Friday, April 30, 2010

Friday in Xela: Dinner and Party Time!

Do you see the moon? That is precisely the moon that inspired the Huehueteco (the name for people born in Huehuetenango, another department in The Highlands that we will visit soon) Francisco Perez to write his most remarkable composition: Luna de Xelaju, a waltz composed to be played by a Guatemalan Marimba; however, the melody and also the lyrics are so beautiful that many players and singers along Latin America have played and sung it with different arrangements. Today, I will share with you two versions. I hope both of them work properly. Here is the first version, a classical one.
Now, shall we go out for dinner? If you are more interested in modern and eclectic places and food, I would recommend then the Pasaje Enriquez, one of the outstanding buildings across the central park that offers several options for dining, drinking, and even dancing in the Salon Tecun. At certain time, the place may turn out a little bit noisy since it is a favorite among young people.
Without leaving the central park area, you will also find more options suitable for every palate and budget, in a range that goes from hamburgers and pizza to veggie specialties.
If quite contrary, you are a traveler eager to learn about local culture and discover new flavors, I would recommend to look for a typical food restaurant. It's been a while since my last visit to Xela, so I am going to say that the best way to find the nicest place with good local food, would be by asking locals or at the hotel. What I do can tell you for sure, is that local food is beyond worthy.
One of my favorites is Jokom (also known as jocon), a simple yet flavorful recipe, great to innovate (just as I have done in several occasions): as finger's food, use chicken thighs and more consistent sauce; as an appetizer, use boneless chicken breast cut in cubes; as a meal, use a whole chicken (to obtain the maximum flavor) cut in pieces.
Do you remember I told you that Xela is a good place for some salsa dancing? Well, while cooking our delicious Jokom, here is the second version, kind of irreverent but cheerful  salsa/tropical arrangement for Luna de Xelaju.

Basic Jokom Sauce for 1 Whole Chicken (or 8-12 thighs)
My own version to be served as soup, before the main course.
In about 4-6 cups of water, precook the chicken with a stalk of celery, a carrot, an onion, a couple of garlic cloves, salt and pepper. Discard the vegetables. Reserve the stock for the sauce.
Blend together with the chicken stock, until the mixture is smooth: 1 cup of peeled and lightly toasted pumpkin seeds, 2 cups of fresh culantro, 2 cups of fresh green onions, 1 green bell pepper, 1/2 cup of miltomates (husks removed), and 2 cloves of garlic. Optional: green hot pepper. Everything has to be raw, otherwise, the sauce won't be of a vibrant green.
Combine the blended mixture with the chicken stock (you decide how soupy or thick you want the sauce), bring it to a boil, reduce the heat, let it simmer for 5 minutes, add the chicken pieces and simmer another 5 minutes. If necessary, before adding the chicken, you can thicken the sauce with white bread crumbs.
To serve it as a meal, add on the side Guatemalan-style rice (long grain rice with peas and fine juliennes of carrots, string beans, and red bell pepper) and if possible, white "steamed tamalitos" (small like-fistful portions of  corn dough softened with a little bit of lard or vegetable oil wrapped in young corn leaves).
A good resource to find out what's going on in Xela, is, a friendly site with lots of information about almost everything and everybody in Quetzaltenango.
Enjoy your weekend!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Historic and Industrious Salcaja and Olintepeque

Let me begin by telling you that today  we are going to learn a little bit of history, except for the main photo above, the images we are going to see today are of the modern and industrious Salcaja.
From the historic-colonial times perspective, Salcaja is important because it was in this town where Pedro de Alvarado built the first formal base-camp and settlement for his soldiers, family and the rest of the people in his group while he continued exploring the territory in search for the right place to build the first capital city.
The ancient Saq'kaja, whose name, according to the Popol Vuh translates as "clear water" was already a prosperous village by the time the Spaniards arrived, and it was relatively easy for them to set the basis for a Spanish-style town, starting with the central square surrounded by a church, the governmental building, the multiple-uses building, and the governmental residence and that is why, Salcaja is home to the very first catholic church ever built in Central America.
The church is officially registered as San Jacinto; however, it is better known as Ermita de la Virgen de Concepcion-la Conquistadora (name that literally translates as Chapel of Our Lady of the Conception-the Conqueror). Obviously, "la Conquistadora" is an adjective added by locals who associate it with the conquest.
Another historic event is that in those days, Salcaja also witnessed the birth of the first mestiza, Leonor, the daughter of Pedro de Alvarado and Luisa Xicontencatl (a Tlaxcalan princess who traveled with Pedro de Alvarado from Mexico).
In addition to the beautiful la conquistadora church, Salcaja is known for being probably the most important of three towns where the ikat (jaspe) textiles are produced. This is a technique practiced mainly by men, using tie-typed threads woven in treadle looms. The threads preparation is a very complicated and time-consuming process that usually involves the whole family. Watch them working, wrapping, fastening, dyeing, and weaving, is quite an experience. Jaspe is the fabric women use for their skirts (corte) all over the country, and in a more elaborate designs, for their shawls (rebozo or perraje).
Salcaja is also known for the farming of peaches, apples, pears, nances (Byrsonima crassifolia), which they use to make the famous Caldo de Frutas (wine-like fermented fruits-based beverage), following the same recipe introduced by the Spaniards during the colonial times.
In Salcaja's neighbor, the municipality of Olintepeque, we also find El Pinar and the Siguila / Xequik'el River -this river changes its name under the bridge built in the place where in 1524, the K'iche warrior Tecun Uman, the National Hero, was defeated by Pedro de Alvarado. Olintepeque per se is not what we could say a touristic place, but that is just because it has not been discovered yet.
In general, I would say that most of these towns, if not all of them are flourishing, and amazingly, while working very hard to incorporate themselves into an inevitable modernity, they are able to maintain their rich traditions and culture. Certainly, a lesson about cultural identity that us, Guatemala City dwellers appear not to embrace.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Colorful Quetzaltenango: The Markets in Almolonga and Zunil

