Every backpacker knows what it’s like to be on a tight budget. Choosing public transportation over cushy first class, forgoing meals out for cooking beans in a dingy hostel kitchen, its all part of the fun, right? But being on a budget doesn’t mean you have to miss out on awesome activities. Jules and I are always on the look out for cheap or, even better, free things to do. Here’s some activities that won’t break the bank in Xela, Guatemala.
1) Xela Cemetary:
This activity is completely 100% free. Oh yeah! The cemetery is located not far from the center plaza and is a true mosaic of bright colors. Gravestones are painted in turquoise, orange and pastel pinks. Although the cemetery is open weeklong, the best day to go is Sunday when families gather to pay respect to their deceased relatives. It doesn’t take long to witness the stark contrast between the western view of death and how they celebrate it in Guatemala. Families bring picnics, including the deceased’s favorite foods, to enjoy for lunch. The ice cream man pushes his cart as children run over graves to catch him. The whole afternoon is spent kicking back, sharing food and chatting with the family.
2) San Francisco de Alto Market:
If you’re looking for handicrafts to take home as souvenirs, this is not the place. The San Francisco Market is, however, an amazing place to get a glimpse of how the locals shop. This market is not geared for tourists and likely you’ll be the only foreigner in sight. Compared to shopping at Chichicastenango, it’s refreshing to watch locals buying and selling their weekly items without trying to pressure you into a sale. It’s the largest weekly market in all of Guatemala and carries everything from clothing to live animals. Yeah that’s right. If you do want to see the livestock section, be sure to get there early because the animals are packed up by 11am. If you’re up for an adventure, the market opens by candlelight around 4 am. San Francisco El Alto is only open on Fridays and sits high on top of a mountain. The winding chicken bus up to the market is 10Q and takes about an hour to get there. Be sure to bring a camera to capture the action of the market and the gorgeous views from the top.
This small town is the take-off point for transportation to hot springs, Fuentes Georginas. Although we’ve heard they’re beautiful, we couldn’t justify spending 100Q just for a soak. So we opted for the cheaper option to explore the small town of Zunil. The bus (only 4.75Q from Xela) drops you off at the church. From there, you have to ask around to find the location of the town’s main attraction- San Simon. Zunil is one of the few places that still worships this Saint. Also known as Maximon, San Simon is the saint of gambling and drinking and is said to bring wealth and success to those who worship him. The shrine is moved to a new house each year, so ask around in town for the location. We were sent on a wild goose chase up narrow winding streets until we finally asked someone who pointed to a dark house behind us. Entering the building we found only a sleepy guard who silently pointed upstairs. Cautiously, we made our way upstairs to find San Simon himself, in all his glory. The shrine is centered around a life-size mannequin, who sits coolly with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and a black hat and sunglasses covering his face. Dozens of candles line the floor, dimly lighting the small room. Offerings of bottles of alcohol and packs of cigarettes sit on a table next to Simon. A woman sitting in the corner rushes up to the mannequin intermittently to shake the ashes off the butt of his cigarette or light a new one. Entrance is only 5Q, but you’ll have to pay another 10Q to take photos.