Xela: Climbing and Crossroads
nubivagant adj. Moving among clouds.
Arriving in Xela was a little different from most of our city arrivals. By different, I mean stressful. This was the first time that I, as a traveler, had ever showed up to a random city with absolutely no accommodation booked. Even in Central America so far, we had at least booked every hostel about one day prior to showing up, even if it meant only emailing the property to let them know we were coming. Xela, however, isn’t exactly on the top of the list of tourist destinations in Guatemala, outside those looking to study Spanish at one of the many Spanish schools. It’s a shame, really, that Xela isn’t popular for more things. Despite being Guatemala’s second city, it’s the safest region of the country and has some beautiful nature just outside the city limits. Perhaps Xela simply isn’t on the travel radar yet because Hostelworld and other booking websites are limited in the accommodation they show. If you look online, only about three different hostels appear in the entire city. Finally, we read somewhere about a place called Don Diego that was highly acclaimed, quiet, and cheap. Problematically, it wasn’t affiliated with any booking website, which meant that we would simply need to show up and hope they had room. I had always wanted to do that; I had always wanted to experience what backpack travel used to be like before the days of the internet and constant connectivity. This was my chance, but it was also a little nerve-wracking because we had no back-up.
Once the microbus dropped us off near the parque central, we walked up one of the narrow streets intersecting with the park. Our hostel was only meant to be three blocks away. Can I just briefly mention how much I love how streets are designed in much of Central America? I’m not talking about the narrow cobblestone, pothole-ridden construction of the streets, but rather the organization system. Unlike in America where you can find streets named pretty much anything, cities in Central America often used a grid system. Along one axis are numbered calles and along the other are numbered avenidas. And every building’s address reflects its exact position in this grid. For example, Hostel Don Diego’s address was listed as 6a Calle 15-12. In other words, we should expect to find it on Calle 6, the twelfth building along the block between Avenidas 15 and 16. Simple and easy.
The only problem was that we arrived at the location to find no sign of Don Diego. Instead, a different hostel stood in its place, painted sky blue on the outside with the name Hostel Dona Lety. It wasn’t exactly what we were looking for, but it was still a hostel, so we decided to try it. Inside, the photos looked exactly like the ones we had seen online of Don Diego and we assumed the place was just under different ownership. A plump but oddly intimidating woman greeted us and ushered us inside. She spoke no English but understood enough of my broken Spanish to understand that we wanted to spend five nights there, something we decided on a whim. Five nights was longer than we had stayed anywhere thus far, but we liked the seclusion of the place and there was meant to be some nice climbing just outside the city.
She showed us one room with two double beds, which we declined explaining that we only needed one bed. She seemed puzzled but showed us another small, windowless room with only one bed. We agreed that it would be fine, but she insisted we look at another room, this one larger, with two double beds again. “Igual precio,” she told us. We looked at each other and shrugged. If it was going to be the same price, we might as well. We could always just use the other bed to lay out our clothes.
The room was nothing spectacular and considering the only window was one to the common area, it was a little dim, but we couldn’t really complain. At only $20 a night, it was extremely reasonable, and the shared bathrooms weren’t far from our door at all. Even the “shared” part was questionable; from what we could tell, we were the only ones in the entire hostel. Just the way we liked it.
The next day started off a little rough. Right from start, Chris and I felt ourselves stuck between a rock and an existential hard place. Chris was struggling not being able to climb much in Central America. It weighed on him and despite the fact that he tried to suppress it, some days it managed to sneak through. Even though we were now in a place where we actually could climb, it was really only a reminder of all the time we couldn’t. Climbing is to Chris as hiking and travel are to me; he can’t imagine his life without it, and I was well aware of how much he was sacrificing to be there with me. This was my trip, after all. It had been from long before I met Chris, and he had followed me on it under no delusion otherwise. He had followed me on it to support my dreams of becoming a travel writer, but it wasn’t ultimately what he wanted.
This was one of those down days and it spurred a lot of talk about what we were ultimately doing down there. Chris asked me how I would feel if he went home to Philadelphia. I wasn’t sure how to answer. Ultimately, I understood his desire to go home. In all honesty, the trip hadn’t been all that great so far. My computer had crashed, we had been swindled, the weather was constantly screwing us over, and I had pretty much been ill since landing. Despite all that, I didn’t want to go home if for no other reason than I am stubborn as hell and going home was the equivalent of quitting. At the same time, I had a difficult time imagining this trip without Chris. I had done the solo travel thing before and I could do it again, but I didn’t want to. Especially in South America, where hardly anyone spoke English, I could only imagine how lonely five months on my own would be. We talked for a few hours, just sitting in our hostel, before finally deciding to stick with it.
