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Days 117-148 – Wednesday Aug. 15 to Saturday Sep. 15, 2007 – Xela (Quetzaltenango), Guatemala – Part 1
To read Part 2 click here.
After our rough first night in Xela, things did improve quite a bit. Shortly after waking up at the Hotel Shalom on Wednesday morning, we packed up our things and found another place down the street. Our new digs at the Hotel Andina, turned out to be the same price and much, much nicer. Since we were finally settled in and comfortable, it was time to head out into the city. Luckily the constant downpours of the past few days faded away and the weather was beautiful. Yes, things were steadily getting better by the minute!
When we first came to Guatemala, our original plan was to stay in Antigua for thirty days. Unfortunately, after just five days, boredom set in and we decided to move on. We ended up having the opposite feeling in Xela and after a few days, we made the decision to stick around for at least another week, so that I could attend Spanish school.
During our first couple of days of lounging around, we checked out quite a few different Spanish schools in Xela. After several hours of intense deliberations, I settled on the Eureka Spanish School located just two blocks from the central plaza. Eureka sits in an old converted residence in the historical district. It has a kitchen, bathroom, a few other rooms and a very nice outside courtyard to study in. For $80USD per week I was “treated” to four hours per day of one on one instruction. The “norm” in most of Guatemala seems to be four hours per day of study, but in Xela most students study for five hours. Five hours seemed a bit much to me, so I opted for the shorter day.
After nailing down all of the details of school, we still had a few days to explore before my first day. One of the things we noticed first about Xela, is that it has many of the conveniences of a big city, such as supermarkets and a movie theater. On our first or second day, we took one of the $.15 minibuses out to the Centro Commercial district and visited La Pradera. La Pradera is an upscale shopping mall similar to many that you would see in any western country, with one exception. The big anchor store of the mall is Hiper Paiz, which in English translates to Super Walmart. (Not literally, but you get the point!) In Guatemala, Walmart Stores (Paiz) are very upscale and more expensive than the chaotic and often smelly outdoor markets.
As we did research on some of the things to do in and around Xela, one activity caught our attention. Every Friday, a small pueblo located about thirty minutes away from Xela, holds Guatemala’s largest weekly market. Since our first Friday in town was absent of any plans, we hopped on a bus to San Francisco El Alto. (The Tall San Francisco)
San Francisco is located on one of the steepest hills I have seen anywhere. The market starts at the very bottom of the hill near the bus stop and continues all the way to the central plaza located about 1km away at the top. What sets San Francisco’s market apart from the many others in Guatemala’s Western Highlands, are the types of goods sold there. Most of the stores that line the bottom of the hill, sell American style clothing. While some traditional items are found, they are few and far between. Closer to the plaza more local goods and a small food market can be found. We were most interested however, in the animal market at the very top of the hill.
The animal market was one of the most interesting and chaotic places I have ever seen. People from the surrounding areas come to trade animals of all shapes and sizes in San Francisco. While walking around, we encountered many types of animals for sale, such as: dogs, pigeons, parakeets, cows, pigs, sheep and chickens, among others. The most dominant noise at the market had to be the squealing of pigs, as the local custom is to check their teeth before purchase. I will never forget the site of a small old Guatemalan man being dragged along by two pigs that he had just bought, as they cried bloody murder and tried to pull away from him. It certainly gave us a taste of a vastly different culture then that of the United States.
Back in Xela, a lot of our daily activities were located in and around the busy central park. Most of the buildings that surround the park are great examples of Neoclassical architecture and the park itself has a very serene laid back feeling. On one side of the plaza behind the ruins of the original church, sits a much more modern catholic cathedral. This area is also used for community and political events. Often times throughout the week, the city will sponsor a concert or movie in the park that is almost always followed by a fireworks show. (Yes the Guatemaltecos love their fireworks!) With the lead up to elections here, the park has also been increasingly used as a gathering place for campaign rallies. All of this constant activity certainly solidifies Parque Centro America as the central hub of this growing city.
One day, someone informed us of the free zoo and park located next to La Pradera in Zona 3. Without much on our itinerary, we decided to check it out. What we found there unfortunately was a run down zoo with quite a few unhappy looking animals. While it was depressing to look at, Shawn Reece found fun in the park next door. Before long, he climbed up to the top of a slide complex and came down at blinding speeds. You see, this slide was not made of plastic or metal like in the United States. Yes, you guessed correctly, the slide was 100% concrete and incredibly steep. Shawn Reece loved every minute of it!
After hanging around Xela for five days, it was time to face the fact that I was about to start school. Being that we were going to stick around for a while, it didn’t make sense to stay in a hotel, so we decided to rent an apartment for a week, effectively cutting our lodging expenses in half. The apartment in reality was more like a dorm room, since it shared a kitchen and living room with two other units. For $40USD a week it was a steal though and our roommates turned out to be great people. Originally, I was only going to attend Spanish school for one week, but I enjoyed it so much that I eventually ended up extending three extra weeks. My teacher Carlos and I got along very well and he helped me get past some of the mental roadblocks that have long impeded my progress of learning the Spanish language.
During our first two weeks in Xela, Shawn Reece lost both of his front teeth and received two separate visits from the Guatemalan Tooth Fairy! In addition, we did our best to make up for Shawn Reece’s rough birthday by participating in some “children’s activities”. On two separate days, we visited a water/theme park complex about an hour away from Xela for some R&R. (You didn’t think that being in Guatemala was going to keep us away from these places!) I have decided to talk about those two incredible parks in a separate post, but I have to say, they are as nice as just about anything we have in the United States!
As we progressed into our second week in Xela, all three of us grew more and more comfortable with the city. My second week of school was even better than the first and as mentioned before, we decided to extend our time here once again. It was at this point, that we set our departure date of September 16th. We picked this date for two very good reasons. The first was that September 9th was the date of the elections here and we didn’t want to travel on that day. The other reason was that we wanted to stay for Xela’s fiesta, which falls on September 15th, Guatemala’s Independence Day.
In my next post (Xela Part 2), I will talk a little more about my experiences in Spanish school, our daily life in Xela, a visit to the picturesque Fuentes Georginas hot springs, the oldest Catholic church in Central America, Guatemala’s presidential election, Xela’s larger than life fiesta and of course, Jasmine’s birthday! Also, as mentioned previously, we will also have a special post talking exclusively about the water/theme park complex that we visited. Once again, we want to thank everyone for their comments and feedback. We get great joy from reading your comments and emails, whether we know you personally or not! In fact, some of our most treasured feedback has come from people we have never met. We want everyone to know that we really do appreciate you! Thanks for being there.
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