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Xela Affiliate

AFFILIATE QUETZALTENANGO (XELA)

Overview/Orientation

The name Quetzaltenango comes from the Mexican word meaning ‘the place or the city of the Quetzal’, Guatemala’s national bird.  Before the Spanish conquest, the region was known as Xelajú, a name derived from the Quiché language which means ‘place below the ten’.  This refers to both the ten surrounding peaks and ten former governments of the area.

Before it was conquered by the K’iches in the 14th century, the region was also known as the Mam word ‘Culajá’, which means ‘throat of water’.  The department as it is known today was officially created September 16th, 1845.

Today, although the department still officially carries the name of Quetzaltenango, its capital city of the same title is more commonly still referred to as Xelajú, or simply Xela.  (Pronouncedshay-la)

Climate

The landscape of Quetzaltenango can be divided into two large zones.  The highland zone in the North of the department is characterized by the valleys and volcanoes of the Sierra Madre.  In this zone, where the majority of the department’s towns and municipalities are located, the climate varies from temperate to cold (10-20°C /50-68°F) in the valleys, and can get very cold (5-15°C/41-59°F) in the heights of the surrounding mountains, especially at night.  From Columba and El Palmar to the south of the department is the lowland zone, where the climate is much warmer (25°C/77°F), and very humid.

Geography

One of the most noticeable aspects of Quetzaltenango is its volcanoes.  These include:  Santo Thomas or Pecul (3,505m/11,566 ft), Lancadón (2,747m/9065 ft), Siete Orejas (Seven Ears) (3,370m/11,121 ft), Zunil (3,542m/11,689 ft), and Cerro Quemado (3,197m/10,550 ft).  The Chiquibal Volcano (2,900m/9,570 ft) is unique for the lake located within its center, which is considered sacred due to the clouds that are said to be spirits moving over its waters, and swimming is, by tradition, forbidden.

The active volcanoes in the department are few:  only Santa Maria (3,772m/12,448 ft) which suffered an eruption in 1902, and Santiaguito (2,500m 8250 ft) which is a lateral crater formed after an eruption of Santa Maria in June, 1992. The majority of rivers in the department run north-south towards the Pacific Ocean.  The principal rivers consist of the Samalá, Naranjo, Ocosito, Nimá I and Nimá II.

Local History

In the time before the Spanish conquest, the area of Quetzaltenango was inhabited by the native Mayan descendants, the Quiche. Having made his way through Guatemala, the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado and his small army launched an attack on the 30,000-strong Quiche army in Xela in 1523.  Legend has it that Alvarado himself killed the Quiche king, Tecún Umán, in a hand-to-hand fight near Olintepeque.

Quetzaltenango played an important role in the ‘epoca independiente’, or Age of Independence of Latin American history.  In 1838, together with Totonicapán, Sololá, Quiche, Retalhuleu and Suchitepéquiez formed the state of Los Altos, the 6th state of the Central American Federation.  In 1840, Los Altos dissolved, and five years later Quetzaltenango became one of the departments of Guatemala.

The city of Xela flourished during the colonial era and grew rapidly during the coffee boom. The 1902 earthquake, however, interrupted the city’s growth.  The unexpected neoclassical architecture, incidentally, dates from the post-earthquake reconstruction period.

Ethnic Composition

Of the approximately 624,716 inhabitants of Quetzaltenango, 60% are indigenous, consisting of the ethnicities of Mam and Quiche.  The remaining population is primarily ladino, a mix of indigenous and foreign ethnicity.

Economy

The principal activity in the department is agriculture.  In highlands, this includes potatoes, grains and vegetables.  Of highest quality are the lush, irrigated fields of Almolonga and Zunil. In the lowlands near Columba and Coatepeque, the principal crops are coffee and fruits, while in the region nearest the coast, rubber is grown.  In industrial areas, grain mills, breweries, food and drink packaging and leather and fur-processing plants.  The textile industry is especially important in Cantel. In the 1930’s hydroelectric plants ran in the Samalá River, which served Ferrocarril de Los Altos, connecting Retalhuheu to Quetzaltenango and had the steepest run in the world.  While this train no longer runs, a museum on the square in Xela is dedicated to preserving its memory.

Important crafts are glass blowing, iron works and traditional woven fabrics.  Lastly, tourism has grown significantly, and begun to play an important role in Xela.

Excursions and Attractions

The city, second largest in Guatemala, is distinguished by its colonial and neoclassic architecture, including el Palacio and the Municipal Theatre, Temple Minerva, the old Cathedral and Pasaje Enriquez (also the home of Bar Tecún).  For foreign tourists, Xela is an especially attractive place to study, due to its large selection of Spanish schools. Around Xela you can visit the Cerro del Baúl, the valley of Almolonga, various volcanoes, thermal baths such as the hot springs of Fuentas Goerginas and Los Vahos, and various pueblos, each with its own attraction.The towns of Zunil and Olintepeque are especially attractive for their veneration and rituals of both Christian and indigenous origins, such as San Simon and San Pascual Bailón respectively.

Around Xela you can visit the Cerro del Baúl, the valley of Almolonga, various volcanoes, thermal baths such as the hot springs of Fuentas Goerginas and Los Vahos, and various pueblos, each with its own attraction.The towns of Zunil and Olintepeque are especially attractive for their veneration and rituals of both Christian and indigenous origins, such as San Simon and San Pascual Bailón respectively.