Most commonly known among locals as Xela, Quetzaltenango is a colonial city in the northeast region of Guatemala. Wrongly overlooked by tourists most of the time, Xela is the second-largest city in Guatemala and it’s packed with interesting places to see and things to do and that’s what you will find in this guide.
Located in a rich valley surrounded by mountains volcanic and hills, Quetzaltenango, Xela, is a beautiful city that you will want to include in your Guatemala itinerary if you wish to explore a little far off the beaten track, learning more about Guatemala history and culture and hike some of the highest and incredible vulcanoes.
I have been to Quetzaltenango twice, during my two trips to Guatemala. The first time I only had a couple of days after Chichicastenango market and I just enjoyed walking around the city only taking one hiking tour to laguna Chicbalà, which I will talk about later on.
The second time, I was traveling from San Cristobal de las Casas to Guatemala, where I would have spent almost a year housesitting in a beautiful home in the mountains around Antigua, facing the vulcanos Fuego, Acatenango, and Agua, but that will be for another post.
This second time I was determined to explore Xela and stayed for a week alternating exploring and working on the blog. It was right after Guatemala reopened its border to tourists, so I was basically the only one and had to book private tours, which turned out to be amazing, in fact.
I didn’t do strenuous hikes and saved them for the next time when I will be fitter (hopefully). I booked with Adrenalina tours which also organized my transfer from San Cristobal de Las Casas to Quetzaltenango.
Patrick, the owner, was super kind and professional in organizing my daily trips around Xela. I would really recommend his travel agency. In fact, as I am writing this post from Antigua, I am planning to go back to Xela on my way back to Mexico and complete the hikes I have missed, or some of them.
There is so much to do there that if you had a month, it will probably be just about enough to explore everything.
Anyway, why would you want include Xela in your Guatemala Itinerary?
Quetzaltenango is surrounded by soaring volcanos and mountains for off-the-beaten-path hikes and for every fitness level. Just keep in mind that the city itself is located in a mountain valley at an elevation of 2,330 meters. So if you are sensitive to altitude and you are coming from sea level, you will need some time to acclimatize.
However, if you are not a hiker, you will still find incredible things to do in Quetzaltenango, a city that will charm you with its authentic local culture, the markets, the nearby villages, and its colonial churches, and even the unique cemetery.
Those are some of the reasons why spending a few days in Quetzaltenango (Xela) should be included in the things to do in Guatemala.
But I will tell you about all of it in detail here below. So please read on if you want to know all the things you should not miss in Xela, Guatemala.
Map of Quetzaltenango and Guatemala
Things to do in Quetzaltenango for solo travelers (and not)
Explore the city
I found Xela historical center pretty charming and quite safe. Walk around the cobblestone roads, check out the theater, the museums. On weekends the plaza becomes alive with the local street food of all sorts, families with kids out playing, and a few curious tourists.
Walk around the narrow roads up the cemetery, check out the markets, old book stores, and, what impressed me, the closer you get to the cemetery the more you will see old shops selling religious icons and statures.
Have lunch at the Panorama Restaurant and look out
You can walk up to the Panorama restaurant for a spectacular view of the city and a decent lunch. The road is short and safe but steep. I asked my driver to drop me off at the end of a tour and then I walked back down on my own.
Just beware of street dogs, but when I passed by they were just minding their own business, which was sleeping.
Pay a visit to the dead
I know it sounds creepy but I would suggest you walk around Quetzaltenango cemetery. It’s a very suggestive place with a volcano as a backdrop and the many flowers and decorations of the tombs. I happened to be there close to the day of the dead in 2018 which was fortunate because this second time, I couldn’t get in because of the pandemic. If when you are in Xela it will be open I would suggest you walk around even if it’s not around November 1st.
I just found out there are walking tours that are specific to the Cemetery where they tell you stories and legends of important or curious characters buried there. Check out with the local tourist office for more info.
Hike to the laguna chicaba’
This is a moderate and relatively short hike, that you could do alone but I never recommend it. I never like to be in nature by myself so I hired a guide.
