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 its 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 its traditional name, Xela (pronounced “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 traditionally striped pants and Panama hats. But both groups walk around with cell phones 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 outdoor activities as well, like my insane 2 day long 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.

Travel Planning Resources for Quetzaltenango (Xela)
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.

Packing Guide

Check out my travel gear guide to help you start packing for your trip. Pick up a travel backpack, camera gear, and other useful travel accessories.

Book Your Flight

Book cheap flights on Skyscanner, my favorite airline search engine to find deals. Also read my tips for how I find the cheapest flights.

Rent A Car

Discover Cars is a great site for comparing car prices to find the best deal. They search both local & international rental companies.

Book Accommodation

Booking.com is my favorite hotel search engine. Or rent local apartments on Airbnb ($35 discount!). Read my post for tips on booking cheap hotels.

Protect Your Trip

Don’t forget travel insurance! I’m a big fan of World Nomads for short-term trips. Protect yourself from possible injury & theft abroad. Read more about why you should always carry travel insurance.


I hope you enjoyed my guide to the city of Quetzaltenango! Hopefully you found it useful. Here are a few more wanderlust-inducing articles that I recommend you read next:


Hi, I’m Matthew Karsten — I’ve been traveling around the world for the last 10 years as a blogger, photographer, and digital nomad. Adventure travel & photography are my passions. Let me inspire you to travel with crazy stories, beautiful photos, and money-saving travel tips.
Matthew Karsten
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Comments (8)

  1. 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!

  2. 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.