Pasaje Enrique in Parque Central

Quetzaltenango, also known as Xela (pronounced SHAY-la) or Xelaju, is the second largest city in Guatemala. There are a number of attractions in town, and it's also a good base for exploring Guatemala's Western Highlands ("Los Altos"). Situated at the southwest of the country, the surrounding department has a variety of landscapes extending from the cold highlands to the warm Pacific coast. There are numerous volcanos, hot springs, valleys, mountains, rivers. The region provides a harvest of numerous products such as coffee, wheat, fruits and vegetables, as well as sheep and cattle breeding.


The city of Quetzaltenango, the Department of the same name's capital and largest city, is situated on an extensive plain and surrounded by hills and volcanoes. The city of Quetzaltenango conserves the old K'iche' Maya traditions and the colonial past, while maintaining the dynamism of modern life.

The city's roots go back to the Pre-Columbian Maya era. The Mam authority, called Kulahá, reached its most important expansion. The K'iche' lords later conquered the area, and founded the city of Xelajú here, moving it from a previous location at the base of the volcano Santa Maria.

The city was already some 300 years old when Spanish Conquistadors came to conquer Guatemala in the early 1500s. Their native allies the Nahuas from Central Mexico called the city Quetzaltenango, meaning "the place of the Quetzal bird" in the Nahua language. The Spanish took the name from the Nahuas. It's still the city's official name, but locals are more apt to casually call it "Xela" from the ancient name of Xelajú.

It was the administrative capital of the Western Highland region in the Spanish Colonial period. With Central American independence from Spain in the 1820s it was part of the Central American Federation. Conflicts between the interests of Quetzaltenango and Guatemala City led to the creation of "Los Altos", the "Sixth State of the Central American Confederation ", consisting of Western Guatemala (and a slice of what is now part of Chiapas Mexico) with Quetzaltenango as its capital. When the Central American Federation fell apart in 1839-1840, Los Altos was briefly a de-facto independent state, until the army of Guatemalan dictator Carrera brutally conquered the city and hung its leaders.

The city enjoyed prosperity with the boom in coffee production in the late 19th and start of the 20th century, when many of the city's "Belle Époque" style landmarks still seen were built. Plans for a railway to Quetzaltenango dated back to the 1890s, and construction was started in the 1920s and finally completed in 1930. The "Ferrocarril de los Altos" was proclaimed the engineering marvel of the age-- until it was destroyed by landslides in 1933. The fabled railroad is still remembered in local song and story, and there's a museum dedicated to it in town.

Quetzaltenango's prosperity declined from the Great Depression through the Guatemalan Civil War in the later 20th century, and for a time much of the city looked on the scruffy side. With the new millennium, however, better times are back. The old landmarks have been refurbished and new ones added, and the city is more beautiful and vibrant than ever.

Quetzaltecos are proud of their city, its distinct regional culture, and its rich heritage.

Get in

Use the Panamerican Highway (CA-1) which crosses the Highlands or the International (CA-2), parallel to the Pacific Coast.

You can take a bus from many cities, including Guatemala City or Antigua, into Xela. While the local buses (nicknamed "Chicken Buses" by visiting Yanquis), which are brightly painted old school buses, take these routes, they are long, bumpy, noisy and crowded, however they are cheaper (between Q.20 and Q.35 depending on the route). However, for a few dollars more ($7.50 US in the Summer of 2006 to travel from Guatemala City to Xela), ride one of the private bus companies, such as Galgos (Greyhound style), which offers luggage storage, nice seats and quicker routes. Galgos has two daily departures from Guatemala City: at 8:30AM (arriving at Xela around 12:30PM) and 2:30PM arriving at 6:30PM. Try to arrange to arrive in the city well before dark.

If you are coming from Guatemala City the Linea Dorada is a great line, about US$9 gets you to Xela in about 4-4.5 hours with only one stop for lunch. Air-condition bus and movies included. This is a nice ride. Linea Dorada Guatemala City 16 Calle 10-03, Zona 1 Tel: 2415-8900 Guatemala City to Xela 8AM 3PM

Use a taxi when you arrive in Xela if nothing else than to get to the parque... about 25-30Q

Van shuttles are available to San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico and worth it as a van will take you to the Guatemala border and a van will pick you up when you come out of immigration taking you to the Mexican Immigration and then on to San Cristóbal de las Casas. There is a 1 hours time change and you leave Xela 8-830 am and arrive in San Cristobal 330-600 pm.

From San Cristóbal de las Casas there are buses to Mexico City, 13 hours on the luxury bus for 77 US dollars 884 local money. They take dollars but they have to be perfect without tears or marks.

The bus station in Mexico City is the TAPO and you can pay for and get an official taxi at a booth in the bus station. If you are headed to the airport it is 125P. Unofficial taxi may be less but may be more.

Get around

The city has grown enormously in the 2000s. Minibus routes thread through all parts of the city and, although cramped, cost only 2.50Q. The bus costs less but is slower and less frequent.

