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The World of Humberto Ak’abal

by Diana Pastor

The world of Humberto Ak’abal is different from that of ordinary men because it is made of what many have lost: the power to appreciate the little things in life and nature. There is an interesting video on YouTube where this poet of Mayan origins sings some beautiful verses in the Quiché language. Listening is to be transported to the most beautiful and magical forests in the Guatemalan highlands, to hear the song of a bird singing in the ravines, to listen to the sounds of water in a river or to smell a crock pot cooking dinner on a wood stove. After you read Ak´abal for the first time, you are left with a curiosity to read more of his work that describes so simply, beautifully and accurately the landscapes common to the Mayan people.

Ak’abal was born in Momostenango and at a very young age – he was barely twelve years old – he moved to the capital to find work. He went through many struggles but even when he was suffering from hunger one of his greatest worries was not having enough money to buy himself a book that he had seen in the window of a bookstore. The book was The Picture of Dorian Gray and when Ak’abal finally returned to Momostenango from the capital he brought it with him as one of his few possessions.

Recipe of the Month: Carne Guisada

by Simone Riddle

After el desayuno chapín, stews are one of the most popular dishes served in comedores y cocinas throughout the country. ‘Caldos’ ‘recaldos’ and ‘guisados’, which are all types of stews, tend to be overshadowed by their more infamous cousins ‘pepian’, ‘jocon’ and ‘kaq ik’. Despite their fame, visitors are missing a trick overlooking these tasty, lesser known dishes.

This recipe is originally from el Departamento de Escuintla on the Pacific Coast. Although stews like this are typically cooked on the stovetop, I’ve altered this recipe to cook it in the oven – a estilo inglesa – which cooks the meat to be bien tierna. If you don’t have an oven, cook on the stove over a low heat, covered for an hour and a half until the veg is cooked and the beef is tender.

Xela: Cultural Potentials

by Julio Urizar

There is no doubt that the cultural life of Xela is one of its most prominent features. Historically, the city has been a constantly active cultural space and that spirit is reflected in the architecture and identity of the streets that still boast being the birthplace of poets, painters and memorable songs for Guatemalans. Through festivals, exhibitions, concerts and art projects, Xela is always looking for ways to renew itself every day, demonstrating its potential as a regional hub for building spaces that facilitate artistic and cultural coexistence and creative moments for all who participate.

Many of Xela’s cultural movements occur within the classical or traditional conceptions of culture, which are important in the way that they connect the local population and visitors to a conglomerate of local traditions, history and meanings.


With the highest number of Facebook users in Central America and a Twitter population growing by the thousands every month, social media can be a great place to find out what’s buzzing in Guatemala. Of course, there’s also a whole lot of nonsense posted online too, but at XelaWho we like nonsense so here are some of last month’s social media trends, with the interesting & the informative alongside the vacuous & the ludicrous.

This month President Perez Molina, gave his third annual report #TercerInformedeGobierno, which is the equivalent of the State of the Union speech in the US. During one of the government´s worst financial periods, with hospitals running low on medicine and food, police cars out of gas, and hundreds of public employees having not received a paycheck in months, the opposition and social media were to not waste no time criticizing and mocking him each step of the way.

Vertical Pilgrims

By Cameron Smith

XW 114 smallWe are in the Western Highlands of Guatemala at a mountain resembling a giant tooth, formed by the volcanic violence of ancient and recent history. A hundred feet of thin mountain air below me, not far from the base of this sheer cliff that I am inching up, there is a Mayan woman crying loudly, sobbing and wailing in a hoarse voice, begging for absolution. “Sin” and “señor” and “dios” and “mi culpa” echo up to me, and in the distance there is, on backup vocals, chorus upon chorus of singing prayers and sobbing pleas.

There are pilgrims at the base of this mountain face that I am on, there are pilgrims at the top of the mountain face that I am on, and, unbelievably, there are pilgrims inside the vertical mountain face that I am on. Their sobs spill from the lightning bolt cracks that split this particular section of rock. It sounds like the mountain itself is crying to the heavens. “DON’T LEAVE TRASH ON ME!!!”, I hear it scream.

Sometimes when I’m up there on the wall, I find myself in a beautiful bubble created by inhabiting that state of blissful flow, and I don’t even notice the wailers sobbing below. Other times I’m scared and sweating, hanging from a half-fingertip deep side-pull grip on a crack, my rockshoes reluctantly sticking to a small edge, my leg shaking like I’m doing an Elvis impression and I’m counting down the seconds until I lose my hold on the earth and I begin to fall into space. And it’s at that moment when I hear some noisy evangelical below me, crying out prayers whilst slamming a fellow repentant sinner’s face into black volcanic rock. At these times I feel like screaming out obscenities at the acolytes below. Sometimes I do. The devotees, dressed in their güipiles and impractical footwear, look at me as a I hang there gripping small cracks and undulations in the rock like I’m some kind of circus performer.



P o p p i n g

Guerrilla Gardeners

Rumor is a group of Xela locals and foreigners might be organizing themselves to green up and beautify their homes. A need to reclaim their knowledge of food is driving these subversive gardeners to plant their own munchies. And it seems like a perfect idea: a country blessed with plenty of rain and sun should be filled with gardens of luscious edibles. The idea is to volunteer helping others to set up their gardens, until they eventually make it your house – not a bad a tradeoff! So keep an eye open for groups of muddy, shovel carrying, machete wielding folks -  they are coming to get you.

Top Tips for Learning Spanish in 2015

by Diana Pastor

2015! We begin a New Year and we’re sure that many of our readers are here in Xela with the purpose of improving their Spanish. Many of you are no doubt wondering how long it will take until you’re able to crack a joke in Spanish that results in people laughing at the actual joke rather than at you, or when you will be ready to successfully woo a good looking Guatemalteco/a. The answer is deceptively simple: it depends on how much time you are willing to dedicate to your Spanish, but also on how you go about learning it.

Whilst learning Spanish in the local Spanish schools is one of the most effective and traditional ways to pick up the language, you can also find many other resources to train your ears and your tongue after you finish class. Listen to Guatemalan radio – we recommend giving Emisoras Unidas, Sonora or Radio Punto a try, where you will not only learn what has been going on in the country but you can also listen to interesting radio programmes and interviews. This is quite an effective method that can help you to more quickly understand what people are saying when they are speaking at their natural speed with local vocabulary (we know how it feels when you have to listen to Guatemalans who speak so fast you feel frustrated with yourself for not understanding!). You can tune into these stations with any radio or via the internet.

Recipe of the Month – Enchiladas a la Chapin

by Simone Riddle

Guatemalans have been topping tostadas (a fried or toasted tortilla) with ‘eschabeche’ (a Central American  spin on pickled vegetables) to transform them into the famed ‘enchilada’ since the 18th century. One thing to note about Guatemalan cuisine is the difference between the Guatemalan enchilada and the Mexican enchilada. Just as you wouldn’t dare suggest an Italian pizza comes in a deep pan, neither would you suggest that an enchilada comes in a floured, rolled and filled tortilla in Guatemala. Perhaps Guatemala reinvented the enchilada just as America reinvented pizza. Who knows? Whether it was the Mexican or the Guatemalan enchilada that came first, if you plan to win friends in this town, just make sure you know the difference between the two. And of course you should answer, without hesitation, which version is best.

There are more complicated recipes out there; some enchiladas come topped with ground beef for example. This is a simplified, vegetarian version.

Guatemala – The Cultural Capital of 2015

by Alba Carrasco

Guatemala City will begin this year 2015 as the Cultural Capital of Latin America! This is an award that every year the Union de Capitales de Iberoamerica –UCCI— awards to one special candidate city that can demonstrate a pertinent story and offer a full agenda of cultural events in recognition of the development of a unique cultural scene and strong national cultural institutions.

Among the objectives of conceding this award to Guatemala City are improving the sense of cultural belonging of Guatemala’s citizens; putting Guatemala on the map as a city committed to culture Guatemala; and enhancing cultural tourism. However, ultimately the principal aim is to help to foster cultural institutions and strengthen the development of a long-term cultural strategy for the city. This will undoubtedly be a difficult goal to achieve in a few months, and will require a more sustained partnership between private and government institutions over 2015 and beyond.


As 2014 comes to an end and the Government is preparing for their last year in office, and their last opportunity to secure the next elections a year from now; the country faces one of its worst governmental deficit crisis in the last 50 years. The government literally ran out of money. Over-spending on publicity, expensive trips, over-hiring of public employees, and a tax reform that failed to bring in the money it promised, all helped to speed up this anticipated and inevitable shortage. In 2013, congress rejected the 2014 budget but somehow that amount was still ill spent, affecting in particular the hospitals and police. It got to the point that prisoners were being taken to court on public transportation because the police cars were out of gas and money.

But one of the most affected sectors has been the health system. It is well known that if you end up at any government run hospital, the chances that it will be understaffed, that you’ll have to buy your meds, and that you might be sharing a waiting room with a few dozen other patients for hours, are pretty high. But in the last month or so things have taken a turn for the worse. Hospitals were unable to pay their food and cleaning providers, and they ran out of things as basic as surgical gloves. Nurses and other hospital employees accumulated up to four months of not receiving a single paycheck. Guatemalans have been discussing the fiasco using the #RetosPresupuesto hashtag.