Some of the most picturesque markets of Guatemala are found in Quetzaltenango, and one of them is probably the most important fresh produce trade center of Northern Central America.
This is Almolonga, one of the municipalities of Quetzaltenango, also known as the "orchard of the country". Its ancient name, Molon'ya, translates as "place where the water springs up" and this feature, combined with the rich volcanic soil is precisely what makes Almolonga such a fertile place.
Another market in the surroundings is located in Zunil, where the main economic activity is the agriculture; in this case, however, in addition to several varieties of vegetables, local forest and fruit species, as well as flowers, have become a strong component of the solid economy of its inhabitants.
Zunil is also home to Fuentes Georginas (sulfurous hot springs), located up on the mountains and surrounded by an extraordinary ecosystem, a cloud forest flanked on one side by beautiful farming lands.
In Fuentes Georginas there are several trails where nature lovers can enjoy a medium impact hike. It is definitely a place to be included when visiting Quetzaltenango.
As for accommodation, in Zunil we find Turicentro Las Cumbres, a little bit rustic but cozy enough to make you feel more than welcome. After a good bath in the hot springs and may be a hike through the forest, I can assure you that you will be delighted with the atmosphere at Las Cumbres while enjoying a succulent "quetzalteca" meal.
Zunil is also prosperous because it is home to the geothermic plant La Caldera, which has brought to the town and the surrounding villages different sources of employment.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Beautiful Xela: An Old Town with Modern Dynamism

I do hope you enjoyed our train ride yesterday, because I did! Today, Xela open its front doors to let us in, to let us travel in time while we walk through narrow and some cobble-stoned streets. One of the first things we will notice entering Xela is its modernity and it may be difficult to imagine that beyond the entrance, we will find a town that keeps traces of the colonial period in its streets and avenues.
As I mentioned yesterday, fine Belle Époque-style architecture -classical, neoclassical and Italian renaissance- are evident in the buildings and the houses which were built during the late 1800s and early 1900s, with volcanic stones sculpted by local artists.
Some of the most important buildings are: the Cathedral, whose facade was originally built in 1535 and remodeled in 1896; the Municipal Theater, a Neoclassical building beautiful not just in the outside but also in the inside; the Central America Park (also known as Parque Central or Central Square), which is in the center of the town and frequently is used as scenario for artistic performances and once a month is transformed into the artisans' market.
Xela has become a popular destination for foreign students looking to study Spanish or even one of the Maya languages, and offers amazingly affordable options, including home stays which have students practicing all day long. In addition to the languages lessons, and please don't ask me why, Xela is also a great place to learn salsa dancing, boasting a lively salsa scene.  
This former colonial town is enveloped by surrounding misty mountains, the city itself is based at an altitude of 7,655 feet above sea level, so don't forget to bring a sweater. Two major volcanoes share the landscape here, and while the Santa Maria volcano rests dormant, the Santiaguito volcano remains active. The photo above was taken from a look-out point. If you are in very good physical conditions and enjoy trekking, climbing this volcano would be a one-in-a-lifetime experience.
As a popular destination, and the commercial center that it is, plans are under way to build the Xelaju International Airport making it accessible by air; until then, surface transportation remains the primary way to visit Xela and that way, tomorrow we will continue our journey, only this time on board a modern bus. Or what, did you think that we in Guatemala only have chicken buses?

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

Friday, April 23, 2010

San Andres Xecul and its Pretty Yellow Church

San Andres Xecul was visited two weeks ago by Maynor Mijangos, author of the beautiful photos from that I have the privilege to share with you, my journey companions; which means that the images we are viewing today are hot off the dark room!
This town houses the famous "yellow church", whose facade depicts one of the most artistic expressions within the syncretism characteristic of the area. It really seems impossible to ask for more color and creativity. The church is just an explosion of color, angels and flowers. The statues are totally unconventional, while some seem to be thinking, others seem to be singing, and some others representing sacred scenarios, steal a smile or two at first sight, for instance, the statue of the Virgin Mary who looks pregnant.
The church's image has traveled around the world delighting art lovers throughout. The colors are not among the common or traditional ones, but rather and without a doubt offer  an explosion of happiness and joy to the spectators.
If you happen to be in the area around  the end of November, don't miss the festivity honoring the Saint Patron Saint Andrew Apostle, when you may enjoy some of the traditional dances and admire the stunning costumes. Let me tell you that the Monkeys' Dance is literally breathtaking.
As a tip, San Andres Xecul is close to Quetzaltenango and from there, a visit can be planned as a half-day tour. It will be a rewarding experience!
When I said at the beginning of this post that using Maynor's photographs is a privilege is not just because of the professionalism of his job, but mainly because of his passion and love for Guatemala, which yesterday was acknowledged by Inguat (the Guatemalan Institute of Tourism), which included a photo gallery in its official Website.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Momostenango and The Mother Earth

