The bus terminal in Quetzaltenango was probably the maddest one we’ve been to so far. Our bus pulled into a parking spot amidst a deafening cacophony of horns blaring, people shouting, bells ringing and blasts from police whistles, and we barely managed to scramble off the bus and across the road to the pavement without being run over.
We had booked a private room at Casa Seibel, which only cost us £12 per night, and we decided to take a taxi there as is around a 45 minute walk from the bus terminal. When we arrived we were greeted by Jennie, a long term volunteer at the hostel who immediately made us feel extremely welcome. Casa Seibel genuinely feels like a big home – Jennie really makes an effort to get to know everyone personally, and all the other guests we met were really chatty and friendly. It’s not much of a party hostel (ideal for us, we’re too old for that shit), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a sociable place, and overall it suited us down to the ground. Plus our room had the most incredible orthopedic bed complete with a proper duvet, which felt like absolute luxury – and as Quetzaltenango gets very chilly at night due to the altitude, a duvet was definitely necessary!
Quetzaltenango, or Xela (pronounced shay-la) as it’s more commonly known, is the second largest city in Guatemala. Not only is it a super cheap city to visit in terms of accommodation and food, it’s also a great place to stay if you want to learn Spanish or do some volcano hikes. Dan had decided to hike Volcán Tajumulco, which at 4,222 metres above sea level is the highest mountain in Central America. Having read a number of blogs and testimonials about the hike, all of which said it is really, really hard (apart from one guy who said it was easy, but he did it after summiting Everest, so really his opinion doesn’t count), I decided to sit this one out.
Dan booked onto a tour through a company called Quetzaltrekkers, which is a non-profit, all volunteer-run organisation that donates 100% of the proceeds from its treks to funding schools and children’s programmes in Guatemala. All of the guides are volunteers, and they have a total staff turnover every 3 months. But you would never guess that this is a company run solely by volunteers – Dan could not get over the high levels of professionalism and organisation throughout the duration of his trip.
And all those blogs and website weren’t lying – Dan said this hike was incredibly tough. On the first day they set off at 5 a.m. to hike up to the base camp where they would spend the night. After camping overnight on the mountainside in sub zero temperatures, they they got up at 4 a.m. to hike the gruelling final 45 minutes to the summit to watch the sunrise. At this point all Dan was able to focus on was putting one foot in front of the other – the altitude combined with the steep ascent in the dark was a serious challenge. But it was all worth it when they reached the summit, and Dan was able to watch the sunrise on one side and the moonset on the other. By the time he got back to Casa Seibel that evening he was still buzzing from the experience – but it wasn’t long before he was passed out cold!
While Dan was off on his adventure, I took some time to explore the city and plan a few things for us to see when he got back. As I was leaving the hostel Jennie stopped me and told me about The Bake Shop – a legendary bakery in Xela that is only open on Tuesdays and Fridays, and as that day happened to be a Tuesday she said I had to go along and get myself a doughnut. And I’m so glad I did – Krispy Kreme has got nothing on The Bake Shop! It took a lot of willpower to resist eating the doughnut I bought for Dan as a post trek treat!
After Dan was back and recovered, the following day we visited the Fuentes Georginas Hot Springs, which are about an hour outside of Xela by shuttle. It cost us Q115 per person including entry, and we spent a wonderful afternoon relaxing (and in Dan’s case, easing his sore muscles) in the natural hot springs that flow from the Zunil Volcano. It was a busy day at the springs, with lots of Guatemalan families enjoying the hot pools while listening to Christmas tunes.
That evening, despite coming back from the hot springs feeling like we’d just had a hot bath and were ready for bed, we went out on a pub crawl. At first we weren’t too sure how the evening would pan out – at the first bar the hosts pulled out a game of Twister, which didn’t bode well for someone who hates organised fun – but for most of the evening we hung around with two of Dan’s trek mates, Chris and Arunava, who were both in Guatemala on holiday, and we visited a few great locals bars like El Cuartito and Bajo La Luna (that has the cheapest wine we’ve found so far).
The next morning, after a reviving breakfast at La Esquina Asiatica – a restaurant across the road from the hostel that does full cooked breakfasts for Q20, with a 10% discount for Casa Seibel residents – we decided to wander out to the Xela cemetery. Like the cemetery we visited while staying in Antigua, this one was full of beautiful and ornate monuments and colourful tombs, showing us again how Guatemalans really honour their loved ones by celebrating their lives, rather than by mourning. Jennie even told us that families take picnics out there and enjoy a nice day out by the graves of their loved ones!
The final thing on our agenda in Quetzaltenango was to do a border run across to Mexico, in order to renew our 90 day visa that is valid for Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua combined – we had spent nearly 90 days in Guatemala already, so if we wanted to travel onwards we would have to get our visas renewed by leaving the country! Fortunately it is not far to the Mexican border from Quetzaltenango, and Jennie gave us some great advice on the best way to travel, which we will write full details of in our next post.