Xela, Guatemala PART 2 – Day Trips
I said in PART 1 that Xela (proper name, Quetzaltenango) is surrounded by great day trips. Chicken buses leave from all over the city or the Minerva bus yard. Or rent a bike. I got one for a few days and it was a nice way to get around. When the road got too steep to ride up, we hailed a bus. At the top of the mountain I had the bus driver let us off so we could ride down super fast. Hell yeah!!
If you want to do a little hiking and get good views, you can go up Baul, the most obvious hill right in town. A road goes to the top. I was repeatedly warned that it was dangerous, so you should go in a group.
These are saunas within walking distance of Centro. The steam comes right out of the volcano. It’s a pretty basic setup so bring whatever you will need, like water, flip flops, a towel, and swimsuit. It costs 20 Quetzales for one hour.
The walk/hike to Los Vahos is beautiful and takes you through lots of small farms. To get there, walk up the road which leads to the church on the hill that says ¨Cristo Viene¨- visible from everywhere in centro, you can´t miss it. From there follow the most obvious roads and trails until they become singletrack, and then keep taking lefts but always uphill. Ask directions from everyone you see. You will eventually find a blue-green building which is actually a school (Escuela de Canton Xetuj) and from there take the road uphill.
The road winds up and up into the mountains. Right before you reach Los Vahos, which looks like someone’s house, you will pass by big eucalyptus lining the road.
Coming back you can take a different route, a little cobblestone road/path that goes through very cool farms and farmhouses. When you walk around the blue school again, take your first cobblestone right. It will take you down through houses and farms which hang off the side of the mountain.
FUENTES GEORGINAS and LOS BANOS
I liked Los Vahos the best, but other hot springs near Xela are worth a visit. Los Banos is at the opposite end of Almolonga from Xela on the way to Zunil (more about Almolonga below). Along the road you will see many bathhouses with volcano heated-water. I visited just two and neither were especially clean or glamorous, but the price was right at 10 Quetzales.
Fuetes Georginas is an outdoor hot springs resort high up in the cloud forest jungle. They are called the best in Guatemala, and though really beautiful, of the two pools I found one to be just a little too hot and the other to be just a little too cool. If you like hiking come early because there are trails leading up the mountain. It is past Almolonga and then past Zunil, where you have to hire a pickup from guys who will try to rip you off. Taking a tour here might save you money, but you will only get a few hours. You can spend the night up there too.
SANTA MARIA VOLCANO
The big cone of Santa Maria is visible from the city on a clear day. Almost everyone goes there on guided trips, but it is really easy on your own if you are willing to ask directions a few times. Get a bus for Llanos de Pinal – the little town under the volcano. Tell the driver’s helper that you want to climb Santa Maria and to let you off at the right spot. You will walk up a dirt road through the town. Right before it becomes a trail you will see a little building that is like a hiking club and says “Bienvenidos a Volcan Santa Maria” or something like that.
Just follow the trail up and up – there are painted white rocks to guide you. The only time you might get mixed up is when you reach the saddle, “la mesa,” a grassy flat spot about an hour up. The trail does continue straight, but for the volcano take the more beaten path that goes right and up the mountain.
We had terrible weather and no views, but apparently you can see all the volcanoes in the range as well as the coast. The hike in total is between 4-6 hours.
SAN ANDRES XECUL
This is yet another attractive small town nestled in the mountains. The big draw here is the church with its colorful and animated facade. The Lonely Planet guidebook insists that it’s bizarre but I disagree. It’s just really interesting.
I rode a bicycle here with a friend. We got there late and no other tourists were around, so we met some interesting people. The first was a young girl who approached us to relate some history.
The church was built in the 1600s. Their festival is Nov. 30, and on that day someone climbs up to the roof of the church to bring down the cross. He (only men do this) then climbs the pole in the square in front of the church and plants it on top. The person selected to do this practices for a month beforehand.
There’s a lot of symbolism in the figures on the church. The king on the left represents God. On the right is a judge who represents human laws. The tigers and the pole at the top symbolize the climbing pole in the square. There are faces everywhere, and they represent the spectators of the pole climb. The monkeys and vines symbolize nature.
The second conversation was with Eduardo, a former illegal immigrant in New Orleans. We met him in the market right opposite the church where we ate in a little restaurant. He had a really interesting story which I retold in another blog, How to Illegally Enter the US.
My friend Alex and I, again on bicycles, got really lucky the day we visited Almolongo. I had already passed through the town a few times, first on my way to Zunil (famous for a San Simon shrine) and then for Fuentes Georginas. Being on the other side of a high mountain pass, Almolongo was sure to make for a good bike ride, so we left early.
We arrived right as the parade was starting. Each town in Latin America has its own saint, and during the saint’s birthday there are celebrations, parties, and parades. We were fortunate enough to come on the parade day for the week long celebration of the patron saint Almolongo – San Pedro I think. I was in a town called San Pedro on Lago Atitlan a week later and the parties were still raging.
We watched the noisy yet low-key spectacle for several hours – groups of school children, marching bands, and community associations. There were heavy environmental themes – save the planet, recycle, throw garbage in its place. I feel bad saying anything negative about the wonderful Guatemalan people, but it’s true that they throw their garbage everywhere.
After the parade we feasted on many strange things in the market, like cooked sweet peaches, cheese wrapped in a banana leaf, “enchiladas” which were really like tostadas, and a messy empanada. Then we witnessed the big town lunch.
Almolongo is a prosperous town, known for growing high quality vegetables that are sold all over Central America. It is a very tight-knit community, exclusive really. The only people who can live there must be part of its special religious sect. They take care of each other. For instance, if you get into a car accident with an Almolongo resident, another will pull up and pay you off. At least that’s what I was told.
After the parade and the market we went to Los Banos at the other end of town. Then we waved down a bus to take us the top of the mountain pass. We got on our bikes and flew down the mountain back into Xela.
Posted on September 27, 2011, in Guatemala, Travel and tagged almolongo, guatemala, guatemala highlands, los vahos, quetzaltenango, san andres xecul, santa maria volcano, xela. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.