The next day we took our return flight back to Guatemala City and jumped on a bus to Xela, Guatemala's 2nd city. I really liked Xela (thanks for the recommendation Matt), its really relaxed and has lots of cool, Bohemian cafe's to hang out in as well as the countries oldest bar. Xela mostly sees backpackers who are studying Spanish so we saw very few typical tourists. There isn't much to see in Xela itself other than its pretty Plaza CentroAmerica so we decided to head out on the surrounding villages and I also really wanted to see one of Guatemala's active volcanoes in action. We only had two days so didn't think we get to see much, we book a few tours with a local tour firm for pretty cheap prices, about $25 for each half day, including guide and transport.
Outside the oldest bar in Guatemala
We had intended to do a full day tour on the Thursday up to the top of Santa Maria to look down on the active smaller volcano of Santaguito but my body failed me yet again with horrendous
stomach cramps and other things which I won't gross you out with! Luckily as we were the only two on the trip we managed to do the shorter walk to El Mirador (the closest you can get to Santaguito) where we watched the like-clockwork eruption of Santaguito, even at the distance we were away, the eruption was so big that we were covered in ash which fell down on us like flakes of snow - incredible! We're planning to do another volcano hike later on in the trip to Pacaya, near Antigua, which we are doing in the evening so you can see the lava flow more clearly - I can't wait!
The following day we had booked a trip to see Guatemala's biggest market at San Fransciso de Alto, we were thankfully the only tourists there.
We really got to see a glimpse of everyday life, with pets, livestock, tools, food and clothes amongst the many things on offer. This area know as the Highlands (of which Xela is in) is reknowned for the descendants of indigenous Mayan tribes and the brightly coloured and patterned clothes that they wear. The result effect was a cacophony of noise, colour, sound which provided an amazing onslaught on the senses. We had assumed that this was to be end of the trip after we had seen the market but the guy in the tour office had forgotten to tell us that the trip with our guide Eddie also included several of the surrounding villages, Totonicapan, home to a huge colonial church and San Andres Xecul, home to this crazy ass bright yellow church decorated with saints, angels, tigers, monkeys and bowls of fruit, with a dome that looked like the big top at the circus! Finally we visited Salacaja, which gets ignored by a lot of tourists, at their loss, as it is home to Central America's first Christian Church and is also renowned for its ikat-style textiles.
Church in Plaza CentroAmerica
Our guide took us to the home of one family where we got to see an elderly guy weave some of said textiles on this antiquated loom framed by pictures of the England soccer team bizarrely - David Beckham gets everywhere! The guy was a real character and told us he'd tried to make a better life for himself in the US on more than one occasion but had gotten caught by the Border Patrol, I can never understand why countries turn away people who want to work yet the scum of society always seem to make it in. To make things even harder for Guatemalans trying to get to the US, the US government charges 1000Qz for every attempted application, given the average Guatemalan earns about 50-60Qz a day, you can see why most try and get in illegally. The family also treated us to one of the local beverages found only in the village, called Caldo de Frustas, think Sangria plus rocket fuel! Various fruits including apples, peaches, pears and nances (cherry-like fruit) are fermented with sugar cane and rum to create this delightful brew, of which I bought a small bottle for my Dad, sorry Mum!