Quetzaltenango is a department in the western highlands of Guatemala. The capital is the city of Quetzaltenango, the second largest city in Guatemala. The department is divided up into 24 municipalities. The inhabitants include Spanish-speaking Ladinos and the K'iche' and Mam Maya groups, both with their own Maya language. The department consists of mountainous terrain, with its principal river being the Samalá River. the department is seismically active, suffering from both earthquakes and volcanic activity.
Prior to the Spanish conquest the territory included in the modern department formed a part of the K'iche' Kingdom of Q'umarkaj. The kingdom was defeated by the Spanish under Pedro de Alvarado in a number of decisive battles fought near the city of Quetzaltenango, then known as Xelaju. In the 19th century the territory of the modern department was included in the short-lived Central American state of Los Altos. The department was created by decree in 1845, five years after the fledgling state was crushed by Rafael Carrera.
The department has wide variations in local climate, due largely to marked differences in altitude in different areas. The year is divided into wet and dry seasons, with the wet season lasting from July to September and the dry season running from December to February. The wide climatic variation in the department allows for the production of a variety of agricultural products, including temperate fruits, vegetables and cereals in the highlands, as well as coffee on the lower slopes.
Quetzaltenango department has produced a number of high-profile Guatemalans, including several presidents as well as a number of musicians.
The department takes its name from the city of Quetzaltenango, which serves as the departmental capital. Although the original K'iche' inhabitants knew the city by the name Xelaju, the Nahuatl-speaking allies of the Spanish Conquistadors named it Quetzaltenango in their own language, meaning "land of the quetzal birds".
The territory that came to be included within the modern department of Quetzaltenango was the scene of several decisive battles in February 1524 between Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado and the K'iche' Kingdom of Q'umarkaj. Pedro de Alvarado had initially advanced with his army along the Pacific coast without opposition until they reached the Samalá River; this region formed a part of the K'iche' kingdom. Alvarado then turned to head upriver into the Sierra Madre mountains towards the K'iche' heartlands, crossing the pass into the fertile valley of Quetzaltenango. On 12 February 1524 Alvarado's Mexican allies were ambushed in the pass and driven back by the K'iche' warriors but the Spanish cavalry charge that followed was a shock for the K'iche' who had never seen horses before. The cavalry scattered the K'iche' and the army crossed to the city of Xelaju, modern Quetzaltenango, to find it deserted by its inhabitants. Although the common view is that the K'iche' prince Tecun Uman died in the later battle near Olintepeque, the Spanish accounts are clear that at least one and possibly two of the lords of Q'umarkaj died in the fierce battles upon the initial approach to Quetzaltenango. The death of Tecun Uman is said to have taken place in the battle of El Pinar, and local tradition has his death taking place upon the Llanos de Urbina (Plains of Urbina), upon the approach to Quetzaltenango near the modern village of Cantel. Pedro de Alvardo, in his 3rd letter to Hernán Cortés, describes the death of one of the four lords of Q'umarkaj upon the approach to Quetzaltenango. The letter was dated 11 April 1524 and was written during his stay at Q'umarkaj. Almost a week later, on 18 February 1524, a K'iche' army confronted the Spanish army in the Quetzaltenango valley where they were comprehensively defeated, with many K'iche' nobles among the dead. Such were the numbers of K'iche' dead that Olintepeque was given the new name Xequiquel, roughly meaning "bathed in blood". This battle exhausted the K'iche' militarily and they asked for peace and offered tribute, inviting Pedro de Alvarado into their capital Q'umarkaj.
On 2 February 1838, Quetzaltenango joined together with Huehuetenango, El Quiché, Retalhuleu, San Marcos, Sololá, Suchitepéquez and Totonicapán to form the short-lived Central American state of Los Altos, with the city of Quetzaltenango functioning as its capital. The state was crushed in 1840 by general Rafael Carrera Turcios, at that time between periods in office as Guatemalan president.
Quetzaltenango was declared a department by decree of the Asamblea Nacional Constituyente on 16 September 1845.
In 1902 Quetzaltenango suffered a number of serious earthquakes. An earthquake struck on 18 April 1902, with its epicentre within the Santa María volcano. This was followed by a major eruption of the volcano from 24 to 26 October of the same year. The volcano emitted a massive column of ash, provoking a fierce lightning storm. The explosions emitted by the volcano were audible up to 160 kilometres (99 mi) away. The government of Manuel Estrada Cabrera initially denied that the eruption had taken place in Guatemala, instead claiming that it had occurred in neighbouring Mexico. Although the eruption caused great loss of life in western Guatemala, the Guatemalan government downplayed its severity.
The activity of the volcano continued until 1906, followed be a period of calm that lasted until 1922. A new series of eruptions took place from 1922 through to 1929, and formed a new side crater, the Santiaguito volcano. On the night of 11 November 1929, a lava flow descended from the volcano towards El Palmar, killing hundreds of people, setting fire to a number of mountainsides and burying coffee plantations under several metres of lava.
The department of Quetzaltenango is situated in the western highlands of Guatemala and covers an area of approximately 1,951 square kilometres (753 sq mi), approximately 1.8% of the total area of the Republic of Guatemala. The department is bordered on the west by the department of San Marcos, by the departments of Retalhuleu and Suchitepéquez to the south, by Huehuetenango Department to the north and by the departments of Totonicapán and Sololá to the east.