To celebrate our determination to keep pushing forward, we decided to go check out the climbing just outside Xela. It was a place called Cerro Quemado, or the burned hill, named for the fact that Cerro Quemado is part of the Almolonga Volcano, dormant since 1765 but expected to erupt again at some point in the unforeseen future. We hoped it wouldn’t be when we were on it. That would be our luck. Cerro Quemado is popular not only for being the best (read as: pretty much only) climbing in Guatemala but an important religious site. We wouldn’t quite understand the extent of that until we arrived.
We first took a short bus ride out of Xela to the base of the mountain. Three kilometers up the mountain would find us in the village of Chicuá, a small and very traditional village that makes a living by growing and selling the flowers people leave on the altars of the mountain. It is from this village that the trail to Cerro Quemado itself begins. For more details on specifically how to get there, check out this post.
Cerro Quemado is not only important for the small climbing community of Xela, but an extremely important religious location as well. Evangelicals and those still practicing the Mayan religion hold the area as sacred. While hiking up between the sharp volcanic rocks, we were shocked to find ourselves stumbling upon countless wooden alters, sheltered from the elements by crude sheet metal roofs, tucked away amid the rocks. Decaying bouquets of flowers and dried stems stuck up every which way and the rocks were painted with various prayers and words of remembrance. “Bienvenido el lugar santos,” one read. Welcome to the holy place.
As we hiked up the confusing and criss-crossing paths simply trying to keep our bearings by moving up toward the crags looming over us, we listened to the chants and wails of prayer coming from every direction. Every altar held a different ceremony, a different cluster of people on their knees with noses pressed to the ground crying and singing to who knows what. When I closed my eyes to listen, the overwhelming mass of voices and the raw emotion in every single one was haunting. I opened my eyes and kept hiking, trying not to choke on the snot that was still pouring out of my nose. Talk about a mood killer.
We emerged at the crag at the base of the La Ola wall, the most popular and routed wall at Cerro Quemado. For more detailed beta of the area itself, check out my other post. There were a couple locals guys just finishing up on their last climb for the day. We hadn’t brought our gear or anything, meaning to merely to scout out the place, but we were happy when one of the climbers told us they would be back in two days if we wanted to join them. That is what I love about the climbing community. Even in another country, even not being able to understand hardly anything the other said, they were open and welcoming to us. We happily agreed to join them on Tuesday and bid them farewell until that time. Just slightly to the right of La Ola was a large chasm leading up the top of the formation, accompanied by a knotted rope to aid in climbing. We climbed up and emerged at the top of Cerro Quemado, a wide field of sharp volcanic rock filled with swirling fog illuminated orange in pre-setting sun.
The fog was, unfortunately, too thick to really see the valley below but we still had plenty of days there to catch the view. We descended from the summit, did a little more exploring around the crags, and finally descended back toward the village of Chicuá. From there, we still needed to walk the three kilometers we had walked up earlier in the day back to the spot were we could catch the bus to Xela. This time, however, we were lucky. Just as we left the village, a car pulled over and asked if we needed a ride. On the ride down to Xela, we talked to the young Panamanian couple and pet their cocker spaniel who had made a home on our laps.
“Sorry he smells,” she told us, but we hardly minded. Instead of taking us to the base of the hill as we had expected, they drove us all the way into Xela, another two kilometers, to parque central.
The park was all lit up and hopping. What had been a street decorating contest earlier in the day had all been cleared away to make room for stall upon stall of sizzling street food and local crafts. Tomorrow was the beginning of Dia de los Muertos, or Dia de los Santos, as it is more commonly known in Central America. While the excitement for this celebration in Guatemala hardly matches that of its neighbor, Mexico, it was still enough to close every street around the central park and convert the entire area into a carnival. I’m not personally a fan of large crowds, but I am a fan of street food, so I sucked up my social anxiety and began picking me way through the crowd, trying not to lose Chris in the masses along the way. After scanning the stalls, I finally decided to try some garanchas, greasy little tortillas piled with meats and vegetables. I enjoyed the spiciness of the snack at the time, but would regret it days later.
