Quetzaltenango is Xela, Xela is Quetzaltenango

City of Quetzaltenango

The City of Quetzaltenango (aka Xela)

Quetzaltenango is Guatemala’s 2nd biggest city, with 300,000 people. It has all the modern conveniences that Guatemala City has, only with fewer heavily-armed guards patrolling every street corner.

Xelajú was it’s original Mayan name, but when the Spanish conquered the city, they called it Quetzaltenango (the name their native allies used). But many people still refer to it by the shortened version of it’s traditional name, Xela (pronouced “Shay-la”).

I arrived in Xela via Chicken Bus from Lake Atitlan. The trip took a couple of hours, through scenic mountain farmlands and steep winding roads. Some of the roads showed signs of bad landslides, and had not been completely cleaned up yet.

Xela Cathedral Sacred Spirit

Cathedral of the Sacred Spirit in Parque Central

In the city you’ll find an eclectic mix of Guatemalans dressed in fashionable jeans, short skirts, and suits, as well as indigenous women wearing colorful floral dresses and men sporting traditional striped pants and panama hats. But both groups walk around with cellphones to their ears. A melting pot of old traditions and contemporary culture.

I’ve really loved my stay here, despite the cold mountain weather and lack of indoor heating. My private hostel room only cost $36 Quetzales ($4.55 US) a night, and I had modern city amenities like decent WiFi and a multitude of restaurants just steps away. But the city is also surrounded by great outdoors activities as well, like my insane 2 day trek to Volcano Santiaguito.

Quetzaltenango Xela Cemetery

Quetzaltenango’s Huge Colorful Cemetery

Xela is a popular spot for Spanish language students to study, and there are a ton of schools in the area. Most of the other gringos I’ve met here are studying Spanish at one of these schools. But the city is not overrun with tourism, I might only see 5 or 6 other travelers walking about each day.

There’s a bit of nightlife, large outdoor markets, friendly people (except for one random teenager who practiced her English on me by calling me a mother****er!) as well as great old buildings and parks. Quetzaltenango (aka Xela) has a little bit of everything, and it’s an interesting stop on any traveler’s journey.

Specific Details & Tips

Good Place to Sleep: Casa Blanca Guesthouse
Good Place to Eat: Sexto Estado Colonial (4a Calle & 14 Avenida, Zona 1)
Best Attraction: Santiaguito Crater Trek
Tips: Xela can be really cold November – February. Make sure to get photos of the Minerva chicken bus terminal & market. It’s a bit crazy, but safe during the day. The cemetery is good too, but it is NOT safe in the late afternoon/night.


Hi, I'm Matthew Karsten — I’ve been traveling around the world for over 5 years. Adventure travel & photography are my passions. Let me inspire you to travel more with crazy stories, photography, and useful tips from my travel adventures. Join thousands who receive exclusive email updates and click the green button below...

Comments & Questions


  1. Zablon Mukuba
    December 15, 2010

    its a really great place to be in. its great and colorful

  2. Val
    December 14, 2010

    If I were in school I would ask for special credit given the wealth of information and insight we’re getting from your posts. Truly fascinating and enjoyable, Matt. Thanks for letting us ride along on your journey!

  3. The Curmudgeon
    December 14, 2010

    A colorful city. I think the girl practicing her English is probably going to be a high school teacher; it takes a lot of practice. At least she should have preceded her word by “happy birthday”. Maybe you should take off your Burger King crown, your birthday is over.

  4. Mina
    December 14, 2010

    Love the cemetery photo. =)

    • Matthew Karsten
      December 14, 2010

      I got lost in there. It’s ridiculously big! I hear it’s not safe in the afternoon, I did see some kids smoking crack or meth from glass pipes.

  5. Andi
    December 14, 2010

    My friend just returned from taking spanish classes there and loved it.


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