11.-25.03.2012: San Andrés Xecul - Momostenango - Zunil - Quetzaltenango - Huehuetenango - El Cable

Click on a photo to enlarge it.

Back onto the Panamerican Highway, we managed to get up to the Alaska Pass at 3,015m high (9950 ft) without a problem. But the roadway was damaged by landslides and various parts of it were gravel and not tarmac.

We parked in the courtyard at a hotel in Cuatro Caminos for three nights and used that as a base to explore the area. Our first stop was at San Andrés Xecul. We took a chicken bus which is how the buses are called for a short ride and then transferred to the back of a pick up truck (another form of public transport here) for the rest of the journey.

We were dropped off right at the church although we didn't realise it because it's very bright yellow façade was on the other side of the building. It's as if the church is surrounded by a black and white area with the only colour on the church. The photo from high up in the town looks as if we have pasted the church onto it!

The façade is quite bizarre with technicolour saints, angels, flowers and climbing vines which share space with whimsical tigers and monkeys on its shocking yellow background. We also walked up extremely steep streets to another brightly coloured church and a view over the town.

We walked back down and noticed all the hanging wool bails in their natural colour which is off-white. We asked a local man transporting the coloured wool bails and we believe they get the raw untreated wool brought in to this town which specialises in drying it and then dyeing it into all the various bright colours. It is then transported to the market at Totonicapan to be sold on the market or to businesses who make rugs, ponchos and other clothes.

The bus ride to Momostenango the next day was very rough and quite dangerous! The driver must have been late because he wanged us round the corners and raced down the steep and windy road where all we could do was hope that the brakes work!

The market was jam packed with people buying and selling a multitude of household items, clothes and food. Extremely colourful and fascinating. I'll let the photos speak for themselves. There weren't any other tourists as they tend to go to Chichicastenango as we had intended to do. (See previous report for the reason)

We also went out to see Los Riscos which are sandstone hoodoos and seem to be used as a public toilet! After just a short stop for photos we walked back to a different part of the market and Helen realised she is one of the tallest people there!! After a lifetime of being one of the smallest it was quite a weird experience! It was like having vertigo and the brain not quite knowing where the ground is for your feet.

Sunday market in Momostenango.

Fortunately we had a different driver on the way back who drove at a reasonable speed. The bus journey took exactly the same amount of time which just goes to show that you don't have to be a maniac on a hair raising drive and you still get there at the same time!

Our next adventure took us on a bus towards Quetzaltenango known locally as Xela (pronounced Chayla). We wanted to get to a place called Zunil where there is a Monday market. We asked one of the buses at the major crossing in town and they said that their bus is the right one and we have to get another bus at the rotunda.

We hoped they were telling us the truth and this wasn't some lets-have-a-laugh-at-the-tourists scheme! So we got on and we were indeed dropped off at a rotunda where the driver waved us off the bus quickly shouting "follow that man!" Oh boy! Is this for real? So we chased after "that man" who walked past the bus parked in front of the bus we had just got off. But we realised that maybe this was the next bus we had to get on. A quick question proved us right.

This bus seemed to be going around and above the town of Zunil on it's way to a town further down in the valley, so we got off. It just so happened that we were at the road that goes up to Fuentes Georginas which is a natural spa in a tropical setting about 5 miles uphill. There are pick up trucks that will take you but they are expensive and are notorious for saying a return price that is really only for the one way journey.

A couple of trucks stopped and asked us if we were going so we asked how much it was out of curiosity. They said $7 return which is probably one way. There is also an entrance price for the spa itself. So it all adds up. We're not really into such things so we gave it a miss and tried to find our way into the town through back streets and alleys.

We managed to find the market which is in a very drab square building but the market itself was anything but! Although quite small we spent about an hour inside and after seeing all those animal innards and other body parts we decided to be vegetarians! Obviously people eat it all here. Maybe we should have asked for recipes!!

Market in Zunil.

We got a bus that took a different route back to Xela and walked to the Cathedral which is quite majestic compared to the rest of the town. We also went to see the Palacio Municipal with its nice courtyard and saw several houses with pretty balconies.

Xela is the second biggest city in Guatemala after Guatemala City but only the main plaza looks colonial, the rest is concrete! We went to a local restaurant and had the set lunch for only $3 each - soup, chicken with rice and Russian salad plus guayabe juice which is a local fruit. A very good meal and we certainly couldn't complain about the price.

We walked back to the rotunda and got a collectivo (small minibus) back to Cuatro Caminos that was so full that one of the passengers had to hang onto the door outside!

We drove over another high pass at 2,800m (9249 ft) and down to Huehuetenango where we spent about an hour trying to get to the hotel San Francisco. After a lot of asking, driving and turning around we gave up and went back out to the Panamerican Highway where we had seen the Hotel Pino Montana.

