After ten days of studying Spanish and exploring villages around Lake Atitlan, Michael and I were ready to slow down for a few days. Luckily, our schedule presented us with the perfect opportunity: five days in cool, mountainous Quetzaltenango, a city perched high in the mountains of Western Guatemala.
That’s right, you heard me: Quetzaltenango. Thankfully, literally everybody calls the city by a much shorter name: Xela, pronouced shay-la. Xela is the second largest city in Guatemala, yet because it is several hours out of the way of the main tourist attractions it has relatively little tourism traffic.
Life in Xela
This, to me, makes the perfect city to hang out in for a while. It’s large enough that there is a healthy arts community and nightlife, but off-the-beaten track enough that there are no traveler-only bars or hangouts. There is a network of hostels and English language resources, but wherever you go in Xela you interact with locals going about their daily business.
It was an excellent five days. We set up shop in Casa Seibel, one of the best hostels of my entire trip. It’s cozy, classy, clean, and housed in an old colonial building with a beautiful central courtyard. The room we rented even had an old upright piano! It is several blocks from a large market so we loaded up on dirt-cheap fruits and veggies and made a batch of veggie soup to last us for the week.
During the days we took day trips to destinations in the surrounding mountains and at night we went explored cool local bars. We explored comic and art shops, spoke with Guatemalan students, and watched Guatemalan life pass by us in the central park. By the time we left, we were positively in love with Xela.
A Cemetery to Reckon With
Believe it or not, one of the most impressive attractions in Xela proper is the cemetery. It is located in the middle of town and is enormous, stretching as far as the eye can see. But unlike the vast, gray, mournfulness of your typical U.S. cemetery, the Mayans use their graves as a way to celebrate life, death, and the afterlife.
That means that this massive hunk of land is covered in brightly colored stone gravestones, flashy mausoleums, and garish floral arrangements.
It caught me off guard at first, as beautiful as it was. It’s a stark example of the vast differences between the treatment of death in Guatemalan culture and Western culture. Can you imagine seeing a hot pink or lime green tombstone in the States?
A Private Hot Spring in Almolonga
Amongst Guatemalans, Xela is particularly well known for its location near highly volcanic areas. There are dozens of aguas calientes (hot spring) locations within a half hour chicken bus ride of Xela. On the recommendation of our helpful hostel owner, one day we made the short trek to nearby Almolonga to try out one of the local bathhouses.
Almolonga is very small and sees very few English speaking tourists. We were worried about finding the bathhouse once we got off the bus, but we quickly realized our fear was unnecessary. The latter half of the town is literally a long strip of Los Baños, or bathhouses.
Los Baños all draw water from the hot springs beneath them and feed the water into built-out concrete pools above. There are public bathhouses — where there is one large, hot public pool — and there are private rooms.
We sprang for a private room (it was roughly $7 for an hour of use). The attendant showed us to a steamy, tiled room with an enormous empty bath in the floor. We were free to fill it up with as much scalding hot water as we wanted and float around in it for an hour. After months of cold-to-luke-warm-at-best showers, it was heaven.
Hiking, Hitchhiking, and Faking Our Way to Fuentes Georginas
There is a more traditional baños for tourists to visit: Fuentes Georginas. Fuentes Georginas is an entire aguas calientes complex, a natural spa set high in the hills over the little village of Zunil.
The day after we soaked in Almolonga we wanted to hike to nearby Laguna Chicabal. Laguna Chicabal is a mountaintop lake near Xela that is a particularly spiritual location for the local Mayans. However, our hostel owner warned us that particular day, May 3, was a religious celebration for Mayans and the lake would be closed.
He suggested we go to Fuentes Georginas instead, as the baths would be open and there are hiking trails from the springs to the top of the mountains. We were planning on visiting Fuentes Georginas eventually anyway so we agreed on this alternative plan.
