Quetzaltenango, also known as Xela (pronounced SHAY-la) or Xelaju, is the second largest city in Guatemala. Situated at the southwest of the country, the surrounding department has a variety of landscapes extending from the cold High Lands 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.
These qualities make Quetzaltenango an interesting place to visit.
You can take a bus from many cities, including Guatemala City or Antigua, into Xela. While the local buses (called Chicken Buses), which are actually brightly painted school buses, take these routes, they are long, bumpy, noisy and crowded and much better suited for shorter trips around the city or to nearby locales, however they are cheaper (Oct 2007 Guate-Xela $3.30), more enterntaining and give you close-up access to normal Guatemalans, for better or for worse! 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.
An able bodied person can walk from the center to any point in Xela in about thirty minutes. Minibus routes thread through all parts of the city and, although cramped, cost only 1 Quetzal flat fare. 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, however, 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 night-life 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 it's number. Negotiate the cost of the ride before you leave.
The city of Quetzaltenango, the Department's principal town is situated on an extensive plain and surrounded by hills and volcanoes. The city of Quetzaltenango conserves the Maya-Quiche's old traditions and the colonial past, while maintaining the dynamism of modern life.
The Mam authority, called Kulahá, reached its most important expansion. Later Quiches's Lords conquered the area and founded Xelajú previously situated at the base of the volcano Santa Maria.
Then, it was transfered to the north, and the Nahuas who went with the Spaniards gave it the name of Quetzaltenango (Place of walls).
The center of the magistrate's authority during the Hispanic period and during certain time the capital of the so-called "Sixth State of the Central American Confederation ".
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.
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 per week including home stay. This often includes internet access. 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).
The salsa scene is also very active in Xela. Lessons are very cheap and there are lots of clubs.
Xela is also well-known for its abundance of volcanoes, mountains, and hot springs.
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.
Only drink purified water (agua pura). Cabro, which some call one of the best beers in the world, is made locally in Quetzaltenango
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.
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
Toward the Coast