Quetzaltenango and the New Year that didn’t go to plan

Quetzaltenango is Guatemala’s second city. One theory (mine) is that the city grew quicker and larger than anyone expected and by the time they realised the mistake they’d made in picking such a complicated name for a major place it was too late. So the name of Quetzaltenango had to stay. Thankfully, most folks now call it Xela.

We had scheduled two nights in Xela, the second of which would be New Year’s Eve. Having read that this was the no.1 centre for language schools in Guatemala, we were confident that the student population would ensure a lively New Year celebration.

We spent the day of the 31st exploring the city’s streets. Apart from two huge markets there is little to see in Xela outside of the main square, although it has a pleasant, relaxed air that belies its status as a major state capital. The city is apparently also home to the apparently excellent Natural History Museum, although as the 31st was a public holiday we could only wonder what was inside.

Xela is a cool contrast to Antigua – it’s high altitude ensures that the warm December days are quickly replaced by very chilly nights. We needed every layer we’d brought with us for our evenings out.

New Year in Xela

Heading into the square at around 7pm we sat and watched as families played with their boxes of fireworks and ate food from the nearby market stalls. The cathedral nearby was filled to capacity for the 8pm mass, with TV screens relaying the action from the altar to those who couldn’t get a seat or who were too far back to see properly.

We left the building crowds in the square at around 8.30 to have our meal in a south Indian restaurant (of course); it was surprisingly good, although having to talk to Indian waiters in Spanish took a more conscious mental adjustment that it should have done.

Returning to the square around 10pm we were encouraged by the sound of the crowds getting ever more lively, with an increasing number of firecrackers going off in every direction. The adjacent market was doing brisk trade and we ambled through, freshly baked churros in our cold hands as we browsed the home-made Latino pop CDs and hot punch for sale.

Staying out for two hours in the cold was not on, so we left the crowd of cheerful revellers behind and ordered a couple of drinks at a nearby bar. Soon a ten-piece band struck up and filled the spacious room with the sound of salsa. While they would probably never make it big even in Quetzaltenango, they provided us with entertainment until 11.40, when we decided it was time to join the massed ranks in the square and ring in the New Year in style.

Where’s the party?

We stepped out and got a big shock – the square was deserted! The street party that had been brewing nicely when we left had finished, and the area now had the uneasy atmosphere for which many large Latin American cities are notorious. What was worse, I had just spent my final quetzales on a round of drinks, meaning that a cab was no longer an option.

We walked briskly back to our guest house, arriving back two minutes before midnight. And then, at the stroke of twelve, it became suddenly clear where everyone had gone – from every neighbourhood, and seemingly from every single home, the incessant sound of fireworks boomed out across the night, while colourful rockets flew up from every direction. It was nearly an hour before the noise calmed down and the people of Xela continued their celebrations in relative calm.

So if you’re ever in this part of the world and plan to celebrate the New Year in style, don’t make our mistake and expect a celebration in the public square. In this family-oriented culture the party is where perhaps it should rightly be: in the family home.

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