River Deep, mountain high – Quetzaltenango

Remembering the steep descent into Panajachel a few days ago, and having taken the chicken bus up to Chichi the previous day, we awoke a little nervous about Porkchop making the climb to Solola. Wanting to tackle this as early as possible to avoid the heat and traffic, our major concern was getting stuck behind a chicken bus.  Not 200m up the hill and there it is, a dreaded chicken bus. Being a tight, steep, winding road we had no opportunity to pass and with Porkchop putting along screaming in 1st gear, tensions rose.  Looking for any small window of chance to pass the smoke bellowing beast, it shows us one window of hope, though only if the car in front of us makes a hasty overtake.  Thanks for creeping past arsehole, window now closed. As luck would have it we only waited another corner or two until we had a more suitable stretch of road and Porkchop made it into top gear.  Hasta luego chicken bus!

Solola, Guatemala.
Solola, set above Lake Atitlan

Back on top of the hill above Lake Atitlan, the road to Quetzaltenango, being a somewhat curvaceous double lane road, takes you again through beautiful forests dotted with families hanging out on the side of the road, the children eagerly waving to passersby. Weird, we know, though rather quaint and comforting that this is their Sunday funday routine.

Quetzaltenango.  Guatemala.
Quetzaltenango Cathedral

In Quetzaltenango, or Xela for short (pronounced Shella), to hike a volcano, we were yet to decide which one, and as we arrived in town we noticed the unpolished grittiness of the town center. Circling the one way main plaza we got our first glimpse of the Cathedral, a stunning white building that dominates the square, with a mish mash of architectural styles and a slight hint of wedding cake decoration on the front.

Quetzaltenango.  Guatemala.
Quetzaltenango Cathedral

By now our appetites had kicked in, only being compounded by navigating the narrow streets off the plaza trying to find a free park.  In the end we settled on a paid secure parking lot near the market for three hours at Q20, with it’s own army of child labour car cleaners, and for only Q40 (just over $5) Porkchop got it’s first wash since the beginning of the journey five months ago.

Quetzaltenango.  Guatemala.

Skipping into the market and sitting down at the bench with a bunch of friendly locals, we had to try the local’s specialty of chuchitos.  Similar to a regular tamale, chuchitos (which means ‘small dogs’) are smaller, firmer and wrapped in corn husks (rather than the usual plantain leaf), and covered with salsa and crumbled salty hard cheese. With four costing only Q14 they’re filling and cost basically nothing.  Picking up a bunch of fresh produce and some handmade sausages we headed out in search of a tour operator to take us up one of the towns surrounding  volcano the following day.

Quetzaltenango.  Guatemala.
Picking up some fresh sausages for dinner at the market

Settling on tour company Monte Verde (who’d also been recommended to us by some friends) we only need wait for two other people to book for the following day and it was game on.  With a choice of three in the nearby area, Santa María (the closest), Santiaguito (the most active) and Tajamulco (at 4,223m the highest mountain in both Guatemala and Central America), we had originally planned on climbing the active Santiaguito, however tour guide Josh talked us around to ascending dormant volcano Santa Maria instead, as it affords great views straight down onto Santiaguito, which is constantly spewing out ash and lava. 

Quetzaltenango.  Guatemala.
Great coffee and a relaxed atmosphere at La Chatia Artesana, Quetzaltenango

With time left in the afternoon we hunted out some good coffee and a place to relax, coming across one of the only open cafes, as many were still closed for the New Year holiday period.  Bumping into a local gentleman on the street who just wanted a chat, we realised that even with the large number of people coming here to study Spanish every year, Xela still has a more true Guatemalan personality that’s yet to be tainted with the bad taste that high numbers of tourists can sometimes bring.  Chancing upon La Chatia Artesana near the Bridge of Los Chocoyos was formerly a hostel now turned café/art space.  It’s serves up great coffee and snacks with a more than reasonable WiFi connection, and nobody rushes you out the door if all you want to do is chill and catch up on some blog…which we did.  Our favourite feature in here was the flamboyantly painted entrance stairs.

Quetzaltenango.  Guatemala.
The funky entrance stairs to cafe La Chatia Artesana, Quetzaltenango

As the carpark wasn’t 24 hours it was soon time to find a park for the night, so we pulled up next to the Puma Gas station on Calle 9 and Avenida 12 and asked an attendant if it was cool to sleep here for the night for free.  He was cool with it so we cooked up those delicious sausages from before and headed out to waste more time. The gas station is sometimes is the best choice (well lit with security usually on duty and sometimes even a bathroom open all night!) and on this occasion the other camping option of Hotel Del Campo way out of town wanted the princely sum of Q390 ($40) to park out in a field – no shade, toilet or power – up yours Hotel Del CRAPO!

Quetzaltenango.  Guatemala.

Wandering the streets for a place to chillout was a non event as more of this part of town had the power out for the second time that day. This also meant for the second time we had to miss out on visiting funky favourite Cafe El Cuartito, with its interior decorated with quirky found objects and artifacts. Arriving back at the gas station the shift had change, and once we pulled in the new guys wanted Q50 ($7) for the night. Refusing on the basis that earlier we’d been told by the manager that we could park for free, it was back onto the street just opposite, right out the front of a hotel that thankfully had an armored guard out front (complete with requisite rifle hung across his chest).

