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journey's end



Guatemala Journal



23 mayo
The second largest city in Guatemala, Quetzaltenango is commonly called Xela (SHAY-la), its former indigenous name. A full five hour drive from the capital, punctuated by detours where the road had washed out from Hurricane Stan's severe mudslides and were still being reconstructed, I planned this road journey for the last three day weekend of the school year. Xela has a small town feel, and a quiet charm all its own. Our hotel was up a steep hill from the town square, and after a long drive, a walk around the neighborhood was a welcome activity. To my surprise, the central parque was an inviting gathering place, ringed by beautiful, well kept old buildings. Unlike Guatemala City, where you would be risking your life to walk the central plaza at night, or Antigua, where the plaza is primarily peopled with tourists and vendors, the people of Xela own their city center and enjoy it with an evening stroll - meeting friends, playing music, displaying art, selling food. The cathedral at the park is a lovely white structure front in restoration, with remnants of paint hiding in crevices. An annex was tastefully added behind the original facade, a harmonious construction of old and new.

My traveling companion, the music teacher, was eager to visit the national theatre of Quetzaltenango. Up another steep slope, the theatre stood surrounded by a plaza of stairs and interesting quasi-classical sculptures, supported by Roman columns, with a fenced side courtyard. Unfortunately, it was closed and our visit did not coincide with any concerts. The tour books said that residents could direct us to a restaurant reputed to be the best pizza in Guatemala. I asked two young men on the street who looked like they could be pizza experts. One began giving directions to Guiseppi's and stopped, looking to the other for help. The second youth looked at us and grinned, and shouted 'Vamos!' We followed them to the restaurant, a non-descript joint on the second floor. It was good, but my vote still goes to Vesuvio's in Guatemala City, where you can get pizza by the meter. After dinner, we had drinks and desert at a little bar overlooking the plaza.

The hidden surprise in the Xela area is the number of fascinating little towns in the vicinity. Zunil has an excellent women's textile cooperative - after insisting I would not buy anymore local crafts, I walked out with a full bag of hand woven treasures. A boy directed us to the current home of San Simeon (known as Maximon in the Santiago Atitlan area), and we entered respectfully among candle offerings and locals there to beseech the cigar smoking saint to bring his miracles into their humble lives.

The church in San Andres Xecul is a brilliantly painted masterpiece of indigenous art in bright yellow, red, blues, and has been recently repainted. A steep walk to a smaller painted church, an echo up the hill. Three little girls in full Mayan dress played on its gate. Next to the church is a crude Maya altar, several women were praying and burning offerings, more active than the church on this Sunday morning.

An early morning drive up a snaking dirt road to a high mountain cliff led to Fuentes Georginas, a natural hot springs tucked into the mountainside. Hot steaming sulfur water, dripping down the green face of the cliff, is collected in a pool, in some places so shallow that you must squat or walk on your knees to get wet. We took a refreshing soak until it got too crowded. We watched carefully while a family of women in indigenous dress disrobed, out of curiosity - what did they wear underneath? The two girls each stripped down to a thin set of long underwear, which they wore into the water, while the madre sat alongside the pool fully clothed.

Taking the coast road back, we first drove northwest along the Pan American highway, towards the Mexican border, seeking a Mayan excavation site outside of Retalhuleu. Abaj Takalik is still in the early stages of restoration, a work in progress. As we walked, a knowledgeable guide painted a picture in our imagination of the breadth and depth of the full site, buried in the earth, only the tip of the iceberg showing. This site showed the influence of Olmec, Maya and local cultures in its varied carvings. We stumbled upon a small Maya ritual being conducted at the base of one of the stepped structures - little stone icons lined up, danced around by chanting worshippers, were visible through the ceremonial smoke.


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