Quetzaltenango and around

Published: February 28th 2011
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Quetzaltenango is a medium sized city in the Western Highlands of Guatemala. It is at over 2300 meters above sea level and therefore cold compared to other places I had been to so far. Also, nobody calls it “Quetzaltenango”, everyone calls it “Xela” (pronounce “Shell-ah”). I seem to have noticed that any city or town with more than 3 syllables doesn't get called by its full name. We have Xela, Guate, Huehue (Huehuetenango), Pana (Panajachel), Chimal (Chimaltenango), Chichi (Chichitenango) and so on... This is important when you try and get the bus because all the little helpers are shouting the name of where the bus is going, so you'd better know the common name if you want to have a chance to get to where you want to go...
According to my guide book, Xela is a good base to explore the area. Nearby are a few volcanoes you can hike up (including Tajumulco, the highest in Central America), a natural spa called Fuentes Georginas (it was closed due to some sort of natural disaster that had happened last year, shame as I was hoping to go), a lake in the crater of a volcano (called Laguna Chicabal), and also many small indigenous villages.
After quite a straightforward journey from Antigua (2 quick changes with no waiting time) which cost me Q35 and took about 4h30, I arrived at one end of the city (a stop called La Rotonda) and found myself looking for my hostel. Nobody knew where it was so I started heading for the centre and after a good 30-40 minutes walk (and good directions from a taxi driver), I finally found the place: Casa Argentina, which had been recommended by a couple I'd met in Antigua. At Q25 a night, with a kitchen and “hot” (warmish) water, I couldn't complain. The dorm had 20 beds squeezed in (with about 10 inches between each bed) but there were only 3 or 4 of us, so it was no problem. After dropping my stuff and giving my valuables to the owner for safekeeping, I went off to explore the city and try to decide what to do the next day. With only one full day around, I had to make a choice as to what activity I should do. I wasn't particularly keen on a volcano hike as I had done one the day before, but I was definitely tempted by the natural spa (until I discovered that it was closed). The small villages around sounded like an interesting idea too, whilst Laguna Chicabal was very well sold to me by one of the tour operators. In the end, it was a good thing that I was out on the town with the mission of going around all the travel agencies, because otherwise, I would probably have had a boring afternoon. Indeed, Xela didn't seem to have much to offer in terms of sights...
By the end of my search, I had the following options:
Hike up a volcano, leaving early and returning around midday, about Q100-150, no lava but smoke.
Hike to Laguna Chicabal, leaving early and returning around midday, Q125, Not a bad option
Another option of natural spa, but 2 hours away and Q150 + a guide whom I didn't trust (so not convinced about getting down to my bikini!!!)
Visit a glass factory and 4 indigenous villages, half day trip for Q200

In the end, it was between the villages and Chicabal and the price was the deciding factor, as I decided I could do the villages on public transport (and the ones I wanted as opposed to the ones they had picked) for a fraction of the price.
Once that was set, I decided to sort out sending a parcel home. I got a free box from a corner shop and bought some tape. When I got to the post office and asked how much it would be, I nearly had a heart attack when she announced over Q300 (it was near enough £30) as it was 1.1kg (1kg was the limit). I said thank you and left with my box. No way I was paying that much. One of the things I was trying to send was a big seashell I had picked up in Belize, so I decided that it would stay behind after all. I went back to the hostel and after buying an envelope and repacking just the football shirts (and no flags*) I ran back (literally as it was 5.20pm and the post office closed at 5.30) with my new package. She looked at me and said Q198, it's 513g (cut off 500g), so I opened the envelope, took out the plastic wrapping and put the shirts back in. 498g – Result! A mere Q156 (£12, nearly as much as what I spent on the shirts!!!), so I promised myself to try and not post anything anymore unless I can no longer close my rucksack..

*Did I mention I had decided to collect a flag from each country I went to? Well, somebody stole my flags that morning! So the flag collection is cancelled. What happened is that my rucksack ended up at the back of the bus, away from me. I was a little concerned that someone might run away with it but couldn't do much about it. It was all locked with my Wrapsafe, so I wasn't thinking about stuff disappearing from it. Only my flags were in a little outside pocket which wasn't secured, as I thought nobody would want to take flags... Well, I was wrong! After my avocado stolen from the fridge in Merida, now it was the turn of the flags... I suppose I can't complain, I'd rather that than something important!