For travel around the countryside, the local buses are very reasonable. They can be entertaining and, at times, quite crowded. Do not plan on carrying much luggage with you on these: some buses have backpack storage above the seats, but most of the time you must store bags that do not fit on your lap on the top of the bus. While they are generally safe up there, they are at risk for weather.

Taxis are relatively common around the city, especially around nightlife hot spots. At night, it is not safe to walk around, so taxis are highly recommended, especially if you are by yourself. Catch a taxi on a public square rather than on one of the side streets and note its number. Negotiate the cost of the ride before you leave. If the driver seems sketchy to you, make a reasonable excuse and do not take it.

When using the minibus to get to Hiper Paiz (the large mall with a movie theatre as well as a supermarket) go to the back part of central park to catch the van. The guy will call, "Hiper Hiper Hiper" and it is 2.50Q in the day and 3Q at night. This same van also drops you at La Democracia Market and Paiz (a slightly smaller mall which also has a supermarket).

This is also the van that you catch to get to the Chicken Bus terminal that takes you to Antigua or Panajachel. Most people tell you to get off at the Roman Columns-Minerva Terminal. You can ask someone where the bus station is or just walk down the street alongside Hiper for 4-5 blocks.

These second-class buses will leave at regular times, but if you load your things on the bus, do not get off as the driver may leave without warning.

These buses at the main terminal do make other stops prior to leaving town (7th Street and 16th Avenue, for example).


Guatemala City & Antigua - Every 15-30 min, 3AM-5PM, for Antigua you change buses in Chimaltenango.

Panajachel - 11AM. This is the bus to the lake. 30-35Q for this trip. Otherwise take any bus to Guatemala City, and change at La Cuchilla (and possibly again in Sololá).

San Pedro La Laguna - 11:30, 12PM,1PM, 2PM,4PM & 5:30PM

San Marcos - 4AM-8PM Frequent

Cantel & Zunil - 6AM-7PM Frequent buses

Huehuetenango - 4AM-6PM Frequent.

La Mesilla border with Mexico at 7AM, 8AM, 10AM, 2:15PM

Retalhuleu & Champerico - 4:30AM-7:30PM

Santa Cruz del Quiché - Leaves hourly, 8AM-4:30PM

Coatapeque and Mexico border at Tecún Umán - 5AM-7PM


Historical Center

The town conserves traces of the colonial period in its streets and avenues. The classical, neoclassical and Italian renaissance styles are evident in the buildings and the houses which have been built during the past century and the beginning of the 20th, with volcanic stones by artistic "Quetzalteco" masons. Some examples of architectural styles:

Quetzaltenango has important cultural activities. There, you'll find the Occidental Cultural Centre (La Casa de la Cultura de Occidente), and Alliance Française de Quetzalteango, numerous activities are scheduled all year.

The first Sunday of each month, the "Quetzaltecos" install the artisans' market in the central park where handcrafts from Quetzaltenago and surrounding villages are displayed. In September, the annual fair and festival is offered from the 12th to the 18th.



There are hundreds of volunteer opportunities with organizations and groups in and around Xela, ranging from one day projects to long term placements.

Many of the schools listed above offer opportunities for their students. For other volunteer opportunities, see the list below.


Xela is also well known for its abundance of volcanoes, mountains, and hot springs.


The salsa scene is also very active in Xela. Lessons are cheap and there are lots of clubs.


Language Schools: Xela is an excellent place to take language lessons (both Spanish and some of the Mayan languages specific to the area). There are various schools and NGOs in the city most offer rates based on one week of instruction (approx. 5 hours per day). Some schools offer volunteer opportunities for an additional cost while others offer it for free. Most also offer home stay options, which is an excellent way to make sure you keep practicing at all times. One of the best reasons to learn in Xela is the price. You can expect to pay about US$140-160 per week including home stay. This often includes internet access at the school. Arrangements can be made ahead of time or upon arrival (most schools have multilingual administrators who can help make arrangements via email or phone - some even offer airport pick up from Guatemala City).

Founded in 1989, CBA is one of the oldest language schools in Xela. Its university-trained instructors teach classes in Spanish as well as Mayan languages in a family environment. School profits go to various development projects.


There are many opportunities to buy goods in Xela. Mayans will approach you, especially in parks, about selling purses, bags and blankets in the local styles. Markets occur regularly in and around Xela. Remember to negotiate prices-- walking away is often a good way to get the price down a bit.

During the monthly market at the Parque Central on the first Sunday of the month, a row of vendor booths is set up in front of the Municipal building & Catholic Cathedral (east side of the park) with vendors mainly selling local products. Showing interest & walking away typically elicits price offers at around half of the original quote. For example: my wife decided against a Mayan tablecloth that was originally quoted at Q250 (a reasonable price) and the vendor's wife proceeded to follow us around the park for a while coming down to Q100 eventually before accepting that my wife simply had decided not to purchase at any price.



