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.
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.
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.
READ NEXT: Learning Spanish in Guatemala