We got an early start on Saturday from Pana armed with the right attitude to keep flowing through Chicken bus system and changing at the crossroads of Solola and Los Encuentros. Our intended destinations for the day were Quetzaltenango (Xela) and San Francisco El Alto (just 17 km away from Xela).
Chicken buses have their origins as school buses in the USA/Canada which are eventually transported after their retirement to Central America and then fitted with bigger engines and flashing lights and painted with bright colors. And speakers to pound out loud Latin reggae or syrupy sentimental Latin ballads. They all have a handy back door which is put to occasional use when the bus gets too crowded.
We got off at Los Encuentros without a clear idea of which destination we wanted to get to first, San Francisco El Alto or Quetzaltenango. We clearly wanted to get to the farther destination first and then work our way backwards towards Pana towards the end of the day. But the Highlands map did not give us a clear idea about which lay farther given the confusion around the Cuatro Caminos (4 roads) area. A bus with Guate-Xela-Momos painted on it beckoned invitingly. We approached it with V saying “San Francisco El Alto” and M saying “Xela” and the driver nodded to both. So we guessed that Xela should come after San Francisco and paid our fare for Xela.
Video: Guatemala CA-1 curvy highway
After a couple of hours of tortuous winding through CA-1, we approached Cuatro Caminos and the conductor indicated that we should get off and change to another bus for Xela. Then it became clear to us. Just because you hear someone shouting a destination does not necessarily mean that the bus heads there directly. It just means that you would be well advised to board the bus and then change later. This bus was going to Momostenango via San Francisco El Alto. We quickly told the conductor that we wanted to go to San Francisco El Alto and he nodded amiably and there was no argument about fare difference and we did not expect any. The Highlands are such a place. No petty small mindedness prevails here. After a few minutes, the bus veered off on a steep hill road and climbed steeply up for a short distance before entering the narrow one-way streets of San Francisco El Alto. We got off (still wondering why Xela was painted on the front of the bus if it did not go there...perhaps it would pass through on its return from Momos to Guate?)
The hilltop town of San Francisco El Alto (Pop. 42000, Elev. 2582m) is famous for its Friday market but we could not go there the previous day. The market is supposed to be a high intensity affair with a special section for animals with much careful examination of teeth and tongues and some degenerating into a wrestling match between man and animal. However, It wore a sleepy uninteresting look this morning with all humans and animals keeping to themselves. The whole town is Guatemala’s garment district and is full of vendors selling all manner of clothing, blankets and such. The church looked very interesting but was closed. After a few minutes of aimless wandering (with just a snack of fried banana chips bought on the street) we decided to head down another path down to the highway. Our smartphones with offline GPS maps were ever reliable and pointed the way clearly. We came across the cemetery and a family performing rites outside a gravesite and spent a few minutes walking through before heading down. The views of the stretched plateau and distant volcanoes was pleasing on this sunny Saturday morning.
Video: San Francisco El Alto Cemetery
Back on the highway waiting at the bus stop (just going by a few people gathered), a particularly colorful specimen of Chicken bus approached with “Huehue-Xela” and “Mesilla” written on it. We boarded with difficulty as it was quite full but we expected it to get empty at Cuatro Caminos and we were right. (Huehue stands for Huehuetenango which is further up on the Highlands and Mesilla is the border town with Mexico). These buses do cover quite a lot of ground.
20 minutes later we got off the bus in Guatemala’s second largest city, Quetzaltenango (Pop 165000, Elev. 2367m). We also got respite from curvy mountain roads in the broad flat plateau with the straight, grid-like streets befitting a large city. The city is called Xela (Shay-la) a shortening of its original Quiche Maya name, Xelaju (“under the rule of the ten mountains”). The Spaniards changed the name to associate it with the resplendent and elusive bird. It was a major center of commerce during colonial times owing to coffee crops until the 1902 earthquake flattened the entire city. It was completely rebuilt and all the buildings remaining today are from this era. Unlike its larger capital city, Xela is relatively clean and safe and hence more inviting for those seeking the Guatemalan large city experience. It is a great place to learn Spanish with many schools as well as volunteer projects.
Using our GPS and the guidebook to walk the 5 minutes to the Centro Intercultural de Quetzaltenango, we found it closed for the holidays. A 3-storey mall beckoned us from across the street, but we did not find anything suitable for our stomachs that were now yearning for lunch after the excitement of the chicken buses early in the day. We wisely decided to get into a collectivo taxi heading to the city centre and were deposited at the Parque Central within minutes. We set ourselves a target of 4 pm to be at the bus terminal for the return journey back to Pana which gave us a little over 2 hours to eat lunch and explore the city centre.