Unfortunately, I forgot to take a note of how much I spent but I remember it wasn’t outrageously expensive. The Laguna Chicabal is actually a Crater Lake that was formed in the crater of Volcán Chicabal at an elevation of 2,712 meters (8,879 feet). It’s surrounded by a lush cloud forest, and it’s a beautiful but very steep hike.
Once you arrive at the rim you can enjoy the spectacular views of the lake before descending to the shore. You will notice a few small altars with flowers and candles spread around the shore.
In fact, the laguna Chicabal has always been considered a sacred place for the Mayan civilization, and groups of locals are still coming to the lake to do their ceremonies.
Once you get by the water, you can walk around the entire perimeter of the lake and you will notice many altars of any size and color, which means that a ceremony has been recently held.
Visit Las Fuentes Giorginas
Located at only 10 km from Xela by the town of Zunil, these natural hot springs are one of the most popular attractions in the area, loved by locals and tourists alike. The best way to relax and release the muscles tension between strenuous hiking days.
You can either go by bus on your own or join an organized tour. You actually don’t need a tour, but it is more comfortable to go on private transportation, which is actually what the tour provides, besides some information about the history of these natural hot springs.
The place has been restored and fixed after multiple hurricanes, the last one being in 2010 which was actually a Tropical Storm, Agatha. They have been eventually restored.
The hot waters come from the nearby Volcano Zunil. Although the pools have been recreated by man labor and are not completely natural, they feel so, with the help of the natural jungle-like surroundings.
Unfortunately, I don’t have updated prices at the moment. But I will be updating this post as soon as I will go back to Xela.
To get to the Fuentes Georgina, the best way is to join a tour. But if you like to go on your own, and have some adventure, just grab a chicken bus to Zunil (6 GTQ), and then a Tuk Tuk will take you to the hot springs for about 30 GTQ.
Nowadays, I would rather go on a tour or a private taxi than a crowded bus.
Hike volcano Santa Maria
Volcano Santa Maria is one of the hardest although not the highest Volcano. The route is steep and can be slippery. I read that some extreme and expert hikers did it on their own, but I wouldn’t recommend it, especially if you are a female solo traveler.
Actually, even for a man, I don’t think it is smart to hike on your own. Anything can happen even to the most experienced hikers and if you are not in a place where you can use the phone, well… I don’t even want to end the sentence.
If you really want to go without a guide I would suggest being in a group of people for safety reasons, and never bring any valuable with you, but that goes without saying.
I haven’t done this hike yet, but it’s on my list and I am going to share my experience here. However, from what I have read, the difficulty level is between Acatenango and Pacaya, to give you a perspective.
This post from Sean, from Living out Lou, will give you more details about this hike if you want to do it on your own. Make sure you don’t get lost and you stay in a group, though.
Hike to the mirador to see santiaguito smoking
If you are not a hardcore hiker or if you are but you want to do some training before getting to the higher peaks, this hike to the Santiaguito mirador is for you. It’s a spectacular hike with great views but the best one will be once you get on top of the mirador.
The starting point of the hike is the same as the one for the Santa Maria Volcano, but there is a deviation at a certain point. It’s a fun hike with some narrow paths but super easy.
Also for this hike, you can do it on your own but always with somebody else. Also because you can get lost. We met some cows and a bull on the way up, which was kind of scary but we managed.
I booked an organized tour and it was basically private because there were no other tourists at the time. I enjoyed it a lot, though.
It took us about 3 hours to get to the top and 1h 30′ to get down. It’s a half-day moderate hike that will take you to 3,771.9 meters (12,375 ft).
Hike to the Cerro Quemado
The hike to the Cerro Quemado is a super easy and short hike that will take you to one of the most unique views of your life. In fact, after a 1-hour steep hike among vulcanic rocks and boulders, which makes it so much fun, you will find yourself on a plateau with looks like the top of a volcano that has been smashed and crumbled.
That formed some sorts of small areas and caves among rocks where locals climb with flowers of all sorts and colors and an incredible amount of candles to do their own rituals.
