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Sierra Madre High (Day 103) – San Pedro Sacatepéquez to Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala | We're Not There Yet

We got up early this morning to do the day’s ride into Xela (SHEH-lah), which is the mercifully shortened version of Quetzaltenango.  First we went by the local market, where women were selling all manner of excellent breakfasts.  We had hot chocolate, coffee, hot oatmeal and some grilled tamales (corn meal, meat and sauce stuffed into a banana leaf and steamed) that are called “chuchos.”

After loading up on that hearty fuel, we left town…and went up.  The ride was probably the steepest of our trip and was exhausting, especially at that altitude.  About 20 km of what felt like vertical riding up to a pass at around 3,300 meters above sea level.  We were both very pleased to have done our research and to have skipped such a long portion of the ride to Xela by taking the chicken bus the day before, since this riding is exhausting and, while pretty, not so pretty that the ride would be anything other than grueling.

The central market in a town enroute to Xela

After reaching the summit, we began a long, freezing cold descent into a valley that runs to Xela.  We finally reached the city in the early afternoon and were a little bit stunned to pass by a McDonald’s, a Burger King and a Wendy’s.  I guess we were also a bit disappointed.  This is by far the biggest place we’ve seen so far in Guatemala, and I guess that we both sort of hoped that we wouldn’t end up in a big city.

But by the time we passed through the outskirts and into Zone I, which is the town’s historical center, the ugly fast-food stuff had been left far behind.  We found ourselves in a very pretty residential area, with narrow cobblestone streets, that is arranged in reference to a long and narrow central park.  There are other tourists here, but there seems to be some kind of code that tourists act as if they hadn’t seen each other.  It’s kind of funny, but it’s as if they’re embarrassed by seeing other tourists because it reminds them how little they fit in.  That said, there aren’t a lot of tourists, and tourists definitely are outnumbered by the locals.  It’s a really nice mix, actually.

What tourists are here are almost all here solely to learn Spanish.  In this small city there are 32 Spanish-language schools, countless more freelance teachers, and innumerable opportunities for home-stays, where you live with a local family and they cook you three meals a day.

For the first time, we had a bit of trouble trying to find a place to stay that fit in our budget. We ultimately ended up and a classic backpacker’s hostel complete with paper-thin walls, semi-functioning bathrooms, and those guys who always kind of just hang around (you know the ones: dreadlocks, guitar, hacky-sack). All this at a considerably higher rate than seems to be the norm in town, but we were still totally smitten with Xela from the get-go, which is a testament to the charm of the place. We decided to look for a new hostel in the morning and went out for a well-deserved dinner in the meantime.

As we walked around at night we came up a steep hill and both stopped suddenly to see a full moon outlining the perfect cone shape of a nearby volcano set behind the beautiful churches in the central square.  It’s lovely here, and cheap, and hopefully this is where we’ll stay long enough to get much better in our Spanish.

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