Friday, 14 September 2007

Guatemala: Xela

From Todos Santos we headed for the lovely city of Quetzaltenango or Xela as it's known by everyone in the indigenous language. Here we chose a Spanish school and settled in with a local family for 2 weeks.

El Parque Central, Xela

We were in Xela for the elections on September 9th, which had been preceded by 50 political assassinations in the last 12 months. There was the biggest turnout ever, apparently, and in Xela there was very little disruption on the day. Disappointingly there was no clear winner and the second round is not for another few weeks.

Given the information we have gleaned, however, the choice seems to be between a candidate funded by the narcotics trade and a corrupt ex-militant. It is difficult not to be cynical about the Guatemala's foreseeable future. We heard entertaining rumours that one candidate was handing out free chickens to the poor uneducated masses, then threatening to claim them back if they didn't vote for him (and, less believably, that he would monitor their voting booths with cameras)!

Roger in the grounds of Las Calumbres, natural steam in background

One of the Spanish School activities was a trip to Las Calumbres, an area of natural geothermal activity where the steam has been used to make saunas. Unlike European saunas, you get a private room and the steam comes out of a hole in the ground.

Roger enjoying a sauna

View from Las Calumbres

We were also in town for the annual Independence Day celebrations on September 15th. In the weeks and days preceding this drummers and firecrackers that sounded like gunfire would start up at any time of the day or night. No one seemed to complain of missed sleep (except us).

National Flag

The parade

Fruit seller

Surrounding Xela are many tempting mountains to climb but many of them require a guide and it is not safe to walk in the afternoons because of the risk of being robbed. So we took afternoon Spanish classes and had the mornings free to get outdoors. The photo below is from a walk up and around Xela, which lies in the valley in the background.

Luisa and cow

The next week we climbed two volcanoes, Santa Maria at 3800m and Tajamulco at 4220m (highest point in Central America). Both involved early starts as the it is rainy season and cloud cover obscures the views each afternoon.

Santa Maria was a pleasant day walk of about 5 hours which we did with a guide and small group. Unfortunately the nearby active volcano, Santiaguito, didn´t erupt for us but another one in the distance did, sending up a puff of grey smoke above the cloud layer below us.

Santa Maria, 6am

View, halfway up

Forest and moss


A distant volcano erupts!

Santiaguito Volcano from the summit of Santa Maria

The next day a trip to some hot springs was in order. The setting was a beautiful cloudforest and we had the place to ourselves... apart from some strange wailing sounds from a nearby church group preparing for a baptism.

Luisa in a hot pool

To climb Tajumulco we went with a non profit group led by volunteers - the money goes to a local school. The guides, mostly European or North Americans escaping from real life, live in a flea infested hovel and eat from tips.

Afternoon fog

We met at 4.45 am the first morning to take a series of chicken buses to the start of the walk. The walk was done in short steep bursts with frequent recovery stops. As the day wore on the fog closed in and the rain started, but by 3pm we had reached camp for the night.

Wet tent

We were just getting comfortable in the tent when a we realised a pool of water was forming and soaking through the mats and sleeping bags. Good thing we had helpful guides to swap tents with. A 3.30am start got us to the summit before sunrise where is was a calm and (relatively) warm day. We stayed there for about 40 minutes wrapped in sleeping bags before it became too cold. There was a brief period with views before we were enveloped in cloud that gave an interesting effect to the sunrise.

Roger at the summit


The descent was spectacular. We enjoyed a sunny morning and breakfast back at the camp with some highland cows before following a different route down.

Group descending through the mist

Guatemala: Todos Santos

Heeding warnings not to travel late in the day because of the very real risk of highway robbery, we crossed early into Guatemala. Immediately we were ushered onto a chicken bus while our luggage made its way expertly onto the roof. It took a few days to get on a chicken bus that was actually carrying chickens but here's a good example of one:

Typical Chicken Bus, "Guide Me Jesus Christ"

We caught another chicken bus into the highlands, to a cloud enshrouded pueblo called Todos Santos (All Saints). We stayed here for a couple of days with a Swiss guy and his Guatemalan family. It was by far the cleanest place in town. We cooked together and played badminton with the kids at the site of some Mayan ruins (an old ball court, apparently).

