My favorite city in Guatemala has many merits, not least of which is that it makes me want to stand in the middle of an empty field and belt out its name. On paper it’s called Quetzaltenango, but most people simply refer to it as Xela, an abbreviated version of its original K’iche’ Maya name, Xelajú. (The city was later renamed Quetzaltenango, or “place of the quetzal birds,” by the conquering Spaniards). How do you pronounce Xela? Shell-ah. How do I pronounce Xela? Kind of like this:
Xela is Guatemala’s second-largest city and is located four hours from the capital, just off the Pan-American highway on the way to Mexico. It’s a combination of colonial-quaint and urban grit–with a Walmart thrown into the mix–and is surrounded by a rural, rolling landscape that’s been whipped into shape by hard-working farmers, most of whom are Maya.
Shon and I were in Xela this past Friday, but just for the night, as we set out early Saturday morning to do a three-day, 30-mile (48-kilometer) highland trek from Xela back to Lake Atitlán. It was a hike we had actually done last December with friends and an organization called Quetzaltrekkers. We were attempting it again–this time, during the rainy season–for a magazine story that I’m writing.
We used the few waking hours that we had in Xela to eat pizza and drink Cabro, the local beer. It was a quick trip but still got me thinking about all the reasons why I like the city so much…well, apart from this:
Here are a few of Xela’s highlights:
- If I was dropped from outer space into Xela’s Museum of Natural History, I’d roll up in a ball and beg never to go outside. Earth, according to the museum, is a very scary place. On display are rabid squirrels, an eight-legged goat, and some very pissed-off-looking pets that surely want to go home. It’s in this museum that I learned that birds wear bows, storks use leather flight helmets, human fetuses are the stuff of nightmares, plastic rhinos are considered natural, and the “devil of the sea” is not the great white shark that I would have guessed but rather a gremlin that’s been hit by a truck. The museum is a Coney Island freak show dressed in a normal museum’s clothing, and I love it.
- One of the things that Xela boasts is what I miss most about New York: an eclectic mix of neighborhoods. Its historic zone features a neoclassic central park (alongside of which señoras sell buñuelos–fritters doused in syrup–and breakfasts of rice, beans, and eggs), buildings with pretty and peeling pastel facades, and narrow, cobblestone streets. Here, you’ll find a jovial mix of used bookstores, cool coffee shops, Spanish schools, and bars with live, pounding music. In the city’s more rough-and-tumble commercial district, bulk bargains put Costco to shame: For next to nothing, you can buy a hundred rolls of toilet paper, a life’s supply of cornstarch, and enough Big Cola to keep you caffeinated for a year. Nearby, you’ll also discover La Democracia, one of the city’s main markets, which has seemingly burst at the seams. Vendors in and around it hawk everything from bananas and bras to parsley, parakeets, and pirated DVDs. Xela also offers shiny, sterile malls (good for KitchenAid Mixers and guns) and some lone jewels, too. My favorites include the Benito Juarez park, where candy vendors tout Willy Wonka-like treats, and the Templo Minerva, an imposing, melancholy monument that looms over a riotous bus stop.
- At Restaurante el Brindis, Guatemalans gather for one thing and one thing only: unicorn meat. The restaurant claims to serve pork chops, but only mythical creatures could taste this good. Served with a side of macaroni salad, lime wedges, hot sauce, and fresh corn tortillas, the pan-fried chops here are lightly spiced, perfectly caramelized, and deliciously tender with just the right amount of luscious, fatty trim. The restaurant’s unremarkable foyer opens up to a giant room filled with 50 or more plastic tables around which friends and families gather to feast. Find it on Calle Cirilo Flores 1-13, Zona 1.
- Xela is characterized as much by its urban core as it is by the myriad rural communities that surround it. Hop on a chicken bus (a retrofitted former school bus typically pimped out in Jesus garb) and head to towns like San Francisco El Alto, Salcaja, and San Andrés Xecul. The latter is home to one of the country’s most unusual churches, the façade of which is painted in bold primary colors; depicts saints, animals, flowers, and vines; and is featured on the cover of one of Lonely Planet’s Guatemala guidebooks. Just up a steep hill from it is a small replica of the church alongside of which locals perform Maya rituals on ceremonial grounds. In chilly San Francisco El Alto, a Friday market offers a wide selection of livestock, such sheep, pigs, and cows; the rest of the week, the town serves as the country’s Garment District and is the place to stock up on fabric, buttons, and thread. At Salcaja, you’ll find what has been deemed Central America’s oldest church (built in 1524). At Fuentes Georginas, you’ll find steaming hot thermal springs in which to soak.
And on top of all that, the city’s also called Xela. What more could you want? …Except, perhaps, this: