San Francisco el Alto is perched high on a hilltop roughly forty five minutes outside of Quetzaltenango (Xela) in Western Guatemala. This remote little town is home to one of the largest weekly markets in Guatemala. Unlike the popular market at Chichicastenango, the San Francisco el Alto market isn’t designed to sell local goods to tourists. Rather, people from across the region flock to this tiny town every week to sell their products and purchase their basic needs for the coming days.
Although it consists of everything from clothing to hardware to produce, the San Francisco el Alto market is particularly well known for its live animal trade. Farmers from all over Guatemala travel to San Francisco el Alto to buy and sell livestock and other animals every Friday. Our last day in Xela happened to be a Friday, so we decided to make the chicken bus trek to San Francisco el Alto to witness the animal market.
A Town on a Hill
When we got off our bus we found ourselves on a steep cobblestone street with no sense of direction. We quickly noticed, though, that the crowd of people got denser as you moved upwards toward the peak of the hill. We started trudging upwards and soon found ourselves on the edge of the market.
The outskirts resembled markets I have seen before. The narrow streets of the little city were lined with hundreds of vendors selling anything you could possibly imagine. Though it was difficult to follow, it was clear that the market had some internal organization. For the first few blocks we walked through tables stacked high with soaps and personal care items. Then abruptly we were surrounded by buckets of spices and dried herbs. The herbs soon gave way to clothes and we walked through canyons of colorful sweaters piled taller than us.
The herbs soon gave way to clothes and we walked through canyons of colorful sweaters piled taller than us.
It was clear we could get lost here for hours. Every turn we made led us into a new, unexplored section of the market. The crowd crushed in on every side, people moving in tightly packed lines between vendor tables. Everybody around us was in a rush, hurrying to buy their groceries and home goods for the week and get out of the crowd.
Is Everybody Looking at Me?
What made it even more interesting – or intimidating, or exhilarating, or all three – is that we were the only tourists in sight. In the five or six hours we spent in the San Francisco el Alto market, Michael and I didn’t see a single other foreigner. Nobody who saw us was thinking about how to accommodate us or appealing to us in tourist-friendly English. They were simply wondering what we were doing there in the midst of their weekly chaos.
Everybody from babies on their mothers’ backs to elderly men sitting in the shadows stared at us as we passed. At one point we heard a loud whistle behind us. We turned on our heels to see a man standing behind us, his cell phone pointed in our direction. He snapped a picture of us, gave us a thumbs up, and went about his business.
We were novelties.
The Chaos at the Top of San Francisco el Alto
Finally, we asked a vendor for directions to the animal market. He pointed straight up a street beside him. We followed the directions, switching back and forth to new streets that climbed upwards. Finally, as we walked through a section of the market devoted to small hardware items and tools, we burst onto the top of the hill.
The summit of San Francisco el Alto is a massive central square. It lacks any traditional ornamentation, though. Instead it is simply an enormous, flat, dirt field.
We emerged into this wasteland to find the most magnificent thing. The whole range of land in front of us was covered in animals. Cows, clustered together and mooing in a slow, consistent rumble. Piglets running about in bunches and squealing as they tugged at their ropes. Sheep bleating dolefully as potential buyers ran their hands through their wool. Baskets of geese, boxes of chicks, cages of parakeets and pens full of ducks.
Litters of kittens curled up next to their mother. Soft, fluffy puppies cuddled together as they waited for a new owner to come along. Loose dogs running between the heels of all the other animals, yipping and barking at all the activity.
And then–the people. Farmers of every shape, size, and age, huddled among the animals, debating the cost of a particularly fat hog or a somewhat patchy sheep. Women dressed in the colorful woven patterns of the Maya holding tight to a dozen leashed piglets. Men dressed in suits and cowboy hats bartering over the price of their livestock. Weathered old men sizing up chickens and arguing with their wives.
It was beautiful cacophony.
