a population 55% indigenous and 45% mestizos, the city is an example of
how traditionally impoverished indigenous people have obtained economic
and political power in Guatemala running small and big businesses. In
1986, Xelajú elected its first indigenous mayor in 150 years.
Quiche eventually conquered the region and displaced the Mam inhabitants.
The new rulers formed the city of Xelaju at the base of the volcano, Santa
Maria. The name Quetzaltenango, which means the place of the quetzal bird,
was introduced by Spanish invaders who conquered the area under the leadership
of Pedro de Alvarado.
The Quiche natives are still the major indigenous population within Quetzaltenango.
They make up approximately fifty-five percent of the city's population.
The town's oldest area, around the central plaza or Parque Centro America,
features narrow, cobblestone streets and graceful architecture. A number
of cafes, pubs restaurants and discos are found near the lovely Municipal
Theater, recently restored and offering a wide variety of cultural performances.
Quetzaltenango is a convenient base from which to explore nearby towns
and natural areas. Zunil a half-hour's drive away is a Maya-Quiche, village
where the local cult of San Simon is practiced. The Fuentes Georginas
hot spring near Zunil offers rustic cabins for overnight stays, hiking,
bird watching and bathing in natural springs of hot water. At Salcaja,
just outside Xela, stands the first church built by the Spaniards in Guatemala.
commonly called Xela or Xelaju by the native people, is a beautiful gem
of a city, nestled between three massive volcanoes and brimming over with
a rich history and culture. It possesses a distinct Colonial influence,
much of it dating back to the time it was first settled by the Conquistadors.
Today is serves as the commercial center of southwest Guatemala and is
the second largest city in the entire country. It is also the cultural
center of the Quiche Mayan people, and their impact on the local industry
and flavor can be felt from the moment you arrive. It's an ideal place
to relax during your vacation, especially in the summer months. At an
elevation of roughly 8,000 feet, or 2,333 meters, it's easy to unwind
with the warm days, cool nights and the delightful absence of any pesky
mosquitoes. It also doesn't hurt that there are plenty of amazing sites
to be seen, wholly unique to this area.
Within a few
kilometers of the city there are several Mayan towns which are Famous
for their busy markets and colorful traditional costumes and woven goods.
In the land of Quetzaltenango, a great many of the local people are Mayan.
And many of them live in nearby villages that have still preserved their
history, culture and beauty. There are two local villages that all Quetzaltenango
visitors should visit: the Mayan village of Zunil and the Mayan village
Zunil is a small agricultural village which is the home of an exquisite
Catholic church. If you're planning to visit Zunil, try to schedule your
visit on a Monday, when the market is open. Then you can browse through
stalls of deliciously fresh local produce, and probably pick up some wonderful
Mayan handicrafts to take home with you. There's another little secret
of Zunil - previous visitors (a great many of them) recommend looking
up a local villager by the name of San Simon. You'll have to ask around
to locate him once you get there, but the wonderful afternoon of conversation
you can enjoy over cocktails and cigarettes (...if you smoke) is well
worth the trouble of looking for him.
The other village is Almolonga, and is about a twenty minute bus ride
away. Almolonga primarily serves the community as an agricultural village.
It has often been referred to as the Garden of the Americas and its fields
are growing something all year long. You can sample some of the local
produce on Market Days, which fall on Wednesdays and Saturdays. In addition
to their amazing produce, Almolonga also has another wonderful treasure
to offer - medicinal sulfur baths.