So it’s Friday the 13th and we are headed back to Guatemala (GT). We were not certain how this border crossing would go as we’d read that some GT borders will not allow your vehicle back in right away if you have not been outside the country for 90 days since you’re last vehicle permit. So… taking advantage of the fact that we have two passports, we decided to enter on our Canadian ones this time. We had asked for the GT border control when we left two weeks ago to cancel our visa on our US passport, but still, we had concerns as to whether that actually happened. We did get an exit stamp in our passports, and they took our vehicle permit, however…..
We got through Mexican immigration really quickly – actually Fran parked outside while Doug went in without her! Since we did not have to cancel the permit for Tigger, (since it is now a ten year one with no deposit tied to it), exiting was quick. Doug paid the exit fees and off we went the 6km through the free zone, to the Guatemala border.
Here, as when we crossed from Belize six weeks ago, fumigation is the first step. Then you park and walk into the immigration office. We gave them our CDN passports, only to be asked for proof that we’d legally left Mexico – WTH? So they took Fran’s US passport and Doug’s CDN one and stamped us in – again WTH? So we asked that they stamp Fran’s CDN passport as well so we showed those at the Vehicle Permit office. They processed it and there were no fees associated with this. We paid the 18 quetzal fee for the fumigation and went to the Vehicle Permit window next door (we had to move Tigger for this – it was literally next door!). This part, as usual, took the longest. The woman was very kind and took all our documents and got it sorted. Doug asked if we could get a longer visa/permit in both offices (as we are leaving for six weeks next month and you only get the 90 days for all the C4 countries. No dice from either office; have to apply for the one allowable extension in Guatemala City before they expire. Oh well, worth the try. At this border crossing into GT a sticker was placed on our windshield; this did not happen crossing from Belize.
There was not much to see and do before reaching the city of Quetzaltenango (aka Xela pronounced Shayla) so we drove the whole 160km today. The weather was still good but as in the past few weeks, the sky is never perfectly blue; we’re not sure if it’s this way because rainy season is approaching, the heat (at lower altitudes) or the burning that seems to go on a lot. The drive was slow as the roads are windy and you pass through many small villages; these too are difficult to drive through as markets are going on (on the main street of course), buses are trying to back up or make U-turns – it can be crazy. There are not as many tumulos (speed bumps – not called topes like in Mexico) and of course, some bad sections of road or extremely slow vehicles. There is a lot of congestion as, like in Mexico, people double & triple park, buses/combies stop wherever and without warning most of the time. There is farming going on where there is land it seems; on hillsides, beside the road, beside shops and you see people moving dirt to accommodate this a great deal. The land has been clear cut in so many places to allow farming. It’s quite sad that the citizens have to resort to this. We have read that 3% of the people own 90% of the land in GT.
Sidebar: as we drove towards Xela, we noticed more English on signs than we saw in rural Mexico. Guatemalans seem to like certain English words/phrases. The one we saw the most was “car wash” and man, there are a lot of them. In Mexico, many tiendas (small shops) have signs advertising beer brands, here there are some of those but lots also advertising Aleve and Alka Seltzer!
We got to Xela around lunch time and there are not a lot of choices for overlanders – no campgrounds at all, just a few boondocking sites and some hotels. We read of a spot near a McDonald’s where someone parked overnight and went to check it out. There are 24/7 security guards at this McD’s and we asked them about parking across the road in the vacant lot; they said they were not aware you could do that but that we could park here at the back of the McD’s lot and they’d keep an eye on 0ur vehicle. We did this and gave them a tip. This meant we could get free Wi-Fi inside as well as use their bathrooms if we wanted.
We are going to be in GT for about three months (minus our trip home) so we went to the nearby mall to see about getting cell and internet service. There is a Wal-Mart at this mall and so after getting some info, we did a bit of shopping and went back to Tigger. There are three cell providers here: Tigo, Claro and Movistar. A couple of locals have told us the first has the most coverage but the second has better promotions and is a little cheaper.
We had a quiet night (for the most part but are feeling a bit of the elevation difference – we are now at over 7800’/2300m). Doug wants to do some mountain hikes here (Fran, not so much!) so after trying a few pharmacies, he got himself some Diamox to help with altitude while doing them.
