Phayo, Franche-Compte, Elounda, Jum

What’s there?

It was one of those casual where ya from, where ya going, where ya staying conversations, on the bus  from Antigua, Guatemala to San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico – a typical backpacker route catering more to gringos than locals. A youngster in dreadlocks asked me if we knew ‘somewhere to crash’ in San Cristobal. I answered- “Well no, we’re getting off in Quetzaltenango.” “O yeah? What’s there?” “Uhhm”, I faltered, “it’s the second largest city in Guatemala, so 200’000+ people are there, for starters.” “Yeah, but what’s there?!” My- “We’re gonna check out what’s there ourselves” would probably have sounded lame to most Lonely Planet-esque “cherry pickers”…. Cherry pickers – as in never going out of their way to see something not recommended by their guidebook –  and confirmed by a handful of similar so-called travelers. It’s fine with me though, or in a way it’s even fantastic, because it means we get to explore places not yet ‘made over’ by mass tourism. There are still many such under-the-radar destinations, but it’s unprecedented how declared tourist hot-spots are drawing in the masses. And are struggling, one way or another, to reinvent themselves. We’ve noticed a growing influx of tourists almost everywhere, just in the five years we’ve been on the road.

So what was there, in unvarnished Quetzaltenango, (aka Xelajú in Maya)? Xela street

Most importantly, we found an eclectic mix of indigenous and mestizo people, around 50% to 50% we later read. Six universities! It turns out that Xela is an uplifting example of how traditionally impoverished indigenous people have obtained economic and political power in Guatemala, running small and big businesses – with confidence and success I’d say. It was inspiring to meet some of these enterprising young hopefuls and to get to know projects like Café Red and Al Natur.
And there was much more there, in Xela: An early morning bus ride brought us past impossibly perpendicular farmland
Mountain fields

and grey cinder-block towns to hot springs backed by towering cliffs, a pleasingly relaxing and patently popular local hangout
Hot springs

Other wanders introduced us to Xela’s neoclassical (German!) architecture, a temple to the goddess Minerva
Minerva temple

and – once again – chocolate!

Bottom line – Get off the beaten path, it doesn’t have to be big expeditions. Why not try just one town on from Everyman.

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