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Te Chirrepeco

As a lover of tea (especially chai), I was pretty ecstatic when Krista mentioned a cinnamon tea grown on a local cooperative in Guatemala. At her suggestion I asked our lovely host mom, Sonia, if she might be able to tell me where to buy Te Chirrepeco, and she was quick to tell me that she would buy and prepare it for Tom and I. I tried my best to dissuade her from actually buying the tea but she refused to listen—and every morning till the day we left there was piping hot cinnamony-goodness waiting for us!

This little box makes twelve cups of tea and costs about twenty cents. All that’s required is to boil some water with a few cinnamon sticks, add a few leaves and let it steep for a while. Not only does it taste amazing but, according to the cooperative website, some of the health properties include:

1. Strengthens mental capacity
2. Increases energy
3. It eliminates the bodies absorption of heavy metals like lead and mercury
4. Helps to reduce cholesterol levels
5. Contributes to the decrease in uric acid and much more

It is an absolutely divine tea and great for cold mornings in Xela. If you are interested if buying some I believe you should be able to order it here.

Needing a break from 4 weeks of Spanish immersion we decided to get out of Xela for a weekend. Seeing Lago Atitlan seemed like the way to go and, for once, we traveled without Marlin. We caught the direct chicken bus to San Pedro from the bus station at 2pm though there are buses which leave at all hours – you just have to ask around. Sonia, the best home-stay mom ever, was appalled that we were skipping almuerzo (lunch) and packed up a tasty meal for us which we devoured on the bus.

Chicken buses are not the most comfortable transport but they are the cheapest way to get around Guatemala. There are tour companies that offer direct transport (with probably more comfortable seats) all over Guatemala but they charge you for it. It costs $14 USD/person one way to San Pedro whereas taking the chicken bus was only $3 USD/person one way. Personally, I don’t think the private buses are worth it as you take the same bumpy roads. Save the cash, experience typical Guatemalan transport and stay in a nicer hostel.

During the Vietnam war, Lago Atitlan (particularly the town of Panajachel) was a place where war-dodgers fled to avoid conscription. Once the civil war in Guatemala started most foreigners left the area while the battle for human and civil rights raged for nearly thirty years. In 1996 the hostilities ended and the Lake slowly returned back to a tourist destination.

Lago Atitlan

Lago Atitlan

The lake is beautiful. And it was warm! After freezing in Xela we were pretty excited to be in flip-flops and t-shirts. We spent the Friday night in San Pedro, a popular hangout for the bohemian set. Marijuana and coffee are the main crops and we were approached by more than one young guy trying to sell ‘the lake weed’. We did see signs for pretty cheap Spanish classes, about $55 for 4 hours a day, 5 days per week and accommodation is relatively inexpensive. Personally I think it would be a bit boring after a week or so but there were a number of bohos who looked like they had been there for a long time.

Boat Trip on Lago Atitlan

Boat Trip on Lago Atitlan

The next day we took a boat over the lake to the esoteric San Marcos. The small community is home to mediation courses, reiki, yoga and many other holistic therapies. People come here to complete courses in new age theology which last from 1 to 3 months, or just to participate for a few days. The most famous center in San Marcos is called, Los Piramides, a place where you can take the Moon-course or the Sun-course, both which end with compulsory periods of silence. We had a look around and wandered into their herb garden, in the shape of a pyramid of course, where just about every type of medicinal plant is grown and they can be purchased in the small store for fairly hefty prices.

Las Piramides

Las Piramides

Astral Travelling sounds interesting...

Course Options at Las Piramides

Lakeside in San Marcos

Lakeside in San Marcos

We had to head back to Xela on Sunday and were lucky enough to catch a bus. On Sundays the bus leaves at 8am, we had been told 10am, and when we reached the bus station we were told there were no buses to Xela. Luckily, we met some people from Xela who knew the route back. We grabbed the bus headed to Guatemala City and then switched buses where the road meets the main highway to Guatemala City. Turns out the bus to Xela wasn’t in the best condition as the seat Tom and I had was broken and had slid forward making it a tight squeeze for two long-legged gringos!

Tight Fit on the Bus

Tight Fit on the Bus

Xela’s Superchivos

Xela happens to be home to the craziest soccer fans in all of Guatemala, or so they say. Keen to check out a soccer game in Central America we attended two games in the last few weeks and enjoyed them immensely.

Of course we wore the team colours!

The best part was sitting in the La Curva Diabla (The Devil’s Curve)–where the serious aficionados (fans) reside. A brass band, drums and a sea of red jerseys help support the Xela-Ju Superchivos (Super Rams). Add in a tonne of swear words and offensive (yet really funny) cheers, an element of danger and you find yourself in the midst of football madness. And since sport fans can get out of hand the on-site crowd control in Xela consists of military soldiers and riot police on the field!

Xela-Ju’s Superchivos! from Kels M on Vimeo.