After the slightly longer than expected post office adventure, I decided to go for a quick visit to the market before it got dark. There was also a supermarket nearby and I wanted to stock-up on food to take away to my next destination as I knew there wouldn't be a supermarket there. Now, I have to say that normally my sense of direction is pretty good and if I have a map, you're very unlikely to see me lost, even more so around here, where all the streets and avenues are numbered. Well, for some reason, I couldn't get my head around Xela... Let alone the fact that the hostel was on “diagonal 12” (which I'm sure should have been called “zigzag 12” instead), I just kept going the wrong way everywhere... So much so that my “quick popping to the market before dark” saw me returning to the hostel about an hour after it was night....
That evening, I made a Spanish omelette and chatted to some Guatemaltec people who were living at the hostel (one of which was the guide I didn't trust I mentioned earlier!). After that I read my guidebook to decide which villages I was going to go and visit the following day and opted for Toto (Totonicapan), as Tuesday was market day there and San Andres Xecul with what the Lonely Planet described as a “technicolor church”.
Toto's market is supposed to be one of the most impressive around and has more of a local than a touristy feel to it, which was perfect for me. I left quite early as the market winds down around midday and I wanted to see in full swing. When I got there (Q6), I followed the crowd and soon reached the thick of it, a mixture of food and fabric/clothes sellers, with no real logic of what was where. What was the most impressive was the amount of women wearing traditional outfits. It gave the place so much colour, it was really great. I took tons of pictures, trying to get pics of the locals (discretely as they don't normally like to have their picture taken). I was only there an hour or so, but I felt I got a good idea of the place and a decent mooch around. I bought a few bits (lots of bananas for Q5, some vegetable I'd never tried before for Q2.5, etc...) and also had a look at a couple of monuments in the village, before heading back towards Xela as I had to change to get to San Andres.
The bus journey was interesting, with the local population once again trying to beat the record of how many people you can fit on a bus. Now, I put it to you... You have an old US school bus with 10 rows. How many people do you fit in it? I wouldn't blame you for thinking 40, maybe 50 at a push. But you would be wrong. For a start, each bench fits 3 people, not 2 as you would expect. On top of that you can still squeeze a few standing up, so around 70 is how many were on that bus, but I reckon they could get 80 if they really tried. At least it doesn't matter if the road isn't straight; you're so squeezed in that you ain't going nowhere! Eventually, a few Qs and 2 buses later, I got to the village of San Andres. The only thing to see there was the church, but what a sight it was! I'll let the pictures do the talking on this one...
After San Andres, I went back on my way to Xela but with a stop in another village called Sancaja, which I had spotted on the way out. Here, it was also market day and I had a bit of a walk and look around. It was much the same as Toto (just a little smaller), but I was pleased I stopped there too. All those villages gave me the impression I was getting right into the local communities and I didn't see any other tourists around, so overall I was really happy with my choice of activity for the day.
I got back to my hostel at about 2.30pm and after a quick bite to eat, I went back out to have a look at another side of the city: I went to see the Minerva Monument and the Zoological park. It wasn't really great and there weren't many animals to see in the zoo, but it filled up the afternoon nicely. I ended with the Minerva market and it's second hand clothes for Q3. I know I like to rummage through stuff to find bargains, but this was a little too much, even for me. All that was there, were massive piles of clothes (think 1 meter high), all mixed up (men, women, children), so I didn't really look too hard, especially as I didn't really need anything other than socks (after 3 of my socks died in 3 days, so now I have 3 odd socks).
In the evening, I stayed at the hostel and chatted to a group of Canadians who had just finished 2 weeks voluntary work on a stove project (basically building and installing stoves for families who have open fires in their homes) and then with a French Canadian girl who was really nice and was telling me about her room getting broken into and all her stuff getting stolen a week earlier...
By the end of the 2 days, Xela was starting to grow on me a little bit, but I was also really looking forward to getting away as my next destination was Lake Atitlan, which I had down as one of the potential highlights of the trip...

Additional photos below
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28th February 2011

et tu appelles ca 'discratement'??
28th February 2011
San Andres

en effet ca se passe de commentaire, sublime
28th February 2011

coucou, juste une petite remarque: n'oublie pas que les americains sont plus larges des fesses que les latins... donc 3 sur un banc, ca doit le faire! bises
4th March 2011

Great blog
We loved your blog - your descriptions of places and the people , the journey getting there are extremely entertaining and informative. We (me and my wife - retired 65 year olds) were planning to travel in Guatemala but, after reading the US State Department's warnings and reports of violence, robbings of tourists, our anxiety skyrocketed and we are seriously reconsidering our plans. We leave for Cancun on Monday 7 from Vancouver, B.C. Canada and were planing to spend about 10 days or so in Guatemala. Please give us your take on whether it is safe - what precautions we needs to take, ect. We were planning to travel by bus, etc. as you are doing. We would love to hear from you - your trip sounded pretty sae. We have travelled in other third world countries and saw the simalar incidences of prices being changed to match whether you were a tourist or not - a sign of the challenges they have to keep ood on their tables.. By the way, my wife's family lives in England....I will continue to follow your wonderful blog.
5th March 2011

Hi Steve! I'm glad to see you and your wife are enjoying the blog. I would definitely recommend going to Guatemala if you have the chance as so far, from the few countries I've been to in Central America, it is the one that has felt the most authentic. And with the speed at which things change these days, it might not stay this way forever. In terms of safety, as a girl travelling alone, I haven't really felt unsafe anywhere in Guatemala. Still, I try not to take unnecessary risks (I don't go out alone at night or flash any expensive possessions) but I think this is just common sense. Having said that, I did meet people everywhere I went who had been robbed (more than anywhere else I've been so far), so there is always a risk and only so much precaution you can take. I try to not keep all my money and cards in the same place and have a stash of small bills to hand over if needed, but so far I haven't needed to. I haven't heard of any bad experiences in terms of safety while I was there other than being the victim of thieves. There is a lot of violence in the country (if you read the newspapers you will definitely start to worry as half of it seems to relate to murders) but from what I understand it is not targetting tourists. I hope this helps Enjoy your travels
4th April 2011

$3.00 hotel what do you expect !!!
if you stay in a $3.00 hotel what do you expect!!!!

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