Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Soaking in the Fuentes Georginas Hot Springs & Trekking Up Volcan Santa Maria in Guatemala


March 13, 2013

Sitting on the curb, I am startled by a sudden, loud CRACKETY-CRACK-CRACK. Gunshots? A car engine in serious need of repair? I look to Nick for an answer. “Fireworks,” he declares. Huh? But who am I to question why I hear fireworks at 5:30 am on a Wednesday in Guatemala? (When I ask someone about this later, she explains that Guatemalans often celebrate birthdays by lighting fireworks in the street before dawn.)

Traveling from Antigua to Quetzaltenango, locally referred to as Xela (pronounced SHAY-la), I notice differences from northern Guatemala. Trees still cover the hills, but this time it’s pine instead of palm. Women still wear long, multi-colored skirts, but now they are wrapped and tied around the waist rather than held up by an elastic band. Their tops are different, too; now they wear the traditional huipil, a rectangular piece of cloth with a hole in the center that is folded in half and stitched up the sides, leaving room for armholes. The neckline is colorfully embroidered with flowers or birds. Many women also wear a dress that resembles an apron over the skirt and shirt.

Xela is a city, much larger than I expected, and our host informs me that it’s the second largest city in Guatemala. The Parque Central is filled with people - uniformed school children just hanging out, women selling homemade food or freshly cut mango, men conversing with each other. Across the street is a church, making quite a ruckus. Two large brass bells clang and dong and clang some more, invisible people tugging the ropes. Tat-tat-tat-tat explosions fill my ears, and the acrid smell of something burning fills my nose. Smoke rises from behind the church wall. More fireworks? Yes, except these fireworks are in honor of the new pope.





Xela sits in the heart of Guatemala’s farmland, and crops are everywhere, even the steeply sloping mountain sides. Women carry harvested produce in a large, flat basket or wrapped in a blanket balanced on their head. They walk with ease despite the burden, and I wonder at what age they begin practicing this skill. I even see a woman carrying a very large bundle of sticks on her head. I’m amazed at their ability - does it generate pride in them, or is it a source of shame? Are they happy with this life, or do they wish for something different, easier? Their survival rests on lugging basic needs between the water source, the fields, the market, and home. In America, the faucet delivers our water, electric heaters provide us with warmth, and we conveniently pick up our groceries in a shopping cart. How easy it is to live in the United States! Our basic needs are practically given to us on a silver platter. Maybe this is why many Americans don’t have a strong appreciation for clean water and an abundance of food; we don’t have to work hard for it, so it’s taken for granted instead. I sincerely hope the Guatemalans are content with and proud of their way of life; I know it inspires respect and admiration within me.



The Fuentes Georginas are three steaming pools of spring water. The large pool at the top of the cascade is shockingly hot; I gingerly step down the stone stairs, hovering on each step to adjust. This is way beyond any hotel’s hot tub. I can’t even submerge my hands; it burns my wrinkled skin too much. I manage to last long enough to reach the rock wall where spring water trickles into the bath, and then it’s a speedy escape to the cool relief of mountain air. When I emerge, my skin is bright pink, as if I have a sunburn.


The middle pool is pleasantly hot, a mixture of spring water from the upper pool and cooler water pouring from pipes. I plunk myself against a wall and let my limbs go limp. Ahhh... I dreamily immerse myself in the warmth, the luscious flora, the birdsong.





March 14, 2013
Sunlight is just beginning to creep above the horizon when we reach the base of Volcan Santa Maria, the fourth tallest volcano in Central America (12,375 feet or 3,772 meters). Clouds are draped low and heavy this morning; we are surrounded by fog shrouding everything but the immediate landscape. Martin, our guide, starts off at a steady pace, and I fall into this rhythm for the first hour. Imperceptibly, the incline gets steeper, steeper, steeper...and the incline goes only one way - up. The entire time. No little dips, no leveled off trail, no moment of reprise from the grueling uphill climb. And you know those nice, gradual switchbacks carved into the sides of mountains? Well, those aren’t here. It’s just a curvy trail stubbornly leading upward, like a snake rushing to reach the summit.


I trudge onward and upward, literally taking one step at a time, willing each leg forward. I take small, slow steps, sometimes not even one foot in front of the other. I concentrate on my breathing, as the high altitude has left me feeling light-headed and woozy. My world narrows to each footstep and the path directly in front of me. I never look forward more than twenty feet, and I certainly never look up, afraid what I might find. It is brutal. A couple times, the challenge overwhelms me, and turning back crosses my mind. My face crumples like a dry leaf. But I’m not ready to quit. So I keep putting one foot forward, keep stepping upward.


My vision gets blurry, and I fear I’m about to pass out from the altitude. But the altitude isn’t actually affecting my eyesight; now I’m just trekking through a cloud. I don’t ever stop for more than a moment because I’m afraid I won’t be able to move again.  I don’t want to know how much time is left because I’m afraid it might be too much to handle. The wind begins blowing fast and cold and relentless, numbing my fingers.

And then, I am standing on the summit. Wind whips my hair and clouds form a doughnut around the top. Clouds roll and part, and I can see mountains in the distance, and mountains beyond that. In another moment, another section of sky clears, and I see the lowlands stretching out below. And there is Volcan Santiaguito, the reason I am here. I sit and wait, shivering in the frigid air. My ears perceive a deep rumbling followed by a boom - I gasp. An eruption! A plume of smoke and ash rises from the volcano’s mouth, blooming outward. Ooooh! Ahhh! Another eruption ensues, this one of applause and glee.





The descent is easier, but not easy. There are mucky spots and dusty soil, and my legs are exhausted from the uphill exertion. My feet slip and slide, but I manage to never fall. After a while, my feet are flopping more than walking, gravity propelling me down the hill more than my own volition. It is a haphazard stumbling, more than anything else. Whenever I stop for water or the view (the clouds have kindly cleared), my legs begin to shake.