The department is mountainous in nature and includes a wide range of altitudes, from 350 metres (1,150 ft) in Génova to 2,800 metres (9,200 ft) in Sibilia. The average altitude is 2,333 metres (7,654 ft) above mean sea level. The principal mountains include the volcanoes Cerro Quemado, Chicabal, Lacandon, Santa María, Santiaguito, Santo Tomás (also known as Picul) and Siete Orejas, as well as Zunil peak, often erroneously referred to as a volcano. Cerro Quemado produces a number of thermal springs, several of which have been converted into baths. The area covered by the department is seismically active, with earthquakes measuring from 4.5 to 5.2 on the Richter scale.
The broken terrain of the department includes a number of wide valleys, including those occupied by the city of Quetzaltenango and the towns of San Juan Ostuncalco and Concepción Chiquirichapa. The varied terrain of the department also includes plains, canyons and high cliffs.
The most important river in the department is the Samalá River, flowing through the municipalities of Cantel, El Palmar, San Carlos Sija, Quetzaltenango, San Juan Ostuncalco and Zunil. The river flows into Quetzaltenango department from the neighbouring department of Totonicapán and flows southwards into the department of Retalhuleu.
Other notable rivers in the department include the Tumalá River in the municipality of Cajolá, the El Naranjo River in the municipality of San Carlos Sija, and the Las Palomas and Xocal Rivers in the municipality of Concepción Chiquirichapa.
The average temperature in the department of Quetzaltenango varies between 15 and 24 °C (59 and 75 °F), however there is wide variation due to the great difference in altitude in various parts of the department. On the lower Pacific slopes the temperature can reach as high as 35 °C (95 °F), while temperatures as low as −7 °C (19 °F) have been recorded at higher altitudes.
Average annual rainfall is 2,000 millimetres (79 in) in the municipality of Almolonga, and parts of the department at higher altitudes experience frost in the months from November through to March. The municipality of Cantel receives an average annual rainfall that varies between 2,000 and 4,000 millimetres (79 and 157 in); in Huitán it varies between 1,800 and 3,500 millimetres (71 and 138 in).
The year is divided into wet and dry seasons, with most rain falling in July and September. The driest months of the year are December through to February. The department falls within two principal biomes, classified as subtropical moist forest and tropical and subtropical coniferous forest. The former is a lower altitude zone characterised by corozo palms and conacaste (Enterolobium cyclocarpum). The latter is higher altitude featuring pine, cypress and sycamore.
In 2004 the department was recorded as having 745,805 inhabitants. The inhabitants are divided between three principal ethnicities; Ladino, K'iche' Maya and Mam Maya. Three languages are spoken in the department, broadly corresponding to the ethnic groups; Spanish, K'iche' and Mam. In 2004, 40.4% of the population was listed as non-indigenous (i.e. Ladino) and 59.6% as indigenous (mainly K'iche' and Mam). In 1999, average life expectancy was calculated as 63.7 years. In the same year, 63.7% of dwellings had electricity, 70.1% had drinking water and 92.5% had sanitation.
Each municipality is known for its different traditional indigenous dress, with the exceptions of Coatepeque, Colomba, Flores Costa Cuca and San Carlos Sija, where traditional clothing is not worn by the indigenous inhabitants. These trajes are manufactured by the local inhabitants themselves.
The wide climatic variation within the department resulting from differences in altitude gives rise to a diverse range of agricultural products. These include apples, beetroot, cabbages, carrots, high quality coffee, common beans, maize, onions, peaches, plums, potatoes, radishes, turnips and wheat. Almolonga is the main producer of vegetables, both for the national market and for export, principally to Mexico and countries in Central America. Salcajá is known for its production of a fruit liquor called caldo de frutas ("fruit wine"). Other products of the department include woolen textiles, cotton, silk, ceramics, alcoholic beverages and flour.
Poorer high altitude areas of the department experience seasonal migration of workers to the Pacific lowlands in order to work on coffee, sugarcane and cotton plantations.
Quetzaltenango city is the main tourist hub for the department and is a centre for cultural tourism. Most hotels are located in Quetzaltenango city and Coatepeque, with 495 registered hotels in 2006. Quetzaltenango city is also a centre for tourists studying Spanish as a second language, with 35 Spanish schools in 2006. Tourist attractions outside Quetzaltenango city include the thermal baths located around the Cerro Quemado volcano, including the thermal baths of Almolonga, Aguas Amargas ("Bitter Waters") and Fuentes Georginas, which has become a tourist attraction of some importance.
In 2010, seasonal rains uncovered the small K'iche' archaeological site of Chojolom in the municipality of Cantel. It has been tentatively dated to the Postclassic Period (c. 950-1521 AD). Cerro Quiac is another small site on a hilltop in Cantel municipality, dated to the Early Postclassic period (c. 950-1200 AD).
The departmental government is headed by the Governor of Quetzaltenango, who is appointed directly by the president of Guatemala. Dora Otilia Alcahé López was appointed as departmental governor in February 2012 by president Otto Pérez Molina.
Former presidents of Guatemala Manuel Estrada Cabrera and Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán were from the department of Quetzaltenango. Manuel Estrada was born in the city of Quetzaltenango on 21 November 1857, Jacobo Árbenz was born in the same city on 14 September 1913. Quetzaltenango Department also produced the musicians Jesús Castillo, writer of the Quiché Winak opera, and his brother Ricardo Castillo, as well as the classical musician Mariano Valverde. Another famous musician was Francisco "Paco" Pérez, who wrote the Luna de Xelajú waltz. Guatemalan historian Adrián Inés Chávez, who produced a Spanish translation of the Popul Vuh, was also from the department.