All Part Of The Plan

29th Sept. 2016

The safest Chicken Bus you'll find!Often, when we arrive in a new town then there is a bit of head-scratching and consulting Lonely Planet to work out what we should be going to see and what our itinerary should be. This time, however, we’ve had it handed us to on a plate as the very helpful Xela Who guide and website has an 18-stop walking tour around the town. (Though I was quite tempted by the half-day hike out of town to nearby lava fields as an alternative).

Parque CentralSo, map in hand (and pedometer in day-pack) we set out to see what Xela has to offer us. The first few stops were all clustered around the Parque Central that we walked around last night. The square itself was absolutely as you would expect – statues and monuments in the centre with trees providing shade for benches so the locals can sit and watch the world go by or the children feeding the pigeons. Surrounding the square are imposing buildings that date back to Xela’s heyday in the late 19th & early 20th centuries. It is clear that there used to be a lot more money in Xela than there is now.

Cathedral facadeInside the cathedralTake the cathedral, for example. The first view is of an impressive 16th Century façade with the compulsory statues and bell towers. Then you look more closely and realise that that is exactly what it is – a façade – and that the actual cathedral (Iglesia del Espiritu Santo) was built behind it and was only completed in the 1990s. LP and the sign beside the cathedral disagree as to what happened – LP say the original building was damaged by the big earthquakes here and the sign says that it was a poorly planned demolition & replacement. Whilst the new exterior would not cut the mustard in Mexico, the interior had a style and beauty of its own.

_DSF1782Next up was the Museum of Natural History – though you should put aside any mental comparisons that you might have with the equivalent in London. This one is distinctly not on the same scale. Indeed, it is on one floor of one wing of a building shared with another museum. LP describes it well – “a hodgepodge of Maya artefacts, vintage photos, old coins, …, sports trophies, … all displayed in cases reminiscent of elementary school outings”. In defence of the museum, I’d say we got two things out of it. Firstly, a helpful overview of what was happening in this part of the world at the time of wider happenings worldwide (starting around 500BC with the foundation of Rome).

Bridge to nowhereSecondly, it gave us an insight into the establishment of modern Guatemala. Independence Day here is celebrated on 15th September (confusingly close to the Mexican celebration on 16th Sept) – but the years are very different 1810 for Mexico, but 1821 for Guatemala. On that date they became independent from Spain but formed a Federation of Central American States with Costa Rica, Honduras and others. This lasted for around 20 years and included a time when Mexico tried to take control of Guatemala. Anyway, enough and worth the Q6 (£0.60) each for the entrance fee.

Trying to photograph the kidsAfter that, the route took us on a circuitous path out of town and past some of the more noteworthy buildings in the city including the 1882 municipal theatre (complete with teachers trying to organise their primary school class to pose for a group photo) and the football stadium (home to the Super Chivos football team). However, looking at the city map now, I spot that they missed out the brewery. How could the do this to us??

Only a model of the train is leftThere were, however, some other treats and they must have known that we have a particular soft spot for railway museums, because there is one in Xela. Unlike other railway museums we have been to, this one is indoor only, confined to two rooms and contains no rolling stock exhibits (unless you count the scale model of one of carriages). It turns out that the history of the railway of Los Altos is quite short. It was a single track going through the Guatemalan highlands (where we are now) and it was built in 1930 (at some difficulty & expense in that they needed to build a dam and a hydro-electric power station to provide the electricity). However, in 1933 there was an earthquake that destroyed large parts of the track and so they gave up on it. The small fragments of carriage parts and track along with some photos are all that remain. A bit sad really.

Your bananas!XelaWho’s walking tour ended at the Minerva bus terminal – appropriately enough by a large pseudo-Grecian temple of Minerva (exhorting Guatemalan’s on the benefits of education) and the inevitable market. Of far more interest than the temple, though are the locals buying and selling at the market stalls and the antics of the bus drivers and conductors. We had heard about Guatemalan ‘Chicken Buses’ – in reality old yellow school buses from the US, some in their original yellow and some in beautiful paint schemes. However pretty, the outside of the bus is though, in the inside there seem to be no rules – just find a space where you can. We will have to try one at some point!

Mausoleums in the cemetery

Along with railway museums, doors and now churches, one of the other places that we have consistently found fascinating are cemeteries. Although this wasn’t included on the walking tour route, we spotted it on the map and headed there after lunch (in a deserted food court in a deserted shopping mall). Sure enough we found another hit here – and another reminder that there used to be a lot more money in Xela than there is today. The cemetery was a mix of mausoleums and simple graves – and the contrast between the two was really striking. Most poignant of all were the walls of simple tombs, some brightly painted – and then when you look at the dates you realise that these are the graves of babies and children.

A wall of (children's) graves

By the time that we got back to the hotel, had a rest and then went out again for some sunset photos, it was another 20,000 step day. But another good day – we stuck to the plan and learned more about Xela and Guatemala than we had expected. Whilst the streets were much dirtier than we had seen in Mexico and the roads & pavements even more uneven the people were just as friendly and smiley. Just another day to remind us how much we love to travel.

Xela at night

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2 Responses to All Part Of The Plan

  1. Clive Polley says:

    Isn’t it amazing after all your travels, I was just looking at the RTW route, you still continue to find such interesting nooks and crannies to look into. Great blogs by the way, keep travelling safely. Clive

  2. Mary says:

    Enjoyed the I formation Janet and Dave. Photos are excellent too. Well done and thanks for sharing! M.E. xxxooo

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