Saturday, we awoke to clear blue skies and no haziness at all – a “blue sky day” as we used to say in Beijing. Around 11 am we took a taxi into El Centro with a driver who had his family in the car with them. They insisted on all piling in the front while we sat in back. Doug made the two young boys a balloon animal and we were able to converse in some Spanish and English. We got dropped off at the city square where we strolled for a while and found ourselves at a tourist office where we booked a tour for the next morning for an “easy” hike to the mirador (lookout) to see the volcano Santaguita which erupts almost daily – smoke and ash only, not lava. Doug had seen the cloud of smoke the morning before but was not aware which volcano it was from at the time.
We spent another night at McDonald’s and we were picked up at 5am by a small van, then picked up another tourist downtown, then the guide, Romeo and we were dropped at the trailhead at 5:35 – it was now light outside without a cloud in the sky.
Sidebar: Mexico has recently surpassed the US in obesity rates; we notice that here in GT, there are not nearly as many obese/fat people as back in Mexico.
The trail was really just a path where water probably flowed after a heavy rain and we walked past a lot of garbage (sadly). We climbed up for about 40 minutes when the trail leveled out for the most part to the end where the “mirador” was located. Somehow we expected a more formal mirador but it was just a flat spot on the trail where you could see the crater off to the left. It partway up the Volcano Santa Maria. There was a constant small plume of smoke on the side facing us and the odd smaller weaker plume coming from the back side. The weather was still good, but a little chilly until the sun came over the mountain behind us, then it warmed up nicely.
The other member of our little group was a young woman named Diana from Portugal. She is a well-educated researcher currently working in Scotland in the field of agricultural and climate change. She is in GT getting info on how the locals, government and agencies are dealing with the current environmental changes. She speaks Portuguese, French, Spanish and English.
Unfortunately, Santaguita decided not to put on much of a show for us although the smoke did increase but never into an eruption/mushroom cloud. After hanging around for a couple of hours, it began to fog up and clouds rolled in so thick we couldn’t see much at all so we cashed out and began the trek down. Fran did not find this hike “easy”. For most of the hike, you are on small sunken dirt tracks with loose rock which make it easy to slip, there are sections of small boulders and the first section was steeper than she’d like. Her knees were not happy even though she remembered to bring a walking stick. We were supposed to return to the city on public transit (aka a “chicken bus”), which would have been an experience, but to our surprise, a van with the same driver was waiting for us at the trailhead when we got down. He drove Diana back to her hotel and took us back to McDonald’s. We showered (in Tigger), changed and ate a very late breakfast before heading over to the mall again to get the cell and internet we’d decided on set up.
This process, like back in Mexico last October is painfully slow. We were there about two hours during which time there was a torrential downpour – this is the beginning of the rainy season so at least we were dry! It’s the little things, right?
Chicken Buses – although you rarely see people with chickens on them anymore:
Sidebar: Before we entered Mexico last year, we had arranged for vehicle insurance with a company prior to crossing the border. Here in GT car insurance is NOT mandatory but we wanted to get at least 3rd party liability. There is only ONE company that does it and they are located in Flores (near Tikal) and Guatemala City – which we have not been to as yet and you cannot do it online. So we went that first week without insurance but wanted to get some when we got back here. Doug finally called after getting no response to email and we got that sorted out and it covers us El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica BUT it is only 3rd party. You cannot seem to get anything more. Our American insurance will not cover us at all outside the US/Canada.
We walked back to Tigger and decided we had probably overstayed our welcome at Mickey Dee’s so we decided to check out a parking lot downtown that we’d seen on Saturday when we wandered around downtown that had also been mentioned on iOverlander. Most of the lots here have these archways over the entrance that are too low for Tigger to pass under but we’d found one that had a back entrance with no archway. We drove downtown and after making our way through the narrow streets found the right one only to see that half way down the block on this one-way street there was an archway! Yikes! Fran got out and watched the roof and we cleared it with about 1.5 inches to spare as long as we drove in the middle of the arch. Phew! That could have been a nightmare as the streets are all one way down here! The woman inside said we could park overnight and that the fees wer for 12 hour periods. We paid for that night not wanting to commit until we know how quiet the area was at night. She showed us where to park and about two hours later asked us to move to the other side (?).