We stayed for two nights and asked if we could use their washing machine. Quite an adventure! You have to fill the washing machine with water using a bucket as its not attached to the water system. Except they didn't tell us that. I suppose we should have noticed but we didn't even think to look! Once done the washing machine wouldn't start! So we had to ask again. Simple trick - just slam down the lid really hard. I don't think the Guatemalan ladies believed we knew how to use a washing machine!!

The next day was 15th March. The tourism official we had spoken to regarding our vehicle permit which runs out on the 16th said that we should get to the border the day before to ask about an extension. We might have to leave the country for 1 to 3 days and then re-enter. They might refuse to allow this but he didn't think we would have a problem.

So we headed towards the border at La Mesilla which would be better than going to one of the more southern borders in case we couldn't get back in. It wouldn't be so far to drive to the east coast of Mexico and then head for the US.

The problem was that about 10 miles from the border there was a huge traffic jam in El Cable. We learned that a landslide had blocked the road. 3 hours later the queue started moving slowly and when we got to the landslide area we realised we couldn't get through. There were very deep ruts in the road which were filled with water and boulders. The car before us sounded like he'd taken out his undercarriage trying to drive through.

We had no choice but to turn around. A bus behind us tried to get through and got stuck for 8 hours!! They did everything to try and get it out but it wouldn't budge, forwards or backwards. Meanwhile, the landslide continued and a huge boulder came down and hit the side of it! Thank God we didn't even try. That could have been us!!

We found a place to park overnight although there were some people here who weren't exactly friendly. Our vehicle permit runs out tomorrow and we have to get to the border. We sat and discussed the problem and came up with the idea that if we still can't get through tomorrow, Kirsten should take all our papers, walk to the other side of the landslide, get on a bus and go to the border. This would now be an emergency request for an extension and we couldn't see how they could refuse seeing as we can't get our vehicle to that border and any other border would mean a very long journey which we wouldn't make in a day.

Helen got up at 6-30 am the next morning to go and have a look. The bus had been removed but the big boulder that had hit it, was still there. It had been moved to the side. The road was open again but it was still too bad for us. There was no way we would risk it.

So we went to plan B and Kirsten left just after 8am to get a bus. Kirsten walked down a four wheel drive alternative which was a steep and dusty road down to the river. Back up the other side was even worse. She knew Winnie couldn't make it. She got on a bus on the other side. They had realised the problem and had buses either side of the landslide so that the buses themselves didn't go through. But it meant quite a walk (over 1 mile) for the passengers and many of them had a lot of luggage or shopping.

Kirsten got ripped off on the bus because they wouldn't give her her change. Then she had to get a tuc-tuc to the customs office from the bus station. She explained the problem and the customs officer looked up our details on the computer. Our permit is valid until the 16th May!!! All our papers say the 16th March and the customs official had no explanation. He asked her if she wanted a print out - Yes, absolutely, definitely!!!

The upshot is we didn't have to leave anyway and had gone through all that for nothing! But at least we can stay in Guatemala for Easter and we don't have to pay the $30 fees to get back into the country. She got back at 11-30 am and we put it down to yet another one of our adventures.

Landslide in El Cable.

Meanwhile we had found out that the landslide had happened over a month ago but more and more of the overhang kept coming down. So road workers were constantly trying to move the mud, boulders and other debris. They generally worked during the day and then the road would be opened once they had stopped work and closed again for the next round of work the following day. But this meant that people risked their own lives getting through and we couldn't understand why engineers weren't brought in to get a permanent solution.

There were far more police and army evident by the time Kirsten got back from the border and we wondered if it was because of the bus that got stuck yesterday for 8 hours. We'd heard that people were not happy with the bus driver and there were a number of very angry people. It's understandable that people get frustrated as this is a major route - the Pan American Highway! It should have been sorted out weeks ago.

We drove back to Huehuetenango and went back to the same hotel. We stayed there for 6 days because we both had coughs and colds that we had caught from one of our bus journeys and we were both running high temperatures of 39° C (around 102 F). It knocked us flat for a while.

Before leaving Huehuetenango we went to a garage to see if they can locate an oil leak that we have. They said it was the oil pan and actually took out the seal and used silicon to seal it without replacing the seal! We have no idea if that was the right thing to do so we kept the old seal and took it with us just in case.

It had taken hours so we only managed to get a few miles and stayed at a 24 hour petrol station on the way. We continued along the Pan American Highway the next day, stopped at street stands for vegetables and went to a Swiss restaurant for savoury crepes. There was so much we had to take half of it with us as a doggy bag!

We went to the propane station in El Tejar but it was closed. We had arrived at 4pm on a Saturday when it had closed at 1pm and wouldn't be opening until Monday. This is the only place we can get propane in the area and as we wanted to stay in Antigua for 3 weeks for the Easter celebrations we had no choice but to wait.

A petrol station nearby said we could park up there for the two nights and Helen went on a walk about the next day (a Sunday) to see if there was anything in the area. She came back with some dubious looking home-made ice creams as a treat - one chocolate looking and one not sure pink thing!! We put it down as one of our cultural experiences!