Don't drink the tap water. Some hostels will have a water filter, which many drink from, and it seems to be safe. Otherwise, drink purified water (agua pura).

Cabro, which some consider one of the best beers in the world, is made locally in Quetzaltenango. Another local beer, Gallo, is more like the Bud Lite of Guatemala -- bland, available everywhere, and sponsoring everything.

If you like dark beer, try the Moza, another local beer, it's some people's favorite. Shop at the liquor store and return Moza bottles for credit but not all bottles will receive a 1 Q credit.


Quetzaltenango has a variety of accommodations for a variety of budgets, though world travelers will find the prices and facilities in the "high end" accommodations more like that of mid-range places in larger world cities. It is best to always ask to see your room before moving in to it; whether budget or more pricey, some rooms in the same place can often be much better or worse than others. At cheaper places don't expect hot water or heat unless you ask for it; in some the "heat" may be wood to put in a fireplace that you have to order and pay for by the bundle.

For more info, info(AT)cx.edu.gt USD35/day for the house which include three bedrooms.

Single Room - $24 (Q190) Double Room - $34 (Q270) Triple Room - $40 (Q325)

Extra person - $4.50 (Q35) Additional bed - $10 (Q80)

Breakfast - $3.00 p.p. (Q25)

Its cultural center (meeting room) often hosts music events, theater, poetry, art exhibits, photography, etc. Sister bar "Ojala" offers a smaller venue.

Prices: Private rooms Q70 per person, Dorm bed Q60 per person. Q60-70.

Prices: Dorm - Q45 per person, Double Room - Q90, Triple Room - Q125. Single room w/ small bed - Q50.00 per person. Single room w/ bigger bed - Q70.00 per person.

Prices from Q130 per person, breakfast included. Children under 5 are free. Visa cards accepted.

Option to pay per night ($7 for 1 person or $10 for 2 people), per week ($35 for 1 person or $48 for 2 people) or per 4 weeks ($122 for 1 person or $173 for 2 people).

Facilities: Wireless Internet, Cable TV, private bathrooms, security storage (bring your own lock), linens & towels, reading light, Luggage Storage, Free continental breakfast, Free coffee, tea & drinking water all day, 24 hours reception, Parking with reservation.

Restrictions: No Pets, No smoking, No drugs, No visitors in rooms.

Prices: Dorm bed (8 available) - Q65/$9 pp Single room - Q150/$20 (weekly - Q840/$112, biweekly - Q1400/$187, monthly - Q2550/$340) Double room - Q230/$31 (weekly - Q1295/$173, biweekly - Q2170/$290, monthly - Q3900/$520) Triple room - Q285/$38 (weekly - Q1690/$225, biweekly - Q2800/$374, monthly - Q5100/$680)


Internet Cafes

There are dozens of Internet Cafes in Xela as well as free wifi hot spots.

Go next

It may be possible to arrange a tour of the Gallo brewery by calling ahead.

You can spend hours in and around the Mercado de la Democracia in the commercial center of Xela. It is where the locals shop for most of their needs.

Any concert is worth attending in the Municipal Theater. It is beautiful inside.

Evening marimba concerts are often given on the steps of the Municipalidad on the west side of Parque Centro America.

Walk around town. In the side streets, you'll often come upon a master giving guitar lessons or a group of men practicing Marimba.

Go to a football game: Xelaju M. C. vs anyone. The crowd is animated and the fireworks alone can be worth the price of admission. Don't pay extra for the high priced seats, they remove you from much of the fun. Try to sit in the corner near the band. A "Xelaju M. C." flag to wave costs Q10. Grilled sausages are less. No alcohol permitted in the stadium.

Fireworks! If it's your birthday, or you just feel like it, spend a couple of Quetzals for a big string of firecrackers. You'll normally hear them any evening or early morning. Yeah bring your ear plugs they usually sound off about 4AM. I understand they are called God Bombs and are used to wake God so He will hear your prayer. It definitely wakes the dogs who bark till the roosters wake and cook a doodle doo until they figure out it is not dawn. Ear plugs.

Weekend nights are also an option, you will find night clubs in all the center, from the Central Park, to the Theatre, for 30 quetzales you can get in anywhere and drink something. Also in some seasons the "14A" is closed to the traffic because of some music festival, concerts, street art exhibitions etc.



The "Quetzaltecos" villages of Quiche and Mam origins, have small places with impressive colonial style churches where the tourist will see the regional handcrafts displayed on market days.

The High Country

If you go here be on the look out for pick pockets. A man hit my shoulder from behind almost knocking me down and I had all my money in both my front pockets taken...including change! I knew about pick pockets being there so I had money in my money belt for the bus ride back to Xela. It is a great market with animals for sale on Fridays...I saw all the old Singer Sewing Machines America has dumped for sale at this market. Also if you have a camera keep it in your hand since a swish of the knife will cut a strap and you will not even know it till you start to take a photo.

Toward the Coast

Pacific Beach

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