Guatemala’s second city, QUETZALTENANGO (XELA), is the natural hub of the western highlands. It can’t claim to be a tourist attraction in its own right, but the city’s ordinariness is in many ways its strength – it’s a resolutely Guatemalan place. Off the main gringo trail, it has a hospitality and friendliness that belies its size and a slightly subdued provincial atmosphere. Bizarre though it may seem, Quetzaltenango’s character and appearance is vaguely reminiscent of an industrial town in northern England – grey and cool with friendly, down-to-earth inhabitants, who have a reputation for formality and politeness. At an elevation of 2330m, Quetzaltenango is always cold in the early mornings, the city waking up slowly, getting going only once the warmth of the sun has made its mark.
The city is an important educational centre, its universities and colleges attracting students from all over the country, while its Spanish schools are internationally renowned. More and more development projects are also basing themselves here, and this growing outside influence is steadily adding a cosmopolitan feel to the city’s bars, restaurants and cultural life. Many overseas visitors settle easily into the relatively easy-going pace of the city; it also makes an excellent base for exploring this part of the country, making day-trips to villages, basking in hot springs like Fuentes Georginas, or hiking in the mountains. The city is divided into zones, although for the most part you’ll only be interested in zonas 1 and 3, which contain the city centre and the area around the Minerva bus terminal respectively. The centre, heavily indebted to Neoclassicism, is a monument to stability, with great slabs of grey stone belying a history of turbulence and struggle. Things deteriorate as you head away from the plaza, with thick traffic and fumes blighting the highland air, particularly around the main bus terminal. Locally, the city is usually referred to as Xela (pronounced “shey-la”). Meaning “under the ten”, the name is probably a reference to the surrounding peaks.
Originally there was a walled city here called Xelajú, but it was destroyed during the conquest – Pedro de Alvarado is said to have killed the K’iche’ king, Tecún Umán, in hand-to-hand combat. The victorious Spanish founded a new town, Quetzaltenango, “the place of the quetzals”, the name probably chosen because of the brilliant green quetzal feathers worn by the K’iche’ nobles and warriors.
Under colonial rule Quetzaltenango flourished as a commercial centre, benefiting from the fertility of the surrounding farmland and good connections to the port at Champerico. When the prospect of independence eventually arose, the city was set on deciding its own destiny. After the Central American Federation broke with Mexico in 1820, Quetzaltenango declared itself the capital of the independent state of Los Altos, which incorporated most of the western highlands. But the separatist movement was put down by force and the city had to accept provincial status. Quetzaltenango remained an important centre of commerce and culture however, its wealth and population continued to grow, and it remained a potent rival to the capital.
All this, however, came to an abrupt end when the city was almost totally destroyed by the massive 1902 earthquake. Rebuilding took place in a mood of high hopes; all the grand Neoclassical architecture dates from this period. A new rail line was built to connect the city with the coast, but this was washed out in the early 1930s, and the town steadily fell further and further behind the capital.