Xela Travel Guide
[This is a brief excerpt from pages 206 – 218 of Eric Larson’s travel guide to Guatemala, published by Other Places Travel Guides.]
Quetzaltenango, also known by its indigenous name Xelajú but most commonly referred to as Xela, is Guatemala’s second largest city. With a population of 300,000, Xela is much smaller, safer, and more pleasant than the capital. The most populated area in the Western Highlands, Xela is also the modern cultural and educational center of the region, with a vibrant music scene, decent nightlife, and an impressive student population. Xela doesn’t make the cut on many travelers’ itineraries, but the living atmosphere of this proud, colorful city makes it truly worth the visit. Near the city, opportunities for day trips abound.
At 2,330 meters (7,644 feet), Xela’s climate ranges from cool and spring-like during the day to quite chilly at night. Its sheltered position in a mountain valley makes brutal temperatures rare, but Xela during the rainy season can be unpleasantly wet and cold. First colonized by the Mam people and later conquered by the K’iche’ Maya, Xela’s ethnic roots are still evident in its primarily indigenous population, and traditional traje is widespread. In the midst of a prolonged economic boom, Xela is attractive to foreigners who are flocking to live here, many of them to work with local development organizations. Its safety and manageable size, in addition to an international vibe and quality language schools, make Xela the best place in Guatemala to study Spanish.
Xela is just 30 minutes from the Pan-American Highway at Cuatro Caminos. Towards Xela, you’ll pass Salcajá before arriving at the Minerva Terminal. Before the terminal is a roundabout called La Rotonda – if heading to the park, you can get off here to save some time. Constant micros (Q1.25) do loops around the city and are the best way to get around – for the park, find one that says Parque. Near the terminal, you can catch one on 4a Calle south of the market. In the opposite direction, head to corner of 14 Avenida and 4a Calle. Public buses to most destinations across the country depart from the Terminal Minerva. For a little more comfort and peace of mind, there is also private transportation from Xela to the capital and other tourist destinations. First-class buses to the capital have their own terminals, and shuttles can be arranged with travel agencies in town (check out the guidebook for a complete list of bus lines, first-class buses, departure times, destinations, and fare costs).
Get Your Bearings
Xela is divided into zones, the most important of which are Zona 1 (Central Park) and Zona 3 (Terminal Minerva). In the city center, avenidas run north-south and calles run east-west. Heading away from the city, the grid pattern is lost in the hills, and streets often run on an angle. Central Park, on the southeast end of Xela, is where most tourists end up, and for transportation away from Xela you’ll need to head to the Terminal Minerva to the northwest. The imposing Volcán Santa María can be found to the southwest of the city.
See the Sights
Xela is centered around the Parque Centroamérica, an attractive central park lined with gargantuan columns, benches, and concrete statues erected during the city’s post-earthquake rebirth. Surrounding the park are a series of imposing buildings including hotels, banks, and even a McDonald’s. The neoclassical cathedral and town hall are on the east side. To the west is the Pasaje Enriquez, a large building resembling a train station that is home to a number of popular restaurants and bars. Despite its position as Guatemala’s second city, Xela’s central park is never too crowded. Its serious yet relaxed atmosphere reflects the hard-working, friendly nature of the city’s people. On the park’s southern end is the Casa de la Cultura, a massive temple and museum dedicated to Xela’s history. For Q5, you can peruse a series of eclectic exhibits including photos, documents, odd taxidermy, and a marimba.
While most of what would be of interest to a visitor can be found near the central park, it’s definitely worthwhile to venture away from the plaza and experience the rest of Xela. Hopping on a micro is a great way to do this – they pass by the park at the corner of 4a Calle and 14 Avenida. North of the park along 14 Avenida is the Teatro Municipal, one of many out-of-place, Greek-inspired temples built to attract European investors to Guatemala in the early 20th century. Past it is La Democracia, an expansive outdoor market and the commercial center of the city. A couple blocks east is the Estadio Mario Camposeco, Xela’s soccer stadium. If the Xelajú Chivos play during your stay, it would be well worth buying a ticket. Locals love their soccer, and games can get fantastically rowdy.
North of here is the Parque Benito Juarez, a tree and flower-filled park within striking distance of various shopping complexes and a couple small museums. Heading west along 4a Calle, you’ll pass three of them standing side by side. The Museo del Arte houses dozens of paintings, and the Museo Ixkik’ focuses on traditional indigenous dress from Xela and the highlands. The most interesting is the Museo del Ferrocarril, situated in the city’s old train station and dedicated to the history of Xela’s long-decrepit coastal railroad. Each museum is open during the week from 9am-6pm and while cheap, they are unfortunately not free. Right next door is the impressive Iglesia San Nicolás church.