We browsed the guidebooks for vegetarian options when our jaws dropped at “Sabor de la India - Authentic South Indian fare is whipped up here by a friendly fellow from Kerala!” a mere two blocks away from the Parque Central. Substituting our wanderlust for a good old culinary escape, we rushed there to consume well appointed thalis with the benevolent eyes of Radha and Krishna (with authentic Mayan facial features) looking on. Things had come a full circle with the purveyor of Maya stationed in the land of the Maya. There was no sign of the “fellow from Kerala” but the local staff were friendly and seemed pleased to see a couple from the old country as we took great pains to explain the geography of South India using the map on their menu. It seemed quite popular with the locals with almost a full house.
Back on the Parque Central, we admired the sculptures and rotunda and the surrounding neoclassical buildings - the Cathedral (just the facade of the original Iglesia del Espiritu Santo remains fronting a modern Cathedral at the back), the Museo de Historia Natural, the Edificio Rivera (well renovated), the Municipalidad and the Pasaje Enriquez, an arcade of shops that seemed straight out of Milan. The surrounding streets were mostly deserted but looked pretty with colors similar to that of Antigua. We found the occasional curious mural or street sign. Despite their deserted look, the streets did not possess the air of menace like Guatemala (City) did. They just looked clean and harmless.
Back on the Parque we spotted a local man imposing his company on a European woman and after sensing her discomfort, we approached them and told off the man in English. He started protesting initially but the distraction was enough for the woman to quietly slip away with a Thank you on her lips. After exchanging a few God Bless Yous, we walked off and explored the Pasaje Enriquez. After a while, we spotted the same man in earnest conversation with a policeman but we could see that the policeman was not in any distress and so decided not to interfere any further.
Having had our fill of Xela, we got on a return collectivo to Minerva terminus which was Xela’s bus terminus as per the guidebooks. We got off the van and were stunned to see a neoclassical temple (built by dictator Estrada Cabrera to honor the Roman Goddess of learning to inspire Guatemalans to new heights of learning). We did not actually expect to see such a structure despite the name Minerva. Sadly, it seemed to be in state of total disrepair. We had a little difficulty finding the terminus for buses heading east towards Guatemala as the few chicken buses we saw did not have any recognizable names of the towns of the Highlands which we now knew quite well. Of course, the friendly locals did not fail us and indicated that we had to walk through the large market to find the bus terminus.
Video: Quetzaltenango (Xela) Parque Benito Juarez
We did walk through the market but still managed to get lost when we emerged from one of its exits. An even friendlier local offered to guide us and led us back into the market and through another narrow exit path overflowing with hawkers. This time we found the bus terminus which looked like the Conference of the High Order of Chicken Buses. The large open space was completely occupied by these magnificent colored beasts all with their engines roaring into the clear afternoon air. There was no way anyone of them could have passed the other, they just simply inched forward behind the one in front like a long train of engines. We were prepared to get on any one that was headed east but decided to be optimistic and uttered the word Pana. Another friendly local heard this and quickly pointed to a bus just a little ahead and to our delight we found ourselves sitting comfortably on a direct bus back to Pana! It had taken 4 different buses to get here (even if we had not gone to San Francisco El Alto we would have had to change at Cuatro Caminos) and we could now just sit in place for 3 hours and get off at home.
Video: Quetzaltenango (Xela) Bus Terminal
Our hotel manager (who spoke good English) had promised a free upgrade to a larger room with a view since we were staying 3 nights and we looked forward to it as we finally reached Pana by dusk. Coffee craving was satisfied by a German bakery which also served a nice portion of lentil soup which we called dinner.
Photo Album: San Francisco El Alto-Xela
Bits and Bob to comment on
Firstly you travel for 2 weeks to reach from San Francisco to San Francisco ! You both are crazy !!
Secondly , finding a Malayalathan in the farthest point on earth from Kerala is not surprising at all.
Of all the photos, the ones featuring jeans and derrieres is the most interesting !!
Much tickled by the caption to the post. By the way why is a chicken bus called a chicken bus ?? From , on Jan 20, 2015 at 05:13AM
@Ramesh - We do not think it is because they come home to roost in Central America. Most likely a reference to the fact that you can expect to see all manner of flora and fauna being transported in these buses. From, on Jan 20, 2015 at 06:19PM