We were up for some local life in Guatemala, we’d heard Xela was the place to head if you were in search of a cultural experience, a chance to learn Spanish and stay with a family. Leaving Lake Atitlan behind was tough, but it was blaringly obvious we needed to improve our Spanish quickly – Beinvedidos Xela! We took a shuttle north for a couple of hours, climbing to 2,300m above sea level, which is where Xela sits. Xela’s other, more modern name, is Quetzaltenango, however most people still refer to it by it’s traditional name.
We spent the first couple of days relaxing in thecity, Xela is the second biggest city in Guatemala and claimed to be the cultural capital. On Sunday afternoon we wandered around a few of the language schools to check out what they offered – in the end we chose Celas Maya, scheduling in our first session for the next day (Monday). I’ll cover off the learning Spanish experience in another blog, to do it justice, but it was definitely something we both found challenging and hopefully rewarding in our future travels.
I took a bit of video footage of a local bus stop just outside of Xela to give you a feel for what life on the road is like over here:
Xela, its Cafe’s and Bars
Having spent every morning of the week in Celas Maya (8am-1pm) we were left with afternoons to check out Xela. Most of the city is centred around ‘Parque Central’, in Zona 1, the streets (Calles) running off the park are filled with everything a local and tourist could want – supermarkets, electronic stores, bookstores, cafes, bars and restaurants. It was the cafes and restaurants of Xela that we spent plenty of time in. Our favourites cafes included Cafe Red, El Cuartito and La Luna Cafe. Cafe Red is funky cafe, with an almost Wellington vibe, where we spent a few afternoons reading books, drinking coffee and Gallo (local beer), Skyping family and doing a bit of homework. La Luna Cafe was Cel’s favourite, primarily because of their hot chocolate! It even called for us going back there a second time just to have the same hot chocolate experience. I took the liberty of sampling alternatives to Nando’s and their ground breaking grilled chicken, while it didn’t scale the heady heights of Nando’s, Pollo Campero at least delivered me a good hit of chicken! It was fair to say that while we should have been out climbing a mountain or something just as adventurous – we figured we had months to do that and the local scene was too good to give up!
National Parks, Markets and Football
OK, so it wasn’t all coffee, beer and nachos. We took it upon ourselves to explore the local countryside, markets and play a bit of football with the locals. We’d seen a bike shop near the school and after putting our new found language to use, we had ourselves a couple of bike, a map and a destination. Getting out of the city took us down one way streets, going the wrong way and out onto the main highway with cars blasting past pumping fumes into our faces. Once we were off the highway, we biked uphill toward El Baul National Park. Cel and I were finding the going tough, taking plenty of breaks as we realised that being at 2,300m above sea might be affecting our ability to breathe – well that and a lack of exercise over the past few weeks. Eventually we made it to ‘the top’, deciding that we’d gone far enough into territory that we found out later should only be ventured into with a guide or in a large group. The views were nice and it was good to get the heart moving quicker than it had been recently.
As per the normal itinerary for visiting any foreign city, we visited the local markets (Mercado Democracia). It sold the normal stuff you’ll find in most countries, clothes, shoes and of course fruit and vegetables. We sampled a bit, trying out some local delicacy which I still have no idea what the name of it was, along with massive chunks of crackling that at first sight looked outstanding (as far as crackling goes) but upon biting into it was below par – almost too crunchy to bite and lacking juicy fat! We did spot some exclusive produce though, as can be seen in the photo’s below.
We even managed to get the opportunity to play a bit of late night indoor football with some of the guys from our school and locals. We hired out an indoor court (that was really an outdoor court, but with a roof) in a neighbourhood near Zona 1. We kicked off at 9pm and played as 3 teams subbing in and out as goals were scored. I quickly realised how unfit I was after 30 mins – but Cel was still going strong, clearly she is a cut above in the fitness stakes at the moment! We ended up playing for a couple of hours, it was good fun and a great experience to play with locals on their turf. NZ did managed to put a few goals into the net 3 or 4 by our count!
After a week in the city, we were ready to move on, with our newly acquired language skills. We headed south to Antigua for a night (old colonial town) where we dined out on some great food, spent time in a wine bar and caught up on sleep, before catching a shuttle the next morning to Lanquin to get into the natural attractions of Semuc Champey.