A January 2004 trip
to Quetzaltenango by lcampbell
Quote: In Part 4 of 7 of our month-long journey around Guatemala, we head for the top of Guatemala when we summit Volcano Tajamulco, the highest spot in the country, at 4,220 meters. Afterward, we soothe our muscles at Fuentes Georginas hot pools.
Surrounding Xela are the Santa María and Santiaguito volcanos. There are many companies offering guided hikes, but I highly recommend going with Quetzaltrekkers. This non-profit company is run by volunteers, with proceeds used for a school for at-risk youth/dorm for homeless children. Two of the kids joined us on our backpacking trip up Tajamulco Volcano, the highest point in Central America.
There is a museum that is quite unusual, and even at times macabre. It is a natural history/cultural museum crossed with a science experiment gone wrong. The pottery, photos, and plant displays were all fairly typical, but the animal room was a bit spooky. The really bad taxidermy made the animals seem possessed, and the collections of deformed animals (think three-headed deer in a jar) were very odd. I mean, why would someone collect that stuff??
Six quetzales (75 cents) per person. Located next to the tourist office in the plaza.
We had a really good dinner at DeliCrepe on 14a Avenida. We were the only tourists there and had tasty fajitas and a "supercrepe." There are a ton of places to get pizza in Xela, at a wide variety of prices and quality. We didn’t stay in Xela long enough to find the really great and cheap food.
There are a large number of Spanish schools in Xela; in fact, the area is known for it. You would not need reservations if you wanted to come to study Spanish –- just show up and look around.
There are also a large number of banks, Internet providers, and other services available, so it is a good place to take care of business before moving on.
The bus to Xela leaves Huehuetenango Plaza many times per day, but we caught the 8:30am bus. The trip takes two hours and costs 10 quetzales (US.25) per person. At the bus station in Xela, take a minibus to the main square –- it should cost one quetzal per person.
Xela to Panajachel (Lago de Atítlan):
The bus and boat trip from Xela to Lago de Atítlan is straightforward, but we had a bad time of it. We were overcharged on both legs of the trip, but didn’t find out about it until afterward. Anyway, you should pay 10 quetzales (US.25) per person to take the bus from Xela to Panajachel. From there, you can stay at Panajachel or go on to one of the smaller villages around the lake. Expect to pay 15 quetzales to go to San Pedro and 10-15 to go to San Marcos. The local people will be paying less. When I asked the boat driver why we had to pay more, he actually did have a decent explanation. He said we weren’t really paying more, but the local folks were getting a "frequent boater" discount. Hey, it made me feel better...
Private or Shared Bath?
Shared bath, with a warmer-than-most shower. Occasionally, we had to wait a bit to use the bathroom/shower.
Very friendly atmosphere, in reference to the travelers as well as the family running the hotel. The family always took a moment to chat with us if we came into the kitchen for some coffee or tea. Some of the family kids and their friends were often playing games and would welcome travelers who wanted to kick around the soccer ball.
Food and Other Amenities:
There is no restaurant on-site, but there is a community kitchen for preparing meals. Instant coffee, tea, and purified water are complimentary. Also on site is Quetzaltrekkers, a non-profit organization offering guided hikes at modest prices (see separate entry in this journal). There are sinks for doing laundry and clothes lines for drying. Many rooms have televisions. There is also a large patio area to catch some rays.
It was a little hard to find Casa Argentina from the center square the first time. Basically, follow 7a calle west to Diagonal 12 and turn left. Casa Argentine is marked only with a very small sign that is easy to miss. It is a white building on the left side –- the door will be closed. Ring the bell to enter.
Casa Argentina is locked during the day and at night. Guests are given a key or need to ring a bell to enter. We felt very safe here. It would be an excellent place for single women to stay as well.
25 quetzales (US$3.12) per person, per night.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on November 8, 2004
Diagonal 12 8-37
Attraction | "Tajamulco Trek"
As he finished his song, people from six countries applauded. Earlier in the day, our group had hiked most of the way up Tajamulco Volcano together, led by guides from Quetzaltrekkers, a non-profit hiking tour company out of Quetzaltenengo. An hour into the hike, we had gotten a glimpse of our goal for the next morning: the summit of Tajamulco, the highest point in Central America at 4,220 meters.
Our time-battered tents kept the wind out as we slept three people to a shelter. I’m glad it didn’t rain, as I don’t think our tent would have kept the water out. We stumbled out of camp well before sunrise, hoping to make the summit before sunrise. The going was steep, but we had gained most of the elevation the day before. We made the summit before dawn. Unfortunately, the top was socked in. We settled in to wait for sunrise and for the clouds to clear, crossing our fingers and hoping for the best.
I can honestly say that I have never been so cold in my life as I was when we were waiting for that sunrise. Even with our sleeping bags that we had brought to the summit, I felt the cold down to my bones. We all huddled together in a mass. The clouds never did clear all the way, but we got a few brief openings, during which we saw the Mexican border and the Santiaguito and Santa María volcanoes in the distance. Actually, more fascinating was watching how fast the clouds were moving, and how they swirled around, giving peeks at the stars and into the crater.
