The towns and villages surrounding Quetzaltenango make for some interesting day trips. Found nearby are the Santa María and Santiaguito Volcanoes, hot springs, Indian markets, colorful churches, and an exquisite crater lake.
Zunil is one of a handful of towns in Guatemala where there is still strong adherence to the worship of the Maximón idol, as in Santiago Atitlán.About 15 kilometers southeast of Xela is the spectacularly set town of Zunil. You’ll see the white Iglesia de Santa Catarina gleaming from a distance as it towers above the tiled- and tin-roofed houses around it. Lovely mountains flank its surroundings. Zunil is one of a handful of towns in Guatemala where there is still strong adherence to the worship of the Maximón idol, as in Santiago Atitlán. The idol’s location is rotated yearly, but it’s easy to find out its whereabouts from any local resident, assuming the local children don’t first intercept you and offer their guiding services for a small tip. It’s known locally as San Simón and, unlike elsewhere, visitors here can actually pour liquor offerings down the effigy’s throat. You’ll probably be charged around $1 to see it, more if you want to take photographs. Zunil’s annual fiesta takes place on November 25.
About half a kilometer south of town is Las Cumbres (tel. 5399-0029 or 5304-2102, 7am-7pm daily), a superb establishment harboring steam baths, beautiful accommodations housed in quaint red-tiled-roof cottages with mountain views, and a restaurant (all meals daily) serving mostly Guatemalan dishes but also sandwiches and wine. Its 11 rooms range $33-50 d and have nice wooden furnishings with warm wool blankets, private bathrooms, cable TV, CD player, and plenty of rustic charm. Some have their own in-room hot tubs. If you don’t want to stay but just want a steam bath, you can have a private sauna for $5. Room rates include sauna access. There are also a squash court, pool table, and a small gym.
A popular day trip from Xela with locals as well as visitors, the Fuentes Georginas hot springs (office in Xela at 5a Calle 14-08 Zona 1, tel. 5704-2959 or 7761-6547, 8am-6:30pm Mon.-Sat., 7am-5pm Sun., $7) were hit hard by Hurricanes Mitch and Stan but it was 2010’s Agatha that dealt them the final blow. The first of these wiped out a Hellenic statue that once gazed upon the pools. The site reopened in March 2011 and is again up and running, though the large main pool now has water so hot it’s better suited for cooking lobster than for soaking. A medium-sized and small pool offer slightly more comfortable water temperatures. In addition to the wonderfully warm thermal pools you can enjoy a fairly decent restaurant serving cocktails overlooking the emerald-green waters surrounded by tropical ferns and flowers. There are also sheltered picnic areas with barbecue pits for which you’ll need to bring your own fuel. Trails lead to the Zunil and Santo Tomás Volcanoes with guides available at the restaurant for about $15. The hikes require about 3-5 hours one-way. There are accommodations available ($40 d), but they are very basic and not recommendable.
To get here, you can first take a bus to Zunil leaving frequently from Xela’s Minerva bus terminal and then take a pickup the rest of the way (eight kilometers) to the hot springs. You can also walk from Zunil in about two hours. Head out from the plaza going uphill to the Cantel road (about 60 meters), turning right, and then going downhill to where you’ll see a sign for the hot springs indicating their distance eight kilometers away. The easy way to get here is to book a trip through any of the local guide companies, including Adrenalina Tours, which runs transfers to the site at 8am and 2pm for $16. Fuentes Georginas also shuttles visitors from its office in Xela for $16 departing at 9am and 2:30pm. The price includes entry fee.
From the nearby village of San Martín Sacatepéquez, 15 kilometers west of Xela, it’s a two-hour hike to the magical Laguna Chicabal, ringed by lush cloud forest in a spectacular volcanic crater at an altitude of 2,700 meters (8,900 feet). The lagoon can be reached by taking the signed path on the side of the road from where the bus drops you off heading into town. From there you’ll go uphill through fields, cresting and descending a hill. You’ll soon see the rangers’ station, where you pay a $2 park entrance fee. If you’ve driven out this way, parking costs an additional $1.30. There’s a rustic visitors center here where you can get food. There are also some very basic bungalows with a (cold-water) shared bathroom. Bring your own sleeping bag if you’re thinking of staying here. You can camp on the shore of the lagoon for $1.30, though most folks end up camping at the visitors center.
From the visitors center it’s about 45 minutes to an hour, uphill, to a wonderful lookout point where you might catch a glimpse of the fantastic crater lake ringed by verdant cloud forest. Most of the time, however, the clouds have the view completely socked in. Opposite of the lagoon lookout is another lookout toward Santa María and Santiaguito Volcanoes; both have covered observation platforms. From the lookout, a trail of stairs descends to the lakeshore and the gorgeous lagoon, which is caressed by wisps of cloud just barely glancing the waters’ surface. You’ll soon realize why it’s considered sacred by modern-day Maya and a central element of their creation myths. An annual event includes 40 continuous days of prayers for rain and healing, ending on May 3. During the last few days culminating on this date, the lagoon is essentially off-limits to outsiders so as to allow the ceremonies to proceed undisturbed.
Bathing in the lagoon’s waters is strictly off-limits at all times and, as always, you should be careful to respect the native culture by not photographing any ceremonies that might be in progress throughout the year. You’ll find the locals extremely friendly and willing to answer your questions if you put forth the effort to inquire amicably. As always, a smile goes a long way.
San Andrés Xecul
A road branches off to the west from a crossroads between Salcajá and the Pan-American Highway junction at Cuatro Caminos leading to San Andrés Xecul, home to a stunning Technicolor dream of a church festooned with vines, saints, and assorted other characters. It’s easily one of Guatemala’s most photographed churches, and certainly one of its most bizarre. It’s certainly worth a look.
Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Guatemala.