Xela central park
Well we’ve made it across the border into Guatemala and to the city with the wonderful name of Quetzaltenango. It’s in the Highlands of Guatemala and is actually Guatemala's 2nd
city after Guatemala City, which we are going to do our best to avoid as it sounds terrible. Like many towns in Guatemala it has several names as there are several local (ie not Spanish) languages and is normally shortened.; conveniently it seems to be universally known as Xela.
Xela is however a good place for a few days; not too touristy. It’s generally frequented by gringos learning Spanish as it’s a much cheaper and better (less people here speak English) place to do this than the main tourist towns. Compared to Mexico this area reminds be a lot of countries in South America and the indigenous population with their colourful dress are very evident here. On the down side it seems to rain here most days.
To keep our costs down we’re staying in a hostal, rather than hotel, and find the usual mix of interesting characters staying here. There is a slightly annoying American woman who seems to be running an“emotional healing” business over skype to the US.
Xela central park
We all know this as she spends plenty of time in the hostel courtyard making loud skype calls to her clients.
There aren’t a huge number of sights here, the central park is interesting as much for its Greek inspired architecture as anything else, however the cemetery is our pick of the town sights. Tombs vary in grandeur depending on the wealth of the family and many are painted in bright colours to match their houses.
The Highlands here means a range of volcanoes that runs across the country. The Santa Maria volcano (3772m) that can be seen from the city (when it’s not raining) is a day hike from town. Though Santa Maria last erupted in 1902 this eruption was the 3rd
largest of the 20th
century killing an estimated 5000 people. The Santiaguito volcano on the southern side of Santa Maria is considered one of the most active volcanos in Central America, though eruptions are normally quite gentle. One of the main reasons to hike Santa Maria is the chance to look down on Santiaguito and witness an eruption which normally occur several times a day.
We weigh up whether to hike Santa Maria (or
Santa Maria volcano
to a viewpoint of Santiaguito) and also whether to do this independently or with a guide, which is reasonably expensive. Historically the Santa Maria trail has not been safe for small groups, though information is that this is better now, but as we’re new to the country so it seems sensible to be cautious. In the end we decide to take a guide for a hike to Laguna Chicabal, a crater lake about 1 hour away that is sacred to the local Maya people. To get the best views we are picked up at 5am, start walking at 6am and are so are back at the hostal by noon. The hike isn’t too hard as there is a 4wd track all the way to the crater rim but is quite steep. The 475 steps back up to the rim from the lake are hard work. In hindsight this hike would have been relatively easy, and safe, to do without a guide as the way is well signed and the path is popular with both tourists and locals.
On our other day in Xela we take a local “chicken” bus out to San Andrea Xecul a village about 10km away.
Xela town procession
There is a small market but the main attraction is the brightly painted colonial church, though half the fun is the journey there and back. Chicken buses rarely seem to go direct to our destination so we need to find the right place to catch a bus, the right bus and make sure we alight at the right junction for our next bus. My Spanish isn’t great, but with help we manage and find the locals consistently very helpful, which bodes well for the rest of our trip.
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