Xela is not on the radar of many tourists who come to Guatemala on the whirlwind sightseeing tour (Antigua, Tikal, Semuc Champey, Lago Atitlan); this town rewards those who stick around for a while. And one of those rewards is a trip to the astoundingly beautiful Fuentes Georginas. After a couple of weeks in Xela, we reunited with our friend, Shaun, who we met in Oaxaca. Shaun is a very cool guy- a tall, red-headed veterinarian from Montana who is traveling around Central America, learning
Our man Shaun. He is not really small, the leaves are just really big.
Spanish and doing good for the animal world. Shaun is also single-handedly responsible for our decision to come to Guatemala and he’s the one who turned us on to Xela instead of the usual roster of Guatemala’s Spanish-school/yoga retreat/Red Bull-and-Vodka-happy-hour-having tourist meccas. So when Shaun told us he was planning to go to the Fuentes Georginas and would we like to come, we’d have to be a lot stupider than we actually are to say no.
You can buy packages from tour agencies anywhere in town that include the entrance price to the Fuentes and a direct, round trip shuttle. But we are travelers who have a lot more time than we do money, and so we decided to do it ourselves. The DIY version of this trip meant a 30 minute chicken bus to the nearby Mayan town of Zunil, then flagging down a pick-up truck, negotiating a price, then jumping in the open bed of said truck and holding in for dear life while the truck races over a pothole-filled dirt road, around blind corners, winding up narrow, cliff-side mountain roads in the fog. The reward is getting there (alive).
On the road to Fuentes Georginas
Stairway to Heaven
This sign reads: no pets, no food, no drinks, and no clothes (!)
This is where the magic happens
The Fuentes are natural hot springs, tucked high up in the mountains. They are beautiful and kind of hard to get to- unless you take that direct shuttle, in which case it is still affordable, not too hard to get to and considerably safer than the route we took. But where’s the fun in that? There are three different pools, varying in temperature from dangerous to just right. Green jungle, jutting cliffs, and a delicate fog surround the pools and add to the otherworldliness of the place. On the day we went, there were only a few Guatemalan families, a scattering of Mayan men working nearby, and no other gringos. When we were done, we lucked out and were able to catch a ride with a local family in a pick-up truck to the bottom of the mountain for the low, low price of $0.68 each.
An unexpected bonus from the day was discovering what a totally charming of a town Zunil is. It is a very quick bus ride away from Xela and doesn’t hold much allure for tourists aside from the fact that it is a completely normal Mayan town. The location is pretty prime, all nestled in a small mountain valley, along a good sized river, but the people there are the most interesting thing about the town. Zunil is a wholesale produce hub- the food that passes through here comes from or makes its way to places all over the country and even as far as Mexico to the north/west and El Salvador to the east. The market is set up on the bridge, so that you have to pass through if you want to go into the town itself.
Go big or go home
Buy one get one free?
We initially stopped in Zunil before heading to the Fuentes for a quick lunch at the only comedor in town. Lucky for us, the food was awesome and the owner was a very kind older man whose sons are working (illegally) in the US. He was surrounded by his daughters and daughters-in-law and their collection of children, who helped run the restaurant and also made extra money doing traditional weaving. We chatted with Esteban, the owner, and his family and learned how to make the best refried beans (lots of onion) and how long it takes to hand-weave a traditional Mayan head-wrap (6 days, 5 if you don’t rest). We enjoyed our time with them so much that we went out of our way to visit them again on a couple of other occasions.
Local man overlooking the river
The striking thing about Mayan communities is how uninterested they are in tourists. There were no vendors with cute t-shirts and local handicrafts, there were no kids trying to sell us candies or asking us for small change. In fact, most of the people stared right through us as if we were not even there. This is a common occurrence in Guatemala, where indigenous communities have been taken advantage of and discriminated against to the point of violence. The ugly history of Guatemala (in which the US played a big role, and not on the side of the good guys) culminated in a very bloody civil war in which Mayan communities were heavily involved, not always with their consent. Additionally, there have been stories of corporate spies posing as tourists in order to secure land rights to profitable real estate, and instances of Westerners coming into communities and literally stealing children to be put up for adoption. I can’t say how true these stories are, but I can tell you that the tension is real. Many Mayans don’t want anything to do with tourists and will ignore them, at best, or physically threaten them if they wander into local villages where they are not welcome.
Our experience in Zunil was typical of what we have been told about these local communities. Walking through the wholesale market, we were basically invisible- not treated with hostility, but just ignored. But when we sat down at the table with Esteban and his family, we were treated warmly and felt welcome. We made several visits to the town and had the same experience each time. It was an interesting glimpse into ‘real life’ in Guatemala, but we might have been more uncomfortable- or even unwelcome- in another Mayan town where we didn’t have someone like Estaban to validate the visit. It often happens on the bicycles that we wander into towns that don’t usually see much tourist traffic. We have been warned about the hazards of ending up in the wrong Mayan communities, but the more time we spend here, the less I worry about that. We often become the spectacle ourselves, with our spandex and over-loaded bicycles, but we have learned to tread lightly in off-the-radar parts and respect their reasons for privacy.