January 9, 2015
( a week later, but trying to get this all caught up)
I decided yesterday I had enough of the lake and riding around in boats. The website from Posada de los Volcanes said they had a day long highlands tour to see some places away from the lake. I had asked about the tour when I checked in and was told a minimum of three people were required. After checking out Panajachel, I came back and Francisco told me he had checked with the other local agencies and no one else had requested the tour. So I could go if I would pay for three people, and I decided to do that. So after an early breakfast (pancakes, papaya, orange juice, and coffee), the van pulled up. I climbed up in the front seat with Elias ready for a day's adventure with him.
Elias, I had been told, was a driver, not a guide. However, he spoke English quite well as he had lived in the U.S. for a year. He had previously worked as a paramedic and continues in the volunteer fire department. He had been sent to study fire-fighting for 6 months in Baton Rouge, Louisiana at Southern University, and then after that he worked for United Way for six months. He is48, married, and has two adolescent/young adult daughters and a dog (toy poodle).
So we set out on the one real road in and out of Panajachel that connects to the Pan-American Highway. This time we turned left to head toward Quetzaltenango, Guatemala's second largest city (per Elias 2 million, per Wikipedia 225,000). Elias told me there is a fair amount of drug traffic on this highway as not far beyond Xela (as people refer to Quetzaltenango) is the border with Mexico. The road was decent, two lanes in each direction through low mountains and up and down, passing small towns. I was surprised to see some tuk-tuks putt-putting on this road (the little golf carts used as local taxis) and was told they aren't supposed to be there. I asked if the police patrol the road, like for speeding. Essentially that does not happen. They are more concerned with vehicles having proper registration and drivers having proper licenses (means they can stay at check points and just check paperwork). There weren't any check points that we had to go through.
We turned off the road before reaching Xela to go to San Francisco Altos which has a Friday market. We had to pay to enter the town. We parked in a parking lot at the outskirts of the market and I was free to go wander on my own. This market had no tourists (except me I think). It filled blocks and blocks of the town with people packed together pushing and moving. As I made my way around just about everything was sold there in one section or another from fruits and vegetables, fish, meat and chicken, textiles, pots and pans, shoes, hats, clothing, furniture, and on and on. I walked up to the church (which I had read you could go to the top of for a good view, but I couldn't see anyway to do that and no person inside that looked like someone to ask). Fortunately with my good sense of direction I made my way back and actually found the parking lot and Elias. We left and he asked me if I saw the area where the animals were sold. I said no and he told me it was way on the other side of the town, but they sold every kind of animal there - I was sorry I hadn't known and had missed that.
As we continued on our way, he took me to a fairly new residential area in a place called Salcaja. On one block in the middle is a church, the oldest church in central America, the Church of San Jacinto, founded in 1524. I could only see the church from the outside as the fence around the block was locked and the church was closed up. It is also known as La Conquistadora("The Conqueror") presumably because of the time period and its religious influence on the indigenous population. After 490 years and several earthquakes, the building still is in relatively good condition. Then we drove around the block and he told me were making a stop not on the itinerary. We stopped in front of a house and he knocked on the door. He told me this was a house where caldo de fruta is made, a fruit based liquor that is not available commercially. This homemade liquor is vivid red in color due to the brewing of hibiscus flower with several native fruits. A man invited us in and went and got me a glass of this liquor with a little bowl of fruits that had apparently been sitting in the liquor for some time. I took a few sips; it was very good, reminiscent of sangria. I was given the opportunity to buy a bottle, but it was only available in a large Johnny Walker bottle, and I really did not want so much and had no real space to pack it up to get it home.
Back in the van and on we drove to a turnoff for Las Fuentes Georginas. The road curved as we drove through very fertile farmland planted with all sorts of vegetables in small adjoining fields. The scenery was very beautiful and as we got higher one could see the volcanoes across the valley. We arrived at Las Fuentes Georginas, hot springs from the Zunil Volcano. For a weekday, this place was busy. The parking lot was just about full. There was a small natural pool near the parking lot and then inside three pools built next to a high rock - hot, medium, tepid. I changed in the changing area into my bathing suit and checked out the hot and the medium pools. There were old and young there - some in the water in clothes, most in bathing suits, and one older woman in the pool topless. I enjoyed the warmth of the water, chatted with some children and their grandmother, and once I was saturated got out, dried in the sun and changed back into my clothes, carefully watched by Elias.
As we walked out, the scenery changed as some large clouds were now floating around the volcanos across the valley. We got in the van and drove back down the same road passing the vegetable fields. We drove through the small town of Zunil, a town of about 14,000 indigenous people. Per Wikipedia- A crater on Mars, which may be the source of Mars meteorites, is named after the village.
We then continued for about 5 miles into the city of Quetzeltenango. We went to the city center which is a large square surrounded by some big buildings. Elias directed me to a restaurant for lunch, Almador, known I guess for its fried chicken. I ordered a chicken taco which was more like an enchilada than a taco, but fine for lunch. I went across the street to the museum was to be part of this trip. I t was the Museum of Natural History with a sign in front that it was closed because the staff was on vacation. I wandered around, went in the market, and saw everything I needed to in about 30 minutes. My reference notes Quetzaltenango is known in Guatemala as "The City that is the Soul of Culture". The city has a lively music scene, and is home to numerous jazz and blues bands in addition to musicians playing in the native style. There is also a broader art scene focused on painting, singing and sculpture. Xela, the center of Quetzaltenango, is major tourist destination, and the city also attracts a large number of students seeking to learn Spanish. I seemed to have missed all of this. The city is supposed to have some fine art museums, but I never made it anywhere near them. I had the name of one written down, but there didn't seem to be any chance that Elias would have gotten me there.
So we left Quetzeltenango about 3:30 and drove pack to Panajachel, arriving some time after 5.On the way we stopped for a quick visit to the San Andres Xecul Church. The church was built around 1900. It is unique with a bright yellow facade with over 200 painted sculptures of human figures, monkeys, quetzal birds, fruit, and corn. According to many, the design and color frontispiece is inspired by the local huipil.(the women's upper body covering. ) The dome which was difficult to photograph is painted like a birghtly colored beach ball. While the church is Catholic, the town itself is an important center for the Mayan religion. I was not allowed to take pictures in the church which has candles, gory images of Jesus, and chandeliers made from glass stones, rosary beads, and coins. As we drove out of the small town, I commented on the number of billboards I saw advertising musical groups. Elias told me the town is known for its musical groups.
All of those sights were the high points of the highlands that I had not seen, so I am glad I went. There was a crepe restaurant across the street that I had wanted to try, but it was closed. I ate dinner a few doors up from the hotel at a small Italian restaurant, Tuscani, that was full of people and had been full the night before so I thought it had to be good. I had chicken picata on a bed of spaghetti and it was just the right size and very good. A short walk back and time to say Good Night.