Moving On From Xela!

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Days 149-150 – Sunday & Monday September 16-17, 2007
Huehuetenango, Guatemala

The scenery in Guatemala’s Western Highlands seems to grow more and more beautiful as we continue to travel north towards Mexico. Following the advice from our guidebook, we sat on the right side of the camioneta for the trip from Xela to Huehuetenango. On the two hour drive, we passed through countless lush green mountain valleys and of course, the occasional Mayan pueblo. The vista at times was breathtaking. Guatemala’s Western Highlands have a beauty unlike any I have seen before.

Huehuetenango, is a departmental capital and the third largest city in Guatemala. My Spanish teacher described Huehue as being like Xela was fifteen years ago. With only that description to go on, we pulled into the city, not really knowing what to expect. What we found was a very noisy and overcrowded central district, where the heavy traffic fills the air with an endless supply of thick black smoke. After the usual visit to a couple of hotels, we settled on one and dropped our things off before setting out to explore a bit.

Like just about everywhere else in Guatemala, the central part of Huehue is situated around a plaza with a large Catholic church on one side. Upon seeing the church in Huehue’s plaza, I was immediately impressed with the facade. Huehue’s church is the largest we have seen in Guatemala and also the most elaborate. Given that we arrived on Sunday evening without much to do, we decided to take in the evening service in an effort to observe the local culture a little closer.

The Sunday evening service filled the enormous church with what had to be two thousand or more people. As the service went on, all three of us observed the local traditions and tried not to stick out like a sore thumb. Throughout the hour, it became evident to me, how much strength the Guatemalans get from their faith. Over 60% of the population in this country lives on less than $2 USD per day, but by going to church and drawing strength from their faith, they somehow get through whatever hardships are thrust upon them. In some odd way, their faith gives them the happiness that many Americans often try to obtain by getting the latest gadget or an overly expensive sports car. When we left the church, I felt uplifted by the Guatemalans faith, which I have been exposed to for nearly two months now. They have so little, yet come away with so much.

The first order of business on Monday morning was getting our bus schedules figured out for the early morning trip to Mexico on Tuesday. After that, the only other things we had to do were explore the city and visit some Mayan ruins on the outskirts of town. As we walked around Huehue’s “Centro”, I couldn’t help but notice a few things. Even though Huehue has about 1/3 of the population of Xela, it felt more like a city. (In the bad, crowded sort of way!) As mentioned before, Huehue is incredibly noisy and the fumes in the air are almost intoxicating.

Around the plaza and towards the market, Huehue definitely shows it place as the commercial center of it’s department. (Think state or province) One of Huehue’s main drags is lined with a vast array of signs and advertisements, which in some small way, reminded me of New York. Of course all of the tired shoppers have to eat and Huehue doesn’t slack off when it comes to restaurants and comedors. The food in Huehuetenango, given it’s proximity to Mexico, certainly is influenced by their neighbor to the north. While Guatemalan food is almost never spectacular, we found our favorite comedor thus far around Huehue’s central plaza.

By early Monday afternoon, we had completed our errands and explored the city to our satisfaction, so it was time to visit the first of what will prove to be many Mayan ruins in the next month or so. The ancient city of Zaculeu, located about five minutes outside Huehue is home to some of the smaller Mayan ruins in Guatemala. Perhaps the most unique fact about Zaculeu is that all of the buildings were covered in plaster in 1940’s in an effort to preserve them. The plaster almost completely covers all of the original stonework and makes these ruins a little less impressive. (According to people that know!)

After entering the site and paying the entrance fee, we made a mad dash for the largest of Zaculeu’s pyramids. Before long, we had taken several pictures and one by one climbed every building on the small site. While making the rounds, we saw a large Mayan family celebrating a birthday party, with the women preparing a large meal, while the men and boys each played a separate game of soccer on the ancient Mayan ball court. We also visited the small museum, where we learned a little history and about how Zaculeu’s original residents were buried. While leaving, we saw a little old Mayan woman slowly making her way to the exit with her body hunched over, no doubt a result of the tough life that most of the local Mayan population lives.

Upon leaving Zaculeu we spent a few more hours in Heuhue’s central plaza just watching the people. Sitting on one of the benches, we met a young man who grew up in Miami, but who was deported back to Huehue less than a year ago. Apparently he had been brought to the U.S. when he was very little and was struggling to cope with life in Guatemala. While speaking to him, just across from us a crowd started to form as a man began to give a sales pitch. While I am not sure what he was selling, the people here always seem to be willing to hear a good sales presentation, wherever it is given!

After saying goodbye to our new friend and wishing him well in his efforts to re-enter the U.S. legally, we finally headed back to the hotel and packed our things up in preparation for our trip to Mexico the next morning. In the next post we will describe in painstaking detail, the border crossing and rough bus ride to San Cristobal De Las Casas. Stay tuned!

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The Coomer Family


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