A few hours from Lake Atitlan is Quetzaltenango, the second largest city in Guatemala surrounded by volcanoes and Guatemala’s farming heartland. We came here for two reasons, to go to the hot springs in the cloud forest and to hike Volcano Santa Maria.
Up in the cloud forest at about 8000 feet are the beautiful hot springs of Fuentes Georginas. To get there we drove to Zunil, and then followed the signs and small road up the side of the mountain through terraced vegetable fields into the clouds. Zunil is a great place to stock up on very fresh vegetables straight from the farmers. I bought three huge bags including sweet corn (a rare find) and it cost around two dollars.
The hot springs surrounded by a tropical cloud forest and volcanoes have hiking trail heads to two volcanoes Zunil and Santo Tomas and they also have a restaurant. They allow overnight camping in the parking lot which gave us access to the hot springs during the night and the early morning where we had them all to ourselves. The hot springs are crazy hot which felt amazing in the cold mountain air, and they are the prettiest hot springs we have been to since Liard hot springs in the Yukon in Canada. My only advice is that the hot springs can get busy during the day and weekend, so staying overnight really made the experience better for us, it also allowed us to hike some of the vertical trails up the mountain.
Volcan Santa Maria
While we were in Guatemala I wanted to hike a volcano, and after some research decided Volcan Santa Maria outside Xela would give us the most bang for our buck. There is not a lot of information on doing hikes solo in Guatemala (most guide books are backpacker focused) so we had to find the trail head and figure out where we were going to camp by Google earth. We found that the trail head was in the rather dismal village of Llanos del Pinal, literally at the base of the massive volcano. Right next to the trail head we found a family that had a small compound that looked fairly secure. Asking people if we can camp at their house (which we have done many times) is always interesting and definitely stretches my Spanish skills. They agreed, I paid them $5.00 and we parked next to the cows and chickens. The family was very poor and I always offer a small amount of money to camp. This way money goes directly into the local community and we found it makes them more invested in making sure our stuff is secure while we are gone and feeling positive about tourists coming into their village.
While I was talking to the sisters who live at the house, I saw to armed police come off the trail head. In retrospect, I wish I would have gone over and talked with them, but I was in the middle of telling the family our story about our trip and giving the XP tour (the bathroom is always the biggest hit). Since it was late afternoon we started getting settled for the evening and preparing ourselves for the intense seven hour hike the next day. As I was getting dinner prepped the very old grandpa came over and talked to Sam and told him we should not do the hike tomorrow. He said some tourists had been robbed at gun point two weeks earlier and that there were banditos on the trail.
Well shit…..That was the first we had heard about the trail being dangerous, but we did see police come off the trail earlier in the day. We really wanted to do the hike and made a ton of effort to get to the trail head. We decided to go see if we could find internet in town and get more information. We looked at trip advisor and everyone who had done the hike in the last four months had armed guards on the hike, even the ones who went through guide companies. We discussed not taking anything up the trail but water bottles, but I decided that I just did not want to put ourselves at risk of something traumatic happening. Even if were were ok and lost no valuables, getting held up by gun point would be a terrible travel memory. We walked around the village trying to see if we could find some police to hike with us to no avail. Our volcano hike was officially canceled and we spent the night in the sad little village camped next to cows (reminded me of my days at UC Davis) looking at the volcano we would not hike.
This was the first time in ten months we were worried about crime. It is strange, people worry so much about Mexico, but Guatemala seemed like there was more crime against tourists occurring. We heard first hand accounts of hold ups on hiking trails around Antigua (and Santa Maria) and a motorcyclist was held up on the road to Santiago around Lake Atitlan while we were there. Almost all the grocery stores and delivery trucks had armed guards with shotguns and armored vehicles were a popular form of transport. I am not saying don’t travel to Guatemala, it is a wonderful country, just ask locals about the safety situation before you go on hikes or on back roads, or even better, just use established guides here, they know the safety situation better than anyone and the last thing they want is tourists to get hurt.
And finally, I want to have a quick rant about trash.
This area of Guatemala had the most trash just lying around that we have seen on the entire trip. It made me really depressed. Below is a picture I took of a man throwing a can full of trash into the river in Zunil, which is also the dump apparently. It is also the towns source of water. Why the town pollutes its water source is beyond me, this is also the water that is watering all the fields of vegetables around the city. There was trash piled all along the side of the roads and all over the stunning valleys. I can’t pretend to understand the realities of not having a local infrastructure that dispenses of trash, but almost everywhere else we have been poor communities at least burn the trash. I hope that either a NGO or the Guatemalan government helps these communities before it is too late. I worry about some places being at a tipping point where there is not much time left to reverse environmental damage.
That is the end of my rant on trash =).