While it can be a bit challenging to find things to do in Quetzaltenango (also called by its Mayan name, Xela), there are lots of things to see in the surrounding areas. The Spanish school that I attended in Xela, Celas Maya, offered lots of activities including classes in making tortillas and chocolate, and day trips to nearby pueblos, volcanoes and even natural saunas fed by volcanic heat, all of which are the subject of this article.
The first day trip was to Salcaja, a municipality in the Quetzaltenango Department (departments are like states) of Guatemala. Of course, we went by chicken bus which is always an adventure. The buses go way too fast forcing you to hang on tight! Salcaja is about 30 minutes from Xela and is the site of the Church of San Jacinto, which was the first church built in Central America, founded in 1524 by the Spaniards. Salcaja was one of the first places invaded by the Spanish during their conquest of Guatemala which explains why the first Central American church is located there.
The church itself is beautiful with its eaves very decorative and whimsical. The church was fairly small but the inside was ornate and beautifully detailed. As a pueblo, Salcaja is very nice and actually had some newer buildings making it seem a bit upscale in comparison to the neighboring pueblos or even Xela.
Salcaja is also known for its production of a homemade liquor called called Caldo de Frutas or fruit broth. It’s actually a very sweet fruit wine. After visiting the church, we went to the home of the family that makes this type of fruit wine and of course, we had a chance to sample it. It was very sweet and had an interesting fruity fermented flavor. It has a higher alcohol content than wine made from grapes. It would be great to have on a warm summer afternoon or as a dessert wine with cheese or dark chocolate.
The next day, we visited Chiquilaja, another pueblo not far from Xela, again using the chicken bus. We had gone to attend the Feria en honor al Cristo Negro de Esquipulas, which was a large fair and fiesta in celebration of the Black Christ, a continuation of the celebration that had started a few days earlier. (There is more about this in my previous article, “Xela Who?”)
The fair was colorful and festive. First we watched a special type of group dance called a Combite, where the dancers wear interesting costumes and masks apparently representative of different aspects of Mayan
culture. The dancing went on for quite a while accompanied by a large band and singers. We then visited the nearby church adjacent to the fair where people waited in long lines to have a chance to touch the imagen (religious
statute) of the Cristo Negro. The people crawled up through a narrow passageway to the top of the altar just to have a chance to touch the feet and ankle of the imagen which was the only part they could reach by a sizable stretch as the people maneuvered themselves through the tight space.
We then walked through an extensive carnival filled with lots of games and rides including a huge Ferris wheel. I enjoyed the fact that our small group of students seemed to be the only non-Guatemalans there. It was wonderful being immersed into the culture, surrounded by hundreds of indigenous people in their beautiful and colorful traditional woven
clothing. We also walked through the food area with numerous vendors
selling lots of traditional fried everything along with thousands of rings of sesame seed coveredpan dulce (sweet bread). As the sun was setting, we headed by back to Xela by, of course, chicken bus.When I arrived home, I found that the church next-door to our house was also having a Combite in celebration of Cristo
Negro. I watched the dancers who were dressed in similar costumes as the ones that I had seen earlier in Chiquilaja.
Our next trip was an early morning hike to el Mirador del Volcán Santiaguito, one of three active volcanoes in Guatemala. (I have been lucky enough to see all three, two of which were actively erupting!) Santiaguito is very active and is next to Volcán Santa Maria, a nearly perfect cone shaped specimen of a classic volcano that is currently inactive. However, in 1902, Santa Maria’s enormous eruption ranked in the top 10 of the worlds biggest eruptions of the century and caused extensive damage and loss of life in and around Xela.
We were on the trail by around 5:30 a.m. since we wanted to view the volcano before the cloud formation that starts building up early in the day. It was still pitch black requiring us to hike by flashlight at the beginning of the hike. It was a fairly difficult strenuous hike, and very steep in parts. However, as the sun began to rise, it was beautiful as we walked through a densely forested area filled with beautiful plants, trees and wildflowers. It was very cold with frost on the ground and on some of the plants.
The hike eventually leveled out somewhat which made it a little easier but still fairly challenging. It was also difficult because the altitude was above 8,000 feet so I had a little trouble catching my breath at times.
On the way up, we passed a lot of indigenous people who were climbing the volcano to work on farms where the volcanic soil is very rich and
fertile. Heavily burdened men, women and even children dressed in their
traditional clothing were climbing the steep volcano with seemingly little effort. Apparently this is a daily commute for these hard-working Guatemaltecos. Some of the men were caring huge loads of wood or other items on their backs which clearly weighed more than they did!
It took two and a half hours to reach the lookout with a direct view of Volcán Santiaguito which was spewing white smoke when we got there.
Apparently it has fairly sizable eruptions every five hours or so. We
watched the volcano for about 45 minutes as we ate some breakfast and waited for the sun to rise further which fortunately gave us some badly needed warmth. A friendly dog met us near the lookout and hung around hoping for tidbits of food from the weary hikers. Some of us complied.