When we thought we couldn’t get any colder, we hiked around the crater rim and nearly got blown off the mountain. The sun was coming up now, and the views were very beautiful. There was a little less deforestation on this side of the peak. Camp felt very warm when we got back down for breakfast.
I was a little disappointed by the cloudy summit, but even more disappointed that the guides seemed to really rush us back to town. I think they wanted to catch a football game on TV. We had to eat our meager sack lunches while sardined on the chicken bus. That said, I still highly recommend hiking with Quetzaltrekkers.
Read my separate entry on Quetzaltrekkers to find out about other guided hikes, and also about the school for street children supported by the profits from the hiking trips. We were lucky to be joined on our hike by Miguel (age 14) and Daniel (age 13), two of the former street children that have been helped by the program.
Guided hikes with Quetzaltrekkers
Casa Argentina Guest House
The unique aspect of Quetzaltrekkers, versus the other guided hiking companies in Xela, is that it is run by volunteers, and all profits go to support Escuela de the Calle (EDELAC). EDELAC operates a school that offers educational, nutritional, health, and social assistance to youth at risk of becoming street children. The effort at the school is in prevention. They also offer help to children already on the street by operating a dorm, to provide a safe place to stay when they have nowhere else to go. The goal is to reunite the children with their families, if safe and feasible, or to place them with foster families, closely monitoring and following up as time goes by.
Regular excursions offered by Quetzaltrekkers include:
Tajamulco Volcano: The highest point in Central America, at 4,220 meters. The two-day trip costs 320 quetzales per person and includes guides, equipment, transportation, and food.
Santiaguito Volcano: One of the most active volcanoes in Guatemala. The two-day trip costs 400 quetzales per person and includes guides, equipment, transportation, and food.
Quetzaltenengo to Lake Atítlan: Avoid the bus slog -- go by foot! The three-day trip costs 500 quetzales per person and includes guides, equipment, transportation, and food.
Nebaj to Todos Santos: The traditional Mayan ways are still alive in the Cuchumatanes Mountains. The six-day trip costs 975 quetzales per person and includes guides, equipment, transportation, and food. This trip includes homestays in remote villages and farm visits along the way. This was the one that I really wanted to do, but they had just finished a trip and weren’t offering one for another couple of weeks. Highly recommended!
The gear provided is not always the best. They have some good stuff and some really old stuff, and it just depends on how it gets distributed for all the hikes. If you are feeling especially generous, bring some outdoor gear (tents, tent stakes, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, warm clothing, backpacks, flashlights, etc) to donate. EDELAC school also needs clothing and shoes, school supplies, and medicines.
Finally, there are volunteer opportunities for those wanting to guide hikes for Quetzaltrekkers. I’m not sure if volunteers are accepted at EDELAC or not. To guide, some knowledge of the language is needed, and there is actually some competition for volunteer spots. Contact Quetzaltrekkers in advance if you are interested:
@ Casa Argentina
Diagonal 12, 8-37
My guidebook refers to the hot springs near Zunil – called Fuentes Georginas – as both "idyllic" and, with regard to the aftermath of a landslide in 1998, "hotter than ever." Needless to say, I found neither of these things to be absolutely accurate.
True, the site is pretty. It has not been totally deforested like most other areas, and there are nice views down the valley. But I wouldn’t call it idyllic.
Now, the hot springs were indeed hot. Unfortunately, the springs, at least when we were there, consisted of four or five trickles coming down a large rock wall. When the hot trickles reached the pond-size pool, the heat quickly dispersed. The resulting situation was a lukewarm swimming pool, with only the few people sitting directly at the trickles feeling any heat. Through the natural progression of comings and goings of visitors, we did eventually get a spot at a trickle. We then had hot backs and cold feet. It was not exactly what I expected at a hot springs.
One aspect that I did really enjoy at Fuentes Georginas was the relative lack of people. Plus, about half of the visitors that were there were local people. It was nice to be surrounded by local people, rather than all tourists.
How to get there:
The bus to Zunil leaves Quetzaltenango from the corner of 9a Avenida and 10a Calle (a couple block from the plaza). The trip takes 20 minutes and should cost two quetzales (25 cents) per person. From the bus stop at Zunil, you will need to hire a pickup truck to take you to Fuentes Georginas. The price will depend on your negotiating abilities but will likely be 20 to 30 quetzales. The price is per trip, not per person, so try to get a group together if you can. Arrange for your driver to pick you up at a designated time later in the day, or leave some time to walk back down to town.
I enjoyed the truck ride up to the hot springs because fresh vegetables were being harvested in the agricultural fields along the road. The aroma of freshly picked green onions and cilantro was sweet and pungent at the same time.
10 quetzales (US$1.25) per person.
There are cabins on-site, if you would like to spend a night or two. I believe there are some trails to nearby volcanoes (round-trip is 6-8 hours for the volcano hikes). The on-site restaurant is a little expensive, but not outrageous.
I think that there are more worthwhile activities to do out of the Quetzaltenango area. Maybe check the status of the hot springs – maybe they become bigger than trickles at different times of year – before deciding to go up or not. It is a peaceful place, and with the hiking opportunities, it might be a good night-or-two trip if you want to get away from the bustle down below.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on November 8, 2004
outside of Quetzaltenango
Port Angeles, Washington