Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala PART 1

Many of my blogs about Guatemala use Quetzaltenango as a reference point. Laguana Chicabal, Chichicastenango, Lago Atitlan, and the Mexican border are all less than a half day away. So what is this place Quetzaltenango?

More commonly known as Xela (shea-la) or by its ancient Mayan name Xelaju (shea-la-hoo), Quetzaltenango is Guatemala´s second largest city and the largest in the highlands. It´s not cosmopolitan or built up by any means, but unassumingly colonial with a crumbling charm. It has all the modern conveniences: a mall, a Wal-Mart, even a Wendy’s. The center square – Parque Central – has pavilions of Greek columns, a little market, lots of banks, and the requisite cathedral and government buildings. It even has Pasaje Enriquez, a beautiful old building that resembles a train station but now houses a variety of bars.

It’s easy to get lost on the winding, one-lane cobblestone streets that branch off from the center. Mountains are everywhere – often covered with checkerboard patterns of corn, beans, and squash. Volcanoes loom in the distance, especially nearby Santa Maria and smoking Santiaguito. Everything is verdant green with a variety of forest, from pine to tropical, all uniformly thick and lush, beginning right at the city’s edge. In the summer rainy season, clouds roll in every afternoon with a vengeance, so to enjoy the views you need to get up early.

Highlights of the city proper include the center with its historic buildings, good restaurants and nightclubs and the city’s two big markets – enormous Minerva by the bus yard and one closer to Centro called Mercado la Democracia. Minerva is larger, more chaotic, and more produce-oriented, while la Democracia has an indoor, central marketplace that spills out onto all the surrounding streets. You can find whatever you are looking for at either, be it tangible like belts or wallets, temporary like fresh fruit or lunch, or just a strong dose of Guatemala.

Study Spanish

Many people come to Xela to study Spanish in one of Xela’s more than 50 Spanish schools. In Xela students receive a more authentic experience then in other, more touristy Guatemalan study-Spanish destinations. Schools are always cheap, but to different degrees and with big differences in quality. I spent a week studying at a school called CBA and got to know the family who owns and operates the school.They are professional, Guatemalan-owned, and one of the most experienced schools in town.

Getting there

Xela is a big hub and many buses go there. If you are coming from Mexico, then cross at Cuahutemoc-La Mesilla and transfer in Huehuetenango for Xela. It will cost 40 Quetzales in total – about 5 dollars.

Huehuetenango bus yard

You will get dropped off at the Minerva market. Walk through the market to the other side. Vans leave for Parque Central from near the giant Greek-column building. Don’t hesitate to ask for directions in the market if you get lost – it can be confusing.


There are little hotels everywhere. If you are like me and don´t make reservations, then just get dropped off at Parque Central and walk around in concentric circles. You will find ultra-cheap places, at the lowest 30 to 50 Quetzales. Expensive, nicer hotels could cost as much as 20 dollars a night. Ask for a discount. If you are going to study Spanish, you can arrange accommodation through the school.

Xela deserves plenty of your time – small and accessible as it is, you can barely scratch the surface in a week, and a month feels short. Plus, what is really great about Xela are the many nearby diverse and fascinating places to visit nearby. Winding, twisting, fear-and-awe-inducing, sometimes washed-out highways leave Xela and cross the mountains like cracks in a lava flow. In a day trip you can go to hot springs, volcanoes, and small towns like Almolonga, Zunil, and San Andres Xecul. In part 2 I’ll talk about these places.


About Ted Campbell

U.S.-Canadian writer, translator and university teacher in Mexico. Travel stories and practical tips on my blog No Hay Bronca: nohaybronca.wordpress.com Twitter: @NoHayBroncaBlog // Contact: nohaybroncablog (at) gmail.com

Posted on September 17, 2011, in Guatemala, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

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