When we are crossing all but the US borders on this trip, we have to temporarily import the motos and get ourselves across, too. There is a lot of paperwork involved and we expected long line-ups so, we were prepared to wait for hours. But it was quick! We exited Mexico within 40 minutes, and entered Guatemala in about the same amount of time. The process was super quick, easy and extremely professional despite what else you might have heard.
But what a different country Guatemala is from Mexico! The one constant was enormous market that ran from 1km on the Mexican side, across the border for another kilometre of stalls, stands and shacks of anything & everything. But traffic turned from organized chaos to just chaotic. Roads became narrower, trucks got bigger and, since sidewalks are practically non-existent in Guatemala, we were dodging potholes and people alike. As we took in the new driving system of Guatemala, we rode with restrain from the border to the small town of Huehuetenengo (way-way-tenego) where we each enjoyed a fantastic roadside lunch of rice, potatoes, frijoles, grilled chorizo & tortilla with a pepsi for just $3.50 (total – both orders!) – the first real food of the day.
With the Guatemalan highway system figured out (it’s like Mexico after 5 or 6 RedBulls), we proceeded to ride up and down and through the jungly mountains toward Xela (Shay-LA) which is also known as Quetzeltenengo (Ketz-AL-tenengo). The trip was a little longer than expected as we had to wait a few times in areas that were being cleaned up from landslides – the first of many experiences with this phenomenon. But we made good time, arriving in Xela around 2pm – just in time for the daily downpour. The rain was so violent, it gushed down the streets creating white water and, since we couldn’t see the condition of the old cobbled roads we were riding on, we gingerly made our way to the central square, parked, and found a coffee shop.
We had already arranged a 2 week home stay with a Guatemalteco family, but had arrived a few days early so we walked up and down the central-area streets looking for a cheap hotel for a few nights. And after dealing with Pesos for 5 weeks, we now needed to get used to the Quetzale – which (surprisingly, we thought) is worth more than the Peso… so, our hotel budget became just Q100. As luck would have it, a fab hostel (Don Diego) with secure parking, a great kitchen, hot water and a bunch of spirited spanish students was on offer for just that amount! We moved the bikes, dried off, grabbed our umbrellas and explored Xela for the next few hours.
One of the differences between Guatemala & Mexico we noticed right away was the level of security presence. Homes were concrete boxes with bars covering opaque-glass windows or, they were behind huge concrete walls with electric and/or razor wire and/or shards of glass mortered into the top of the wall. Security guards with pump action shot guns and old pistols marked the entrances to stores and restaurants. When there is no security guard, the store is usually gated and goods are behind the counter for staff pick for you. I’ve read that the number of private security guards outnumbers police officers in Guatemala and security has become a social phenomenon and, according to some, it is fashionable, if not necessary, to be seen with your personal guard in the big city. The toughest cynics will say it is a self-fulfilling industry. What is clear is that it is one of the biggest industries in Guatemala and its presence is ubiquitous.
A few days after our hostel stay, we were introduced to our ‘family’. Lilian, Sonny, and their two kiddies (who were great teachers!), Silus (9) and Mellie (5). We couldn’t have asked for better! We were located high up on a hill overlooking the city, within walking distance of our school and we were well fed. Each day for 2 weeks we would walk down the steep hill to school, back up the steep hill for lunch, back down the steep hill and 2kms to the town centre to study / have coffee then back 2kms and up that steep hill again for supper. We certainly got a lot of exercise in Xela.
We found our favourite hang out quickly; El Cuartito is a great little pub / coffee shop filled with locals, students and lots of art. They have great chocololate and the best coffee in the city. But it was at &Cafe that I ran into Clayton… I was in the bathroom and could hear Jordan talking about our trip to someone. This person had noticed my MEC bag (a sure sign you are Canadian) and struck up a conversation. When I came out, Jordan introduced me – but I already knew Clayton for ALL MY LIFE! Such a crazy world – my parents have been friends with his parents for almost 50 years. He actually lives in the same city as we do and we’ve never run into him.. not even once. So it is completely normal that we should be in the same coffee shop ½ a world away.
We really wanted to climb a volcano in the area & visit the famous natural hotsprings – Fuentes Georginas. We arranged our volcano trip with Monte Verde tours… the plan was they were going to pick up up at our family home and drive us to the volcano, then guide us up the climb. Though, when we paid for the trip, we were told that no one could pick us up, and we would have to walk to their office for 5am the following morning. We shopped for our lunch and water, assembled our make-shift back packs (our dry bags with the shoulder straps from our large duffle bags – genius!) and made our way to the office. Then proceed to wait 45 minutes before realizing no one was coming. What a huge disappointment it was as this was something we were really looking forward to. When you climb the now-inactive volcano Santa Maria you can see Santiaguito volcano brewing away below you. Instead, we walked back home, up that steep hill and back in to bed.
Here are some cool photos of what we could have seen…
Fuentes Georginas was fantastic, however. We rode up to the hotsprings which is a steep and curvy ride from the small town of Zunil through the agricultural centre of the country. So, we passed numerous families of farmers picking, gathering and packing vegetables on the slopes of the hills. Giant bags of corn and radishes lined the roadside but it was the road through the cilantro fields that Jordan enjoyed most (he really loves cilantro!). At the top, in the mist, we found the most amazing hot springs. There are 3 main pools that range from boiling hot (seriously – no one could stand it for more than a few seconds) to very warm to warm. But the best was the (barely known) jungle trail down to two secluded pools under cliffs next to a cold stream. No other people were there, and the water was hot enough to warrant a trip to the cold stream once in a while. The water is not circulated, and it is not taken out of its natural system… the pools are built with overflows, so hot water comes in from its source, sits in a pool temporarily, before pouring out to where it would go, naturally. Brilliant, really. We’d love to show you our photos from the hotsprings, but we can’t. You can read why in our next post. For now, here is one of our friend, Daan – soaking in the uber hot springs – we are still not sure how he could stand it.
Hot and relaxed we enjoyed a completely foggy, dark ride back down the mountain and home to Xela. Our final night with our family was at the Swiss restaurant, El Panorama – named for the vast view of Xela from one of the highest points in the city. The restaurant is owned by our host ‘father’, Sonny and if you want great raclette, or saucy, warm food on a chilly, rainy night in Guatemala, El Panorama is the place for you. So it was, with a bottle of wine and gifts for Silus & Mellie that we said our good-byes. The morning will take us further into Guatemala and Central America.