On the third full day of the journey, the group had one final look at the Spanish colonial architecture of Guatemala’s second largest city, Quetzaltenango (Xela). On our way to the next destination, we learned that the initial urban plan for the city had both Spanish and French influences, such as the central plaza, wide boulevards, monuments, a symmetrical road network, and the division of the city into zones.
The Quetzaltenango’s diverse economy was evident as we drove out of town with a central business district, retail stores, an industrial area, and some neighborhoods with unfinished buildings attesting to the difficulty of obtaining building loans in the country. Black water tanks on the roofs of residential houses served as reminders about the lack of a municipal water infrastructure in parts of the city. Like many cities in growing economies, Quetzaltenango faces challenges of pollution, urban sprawl, the pressures of rural-urban migration, and potential impacts of climate change on water resources and the environment.
Beyond the city we drive along the forested ridges, mountaintops, and cultivated valleys that make up the central portion of the Sierra Madres de Chiapas mountain range. Growing in the verdant volcanic soil at altitudes approaching 8,000 feet above sea level were fields of potatoes, onions, and a large variety of vegetables. The relative prosperity of the Mayan farmers in this area was apparent in the stone houses, new vehicles, motorcycles, and well stocked small stores in towns such as San Martin. In this town we saw a painting of Ché Guevara which reminded us of the time the Argentine revolutionary spent in the country (1953). From the highlands the road eventually turned towards the lowlands of the Pacific coast and away from the mountains. Some farms had larger compounds indicating that we had entered the region with latifundios, which were first established as large agricultural estates during the Spanish colonial period. The small plots of land that dotted the roadside contained a variety of crops, including many that we had not seen at higher elevations such as coffee, banana, macadamia, coconuts, pineapples, and sugar cane.
Coffee was first brought as an ornamental plant by Jesuit priests in in the 1750s. The collapse of the Indigo market in the mid-1800s led to the rapid development of coffee as an export crop. Both the Arabica and Robusta varieties are grown in the country. Selective breeding, grafting, and the influences of regional physical geography have led to distinct varieties of the crop, such as Antigua, Cobán, and San Marcos.
We gained some insights into the Nicaraguan coffee industry by visiting Santa Anita, a cooperative farm founded by 35 poor families from different regions of the country who were settled there after the civil war in 1996. Most of the settlers were veterans of the rebel army, with vivid memories of the war. A veteran of the struggle spoke of joining the rebel army to fight against gross inequality. This proud veteran was satisfied with the democracy that came at end of the revolutionary period, but was dissatisfied with persistent inequalities in Guatemalan society. A tour of the farm took us through a small building where coffee was picked, roasted and packaged. A walk took us through fields of coffee, banana, payaya, chili, and local specialties such as chipilíns, nanches, and pacayas. The lower portion of the farm still retained a patch of rainforest with several natural springs and a waterfall. The bird life was prolific, with parrots, parakeets, flycatchers, kiskadees, doves, among many others flying overhead.
From Santa Anita we joined the Pan-American Highway, which runs parallel to the Pacific coast. Along the highway large privately owned plantations of rubber, pineapple, and sugar cane were visible. Many of these plantations were established on latifundios. A large sugar processing plant owned by the Guatemala Sugar Company was visible as we passed the town of Cuyotenango. Guatemala’s sugar industry employs about one million people. Sugar cane waste (bagasse) is used to produce electricity.
Driving through the town of Mazatenango took us through a shopping district with outlet malls featuring familiar US stores, restaurants, and movie theatres. This appearance of growth and prosperity is a testament to the growing middle class in the country. Many middle income citizens find employment in the outsourcing established by many international corporations from the United States, Canada, and some European countries. South Korean textile conglomerates have established manufacturing centers (maquiladoras) in Guatemala to take advantage of lower wages in South Korea, providing more employment opportunities.
Our journey ended as we returned to the Guatemalan highlands and the picturesque city of Antigua, a UNESCO (United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site and first capital of Guatemala. This city was founded by the Spanish on the site of the Mayan city of Iximche in 1524. It has suffered extensive earthquake damage since it was founded due to its location in a tectonically active area. Today it serves as the municipal seat for the Sacatepéquez and is a major tourist destination.