Saturday, February 13, 2016

Guatemala Journey: Quetzaltenango (Xela) – December 14 – 18, 2015

A nomadic life allows us to experience new destinations and meet new people, but those joys come with a touch of built-in sadness. Not to get too Facebook about it, but going by definition requires leaving which by times is sad. Profound, no? 

When the colectivo pulled away from the Jaibalito pier we whispered good-byes to:
  • the neighborhood rooster alarm clocks;
  • breakfasts with home-made preserves;
  • bright birds hopping among the flowers;
  • the volcano floating on the lake mist;
  • the smell of wood smoke from the village kitchens;
  • being serenaded by enthusiastic but untrained singers at the village’s various churches (sometimes two or three churches at a time);
  • candle-lit dinners and lively conversation about whether technology could free people to live creatively (Molly often thought of how our young Swedish friends had never drafted bond documents using a computer . . . ); and even
  • otherwise quiet nights interrupted by bomb-like noise eminating from the village churches (Guatemalans express their religious devotion the same way Mexicans do – with noisy pyrotecnics).
And we fell back on our favorite nomadic coping mechanism – we talked about returning to Lake Atitlán someday.

In Panajachel we met our driver, a former cell-phone salesman who longed to return to Los Angeles, named José (though Bryce proceeded to call him Jorge for most of the day). José’s car made it up the mountain to the relatively large market town of Sololá just in the nick of time. He pulled in to a garage (we suspect he knows several in the area) and a mechanic added fluid to the appropriate lines, saving the car’s clutch, our trip and possibly the lives of all three of us. The rest of the drive to Quetzaltenango was . . . more relaxing.

Quetzaltenango - aka: Xela

Quetzaltenango (known in Guatemala by its short-form name: Xela – pron: Shell-ah) is the second largest city in Guatemala if the population figures for the many suburbs of Guate are included in that city’s population numbers. But Xela is much more accessible for travelers than Guatemala City; it has a walkable downtown core where we felt comfortable on foot even at night, and breathable air.

Xela is not a dining and cultural center – that’s Antigua – but we saw many fewer Euro / North American tourists while we were there than we saw in Antigua, which some might consider a plus. Most of the few “gringos” we talked to / overheard were there studying Spanish. [Travel tip: Most hotels/hostels will have copies of a free, English language magazine - Xela Who. The magazine suggests a sizeable Euro / North American expatriate community. Its tone struck us as a little snarkey (and if we find something snarkey – it just might be . . . ) but it has some good information about restaurants, rentals and Spanish schools as well as a usable city map. The magazine's website would be a good place to look for information for someone planning a visit to Xela.]

The city’s walkable downtown core has some very fine early 20th Century buildings (many replacing buildings destroyed in a 1902 earthquake).

City's Theater

One large building on the western side of the City’s main plaza (Pasaje Enríquez) has been turned into a restaurant/bar venue that is well attended at night. Some of the restaurants there are okay if you are in the mood for a hamburger or chicken wings and beer. 

Our one repeat performance dining experience was Casa Ut’z Hua – a comida tipica (a restaurant with a limited daily fixed price menu - soup, main and fruit drink for $5-ish) near the main square. We enjoyed three of our four orders there. [Travel Tip: Don’t be shy about using your cell phone’s translate feature or a dictionary in a comida tipica. Waitstaff may be too shy to explain each dish thoroughly. For example, it turns out that while pancito means bread . . . pancita means tripe. And, FYI, it turns out that tripa, which is used in Mexico to refer to tripe, really translates to a more generic “gut”. Just sayin’.]

Casa Ut’z Hua was the location of a second memorable Xela moment. One afternoon we sat across the room from the restaurant’s street-front plate-glass window, watching the room-sized, suspended light fixture box sway above us . . . and realized that we were experiencing an earthquake. Our next realization was that no one else in the restaurant even looked up. Hmmm. They seem to be very blasé about earthquakes in Xela . . . and we have lived in San Francisco, California! We felt a little more normal when the owner of the hotel we were staying in mentioned the earthquake when we returned that evening. Yes – we had gone through a notable event.

Our hotel, Hotel Modelo, was a pleasant experience. It has been owned by the same family since the 1920's and except for adding a new Apple computer with a huge monitor at the front desk it hasn’t been redecorated since some time in the 1950’s; but our room was clean and quiet and the hotel staff was very nice. The owner, Sra. Miralbés, was very excited that in January, 2016 the entire hotel had been rented by a group of volcanologists who were going to be in town for a seminar. Now that would be a party.

Xela isn’t a big museum town. We went to a display of photographs in the Casa N’oj but the more interesting exhibit was outside. The building was wreathed with 800 meters of plastic bags, representing the number of plastic bags consumed in Guatamala each second. Ugh. Support measures in your home town to charge for plastic!

Casa N'oj

The history museum was closed – perhaps for the holiday season.

Our big museum find was the Museo Ixkik’, a museum of Maya textiles. When we arrived, a gently enthusiastic volunteer offered to give us a tour – in Spanish. We explained that though Bryce understood Spanish well, Molly would be helped by short, simple sentences, spoken slowly. Licda. Macario must also give tours to elementary school children because she spent at least an hour and a half speaking to us clearly, simply and slowly. Molly understood a good 80% of the tour (and Bryce helped fill in the rest). The museum has a very interesting exhibit of Maya clothing, displayed in relation to the various Mayan language groups. It was an interesting day – on many levels! 

Gracias, Licda. Raquel Garcia Macario!

Xela at Christmas

Xela’s Christmas season was ramping up during our visit. We saw one toys-for-tots type of parade (motorcyclists and teddy-bears) that began in front of the Cathedral and several small "parades" of two or three cars or a dozen walkers carrying candles and blowing whistles. We assumed those were various youth groups or church auxiliary leagues, though all seemed to have the same sort of candles and whistles . . . . 

The city's main square was beautifully lit.

City Tree

Molly and the Santa who spent every evening in a velvet recliner in front of the largest department store became waving acquaintances. 

And we window shopped for other season-specific items:

Lost Your Baby Jesus?
We Have Them In A Variety of Sizes!

Xela As Tour Center

But mainly what tourists do in Xela is arrange to leave town. Local tour companies offer a wide variety of hikes and tours. We opted for a one day “Indigenous Towns Tour” and a half-day hike to watch a volcano erupt, both purchased through the tour company José worked for (as we were now confident that he knew when to get his car fixed). 

          Pueblos Indigenas Tour: 

Our first stop was the highlight of our tour - a factory that produces vases and glasses and ornaments from recycled glass.

Walkin' on Broken Glass

We got a very personalized tour of the factory floor. It never ceases to amaze us how different safety standards are in Central America – we wandered freely along the edges of the factory floor, within only a few feet of the huge, glass-melting furnaces.

One BIG Heat Gun
Men In High-Tech Protective Gear

It's All In The Technique
Then You Pinch It Off The Stick

And Molly Got A Chance To Be Creative

At the end of our tour we purchased two pretty glasses with blue rims, only to get them back to the boat and realize that drinking out of square glasses has its challenges. But the dribble factor is probably a good way of determining when it’s time to say no.

The rest of our tour was pleasant. We stopped at the town of Zunil and saw its lovely church.

A Wedding Cake Church
Getting a Face-Lift

We visited a women’s handicrafts cooperative, the Cooperativo Santa Ana. No one was there to show us around so we wandered  among the warehouses of thread and fabric.

The Warehouse

The most interesting thing about our trip to the cooperative was to watch from afar as two women negotiated a large order with someone in the front of the shop.

Our next stop was Almolonga, where we visited the local market. It served to remind us that even the market in Chichi – which is a well-known tourist attraction – is really just a market. A real market with real food. In Almolonga we saw:

Leaves For Maya-Style Tamales

Everything But The Squeal

Not Dressing For Us - But For Her Neighbors

First You Ride It - Then You Eat It

José drove us through the area where all that produce is grown (we didn’t see the pigs).

Tidy Agriculture

The vistas were very nice, but the most interesting part of our visit was watching the “shovel” irrigation method that is used in the area. The method includes someone getting down in an irrigation ditch with a shovel, and literally shoveling the water over the nearby vegetables. Tradition is important – but there’s got to be a better way. . .

Unique Irrigation Technique

Our next stop was a town with a beautiful church – which was closed.

Pretty - But Cerado

But in front of the church, commerce continued.

We're All In The Same Boat, Sistahs!

They Look Like Some Giant Vegetable -
But Are Really Packages of Carrying Twine

          Mirador Santaguito Hike:

Xela is a convenient staging area for a number of ambitious volcano ascents, some of which are several days long. We didn’t go on any of these. We chose a day hike to a look-out point (a mirador) where, we were told, if conditions were right, we would be able to see the eruption of a volcano from afar.

As it turned out, conditions weren’t right to see the eruption – but we had a very nice hike.

Bryce Among The Flowers

Aye - Up And Over!
José - Dreaming of Selling
Cell Phones In LA

The Owner of the Land,
Tabulating The $6.50+/- Fee Paid By Each Hiker
(But He Gave Us A Hug After We Paid!)

And while we didn’t see an actual eruption, we heard a crackling lava flow and saw a lot of smoke. Which is really as close as we want to be to a volcano anyway.

Where There's Smoke There's A Volcano

That’s our trip to Xela. We feel as though we’ve seen a lot of what Xela has to offer to the casual observer, but we also came away thinking this town might be a nice place to stay for a longer visit and some Spanish language study. Who knows? If we do go back, we would like to arrange for a multi-day hike in the mountains. The highlands are really a lovely area and it would be interesting to see the smaller villages as more than a day-tripper.

We hope you get a chance to visit the highlands of Guatemala – and that if you do you let us know about your experiences there.

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