We got parked and went out for a beer. We had tried to have one at this bar overlooking the square on Saturday afternoon but after fifteen minutes of waiting to be served, we’d left. We had better luck today and enjoyed a drink and snacks listening to music from the square before going back to Tigger to get some stuff done and spend the night. That night there was a parade down the street where we were parked but it did not last long and the rest of the night was pretty quiet.
Monday morning, the parking lady asked us to move again if we were planning to stay so after a 19 point turn it seemed, we got resituated. Today we ran some errands, walked, did Spanish and mostly hung out and caught up on email etc. We are now using Pimsleur lessons to complement our workbooks and are pretty dedicated to doing an hour a day. It has been helping a great deal and we recommend this by far over Rosetta Stone which we had tried several years ago. Doug is getting very good at being understood and his “ear” is improving.
That night Fran began smelling propane – again! If you’ve been following us, we had just had a leak fixed two months in a line back in Cancun. This was not a good situation. We turned off the gas and the next morning as soon as we left the parking lot we’d been camping in, we drove back to the McDonalds we had camped at previously so that Doug could look for the problem while parked on asphalt not dirt. Our tank was down below half which seemed low since we’d filled it after the repair. We usually get 4-6 months on our tank. Unfortunately, we could not pinpoint a leak so we went to look for a gas place in the hopes of finding a mechanic there. After the usual three sets of directions from three different people, we found a place and we found a gentleman who actually spoke English as he’d spent some time living in the US. He helped Doug when needed to translate our problem and a mechanic diagnosed that our new regulator was leaking – WTH? – it was only two months old. If you recall we replaced this part back in Cancun because we thought that was the cause of our original leak – it turned out it wasn’t but we’d left it on. Guess we had some foresight when we kept the old regulator and Fran pulled it out of the back storage bin. The mechanic had us move over into his garage and very kindly removed the “new” one and replaced it with the old one – and voila – no leak. He didn’t even want to charge us but we gave him a tip for his time. We then filled up with gas and headed to our next destination: Fuentes Georginas.
This is a popular hot springs high in the mountains about a half hour outside Xela – it was a pretty climb through towns and hillsides covered in agricultural fields. They really make use of the land they can here in the mountains as they have no flat fields to farm on. Sadly they clear cut large sections as well but they seem to use first world ideas regarding watering and soil fertilization from what we could see.
We were almost there when Fran notice that there was a huge plume of smoke and ash beside the Santa Maria Volcano – that meant that Santaguita had erupted! That was what we hiked to see on Sunday and here on a beautiful sunny morning, we got to see it. Fran had been watching around Santa Maria to see if we’d be so lucky and had glanced that direction only five minutes before so it had just happened and it was quite large. Doug managed to find a place to pull over a bit (this road is super narrow with vegetable fields on both sides) and we stopped to watch for a while. This was a pleasant bonus.
We got to the hot springs around ten and there were not many cars in the lot – this was good because the lot is small and we intended to camp overnight here – they charge you 10Q to park for 24 hours. We had to pay two daily entry fees for the hot springs but that gave us 24/7 access.
After parking, we met a couple from Lago Atitlan (which is the in direction we are heading) and they gave us some tips. He is Guatemalan and his wife is British. Chus & Louisa have been married 18 years and practice natural healing in Central America. We had a late brekkie and went for a soak in the thermal waters. They have six pools here and the main three have a restaurant, bar and bathrooms beside them. The largest pool is here and there were a couple of dozen people here. The tour buses from Xela arrive around ten so it was getting busier but certainly not crowded. The clouds had begun to come in while we were soaking and the sun never came out again today so we were lucky to see this morning’s eruption. There are also two pools right by the entrance to the parking lot but they looked like they’d just been emptied and were being refilled by the hot springs at one end. As in the main area, the spring feeds the larger pool and the overflow pours into the lower one/s.
