The next city we visited was Xela (aka
Quetzaltenango), where we stayed for a week of Spanish language school and
a family homestay.
There are many ways to travel in Guatemala. We used two different types of buses to get from Antigua to Xela: first, a sedate Pullman (the Guatemalan term for "first class" bus — but the quality of these buses varies greatly), and then our first camioneta (second-class bus). Tourists call these "chicken buses"!
Chicken buses are the cheapest (and most exciting!) way to travel in Guatemala. They are converted old U.S. school buses that are owned and extensively decorated by the driver. In Guatemala, these buses are crammed with people and driven hard! It's a game of speed and skill, timing and marketing. The fearless driver always has his ayudante (assistant) — whose job is to clamber through (and even out the window and over) the bus (while in motion) collecting fares, loading baggage, and calling to solicit new passengers onto the bus. We'll have more chicken bus stories later...
The Bus(es) to Xela
Our journey stared in Antigua with the guys at Pacaya Expeditions (across the street from the supermarket on 4 Calle Poniente in Antigua), who were very helpful in getting us on our first bus — a Pullman that departed right outside their door. (Cost: Q36, or US$4.50).
We then transferred at Los Encuentros
The driver suddenly slammed his foot on the gas and off we went! He was not going to lose two paying customers! We looked at each other, around at the "full" bus, and squished in as well as we could at the end of two of the little bench seats. We would find later on in the trip, that this bus was still considered only partially full. Two people to a seat is luxury! This bus ride cost us about Q15 (US$2) each.
We careened around the switchbacks, climbing into the western highlands of Guatemala. At every turn, we passengers would have to grab onto anything in reach to keep from squishing the next person or sliding off the seat. Retired U.S. school buses in Guatemala are perfectly sized for the typical Guatemalan, at an average height of about five feet. But these bench seats were just perfectly short enough to challenge Laura with just how to keep from bruising her knees against the seat in front of her!
We knew we were getting close to Xela, as Geoff had wisely brought his GPS
along with him — so that we knew generally where we were along the road. Soon
we should be taking a hard left and heading south to Xela, we knew. "Xela!" said
the ayudante. "XELA!!!" he shouted, pointing at us. Hmmm... Are we getting
off? Sure enough, we were! This bus wasn't going into Xela; it was dropping us off to
catch yet another bus at another transfer point: Cuatro Caminos (Four Roads)
So, we got off with our bags and were immediately bombarded with several ayudantes asking where we were heading. None of them were heading to Xela, but they indicated where we needed to stand and let us know it would be about 15 minutes or so until the next bus came along. And what then came into focus straight in front of us...? A sanitario (public bathroom). YES!!!
Catching our final bus into Xela turned out to be quick and easy — costing
another Q5 (US 70¢), and getting us in at about 11:30 AM. In all, our four hour
trip costed us about US$7 each. We now had a much better understanding of how
the Guatemalan bus system worked, and still had half a day to play in Xela!
Xela is a larger, more urban, and less quaint than Antigua (and also somewhat less touristy) but it still has significant colonial character. During our week in Xela, we enjoyed wandering around and exploring the streets. We learned that although there were sidewalks in many parts, they somehow were never quite wide enough for two people to walk side by side.
As we've said before, we love markets! Fortunately, Xela was large enough to have numerous markets for us to explore. There was the Minerva market by the bus station (of course!) which was fairly quiet on the Sunday that we arrived. Also, there was the Mercado La Democracia, to the north of Parque Central, which was a daily market (shown below). This had both enclosed and outdoor areas, selling everything — clothes, CDs, household items, goats, and all sorts of veggies. There was also a small market just at the south end of the Parque Central, with many food vendors. And apparently, another small market exists to the west, Mercado Las Flores, but we never made it over there.
Xela had lots of opportunities for good food. Meals were often served with fresh hand-made tortillas, or little tamalitos — plain miniature tamales (cornmeal wrapped in a corn husk). Both of these foods serve a similar purpose: to sop up the yummy sauces that come with Guatemalan dishes!
Some restaurants we enjoyed were Casa Ut'z-Hua (at 12 Ave & 3 Calle) and Sagrado Corazon. These restaurants had some fabulous sauces — including ones that we never saw anywhere else. We enjoyed jocón, quichón, and mole Quetzalteca. Mmmmmm!
But some of our best meals yet to come would be at our homestay! But, we'll get into that soon...
Mexican food was also popular in Guatemala.
And, some big-name franchises were spotted:
The easiest way to get money in Guatemala is to use your ATM card at one of the cash machines in major cities, bus stations, or tourist towns.
This ATM had big plastic block attached to prevent the attachment of illegal "skimming" card-readers, but one of the ATMs we used apparently did not — we returned home to the U.S. to discover thousands of dollars of fraudulent ATM withdrawals had been made using clones of our debit cards. Luckily our banks compensated us, but it's something to be aware of!