The next day was climb day. For the first time since we had come to Central America, we were going to climb. We made an inhuman amount of eggs for breakfast, packed up our climbing gear, and set off. As we had the day before, we took a short city bus out to the base of the mountain where we started the 3km trek up… again. Despite our failure at hitchhiking the day before on the way up, we gave it another go. About half a kilometer up, a car pulled over and told us to hop in. He took to us the entrance of the town of Chicuá, leaving us to walk the last small distance to the trailhead on our own. We hardly minded, as he had at least gotten us up the long, relentless hill.
This time as we climbed up the trail to the crags, we found ourselves on a different route, as is easy to do in the pathless rocks. Instead of emerging right at the base of La Ola, we had somehow gone far to the left, coming up to the rocks near La Chocolatada, the leftmost wall. La Chocolatada was a seriously beautiful chunk of rock, swirled with copper colors. Unfortunately, all the climbs on it were far above my grade. In fact, most the climbs in the area were. The only climb on the three walls in that section of the crag that I could even hope to do was a 5.8 called El Arete. Even then, I couldn’t send the climb. Chris tried to comfort me by assuring me it was actually harder than a 5.8, but it was still disappointing to know that my climbing was virtually done for the day, simply because I wasn’t skilled enough to tackle anything else on these walls. Chris offered to go back, but I assured him that I was more than happy to stay and belay. And it was true. That’s what it means to be a climbing partner. It sometimes means not having much of a climbing day yourself so that your partner can. For Chris, it means leading up and spending more time on easier routes that he normally wouldn’t bother with climbing. Just like our relationship itself, our climbing relationship is all about give and take.
By afternoon, the clouds had rolled in and the temperature had dropped to an uncomfortable low. Having been in the heat and humidity for the last few weeks, actually feeling the chilly air that comes with high elevation was new for us. As we hitched down in the back of a pickup truck with a bunch of other people, I could actually put on one of the pullovers I had brought and it was a satisfying feeling.
That evening, our focus shifted back toward more serious subject matters as it had the previous morning. After all the discussions of going home, I began looking up flight prices just out of curiosity. We needed to book flights soon from Central America to Ecuador anyway. Not only did I find relatively cheap flights from Panama City to Quito, at $299 each, but I also found jaw-droppingly cheap flights from Lima, Peru back to Philadelphia for about the same price. The timing of the ticket prices was impeccable. Not only were the tickets incredibly cheap, but the booking came at a good time for us given the crisis we had had over the trip the day before. Booking something solid proving to us that we would be going home eventually meant there was light at the end of the tunnel, a flight at the end of the trip. We decided to book the flights while they were cheap. It meant we would definitely be staying until March now, but it also gave us a goal, which was something I never really expected to need on this trip. In Europe, the idea of simply continuing on aimlessly had been appealing, but with all the shit Central America had thrown my way, I actually wanted that definite end date. If I had a date in my head, it somehow became easier to keep moving toward it.
We suddenly felt ten times more optimistic than we had the day before, and the fact that my computer magically started working again only helped matters. Granted, it only worked if it was plugged in, but that at least told me that the issue was a battery one. My whole computer was not ruined and all my files were safe and sound. Not knowing how long the computer would keep working with a fried battery, I at least backed up everything. Things were looking up.
The next day, we returned to Cero Quedmado, but this time made our way directly to La Ola. Provided what the guy we met on Sunday had told us was correct, there should have been some local climbers up there for us to meet. And sure enough, there they were, right in the same spot as Sunday. A guy named Victor was the first to say hello to us and he quickly introduced us to the whole group. Among them was Victor’s father, Miguel, who had actually been the one to set and bolt almost all the routes at Cerro Quemado. It was humbling to meet him. And of course, there was Miguel’s Chihuahua, Pinky, that liked to tangle his chain around our rope and stared longingly at the sandwiches in our bag.
They already had a few ropes up and some quickdraws clipped onto the wall. We started with a 5.8 warm-up, which ended up being the only climb I would actually do that day. Again, the rest of the routes were far above my grade. The difference was that today didn’t feel so disappointing. Sure, I hadn’t gotten to climb as much as I wanted, but the experience of sharing this time with our new friends was worth far more than a dozen climbs would have been. Even Chris only got in a few routes, but that was enough to impress all of them. Most people are impressed by Chris’ climbing, and for good reason. I’ve watched him climb for months now, and I’m still impressed by him.