They are actually a syncretism between Catholicism and some other indigenous ceremonies and although some of them sounded kinds of creepy as the people would recite prayers with voices of despair and anguish, it was indeed fascinating to watch and listen.
When I got there it was a Sunday which made it even more crowded, but the guide told me that it’s every day that people come up to pray.
The way down was for me more difficult than the way up because I needed to hold myself onto rocks while walking down very steep paths, and my bulky backpack with my camera didn’t really help, but I made it.
I felt really awkward watching the local ladies of all ages jumping up and down in their flip-flops or (heels sometimes) and skirts as if it was the easiest thing on earth, while I was crying to the guide to help me out, in my perfect hiking gear.
Oh well! I made them laugh at least.
Although it was a beautiful hike indeed, it’s also a great cultural experience that I highly recommend.
Take a cultural tour among local villages
This was an amazing cultural tour that I really recommend if you want to take a walk among local villages where tourism didn’t contaminate the atmosphere, yet.
I went with a private guide by car and that was the best way to visit because we squeezed in three villages in half a day and it wasn’t even expensive even if I was on my own.
We visited San Andres Xecul, where we even managed to enter a cemetery (it was around the day of the dead) before visiting the market and the church.
Unfortunately, the church was closed because of the pandemic, but I could admire her fascinating yellow facade, and all its symbolic figures, a clear representation of religious syncretism.
The second stop was in San Cristobal Totonicapan. Also there the church was closed unfortunately but we managed to walk around the town and through the colorful market.
The third stop was the church of Salcaja, which is mainly known for the Church of San Jacinto, (also called Ermita la Conquistadora) which was the first church built in Central America in 1524.
In fact, Salcaja was one of the first places in Guatemala where the Spanish manage to invade and establish their hegemony after being defeated in Quetzaltenango, which obviously was conquered later on.
Visit the local markets
I am very fond of markets every time I visit a new city I look for one, maybe it’s not the best place to be during a pandemic, but with the right precautions you can enjoy the colorful display of products and look around, and some times mingle with locals and eat where they do.
In Quetzaltenango you should check out Mercado Las Flores and Mercado Municipal. I have included both in the map above.
Tajumulco 1 or 2 days hike
Volcan Tajumulco is the highest mountain in Central America reaching up to 4,220 mt (13,786 ft)a large stratovolcano in the department of San Marcos in western Guatemala.
It is part of the mountain range of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas, which begins in Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas. You can choose between the two days trek or the one-day tour.
However, this review on Alltrails mentions that although it’s totally doable in one day, you would miss the best part, which is watching the sunrise from up top. They also mention that it’s much better with a guide, especially because if it gets too cloudy it is easy to get disoriented and miss the right trail.
3 days treck from Xela to Lake Atitlan
For the more adventurous this is a 3 days trek that takes you from Xela to San Juan la Laguna, on Lake Atitlan. It is in general a moderate difficulty trek which becomes difficult because you will have to carry all your stuff.
There are some more challenging and difficult parts, mostly descending for the slippery condition of the trails. You will sleep in local homes for safety reasons and also support the local families, which is nice.
Useless to say this trek cannot be done on your own and you should contact a local travel agent. One of them can be Adrenalinatours (Disclaimer– I don’t have any commercial relationship with this travel agency, I just speak from my experience)
I already speak Spanish so I didn’t need it, but I know many people who want to learn Spanish choose Xela as a base to learn the language since it’s more authentic and less touristy than the famous Antigua, and obviously less expensive.
So you may want to take a look at some local Spanish schools if you are interested, especially if you have got excited by reading all the amazing things to do in Quetzaltenango.
Take a daily tour to Chichicastenango
Chichicastenango is a very popular town in Guatemala renowned among all tourists for its huge colorful markets where locals from all over the nearby towns sell their beautiful handmade products, colorful bags, and accessories, clothes, and textiles that are made with the ancient art of weaving.
You will be tempted to buy everything but keep in mind that you will never wear that yellow t-shirt with flowers embroidered around the neckline at home. (just saying!)
I went to Chichicastenango for two nights so that I could enjoy the market without rushing it. But if you don’t have lots of time you can still take an organized tour from Quetzaltenango in one of the local agencies.
