Cathedral of Xela


In Pre-Columbian times Quetzaltenango was a city of the Mam Maya people called Xelajú, the name derived from "Xe laju' noj" meaning "under ten mountains". The city was said to already be over 300 years old when the Spanish first arrived. Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado defeated and killed Maya ruler Tecún Umán here. When Alvarado conquered the city for Spain in the 1520s, he called it by the Nahuatl name used by his Central Mexican Indian allies, "Quetzaltenango", generally considered to mean "the place of the quetzal bird". Quetzaltenango became the city's official name in colonial times. However, many people (especially, but not only, the indigenous population) continue to call the city "Xelajú" (pronounced shay-lah-WHO) or more commonly Xela for short, and some proudly, but unofficially, consider it the "capital of the Mayas".

From 1838 to 1840 Quetzaltenango was capital of the state of Los Altos, one of the states or provinces of the Federal Republic of Central America. As the union broke up, the army of Guatemala under Rafael Carrera conquered Quetzaltenango making it again part of Guatemala.
In the 19th century, coffee was introduced as a major crop in the area and the economy of Xela prospered. Much fine Belle Époque architecture can still be found in the city.

In 1848, Quetzaltenango won its independence from Guatemala, becoming the capital of "El Sexto Estado de los Altos". However, the Guatemalan army crushed the movement after two years of independence.
Recently, the city has become a popular destination for foreign students studying the Spanish language.

Some of the most celebrated people in Guatemalan history were originally from Quetzaltenango including Otto René Castillo, who is considered the most influential writer in the country, President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, who was overthrown by the CIA in 1954, and Jesús Castillo, the best known marimba composer in Guatemala and the world.


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