Funnily enough, they were even more impressed by Leila, our brand new rope. Miguel offered to trade us five of his ropes for that one. He even offered to trade his dog. I somehow don’t think Pinky would have cared, provided we gave him some of our sandwiches.
Miguel was a funny guy in general. While we couldn’t really converse with many of the climbers other than Victor, we still talked to everyone by exchanging lessons on how to say different climbing words in our respective languages. For instance, they wondered what we meant when we yelled “TAKE!” on the wall. It’s a command from the climber for the belayer to take up all the slack. The Spanish equivalent of this is tensa, meaning tense. One time when Chris yelled down for me to take up the slack, Miguel, this fifty something year old man, started giggling behind me. I turned around to look at him and he said, “Take my body.” We all started laughing, leaving Chris up on the wall wondering what we all found so funny.
As the afternoon became chilly once more, so much so that Miguel tucked Pinky inside the chest of his coat, we said goodbye to everyone. Victor told us that everyone would be going to the small climbing gym in Xela the following night if we wanted to join. We eagerly told him that we would love to, and said goodbye only until tomorrow.
When we returned home that evening, I couldn’t help but think how much I loved Xela. I loved the people I had met, and I loved the city itself. Despite being Guatemala’s second largest city, it hardly felt like a city, and in only a few minutes drive, you could find yourself out in the mountains. It was such a wonderful and unique place. I had been hesitant to go there considering it was so far out of our way, but now I was so glad I had.
The next day, however, things went to shit… literally. It all started in the evening, the night we were supposed to meet Victor and Miguel at the gym. We went out to a taco restaurant when I suddenly felt my stomach feeling a little bit… off. I didn’t feel like I needed to throw up, per se, but I definitely couldn’t bring myself to eat much. When we returned to our hostel, I curled into the fetal position and tried not to throw up as our hostess made dinner, the stench of which permeated the air in our room. I felt terrible, both physically and because my illness had also ruined our plans to go meet Victor and the other climbers at the climbing gym. I tried to encourage Chris to go anyway, but even that was soon pointless as Chris found himself feeling increasingly terrible as the night went on. Soon enough, he, too, was on the toilet explosively dumping his insides into the porcelain bowl. Misery loves company, I guess.
That night was also meant to be our last in Xela, but neither of us could imagine enduring a long day of already miserable chicken buses while feeling ill. We sheepishly approached our hostess and asked if we could extend our stay by one more night because we weren’t feeling well. She responded that of course we could and asked if we needed anything.
I couldn’t get over the irony in the fact that this had happened to us in a place where the plumbing was too weak to flush toilet paper; signs in the bathroom told us to put it in the bin. Just imagine how that smelled. And it had also happened to us in a place where we were only given a limited amount of toilet paper. We knew we could ask our hostess for more, but between our strange fear of her (despite the fact that she had never been anything but kind) and the fact that we didn’t want to be annoying, we tried to avoid it. At least my nasal congestion has made us experts in stealing and stocking up on toilet paper from public restrooms if nothing else.
The next morning, we felt a little better, but the thought of eating made us sick and we didn’t dare venture far from a toilet. When we entered the kitchen to refill our water, our hostess asked us how we were and promptly made us green tea to help settle our stomachs. I still didn’t know why I felt so intimidated by her. Time and time again she proved to be nothing but a sweetheart, but she also just gave off that matriarchal commanding vibe that made us cower. As we sat in the open air courtyard sipping out tea and munching on some bread, she suddenly held a small magazine out to us. It was an English publication called Xela Who. While I had seen several of them laying around in the city, I hadn’t really paid much attention to the title article: “Food in Xela: The Runs Down”. Now of course, it seemed bitterly ironic. As I read the article detailing a list of Xela street foods that tend to be culprit of the very common plague, my garachas were of course listed as a “red alert”, being the “Russian Roulette of street food”. How very apt for me.
For the rest of the day, we laid around in bed, not really moving except for when we had to run to the toilet. Still, it felt like we put on miles just doing that. By the end of the day, we still weren’t feeling great by any means, but we knew we couldn’t just lay around for another day. We had to leave the next morning. It would be a long, shitty day of four chicken bus rides; we only hoped the shittiness wouldn’t become literal.