We watched the smoldering volcano for a while and of course took lots of photos. We then decided to start our descent but just five minutes later,
we heard a hissing noise from the volcano and realized that it had started erupting. We quickly detoured our path to get a good view of the huge eruption that was amazing to see and experience. I have now been to all three of Guatemala’s active volcanoes, Fuego, Santiaguito and Pacaya.
We made our way back down the volcano which was also fairly challenging given the rocky terrain and the steepness of the trail. On our way down, we passed a number of indigenous men and boys with sheep,
cows and horses going up into the area where we had just been. Our five hour hike had been well worth it having had a chance to see the amazing eruption, the beautiful scenery and of course, the wonderful people.
The next day, we went to Refugio del Quetzal which is a refuge and breeding area for Guatemala’s national bird, the Quetzal, a stunningly beautiful green and red bird known and treasured for its very long tail feathers. The Guatemalan currency, the Quetzal, is obviously named for its beloved bird.
For this adventure, we left at 5 a.m. on a private bus for the two and a half hour ride. We drove into the tropical lowland areas of Guatemala that became very lush and green typical of many Central American countries. It was also much warmer because it was lower and closer to the ocean. We arrived at the beautiful refuge, heavily forested, steep and filled with the sounds of lots of birds, waterfalls and rushing water from a nearby stream. We started hiking up the steep trail and around 10 minutes later, we spotted our first Quetzal! These gorgeous birds are certainly more impressive in the wild than any photo could possibly convey.
We had been told that there was no guarantee that we would even see one since they tend to be well hidden, they stay high up in the trees and they are fairly rare and endangered so it was exciting to actually see one. In fact, we were fortunate to see about six Quetzales as we continued our
hike. They were stunningly beautiful especially in flight with their long tail
feathers being carried delicately behind them. We continued up the trail which was quite steep through this tropical cloud forest which was gorgeous, past the cascading waterfalls and rushing streams. We eventually made it up the hill above the canopy and tree line where the area cleared into a grassy area with
views of several volcanoes in the distance. We stayed there for a little while catching our breath before returning back down the hill. At the bottom, we had a chance to walk on a swaying suspension bridge stretched over a fast rushing stream being fed by a very large beautiful waterfall nearby. By that time, it was starting to get quite warm so we headed to the bus and back to Xela.
One day, we went to Zunil, a nearby pueblo that has a lot of underground volcanic and geothermal activity. We went to Las Cumbres, a natural spa with saunas that were fed by natural damp volcanically heated air. It was really amazing that they could capture and use the heat this way. The airflow in each sauna was controlled by covering an opening in the floor with a concrete lid.
Another adventure was going to the pueblo, Totonicapan, referred to as “Toto” for its very colorful and bustling Saturday mercado where they seem to sell everything imaginable! Before heading into the mercado, I had a delicious traditional Guatemalan breakfast (desayuno tipico) of scrambled eggs, plantains, cheese, cream, black frijoles and bread. The mercado was wonderful. They are also known for their colorful pottery. Of course, I had to buy a few pieces. One of the best parts of the mercado was that there were no tourists so we
had a chance to have an authentic experience of being intimately immersed into the local culture. The colorful sights, resonant sounds and fried sweet smells were indescribably and incredibly memorable.
I also had a chance to visit El Asinta, an archeological site of Mayan ruins located in the tropical lowlands of Guatemala a couple of hours from Xela.
We saw interesting ruins and artifacts among the beautiful tropical trees and lovely flowers. This was the site of the Mesoamerican city of Takalik Abaj. In this area, there was a convergence of the Olmecs from Mexico and the beginnings of the Mayan culture which became huge over time especially in Tikal in the northern part of Guatemala which we visited last December, 2018.
Takalik Abajwas a sizable city and the site is filled with lots of ruins including sculptures and petroglyphs. We had an interesting and
somewhat quirky tour guide who seemed almost mechanical at times. He was very pleasant, professional and took his job, and maybe himself, very seriously and was comically theatrical. There was a small zoo on the property with lots of common animals including coyotes, raccoons, spider monkeys and several types of birds.
We next visited the nearby pueblo of San Andrés Xecul which is known for its famously colorful church, La Iglesia de San Andrés de Xecul.
Interestingly, the church is somewhat plain and simple on the inside. But the outside is gorgeous. Not only is it colorfully painted, the exterior walls
are done in three dimensional relief. I had seen numerous photos of this stunning church and I was determined to find it. I was excited to learn that it was just about 30 minutes from Xela by chicken bus and tuk tuk. The pueblo itself is built up the side of a very steep hill, part of which we climbed and enjoyed a great view of the entire area.
I fortunately packed a lot in during the month that I was living in Xela. While there was not a lot to do in the Xela itself, there is so much to see and experience in the surrounding areas filled with lots of culture, color and wonderful people. There are more photos that capture some of these travels.