Monday, April 26, 2010

All aboard! See you in Quetzaltenango...

The only electric train that once existed in Guatemala, built by the German company AEG and inaugurated in 1930, was the Ferrocarril de Los Altos (The Highlands Train) that connected Quetzaltenango with Retalhuleu in the Pacific Coast. Despite its short life (it was destroyed by a mudslide in 1933) and that it is almost mythical, it remains alive in Guatemalan collective mind through the notes of one beautiful musical composition by Domingo Bethancourt who was born in Quetzaltenango (1906-1980). So this time, I invite you to set the mood, and imagine that we are entering Quetzaltenango (the Quetzal fortress), our new destination in The Highlands, on board the Ferrocarril de los Altos.
As of today, Quetzaltenango is Guatemala's second most populous city and the most important commercial center in The Highlands area.
During the colonial times, the Captaincy General of Guatemala included the territories of  five states: each one of the current Central America countries. The independent state of Los Altos (the Highlands) that occupied eight departments in the west of present-day Guatemala (Quiche, Solola, Totonicapan, Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango, San Marcos, Retalhuleu, and Suchitepequez) as well as the Soconusco region in the Mexican state of Chiapas, became part of the Federal Republic of Central America (which was born after the independence from Spain in 1821) in the 1830s.
The history of the Federal Republic of Central America is very short, among other reasons, due to a 2-year civil war between Conservatives and Liberals. Without a sustained struggle for independence to cement a sense of national identity, the various political factions were unable to overcome their ideological differences and the federation dissolved around 1840s after a series of bloody conflicts. Since then, with the exception of Soconusco that was added to Mexico, Los Altos remain part of the Guatemalan territory.
In ancient times, Quetzaltenango was a Maya Mam settlement called Xe Laju' Noj, a Mam voice that translates as "under 10 mountains". This name, transformed into Xelaju, or the more familiar Xela, is the name that we Guatemalans commonly use for the city of Quetzaltenango.
In the 19th century, coffee was introduced as a major crop in the area and the economy of Xela prospered. That is why much fine Belle Époque-style architecture can still be found in the city.
As department, Quetzaltenango is divided into 24 municipalities, although progressive and contemporary, still traditional and mystic as we are about to discover in the following days while visiting this new destination.
All the photos in this post by

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