 Quetzaltenango.  Guatemala.
Bridge of Los Chocoyos, Quetzaltenango

Awake at  4am the next morning, Josh from Monte Verde had warned us that they love to steal a car battery around town, so we checked that Porkchops ticker has still in place…thanks for sparing us Xela locals!  Bleary eyed we stumbled into the minivan, finding that we had others on the tour and a refund of Q40 coming our way, BOOM!  Taking a predawn twilight tour of Xela whilst collecting the our fellow hikers, we we’re soon being thrown around as we approached the trailhead to Volcano Santa Maria. Forgetting that we would be hiking in the dark, we’d both stupidly forgotten our head torches and had to rely on our phones to avoid stumbling over rocks and into horse poo, slowly making our way up along cattle tracks within the lower farms.

 View from Volcan Santa Maria.  Guatemala.
View from Volcan Santa Maria

The trek up is not for the unfit or undetermined, and when it turns to cloud forest is where the real fun begins.  A slippery mud sticking trail ensues, were you find yourself grasping anything to give you purchase in order to make it to the next slippery, mud sticking patch.  Three hours of this straight up slog was a slight reminder of Vancouver’s Grouse Grind only three times the grueling length (what is the Grouse Grind you ask? Read our blog here!).  Eventually making it up to the blustery top of Santa Maria, we found that a bunch of  eight young Guatemalan’s had spent a presumably chilly, uncomfortable night upon the summit. As we passed, asking if they’d seen our guide who had disappeared up ahead, they asked us if we’d like to join them in an early morning joint…which we declined.

Volcan Santiaguito.  Guatemala.
Volcan Santiaguito

Moving over to the Santiaguito vantage point, we sat down to make some tuna and avocado tortillas, and it didn’t take her long to fire up and with a big rumble puff a chute of ash up into the air, to the delight of the same local guys hooting and shouting,

‘Bienvenidos Guatemala!’ (Welcome to Guatemala!)

in our direction.  Taken with excitement they start jumping around yelling and screaming like lunatics, and all we can muster after the arduous climb is a paltry ‘Wow awesome’. Watching them try to take a group photos Sarah volunteers to help them out, after which she’s dragged into photo after photo with them all taking turns to pose with her. The view from the summit when the clouds part is spectacular. Guetamala’s Sierra Madre mountain range stretches from Mexico in the north to El Salvador in the south, and contains a whopping 37 volcanos, three of which are still active (Pacaya, Santiaguito and Fuego).

 Volcan Santiaguito, Guatemala.
Enjoying the close up view (and noise!) of Volcan Santiaguito blowing its stack

Viewing Santiaguaito blow it’s top a second time the last of our company arrives.  The German guy at the start looked like he had all the gear but obviously lacked any idea, and we all soon left him well behind. Waiting around for another eruption so he didn’t miss out and feel that the 3.5 hour climb for him had been in vain, the clouds set in and refused to part.  This is when the third and biggest eruption took place.  Shaking the ground and rumbling on for minutes, we could only hear and not see her mighty last release of built up pressure, much to the dismay of the poor German.

Volcan Santa Maria.  Guatemala.
A slightly cloudy view across Guatemala’s impressive chain of volcanos

Trying to hold on up there for another burst we eventually had to turn around and descend another three hours, which became more difficult than the ascent due to thawing grounds. Slipping and sliding our way down, many of us at least once on our bums, we finally made it back to the pickup point, 7.5 hours since we departed.  The guide was impressed with the pace as it normally takes a lot longer, and considering we spent over an hour on the summit we were all pretty chuffed. The only downside of what was an otherwise really great hike was the huge abundance of trash that covers the entire trail from base to summit. The locals seem to have no concept of how detrimental this is to not only the environment but also the enjoyment of anybody doing the hike. Hopefully in the future things will change and the hike will be as beautiful and clean as those of the USA.

Volcan Santiaguito.  Guatemala.
Santiaguito Volcano giving us a good show

There’s no better way to wind down after a hike like this than in a hot spring. Luckily, being in a geothermal location, we weren’t far from the Hot Springs of Fuentes Georginas, only a short dive out of town that’s also accessible by collectivo. Asking the gateman if it was possible to sleep here the night (which we knew was possible), he cordially tried to charge us Q100 on top of car parking and our entrance fee, a whopping Q210 ($30) for turning up at 4:30pm in the afternoon.  Parking and not paying for camping, our French friend Jordan whom we’d climb Santa Maria with, kindly helped out at the bar to negotiate the price of camping.

Fuentes Georginas, best place to hang out after a long hike up Santa Maria volcano
The steaming hot pool at Fuentes Georginas

Turns out the gate man was trying one on.  They charged us Q50 each for that day, camp the night, use the hot springs after hours and for all the next day, being able to use the showers and toilets as well!   If you do have a van and do the Santa Maria Volcano hike then this is a must do, as when the place closes and the day trippers head home you have it to yourself in blissful peace, with only a handful of others who are spending the night in one of the small onsite cabins (note: the stories are true…usually the wood provided for your romantic fireplace is too wet to light). Oh and another tip, the best day to turn up here is on a Tuesday, as they clean the pools out on a Monday after all the locals have taken their once a week soak over the weekend. With three pools to choose from of differing levels of heat, you can easily spend hours here just soaking your way from one to the other…which is exactly what we did!

Unable to resist the lure of the warm, muscle ache relieving waters, next morning we just had to have one last soak so we were up at 6am to join a few other early birds.  Today we leave the pleasant mountain climate for the pacific coast and the last push across the El Salvadorian border.


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