Friday, April 1, 2011

Guatemala – Getting high in Xela

It's time for us to head north to the real highlands (1610 meters just ain’t enough). We decided that we slowly want to work our way via the northern route to El Peten (that's where some really famous Mayan ruins are).

I believe I can fly,
I believe I can touch the sky...
Our first stop on this journey of 2-3 weeks is Quetzaltenango, or simply "Xela" as it's known all over Guatemala. We took the "luxury" transport option of a direct Chicken Bus all the way from San Pedro to Xela. 3 hours and 50 Quetzales later (USD $6.50) we arrived, shaken but not stirred, in Xela. We also managed to collect more stories about the Chicken Buses. But do not despair, soon we're ready to post a Blog entry dedicated to them (and we now also know that they will be the main transport throughout Central America!).

Ok, so here we are in the 2nd largest City in Guatemala, and at a height of 2335 meters above sea level (7660 ft) we are ready to do some serious chilling, literally! Fortunately, it's sunny and actually comfortably warm, at least during the day.

Barely in town, we hit the streets to explore and check out tour operators that offer hikes to the Santa Maria Volcano. We planned to stay in Xela for 4-5 days and wanted to find out if we can join up with some other people, but it seems that the month of March is low season in Guatemala and it starts to pick up here around Easter and then throughout the summer (school break) time. Finally just before sunset, we got our tour booked and joined up with a German man, Niko, who was also searching everywhere to find some companions for the trek. We had to be at the office the next morning at 5am.... That mean's getting up at 4am. Yep, the holiday is over.

Sunrise 30 minutes after starting to
hike up "Vulcan Santa Maria"
We started our hike at 5:30am and it was really cold at this hour. It was a short car ride from Xela to the foot of the Volcano. From 2406 meters altitude we would have to ascend 1366m (4481 ft) to the summit.

Halfway up
Talking about Xela being cold, it was barely above freezing when we left our Hotel, we were sooo cold when we stated our hike.
Thankfully the ascent started in the first five minutes helping to get our juices flowing and the internal heater going.

The climb up was fairly easy for the first hour after which we reached a Mesalito (tiny plateau).

View from about 3/4 up
The fun started after that: 2 hours of nonstop heavy duty ascent on a trail that was either covered with volcanic ash dust or volcanic rock pieces the size of marbles. On the climb up (walk would be a total understatement) the scenery below got better and better with every step.

The sunrise was at 6-ish when we were still not very high up, but as we got higher we've seen the remnants of the morning haze in the valleys. About half way up we had a great view of the entire plateau where Xela lies.
On top of mount Fuji in Sept. 2000
3 hours 15 minutes after our start, we reached the summit at 3772 meters (12,375 ft) Patrick was huffing and puffing; the last time he was this short of air was when he climbed Mount Fuji in Japan Julane was not as short of air (again same as 10 years ago at Fuji).

Looking south: 7 volcanoes in view
including some that we've been near
in San Pedro and Antigua.
But there was no time to rest. The moment we reached the top, our guide David was chasing us down the other side. Santa Maria has a smaller side volcano called "Santiaguito" which is erupting about every 1-2 hours.

The viewpoint is about 10 minutes farther walk down, a bit tough with our already tired legs, but David did not want to miss the time window for the next eruption while we were up there. So he literally ran ahead calling for us to come as quickly as possible.

We arrived just in time to see a little puff of ash emerging from Santiaguito’s summit some 1300 meters below. Is that it?

Anyway, the views on the other side were spectacular. 7 volcanoes to the south, two to the north, including Tajumulco the highest point in Central America. (4220m) Plus also mountain ranges in Mexico. The Pacific Rim was visible to the west; unfortunately, it was a bit too hazy in this direction to see the Pacific Ocean. To the east was the plateau where Xela is located.

Julane's jump of joy ....
We started taking pictures mostly of the Southern view: just spectacular.
Then Niko suggested to take pictures jumping up in the air. So we did! Shortly, after Julane jumped Santiaguito went off again this time with a huge eruption.