Today, we celebrate Earth Day! I know, it is too bad that most of us remember an important thing like taking good care of our mother earth only on specific dates. Personally, I am convinced that taking care of our environment is rewarding enough to make some changes in our daily habits, starting with simple things like avoiding waste of water and energy. Let's not take for granted the 3 Rs: reuse, reduce, and recycle.
According to the Popol Vuh, the ancient name Cho Tz'ak translates as "altars in front of the hills"; the current name Momostenango is a derivative of two Nahuatl voices, Momoztli (altars) and Tenango (fortified place).
The most important attraction in Momostenango are los riscos, which are millenarian rocky formations due to erosion.
Other attractions in the area are several hot springs surrounded by lush vegetation and threatened forests.
For the inhabitants of Momostenango, the respect to Mother Earth remains as one vital aspect in their culture as we can appreciate in the several altars located throughout the area where Mayan ceremonies are still in practice following the Maya Calendar; however and unfortunately, their natural resources have become threatened due to several issues, among others, the extraction of timber and firewood.
As I mentioned yesterday, an increase in tourism activities in the area may contribute to improve not just the life conditions for the people, but also, the preservation of the natural resources.
Last, but definitely not least, Momostenango is also the hometown to Humberto Ak'Abal, a noted Maya K'iche poet acknowledged in 2004 in Guatemala with the National Prize of Literature (which he declined for personal reasons) and recipient of the 2006 Guggenheim Fellowship.
His poems speak for the people still close to the earth, whose language allows us to enter a world that still recognizes the divine aliveness of nature. Ak'Abal says, "My poems have the moistness of rain... because they have been brought down from the mountain."

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Totonicapan Forests: a Birdwatchers Paradise

More than 720 bird species live in Guatemala. Of the bird species breeding in the highlands, about 10% are endemic to the North Central American Highland. The range of some species is even restricted to Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico.
The municipality of San Miguel Totonicapan, at an elevation of 2500m in the western Guatemalan highlands has not yet been discovered by international tourists. Birding near Totonicapan and around the town is extraordinary.
The whole area offers an impressive array of landscapes, from corn fields, to quaint villages and conifer forests with different pine species (Pinus spp.), cypress (Cupressus lucitanicus) and Guatemalan fir (Abies guatemalensis). 
In humid valleys the forest is mixed with broad-leaf trees (oak, alder). The area is home to several bird species endemic to the northern Central American highlands.
Soon after entering the forest the distinct "ch-lip" call reveals the presence of Pink-headed Warbler, an endemic of the highlands of Guatemala.
Even without being familiar with the calls, birders can detect this beautiful warbler quite easily, because it moves not just in the canopy, but also in the forest understory. 
The bird is locally quite common in the Guatemalan highlands and there is no need to climb steep volcanoes to observe this species.
In each mixed foraging flock one to three individuals moved together with Townsend's, Hermit, Wilson's, Olive, Golden-browed, and Crescent-chested Warblers, Hutton's Vireo, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Brown Creeper, and Spot-crowned Woodcreeper.
In addition to Pink-headed Warblers, there are several other endemic birds of the northern Central American highlands that can be watched in the Totonicapan conifer forest: Rufous-browed Wren, Rufous-collared Robin, Black-capped Swallow, and Ocellated Quail.
In the forest understory several Chestnut-capped Brushfinches, Yellow-eyed (Guatemalan) Juncos, Spotted Towhees, Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrushes and Singing Quail can be detected
Most common hummers in the area are Amethyst-throated and White-eared Hummingbird.
The Totonicapan forest covers an area of more than 16,000ha and is one of the largest tracts of high-elevation conifer forest in Guatemala. The main part of the forest is communal, and some adjacent sections are privately owned. For Birders, the best part is that the forest can be birded year round.
For a real birdwatching exploration I would highly recommend to hire at least the services of a certified local guide, keeping in mind that since Totonicapan is not a touristic place yet, accommodations can be quite rustic.
By visiting the forest of Totonicapan we can help to its conservation by establishing a sustainable forest use, an alternative to the extraction of timber and firewood.
If you want to learn about birds of Guatemala, let me recommend  this book, which is the most authoritative, detailed, and updated checklist of the 725 bird species recorded in Guatemala. 
Also includes information about status, habitats and endemic species, along with detailed distribution maps, information on species to watch for and species of special concern
Lista Comentada De Las Aves De Guatemala / Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Guatemala (English and Spanish Edition) by Knut Eisermann and Claudia Avendano.