Thursday, May 19, 2011


After a month of living and working in the city of Xela, officially known as Quetzaltenango, I have grown very fond of it and will be sad to leave. Along with that sadness I am very excited to be back in the United States, my home and the country that I love.

Looking down on the city of Xela from on top of El Baul, one of the many hills surrounding the city.

Xela is a city with a lot personality and interesting people and places. To give some basic facts about the city, it is Guatemala's second largest with a population of about 160,000, around 65% of which are indigenous Amerindian peoples. These indigenous peoples are descendants of the Mayans and it is one of the Mayan languages which is the source of the name "Xela," a shortened form of the Mayan name for the city, Xelaju. For a brief period Xela was the capital of the independent nation of Los Altos or "The Highlands" before it was annexed by Guatemala.

Xela from the roof of my Spanish school and clinic where I spent the majority of my days.

The city is in the mountains at an elevation of about 7,600 ft. During my first week here I could feel the elevation as I walked up and down the hilly streets and jogged in the hills above the city. Many hills and mountains surround the city, the largest of which is Volcan Santa Maria which I climbed my second weekend in the country. The city is located in a region known for growing excellent coffee and chocolate. I have taken advantage of both of these agricultural products in some of the excellent cafés in the city while studying Spanish or reading my Spanish Bible. The chocolate drinks here are better than any I've had in the U.S.

Inside Café Baviera, one of the places I spent a lot of time at in Xela.

One of the large street-markets in Xela called "La Democracia" with amazingly cheap and high-quality fruits and vegetables.

Xela has been the source of many Guatemalan leaders and intellectuals and its universities are important centers of higher education for Guatemala. I had the privilege of attending one of the classes at the medical school of Universidad San Carlos de Guatemala with a medical student I met at the Presbyterian church here. It was an anatomy lecture and, in my opinion, was better than the anatomy lectures I got at my med school back in the U.S.

In Parque a Centroamerica, more popularly known as "Parque Central"

Looking down on the center of the city from the hill of the church "Cristo Viene." The large building to the right is the cathedral.

Parque Central at night

The spiritual environment in Xela is an often frustratingly complicated mixture of usually syncretistic Roman Catholicism, New-Agey attempts at a return to Mayan religion (minus the child-sacrifice), and "Evangelicalism" which is usually simply extreme prosperity-gospel churches. There are also quite a few Mormons here with an impressive Mormon temple overlooking the city with the illuminated golden statue of Moroni visible for many miles at night. My host family here, all very nice people, are very secular and I think they find it surprising that they're housing a Gringo who attends church weekly. In all of this frustrating and saddening mix I've been blessed to worship at two different Presbyterian churches that seemed to preach the gospel unencumbered by any heretical nonsense. I also attended one mass in the very impressive cathedral which I found interesting.

Xela's cathedral - a very impressive sight at night.

Overall Xela has been a wonderful place to work and study and I hope I can return someday.


Anonymous said...
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KJN said...


This is a fantastic blog, and it sounds like you had a fantastic experience in Xela. Which language school did you attend? I am currently a BA-MA advanced practice nursing student, and hope to spend a month in Xela studying Spanish.

I would also love the names of the churches you attended, and any volunteer opportunities you might recommend.

I also have some concerns about the safety of traveling from the airport to Xela and would appreciate any travel advice you might have.

I am very grateful for any insight you might give me from your experience in Xela. Please feel free to email me at nagel.kj as well. Gmail account.

Many thanks,