Xela, as Quetzaltenango is known outside of official maps and guidebooks, may be our new favorite city in Guatemala. Xela carries over from the city’s former name, Xelaju Noj, in the Mayan language Quiche. Quetzaltenango, though used officially, has not seemed to have set in with the people of Guatemala. Not that we have seen.
And, why Xela? For many traveling to see the top tourist destinations in Guatemala, Xela doesn’t always make the cut. Perhaps for the best. The extranjeros (foreigners) who do visit Xela, are generally here to learn Spanish. Thus, there are Spanish Schools on almost every corner of Xela’s Zona 1. And some are quite good. The city also (rightfully, we believe) prides itself on offering an ideal setting and culture for studying Spanish. There are extranjeros, but the city is large and the foreign or tourist population does not overtake any part of the city. You can’t so easily escape speaking Spanish here, and it’s for the best if that’s what you are here to learn.
Quetzaltenango is also a great base for exploring other parts of the Western Highlands. Day trips to nearby villages offer new perspectives on Guatemalan life, more removed from the typical tourist trail. Community Tourism seems to be growing in the region, giving you the option of traveling with guides if you prefer. And of course, hiking nearby volcanoes is a popular activity for travelers. The popular hikes range from a half-day volcano summit, to a three-day trek to Lago Atitlan, with other options in between. There is also plenty to explore within the city: markets, museums, shops, bars, cafes, bookstores. Though it can feel smaller when you’re life is centered around Zona 1, Xela is Guatemala’s second largest city.
Oh and the night life isn’t bad here as well.
Money: ATMS and banks aren’t hard to find in Xela. In Zona 1, on the 12th Avenida, between the 5th and 6th Calles, facing Parque Central, is an ATM, next to Xelapan. Also, one block away from the park, on the corner of 13th Avenida and 7 Calle, is the Dispensa, or Grocery Store. Inside, you have two ATMs, and these are probably a safer bet than the ones you’ll find on the streets.
Getting Around: If you are arriving in Xela from Antigua or the lake, your first thought might be: Where the hell are all the tuk-tuks?? But fear not. Though the streets aren’t laid out in perfect grid fashion, in each Zona, Avenidas run in one direction, and intersect with Calles, all in numerical order. Many of these streets around Central Park in Zona 1 even have street signs, making the city easy to navigate on foot.
For destinations further away, ask where the nearest collectivo, or public bus route is. These run down, beat up minivans have set routes through the city, hitting the major zones and points of interest (markets, bus station, etc.). Most destinations will cost a couple Q or less.
And finally, at the Central Park in Zona 1, taxis can take you anywhere you need to go.
For more information, check out the links below: