Thursday, January 6, 2022

[QUETZALTENANGO] A Xela of Any Other Name


After Tikal, I’m pretty much done with Guatemala. I never really liked the capital that much but there was no other option but to transit there anyway. What surprised me in Guate was the cold weather that greeted me, until I realized that the capital does indeed share that kind of cold clime with Mexico at this time of year. Think of it as their mild version of the north’s winter. Still recovering from colds, I decided to just literally chill in my Airbnb and recuperate, which was a shame because Oakland Mall was just walking distance from the house, not to mention I wanted to visit Popol Vuh Museum as well.


By the time I hopped on the four-hour bus to Quetzaltenango AKA Xela AKA Guatemala’s second largest city, I have already fully recovered, but the cold air still followed me everywhere I went. Okay, same weather. Xela, as it is fondly called by the locals, has a long history dating back to the Pre-Columbian era. The name Quetzaltenango is said to be the name the Spaniards decided to call the city based on the moniker given to it by their allies from Mexico, something to do with the Quetzal bird.


But yeah, the locals still call it Xela, short for Xelajú, which harks back to the city's pre-colonial past. Perhaps this is some sort of silent rebellion and innate pride they have for their origins. True enough, majority of the locals here are descended from the Maya and maintain a lot of their traditions, from clothing to culture. It’s also a shorter and easier name than Quetzaltenango. Five syllables, come on. The current layout of the city still follows the grid system of the Spanish colonial era and most of the houses still comply with the pale pastel yellow and red motif with a volcano or two stalking you from afar.


Yes, in terms of architecture and natural wonders, Xela follows that template. I don’t know if the volcano in the background is active, but it does prompt you to recall some other Central American cities that look kind of similar. Antigua. Granada. I’m sure there are more, but those two are the only ones I can remember off the top of my head. With the similarity and that familiar been-there-done-that feeling, I just decided to chill again and enjoy the sweeping views of the town from my Airbnb’s rooftop.


I did walk around a bit before I left, and the Airbnb was located at the part of the town close to the city center. The streets were narrow and cobblestoned. The first tourist attraction I stumbled upon was the municipal theater, which has the giant letters X-E-L-A in front for your selfie. Walk a few blocks east and south and you will end up at the plaza where everybody apparently was. At the center is some sort of mini circular pantheon flanked by colonial buildings on all sides housing everything from language schools, restaurants, and government offices.


Look south and you will see the volcano and the hills as well as some buildings on top of those hills. It’s a lovely sight. Since the volcano is quite ubiquitous, you can round any corner heading south for a photo op with the colonial pastel-colored houses and that volcano in the background. They say that to the west you will find the more modern part of town. I never ventured there anymore, so maybe that’s why I feel like Xela is a lot less urban than Guate. Perhaps that’s also the reason why it bored me. Oh well.


To get to Xela from Guatemala, book a comfortable direct bus with Transportes El Alamo. They leave from Zone 12 and the travel time is around 4 hours depending on traffic with a mandatory toilet break at a restaurant near the two-hour mark. The bus company has several journeys every day going to and coming from the capital. Quetzaltenango has Uber, so you won’t have problems negotiating with taxi drivers from hell. Just make sure you have mobile data to call one.

[QUETZALTENANGO] A Xela of Any Other Name

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