Xela (pronounced Shey-la) is only the easy version of the really-challenging name – Quetzaltenango…

We continued from Atitlan to another part of the western highlands – Quetzaltenango, also known as Xela.
The town is beautifully situated between several volcnoes, and is a nice, welcoming place for tourists. But we had the good fortune of meeting and staying with Fernando and his family, which made the whole experience even better, and we stayed longer than planned.

Fernando welcomed us into his house, and his family went out of its way to make us feel at home, which we did. As the Kindras were unaccommodated for, they immediately offered to host them as well, along with little Wallace. On our first night there, we prepared an Israeli dinner for everyone – shakshuka (our usual..) and tahini with a great big Israeli salad.
The weather here is a real change for us – mostly cloudy and rainy, with some sun in the mornings. But the change is welcomed and we are enjoying snuggling in our warmer clothes, which have not been used for a while now.

The next day Fernando took us to see the lake at Chicabal – a lake inthe crater of a dormant volcano. The drive was nice, going through some villages in the area. We got to see a different kind of traditional clothes for men – with a long, white tunica and a bright red belt. We even ran into some kind of a school-band parade; many kids wearing school uniforms and holding musical instruments. It was funny..
The lake in the Chicabal crater is used by the local Mayans for rituals and therefore swimming is forbidden (not that we’d want to – it was cold and rainy). As we were driving there, some locals suggested we should find parking and hike up, as the truck might not make it all the way to the parking area, with the roads wet and muddy. Well, we sure showed them – in an amazing display of driving, Itai got us all the way to the parking, through some seriously worrying spots… (at one point even John exclaimed – “now you know where you can go”).
We hiked up and then down to the crater through clouds and fog. Suddenly Fernando stopped – here’s the lake. We could barely make it out through the fog..
During our hike there was a constant drizzle of rain – not too serious to get us totally wet, but annoying enough to get us damp. This is the chipi-chipi we heard about in Coban; still, a nice change from the humidity and heat we’ve endured until now.
In any event, our crater-lake hike was another successful, if slow, achievement for me, and we had spent a nice day together. Fernando explained to us about the region and the town, and we had a very interesting conversation all the way down (not on the way up, while I was clutching for air, of course…).
We ended the tour with a super-yummy lunch in town at Mike’s (do not be fooled by the unimaginative name – it’s a simple local food place, delicious!).

The next day Fernando had to stay home and study for an afternoon exam (which he did so well in!), and his aunt, Frida, took over the guide role. She took us to the hot springs at Fuentes Georginas, through some very interesting villages.

Our first stop was the market at Almolonga. This area we are in now is very fertile, and the vegtables are huge and look so good. The produce from this area gets shipped all over Guatemala and also to other countries. Unfortunately, we arrived to see the market a bit too late, but still got a chance to walk around a little.

Our next stop was a visit to San Simon at the village of Zunil; it was extremely interesting and I had been waiting to see this for a long time, having read much about it.
There is a local worship tradition of San Simon, or Maximon (ma-shi-mon); this is similar to the christianity mixed with paganism that is also evident in Chiapas, Mexico.
San Simon is moved to a different location every year, and when we arrived at the village of Zunil, Frida started asking where he was. We soon found him..
We couldn’t have come at a better day; it was father’s day in Guatemala – dia del padre. San Simon is regarded as ‘the father’, and there was a big celebration around him.

San Simon was originally a Mayan god, but the images that are worshiped and can be seen today are of a life-sized man, dressed in modern, western clothes – black suit, tie and hat. He usually has a mustache, although the one we’ve seen had a bandana over his mouth (like a train robber from an old western, I thought, but Itai thought it looked more like Michael Jackson with his ray ban sun glasses…).
Max in the Mayan language Mam is tobacco, and San Simon is usually associated with such vices as smoking and alcohol-drinking. The common offerings to him are alcohol and cigars or cigarettes. When coming to ask San Simon for anything, there is a ceremony which includes an offering and a prayer-like conversation with the man. But when we were there, the celebration was at its height and we couldn’t see any such ceremony.

We were walking down a narrow street, and saw a “party” in one of the rooms to our left, with a band playing and many people gathered. To our right was Tienda San Simon, a small store that sells candles (in different colors – each color for a different kind of request), incense and cigars. San Simon himslef was in the next room. The room was packed with people, but Frida urged us to go in and look. We stood at the door way – the room smelled very strongly of incense and smoke, and San Simon was sitting in the far end. I only caught a glimps and left as the smells of smoke were making me dizzy and the whole situation was a bit akward (now I wish I had stayed longer). In the next room some women were lighting cigars and praying – black magic, Frida called it; they were asking for harm upon someone.

Even after reading about him, I still don’t compltely understand San Simon and his role. On the one hand, he is called ‘the saint of gamblers and drunk’, the wicked saint, but he is thought to bring wealth and prosperity and protect from evil spirits, although some people ask him to bring misfortune to others… The church, of course, does not approve of this pagan-like worship, but it is another fascinating example of how local traditions were mixed with the new ones.

Although Itai was offered to take his picture for a small fee, he didn’t. Here are a couple of pictures, one from here and one from here:

After all the San Simon excitement, we continued to the hot springs at Fuentes Georginas.
The water is heated by the volcanic action, and the pools are nicely arranged. It is very warm inside, and outside is cold and even started raining at one point (chipi chipi!). We stayed for a while before heading back to Xela, exhausted and starved after the hot pools..

In the vening we celebrated Dia del Padre with Fernando’s family, in honor of his grandfather, over some yummy cakes.

The next day was dedicated to car-arrangements.
John was kind enough to help Itai change the oil and oil filter on the truck. They got underneath (and got a little dirty), but while they were down there, a procession was passing us by, with lots of women and men in traditional clothes. It was a bit surreal – the open truck and the two of them underneath it, while a group of women carrying church symbols and a baby-Jesus are passing by…

The oil and filter are doing good, thanks to John. Itai continued to clean the air filter and fix the rear-view mirror which had fallen in Belize (!) and was not attached since, and the car is again in mint condition, ready to move on.

The last and most important and intersting thing we did in Xela was a visit to Stefanie’s host family. Stefanie is Fernando’s girlfriend, and she has been living in Xela for a few months. While she was studying Spanish she stayed with a local host family (this is a common part of language studies here).
We needed to visit her host mom for a while, and she was exeremely nice and helpful. The reason is still a secret – the surprise will be unveiled within a week and a half – wait for it.
In any event, the visit was fascinating, a real highlight. Stefanie noted that her host-mom knows how to communicate with people who speak only a little Spanish, and it was so true – we had a long conversation with her about Israel and Guatemala. The visit was a big success and we had a great time, and we even got some homemade Atol (the Guatemalan version of the Mexican Atole which we so enjoyed). It was thick and chuncky and delicious!
It was a real treat to meet Stefanie’s host family, and I very much appreciate her help. Stefanie and Fernando – soon we’ll send you the finalized product of this effort. THANKS for you help!!

Xela is a  nice town, and a good place to visit, but our stay would not have been the same if it weren’t for Fernando and his family – mom, dad, sister, grandparents and aunt Frida. We were so warmly welcomed and had a great time. THANKS for everything!

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