We read online that there were hiking trails that led to the springs from Zunil, so we woke up early and caught a bus to the little town. When we arrived we started walking towards the road to the springs, stopping every few minutes to ask someone for directions to the trail. They all looked at us with confusion and said they knew of no such trail. As we approached the hill cabs and tuk tuks began stopping to ask us if we were going to Fuentes Georginas. They would drive us the 8km uphill for a steep $20.
But that was far too expensive, considering we were about to pay for entrance to the springs and we wanted to hike anyway. We trudged on along the side of the road, keeping an eye out for potential trails along the way.
A couple hundred feet above Zunil, the road swerved around the side of the hill and Western Guatemala opened up in front of us. We were a small distance up a mountain, looking out over a valley of little farming villages nestled between a misty, endless mountain range.
The most incredible sight was the farmers. In this fertile part of Guatemala, the locals have claimed every inch of land possible for farming, no matter how vertical. From our standpoint on the edge of the road, we could gaze down at a 45 degree angle at farmers harvesting below us….and up at a 60 degree angle at farmers harvesting above.
It was stunning.
We continued this trek for an hour or so but soon tired of walking along a paved road. We gave in and decided catching a lift to the trails at Fuentes Georginas was our best option. But we wanted nothing to do with the tourist gouging tuk tuks – we waited for farmers’ pickup trucks to pass and stuck our thumbs out.
Quite the Drive
It didn’t take long for somebody to pick us up. An elderly farmer with an enormous, welcoming smile pulled up next to us and motioned to the back. We hopped in the bed of the truck and he took off.
If we thought walking up this road was awe-inspiring, this was something else entirely. The farmer swung around the tight hairpin turns with ludicrous skill; he navigated a path that would have taken me hours to drive in a matter of twenty minutes. We watched as the luscious, agricultural world of Western Guatemala whizzed past us. We passed dozens of farms and hundreds of farmers harvesting gorgeous bundles of flowers, cabbage, radishes, and carrots.
Occasionally the road would swerve inward and we would gaze over the truck into the valley beneath us, trickles of water falling down a steep rocky decline beneath our noses. In these cases, the farmers had often rigged up long, fragile irrigations systems, like this cross-valley PVC pipe.
It was both terrifying and majestic, a microview into a world completely unlike our own.
The farmer dropped us at a turnoff for Fuentes. We tossed him a few dollars and a gracias and started walking again. It wasn’t long until another truck stopped and picked us up, this time with a bed full of bathing-suited Guatemalans heading for the baths. We arrived soon thereafter and climbed out of the truck into a splendid, steamy mountain crevice.
A Cloudy Hike and a Mayan Ceremony
We entered the Fuentes Georginas complex and stared with awe. Natural clear blue pools of steaming hot water sat between cliffs covered in tropical vines and flowers. It was difficult to tear ourselves away to hike, but we had to. We knew that if we waited much longer the clouds would roll in over the mountaintops and we wouldn’t be able to see anything from the top.
We started off along a thin, vertical trail just past the pools. Since we were already fairly far up the mountain, this hike represented the final steep ascent to the peak. We climbed upwards along slippery mud slopes in a moist, tropical forest for forty five minutes.
When we finally crested the peak we found that Laguna Chicabal was not the only spiritual mountaintop in use on the morning of May 3rd. A group of three traditionally clad Mayans were performing a ceremony over a fire at the peak. They were surrounded by beautiful bouquets of flowers and chanting in their native tongue. It was a gorgeous and quieting moment to witness.
We stood back and looked out over the view from a respectful distance. We had made it just in time: the clouds were starting to roll in. Although we didn’t have long to observe the skyline, our timing granted us a fascinating sight. We watched as the sky changed from clear to opaque in a matter of minutes.
When the sky was fully clouded, we gave the circle of Mayans a nod and took off back down the hill to Fuentes Georginas. We found that the hike back down was suddenly eclipsed by the same clouds we watched roll in at the top — we couldn’t see past the trees directly in front of us.
We were glad when we finally reached the misty, welcoming spa. We changed into our bathing suits and waded excitedly towards the back of the pool, where the springs trickled into the pool and the water was hottest. After a morning full of hiking, hitchhiking, and faking it, it was finally time to soak!
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