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Quetzaltenango came under the sway of the K’iche’ Maya of K’umarcaaj when they began their great expansion in the 14th century. Before that it had been a Mam Maya town. It was near here that the K’iche’ leader Tecún Umán was defeated and killed by the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado in 1524.

The town prospered in the late-19th-century coffee boom, with brokers opening warehouses and finca (plantation) owners coming to town to buy supplies. The boom was shattered by a combined earthquake and eruption of Santa María in 1902, which brought mass destruction. Still, the city’s position at the intersection of roads to the Pacific Slope, Mexico and Guatemala City guaranteed it some degree of prosperity. Today it’s again busy with commerce, of the indigenous, foreign and ladino varieties.