If Guatemala’s desperation to attract international investment wasn’t clear enough, continue west towards the terminal and you’ll pass the Parque Ciani, a small plaza centered around an Asian gazebo. Across the street is a large statue of the Star of David. South of the Terminal Minerva, another large, chaotic market is filled with vendors from across the Western Highlands. The market is surrounded by a university, a sports complex, a large park complete with a tiny zoo, and the Templo Minerva, yet another majestic temple.
Studying Spanish in Xela
Xela is probably the best place in Guatemala to study Spanish. The combination of quality schools, homestay possibilities, and fewer non-Spanish-speaking tourists allows for more complete immersion in the language. The following schools come highly recommended:
Casa Xelajú: Callejón 15 Diagonal 13-02 Zona 2; 7761-5954; www.casaxelaju.com
Celas Maya: 6a Calle 14-55 Zona 1; 7761-4342; www.celasmaya.edu.gt
Centro Bilingüe Amerindia: 12 Ave 10-27 Zona 1; 7761-8535; www.cbaspanishschool.com
INEPAS: 15 Ave 4-59 Zona 1; 7765-1308; www.inepas.org
Kie Balam: Diagonal 12 4-46 Zona 1; 7761-1636; www.kiebalam.org
Madre Tierra: 13 Ave 8-34 Zona 1; 7761-6105; www.madre-tierra.org
Miguel de Cervantes: 12 Ave 8-31 Zona 1; 7765-5554; www.learn2speakspanish.com
Pop Wuj: 1a Calle 17-72 Zona 1; 7761-8286; www.pop-wuj.org
El Portal: 9 Callejón A 11-49 Zona 1; 7761-5275; www.spanishschoolelportal.com
Proyecto Lingüístico Quetzalteco de Español: 5a Calle 2-40 Zona 1; 7765-2140; www.hermandad.com
Sakribal: 6a Calle 7-42 Zona 1; 7763-0717; www.sakribal.com
Accommodations in Xela are respectable, and there are plenty of high-quality budget options within a short walk of Parque Central. Below are our two top picks selected from the reviews listed in the travel guide.
Black Cat: Right by the park, this friendly hostel has clean dorms, underwhelming privates, and shared bathrooms. There’s a bar and tourist information downstairs and a fantastic breakfast included (13 Ave 3-33; 7761-2091; www.blackcathostels.net; dorms Q50, double Q200).
Casa Renaissance: This long-time favorite was recently renovated and further improved by its friendly Dutch owner. Spacious rooms with or without private baths, full kitchen with free coffee and tea, Internet, and an attractive patio (9a Calle 11-26; 7761-8005; double Q200).
Xela has a variety of excellent food including good burgers, pizza, and sandwiches. There is also, of course, a slew of typical comedores and pupusas in the park. Here are a few recommendations from the reviews in the guidebook.
The Bake Shop: This Mennonite-owned bakery is a piece of heaven on Earth, but its only open on Tuesday and Fridays. Homemade donuts, peanut butter, cookies, pies, cheese, granola, and yogurt (Two blocks from the Mont Blanc mall on 18 Calle; Q10-30).
Esquina Asiática: Asian restaurant with a small but reliable menu of dishes like pad thai and Japanese noodles. Q50 buffet on the last Saturday of the month (9a Ave 6-79; Q25-40).
El Portal: Bar and restaurant with some of the best meat dishes in town. One of the few places in town with draft beer on tap (Pasaje Enriquez; Q35-70).
As one of Guatemala’s most progressive cities, nightlife in Xela is respectable. Being the “college town” that it is, things can get a little out of control (in a good way) on weekends. Places close around 1am; after that, private after-hours house parties take over. The bars around the Teatro Municipal are the best for live music.
Pool & Beer: Popular spot for playing pool by day and dancing hard by night. Very crowded later on due to cheap beer-tequila combo specials (12 Ave 10-21).
Salón Tecún: This bar-restaurant is popular with locals and foreigners. Good food, cheap drinks, and a friendly atmosphere make it a reliable spot for a night out (Pasaje Enriquez).
Want more information and recommendations for Xela and traveling in Guatemala? This page is a small sample from our 398-page comprehensive travel guide for Guatemala. Written and researched by a long-time resident and Peace Corps Volunteer, the book is quickly becoming the go-to resource for travelers looking to get off the “Gringo Trail” and experience the real Guatemala. Click here to learn more about the book and what others are saying about this unique travel guide.