sensible to have a quick lesson first (more to avoid the inevitability of me elbowing someone in the face or falling over my own, or someone else's, feet, rather than to learn any fancy moves). I enjoyed it so much that I actually ended up having five more private classes and strutting my stuff around 'La Parranda' (the Salsa club) every Wednesday evening. 'My stuff' is still a long way off from the 'good dancer' category, but I feel pretty confident that I've left the 'joke' category now, and firmly reside in the 'acceptable (for a Gringo)' camp. It's great fun and I hope to continue to practice and improve along with my Spanish-speaking abilities.

I have also become a follower of 'Xelaju' - the local football team. There were only two home games during my time in the city - and the standard of football often bordered on atrocious - but the atmosphere in the stadium was brilliant (intensified by the apparent lack of any health and safety regulations - check out my two recent videos on facebook to get a better idea of what I mean) and you can't really go wrong with £3.50 for a spot on the terraces and £4 for a replica shirt.

So, that's pretty much it - a summary of the more productive and worthwhile things I got up to outside of lessons during my five weeks of studying in a city that I have come to love. As I said, it was with a heavy heart that I eventually waved 'adios' to Xela, but it had to be done; I have a long way to go yet. The next week or so will be spent travelling around more of Guatemala, then I'll jump across the border into Belize.... and back to the Caribbean beaches! Something that might help me get over leaving Xela, I suppose.... :)

(Many, many more photos below.... click to enlarge!)

Start of Tajumulco trek

Close to the top of Tajumulco

VERY cold on the summit of Tajumulco

Sunrise starts on Tajumulco

Sunrise on Tajumulco - cloudy but spectacular

Still very cold....
Start of sunrise on Santa Maria

Sunrise on Santa Maria

Sunrise on Santa Maria

Sunrise on Santa Maria

View over Xela from the summit of Santa Maria

Cows (!?) on top of Santa Maria

Cow in the clouds!!
Before the mist cleared at Laguna Chicabal....

.... and after the mist cleared!....

.... and the mist rolling back in again.
Football pitch en route to San Andreas Xecul

The church in San Andreas Xecul

The church in San Andreas Xecul
Pretty colours in Olintepeque

Olintepeque cattle market

Olintepeque cattle market
San Francisco El Alto market

On top of the cathedral in San Francisco

View from the Cathedral roof in San Francisco

Zunil market

San Simon

San Simon
Secluded bath at Fuentes Georginas

Mountain backdrop to Xelaju stadium

Xelaju supporters in full-swing


  1. Unbelievably beautiful scenery, reminds me a lot of the base camp trek to Mount Everest. Hope you are healing up son, lots of love Mum xx

  2. Increibles experiencias verdad!!!
    muchos estudios, mucha diversion y mucha fiesta...
    que tengas un buen viaje, voy a extra├▒arte!

  3. Hi James, all looks fantastic and some similar experiences in climbing to the top of Kili. Hope you are back to full health. Take care of your self. Lots of love, Dad & Fay XXX

  4. Hello There. I found your weblog the usage of msn. This is a very smartly
    written article. I will make sure to bookmark it and come back to read more
    of your useful information. Thank you for the post. I will certainly return.

  5. Toch zijn buikspieroefeningen heel goed om te doen.

  6. Hmm it seems like your blog ate my first comment (it was super long)
    so I guess I'll just sum it up what I wrote and say, I'm thoroughly enjoying your blog.
    I too am an aspiring blog writer but I'm still
    new to the whole thing. Do you have any tips for novice blog writers?

    I'd certainly appreciate it.

  7. Nice post. I was checking continuously this blog and I am impressed!
    Very useful info particularly the last part :) I care for such information a lot.
    I was seeking this particular info for a very long time.
    Thank you and best of luck.

  8. Great blog you have here.. It's hard to find
    high-quality writing like yours these days. I honestly appreciate individuals like you!
    Take care!!

  9. I go to see every day some web pages and information sites
    to read articles or reviews, except this blog presents quality based articles.

  10. Your style is unique in comparison to other people
    I've read stuff from. Thanks for posting when you've got the opportunity, Guess I will just book mark this site.