Other tours available in Quetzaltenango
There are many other places to discover and things to do in and around Quetzaltenango. I haven’t done those tours but I am sharing them here for the sake of information.
Quetzaltenango travel tips
Xela has an elevation of 2300 mt. which is not high enough to get altitude sickness but it can be felt for some individuals.
Quetzaltenango has a privileged climate, which is mild and temperate with a temperature that varies from 10ºC to 20ºC in summer and from 3ºC to 17ºC in winter. The coldest month is January with a minimum temperature of 3ºC while the hottest is May with a Max temperature is 21.5.
- Compared with winter, the summers have much more rainfall.
- September and June are the wettest months.
- December is the driest month.
How to get to Quetzaltenango
Getting to Quetzaltenango is easy even though it’s off the beaten track. Here is how you can do it.
Getting to Quetzaltenango by chickenbus
The chicken busses are local busses notoriously superfast and dangerous. They are so-called because it’s easy to see chickens and all sorts of stuff on top. The danger part can sound like a legend but I took a ride from Chichicastenango to Xela because there was no other option and I was terrified.
They drive super fast and on curves, it feels like they are driving on two wheels. You are all squeezed because for some reason they are always packed. So, now in Covid times, you might want to avoid it.
Locals explained that chicken busses around the capital city are more easily exposed to assaults as well. They are less unsafe in the countryside.
Getting to Quetzaltenango by tourist bus
Tourist buses in Guatemala are minivans that offer a shared service and they are normally used for tourists or wealthy locals that don’t want to use the car. They are organized by local travel agents, and definitely safe, just because they don’t make random stops along the way and they have specific itineraries.
They only run with a minimum of participants so now in post covid times with fewer passengers it can be challenging to find a ride on tourist busses if you are not flexible with dates.
You can get to Xela either from San Cristobal in Chiapas Mexico, from Antigua Guatemala and from Panajacel on lake Atitlan. You can check out rates schedule and availability in any local travel agent.
It’s Quetzaltenango safe?
Like any big city, there are some neighborhoods that it’s better to avoid. The historical center is safe to walk around during the day, but I would avoid dark narrow roads at night, especially as a solo female walking alone.
Where to stay in Quetzaltenango
Because it’s not a popular touristy city, the hotel offer is not that abundant, but quite decent. I stayed at Lunavela Hotel, which is two blocks from the main plaza and super cute and clean with the rooms facing the typical courtyard of old colonial homes.
It’s probably more expensive now but at the time they have just reopened after covid closures and they were having special rates (300 GTQ per night).
If you want to splurge, though you can check out Hotel Pension Bonifaz or Hotel Casa Quetzaltenango, which are the most luxurious hotels in the city, located right by the plaza.
Where to eat in Quetzaltenango
I found quite a few restaurants by the plaza where I always used to go and work. My favorite was La Stampa Bistrot. The food was ok although not exciting, but there was a great ambiance and they would let me stay all day to work without complaining. Avoid the pizza. 🙂
The other nice place is Panquewaffles which doesn’t have only waffles but great hamburgers, even vegan ones. Great ambiance too. There are quite a few other restaurants but I stuck to these two because they were perfect to work while eating or having coffee.
If you are a coffee lover make sure you check out my friend’s place 5M’ Coffe’ House 15 avenida 1-10 Zona 1. Best coffee ever!
Fun facts about Quetzaltenango
- Quetzaltenango is Guatemala’s 2nd biggest city, with 300,000 people.
- Xela is the original name given by the local Mayan population
- It is both the capital of the Quetzaltenango Department and the municipal seat of the Quetzaltenango municipality.
- When the Spanish arrived they couldn’t get into the city because the local Mayan group didn’t allow them so they founded what is now called Salcajá which is now included in the department of Quetzaltenango
- Quetzaltenango has become more popular for Spanish language students.
- WIFI is almost everywhere and fast
- Showers have hot water issues (in my experience), but there is always a trick to get it. So remember to ask at your hotel when you check-in.