Tuesday 20th September 2011

Quetzaltenango

Today was another excellent day! We started off by driving up the Cerro Baul, a steep hill overlooking Guatemala’s second largest city, Quetzaltenango, or Xela (pronounced Shella). Although clearly popular with early morning joggers, this hill seems to offer good birding possibilities within close proximity of the city, and is heavily wooded with oaks, pines and cypresses. It was not long before the birds appeared, and I managed to see among others Rufous-collared Robin, Steller’s Jay, Mountain Trogon, Brown Creeper, Bush-tit, Yellow-eyed Junco and several others. In addition, the views of Xela, complete with its morning rush hour coating of smog, were truly spectacular.

Xela from Cerro Baul

Cerro Baul panorama looking away from the city

After this early morning escape from the morning rush hour, followed by a quick breakfast, we headed out of town to San Andrés Xecul, where we admired a truly incredible church, its façade painted bright yellow, and featuring an interesting mix of indigenous and traditional Christian motifs.

Iglesia de San Andres Xecul

From here, we decided spontaneously to climb up out of the town on a switch-back trail that led towards a prominent cross high in the forest above. At first the way led up through the outskirts, but we soon found ourselves on a stone path leading up into the forest, offering panoramic views of the rather messy-looking town, dominated by its bright yellow church.

San Andres Xecul from above

After a while we found ourselves veering too far away to the right to reach the cross, so we took a smaller track off into the forest. This track became smaller and smaller until it eventually virtually petered out. Nothing daunted, we scrambled on along the very steep slope, hoping eventually to find ourselves near the cross. However, this was not to be as the Heavens opened and we were forced to retrace our steps, becoming completely soaked in the process!

On our way down, we were joined by a little boy of about seven; we asked him if he had any bothers or sisters; oh yes, ten he said. We asked if they were younger or older than him. Younger, came the answer. We then asked if he had any older ones. Oh yes, he said, there are twenty of them!! Who knows if there was a misunderstanding, or what!!!

Soaked as we were, we returned to our hotel to change into dry clothes, and we then looked around the main square of the city, with its impressive buildings, some of which were inspired or sponsored by the extensive German community here in the latter part of the nineteenth century. There was no sign, however, of the Hotel Europa, in which my great grandfather had stayed in August 1880. Perhaps it has been demolished, or it still stands but is no longer a hotel.

Facade of old cathedral of Quetzaltenango

Main square of Quetzaltenango

In the late afternoon we drove through heavy traffic to the Museo del Ferrocarril del Norte, the railway museum. This highlights the extraordinary German-built electric railway that was completed in 1930, linking the highland city of Quetzaltenango with the Pacific lowlands. Sadly, after all the effort expended in constructing this engineering masterpiece, it only operated for three years, until in 1933 a terrific storm washed away many of the bridges and numerous sections of track, and the president of the day decided not to proceed with reconstruction…and consequently, the railway faded into the memory of a few old people who could still remember the electric trains that ran out of the Quetzaltenango station back in the early part of the 1930s.

All in all, an excellent day, with much observed; I could well imagine myself spending more time in this highland city, surrounded as it is with beautiful countryside, and apparently some spectacular volcanoes, although these were well and truly obscured by thick fog and mist.

No sign of my great grandfather's hotel, but perhaps he did leave something behind!

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