Lunch in the Spotlight
We wandered around this field until the animal market began to pack up. When the square was empty we wandered back into the lower levels of the market to find lunch. We searched out the section of the market serving hot street food. This street was lined with Mayan women stirring enormous pots of chicken and rice or caldo, a traditional brothy Mayan soup.
We stuck out like sore thumbs and we knew it. All eyes were on us as we walked down the block debating the merits of the various vendors. The intimidation factor was important: we could tell from body language alone if a vendor was interested in serving us or not.
We eventually decided on a caldo stand managed by an older woman with a motherly smile. She pulled up two plastic stools to her crowded table and poured us each a big bowl of soup. Then she placed a dish of sauce in front of us with a warning: “Picante.” Spicy.
Michael speaks Spanish just well enough to recognize when hot sauce is placed in front of him. He grabbed it eagerly, tossing a full spoonful into his bowl.
Suddenly the women around us yelled out in panic. Michael looked up, confused. A woman sitting across from us shook her head and told us that the sauce was very spicy. He must be careful. Michael stumbled through a response, thanking her but assuring her that he “likes spicy.”
Suddenly the women around us yelled out in panic.
The entire block waited on baited breath as he put his first spoonful in his mouth. We watched as the flavors washed over him, saw the emotional reactions one by one. The air was tense with expectation. For half a second I thought he couldn’t handle it. But then he set his spoon down with a smile and the people around us sighed with relief. “It is spicy,” he said. “But it’s delicious.”
Every Family has a Bad Son
From that point on we had friends. We spoke with the other people at the table about our travels in the region and our experience in the animal market. By stomaching such an impressive amount of picante, Michael had earned us a spot at the table.
It paid off very quickly. A drunk man stumbling down the street caught sight of us slurping caldo and began speaking to us loudly. For a few minutes it was humorous. He called us “whities” and asked how we were enjoying our lunch. Soon, though, he became belligerent. He demanded loudly that Michael sell him his sunglasses. Michael and I stammered in our responses, confused by his slurred Spanish and bizarre demands.
The motherly caldo woman saw our panic blossoming and stepped in. “Go away,” she told him. “You’re drunk.”
She waved him off with her spoon and once again the whole block was watching us. For a tense second he just stared at her blearily. Then he turned on his heel and continued swaying down the street. She smiled at us again, assuring us that “every family has a bad son.”
Checking My Privilege
We wrapped up lunch and waved goodbye to our new friends. We were silent as we returned to the bus to Xela. It had been a memorable and thought-provoking day.
Like so many other travelers, I am always searching out the most “authentic” places. I want to be surrounded by a culture in its most untouched, genuine form. The reality of finding those “authentic” experiences is often that you will suddenly be the only white person in an entire town.
As a middle-class white Westerner I am almost never the minority in the room. I will never understand what it is like to be poor or non-white in the United States. But finding myself in a street full of Guatemalans staring me down as I eat my lunch – having to accept that some of those people will be welcoming and some will not – shrinking into my soup as one particular jerk calls me a racial slur, no matter how innocuous – feeling grateful for finding an accepting part of the community and yet still not being completely comfortable in that space– that is the closest I will ever come to knowing what it is to be a person of color in a world run by rich white people.
To multiply that sensation by every day of every month of every year of my life is far beyond my ability to comprehend. And yet it is the reality for vast segments of the population in the United States and all over the world. The places that feel safe and comfortable to me are foreign, unsettling, and uncomfortable to so many others.
The places that feel safe and comfortable to me are foreign, unsettling, and uncomfortable to so many others.
I don’t think I will ever forget that day in San Francisco el Alto or the feelings it evoked in me. Experiences like that are exactly why I travel to such remote places: to see incredible things, to eat delicious food, to meet wonderful people, and to check the privilege that surrounds me every damn day of my life.
On the bus out of town Michael confided in me: “That was almost too hot. I nearly ruined that whole bowl of soup.”