This hike has been a tremendous challenge, both physically and mentally. No other hike has forced me to exert so much effort or conjure up so much willpower. About an hour and a half in, I realized I couldn’t sustain the current pace. I would collapse in a wheezing heap of exhaustion before getting anywhere near the summit. So I slowed down, released any pride of keeping pace with my guide, released any pressure to follow someone else. And I realized, as my feet plunked down with each step, that if I found my pace, if I followed my rhythm, I can get anywhere. It just might take awhile.

Do you see the incredibly tall and pointy peak in the distance? I was there!

Accommodations
Casa Renaissance
9a Calle 11-26, Zona 1, Quetzeltenango, Guatemala
(502) 3121-6315
A room with a private bathroom costs Q150/$18 per night. We arrived around 9:00 am, and the front door was still closed and locked. We rang the buzzer, and one of the owners let us in. The room is huge - it has a double bed, a large sofa, a desk, and a tv - more than we needed, but it’s nice to have such a spacious area. Towels are provided, and the shower has hot water on demand, so you never run out - which I think is pretty awesome. Outside our room, there are a couple inner courtyards with hammocks and picnic tables. There is also a kitchen for our use, and a computer with Internet (but it’s a slow connection). Wi-Fi is available, but also pretty slow (it was much faster the second day). When we visited, the temperature was cool, but we found plenty of blankets in our room to keep us warm (there is no heater). The owners have created their own travel agency (Guate Travel), and they are affiliated with a tour company and shuttle company. If they don’t have what you’re looking for, I suggest trying Adrenalina Tours (see the Panajachel post for more information).






Food
Centro Commercial El Centro market - There are hordes of women and children selling all sorts of fresh produce: watermelons, mangoes, avocados, papaya, broccoli, gigantic carrots, radishes, tomatoes. Everything looked so good, it made me wish for a proper kitchen. We picked up a bag of pineapple slices and a bag of blackberries for Q5 each. Both were good, but I don’t think I’ll be purchasing produce without skin in the future - I rinsed the blackberries in the sink, and my stomach didn’t feel quite right afterward; I think it was from the tap water.

Cafe Sagrado Corazon - The hostel owner recommended this restaurant, conveniently located practically next door (9na. Calle 11-16 zona 1), assuring us that it was good, authentic food. It’s definitely a typical Central American menu - I had baked chicken with refried beans, fried plantains, tomato and onion salad, and tortillas (Q35). Nick had the same thing, but with beef instead. Despite the fact that it was not at all what I wanted to eat (I’ve already mentioned my ambivalence toward Central American cuisine), everything tasted good. Of particular note is the freshness of the tomatoes and the homemade tortillas.


Dos Tejanos - A Texas-themed restaurant with a penchant for the University of Texas Longhorns - Nick, a born-and-raised Texan and Longhorns fan, was intrigued. ;) Normally I am dead set against eating anything that sounds like home, but since I wasn’t interested in the local cuisine, I figured why not? Plus, we were starving from our hike and didn’t want to walk around. Nick had the Texas fries, smothered in chili, and the beef fajitas. I ate the chicken with steamed vegetables. Everything was alright - good enough to eat, but not good. And we got enough to fill our starving bellies. Sorry, but I didn’t bother taking pictures of this one.

Gas station snacks -



Activities
Fuentes Georginas Hot Springs - http://www.guateguides.com/eng/fuentes.html
Visiting costs Q140 per person, and this includes shuttle service (the drive takes about an hour). Bring your own towel. We spent about an hour soaking in the pools, and I felt I had enough time to enjoy the experience. There are changing rooms, bathrooms, and a restaurant.

The view from the summit peers down into the crater of its very active sister volcano, Santiaguito. On this hike, you climb 1,500 meters up the fourth largest volcano in Central America. It's a three- to five-hour hike to the summit, depending on your ability. It took us about four hours, and then another couple hours coming down. It’s a challenging hike. Seriously. I consider myself fit: I’m slender, eat healthy food, and exercise regularly. I’ve hiked through just about every national park in America. I’ve climbed Mount Washington. This was the most physically and mentally challenging hike I’ve ever done. It wasn’t scary with steep drop-offs or vertical climbing; it was just hard. That said, you are rewarded with amazing views. And how many people get to witness a volcano erupt? If you decide to challenge yourself, I recommend hiring a guide - there are a few places where paths cross, and you’ll have a difficult time knowing which way to go. And if you’re guide offers you a walking stick, take it! The walking stick helped immensely and saved me from falling more than once.
When choosing a guide, consider the information I received from the owner of Casa Renaissance: Quetzeltrekkers is an organization that raises money for charity, and they employ volunteer guides that get trained on the job. The cost is Q200 for a day trip to the summit of Santa Maria. (http://www.quetzaltrekkers.com/guatetreks.html) The official operators hire licensed guides that completed a two year course. If you choose to hire a local guide, Casa Renaissance can arrange it for you with one of the operators in town. The guides costs Q240 per person if there are two people, and Q160 for four people. This can be arranged the day before. It is your choice whether you choose to support a charity or a local guide.


Traveling to Quetzaltenango from Antigua
We arranged for a shuttle through the hostel, Hotel Dionisio. It cost Q200 per person, which is cheaper than the Q250 shuttle offered to us at a nearby travel agency. We had a choice between leaving at 5:30am and 2:30pm - we chose the morning. It took about 3 ½ hours. This might have been because we had to wait awhile to change shuttles - twice. Still, it worked out nicely, because it gave us time to visit the Fuentes Georginas Hot Springs on the day of our arrival (although it would have felt really good the day after our hike).

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