Did she cause Santiaguito to erupt?
Did Julane's Jump cause a mini earthquake that triggered the eruption :-)
Suddenly our focus was on taking pictures of Santiaguito, despite the freezing cold temperatures and with our fingers feeling like popsicles, we managed to hold the camera fairly steady. 10 minutes later Santiaguito went off again but even bigger this time. Wow what a view! The new smoke of the eruption overlapped the remnants of the first one and we could see where a path of "something" that looked like a lava flow perhaps was streaming down on one side.
Check out our video below

The view is so nice....
I need a smoke :-)

Pinta, our guide dog
We spent a total of 90 minutes at the top despite the freezing cold temperatures. All the time accompanied by “Pinta” a dog that lives down at the village where we started our climb today. She climbed all the way up with us and apparently does so with any Gringo, but not with Guatemalan, we think we know why: She begs for food at every rest stop. Somehow, we think that Gringos are more likely to actually give her incentive: food.

Group picture with our guide David
At 10:15 am, we started our decent. Julane, as usual, took off like a mountain goat: running down the steep slopes as if they were stairs. Niko had a hard time keeping up (he's in his 20's) and David didn't even try. Just Pinta could beat Julane. But she's got 4 legs (and didn't stay on the zig-zagging trail), so that ain't fair. All the way, Patrick was slowly making his way down (not his favorite part, which might surprise many that know him).

The volcanic ash or volcanic rock pieces that were a bit slippery on the way up turned into the equivalent of banana peels on the way down... Just a lot more slippery and very, very dusty. Every little slip would stir up a black dust cloud

Back down, see the volcano in the back?
that's where we were today!
Well we managed to get down in 2 ¼ hours and stay unharmed, although the rock fields near the bottom that was so easy to climb just before 6 am in the morning, turned out to be a total ankle twister trap. Our legs were so tired they were hard to control: they were totally “Loco”.
Thankfully we all made it without any strained ankles or torn muscles, and returned to Xela before 1pm. But talking of muscles, both of us have already accepted the fact that our legs would be mega sore the next day.

We spent two more days in Xela, but our plans to visit some of the surrounding villages were compromised by our painful legs. We especially suffered walking downhill or taking steps down. This is tough in a town that is full of hills and sidewalks that are a foot tall. Our radius of exploration was therefore limited by how much pain we could take.
The courtyard of "White Home"
We really enjoyed just staying at our Guesthouse “White Home”. It really felt like a home there, probably because it was a former family residence that had been converted to a guesthouse with 5 bedrooms and a big courtyard and living room. There even was a fully equipped kitchen which Julane was very happy to utilize. Blanca, the lady running the home was so wonderful and accommodating, She even brought out a proper espresso machine for us to load our Vietnamese coffee powder into. Yes, we are in South America (the land of coffee) carrying our Vietnamese souvenir! But even Blanca was impressed by our Dak Lak coffee. The coffee beans are roasted in butter which gives it a very smooth and mellow flavour. Soon it will need to be replaced with some local stuff as we see coffee plants and plantations everywhere.
Just like at home: Julane really enjoys
to cook with local ingredients
We went to the market and bought Avocadoes, Tomatoes, Onions, Potatoes, Beets, Pasta, Strawberries and fresh thick cream. Our dinner was rich and tasty… exactly what our sore muscles needed. And if we did lose any weight by climbing Santa Maria, then the calorie intake of the following days certainly made up for it.

Pizza Gringo Loco?
(Crazy foreigner Pizza)
During the second day of recovery (after our volcano trip), we walked a bit more through Xela, and found it very charming, the colorful buildings and the cobble-stone streets reminded us a lot of Antigua, but with much fewer tourists. We spent probably more than hour people watching in Parque Central and enjoying the warm sunshine. Surprisingly most people were wearing western style clothes, not the traditional Mayan dresses. Xela is surrounded by traditional Mayan villages and therefore one would expect to see more of the colorful traditional clothing.

Parque Central with the Guatemalan flag
The Cathedral with the restored
original facade

Time out in the Park.

On our last day, we had coffee with a couple that we first met in San Pedro: Annette and Kevin. They arrived in Xela a few days before us and had attended a Spanish School (called: ICA) which they thought was the better than the one in San Pedro and Antigua where they’d been before. We were tempted to stay a week longer and take another week of Spanish classes… But we really have to move, there is so much more to see in Guatemala and we’ve been here for nearly 4 weeks already.