Xela (Quetzaltenango – second biggest city in Guatemala)
Getting to Xela is not an easy task, especially if you want to avoid going through Guatemala City – the biggest city in GT and not a friendly place for foreigners. If you look on the map, you’ll see why Xela is skipped by many – it’s off the beaten track that goes from Flores, Semuc Champey to Antigua and doesn’t lie between anything important, therefore you have to make a special detour to get there from the usual gringo trail. On the other hand, if you travel to or from Chiapas, Mexico, then it has to be on your way. The route of our choice is probably taken by backpackers only few times a year – can hardly find any information about it anywhere. We decided to take it anyway, as part of the adventure! So we went through Uspantan, Sacapulas and Santa Cruz del Quiche. On the map it looks easy peasy, in reality, half of the road is not paved and you have to change buses at least twice (money wise, much cheaper though). On the next day, after staying for one night in Quiche, we arrive in Xela very early in the morning, just in time for breakfast, as the last leg from Los Encuentros is a four lane panamericana highway.
Our first walk through the town from the hectic bus terminal to old town is providing us with some interesting observations. This is our first visit in a big city in Guatemala. It’s sunday morning and one of the main streets is closed for cars and people are enjoying the morning by walking their dogs on a big 4 lane street. It’s nice for a change to see dogs in health and good shape and their owners actually caring for them. Another sunday atraction is a chess tournament which is happening on a side of the road in front of a bakery, all arranged on plastic tables covered with some table cloths. Contestants seem not to be distracted by the city life or lack of comfort. On the opposite side of the street there is a big football field where a bunch of young guatemaltecos are viciously training american football. We’re curious about all that, but our bellies are forcing us to move on and search for some food.
There is sadly one very unpleasant feature of this city – very bad air quality. Problem seems to be similar to current situation in Cracow, Poland. Town itself is located in a valley at about 2000 meters above sea level, hence air flow is limited and pollution stays in town. Old smokey cars and trucks plus burning rubbish is not helping, it literally stinks there 24/7. Walking is becoming very unpleasureable with all those buses puffing black fumes into your face when they pass by. At the same time, the number of homeless drunk people sleeping on the streets is very concerning as well.
Outside of that it’s a very authentic guatemalan city with number of colonial style buildings and architectural gems. People are greating us with smile more often than in other places we’ve visited. Central park in Zona 1 is a nice place to hang out, foodies will definitely find some good places to eat, coffee people will be happy as well.
We are here mainly to take one week of spanish classes. Therefore, before arrival we’ve contacted a spanish school of our choice (Sol Latino), and booked last minute spots . We paid about 130 USD per person for a week, including 25 hours of school, local family accomodation and three meals a day. That’s another good thing about this place – learning spanish is cheap and the teachers are experienced because the city has long history of teaching foreigners. Other popular places like this – San Pedro la Laguna or Antigua – will charge you almost twice as much and teachers might be less experienced. As an addition to that, Xela is offering the most local and true experience from all the mentioned locations.
The week with spanish was a daily routine for us, something that we haven’t experienced in a while now. We wake up for breakfast in the morning, chat with our hosts for a bit and then do our stuff till lunch (learning spanish or sightseeing). After lunch, we start classes at about 2pm. They last till 7pm with a 30 minute break and directly after that we go back for dinner. At evenings, we’re usualy only able to lie down and try to process all the new words and grammar. But it’s so worth it, because our teacher, Mrs. Rosa, is effectively pumping all that knowledge about spanish into our brains, so we see our skills improve every day.
After only 5 days and 25 hours we’re finally able to communicate. Naturally we only speak in the present tense, with limited number of words and still confusing the conjugations but we are speaking and getting the message across!! Hurray!