Xela

The next city we visited was Xela (aka Quetzaltenango), where we stayed for a week of Spanish language school and a family homestay. See in Google Maps See in Google Earth 14.8339, -91.5183 

Transportation

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"!

Bus Trip - Pullman BusBus Trip - Chicken Bus - Geoff & Laura

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...

Chicken BusesChicken BusesBus Trip - Chicken Bus

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 See in Google Maps See in Google Earth 14.854795, -91.148592 , a busy road intersection that we came to know well in our Guatemalan travels. The minute we got off our first bus, the ayudante of a chicken bus that was going to Xela (at least he said it was!) grabbed our bags and threw them onto his bus. We clambered into the back and found that the bus was full — at least in our eyes: there were two people in every seat. Where to sit? Another concern was that we had been on the first bus for over an hour since our early morning coffee, and our bladders were getting to be quite full — but this bus didn't seem like it was going to get moving any time soon. (Drivers often wait around to get as many fares as they can.) So we had a large audience as we decided to push our way to the front of the bus and try to explain to the driver that wanted to grab our bags and catch the next bus — as we needed to ir al baño... but:

ZOOOOOM!!!!!

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) See in Google Maps See in Google Earth 14.9088, -91.4418 .

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! See in Google Maps See in Google Earth 14.8489, -91.5323 

Xela (Quetzaltenango) - Bus Station

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.

Xela (Quetzaltenango) - Centro - ParkXela (Quetzaltenango)Xela (Quetzaltenango)Xela (Quetzaltenango)Xela (Quetzaltenango)Xela (Quetzaltenango)Xela (Quetzaltenango)Xela (Quetzaltenango)Xela (Quetzaltenango) - An old building damaged by a truck just seconds before Geoff walked past.Xela (Quetzaltenango) - DoorXela (Quetzaltenango) - Street SignXela (Quetzaltenango)Xela (Quetzaltenango)Xela (Quetzaltenango)

Markets

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 (Quetzaltenango) - MarketXela (Quetzaltenango) - MarketXela (Quetzaltenango) - MarketXela (Quetzaltenango) - Market

Food

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!

Xela (Quetzaltenango) - Lunch - Restaurant - Casa Ut'z-Hua - MenuXela (Quetzaltenango) - Lunch - Restaurant - Casa Ut'z-Hua - TamalitoXela (Quetzaltenango) - Lunch - Restaurant - Casa Ut'z-Hua - Camarones Ut'z-HuaXela (Quetzaltenango) - Lunch - Restaurant - Casa Ut'z-Hua - Mole Quetzalteca con PolloXela (Quetzaltenango) - Lunch - Restaurant - Sagrado Corazon - Comida Típica - Laura

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.

Xela (Quetzaltenango) - Tacos Orale

And, some big-name franchises were spotted:

Xela (Quetzaltenango) - McDonalds with WIFIXela (Quetzaltenango) - McDonaldsXela (Quetzaltenango) - Domino's PizzaXela (Quetzaltenango) - Domino's PizzaXela (Quetzaltenango) - Nestle "Svelty" - Billboard

Money

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!

Xela (Quetzaltenango) - ATM - Card Fraud Blocker