We have been in Xela for a little over two weeks now and it has been rather interesting to meet and chat with the Guatemalans. They are a polite, friendly and hard-working people who are more than ready to explain their history or discuss politics if you ask. One thing that I have noticed in particular is that they have time for you, in fact, they will make time for you, and we found that they really do want to help you … no strings attached. If you need directions, a recommendation or anything else they are more than willing to help you out (which really helps since the highways don’t have signs).

We arrived late last Sunday night to our Spanish school and were dropped off at our homestay house. It would be a bit of an understatement to say we were a bit surprised at our new surroundings. It has made me appreciate how lucky we are at home and I suppose that as you get older (Ack!) your standards change a bit. What we were able to handle at 21 has changed a little bit. Things that seem to be completely standard in Xela are a lack of hot water and power outages at all times of the week. Somehow (we really cannot figure it out) water is heated in the shower in this crazy contraption:

All things considered I do think Guatemala is on its way to becoming a stable nation. After a horrible civil war from 1960 – 1996, where over 200, 000 Guatemalans were killed, a million left homeless and thousands just disappeared, Guatemalans are trying very hard to change the world’s view about themselves and their nation. They are making the effort to move away from the violence, which swallowed up the country for much too long. My Spanish teacher told me yesterday that at the age of 10 he had watched two televised executions, one by firing squad and the other by lethal injection. Stunned I asked him if he thought that seeing this type of violence as a child had any long term affects, he shrugged and replied, “Yes, but everyone would tune in to see them.” This only solidified that fact that those of us in the western world cannot really understand the atrocities these people, and many others, have been exposed to in the past century.

All of this aside, things do seem to be looking up here. Education and literacy are extremely important and many young people are expecting to attend university to find work. The indigenous people are much more integrated into society that those of Mexico and there are serious discrimination laws in effect. Should you ask anyone in Guatemala what group they belong to the only response you will get is,” Soy Guatemalteco.” (I am Guatemalan).

Of course, there are still lots of violent activities and child kidnapping seems to be huge issue here (we watched an anti violence and kidnapping protest in the main square). And everyone, both tourist, ex-pat and national alike will tell you to avoid Guatemala City. From what we have heard it sounds extremely dangerous.
On the lighter side we visited Fuentes Georginas, beautiful hot springs, about 35 minutes outside of Xela. After a very cold week both inside the classroom and at our home stay we were overjoyed to jump into the scalding waters and warm up. Interestingly enough most of the visitors to the springs were cold-looking tourists.

Tasty rum and cheap!

We have a couple more weeks of one-on-one Spanish at ICA for 5 hours a day. And when we are not conjugating verbs we are planning to hunt down San Simon, a famous Mayan hero, check out a finca (coffee plantation) and take a trip to the beautiful Lago Atitlan.

We crossed into Guatemala at the Melchor de Mencos border. To our surprise things went pretty smoothly as most of the information out there about crossing the Guatemalan border implied that it would be absolutely insane. We canceled both our tourist and car permit at the Belizean border and drove through a fumigation tunnel into Guatemala.

We paid the $3 for the delightful fumigation and headed over to immigration… no problems; Canadians and New Zealanders are eligible for a 90 days tourist permit, so we handed over our passports and asked for the full 90 days, our books were stamped and we paid the 20 quetzales to enter the country. We shifted counters to obtain our car permit — again a very simple process, we had arrived prepared and produced photocopies of our licenses, car registration and passports. The official filled out a document, gave us a sticker and then we paid a small importation fee. With all that done in less than half an hour we left the border not, of course, without paying a random town fee for “various” items.

We had a lot of ground to cover so we got moving right away, border zones are rumoured to be unsafe areas so we bee-lined it straight to the highway without stopping. The funny thing is there aren’t any highway signs so you really have no idea where you are or if you’re headed the right way. Our Spanish is good enough to ask for directions and we were pleased to find out that Guatemalans are extremely friendly and have a great knowledge of their country. Everyone we asked for directions happily pointed us to the right road. So, other than the fact that the roads weren’t signed and our map didn’t include a lot of the back roads, it wasn’t too bad. After 6 hours of driving, on a newly yet numberless paved highway, and a rather interesting boat/ferry (check out the video below) we made it to Coban.

Guatemalan Ferry from Kels M on Vimeo.

The following morning we got up early because we needed to make it to Quetzaltenango (or Xela, pronounced Shay-la, by the locals) by the end of the day. After some discussion with the hotel manager we found a route, which bypassed Guatemala City, the notoriously dangerous capital that we won’t be visiting. We took a beautiful, though long, route through the highlands which did have us on the edge of our seats looking out for crazy drivers, trucks overflowing with passengers and potholes the size of Marlin while trying to check out the amazing scenery. The road went from slippery mud to perfectly paved and back again. We are proud to report that our little VW handled the journey in fine form!

Driving in Guatemala from Kels M on Vimeo.