The charm of Quetzaltenango lies not in its strengths, but in its lack of weaknesses. It’s not the pull of Xela that made me fall in love, but the push of other places.
Lots of Guatemalan cities and towns have a ton of sunshine. They’re the kind of places where your beer is warm by the time you reach home from the shop, where the chocolate on your doughnut melts before you take your first bite, where you have to lick your ice cream faster than your own shadow or else it drips on the sizzlingly hot pavement. Not Xela.
Lots of Guatemalan cities and towns have a trash problem. The smallest child and the oldest wrinkled grandmother throw cans, bottles, tortilla chips packages and plastic bags on the floor wherever they’ve emptied those. Not Xela.
Lots of Guatemalan cities and towns have an overdose of tourists. They congregate in cafés, in fancy restaurants and on benches in parks. They push prices up and are always in my way when I want to make a picture. Not Xela.
Lots of Guatemalan cities never see a tourist. Their inhabitants see one white face and yelp obnoxiously, “GRINGO!!!” Not Xela.
Lots of Guatemalan cities and towns have a culinary scene limited to a row of taco stalls. Not Xela.
Lots of Guatemalan cities and towns have a beer selection limited to Gallo and Ice Dorada. Not Xela.
Lots of Guatemala cities and towns have a penchant for blasting music that even the hardiest Eurovision fan would find annoying. At ear-splitting volumes, that goes without saying. Not Xela.
At an altitude of 2330 metres, Quetzaltenango has a pleasant mountain climate. When the sun comes out in the daytime, it still gets pretty hot. But at no point during our stay, we need a fan. A hot shower is more necessary. You might be surprised, dear reader, about my lack of love for the heat. Sunshine is fine but in moderation. I don’t enjoy running around like a sweating buffalo, clothes sticking to my body and in need of a shower the moment I climb out of the swimming pool.
Don’t get me wrong about the tourists, they do come to Xela. Why wouldn’t they, with such an array of attractions in and around the city (to which we’ll come later)? But the tourists are not taking over the place, they’re not keeping it hostage like they do in Antigua. There is more than enough space for local life.
For the Mayan ladies from the surrounding villages who walk around the market carrying 24 rolls of kitchen towel on their heads. The middle-class parents eating coconut candies and churros in the weekend fair, whilst their children zip around in attractions that look like they could use a safety inspection. The youngsters listening to a concert, shit-faced at 8 pm and trying very hard not to fall over, without success. These locals are the main crowd in Xela, not some extras barely visible through the forest of beautiful white people in Antigua.
In many ways, Quetzaltenango reminds me of Yogyakarta, our home in Indonesia, and not just because a picture-perfect volcano looms over the city. Xela means order within the chaos, civilisation within the wilderness, peace within the noise, intellect within the ignorance. You see sharp boys and girls in graduation suits, taking selfies with proud parents, but you also see a quartet of sheep tied to a door in a street in the city centre. A bar proudly advertises ‘NO Reggaeton, NO Banda, NO Ranchera’, yet the market is such full-on craziness that you wonder how nobody dies.
Xela is refined, but never clinical, a city that keeps surprising. You can splash the cash on fancy coffee in European-styled cafés (a nice respite from the diktat of the instant coffee) or delicious craft beer. Or you can pass a Taiwanese hole-in-the-wall shop and buy greasy tofu empanadas or hot wheel cakes, oozing a gooey filling as sweet as sugar, for almost no money at all. Every morning when you wake up, you wonder which mask Xela will be wearing that day.
And you sing, to the tune of Interpol’s Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down:
Xela! I love you!
Xela! I love you!
Xela! I looooooooooove you!
(Or for those Flemish-speaking Belgians: mijn thuis is waar m’n Xela staat.)