After Todos Santos we headed to Quetzaltenango, which pretty much everybody calls Xela (pronounced shay-la) after its indigenous name Xelaju. It’s Guatemala’s second largest city with official population estimates in the 200,000’s, although we heard that it really might have as many as 800,000 people. Either way the place didn’t feel particularly big. It’s got a bit of a gritty and sketchy vibe, but is also pretty charming with lots of crumbly colonial architecture and lots of fun restaurants and bars.
Xela has a great international reputation for high quality and inexpensive Spanish language schools, and we’d been looking forward to studying there since we’d begun planning our trip to Guatemala. But while we were in Todos Santos a few days before we were headed to Xela we got word from some friends that they’d been robbed at gunpoint along with half a dozen other people in their group at a viewpoint at the edge of town. Afterward the tourist cops told them that there had been a recent increase in crime in town. It was a terrifying experience for them, and understandably they were pretty negative about the safety level in Xela, to the point that they didn’t think it was a good idea to go there.
Other people had raved about Xela to us, and recommended it highly. How to reconcile something like this? We decided that we had to go and see for ourselves, and just be extra cautious.
A couple people we’d met in Guatemala had recommended the well known Spanish school Celas Maya, so we made it our first stop when we got into town. This was a Sunday at about noon, and by four we were unpacking in our home-stay for the week and getting ready for class the following morning. This was generally our experience signing up for schools in Guatemala; no prior registration necessary.
Our home-stay family was very friendly and fun, and their home was unusually nice- the equivalent of a nice upperish-middle class home in the states. Also staying at the home were two Canadian students both named John, both from Calgary, who hadn’t known each other before coming to Xela. It was a fun houseful of people and we had some great evenings drinking cheap wine and talking together and improving our Spanish. The only problem was that it was at least a fifteen minute walk from the school and the center of town, and at night we didn’t feel very safe making the walk.
Celas Maya was a well run school, much better organized than any of the other schools we attended. It’s housed in a nice old colonial building a few blocks from the parque central, and is a big place with lots of students. Most classes are held in the courtyard in a nice garden. We liked it a lot, and our teachers were very professional; Denae thought that her teacher here was the best she had in Guatemala. The only drawback was that the school was a bit big for our taste, with enough students that individual social cliques formed- overall we prefer the atmosphere of smaller schools where everyone knows everyone.
The school also organized afternoon activities most days, the best of which during our week was a cooking class for making boxboles, a traditional Guatemalan dish from Nebaj. They were kind of like a reverse tamale, with masa dough folded inside a kale leaf and steamed. We also made some really good salsas to accompany the boxboles, one of them made mostly out of toasted and ground pumpkin seeds. The dish was really good, and we plan on cooking it at home in the future- it seems like an especially good fall meal.
We enjoyed walking and hanging around Xela. In the early 1900’s the city built a bunch of ancient Greek-style columns and architectural elements around town, giving it a somewhat strange yet dignified feeling. There are lots of old buildings to look at, and decent street food; a fun place to explore. There are a couple of big markets with lots going on, although people do get robbed there periodically. We didn’t eat at many restaurants because we had food served with our host family, but we did splurge one evening by going to Sabor de la India, one of the best restaurants in town. It was a little weird going out for Indian food in Guatemala, but it’s really well done. We also stumbled on a popular deep fried banana stand near the municipal theater that we kept going back to; served with cream and sugar the freshly fried platanos were incredible. There’s also a lively nightlife scene in town, we went out to a really fun Salsa club one night above the grocery store.
It’s a little hard to explain the allure of Xela, but we liked it a lot. It’s a little gritty and lacking any dramatic sights, but the people are nice and it’s a fantastic place to study Spanish. It’s pretty cheap too; Denae had a stomach bug for a while so we had a lab do a test on her stool sample to make sure she didn’t have anything nasty (she didn’t): the test cost $2.50 US! After a week we headed out of town to Antigua to meet Denae’s mom for a short visit, but as we left we were already making plans to return.