Guatemala / Ecuador 2017
Friday 7/28/2017 - Animal Market, San Andres Xecul, Xela (Quetzaltenango), Fuentes Georginas Hot SpringsToday we had a very busy day of sightseeing to the northwest of Lake Atitlan. Aracely and Eddy did not have summer classes today, so they joined us, along with Humberto, Paulina, and Ian. Humberto drove us in the van. On our way out of Panajachel, we stopped at a bodega to buy some drinks and snacks for the ride.
It took approximately two hours to reach the animal market in San Francisco el Alto. We had visited here before in 2013. It is an interesting place to visit, where locals gather to buy and sell animals. This includes livestock (cows, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, geese, turkeys) as well as pets (dogs, cats, lizards, birds, bunnies, squirrels). We thought that the Tolers would enjoy it, since it's not the kind of thing that we encounter in the Boston area.
We climbed a steep path to the market grounds, which were up on a plateau which had a gorgeous view of the surrounding mountains. We enjoyed walking around, looking at the various animals and observing the transactions going on. It is a bustling, noisy affair with lots to see. The pigs are the noisiest; when purchased, they never want to go with their new owners and squeal loudly. We saw one man "kicking the tires" on a pig before buying it. He pinned it to the ground with his knee and forced its mouth open to check on the condition of its teeth.
Aracely and Ian played with some kittens. I photographed a gorgeous husky puppy, and when I turned around, he had already been purchased by a proud new owner. Ian was intrigued by a small goat who was more interested in sleeping than interacting with a toddler. Jenn, Julia, and Meghan enjoyed watching the dogs.
Some women were preparing food to sell to marketgoers. Humberto bought some fruit to share. The family enjoys traveling to other communities where they can sample fruits which are not readily available in Panajachel.
There was also a section of the market which specialized in tools and flea market items. We saw an assortment of old-school cassette boomboxes and portable FM radios.
We spent about an hour there observing the market, and then drove to Iglesia San Andres Xecul in Totonicapan. This was very special, as Craig and I have been wanting to see this church since our first visit to Guatemala. The name of the church translates to "Saint Andrew under the blanket," since it is in a part of the highlands which is considered to be significantly colder than surrounding areas.
The church is unlike anything we've seen before. It is painted in bright primary colors, with a yellow facade. There are lots of three dimensional ornamental details such as angels, saints, and flowers painted in vivid blues, reds, and greens. The angels appear to be frolicking, and one is even upside down. It is whimsical and you can't help but smile when you look at it. T The steeple is topped by an ornate metal cross. At its base are two jaguar motifs, representing the Hero Twins of the Popol Vuh. This is yet another example of the syncretism which exists between pre-Columbian religion and colonial Catholicism.
They must have to repaint it fairly often to keep it looking so vivid. Near the dates of the church's construction (1900-1901) was the date 2016, presumably the date of the most recent paint job.
We entered the church, and immediately encountered a flat screen TV which was disguised with an embroidered slipcover. This camouflage helped to preserve the colonial feel of the church, but modern technology was also on display as the words "Pescador de hombres" (Fisher of men) glowed in blue letters on an LED sign on the altar. This is a phrase used in the Bible (Matthew 4:19) when Jesus encourages the fishermen (church's namesake) St. Andrew and Simon Peter to follow Him and spread His word. Along with the blending of Mayan and Catholic religions, there is also a blending of old religious objects and new technology.
Much like in Chichicastenango yesterday, there are two churches, one in which God is worshipped (this one), and a smaller "Calvary" variant where shamans connect people to their loved ones in the underworld. We could see the smaller church, painted in the same yellow but with less detailed ornamentation, overlooking us from a steep hill.
We then crossed the street to a coffee shop whose exterior was painted to match the church. Sale of coffee and souvenirs benefit the church. While we were drinking delicious locally grown coffee, it became noon, and we could see a man in a bell tower of the church ringing the bells frenetically by hand. I bought several souvenirs as well as a small bag of coffee from a friendly woman named Yolanda.
We are very thankful to Humberto, Paulina, Aracely, Eddy, and Ian for taking us here. It is the culmination of a long-standing wish, and it did not disappoint!
After San Andres Xecul, we drove through Quetzaltenango. This town often goes by its pre-Columbian name "Xela" which means "under the mountain". The town has some very interesting architecture. The park contains Classical Greek columns and a rotunda, and there had once been a roof for shade before it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1902.
I snapped some quick photos of the carvings on the facade of the Church of the Holy Spirit as we drove through town. In addition to St. Francis, Holy Spirit is another significant church name in my life. It is the name of the church where my maternal grandfather was a caretaker.
Many of the side streets in Xela remind us of Antigua, with an abundance of brightly painted Spanish colonial row houses, and we admired them on our way out of town.
