It’s rush hour in Xela, and the city is still as the grave. Cars on 4th calle stretch bumper to bumper from Parque Central to Calvario and beyond. The micros on 14th Avenue crawl at a snail’s pace up the hill to the signal on Rodolfo Robles, which itself has vehicles at a near-standstill stretching clear to the other side of Demo. Avenida Las Americas—an area of the city that, unlike the center, is designed for cars rather than horse-drawn carriages—is a slow-moving glacier of tail lights and idling engines, with time itself bending past the event horizon at the dreaded underpass. So for our wiley navigators of Xela’s roads, here’s XelaWho’s patented guide to surviving Guate’s ailing infrastructure…
Xela’s fleet of tricked-out beaters, numbering 200,000, is projected by some to double by 2020. The traffic isn’t just inconvenient; it threatens the livelihoods of the drivers of delivery trucks and taxis, and the lives of those who need speedy transport by ambulance to the hospital. Various studies and transit plans from the municipality have produced neither the funds nor the coordination nor the vision needed to address this problem. A traffic light here and there, along with the occasional traffic cop tooting their whistle, are basically cosmetic solutions—it’s like switching from Cabro to Brahva to spend less on beer.
Xela’s problems are small potatoes compared to Chimaltenango, however. The gateway to western Guatemala is a sprawling, clogged mess of whorehouses and pinchazos that adds a full hour to drive along the Pan-American highway from Guatemala City to Xela. During rush hour, or in the event of a parade or accident, that six kilometer stretch slows to a slog that can last two and a half hours or more. The construction of a 15 kilometer bypass that skirts Chimal rather than running through the middle of town was supposed to finish up this year; it’s over budget and behind schedule and somehow opposed by the people of Chimaltenango, who fear the loss of daily standstill traffic will leave their whorehouses and pinchazos short on customers.
Guatemala’s snarled traffic is a country with shit infrastructure writ small. Power lines hang in gordian tangles between Xela’s rooftops; conflicts between the power company and the city or routine maintenance can leave the city without power for hours on end. You can walk from Paiz-Montblanc to Parque Bolivar using two dozen dozen different routes and see nary a trash can on any of them.
Why is a common question —why, for example, am I stuck in a cola of cars three miles long on a brutally hot day, on a bus without air con, next to a baby badly in need of a diaper change? Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer, and his mom seems unperturbed by the smell.
Urbanization has been quick and haphazard in Guatemala —a country that came into possession of paved roads, widespread electrification, and internet with dizzying speed. While this was happening, the civil war displaced many thousands to the cities, and the subsequent baby boom crowded those areas with millions more; the median age in Guatemala is in the low twenties. The implementation of systems and services to accommodate all these new people has been hampered by an anemic tax base, a shortage of qualified civil servants, and a haphazard approach to growth with equal-opportunity disregard for aesthetics, functionality, and future expansion. Venal politicos like Mito Barrientos, a world-class thief and Xela’s ex-mayor, are only marginally responsive to public opinion. They do what they can to hamstring any attempts to improve that infrastructure via crony contracting, misuse of public funds, and every flavor of corruption and graft imaginable.
It’s going to get worse, in short, before it gets even worse. Until Guatemala finds some capable traffic engineers, along with politicians who can summon the resources and will to deal with these problems, you can expect to spend a lot of time staring at the Virgin Mary sticker on the cracked rear windshield of the car idling in front of you.