We met a man named Erwin in the pool, who was born in GT but spent 18 years in Texas growing up and has returned to live here and arranges tours. He spoke about his country with great fondness and is glad to be back and is also trying to educate farmers about selling their produce without using a middle man.
After getting quite “pruney” feeling we went back to Tigger to do some of our daily things including walking and Spanish. It began to rain midafternoon and the second daily round of tour buses came and went. We pulled out the Scrabble board and stayed indoors until it stopped. Later, we got back into our bathing suits and returned to the main pools. Here we met a few more GT’s who had spent time in the US and a couple of men from Boston one of whom was originally born here in GT.
It poured that night again but we awoke on Wednesday to clear skies. This morning we took the short hike downhill from the parking lot to find the last pools. These turned out to be the nicest looking ones with the clearest water – we wished we’d found them yesterday. We had planned to check them out in the afternoon but due to the rain we had not. The signs say you have to wear swim suits but we’d walked down here without and were alone so we risked it and had a little skinny dip in the hot pools. Sorry, no photos!
After returning to Tigger, we had brekkie and drove back through Xela west to the town of San Marcos where we hoped to spend the night and find Doug a guide to climb Volcano Tajumulco – the tallest peak in Central America. We arrived at the town and asked about parking overnight and guides. After a few of the usual misdirections we found a couple of policemen, one of whom spoke some English. He said there were no guides in San Marcos and that we should head to the town itself where we’d find hotels, parking and guides.
Perhaps we misunderstood him (but probably not) but we after driving a windy climbing and descending 40kms we arrived in the village of Tajumulco which turns out is 10 kms past the trailhead and after looking for parking, we again approached a police officer. He showed us where we could park across the street from the station where we’d be safe and said he could find Doug a guide.
Well, we were the spectacle of the day here. The entire police force (it seemed) showed up to inspect and view our home, ask questions and generally be rather nosy. Then crowds of other men joined them and it was getting quite uncomfortable. Doug enjoyed practicing Spanish but after awhile it became too much. It must have been 90 minutes before they all left and more people showed up later knocking at the door asking to see inside! The officer we’d originally spoken with found Doug a fellow officer to act as a guide and that’s when we learned that the trailhead was back down the road and they’d need a cab to get there. So it was arranged that the guide would meet Doug at five and they’d catch a taxi to the trailhead.
This was going to be quite an elevation climb and Fran’s knees do not enjoy this type of activity so she stayed behind and took care of some things in the rig etc.
Doug returned from his hike around 11, way sooner than expected and was quite happy to have completed the hike with Alex and make it all the way to the top. Alex was not really a guide but had summited previously. Turns out that they took a “different” route to the top but they made it up. Doug had purchased Diamox a few days ago and had taken a few in the past couple of days and suffered no ill effects from the altitude. Fran was happy he was back early as she felt uncomfortable leaving the rig and did not want to stay in this town longer than necessary.
Doug unpacked his bag, changed and we headed back down to Xela where we parked back at the McDonald’s for free for one more night.
Sidebar: Another comparison to Mexico: many guidebooks in Mexico reference “traditional dress” of the locals when describing the small rural or isolated villages. Here in GT, you see women in traditional skirts/tops/blankets everywhere, both in urban and rural environments. You rarely see men in clothing and we have not really received a reasonable explanation for this as yet.
As we have now been in this area for a week we were ready to check out somewhere new. We decided we’d head to Lago Atitlan where we hope to spend at least a week and we made a slight detour enroute to San Andres Xecul to see an interesting little church we’d read about. It’s called the “yellow church” and the front façade is painted bright yellow with statues and whimsical little features, like musicians, ferries, and cats in very bright colours. The inside was not so unique but very dark and somber inside and we were told no photos.
We left San Andres after picking up some fresh veggies at some street stalls and hit the Pan Am highway (known as CA1 here in GT) and to our delight, it was a four lane smooth paved highway with some actual shoulder in places. This was about 50kms long and even after the turn to Panajachal – our destination on the lake – the road was in good shape but super windy. We found a hotel that offers camping with power/water/pool and wifi near the office and settled