We then continued through Almolonga, a Quiche Mayan village known for its incredibly fertile soil. We crossed the Samal´ River, which Humberto always jokes belongs to the family due to the similarity to their surname. We had gorgeous views of the surrounding farmland in the green mountain valleys, and we stopped to take some photos. This area is famous for its geothermal hot springs. As we drove through town, we saw many small buildings along the side of the road with signs advertising sulfur baths.
It turned out that we were headed to a much more secluded and natural hot spring experience. We continued along the road toward Zunil. We turned off the main road at a sign which advertised "Fuentes Georginas."
The ride became very surreal after this, as we wound through mountain roads in the cloud forest. Mist rose from the valleys and the vegetation looked ghostly. Hoses spanned the valleys to irrigate crops on opposing mountainsides. We saw locals farming cabbage, onions, and radishes in fertile volcanic soil. We saw orchids in the trees, and fog hung between the mountains. Things were visible one moment and then promptly disappeared into the mist. It was other-wordly. It was a slow ride, winding up through the mountains.
We arrived at Fuentes Georginas and bought our entrance tickets. The mountain was fogged in and the weather was cool. It was the perfect temperature to soak in a hot spring! We walked down a path lined with jungle-like plants, passing small bungalows with fire pits where guests can barbecue and/or stay overnight.
We emerged at a beautiful grotto. A restaurant and a changing facility flanked several pools. The hot water emerged from the mountainside at one end of the large pool. It flowed into secondary and tertiary pools as well, meaning that those pools are cooler than the main pool. We went into the changing rooms to change into our bathing suits, and we rented a locker for our valuables.
Craig needs to be careful in hot springs, because he can easily overheat, which triggers his multiple sclerosis. We tried the secondary pool first, as we didn't know the temperature of the main pool and decided to play it safe. However, we soon decided that the secondary pool was not warm enough to satisfy us in this weather.
We quickly moved to the large pool. The temperature was quite comfortable, and it got warmer as you approached the grotto...the source of the water. The water dripping from the mountainside is scalding hot and collects in little pools in the rock face about the size of a holy water font in a Catholic church.
It was amazing to be in the middle of the cloud forest amidst the rocks and vegetation. The sulfur water was slippery on the skin. The steam rising from the pools gave the whole place a dream-like quality. Eddy and Aracely played tag in the water and jumped in from the side of the pool. Ian enjoyed playing in the water with Paulina, bouncing around and splashing.
It suddenly got very foggy and we couldn't even see the other end of the pool. It was incredibly surreal. It started to sprinkle rain. The air was cool and the raindrops splashed on the surface of the pools. We congregated on the grotto side of the pool, enjoying the warmth of the water.
Then the fog cleared and we could once again see the moss-covered rocky mountainside. We stayed in the water for several hours until our fingers were quite pruny. When we finally got out, it felt like there was twice the gravity. I don't know if that is a property of sulfur or not, but Craig and I both noticed it.
In Zunil, we were traveling down a narrow cobblestone road in the city center. Suddenly, a pimped out chicken bus is coming right toward us. The road is certainly not wide enough for a school bus to pass by a 12-passenger van. The chicken bus was not backing down. Humberto had to throw it in reverse and slowly back up the hill on the wet cobblestones. He reached a space which was a bit wider, and pulled as far off the road as possible. The chicken bus passed us with maybe an inch to spare. It was quite dramatic, and kudos to both drivers for managing to pull that off!
We drove by La Iglesia de Santa Catarina in Zunil. Its pale yellow facade with white embellishments reminded us of La Merced in Antigua. From research I have done, it seems like the yellow color of Santa Catarina is rather new, and that it used to be all white.
We stopped in Xela (Quetzaltenango) for dinner. We ate dinner at Albamar, which specializes in fried chicken. We played Name That Tune to try to identify the background music: pop songs performed on Andean pan flutes. "Dust in the Wind," "Winds of Change," "Love Hurts," "Hotel California," and "Bridge Over Troubled Water" were easily identifiable, but without lyrics, multiple Bryan Adams songs were indistinguishable.
Though most of our party opted for the house specialty fried chicken, Jenn and I couldn't resist the "tacos con queso fundido" Fundido translates to "molten", so it was an appropriate end to an afternoon of geothermal fun. I got my tacos with molten cheese with salsa verde, and it was absolutely delicious!
The drive back to Panajachel was pretty nerve-wracking for Humberto. The darkness combined with foggy conditions made visibility very poor. He did a great job of getting us safely back home, but it was a long ride. We arrived back at the house at 9 p.m. I went straight to bed after a long and satisfying day.
San Francisco el Alto
San Andres Xecul
Fuentes Georginas Hot Springs, Zunil
Craig and Kevin at the animal market
Craig and Steph in front of Iglesia San Andres Xecul
Humberto and Paulina
Delicious coffee at Xecul Cafe
Craig and Steph
Aracely, Paulina, and Ian
Julia and Meghan in the grotto
Dinner at Albamar