31. Quetzaltenango (Xela)
From Lake Atitlan it was a short chicken bus ride down to Quetzaltenango, affectionately known as "Xela" (pronounced "shell-ah"). The chicken buses are all brightly coloured, each containing a different picture or pattern. The primary purpose of this is to let people know where the buses are going, especially helpful for those who can't read the destination name. Of course this didn't help us in the slightest, but it was a great idea.
Our backpacks were on top of the bus, as this was the only place they would fit (often we were lucky to get seats at all inside the bus). We asked if it would rain and the guys loading our bags assured us it wouldn't. Half an hour later it bucketed down, soaking our bags and our belongings. Our hostel room that night was covered in almost every piece of clothing we owned, desperately trying to dry them out so we would have something to wear tomorrow.
First impressions: Xela was cold! It averaged about 20°C during the day, which was a bit of a shock to the system. Another reason we wanted our clothes to dry quickly - we needed layers.
Second impressions: Xela was cheap! For breakfast I stopped at a street stall and was given a plate piled with an omelette, chow mein, frijol (beans), tortillas and chili sauce for the equivalent of $1. Bargain!
Third impressions: Xela was beautiful, in an unconventional sort of way. It was a large city (the second biggest in the country), with rolling hills, cobblestone streets, pastel buildings, and rimmed with volcanoes. It seemed less touristy than most places we had visited, giving it a more authentic feel. Locals outnumbered gringos in restaurants and bars, and advertisements were for homes for rent rather than day tours. It was well known for its Spanish language schools - if I ever decided to learn Spanish, I would be coming back to Xela.
Quiet, colourful, non-touristy streets.
Desayuno barato (cheap breakfast).
Confession: I love volcanoes. I'm not sure why but I love getting out there and tackling the arduous climb to the top, or at least to an amazing viewpoint. I also love mountains for the same reason. We have climbed a handful of volcanoes over the last few years and now Central America has many more in store for us. There will be lots of volcano stories over the next couple of months.
Volcano 1: Santa Maria.
Up at the crazy time of 4:30am to begin this tour. It was only a 20 minute drive to the start of the trail head, where we climbed by torchlight for a good 30 minutes before there was enough light to see by. Our plan wasn't to summit this volcano, but to stop at a viewpoint facing Volcan Santiaguito, one of the most active volcanoes in the region. It wasn't a long or a hard climb, although we did have to navigate past cows (known for charging), horses, dogs and women carrying enormous logs and other supplies on their head, making their way up the mountain too. Our final destination was about 2700m above sea level, so we were slightly above the peak of Santiaguito (which tops out at 2550m). Within minutes of arriving at the lookout, Santiaguito erupted. A loud boom penetrated the air followed by a thick column of smoke, which continued pouring out for several minutes. It was the first time we had witnessed an eruption with our own eyes and we were transfixed. After the excitement died down, we ate a little breakfast and soaked in the surroundings as the sun slowly rose. We wondered if we should attempt the highly dangerous trek to the crater rim to see the action up close. Within 30 minutes Santiaguito blew again. We decided against the trek.
Volcano 2: Tajumulco.
The highest mountain in Central America, Volcan Tajumulco rises an impressive 4220 metres above sea level. To put that in perspective, it is almost twice as high as Mount Kosciuszko, Australia's tallest peak. On the flip side, it is less than half the size of Mount Everest. It was another nice early start, this time waking at 3:30am (who does that on their holidays?). Two and a bit hours later our car arrived at the starting point, already at 3000m elevation. The path started on dark volcanic soil with low-lying shrubs, then moved on to open grassy fields, followed by pine forests and finally taking us out to large boulders we needed to scramble up with no tree cover. We were told the trek up takes between 3 and 5 hours, but we made it in 2:45 - champions! Unfortunately there was no medal or electrolyte drink waiting for us at the end, and no souvenir t-shirts being given out. But there sense of achievement was just as strong. We circled the unremarkable crater, taking in the incredible views of the countryside from every angle. Slowly the clouds started to move in and obscure the scenery in front of us, so we took this as our signal to descend.
While we were in Xela we also visited Fuentes Georginas, natural hot springs with a beautiful tropical mountain backdrop. The drive was mostly through thick fog, preventing us from seeing much of anything, including the road. It was about a 45 minute drive from Xela but this didn't stop half the town visiting the pools at the exact same time as us. Despite the popularity of the place, we still loved it. Three pools of increasing temperature, the hottest reaching 45° (we only lasted 10 minutes in this one). It contrasted sharply to the cooler mountain air. Thankfully there was no rotten egg smell.
Xela was the first town that we started learning about Semana Santa, or Holy Week. We found out that it was a Catholic tradition that recalled the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, celebrated in the week leading up to Easter. We didn't even realise it was Easter next weekend. Along the streets of the centre square, dozens of people were laying out colourful flowers and dyed sawdust in intricate patterns, which formed "carpets" that the processions would follow. We did see one of these processions in rehearsal, with many women carrying a large statue of Jesus being followed by a marching band. Even this practise session brought out hundreds of the local residents to observe. Once we discovered how popular this festival was, we decided we should probably try to book accommodation for our next town, Antigua, the epicentre of Semana Santa. Advanced planning saved us yet again.
Another unusual feature of this celebration was a Halloween-esque type tradition, where instead of asking for candy the children (and adults) would ask for money. American kids have it all wrong. On our drive back from Volcan Tajumulco we were continually slowed down by people dressed up in costume (usually something dark, scary, death-like), banging on our windows and demanding our loose change. They even went so far as to place wooden planks across the road with nails sticking out of it, so that the car was forced to stop. The planks weren't removed until we had "donated" (is it a donation if it's forced?). We were very fortunate that our driver and guide were aware of this and had loaded up with small quetzales and centavos, so we didn't lose a week's budget through this ritual.
While Danny was cooking dinner at our hostel one night, we got chatting to a British traveler who was learning Spanish for a few weeks in Xela. It turned out she was vegan, so we talked a bit about vegetarian/vegan options in Central America. I wondered how she could eat out, because nearly all the vegetarian dishes came with eggs or covered in cheese and sour cream. She admitted that she often ate the same dish (e.g. lentil soup), and to get around this she usually cooked for herself at the hostel (having a kitchen available was a priority in her accommodation selection). I thought it would be way too hard to be vegan in this part of the world and was glad that my dietary requirements weren't so strict. Little did I know that just a few short months later, I too would be vegan.