The indigenous residents of this town all wear the same distinctive hand woven clothing. The men wear red striped pants with a blue and white striped top that has a thick colourful collar, and a small hat. The women all wear blue themed woven clothing.

Valley and clouds from La Torre

The first morning we organised a trip up La Torre, the highest non-volcanic peak in Central America (3800m). Unfortunately our clocks were on Mexican time and we were up at 4am instead of 5am. In Todos Santos this was nothing unusual. There are chicken buses blasting their horns on main street from 3am, so we waited and watched the locals go about their early morning rituals. Our guide turned out to be the 14 year old son of the principal of the Spanish school.

Kevin our guide at the summit

Descending La Torre

It's difficult to take photos of people in central and south America because of superstitions about cameras. Many believe that a photo takes away the spirit of a person. Others just dislike being a spectacle for tourists. Once we got in trouble for photographing a sheep. But we did rustle up the courage to ask a few people for photos, and managed to take some sneaky ones from the bus too.

Roger with a friend in traditional dress (minus the Puma jumper)

Market Day, Todos Santos

The dramatic journey from Todos Santos was made in another chicken bus where we squeezed three to a seat while negotiating precipitous turns. We got a good shot of an approaching afternoon storm.

Storm approaching Huehuetenango

Monday, 3 September 2007

Mexico: Taxco, Pacific Coast and Chiapas

From Mexico City we caught a bus to the old silver mining town of Taxco to the southwest. This is a terrific town built on the side of a hill overlooking a forested valley. The narrow, steep streets are clogged with pedestrians and Volkswagons. In Mexico, the majority of taxis are Volkswagon Beetles and the collectivo buses are Combis. We traipsed up the winding alleyways to the top of town where an enormous sculpture of El Cristo has great views of the valley below.

Taxco, silver mining town with colonial buildings

From there we headed for the coast, to a little town just out of Acapulco, Pie de la Cuesta. We discovered that it´s low season so we´re able to bargain for room prices. We stayed at a resort on the beach and sipped cocktails as we watched the sun set over the Pacific.

Horses, Pie de la Cuesta

Mexico is a culinary adventure with cheap tasty food available at any hour of the day and night. It´s a real change from eastern Europe. Most meals come with tortillas and salsa and the obglitory lime, but can also contain beans, meats, seafood, salads, soups, eggs or rice. And the prices are unbelieveably cheap. We´ve been eating like royalty.

Pozole: Corn soup with chicken, pork crackling and avocado

Unfortunately eating is not all good. After some more adventurous meals Luisa developed a stomach bug that required antibiotics and Roger got a cold just as we were leaving Acapulco. We followed the pacific coast for a few days weathering a few days of heavy rain and storms as a result of the hurricane that was luckily on the Carribean coast.

Storm approaching, Playa Ventura

We had a bit of an adventure in Playa Ventura; we arrived on the back of a pickup truck balancing on a pile of watermelons, when we realised a storm was approaching, we were almost out of cash and there was no bank in sight. We spent the night in a wet, dingy "hotel" that accepted Visa (!) as multiple storm clouds passed. We feasted on fried fish and a strange cold seafood soup that they insisted was cooked. At least we didn´t have to squat in someone´s spare room, which was also very kindly offered.

It was a relief to arrive in the touristy/hippie surfing town of Puerto Escondido and find a few comforts. We laid low for a few days to recover in a hostel and met surfers from all over the world. Roger was tempted by the barrelling surf but the recent hurricane had whipped it up into a dangerous state.

VW and sunset, Puerto Escondido

From there we took a couple of days to travel inland to the state of Chiapas famous for its rebel guerrilla movement who fight for indigenous rights. For this reason you see many old gringo hippies who look like they have been there a little too long. San Cristobal de la Casas is in the southern highlands of Mexico. Here there is excellent locally grown organic coffee for sale and cosy cafes with fireplaces where you can get dry and warm after each afternoon downpour.

San Cristobal de las Casas

Artist, San Cristobal

It's election time in Mexico and the candidates are campaigning heavily. It's easy to buy votes here. All you have to do is give away a few brooms:

Buying votes with brooms

We visited the Mayan medicine museum and learned about how they use soft drinks such as coke to induce burping, which apparently expels bad spirits.

Pagoda, San Cristobal